Lao ethnos' customary laws and practices
Being among the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, the Lao ethnos has enriched the multi-national culture of Vietnam with its own identity.

To Dong Hai

Being among the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, the Lao ethnos has enriched the multi-national culture of Vietnam with its own identity. With a population of nearly 10,000, the group resides largely in the western and northwestern mountain regions of Vietnam, particularly the provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Thanh Hoa. The Lao people in Vietnam belong to the subgroup of Lao Boc (Lao can) or Lao Noi (Lao nho) with their customs and practices more similar to those of the Thai ethnos than those of the main Lao group. They have for long practiced wet rice farming as their main production line with fairly complete farm tools and irrigation systems well built in fertile valleys by water streams and rivers. Meanwhile milpa cultivation is only secondary to this, aiming to additionally supply them with food and vegetables for daily meals. Such handicrafts as pottery, iron smithery, silvery smithery, fabric and brocade weaving have strongly developed, turning out high-quality and ingenious product items. Horses and boats have been used as their main communications and transport means on land and rivers respectively.

For long now, the Lao people in Vietnam have settled down in big “ban” (hamlets) leaning against mountain or hill slopes or along water streams. Some hamlets accommodate more than 100 houses each. For them, the most important thing in house building is the erection of the main pillar of the house, which must be done first. Before moving into the new house, the house owner shall have to invite a man of wealth and social position in the hamlet, who has a happy and harmonious family and numerous children to enter the house first, asking permission from the house ghost to let the owner to move into the new house.

In a region where reside many ethnic groups, the Lao people are treated on an equal footing with the Thai, being able to choose their own hamlet chiefs, called “phia”, who are, however, placed under the district chief of the Thai origin. Yet, in many aspects, they cannot enjoy equality with the Thai minority people. They bear such Thai family names as “Vi”, “Lo”, “Luong”, “Ka” and share the same taboos with the Thai. One’s wife’s brother are not as respected as among the Thai people and not allowed to deeply interfere in the internal affairs of their brothers. Traces of martriarchy have been found, though dimly, in the Lao society. A lineage is consisted of many families, big and small; and in the family, the male play a bigger role than the female who undertake the housework, while children, regardless of their sex, are taken care of and brought up by the parents. In marriage, monogamy has long been advocated by the Lao people. Under the Lao customary laws, the marriage between children of a brother and children of his sister or the marriage between sisters’ children are not allowed as are polygamy and adultery. Such things, if occurring, shall be considered violations of the Lao customary laws, brought for trial before the community and subject to severe punishment.

Like for other ethnoses, the intra-group marriage has long been advocated and practiced by the Lao people. When getting marriage, a man has to stay matrilocally for a period of about five years before taking his better half to his own home. Yet, unlike men of the “Thai Den”(black Thai) and Xinh Mun ethnic groups, men of the Lao ethnic minority group, during their matrilocality, play less important role in organizing funerals for their in-law parents. The Lao people are accustomed to worship their ancestors on new-year occasions. Pagodas are not common in hamlets while people are not used to go to pagodas for worshipping. A thanksgiving ritual, called “kinpang”, is held by local witch doctors usually in March or April every year. During “kinpang”, no pork and no chicken but only flowers, fruits, sugarcanes, cakes, jar spirit drunk through stems, are offered for worship, while only “lam vong” but not “tang-bu” folk dance is performed on this occation.

Women of this ethnic group dress beautifully with colorful “pieu” kerchief or silver hairpins on their heads. They tie up their hair in chignon on the top of their heads, for unmarried women, or to the left of their heads, for married women.The Lao women often hold lower position in families and society as well, depending on men, being not allowed to participate in discussing family, lineanal and social affairs and being not entitled to inherit any property when their parents pass away.

The Lao society used to be deeply disintegrated into the rich and the poor. The local officials were entitled to own public land and ask other to do corvee labor for them. The commoner had to do corvee labor, even three times a year in some localities, for local Lao, Thai and Khmu officials, clearing forests and felling trees for terraced field building, sowing seeds and harvesting crops. Besides, they also had to pay their gathered forest products as tributes to local officials, Lao and Thai as well. The Thai officials also set regulations for people of other ethnoses in the region to follows.

It can be said that generally, the customs and practices of the Lao ethnic group are similar to those of the Thai minority and greatly infuenced by the Thai culture.

For long now, there have existed within the Lao community various regulations and rules of individuals’ behaviour towards other people, their families, the society, the nature, even the supernatural forces and deities. Having been passed from generation to generation, such regulations and rules have become folk laws which have positively contributed to the protection and preservation of the Lao community in the past, at present and in the future as well.-

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