Customs of the Nung people
The Nung, together with others in the Tay-Thai language group, originated from the Bach Viet group which lived in China's southern region from the 3rd century BC.

The Nung, together with others in the Tay-Thai language group, originated from the Bach Viet group which lived in China’s southern region (Vietnam’s northern mountainous region and the present Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunan provinces of China) from the 3rd century BC. Some of them constituted the population of Au Lac (ancient Vietnam) which lived in the Cau and Hong river basins and the rest were immigrants from Guangxi province. They formed subgroups with different names but having the Nung prefix in common, each with different characteristics in terms of culture, language and material and spiritual life.

The naming of Nung subgroups originates mainly from the way of dressing, such as Nung Khen Lai (those wearing their shirts with sleeves having a different color), Nung Ha Lai (those wearing indigo scarves with white spots), and Nung Slu Tin (those wearing short shirts), and the locations they come from, such as Nung An (from An Ket), Nung Inh (from Long Anh), Nung Chao (from Long Chau), Nung Quy Din (from Quy Thuan), and Nung Loi (from Ha Loi).

Some Nung groups have names of unknown origin such as Nung Din, Nung Xuong, Nung Tung Xin, Nung Vua and Nung Chu.

Nung people live together with other ethnic groups, but mostly with Tay. Therefore, the two groups have close ties and bear cultural similarities. The Nung call the Tay Can Slua Khao (white shirt people) while the Tay call the Nung Can Slua Dam (black shirt people). The two groups are also commonly called Tho people.

The Nung grow wet rice in small and narrow valleys in the northern region, involving such work as plowing, sowing, transplanting, fertilizing, weeding and watering through canals. They also grow tobacco, cotton and rice upland and raise cattle and poultry. Nung people do some handicrafts such as weaving, cloth dyeing, forging, casting, and brick and lime making. Most families have looms for making cloth and quilts, cushions and pillows. At the age of 12, girls start to learn how to weave, and making beautiful products is a criterion of a good wife.

Nung people’s trade developed pretty well thanks to a good transport network linking the northern region with the northern midland and delta and cross-border trade with China. The Nung form markets along roads and in urban centers, including major ones like Dong Dang and Binh Gia in Lang Son province, and That Khe, Quang Uyen and Quang Hoa in Cao Bang province.

The Nung mostly live in stilt houses even though they also live in ground and semi-stilt houses. A Nung stilt house is 12-13m long and 9-10m wide, with three main parts and two sub-sections. A stilt house has different functions: the upper part is for living, the lower part, for raising livestock and storing farming tools, and the garret, for storing foods and home utilities. Nung people now build separate breeding facilities and toilets. Ground houses are usually located along the border with China and roads.

Arrangements of Nung stilt and ground houses are similar. The entrance door is at the front or the gable of a house. A house is divided into two parts with an interconnected door. The inner part is for women, used as kitchen and a place for storage. The outer part, which is for men, is where to place the ancestor altar and receive guests. Nung people are not supposed to lie with their legs toward the altar because it is the lying direction of the dead.

The Nung live in a highly patriarchal family where the father/husband has the decision-making authority in most aspects of family life. Rules on the relation between a father- or brother-in-law and a daughter- or sister-in-law are also as strict as the Tay’s.

Nung family names include Nong, Hoang, Dang, Dinh, Phung, Tai, Po and Ly. Each line has its own system of middle names to help distinguish between families and avoid consanguineous marriage. A family line closes after six generations.

Nung marriage bears commercial characteristics, reflected in the customs of exacting wedding presents and costly marriage expenses. In many regions, Nung people maintain the customs that a bride stays in her parents’ house until she is about to give birth to a child.

Divorce rarely occurs in Nung families due to strong criticism from the community and costly expenses for marriage.

Nung people live in villages each of which has a temple to worship the tutelary god or the kitchen god. This is also the place for villager gathering. Nung people have a strong community spirit which is seen in the formation of societies or associations for mutual assistance.

A Nung family has a taboo for strangers when it has a newborn baby. The sign of the taboo is a branch of green leaves hung for a month outside the house on the left if the baby is a boy, and on the right if it is a girl. An incoming guest who does not know about the taboo is not greeted and invited to come in by the baby’s mother.

Like the Tay, when a Nung family has its first baby, it will set up an altar to worship Ba Mu, the goddess believed to give shape to and protect the baby. The altar is made from a straight, old and good bamboo by the maternal grandfather of the child who brings it together with a pig or three chickens (one rooster and two hens) and a basket of sticky rice to his daughter’s house on the third morning after the child’s birth. These are the offerings to Ba Mu. The altar is placed at the right side of the house, next to the main altar, but at a lower position. Nung people attach importance to worshiping Ba Mu because they believe if the first child grows up healthily under the protection of Ba Mu, his/her future siblings will follow suit. The altar will be maintained in the child’s lifetime and is only burnt when he/she dies.

Worshiping ancestors is very important for Nung people. Each son of a family who gets married and leads his own family makes an ancestor altar in his house even if his parents are still alive. After the parents die, all sons worship their parents in their own families. The ancestor altar, on which the family line is clearly written, is located in the most solemn place of a house and carefully decorated. On the first and fifteenth days of every lunar month, the host cleans the altar and offers the ancestors liquor and fruit. During the lunar new year, the family offers foods depending on each family line.

Nung people also worship the ghost at the head of the bed of women having children and the god of earth in the open air. When a family slaughters a pig, it must offer the pig head to the god of earth before cooking or selling it. Strangers are not supposed to enter the area for worshiping the god of earth.

The Nung follow Buddhism and Taoism and are deeply influenced by Confucianism. Many families have altars to worship Buddha and the Kitchen God. If a family worships the Kitchen God, it is strictly prohibited to spit, pour water or throw used papers into the kitchen. It is also not allowed to cook dog meat or beef in the kitchen. Families of sorcerers have another altar to worship ghost soldiers.

An original trait of Nung culture is the Sli singing custom - a form of responsive singing between male and female singers or a couple. The wording and way of singing of each group may be different, but the wording is structured by that ngon tu tuyet (seven-lined stanza with each line composed of seven words) or that ngon bat cu (eight-lined poem with each line composed of seven words). Sli is sung at fairs, weddings and in lunar new year celebrations and festivals.-

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