La Ha ethnic minority group resides around the mountains of northern Son La and Lai Chau provinces, so remote that they can’t even find themselves.
There are about 5,700 La Ha people in Vietnam's northwestern mountains, a culture strongly influenced by neighbouring ethnic groups, such as Thai and Dao.
However, the La Ha people are so isolated that amazingly, more than 1,700 La Ha people, living in Lai Chau were once never aware of the La Ha communities living nearby in Son La.
The houses of La Ha people are similar to those of Thai people, who often used to help La Ha communities set up their houses. Previously, the La Ha people’s homes were built on bamboo pillars, with bamboo floors, grass roofs and a private bedroom behind curtains for the husband and wife of the house.
Although this style of house still remains, it is mainly for the poorer households. Increasingly, more houses with wooden frames, wooden floors and walled bedrooms are designed for better off families.
The influence of Thai people is also evident in La Ha people’s eating habits. For meals, all family members sit around a round bamboo tray. The main food is fish, which is' roasted, grilled, and steamed in soup or processed into sour and salty sauces.
According to the Thai people, when guests sit to eat and drink wine, they must pour a bit of wine from their glass into people’s glasses, for the owners' ancestors, in order to express their respect for the host family.
However, La Ha people have their own eating habit. While eating, they cross their chopsticks to indicate that they want to leave or put two chopsticks over the bowl to show they are full.
Songs and dances are also influenced by Thai culture. However, the La Ha language still exists, so some older La Ha people sing songs in their own language, while others sing in Thai accompanied by La Ha music.
La Ha men now are usually seen wearing trousers, shirts, T-shirts and scarves, while women, from girls to old ladies, still wear traditional Thai-style scarves without embroidered patterns, shirts with butterfly-shaped buttons, and tube-shaped skirts. La Ha people also use indigo-dyed shirts and scarves for burial gowns.
"We believe indigo-dyed costumes help dead people get to heaven, so husbands and wives can meet each other there," explains 65-year-old Hoang Thi Tom from Pac Muon hamlet in Lai Chau province.
Because of their nomadic life, funerals for La Ha dead people prior to 1960 were held simply. Corpses were tightly rolled in sedge mats, put down into graves near their houses and set with soil to become square-shaped tombs.
Eighty-year old Lo Van Nhot from Pac Muon hamlet said since the time the La Ha people settled down, their burial ceremonies have followed the customs of the white Thai people. "Now that our living conditions have been improved, we all can organise funerals," Mr Nhot said.
Interestingly, one tradition the La Ha people has preserved until today is that the tomb stone always looks toward Quynh Nhai, a district believed to be the homeland of the La Ha’s ancestors.
VOV - (22/08/2005)