Are Romanized Popular Alphabet “sensitive”?

According to the linguists and the evaluation of many Hmong people in Vietnam, Romanized Popular Alphabet (abbr. RPA) is simple, easy to learn, precisely transcribed from Hmong and can be used among all branches of Hmong. Due to these advantages, RPA has become common in almost all Hmong communities in Vietnam. However, because of “sensitive” reasons, this letter set has not been acknowledged, causing obstacles during the process of learning and using of the Hmong ethnic.

According to the survey conducted by Committee for Ethnic Minority Affair (abbr. CEMA) in 2014 on the actual use of Hmong in Yen Bai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Ha Giang and Cao Bang, nearly 62% out of 400 interviewees are aware of Hmong. Among people who know Hmong, about 69% of them know RPA, but only 18.5% know Vietnamese Hmong. Besides, about 86% of these people want to learn Hmong; and more than 24% of those want to learn Vietnamese Hmong, but almost 76% want to learn RPA. The survey conducted in Lao Cai, Son La and Nghe An by CEMA in 2013 has similar results.

Natural vitality of Romanized Popular Alphabet

The research in 2013-2014 of Hmong Community in Giang Tra village, Ta Phin commune, Sapa (jointly conducted with iSEE and Department of Culture – Sports – Tourism of Lao Cai) shows that people prefer RPA because it is “easier to learn” and “it sounds better”. Furthermore, since RPA is well known both domestically and internationally, learning it can help them to expand their acquaintances, gain more knowledge and do business better. In addition, sources of information like books, newspaper, tapes and records with educational, appealingly, entertaining and useful content are plentiful in the market and the internet, which is accessible to everyone.

Các nghiên cứu viên thôn Giàng Tra đang xây dựng bảng hỏi cho nghiên cứu của cộng đồng về chữ Mông (tháng 1/2014)
Researchers from Giang Tra village are composing questionnaires for community research about Mong Script (January 2014) 

Contrary to RPA, although Vietnamese Hmong is the official letter set of Hmong people in Vietnam, it is not commonly used due to some reasons: “difficult to write and understand”, “no longer in use and cannot communicate with anyone”. In Giang Tra village as well as in many other Hmong communities, only a few elders (over 50 years old), who have been taught when they were young, are able to use this language. Mostly, young people just heard of Vietnamese Hmong, but they have never seen it themselves. Speaking at the workshop on 18/06/2014, reviewing the research result of CEMA and community of Giang Tra village about the actual use of Hmong, Professor Nguyen Van Loi, former Deputy Director of the Institute of Linguistics, said that the Vietnamese Hmong script was developed when the linguistic level of Vietnam was still undeveloped, which led to complexity, learning difficulties and inefficiency despite the fact that our government has spent tons of money to mobilize many linguists to develop educational textbooks. Meanwhile, RPA was introduced into Vietnam in a natural way, still, it is known and used more commonly.

Is Romanized Popular Alphabet “sensitive”?

Beside the general trend of RPA being in favor, still, there are a number of people who want to learn Vietnamese Hmong. They believe that Vietnamese Hmong is truly “our words”, while RPA belongs to Protestantism. Sharing the result of the research conducted by his own community, Mr. Giang A Cua, researcher of Giang Tra village, Ta Phin commune, Sapa, said that currently, only at Protestant church do they teach RPA and only to protestants; those who are not protestant must learn through music record with subtitle or word of mouth by themselves despite their eagerness for learning RPA. Asking the elderly in the village, Mr. Cua find that about 50 years ago, Vietnamese Hmong was once widely universalized in Lao Cai, but somehow after 1979, people were not taught Hmong anymore. Nowadays, Vietnamese Hmong is only taught at some primary schools and collegea, which does not meet the literacy needed in order to enhance knowledge and to preserve the habits and customs of the whole community.

Teaching Vietnamese Hmong is another issue. According to Mr. Ly Sao Sung, a local officer in Lao Cai, children are taught Vietnamese Hmong at school but when they speak at home, their parents cannot understand any of the words. Moreover, the teachers are not methodically trained, they pronounce wrongly and each teacher teaches in his or her own way. Mr. Denh Ba Long – Vice Chairman of People’s Committee of Huoi Tu commune, Ky Son district, Nghe An province claims that many Kinh teacher pronounce Hmong wrongly. Even though students are already fluent in Hmong, teachers teach wrongly and force the students to repeat after them.

At the workshop on 18/06, the delegates from People’s Committee of some districts and commune of provinces including Son La, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Nghe An, etc. all agreed with the findings of CEMA and community of Giang Tra village, which affirms the value and efficiency of RPA in enhancing intellectual standard of people; preserving the habits and customs; advocating the policies of Communist Party in regions where Hmong people live. Mr. Dam Quang Lam, Deputy Head of Ethnic Security Division, states that language is a natural problem. People, in the progress of class struggle, can make bad use of language; therefore any language can be exploited. According to Mr. Lam, as RPA is regional and widely integrated, it should be included in educational curriculum. Having the same point of view as Mr. Dam Quang Lam, Assoc. Dr. Lam Ba Nam, Lecturer of Department of Anthropology, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, believe that RPA is a cultural creation. Although this letter set has missionary relation, we should be more open-minded over religious factors. Protestantism has been acknowledged, thus operating officially. Even our national language was created by Western missionaries. We should be distinct between religion and the use of script.

In near future, CEMA will petition to the Prime Minister to continue to survey and investigate the actual use of Hmong among people living in other regions. Only after being concluded fully, objectively and comprehensively can an appropriate letter set be selected to be taught in educational institutions and to enable people to use Hmong in their daily life.


At this moment, there exists two letter sets in Vietnam: Vietnamese Hmong set issued by Ministry of Education in the early 1960s, and Romanized Popular Alphabet created by Western missionaries in the early 1950s in Laos. Vietnamese Hmong is considered as the official letter set of Hmong people in Vietnam, and is taught in some primary schools and colleges; while RPA is widely used in Hmong communities in Southeast Asia (including Vietnam), China and countries where Hmong people live.

Vietnamese Hmong takes phonics of Hoa Hmong in Sapa, Lao Cao province as standard pronunciation; and it only represents a certain numbers of regions. RPA takes dialect of White Hmong as standard. White Hmong is considered as “universal” language of Hmong people and can be listened to and understood by any group of Hmong people

In September 2013, iSEE launched a research program with the participation of people live in Giang Tra village, Ta Phin commune, Sapa and Department of Culture – Sports – Tourism of Lao Cai. In this study, it was Giang Tra people who chose the topic about the situation and need of using Hmong in local area. The process of developing the questionnaire, interviewing and synthesizing data was also conducted by Tra Giang people, with technical support of iSEE and the Department of Culture – Sports – Tourism of Lao Cai. The results of the study shows that learning Hmong to preserve the habits and customs is an urgent need of this community. The letter set that most people want to learn and use is RPA..

Thanh Trà