White Tai or Tai Don

Map of White Tai Concentrations in Northern Vietnam


The White Tai of northern Vietnam number between 250,000 - 400,000. They have been living in northern Vietnam for over 1,200 years, having migrated from Yunnan province in southern China.  Descending from the Tai family tree, they are related to the Thai of Thailand and the Lao of Laos and closely related to the tribal Black Tai or Tai Dam. Animism or the worship of spirits dominates their world view, mixed with ancestor worship derived from their proximity to the Chinese and Vietnamese. To this foundational belief system, some 30% of the White Tai add Buddhism on top.  Another 1% would consider themselves Christian. They are known to be a very polite, hospitable people who are taught from an early age to respect those of higher rank. They are generally rice farmers and are well known for their intricate, colorful, and picturesque weaving and unique dance repertoire.

Origin and Migration into Vietnam

Map of White Tai Migration Points in Northern Vietnam

Daic speakers have apparently been living in Northern Vietnam for over 3000 years.  When the Han Chinese advanced southward into Northern Vietnam around 2000 years ago, many Tai speakers appear to have migrated west to Yunnan province of China.  This gave rise to the Southwestern Tai sub-family, which includes the Black, White, and Red Tai, Lao, Lue, and Thai. The Tay and Nung of northeast Vietnam who are also part of the Daic group never migrated to Yunnan, choosing instead to stay in northeast Vietnam.  Following the establishment of the Tibeto-Burman kingdom of Nanzhao in 732 AD, there appears to have been a significant migration of what are referred to as the Southwestern Tai groups southward out of Yunnan and into Sip Song Chu Tai.  This is an area near the Chinese-Vietnamese border known as Chiang Saen. From northwestern Vietnam, the Chiang Saen speaking Tai migrated into northeastern Laos and northern Thailand and then into Central Thailand. Tai speakers within this sub-group include the Thai, Lao Song Dam, Tai Dam, and Lanna Tai of Thailand, the White Tai, Black Tai, and Red Tai of Laos, and the White Tai and Black Tai of Vietnam. This would make the White Tai of northwest Vietnam more closely related to the Lanna Tai (northern Thai) and Central Thai of Thailand than to the Tay and Nung of northeast Vietnam.

Northern White Tai of Vietnam

White Tai moved who moved into Northern Vietnam around the 6th or 7th century are the ancestors of the White Tai found today living in Yen Bai, Son La, Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa, and Nghe An provinces. They first settled in the vicinity of Bac Ha district in Lao Cai province. Here they established Muang Pak Ha. From this settlement, they established new settlements in Muang Lo (Nhgia Lo) in Yen Bai province across the Red river. Later they established the settlements of Muang Pua in Bac Yen district and Muang Tak in Phu Yen district in Son La province. From here, some White Tai crossed the Black river and established the settlement of Muang Sang (Muang Xang) in Moc Chau district.

When the White Tai were first establishing Muang Pak Ha, another group crossed the Chinese border into Northern Vietnam into what is now Lai Chau province. This group established settlements in Muong Te, Phong Tho, and Lai Chau districts of Lai Chau province.

Around the 14th century, some White Tai migrated from Muang Lo to Mai Chau district. This group and those farther south are regarded some as a distinct sub-group of the White Tai, which we will refer to as Southern White Tai.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Black Tai rulers, with their seat of power in Muang Muai (Thuan Chau), controlled around 100 muang extending from Hoa Binh in the south to southwestern Yunnan in the north. This included not only Black Tai muang or communities, but White Tai muang as well. This region was known as Sip Son Chu Tai (or Sip Song Chau Tai, translated 12 Rulers). This played an important role in forging a Tai culture in the north that was distinct from the Tai culture in the south (Mai Chau on southward).

In the late 18th century, the Burmese invaded the area around Muang Thanh (Dien Bien) and Muang Muai (Thuan Chau). In 1782 Rama I of Siam established suzerainty over parts of Sip Song Chu Tai and over the next century the Siamese rulers came to consider the Tai of Sip Song Chu Tai as their vassals. Over the decades following 1834, the Tai of this region payed tribute both to the Siamese Chakri dynasty rulers of Bangkok and to the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty rulers of Hue. Among the Tai themselves, the White Tai rulers of Muang So (Phong Tho) and Muang Lay were dominant during this period.

