Like the H’Mông, the Dao are considered part of the Miao-Dao (sometimes also ´Yao´) ethno-linguistic family that is home to South-East Asia. The Dao also similarly originate from the southern parts of China, but likely migrated further South at a different time period than the H’Mông. Nowadays, around 750.000 Dao live in the northern mountainous regions of Vietnam, mainly depending on farming activities on terraced rice fields. Dao and H’Mông have strong ties as their languages and their origin are closely related.
Like many other ethnic minorities, the Dao are also split up in many sub-groups that differentiate in customs and clothing. In Vietnam, these are the ´Dao Ðỏ´ (Red Dao), ´Dao Quần Chẹt´, ´Dao Lô Gang´, ´Dao Tiền´ (literally translating into ´Money Dao´), ´Dao Quần trắng´ (White Trousers Dao), ´Dao Thanh Y´ and ´Dao Làn Tẻn´.
Interestingly, the Dao use characters of Chinese origin to write ritual texts and poems. Their folk is particularly rich, mainly because historical information was passed on in a written form from generation to generation (unlike the H’Mông who passed on culture and traditions orally only).
Besides the shaved off eyebrows and foreheads of Dao women, the Dao are usually easily recognisable by their dark dresses with red-like trims and elaborately hand-stitched decorations. In some pieces, the work is so meticulous that it is almost impossible to tell the front from the back of a fabric.
Dao women are often to be seen stitching in their spare time, whether resting next to a rice field, chatting to friends or when at the market. No frames or recorded patterns are used and so each fabric carries something personal from its maker. Traditionally, the Dao used to produce their own fabric, but nowadays tend to buy cotton cloth off from the H’Mông and from the market. Moreover, the Dao men are also widely known for their blacksmith skills.
At the Tree Hugger, we often combine handmade Dao fabric with other minority fabrics into a new handcrafted item ;).
Dao dresses are mainly made from dark blue, black and red colours. The dark shades result from dyeing the fabric with indigo and so, most households grow a plot of indigo plants. First, a so-called paste is made from the indigo leaves, and then the cloth is dipped into the dye for about 30 days. The longer the fabric stays in the dye and the more often it is dipped in and out, the darker the shades of blue become, even resulting in a black. As the making of indigo-dye requires time and skill, many Dao nowadays also use acrylic colours to dye cloth or threads for their embroidery.
Each section of a Dao dress is embroidered separately before the whole garment is assembled with additional pieces of indigo cloth. The making of a full dress can take between 2-5 months, considering the making of the fabric, its dyeing and the making of embroidered pieces of cloth. Hand-stitched designs represent village life, the natural environment and animist mysticism such as stars, trees, birds, spirits or rice terraces.
At the Tree Hugger, you will find many unique overcoats, called ´Luy Dao´ that, either in their original form or slightly modified and modernized, are worn by the Dao women. There are greater varities in shapes, sizes and decorations, and so those that can still be more commonly found, are also for sale.
Each jacket is naturally dyed with indigo and features some unique embroidery at the top back, at the hand cuffs and also sometimes where the overcoat is held together with a simple belt.
The Dao are tightly organised within their hamlets and strict rules exists that define the common and peaceful living with each other. Their beliefs are influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. The Dao workship their ancestors as well as ´Ban Vuong´. ´Ban Vuong´ is a holy man who is believed to be the forefather of all Dao people in the world. According to the legend, his maiden name was Long Khuyen Ho. Because of helping King Binh Vuong in an important battle, the King allowed Long Khuyen Ho to marry the princess. The couple had 12 children of which each became representative of the 12 Dao clans that exist nowadays. Ban Vuong became successor of King Binh Vuong, but is said to have still lived a simple life, farming and weaving.
Dao women are easily recognisable by the look into their faces. In Dao society, it is considered beautiful to shave the eyebrows and the hair of the forehead off. Moreover, their headdresses (depending also on the Dao sub-group though) can be quite eye-catching and are a distinct feature of their identity from a teenage age onwards. These can vary from a simple rectangular red cloth folded around the head to a headdress that looks turban-like, tied around for more than 20 times. The headdresses are also often embellished with coins, little tassels and hand-stitched embroidery.