A Brief Tai History

The birthplace of the current generation of Tai people lies in four Northwestern provinces of Vietnam – Lai Chau, Son La, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai.  This region was once called “Sip Song Chau Tai” or the Twelve Tai Principalities.  The Tai people simply call it “Muong Tai” or the “Tai Country”.  Most of the French books and documentaries refer it as “Pays Thai” or the Tai Country.

Before the arrival of the French in the 19th century, the Tai Country was independent, although its “crossroads” locations subjected this region to exploitation by Vietnam, China, and Laos.

By the end of the 19th century, France colonized many Southeast Asian countries. France took Khmer in 1863 and named it Cambodia; the south of Vietnam in 1867 and named it Cochin China; the north of Vietnam and named it Tonkin; and then central Vietnam and named it Annam in 1884. France took Laos in 1893. And separately from other territories of Indochina, Tai Country was colonized in 1888. The protectorate agreement was actually signed on April 7, 1889.

Not only did the French government colonize Tai Country, but they also annexed it to Tonkin, Vietnam.  This was a turning point in the history of Tai people because at that time they lost their sovereignty – and their identity.  For sixty years under French-Vietnamese colonization, Tai Country was undisturbed, but remained undeveloped.


World War II

Then came a turning point for the whole world – World War II.  While the Nazis of Germany invaded and conquered European countries, the Empire of Japan invaded the Asian countries, including Tai Country.

Tai Country was used as a “hide-and-seek” place for the superpowers because of its well known crossroads territory position.  In March of 1945, the Japanese invaded Tai Country, chasing the French army into China.

After the Japanese surrender, the French came back to Tai Country in February of 1946 and tried to rule Indochina as before.  But the Vietminh and other Indochina guerrilla groups, such as the Pathet Lao and Khmer Issarak, were formed to defeat and chase the French out of Indochina.

Tai Federation

Facing the uprising of their former subordinates, France tried to form a stronghold to rule over Indochina once more.  And again, because of its crossroads territory, Tai Country was unfortunately chosen as a battlefield for political as well as military confrontation.  The French promised “autonomy and prosperity,” and with the help of the Tai leaders, a newborn, semi-independent country under the protectorate of France was born in March of 1948 – the Tai Federation.  In Tai, this new country was called “Sip Hok Chau Tai” or the “Sixteen Tai Principalities.”

France was not the only country using local Tai people to gain political and military power, Ho Chi Minh and the communist Vietnamese also tried to conquer this small piece of territory called the Tai Federation.  They got some support of the local people by also promising “autonomy and prosperity.”

Consequently, the Tai Federation did not last very long.  With the advance of the communists in 1951, the Tai government fought alongside the French.

In November of 1952, to protect the lives of top personnel in the Tai government, many high officers, administrators and their families were evacuated to Hanoi.  At that time, Hanoi was still under French domination.  Months later, they were joined by some Tai military and their families.  They stayed in Hanoi for two years – two years full of anxiety and homesickness.

In the meantime, fighting continued in the Tai Federation.  One of the bloodiest battles was the now famous “Battle of Dien Bien Phu.”  Dien Bien Phu was a name given by the Vietnamese to one of the Tai cities, Muong Theng, which means “the arena of gods.”  It was one of the Tai people’s most respected cities.

Finally, on May 7 of 1954, came the Vietnamese victory at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and French colonization in Indochina ended at the Geneva Conference in July of 1954.  At that conference, North and South Vietnams were created – the North belonging to communist and the South to non-communist Vietnamese.


The Tai people in Hanoi, less than 1% of the total population, became refugees overnight.  Afraid of persecution, they fled to South Vietnam and Laos in July of 1954.  After twenty years in Laos, almost all Tai people had re-established their lives, built houses, found jobs, and even owned garden plots.

Then came more unexpected events – the fall of the Indochina countries to the communists in 1975: Cambodia and South Vietnam in April and Laos in December.

Again, the Tai refugees in Laos had to leave their homes, properties, belongings, jobs, and friends for an uncertain future.  Thousands of Tai people crossed the Mekong River into refugee camps in Thailand.  From there, most went to France and the United States.  Some Tai went to Australia, Europe, and Canada.

New Beginnings

The Tai refugees who resettled in the United States came to the State of Iowa, where they have remained and have been able to live together, help each other, and preserve their rich culture and identity.  They have often expressed their eternal appreciation to their benefactors:  President Gerald R. Ford, Governor Robert D. Ray, and all Iowans for welcoming them in a special way.

Now they are here, in a new place, a new country – a country of great opportunity, democracy, and freedom.  Eighty percent (8,000) of the Tai people living in the United States prefer to live and unite in the State of Iowa.

In another corner of the world, ten of thousand miles from America, two million people known as “Tai” still live in Northwest Vietnam.


Northwest of Vietnam

After the defeat of Dien Bien Phu Battle in 1954, the newly created Tai Federation was absorbed by North Vietnam, and changed to the “Tai-Meo Autonomous Zone” of Vietnam in May 7 of 1955.  Seven years later, in 1962, the “Tai-Meo Autonomous Zone” was changed to the “Northwest Autonomous Zone” of Vietnam.  Finally, in October of 1975, the “Northwest Autonomous Zone” was abolished and simply named Northwest of Vietnam.