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Official Gazette

Thursday, December 8, 2022

"Van Kieu" - Its customs, practices and conventions

Updated: 10:01’ - 25/02/2011

To Dong Hai


Van Kieu - an ethnic group in Vietnam - has a population of 40,132 people (according to the 1989 census) who reside mainly on the mountainous areas of Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue provinces, particularly Khe Sanh valley of Huong Hoa district. The Van Kieu group, which is also known as Bru or Bru-Van Kieu, is divided into various subgroups: Tri (also called Tia Ri, Cha Ly or Trui); Ma Coong; Khua (also called Ko tok or Blu Bam); and Pa Hi. Despite their most similarities, these subgroups are different from one another due to their dissimilarities in culture, language, customs and practices.

Milpa farming plays the key role in the life of Van Kieu people though wet rice cropping has long been practiced by people living along rivers, streams or in valleys. Hunting and forest fruit and vegetable picking remain important to Van Kieu people while cattle and poultry are raised and used mainly for worshipping. Cottage industry and handicraft have been done by families mainly to satisfy their own needs.

Van Kieu hamlets (called "vil", "Vel" or Val") are often built half-way on mountains or in valleys along streams, each accommodating several dozen houses. Hamlets are often surrounded by bamboo fences to ward off beasts or attacks from outside particularly in the past when wars between hamlets often broke out. In a hamlet, houses are built in circle with doors turning to the communal house called "Roong" or "Xu khoan". A house can be partitioned into two: the guests' compartment and the hosts' compartment. For some subgroups, a house is partitioned into rooms by bamboo wattles. It is customary for Van Kieu people to erect the ghost-worshipping pole, called "Tatal Yang" when a new house is built. The pole must always be made by good timber without wood-borers or termites and erected by an uncle- a younger brother of the mother. It is carefully kept with lot of taboos by Van Kieu as a holy place for ghosts to reside.

In a traditional Van Kieu hamlet, almost all people are bound together by blood relations. Yet, now living in a hamlet are several lineages with different families, called "Dung" which is the basic social unit. Several hamlets are grouped together into a K'roong headed by the "Aria K'roong" who had power over all inhabitants as well as all member hamlets of that K'roong. Later, the Aria K'roong's role was restricted to religious affairs while the actual powers belong to the hamlet chiefs. All members in a hamlet (vil) have equal rights and obligations. Land, forests, mountains, rivers, streams, forest and aquatic resources are considered common property of the entire hamlet. Yet, land reclaimed by any family shall belong thereto. Personal property of each person is fully respected. The custom of brotherhood swearing, called "Calo", has long existed among the Van Kieu people. Two persons who share the liking, sense of purpose, mutual understanding, though they are different in ages and places of residence, can swear brotherhood through a ritual after which they consider each other kith and kins, sharing weals and woes.

All affairs in the hamlet are run by the hamlet chief called "Aria Vil" who has prestige and great influence among the hamlet dwellers. Knowledgeable about customs and practices as well as productive labor, he takes part in the management of land in the hamlet and holds worshipping ceremonies. He is also the man who settles complaints, disputes between people and handles violations of customary laws.

The post of hamlet chief was handed down from generation to generation. When a war or a conflict between hamlets broke out, "Aria vil" (the hamlet chief) had to mobilize and command forces for the combat or take part in the settlement thereof. There were in a hamlet other important figures such as "Tar L'eng" who was in charge of combat for self-defense, "Suot Cute" who manages the hamlet land (also the explorer of the hamlet land and the investor in reclaiming such land).

In the Van Kieu's traditional society, which was divided into "dung xuc" (the rich), "dung k'dit" (the poor) and the middle class, not to mention the "ala" (homeless people). The gap between the rich and poor was wide. In such a traditional society, the social relations were also based on blood or clan relations. A clan, called "Mu" (or Mui/ or Mo) by Van Kieu people, grouped all patrilineal members and the female in-laws. Girls, when married, belong to their husbands' clans. Under Van Kieu customary laws, people of the same "Mu" were not allowed to marry each other. Any violators of this convention would be expelled from the hamlet. Yet, nowadays, such rule has been loosen due to the fact that the blood relations become not so close as in the past as the result of clan development. Now people of the same "mu" but of the fifth generation on can marry each other. Each Van Kieu clan is headed by "Xuat mu" (the clan chief) who represents all other members of the clan, knowledgeable about the traditional customs and practices and knows the dead members' burial dates and sites. A clan meets once a year to consider the "xuat mu" status. If he fails to fulfill his responsibility or to keep up his virtue, he shall be dismissed and a new chieftain shall be elected by clan members. There have existed in the Van Kieu community different clans with different taboos, traditions. Big or prototype clans are divided into smaller ones, and the clan-dividing day has become a festive day for the entire hamlet.

Each clan comprises a number of small families which are economically independent from one another, with their own houses, land, production tools... A Van Kieu family is characterized by the patriarchy, in which the eldest man is the family head who plays a big role in the family's internal and external affairs. When he dies, all the property and powers in the family are handed down to his eldest son. The female family members are not entitled to inheritance.

Van Kieu people advocate monogamy and the brides shall stay in their husbands' houses. Girls and boys of this ethnic group, when matured, often go to sleep in the hamlet's communal house or small houses for courting. This custom is called "di sim", during which boys shall have to give their girls some presents such as silver bracelets, courbary bead necklaces. If a girl accepts the present, it means that she accepts the marriage proposal. After that, the couple will find a matchmaker to talk to their parents. Only by then, shall the boy's family bring the presents to the girl's, including scarf, facrics, clothings... When coming to her husband's house, a bride shall have to go through many complicated rituals such as cooking place setting ritual, foot-cleaning ritual, having-meal-with husband ritual, etc.

Like other ethnic minorities, Van Kieu has witnessed big social changes that lead to changes in their customs and practices. The preservation of good and progressive customs, practices and conventions shall be of great significance for the preservation of the nation's cultural traits.-



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