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Sipsong Chau Tai

The North Upland of Vietnam is characterized by biophysical, social and cultural diversity as well as its important role in the national economy's development. However, the region, like those in other developing countries, suffers from serious environmental problems such as deforestation, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and unsustainable livelihoods. Major causes are attributed to ineffective institutional arrangements such as inadequate property rights and enforcement, lack of local participation and empowerment, and misguided government policies.

The North Upland of Vietnam can be divided into two ecological-climatic zones: the Northeastern and the Northwestern. The Northwestern zone covers an area of 36,101 km2 from the western side of the Red River along the border with China to the beginning of the common border with Laos. It is the homeland of the Thai, Muong and H'Mong people. Generally, dry (terraced) and wet rice farming, pastoralism, fruit-crop cultivation, forestry and ongoing swidden cultivation are the prevailing economic activities in the North Upland.

Van Lang is regarded as the first Kingdom of Vietnam, established by Hung King. According to many sources of folk literature and historical data, Hung King belongs to the Tai speaking ethnic groups, and the term Hung is a transliteration of the Tai word "po khun" (a head of a tribe). Thuc Phan An Duong Vuong is the King who established Au Lac kingdom. Thuc Phan An Duong Vuong is also a Tai speaking people. The legend "cau chua cheng vua" (nice chiefs fighting to be the king) of the Tay in Cao Bang and Bac Can provinces, narrates about this historical period in detail and very clearly. According to many Vietnamese historians, Thanh Dong or Phu Dong Thien Vuong, who won the battle against the An of China, is also a Tai speaking people. Until recently, place names in Tai language which are associated with this national hero in Gia Lam and other suburbs of Hanoi still exist, such as Trai Non (where Thanh Dong was born), Y Na village (where smiths made the 'iron horse for Thang Dong), and the like.

The various Tai groups to the west of what was once known loosely as Annam had a long history of self-government. Between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Tai Dam came under the protection of the Lao of Luang Prabang while still functioning independently. With the establishment of the Chakri dynasty at Thonburi and throughout the Bangkok period, the Siamese gained power over the Kingdom of Lan Chang centered at Vientiane and, indirectly, the Sip Song Chao/Chu Thai region. However, their early control did not extend to the Tai Dam, who remained under the "mild suzerainty" of Luang Prabang. The Siamese, however, did move Tai Dam captives and resettled them in villages near Bangkok, where they are known as Lao Song Dam. When Vietnam fell to France, the Sip Song Chao/Chu Thai and the adjacent Hua Phan Districts were ceded by the Thais to Vietnam in 1888.

Sipsong Chau Tai, which means "Twelve Tai Principalities," was colonized and annexed to Tonkin in 1889. In 1948, the region was reorganized as Sip Hok Chau Tai (Sixteen Tai Principalities), and was referred to by the French as the "Tai Federation". As such, it was declared an independent country by the Tai and the French, and remained so until 1954 when it was absorbed by Vietnam after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

After the defeat of the French in 1954, special autonomous administrative zones were established in the northern mountains such as (i) Khu tu tri Thai-Meo (Thai-Meo Autonomous Zone) covering most parts of the present northwestern areas, and (ii) Khu tu tri Viet bac (Viet bac Autonomous Zone) encompassing the present northeastern zone. The Vietnamese, in 1955, renamed the region the "Tai-Meo Autonomous Zone" of Vietnam, then again in 1962, the "Northwest Autonomous Zone".

Many social and economic changes were introduced in the mountains. A series of successive mass mobilization campaigns were conducted to eliminate illiteracy and provide education, suppress shifting cultivation and sedentarise supposedly nomadic minorities, as well as expand the area under cultivation, introduce modern farming technology, and establish agricultural cooperatives.

Finally, in 1975, the region lost its identity and became known simply as the northwest of Vietnam, which now includes the provinces of Son La, Lai Chau. Lao Cai, and Yen Bai.

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