Flower Hmong: Preserving Traditional Culture in Vietnam

Often called the “Flower Hmong” for the exuberant bands of multi-coloured embroidery that decorate their clothing, the Hmong of northern Vietnam are known for their stunning pa ndau needlework – a highly prized traditional art. Thanks to Craft Link, the Hmong are able to preserve their unique identity through the creation and export of this indigenous craft.

For centuries, the Hmong, a nomadic people originally from Siberia, Tibet and Mongolia, lived in China. Peace-loving and with no written language until the late 19th century, they lived a simple agrarian life in isolated tribal groups, raising crops and animals. By the 1800s, the Hmong faced increased cultural discrimination and pressure to abandon their language and began to migrate to remote mountain regions of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam where they could maintain their independent identity.

The Hmong are distinguished by their dress – dark, traditionally indigo blue clothing encrusted with intricate and elaborate embroidery in bright, contrasting colours, embroidered collars and often hats fringed with dangling beads, silver coins and bells. This embroidery, which the Hmong call pa ndau (pa dow), literally, “flower cloth,” is a highly prized art passed from mother and grandmother to daughter. It originated with ceremonial clothing for major life events – births, weddings, deaths – and for celebrating Tet (the important New Year Festival) and is typically seen on common items like carriers that strap babies to a parent’s back. Motifs are geometric and highly symmetric and are derived from nature.

Skillful needlework is admired by all and can help raise the prospects of a future bride. In Laos, it is said, two qualities that Hmong men value most in a woman are her ability to sing poetry and her skills at pa ndau. Traditionally all phases of the making of clothing took place within the village – growing and processing hemp and indigo dye, weaving the cloth, dying it, sewing the clothing, and adding embroidery – although cheap textiles from India, Thailand and China have made recent inroads.

After the Vietnam War, many Hmong found themselves once again in peril and were forced into refugee camps in Thailand where they invented a new form of pa ndau, (“story cloths”), large embroidered pictures on cloth which document their recent and often traumatic history. 

Craft Link: Vietnam

Craft Link, the leading not-for-profit organization in Vietnam, works with Hmong women in three villages of the country’s northern region and provides a link between pa ndau artisans and the export market. These “Flower Hmong” live in a vista of terraced fields and green mountains in valley and slopeside villages around the resort town of Sa Pa.  Craft Link’s first task among the Hmong, as with all artisan groups, was to bring professional ethnographers and designers together with local women to study the traditional designs. Keeping close to the old patterns, the designers then worked out direction for new products that would best suit the needs of consumers abroad. They identified the most gifted embroiderers who mentored and taught younger women in an effort to improve skill levels throughout the community.

Craft Link, in all of its programs, encourages the use of indigenous materials as a method of maintaining and developing a full range of a community’s traditional occupations and trains artisans in management, inventory, accounting and basic literacy. They operate a vocational school to train physically challenged workers as professional tailors who finish pieces for high-end export markets. The organization provides professional training in fixing indigo dye, machine sewing, finishing techniques, hand-sewing, book-keeping, marketing, and literacy training. Craft Link provides access to markets for all of its artisan groups through annual Vietnam-wide bazaars, in their three stores in Hanoi, and through export to Fair Trade organizations and individual businesses abroad.

In addition to providing greater economic opportunity, Craft Link’s involvement has given the “Flower Hmong” an enhanced sense of the artistic merit and value of their pa ndau and confirmation of their deeply-held belief – that, in a modern world, their handicrafts hold the key to preserving a unique identity.