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Official Gazette

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

La Hu” ethnos — Its customs and practices

Updated: 11:18’ - 25/02/2011

>>The La Hu in North Vietnam

To Dong Hai

 Speaking the Tibeto-Burmese language, the ethnic group of La Hu reside in Pa Ve Su, Pa U, Ca Lang, Bun To and Nam Khao communes of Muong Te district, Lai Chau province, independently from people of other ethnic groups.

Though formerly known under various ethnic names such as “Xa” which is subdivided into Xa Toong Luong (Xa the Yellow Leaf), Xa Puoi (Xa, Half-Naked) and Kha Quy (Xa the Demon); or “Khu Sung” or “Co Sung” meaning highlanders, as called by some people, the people of this ethnic group have called themselves La Hu which has become their official ethnic name recognized by the State. According to the 1989 statistical figures, the La Hu population stood at 5,300 to 5,400, comprising three groups La Hu Su (Yellow La Hu); La Hu Na (Black La Hu) and La Hu Phung (White La Hu), of which La Hu Su is the largest one.

According to hamlet elders, La Hu people were native to Yunan province of China. Perhaps, about 150 to 200 years ago, the first group of La Hu migrated to Vietnam and settled down in areas once inhabited by Ha Nhi people, as seen through traces left behind by the latter. Used to be nomads, the La Hu people have not practiced farming but lived mainly on hunting and forest product gathering. Such forest products they gather according to seasons in the year as bamboo shoots, mushrooms, jew’s ears, yam, brown tubers are exchanged for maize, sweet potato, manioc with people of neighboring ethnic groups. Later, they have practiced maize, vegetables, bean farming on canal banks along water streams or by forest edges for several crops before abandoning them for newly reclaimed fields as such crops have yielded low output due to their poor and simple farming modes and techniques.

La Hu people are very good at hunting and bamboo basket weaving. Their products are used for exchange of kitchen salt, fabrics, farming tools with the Thai and Ha Nhi people.

People of this ethnic group live in hamlets, each comprising 15 to 20 family households; and each hamlet is divided into 3 to 4 quarters. However, they have not resided according to lineage. A big lineage is split into various branches and each branch bears the name of a kind of bird in jungles. Their traditional family structure is the small-sized family. After marriage, the newly wed couples often live independently from their parents.

La Hu society has been heavily influenced by patriarchy. When the parents die, the family property shall be equally divided to the sons, not the daughters. Girls are not allowed to sit together with their fathers- in law and elder brothers-in law. Intra-lineal marriage is strictly forbidden as it is considered incest.  For big lineage with many branches, the marriage between people of the same branch is considered incest and strictly prohibited. Those who commit incest are subject to severe punishment and the most severe penalty is the expulsion of offenders from the community. Marriage between children of brothers and their sisters as well as between children of sisters are allowed by La Hu customary laws while men are not allowed to marry their sisters- in law when their brothers die. When a man’s wife dies, he is also not allowed to marry the younger sister of his deceased wife. La Hu customary laws also forbid the marriage between two brothers and two sisters.

Those who violate such provisions shall be charged with incest and subject to punishment with different degrees. As people have not been compelled to abide by the intra-group marriage regime, marriages between people of La Hu and those of other ethnic groups are fairly common.

Among the La Hu people, patrilocality is strongly advocated. Yet, matrilocality, a matriarchal vestige, used to be common, whereby men, after their weddings, had to stay with their wives’ families for a fairly long period of time (7, 8 or even 12 years.) To the people of this ethnic group, this was a way of displaying the newly- wed couples’ gratitude towards the girls’ parents for having given birth to them and brought them up. Though young people of La Hu are free to choose their intended, they have to go through many complicated ceremonies such as plighting (called “Na Nhi), betrothal engagement (called “Da mi do do”), then the wedding (da ma xi). For the plighting ceremony, the match maker (called “die mo”) and the parents as well as brothers of the to-be bridegroom discuss with the to-be-bride’s family the date for wedding ceremony and the wedding presents. The betrothal engagement ceremony is organized about one week after the plighting, during which the two match-makers and the two families discuss the wedding money and the matrilocality duration. If the young man have no money for the wedding, he has to stay with his wife’s family right after the second ceremony without having to wait until after the wedding. La Hu wedding is organized often at the year-end. When the matrilocality duration comes to an end, the bridegroom’s family shall organize the bride-welcoming ceremony. The bride-receiving and welcoming delegation must consist of the odd number of persons (7), including two match-makers, the bridegroom, two best men and two bridemaids. When escorting the bride to her husband’s home, the delegation has the even number of people. Before the bride leaves her house for her husband’s, the match-maker of the bridegroom’s family hands over the wedding money to the bride’s family. The bride’s girl friends make gestures not to let her go to other house, showing the affection of her family and friends who are not willing to part with the bride. This has been explained by some people as being the vestige of the wife-snatching customs which had appeared from time immemorable and has existed till today in the wedding ceremony. One week after their wedding, the newly-wed couple shall make a return visit to the bride’s parents, then return to the bridegroom’s for a married life.

