The Hmong are one of the most populous “hill-tribe” groups across Southeast Asia and are found in large numbers in northern Vietnam, northern Laos and in various provinces of north Thailand. If you are travelling in these areas, or of course trekking, they are one of the minority ethnic groups that you are most likely to encounter.

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In Thailand, roughly speaking, the current population estimates are that around 125,000 Hmong live in the country, making it the second largest minority after the Karen. The Hmong ethnic group is subdivided into, for want of a better word, “clans”. Language, cultural traits and especially dress can vary considerably between the clans.

Hmong woman displaying her wares. : Mark Ord.
Hmong woman displaying her wares. Photo: Mark Ord

Matters are further complicated by the use of myriad descriptive names for these sub-groups, with names varying according to the country, region, whether one uses local, Anglicised or Hmong names, and of course which ethnologist or anthropologist wrote the source article. Blue Hmong in Vietnam may look completely different from what are known as Blue Hmong in Thailand; striped Hmong in Laos may well be called Green Hmong elsewhere.

Thais refer to the Hmong as Meow or Miao which is considered a highly pejorative term, so we’ll dismiss that. Anglicised descriptions tend to go with the group’s predominant dress colours so while this may not be ethnologically correct, they’re simple and as far as we know wouldn’t cause offence, so for the purposes of this piece that’s what we’ll use. (Ethnologists also identify many sub-clans of these clans too, but to keep things simple we’ll stick to the broader groups here.) Note the “H” in Hmong is generally silent, except in Vietnam where the common pronunciation is H’Mong.

Thai Hmong fall predominantly into the Blue or White groups. White Hmong traditional dress (confusingly since their white dresses are usually only seen on special occasions) is mostly black but with a pale blue trim and black turbans. (Note that when referring to traditional dress we are generally talking about women’s clothes.)

White Hmong inhabit the northeastern part of the North: Nan, Phrae, Phayao and Chiang Rai provinces, so you may encounter them around for instance Chiang Khong or when trekking in Nan.

The second major group in Thailand, the Njua Hmong, vary considerably from other Hmong groups and indeed some ethnologists even consider them a separate ethnic group. Again sub-groups have widely varying dress and correspondingly different names in different regions. They may also be known as White, Green or Black Hmong, but in Thailand they are most commonly referred to as Blue. Clothing, particularly skirts, are very bright with multi-coloured hoops and patterns on a blue background. In other areas red may predominate and Hmong wearing dresses bearing vertical instead of horizontal designs may be termed Striped Hmong. The bright Hmong-style handicrafts you come across in markets is generally based on Blue Hmong designs.

Blue Hmong are generally found slightly more to the west then their White cousins and most visitors would encounter them in Chiang Mai and western Chiang Rai areas. The villages on Doi Pui and Doi Suthep are Blue Hmong.

Traditional houses are wooden and bamboo constructions built directly on the ground with beaten earth floors, unlike the stilt houses of their Akha neighbours. While in past times they were animist, most groups have since converted to Buddhism or Christianity. As with all the Hmong clans, they are considered to have originated in Southern China.

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Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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