Community spirit strengthens Tay people
Tay is the largest ethnic minority group in VIetnam with a population of nearly 1.5 million, living mostly in the northern mountainous provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Kan, Thai Nguyen, Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang, Bac Giang and Quang Ninh.


Associate Professor

Tay is the largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam with a population of nearly 1.5 million, living mostly in the northern mountainous provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Kan, Thai Nguyen, Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang, Bac Giang and Quang Ninh. The Tay live on wet rice cultivation and plantation of industrial and fruit trees in valleys. They also do some handicrafts such as weaving, ceramics, building materials, forging and food processing. Many of Tay specialties have become nationally popular, including That Khe roast duck, Nuoc Hai horse meat and such fruit as peer and plum.

Unlike other ethnic minority groups in the northeastern region, Tay language and culture are relatively consistent (from costumes, traditions to belief). Tay girls are always seen in simple but graceful indigo or black long dresses.

The Tay live in a highly patriarchal family due to influences from Vietnamese and Chinese cultures. The father/husband in the family has the decisive rights to the family’s production, life, financial management, ancestor worshiping and external relations. Children are free in love but their marriage must be arranged by their parents. In a Tay family, only sons can receive inheritance. Tay parents live with their youngest son, but die in their eldest son’s house. Tay parents often leave part of their property (including land, cattle and money) for themselves and equally give the rest to all the sons. Parents live with their youngest son who will be given a majority of the property the parents keep for themselves. When a parent is going to die, he/she will be moved to the eldest son’s house where his/her funeral is held.

According to Tay customs, when parents die and their children are not grown up yet, the father’s brother will manage the family’s property, build houses and arrange marriages for their nephews on behalf of his brother.

Gender discrimination is clearly seen in a Tay family where a daughter-in-law must observe strict rules: she is not supposed to cross altars in the house; sit in the outer part of the house - the place for men to receive guests; have meal or sit together with her father- or brother-in-law; and enter rooms of her father-, uncle- or brother-in-law. A daughter-in-law should always respect and obey her father- and brother-in-law and is not allowed to directly communicate with them. If she wants to say something, she must tell it to her husband or his younger brother or sister. A daughter-in-law should neither warm herself before a fire together with her father- or brother-in-law nor walk together with them on the same road. A father- or brother-in-law is absolutely not supposed to enter his daughter- or sister-in-law’s room even if her child is crying when she is not in the room. That’s why, a daughter-in-law must always take her child outside when she is out of her room. A daughter-in-law is not allowed to directly give something to her father- or brother-in-law, but must give it through another person or leave it in a certain place. The same rule applies to the relation between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law even though a son-in-law is considered a son of the family according to Tay customs.

Gender discrimination is also seen in the way of arranging accommodation for male and female members of a Tay family. The outer part of a house is for men and male guests and the inner part is for women. Women are definitely not supposed to sleep in the outer part of the house except elderly women. Daughters and daughters-in-law may only receive guests in the inner part and the kitchen. Women should be careful in working and moving around the house and must absolutely not sit with their back toward the altar. A woman guest should also observe these rules.

Due to strict marriage rules and prejudice against broken families, divorce barely happens in Tay families. Divorce only occurs when a husband is unfaithful or addicted to alcohol or drug, or gambles. In this case, the wife may bring her child(ren) back to her own family. If a wife leaves her husband on her own will, she will have to return all the wedding offerings her husband’s family has given. If a husband deliberately divorces his wife, he will have to give her half of the family’s property and compensate a sum to her parents. The wife can bring with her all the daughters as well as her personal articles, jewelry and dowry.

Adultery is strongly criticized in Tay society. An unfaithful wife will be sent out of her husband’s family and pay compensation to his family. An adulterous husband will have to compensate his wife’s family a buffalo. A pregnant single woman will be heavily fined by her village, but is allowed to marry the father of her future baby.

Tay people live in villages in valleys or along streams or roads. Each village has 70-80 households, or even hundreds, compared with just 20-30 in the past. Every village has a temple to worship the tutelary god, a deity protecting the villagers. This is also the place for villager gathering. There are also shrines to worship the kitchen god, which are usually built in forests and strictly prohibited for strangers.

Apart from blood relations, Tay people attach importance to neighborliness, which is reflected in their proverb “neighbors next door are dearer than siblings.” The community spirit is clearly seen in some customs such as van na, van sleng - a form of setting guilds for mutual assistance among members in production, hat long - a sort of making friends between not only people of the same ethnic group but those of different groups and in different locations. A typical form of hat long is the coeval society, which groups fellows of the same age in each village, or even other villages, near and far alike. This society aims to help members when they run into difficulties or their families have an affair such as a wedding or funeral, or house building. The coeval society has its rules (previously verbal and now written) on membership, membership fees and use of funds. Each society will appoint a head, who is a knowledgeable and prestigious person, a deputy head to assist the head and a secretary to manage its fund. There are specific rules on how much a member will receive as the society’s offerings when his/her family has a wedding or funeral. The coeval society meets once every year at the beginning of the lunar new year to review its activities and report on its spending.

The Tay highly value fellowship. Being coevals means sharing happiness and hardship together. Children should consider their parents’ coevals as their own parents and vice versa. In many cases, a young couple whose love affair is not accepted by their parents will be assisted by the coeval society. If they are too poor to hold a wedding ceremony, the society will arrange it.

Tay villages also have phe, a funeral service society. Each phe is usually composed of members of a village or may comprise members of other villages. People voluntarily join phe but must participate in its activities once being its member. Each phe has a head who manages all the works of a funeral, including grave digging, cooking of meals and guest reception. A family which meets financial or manpower difficulties may rely on phe when it has a funeral. After each funeral, phe will meet to draw experience. Phe’s discipline is very strict. When there is a funeral, members who come late, show irresponsibility or shirk duties will be heavily fined.-

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