Funeral is a solemn and complicated ceremony. Immediately after a person breathes his/her last, people in the family shall shoot two gun fires into the air to scarce away evils. Before the burial, the men in the deceased family or friends of the dead person will play the wind instruments and dance by the corpse of the dead person. Yet, La Hu conventions prohibit singing during the funeral. The date for burial shall be carefully chosen in order to avoid the bad days (the 7th days, the tiger days, the noon hours, which, according to the calendar calculation by La Hu people, are all bad days and hours when the burial of dead persons must not be carried out). Where the dead body is carried 100m from the house, a fire is built for the pallbearers to step over as a token indicating that the dead person has already been carried into other world and from now on his/her soul will stay forever in such world and never return and trouble his/her relatives as well as the hamlet people.

The grave must be dug in forest and only when the funeral procession reaches the forest. La Hu people believe that a human-being has 12 souls. When he/she is awake, only the main soul is in his/her body while 11 other souls are roaming about or embody in different kinds of birds. When he/she is asleep, all his/her souls will return to the body. A person gets sick because his/her souls have been far away being unable to return in time or have embodied in any animal which, however, has been eaten by other animal(s). So, for the La Hu people, to cure a sick person, his/her souls must be called back; and a person dies because his/her souls has left the body for the other world, the world of the dead.

 La Hu people follow the customs of ancestral worshipping. Each family has its own altar which is erected at the sleeping place of the family master by the cooking place. When parents die, the altar shall be erected by the eldest son. Only when the eldest son dies, can the second and third sons build the ancestral altars in their houses. In worshipping ancestors, people often pray their parents only. Yet, when a family member is seriously ill and a chicken or a pig must be killed as the offerings for the worship-ping, people will pray their progenitors of three generations. People of the La Hu Phung (White La Hu) subgroup have abstained from making offerings on their parents’ death anniversaries. The offerings shall not include alcohol and meat but only cooked rice wrapped in forest leaves. Meanwhile, people of La Hu Su (Yellow La Hu) and La Hu Na  (Black La Hu) worship their ancestors with offerings which include two cups of alcohol, a bowl of rice, a bowl of meat and a ginger root. Annually, the La Hu people organize their hamlet worshipping on the day of the tiger in April, according to La Hu calendar, making offerings to their land deity and praying for bumper crops, abundant cattle and poultry and good health for every people.

A La Hu commune was run by a system of local officials. Such system was headed by “Sung quan” who was assisted by “tao ban”, “seo phai”, “cho ba”. Sung quan also undertook the judicial proceedings according to La Hu customary law within the area under his management. Yet all such local officials were appointed and controlled by Thai ethnic minority officials.

In the La Hu community, the perception of private ownership of property is manifest. Any infringement upon other people’s property shall be severely punished by the customary law. The offender shall have to make the compensation, pay a fine to the hamlet or be even expelled from the community. Other cases such as adultery, abandonment of wives by their husbands, illtreatment of grandparents and/or parents, parents by children, abandonment of children by parents… are strongly condemned by the community and brought to trial according to their customary law. Under La Hu customs and practices, polygamy is prohibited and every people have to abide by the monogamy.

Though not yet recorded in documents like in other ethnic groups, the customary law of the La Hu people, with clearly defined crimes, penalties, judicial proceedings, has in fact existed for long among the people of this ethnic group, helping to strengthen this community. Such customary law concepts have become the way of thinking and the way of life of La Hu people, which have been passed from generation to generation. To bring into full play the positive elements of such customary law, customs and practices will be very helpful for the regulation of various relations among the La Hu community.-


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