Oral History Details

General Timeline


Vietnam government decrees and interventions


End of French colonial rule


Agricultural collectives extended to the northern mountains.


Border war between China and Vietnam.


Government begins to liberalise the economy, shifting to a market-oriented approach, known as đổi mới.


Scaling back of the collectives system.


Law on Forest Protection and Development. Defined 3 types of forests: protection forest; special use forest; and production forest. Different regulations for each.


The export of sawn wood banned. Logging in watershed protection and special-use forests halted.


Government bans opium production.

Land Law passed. Citizens can receive 20-year renewable tenure rights on land for annual crops and 50-year rights for perennial crops and forest land. Land rights can be leased, exchanged, transferred, inherited and mortgaged.

Independent foreign tourists allowed again in uplands, including Sa Pa, for first time since French colonial rule.


Permanent logging ban imposed in special-use forests, and a 30-year logging ban instituted in critical watersheds.


Subsidies introduced for hybrid seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides in Lào Cai province.


Hoàng Liên National Park established.


Dates and Events from the Histories 

  • “there were only a few people, they moved from China to here” – originating in southwest China, Hmong groups migrated south into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand starting in the 18th century.
  • “I remember when the French were in Sa Pa” – refers to the French colonial period (pre-1954)
  • “I remember when I was around 6 or 8 years old, the war” – Mr Kee, Y Linh Ho village, aged 67 is referring to the French Indochina War (1946-1954)
  • “working the land together” – refers to the period of agricultural collectives
  • “Around 30 years ago the Vietnamese started to plant cabbages” – refers to the period of agricultural collectives
  • “Around 1971 everyone came together to work the land” – refers to the period of agricultural collectives
  • “We also got money from opium”. Opium cultivation was strongly encouraged in upland northern Vietnam by the colonial French to generate profits for the state; cultivation continued after independence until 1993. 
  • “Every year after harvest season we would go to the jungle and cut the trees” – in this section Mrs Van (Hau Thao village, aged late 60s), refers to the practice of shifting cultivation. Also known as swiddening or slash-and-burn, this cultivation technique involves clearing a patch of forest, growing crops and then leaving the land fallow for a period before planting it again.
  • “when the Chinese came” – refers to the 1979 border conflict with China
  • “we also grow different rice seeds from China [Chinese rice] or Vietnam” – refers to hybrid rice seeds introduced by the Vietnamese government to the northern uplands starting in 1998. For optimal growth, these seeds require the use of significant chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
  • “The weather is changing a lot” – Hmong famers in Sa Pa District have reported changes in weather patterns and increases in extreme weather events over the past 20 years. These include changes in temperature, rainfall and wind patterns.
  • “but they [buffalo] all pass away from old age or the cold” – In 2008, cold spells in Lào Cai province killed over 8,000 buffalo. In recent years, buffalo deaths from cold winter temperatures have been occurring on an annual basis. When buffalo die, Hmong households not only lose needed labour for rice cultivation, they also lose an important insurance asset since buffalo can be readily sold if needed.


Cultural Practices from the Histories

  • “it was this family that paid my bride-price” – bride-price, also known as bride-wealth, refers to a payment of goods, money and/or labour made by the groom’s family to the bride’s family. It is considered a form of compensation for the loss of the bride’s labour.
  • “we killed one [buffalo] for my husband’s funeral” – water buffalo are important work animals, but are also central to Hmong funeral practices, especially for elderly family members. A buffalo is sacrificed during the funeral to ensure that the deceased’s spirit is transported to the afterlife.
  • “someone kidnapped me the Hmong way” – this refers to a traditional elopement practice when a prospective groom will “kidnap” a bride. The practice is culturally accepted and the bride can decide whether she wants to stay with the groom or not.
  • Hmong New Year – this occurs at the same time as Chinese Lunar New Year


If you’d like to read some academic articles about Hmong and other ethnic minorities and their livelihoods in the region, borderland trade, and food security issues, please check out the ‘Minorities in the Southeast Asian Massif Research Lab’.