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A look at the Muong people

The Muong people often carry “op” by their side when going out.

About 70km northwest of Hanoi is the prosperous region of the Muong people. Together with Hoa Binh town, the four surrounding areas of Muong Vang, Muong Bi, Muong Thang and Muong Dong are described as the cradle of the Red River civilization. Living in the valleys along major streams, the Muong people engage in wet- rice farming and hunting.

Hunting tools

Hunting has, since the ancient time, become a main economic activity of the Muong people who used materials largely from nature like bamboo, wood and rock to make their hunting tools. On the land, traps have been mainly used, even after the introduction of firearms like flint-locks. Traps are made from rock slabs with bait placed on the triggers. When animals step on the triggers, the traps snap closed and the heavy rock slabs kill the animals. The traps can also be made from iron or bamboo, and placed on trails, which hold the preys through the elasticity of the bamboo planks and iron spirals. Nets can also be made into traps suitable to hunting at night. They are set on the sides of trails at twilight by hunters who then hide nearby. As animals move along the trails, the hunters begin making a lot of noise causing the animals to leave the trails, and run into the traps.

Cross-bows are the most ancient hunting tools used by the Muong people for small animals and birds. Unlike the noisy flint-locks that scare away animals, cross-bows are quiet and allow hunters to return to the same productive area many times.

Living along rivers and streams, the Muong have developed effective fishing tools and techniques. Centuries ago, they learned to make fishing nets from tree barks. Tens of rafts form a circle and the nets are simultaneously thrown into the water to the cheer of hundreds of villagers. The Muong people do not eat fish eggs, so the pregnant fishes are released while the remainder is equally divided among the households. Fishing this way happens only once or twice a year and brings a festive atmosphere to the Muong villages. Another fishing method is to place large bamboo baskets with “one way” lids into flowing streams, allowing fish to enter but not escape.

Now that the forest coverage has shrunk and cultural and economic exchanges have been boosted, hunting activities have become scarce and their economic significance has almost vanished. In many localities, young Muong do not know their ancestors' hunting methods.

Water wheels

The Muong people often build their on-stilt houses leaning against mountains and facing streams. Wet-rice farming tops their production activities, and rice is taken as the main food in their diet. Small ploughs and harrows are their common soil preparation tools. Ears of rice are harvested from fields, dried and kept at home. When food is needed, those rice ears would be thrashed and husked. In their wet-rice farming, the Muong people boast a unique form of irrigation: they use large waterwheels to carry water from streams to terraced rice fields. A water-wheel system includes a dam and a wheel. The dam is made from bamboo stakes driven firmly into the bed of a stream in arc form. The dam is about 1 meter high above the water surface and made of baited “guot” (a kind of strong grass). The dam does not block the flow completely but directs it to the wheel, which measures about 5m-10m in diameter. The wheel’s axle is made of “doi” wood which is firm but soft and long wearing, and its spokes made of hard bamboo sticks. The wheel rim is about 1m in diameter and made of various bamboo wattles. Large bamboo internodes are placed at an angle of 45 degrees from the rotary moment to bring water to fields up to 8 metres higher than the water surface.

“Op” - basket or purse

“Op” is a multi-purpose basket often wore by the Muong people by their side. It is hard to tell whether it is a purse or a basket as it is part of their costumes, which helps easily determine the class, the sex and the age group of its owner. The large “op” is carried by an adult while the small one, by children. The square “op” is used by males while round one by females. The thin “op” tells us the carrier is a commoner while the thick one indicates its carrier is an aristocrat. However, the “op” can be described as a basket as it is used to keep anything the Muong may pickup during their daily activities. In many cases, the “op” can be used as a wedding offering: the bride is expected to bring a pair of large “op” to her groom's family.

Vnagency - (19/08/2005)

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