Photos: SON TUNG

We meet Son Tung, a photographer and researcher obsessed with documenting Yao culture.

Entranced by the colorful dress of ethnic Yao people (Dao in Vietnamese) during a trip to Mount Mau Son, Son Tung fell in love with photography. Five years after that first fateful encounter, Mr. Tung remains devoted to studying the Yao and to photographing the customs and cultural practices of one of the most remarkable ethnic minorities in Vietnam.

Phụ nữ Dao Lù Đặng ở Bắc Sơn - Lạng Sơn

Why did you choose Yao people as your primary subject for research and photography for so many years?

I feel a close kinship with Lang Son province, which has long been home to many minority groups such as the Yao, the Tay, and the Nung. The Yao stand out with their many remarkable and distinctive cultural practices. Due to their millennia-long history of migration and Taoist beliefs, the Yao are separated into many subgroups and scattered to the four winds. The Yao in Vietnam can be divided into two linguistic groups: the Mun and Mien. These two languages are not mutually intelligible, and there are marked differences in daily customs and ceremonial practices. Each language also has many subgroups. For example, Mien is spoken by the Red Yao, Coin Yao, Yao Quan Chet, Yao Lo Gang, and Yao Lu Dang. Mun is spoken by the Yao Thanh Y, Yao Quan Trang, Yao Ao Dai, and Yao Dau Bang. Each group has its cultural characteristics, and members can be easily identified and distinguished by their dress codes.

Nhiếp ảnh gia Sơn Tùng trên đường sáng tác ở tỉnh Lạng Sơn

Despite heavy cultural interference, the Yao still retain their identity, from their familial hierarchy to ancient customs, practices, and religious beliefs. The Yao also excel in traditional medicine and boast an incredible diversity of traditional dress. While the statistics are incomplete, it is estimated that Yao people in Vietnam have more than 25 different types of traditional dresses. This is a record for ethnic dresses, worthy of an entry in the Guinness World Records.

Which cultural characteristic do you find the most impressive?

Yao culture is incredibly broad so I am impressed with many aspects, such as the Cap sac (Coming of Age) ceremony, traditional wedding ceremony, and funerary customs. However, the most notable aspect of Yao culture must be the traditional garments of Yao women. They are vibrant and sophisticated works of art, where every pattern and texture reflects deeply-held beliefs about the universe and humanity. Every Yao subgroup has their traditional dresses, which are elaborately woven and embroidered. Yao mothers and grandmothers usually teach their daughters to weave and embroider at a young age. Yao girls will then wear their most beautiful handmade dresses on important occasions such as weddings and festivities.

Dân tộc Dao là dân tộc đa dạng về trang phục truyền thống

As society develops, do you think that the traditional practices of ethnic minorities in general and the Yao in particular are on the brink of extinction?

The explosion of information technology and the introduction of foreign cultures have had a tremendous impact on the consciousness of ethnic minorities, therefore influencing the preservation and continuation of cultural identities. For example, young people may be reluctant to don their ethnic dresses. In some weddings, brides and grooms no longer wear traditional dresses but opt for modern wedding gowns and suits. Traditional festivities are primarily attended by men and the elderly; traditional hymns, dances, and antiphonal music are gradually being forgotten and replaced by new hits. Therefore, I hope that we can work together as a community to preserve the traditional values of these ethnic minorities. It can be as simple as sharing posts and beautiful images about them. The fastest means of sharing is through social network services, but television, newspapers, and magazines are also great. Heritage is also an effective communication channel since I frequently come across insightful articles and beautiful photos, which help introduce these cultural practices to a broader audience. I am very honored to be a small part of the efforts to promote Yao culture in Heritage Magazine with my article “Wearable Art,” published in 2022.

Thank you for your time, and we hope to have more opportunities to work with you in the future!