Photos: BA NGOC

Indigo is more than a natural dye and an eye-catching color. It represents the unique cultures in Vietnam’s rugged highlands

Indigo is one of the most original colors in the history of human civilization. Some 6,000 years ago, the ancient Andeans in South America used indigo to dye fabrics. In the ancient world, from Egypt to India, China, and South-East Asia, people used Indigofera tinctoria plants to dye clothing. In Vietnam, this charming color has become a lifestyle symbol as it’s widely worn and used in daily life by ethnic groups in the Northern highlands. “The Northern Mountains” (Bc Sơn), a Vietnamese epic composed by Van Cao, opens with a description of the vast highlands landscape in Viet Bac, highlighted by the sight of indigo shirts: “Oh, the dancing shades of indigo mingled with the wind…” This unique color has become a cultural legacy, cherished by generations.

A H'Mong man is preparing to dye

The quiet charm of the indigo borderlands

Indigo is central to the clothing of Tay, Nung, Thai, H’Mong, Dao, and some other indigenous groups in the Northern highlands, as well as some ethnic groups in Central Vietnam. The lengthy dyeing process begins from the harvest. The indigo plants are sown in the third lunar month and harvested three months later when the bushes stand roughly one meter-tall. The bark and leaves are removed, soaked, and fermented in water tanks for 10 to 15 days, until the water turns blue. Powdered lime is then added and mixed until an indigo paste settles at the bottom. This paste is collected and put into baskets to drain. One month later, it’s time to make the vats of dye. In large pots, the artisans mix boiling water with fragrant leaves and indigo paste, and ferment this mixture for two to three days. At this stage, the water turns a deep dark blue color and is ready to be used for dyeing. Fabrics, usually cotton, are repeatedly soaked in the indigo dye two or three times per day for several days, until an even color of the desired light or dark shade is achieved. It takes half a year to produce one new indigo-dyed sheet.

Tay and Nung people often employ dark shades of indigo with minimal patterns on their clothing. H’Mong and Dao people mix and match more decorative batik patterns drawn with beeswax and embroidered brocade on collars, sleeves, trousers, skirts, or bandanas. The quiet yet enchanting indigo complements the different ethnic groups’ styles, from the fabulous and eccentric costumes of the Dao Tien and Red Dao people to the elegance of simple silver bracelets and earrings. Hand-drawn beeswax patterns proudly showcase the skills of highland artisans, whose hands are permanently dyed blue from years of working with indigo. Such dedication to the craft makes indigo fabrics even more valuable.

Dried indigo

The blue-purple of indigo plants is also one of the precious natural colors used in Dong Ho folk paintings. This shows the long-standing use of this material in the lowlands, adding to Vietnamese people’s diverse palette in the world of visual arts.

Iconic, poetic indigo

Ever since literature written in Vietnamese orthography blossomed in the early 20th century, tales of forest treks have been eagerly told and enjoyed. In stories by The Lu or Tchya, or Nguyen Binh’s poem – “Brief Sketch of a Forest” (Vài nét rng, 1938), indigo shirts are symbolic and magical: “The Man girl wears an elegant indigo shirt. Her eyes are the deep blue of contemplative solitude.” The cultural exchange between the lowlands and the highlands deepened when Viet Bac became the safe zone for the Vietnamese coalition during the Resistance against the French colonialists . To Huu’s poem Vit Bc (1954) depicted an iconic farewell: “The indigo shirts bid us farewell. Hand in hand, we were lost for words.” Here, the indigo shirt was a metaphor for the highland people bidding farewell to the victorious soldiers returning to the plains.

Drawing with beeswax

Indigo also symbolizes a rustic mountainous lifestyle in Pham Duy’s song “Fields in the Afternoon” (Nương chiu, 1947): “People in indigo shirts with rice bushels on their shoulders, their shadows painted strokes on the mountainside, in the afternoon!”. Indigo was used to add softness to intense depictions of wartime: “The first victory to protect the homeland of Viet Bac, there is the victory of the militia in indigo shirts” (“Sound the Drums, O Mountains” – Ni trng lên rng núi ơi, Hoang Van, 1965).

From descriptions of indigo in literature, masterful Vietnamese paintings have also depicted iconic indigo clothing, such as Vit Bc (Oil painting, 1936) by Luu Van Sin or “Reminiscing about a Northwestern Afternoon” (Lacquer, 1955) by Phan Ke An. This lacquer painting inspired the image of highland indigo shirts in the song “Dropping an Afternoon into a Painting” (Thchiu vào tranh, Vu Thanh): “The painter contemplated the melancholy mountains… The distant indigo shirts melted into the mist.”

A Tay woman

Nowadays, synthetic dyes have changed many traditional products. As ethnic identities and traditional clothing styles fade, indigo clothing is gradually being phased out of daily life. However, a boom in tourism and modern cultural exchanges are bringing a new wave of attention to the conservation and exploration of this unique local dye. Indigo remains symbolic of many ethnic groups’ cultures, similar to the collarless brown shirts worn in the Red River Delta.

Indigo-dyed clothing has even made its way onto fashion runways, appearing in modern designs or worn by contestants at international beauty pageants to portray a unique cultural heritage. Indigo evokes mystery and simplicity, yet remains strong and enduring, providing a perfect design canvas for modern interpretations. The varied shades of indigo preserve a proud legacy of customs – a signature of the highlands.