The Laha Ethnic Group in Vietnam

The Laha Ethnic Group in Vietnam

Lables: Ethnic Groups, Kadai Group, Laha ethnic group

Proper names: Laha, Kla Phlao.

Other names: Xa Cha, Xa Bung, Xa Khao, Xa Tau Nha, Xa Poong, Xa Uong, Bu Ha, Pua.

Local groups: Dry Laha (Khla Phlao), Water Laha (Laha ung).

Population: 1.400 people (1999 census).

Language: The speaking language belongs to the Kadai language group (Tai- Kadai language family)

History: The Laha were early inhabitants of the country's northwest region. According to some ancient documents in Thai language, around the 11th-12th century, when the black Thai moved to this region, they encountered the ancestors of the present Laha. Because of this, when conducting community worshiping rites, the Thai still organize the "white water buffalo" feast to worship a spirit called Am Poi - a famous Laha leader dating to the 11th century.

Production activities: The Laha have begun to practice irrigated rice farming, but they continue to rely on the slash and burn technique, hunting, and the gathering of fruit. Their cultivation style is very simple; they use a pointed digging stick and a paring knife. The main crops are sticky rice, corn, beans, and cotton. In the past, Laha women didn't know how to weave. Later, they learned weaving from the Thai, and started making their own clothes.

Diet: The main food is steamed sticky rice, though they have started eating regular rice. Other foods are salted, grilled, roasted, or "dried to preserve them. Women chew betel nuts.

Clothing: In former times, men like to wear their long hair wrapped in a bun; today, however, only old men and the shaman still keep up with this custom. Women blacken their teeth, and dress in a Black Thai style. In some areas, they wear an apron outside their skirt, or they may put it around their shoulders when the weather is cold. Single usually women wear their hair in a bun on the back of the head, while married women follow a Black Thai style of wearing the bun on the top of the head.

However, in some areas, young and old alike wear their hair in a bun on the top of the head. In areas with heavy White Thai influence, women whether married or single - just roll up their hair or put in a bun on the back of their heads.

Housing: They live in stilt houses of two styles: The first are temporary houses, inhabited from one to three years by those who are nomadic and practice slash and burn agriculture. This type of house is distinguished by a long oval roof that resembles the jaw of a pig. Permanent houses are for those who live a sedentary lifestyle, or those who are semi-nomadic. This type of house has a curved round roof that is shaped like a tortoise shell, and is similar to those of the Black Thai.

There are two distinct areas in a Laha house: a living room area that occupies about a half to two-thirds of the whole house; and the rest that is living space for household inhabitants and guests. Dividing the guest quarters and the living quarters is a column, which generally has a rice wine jar is tied to it.

Transportation: The Laha use baskets, water buffaloes, and horses.

Social organization: The Laha live in villages. In former times, the head of a village was called Khun cai. His two assistants, who were popularly elected, were called Khun tang and Khun teng.

The Laha have small, patriarchal families. Children bear the father's name, and wives adopt the name of their husbands. Daughters are prohibited from inheriting property from their parents.

Marriage: The Laha practice monogamy. Marriage is getting a bit commercial, displayed by the amount of money called nang kha pom (price per each person's head), which the groom has to pay to the bride's parents. Moreover, the groom has to move in with his wife's family. On the other hand, young women and men are free to date and to find their partners without the parents' interference. After a period from 3 to 5 days of getting acquaintance with each other, the young man asks his parents to visit his girlfriend's house to propose a wedding. The boy's family will give betel nuts to the girl's family, in exchange for a shirt of the bride, which is used for fortune telling purposes. The betel nut will be delivered to all of the girl's relatives in order to ask their opinions on her marriage. Those who do not approve of it will return the betel nuts to the bride. In five days, if the girl's parents don't give the betel nuts back to the groom's family, it means that they accept the proposal, and in 10 days the groom will move to his wife's house, and work for her parents. Only when this period is over, can the wedding be arranged, called thu ma phu (meals and wine). After the wedding, the bride will be taken to her husband's family. She will adopt her husband's name, and won't be able to go back to her parents' house, even when her husband dies. When a widow remarriages, her new husband will have to bring some certain gift, called thu coi poong to her former parents-in-law's family, but not to her parents. A widow, even after remarriage, still believes that when she dies, her spirit will go back to her ex- husband with whom she had the thu ma phu wedding. Therefore, in some places, if parents die without having held that ceremony, their children will have to do it for them, so that their parents can live together in heaven.

Funerals: The Laha don't cremate corpses like the Black Thai; rather, they bury their dead. The dead is wrapped in cloth, or bamboo mat, and then carried to the gravesite. Only then it is put into a coffin and buried. If the deceased was a father, his son would use a knife to destroy the father's altar to chase away the grandfather's ghost; only then can he start to worship his own father's spirit. If the deceased was a mother, then her son uses the knife to tap on the mother's sleeping site; this action chases away his grandmother's ghost, and allows the son to start worshiping his mother's spirit. The deceased is put on the same direction as the house's transverse beam. If the deceased was a father, he will be placed under the first (main) beam; if the deceased was a mother, she will be placed under the second beam. If the deceased were the eldest son, he would be placed under the third beam. When carrying the deceased to the burial site, a father will be brought out by the door of the guest's quarters. If the deceased is a mother, the family destroys the front wall to carry her out of the house. If the deceased is a son, he will be brought out by the door where water is stored.

On the grave, the Laha build a little house, about two meters tall, with two roofs. They use some of the thatch on the roof at home for the grave's roof. If the deceased was a father, they use the thatch of the sleeping place, where the head lies. If the deceased was a mother, then they use the thatch of the sleeping place where the legs lie. If the deceased was a son, they use the thatch from the patio where they dry rice. If the deceased was a daughter, they use the thatch of the area where water is stored. They put all necessary things for living into the grave house, such as rice baskets, tobacco pipe, clothes, bed covers, a mat. When' coming back to the house from the funeral, the family usually stirs up the rice mortar to keep ghosts from coming back to harm the family.

Beliefs: The Laha worships their ancestors in a room called hong, like the Thai. The ritual specialist (mot lao) calls back spirits, and drives away ghosts. Either once a year, or once every couple of years, mot lao will have a ritual to worship his ancestors, and other Gods. Among these Gods, the most frightening ones are the Linga God and the Sword God; Therefore, in each mot lao's, altar, there are always effigies of a linga, a sword, and a shield.

It is a taboo to bring green vegetable, green leaves, or anything green, as well as fresh meat in through the door of the living quarters. These items have to be brought in through the door of the guest area. When pots and pans are put on the oven, the handles have to lie in the same direction as that used by people when they sleep. It is also a taboo to have the handle toward the entrance door, because that is the direction dead people is placed before burying. However, when someone dies, all of these taboos are given up, and things are done other way around. Calendar: The Laha use Thai calendar.

Education: In former times, the Laha studied Thai language.

Artistic activities: The Laha sings and writes poems very well in Thai language. Their two special dances are the linga dance and the sword dance.

 

Travel tip shared by Lanh Nguyen
www.vietnamheritagetravel.com

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