The Ta-oi in Central Vietnam
The Ta-oi, a Mon-Khmer language ethnic group, lives in mountainous areas of the central provinces of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri with a population of nearly 35,000.

Ta Thi Tam

The Ta-oi, a Mon-Khmer language ethnic group, lives in mountainous areas of the central provinces of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri with a population of nearly 35,000.

The Ta-oi is also called Pa hy or Pacoh (highlanders), Ta oat (weavers) and Ca tua (disdainfully called by other groups because the Ta-oi does not dye teeth and tattoo bodies like other groups).

Ta-oi people live mainly on swidden cultivation, using rudimentary tools and thus largely depending on natural conditions. Hunting and forest product picking are also important sources of food supply. The group lives on a self-sufficient economy and barely trades its products.

Vel (village) is the Ta-oi’s social establishment which highly promotes community spirit. Each vel comprising one or several yas (family line) is an independent unit with its own apparatus set up by villagers on the democracy principle.

A vel comprises dozens of dungs (house) with long houses (of large families) where live tens of small families.

The most powerful authority of a vel is the old villager council which can decide all community affairs. This council is composed of old people of family lines who are conversant with customs. A vel is headed by an a riay (village master) who, in the old days, was the villager founder. Nowadays, a riay is a prestigious man who, together with the old villager council, settles internal affairs (worshiping ceremonies, management and distribution of natural resources, and settlement, governance and balance of social relations), and represents the village to settle external affairs. In the past, an a riay might pass his position to his son. Nowadays, an a riay is elected by villagers. An incapable inheritor of an a riay will be replaced by a person who is elected by villagers in a meeting held by the old villager council. The a riay is assisted by Kon-pacha (a person conversant with dispute settlement), Kokpu (sorcerer) or an army leader.

Each vel of the Ta-oi has a roon (communal house) where political, cultural and religious activities of the village take place. Roon is also the place for storing common property of the village such as gongs, jars, cymbals and heads of animals sacrificed in rituals. It is also the sleeping place of young men. Roon symbolizes the power of a village and links villagers with their community, especially in cultural rituals.

A vel has different Yas, which is a group of small families living in a larger one. Each Ya has its own name, usually bearing the name of an animal, plant or object, such as Acho (dog), Tuvel (cat), Plang (grass), and Tupul (rice mortar). Totemism is still deeply manifested in Ta-oi people’s family names.

Each Ya is led by a Xuat Ya (family head), a prestigious person who has the power to settle common affairs of the Ya, represents the Ya in the old villager council and joins representatives of other Yas to deal with community affairs.

The Ta-oi lives in a small patriarchal family where men are more respected than women. However, men and women are fairly equal in husband and wife relationship, family spending, child caring, external ties and production.

A Ta-oi stilt house is characterized by its curved roof at the two gables. In each house lives a small family. But in many places, there exist long stilt houses accommodating many families which, however, have their own rooms and stoves. Each long house is headed by a man with the highest position in the family.

The Ta-oi’s cooking is simple. Food is mostly boiled or grilled. The group makes sauces by salting meat of different animals in bamboo cylinders. The group sees food not only as a means of existence but also a means of social communication, which is clearly reflected in their proverb “ruou do minh cung khong che, vi tinh cam ruou chua minh cung uong” (I do not refuse sour wine and readily drink it for the sentiment with its offerer).

Ta-oi traditional costume is split-collar blouse made of tree bark. Men wear loin-cloth while women wear skirts and short-sleeve blouses made of tree bark weaved with forest tree strings. During festivals, ceremonies or important events, a Ta-oi man wears a Cuhol (loin-cloth) 4 m long and 30 cm wide, which is tied from the front of the belly down across the legs to the back then to the right hip around the belly and again across the front. The remaining of Cuhol is stuck upward to keep the part across the legs and then falls at the back to create two parts to cover the front and back of the body. Pahol (shirt) of a Ta-oi man is 4 m long and 63 cm wide, which is put from the back over the right shoulder to the belly then over the left shoulder in the X letter shape.

The Ta-oi woman costume has a Nop (a short-sleeve blouse with lozenge-shaped collar), an Arteng (a belt 1.7 m long and 6 cm wide with colorful fringes 12-15 cm long), and a Nai (a skirt fastened with the belt).

Ta-oi jewelry includes brass, silver or colorful bead necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

Ta-oi men and women are free to choose their partners. Lovers exchange “belief objects” with each other before the young man’s family finds a matchmaker to come to the young woman’s family. Then comes the engagement ceremony in which a delegation of the groom’s family, including the matchmaker, the village master holding a silver sword, the family head and the groom’s father and younger sister, go the bride’s family, bringing silver bracelets, earrings, beads, cloth, gongs and jars as wedding offerings. Before the wedding, the groom’s family must notify the wedding to the village master. If failing to do so, the groom will be fined by the village, especially when he marries a girl of another village. A wedding goes through different formalities such as sword handover, stove firing, feet washing, meal sharing, greeting the bride’s family after the wedding and wealth giving.

A wedding is a big ceremony joined by the whole family line and village. Traits of replacement marriage (marriage between the husband’s brother and the wife or the wife’s sister and the husband) and polygamy are still seen in the Ta-oi society.

The Ta-oi distinguish between good death (death of sickness or old age) and bad death (suicide or eaten by wild animals). Funerals are carefully held and each family line has its own cemetery. After several years, the family line will hold a ceremony to build a new grave which is elaborately decorated with statues built around the grave.

Ta-oi people have different worshiping rituals such as new rice worshiping (held after the end of a crop), buffalo stabbing (held in spring to pray for happiness, bumper crop and peace) and water trough or wharf (dedicated to the deity of water).

The Ta-oi has a treasure of tales, ancient, legendary and humorous. Music is a typical cultural activity associated with musical instruments such as gongs and cymbals. Responsive singing, lullaby singing and dancing are also popular cultural activities.-

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