In the 1880's, the White Tai ruler of Muang Lay, Cam Oum, allied himself with Chinese bandits who were plundering and causing considerable chaos in the area. During the years 1884 to 1887 two Siamese military expeditions made an effort to put down these depredations and reassert Siamese suzerainty. The Siamese operated out of Muang Thanh (Dien Bien) and maintained close relations with the Black Tai there.

Soon after, a French expedition led by Auguste Pavie entered the area and in 1889, the White Tai ruler of Muang Lay was forced to sign a treaty acknowledging French suzerainty over Sip Song Chu Tai. In the eyes of the local people, this act proclaimed this ruler's dominant position over other White Tai rivals as well as the Black Tai to the south. Four years later, the French forced Siam to sign a treaty that, among other things, ceded Sip Song Chu Tai to the French who already controlled lowland Vietnam by this time.

When the Japanese occupied French Indochina during World War II, the Tai found themselves somewhat autonomous. However, by the end of the war, Vietnamese communists were establishing their presence among the Black Tai of Son La province. When the French sought to reestablish control over the Sip Song Chu Tai area, they did so through the White Tai ruler of Muang Lay, Deo Van Long. In return for his support, the French established an autonomous Tai Federation with Deo Van Long as president and its capital in Muang Lay.

After defeating the French in Hoa Binh in early 1952, the communists began an offensive in the highlands of northwest Vietnam. Through to 1954, when the communists defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, conditions in the Sip Song Chu Tai area was extremely unstable.  There was considerable loss of life among the Tai.  Having a close relationship with the French, the White Tai in Lai Chau province suffered the most with thousands dying during the conflict.

During the French colonial period beginning in the 1890ís, the French had a policy of Vietnamizing the ethnic minorities, gradually reducing the authority of the tribal rulers.  This policy even included the successors of the White Tai ruler of Lai Chau, Deo Van Tri. His son, Deo Van Long, had been sent to Hanoi and posted to minor positions in the Tonkin Delta. But in 1940, in order to use the Tai leaders as opium brokers, the French reversed their policy and sent Deo Van Long back to Lai Chau as territorial administrator. He and other Tai leaders negotiated with their Meo mountain neighbors for the purchase of opium and sent the increased harvest to the Opium Monopoly in Saigon for refining and sale. After 1940, these feudal chiefs forced Hmong farmers to expand their opium harvest. During the 15 years leading up to 1954, the Tai feudal leaders cheated and underpaid the Hmong, who had no other outlet for their opium.  As as result, the Hmong allied themselves with the Viet Minh in the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu of 1954.

Following the communist victory in the north in 1955, the North Vietnamese government established the Tai-Meo Autonomous Zone. They made a Black Tai head of the region and established its capital in Tuan Chau district in the vicinity of the old Muang Muoi. Since then, a new administrative structure was incorporated with the old region divided into provinces with an administrative center in each province.

Southern White Tai of Vietnam

Southern White Tai refers to those White Tai in Mai Chau district of Hoa Binh province and further south. These groups of White Tai were never part of Sip Song Chu Tai and therefore have a culture somewhat distinct from those White Tai in the northern region. However, although the White Tai in Mai Chau are distinctly White Tai, those further south have mixed quite a bit with the Black Tai living in their areas, causing some complications in classification. Around the 14th century, some White Tai migrated from Mai Chau along the Ma river into Thanh Hoa province, establishing the settlement of Muang Kasa, with its center located near the present town of Quan Hoa. These White Tai gradually spread out and occupied the present districts of Muong Lat, Quan Hoa and Quan Son in Thanh Hoa province as well as nearby parts of Houa Phanh province in Laos.  Later, some White Tai migrated into Nghe An province into the present districts of Que Phong (Muang Nok), Quy Chau (Chau Tien), Quy Hop (Khun Tinh), Tuong Duong and Con Cuong.