The Flower Hmong are one of the most colorfully dressed ethnic minorities in Vietnam, making me ever so infatuated with their sartorial sensibilities. The Hmong are one of 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam, making up 1% of the population, and further subdivide themselves into groups whose names often describe the traditional clothing of the group – such as Black Hmong, Blue Hmong, and Flower Hmong. One of the interesting and universal things about fashion is that it is alive and dynamic. Many Flower Hmong women continue to wear their traditional clothing, but the dynamic nature of fashion is clearly visible at the Bắc Hà weekly market in North Vietnam.
Many Flower Hmong women carry embroidered purses. While embroidery is an important form of textile ornamentation for the Hmong, these purses break from tradition in that they are machine made in China. As tourism becomes a more important industry in formerly rural areas (like Sapa and Bac Ha), Flower Hmong women (and women of other ethnic minorities like the Black Hmong and Red Zao in Sapa) have moved from their farms to the towns, learned some English, and started selling “handmade crafts” to tourists. Much of these “handmade crafts” are actually made in Chinese factories but with the abundance of these purses around, Flower Hmong woman have started carrying them as well.
Factory made traditional clothing is now readily available at the market as well. In the past, each piece of ornamentation had to be manually sewn on a woman’s blouse (each of those stripes of color you see is a single piece of yarn stitched onto the top), making it quite understandable why it took a year to make a new outfit. Flower Hmong women are now able to purchase Ready-To-Wear versions of their traditional clothing, making it easier for them to continue to wear traditional dress. Access to RTW does reduce the variety between individual garments and I saw several examples of several women wearing the same top. (I was clearly agog at the garments for sale at the market and one seller and her friends got a good laugh at dressing up the giant white lady like a Hmong woman :)
Instead of purchasing the blouse fully made, women can buy just the ornamented yoke and sleeves and sew their own bodice. I saw a variety of fabrics used although almost all were synthetic and velveteen was quite popular. Beading along the yoke is quite popular, especially with younger women and access to factory produced trims makes the beading more accessible than in the past.
Zippered yokes (instead of frog closures) are visible, although they are mostly worn by older women and “unattractive women whose necks are too fat to wear the traditional blouse” (as my guide put it). Flower Hmong women almost always wear skirts, although there is variety in length from knee to ankle. You’ll notice that many Flower Hmong women wear similar bright plaid head scarfs. These scarves were also worn by Black Hmong and to a much lesser extent Red Zao women in Sapa. Interestingly, the plaid head scarf, while nearly ubiquitous, isn’t traditionally Hmong. It belonged to another local ethnic minority, the Dzay, however the traditional Hmong head covering is a tight woven bamboo ring covered in black fabric which isn’t particularly comfortable or warm so many Hmong opt to wear the scarf instead.
The traditional Flower Hmong outfit includes not just a blouse and skirt but also a front and back decorative skirt panel that are belted on top of the skirt. It is now a matter of personal preference whether a woman wears the front and back panel or not. Like the blouses, RTW versions are readily available (like this one pictured above).
Flower Hmong women almost all wear wraps on their calves. They are long strips of decoration that have an angled strip of fabric attached and are wrapped from the knee down. You can see 4 sets hanging on this washing line pictured above. Black Hmong wear similar wraps but without as much color or ornamentation.
In a very current trend, young Vietnamese Flower Hmong women are wearing RTW versions of traditional Chinese Flower Hmong costume. It’s considered quite fashionable and something that only young, trendy women would do.
Traditional Flower Hmong skirts are pleated with many meters of fabric and lots of decoration so they are hot and heavy. RTW versions of the traditional skirts, made in Chinese factories with synthetic fabrics, are readily available and found for sale cheaply all over the market. They are available in a range of qualities with the cheapest pictured above.
A final thing that I found quite interesting is that the RTW Flower Hmong skirts are also worn by other local ethnic minorities, but they are worn as an article of Western clothing. On our trip to the Bac Ha market, our guide Tamay (pictured on the left) wore traditional clothing of her ethnic minority group, the Red Zao. We saw her a few days later (with her sister on the right) and they explained that they were wearing western clothing because it was raining and muddy and they didn’t want to risk damaging their traditional clothes as Western clothing is expendable and traditional clothing takes time and effort to replace.
Many thanks go to Phan, a Black Hmong woman who owns a fabulous fair trade store in Sapa called Indigo Cat and Tamay, a Red Zao woman who was our tour guide at the Bac Ha Market, for answering my endless questions about northern Vietnamese ethnic fashion. If you are ever in Sapa, be sure to stop at the Indigo Cat (046 Phan Xi Pang Street). If you want a tour guide in Sapa for trips or treks large or small, I also highly recommend calling Tamay (+84 984125329)!