Meet the Ha Nhi
The Ha Nhi, one of six Tibeto-Burman language ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, live in the mountainous districts of Lai Chau, Dien Bien and Lao Cai northern provinces, with a population of over 17,000. 

>>The Ha Nhi: Customs, practices and folk laws


Ethnology Institute

The Ha Nhi, one of six Tibeto-Burman language ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, live in the mountainous districts of Lai Chau, Dien Bien and Lao Cai northern provinces, with a population of over 17,000.

The group, which is also called U Ni or Xa U Ni, originally lived in southern China and immigrated to northwestern Vietnam as early as in the 8th century. The ancestors of the present Ha Nhi immigrated to Vietnam around 300 years ago.

Based on their languages, costumes and customs, the Ha Nhi are divided into two groups: Ha Nhi Den, who live in Phong Tho and Sin Ho districts, Lai Chau province, and Bat Xat district, Lao Cai province, and Ha Nhi Hoa, living in Muong Te district, Lai Chau province, and Muong Nhe district, Dien Bien province.

Living in high mountainous areas and influenced by Bach Viet group’s wet rice culture, the Ha Nhi created a so-called terraced field culture. Ha Nhi terraced fields, which lie halfway up high mountains or hills, are small and narrow, costing growers much energy embanking the fields to keep water for irrigation. A segment of the Ha Nhi are nomads who live on milpa cultivation.

The Ha Nhi’s animal raising relatively develops. They mostly raise buffaloes and cows to serve farming work and poultry for ritual sacrifice. The group’s handicrafts include weaving, embroidery, wood processing, knitting and forging. Hunting and picking up forest products are also their daily life activities.

Ha Nhi people eat both ordinary and sticky rice in their daily meals. On new year occasions, they make different cakes from rice which are served together with broiled or fried meat. A favorite dish of the Ha Nhi is chao am (rice porridge cooked with chicken or pork). Ha Nhi people make their own wines and wine drinking is part of the group’s culinary culture.

Living in highlands with changeable and severe weather, the Ha Nhi build strong earth houses with double-layer walls and only one door for safety and cold prevention. With a mountain at the back, a Ha Nhi house usually faces a valley, river, stream or mountain. A house is divided into two parts. The outer part is for guests. The inner part is divided into separate rooms for couples. The simple ancestor altar, on which is a bamboo stem, a big chopstick and a bamboo basket with some rice, is set next to the house’s main pillar. The altar for the paternal side is placed at the head of the house owner’s bed while that for the maternal side is placed at the opposite side. Once every month, Ha Nhi people make offerings in 10-15 bowls to their ancestors.

Ha Nhi residential unit is village (ban). A ban of Ha Nhi nomads comprises clusters each of which has several families living as far as a mountain away from one another. A ban of Ha Nhi settlers comprises 50-60 families. Community spirit is clearly seen in a Ha Nhi ban, not only in production, but in wedding, funeral and ritual and other community affairs as well. Several bans are managed by a thong quan - the highest position in Ha Nhi society.

Ha Nhi people live in small patriarchal families where women have an inferior position even though they are not subject to tough rules like some other ethnic minority groups. Working hard all day for the family, a Ha Nhi woman, however, may not discuss family affairs or join her husband in receiving or dinning with guests.

The Ha Nhi have different family names, including Chang, Ly, San, Po, Vu, Giang and Vang. Marriage between people bearing the same family name is not allowed. Children are named after a certain event or animal. In some places, children are named after their father names (i.e., a child’s name is composed of his own name preceded by the father’s).

In marriage, Ha Nhi people are free to choose their partners. A Ha Nhi wedding is held twice. The second-time wedding, which is very expensive, can only be held when the family becomes well-off. Therefore, many couples can only afford this wedding tens of years after their marriage. Poor people even die without this wedding yet. In this case, a symbolic wedding with a rooster and three handfuls of stick rice as offerings is held to recognize the dead’s marriage before his/her funeral. Weddings are held by parents of couples. Only a marriage which is not accepted by the parents of the bride is held by the couple themselves.

A Ha Nhi woman stands during delivery. To have a smooth delivery, the Ha Nhi have the custom of breaking a bamboo container full of water to make the water splash, which symbolizes the birth of a child. A family which has a new-born baby will have a conical hat hung on a stake in front of the house. A stake on the right side of the house means the baby is a girl, and on the left side, a boy.

The Ha Nhi has the custom of throwing an egg to select the place of a grave which is where the egg is broken. Ha Nhi people do not bury the dead during the rainy season. A person who dies during this time is not be buried until the rainy season ends. Instead, his/her coffin, which is a hollowed trunk, is hung on a frame inside the roofed grave without being filled up.

The Ha Nhi believe every thing and creature have a soul. Humans are believed to have 92 souls which are all the same while other creatures have only one. The main soul of a human is believed to stay in the head. Therefore, Ha Nhi people often wear hats or scarves to protect their soul. It is a taboo for the Ha Nhi to rub or beat the head for fear of loosing their soul.

In February according to the group’s calendar when a new season comes, Ha Nhi bans hold a two-day ritual to pray for favorable weather and good health and luck for villagers. The first day is for worshiping ga ma (village tutelary god) and than dat (earth deity). On the second day, which is for preventing forest ghosts, villagers erect gates at all entrances to the village. Rice, chicken, wine and eggs are offered at this ritual during which villagers may entertain themselves, but are not allowed to dance, sing and beat drums because these acts are believed to disturb the village’s peace. When a villager dies during this occasion, the ritual is to be held again.

As farmers, the Ha Nhi venerate supernatural powers such as gods of thunder, thunderbolt, rain, wind and pest. The group hold rituals for different production steps, from farmland selection to sowing and harvesting, praying for the support of the supernatural powers for bumper crops. They also worship deities of creation such as Lo Po, who was believed to create Ha Nhi calendar; Chu Txe, who was believed to go to heaven to take rice varieties for growing on earth; and Ly Gia Ly, the Ha Nhi’s founding father of cultivation and animal raising.

Ha Nhi folklore include fairytales, mythological tales, folksongs and proverbs. Such epics as Ha Nhi mi cha (Ha Nhi land) and Ha Nhi de la (tales of the Ha Nhi) are historically and literarily valuable works. The group also have poetic tales about old customs and habits. On holiday occasions, young people dance and sing, using such musical instruments as drum, gong, dan moi (jew’s harp), khen (pan-pipe) and flute. They also play folk games such as danh du (swinging), danh quay (top spinning) and cau bap benh (seesawing).-

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