The La Hu in North Vietnam
One of six Tibet-Burman language ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, the La Hu, which means powerful as tiger, attach their life to mountains and forests with wild animals.

Associate Prof. Dr. BUI XUAN DINH


One of six Tibet-Burman language ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, the La Hu, which means powerful as tiger, attach their life to mountains and forests with wild animals.

The La Hu, previously called Co Sung, Xa La Vang and Kha Quy, originated from a sub-group of Khuong people who originally lived in Qinghai highlands in China and later moved to Sichuan province, then to Yunan province before migrating to Lai Chau province, Vietnam, in the 19th century.

With a population of nearly 7,000, the La Hu rank 39th among 53 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. They have three sub-groups: La Hu Vang (yellow La Hu), La Hu Den (black La Hu) and La Hu Trang (white La Hu). But in reality, only black and yellow La Hu are clearly distinguished by their house style. A black La Hu house has its entrance door in the middle while yellow La Hu have the entrance door at the gable of the house.

The La Hu live on picking natural forest products and upland cultivation even though they knew wet rice cultivation techniques before migrating to Vietnam. Their main crops are rice and maize which are grown together with other subsidiary crops.

With vast meadows, the La Hu have recently grazed buffaloes, cows and goats while in the past they only raised domestic animals due to their nomadic farming.

La Hu people also do some handicrafts, including knitting, weaving and forging, but only enough for domestic use.

Due to undeveloped cultivation, animal raising and handicraft production, exploitation of natural products is the main source of livelihood of the La Hu who not only pick up starchy and vegetable forest products but also catch insects and small animals for food. Hunting also develops with different hunting tools such as flintlocks, crossbows, nets and traps. The La Hu were known as good tiger hunters as reflected in the group’s name.

La Hu houses used to be small, simple, made of earth and roofed with leaves for the La Hu usually settled in a place for just several months and maximum two years. That’s why they were also called Xa La Vang, which means people living in a house until its roofing leaves turn yellow.

In La Hu language, there is no word meaning a complete residential unit such as village, but Tso kha, which means place of living for humans. A Tso kha, which had just fewer than ten families, was usually located in deep-lying areas near forests and convenient for upland cultivation. Tso khas were as far as a day walk from one another and were named after a river, stream, hunting place or the founder of Tso kha.

Nowadays, most La Hu people have settled down so their villages and houses are much better. Apart from ground houses, they also live in stilt houses. In a La Hu house, the altar, the cooking fire and the holy pillar, which is placed by the host on the ground breaking day in the middle or side part of the house opposite the entrance door, are the most sacred objects. Outsiders, especially strangers, are not supposed to touch them.

A La Hu house is divided into two parts lengthwise. The outer part with the entrance door is where to keep rice mortars, cookers and domestic utensils. The inner part is for receiving guests. A house is also divided into different sections widthwise: one having the entrance door, one in the middle for sleeping by young children, and one in the corner, for the host and his wife and the altar. The holy pillar is placed at the door of the host’s room.

Due to nomadic life and poor economic development, the La Hu do not have many assets and furniture. Most important possessions in a La Hu house are production tools such as knife and spade, hunting tools like flintlock, crossbow and fishing net, and clothing, blankets and cushions.

The relation between families in a Tso kha is close on the one hand because they need assistance from one another when moving out or having family affairs such as wedding or funeral. On the other hand, due to nomadic life, such relation is loose as a family may move elsewhere without much regard to other families’ feelings. In a Tso kha, the gap between the rich and poor has been formed recently but in general, La Hu people are poor as they mostly depend on exploitation of the nature.

Each Tso kha is led by an a cu si (head) who is a prestigious old man in the community. Before 1954, La Hu people depended on Thai landlords. A cu sis who were nominated by villagers became servants of Thai landlords, called xeo phai. Each area comprising several Tso khas had a sung quan who was in charge of collecting taxes and arranging laborers for Thai landlords.

The La Hu live in patriarchal families mainly with two generations. A daughter in a family receives dowry when she gets married without inheriting estate later. The youngest son is responsible for taking care of the parents, but may inherit only a part of the estate. If the parents die early, the oldest son is responsible for raising his younger siblings. Still, he receives an equal share of estate like his siblings.

Taboos in a La Hu family must be strictly observed, especially for the relation between the father- or brother-in-law with the daughter- or sister-in-law. A daughter- or sister-in-law is not supposed to comb her hair in front of her father- or brother-in-law, have a meal earlier than them or warm herself at a fire together them, even in the presence of her husband.

A La Hu wedding follows three steps: gia mi na nhi (marriage proposing ceremony), gia mi do do (engagement ceremony) and gia mi si (wedding ceremony). In the wedding ceremony, when the groom’s family members come to bring the bride home, they must drink out all cups of wine placed on a tray at the entrance door before entering the bride’s house. They then have to drink out other cups of wine placed on two trays, one in the middle of the house and the other near the holy pillar before the bride’s family members receive wedding offerings and allow the departure of the bride. When the bride appears, the groom’s family members must pull her from her friends for a while before leaving with her. When the new couple reach the groom’s house, they together have to tear a rope hung across the gate before entering the house. The mother-in-law welcomes the bride by rubbing a handful of rice on her back in the hope that the bride will bring the family good lucks. The bride’s family members also have to drink out all cups of wine placed outside the house before congratulating the couple.

The La Hu attach importance to worshiping dead parents who are called family spirits. When the father dies, only the oldest son may set up an altar to worship him. When the oldest brother dies, the second oldest brother will worship the parents.

La Hu people also have many rituals to pray for favorable weather and bumper crops.-

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