The Dao ethnic group, which has many names such as Đông, Trại, Dìu Miền, and Kim Miền, has a total population of nearly 1 million people. They live mainly in the northern mountain provinces of Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Lai Chau and Tuyen Quang and the midland provinces of Phu Tho, Vinh Phuc, and Hoa Binh.
A small number of the Dao group, who traditionally live in the northern mountain provinces, have migrated to the Central Highlands. There are many subgroups differentiated by habits, customs, and costumes, for example, the Red Dao, Dao Quần Chạt, Dao Lo Ga, White Pants Dao, and Dao Thanh Y.
Each Dao group is easily identified by their costumes. Generally, a woman’s costume includes shirt, skirt, headscarf, a pair of leggings, and jewelry. A man wears a short shirt with a line of buttons. Doctor Vo Mai Phuong of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology says: “The Red Dao people wear red costumes from top to toe. They have red shirts, leggings, pants, headscarves, and belts. The Dao Tien are the only Dao group who wear skirts embroidered with the images of coins. The Dao Quan Chat are also called Sơn Đầu, which means painted head, because the women shave off their hair, paint their heads, and cover their heads with traditional headscarves. The White Pants Dao always wear white pants.”
The Dao have maintained their traditional culture in costumes and language. Although they include many groups living in many different localities, they speak one language.
They have preserved a close-knit community which respects traditional spiritual beliefs and rituals. Ms. Phuong again: “Sorcerers are important people in the Dao group. Sorcerers must be able to read and write the Dao language. The Dao people hold many festivals throughout the year at which they sing in their native language.”
Elderly people in the hamlets teach the children the Dao language from very old books. Dao people also learn the Vietnamese language and languages of neighboring ethnic groups. Ban Van Sang, a Dao Họ, lives in Sơn Hà commune, Bảo Thắng district. “Our children only marry Dao people. Although they can speak Vietnamese fluently, they speak Dao at home. Young people learn Dao from older people. We are fond of learning and we have many books which are carefully stored. We have stories and books about marriage and worshipping rituals. During Tet and other festivals, we gather and read our Dao books. Our children can read and write our language.”
Social development and integration have affected many ethnic minority customs, but the Dao people have maintained their unique cultural values and in doing so have helped to preserve and promote the culture of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups.