Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Muong economy is based on agriculture, although gathering, hunting, livestock breeding, and handicrafts together constitute an important component. Women gather edible tubers, leaves, vegetables, fruits, berries, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and, at times, breadfruit, whose flour is used for bread in periods of scarcity. Fuel wood, house-building material, pharmaceutical plants, and other forest products for trade are collected from what remains of the forest. Hunting with traps, crossbows, nets, snares, lime twigs, flintlocks, and rifles remains the prerogative of males. Communal hunting is organized on festive days and a successful expedition is seen as a good omen for the rice harvest. Women are allowed to participate only as support personnel, but a pregnant woman receives two shares, one for herself and the other for the child she is bearing. According to custom, individual hunters have to give some portions to the headman and elders. Fishing is done by dip, cast, or scoop net, and the Muong are experts in catching fish with bows as well as with knives. During floods, every family catches a large quantity of fish. Animal husbandry is limited to a few pigs, poultry, and a few buffalo for farming. Milking cows is still not popular.
Industrial Arts and Trade. Except for weaving cotton and silk clothes and making baskets for domestic use, handicrafts remain underdeveloped, necessitating dependence on Vietnamese traders and state cooperatives for all pottery, brass, and iron objects as well as other materials.
Division of Labor. The sexual division of labor is rigid and mechanical. Women are involved in transplantation, irrigation, weeding, parts of harvesting, rice husking, weaving, and food gathering. Children are often assigned the task of pasturing the buffalo. The male adults are engaged in plowing, digging, clearing bushes, threshing, hunting, making farm tools, and constructing and repairing the houses.
Land Tenure. Traditionally, the irrigated rice fields were communal and controlled by the hamlet/village headman with the support of a group of nobles belonging to their own clans. The headmen and nobility together occupied about two-thirds of the total irrigated-rice fields and redistributed the rest to the peasants, who were in turn obliged to pay certain dues in kind and to perform corvée in the fields reserved for the headmen and to maintain the local irrigation and drainage network. Whenever a commoner died without a male heir, his family automatically lost the right to land use, and even their cattle, cash, jewelry, and other precious belongings were seized and handed over to the aristocracy. Thus, the aristocracy consistently defended the principle of communal ownership of irrigated lands. The peasants, however, eked out a miserable existence.
In recent years slash-and-burn agriculture has been reduced greatly, but it was always subsidiary to farming maize, cotton, cassava, sweet potatoes, gourds, and pumpkins. Productivity is so low that a hectare of the best shifting land is inadequate to meet the minimum food needs of two adults. The corvées and dues imposed by the seigneurial administration of the past were shared equally by the concerned households. Now the peasants pay between 7 and 10 percent of their produce to the state. There are also bush-rice fields, constituting one-tenth of the total rice fields, which are individually reclaimed and owned by the peasants; but the yield is negligible and they not infrequently remain fallow. The terraced rice fields, sometimes prepared by taking soil from the valley, yield almost twice as much as the shifting lands. Small brooks irrigate these fields on the slopes of the low hillocks before flowing into a stream.
Following the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the last stretch of the Muong territory was liberated. Tribunals against headmen were instituted and the "land-to-the-tiller" campaign followed. Small mutual-aid teams were also established, wherein peasants retaining the individual lands helped one another by sharing the main agricultural tools, animals, and labor. By the mid-1960s, almost every Muong hamlet had formed an agricultural cooperative. This increased productivity through adoption of improved technologies. Soon the cooperatives got involved in animal breeding, tea growing, trading forest produce, rural credit systems, and small-scale industries, and they established schools, dispensaries, etc. Besides shifting lands, about 10 percent of land is left for private gardens where the peasants grow fruits, vegetables, etc., which have great free-market value. Since 1982, there has also been subcontracting of nearly half of agricultural tasks of cooperatives to production teams. According to this system, the households enjoy the right to sell in the free market any produce above the stipulated quota.