Friday Seminar (18 May): Hong Tran ‘Belonging to Karst Mountains: Hmong people’s ways of life in the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, Ha Giang province, Vietnam’

Location: Milgate Room, AD Hope Building
Time: 3pm, Friday 18 May
Speaker: Hong Tran, CHL

Abstract
Dong Van Karst Plateau, which is situated in the northernmost point of Vietnam, is a unique limestone landscape. This place is considered the ‘homeland’ of the Hmong in Vietnam, where over 260,000 White Hmong live, having first settled there more than 300 years ago. This thesis examines the Hmong people’s way of life and sense of belonging in the karst mountains of the Dong Van Plateau. It explores how Hmong people shape their agricultural life, daily activities, housing, social relationships and ritual practices to adapt to their natural surroundings in a region now designated as a ‘Global Geopark’. I argue that during a very long time living in the karst mountains, the Hmong have accumulated their own knowledge of the limestone landscape, which is is expressed through their stories of migration, beliefs about rocks and other natural phenomena, social relationships, and livelihoods. They put into practice this knowledge in their daily lives enabling them to survive on the plateau’s unforgiving rocky landscape.

Often impoverished and considered a “sensitive” minority group due to their history of migration and rebellion, the Hmong receive support from both the Vietnamese government and other non-government organisations through projects and programs aimed at improving their living condition and integrating their economy into the market economy. One of these projects in 2010 was establishing a global geopark, whose main goals were increasing the local people’s economic situation by eco-tourism and cultural conservation. Because of the increase in the number of tourists visiting the geopark, Hmong people, who account for a large proportion of its population, are given the opportunity to earn extra income from selling their products. Still, in comparison with other ethnic groups such as the Kinh, Hoa and Tay people, who live within the geopark, Hmong people benefit relatively little from the tourism business. In addition to this, Hmong people are adversely affected by local ordinances, such as being prohibited from cutting grass for their livestock or building houses along the main road, to preserve the natural environment, which is the main selling point of eco- tourism.

This thesis presents the results of ethnographic field research undertaken in 2016 and 2017 in a Hmong village in Meo Vac district, Dong Van Karst Plateau Global GeoPark, Ha Giang province, Vietnam. It draws mainly upon participant observation and in-depth interviews with Hmong belonging to 57 families living in the village, including men and women and people of a wide age range. The participants involved in this study include the village head, members of social organizations, scholars, farmers, hired laborers, students and others. The diversity of participants provided different points of views on a number of life’s aspects for the Hmong in this limestone landscape, as well as their responses to the new circumstance of development and the geopark.

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