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  Ethnography

A trip to Ha Nhi ethnic group

The Ha Nhi ethnic group has different names such as U Ni, Xa, Khua, Di and A Kha. They mostly live in Muong Te district in Lai Chau province, and Bat Xat district in Lao Cai province, both in the northern mountainous region.

Ha Nhi women’s costumes vary from each locality. Women in Lai Chau wear a decorated dress in natural colours, buttoned under the right armpit, while those in Lao Cai wear shorter and plainer dresses. Based on the language and costumes, researchers divide the Ha Nhi into the black Ha Nhi and the Chinese Ha Nhi.

The black Ha Nhi immigrated into Lao Cai approximately 200 years ago and are located mostly in Y Ty, A Pu Sung, and Nam Pung communes.

I was surprised when visiting the black Ha Nhi in Y Ty commune in Lao Cai province. All the houses have similar architectural styles in terms of shape, structure, space and decorations. Each house covers an area of between 65-80 square metres, with clay walls measuring 40-45cm in width and 4.5-5m in height. Ly Gio Luy, Party Secretary of Y Ty commune, told me that such a house can stand the test of time for between 70-100 years.

Ha Nhi houses are built in a square shape and look like large parachutes or mushrooms. Dr Tran Huu Son, director of the Lao Cai provincial Department of Culture and Information said that these houses originated from the parachute houses of the ancient Ha Nhi who lived on nomadic cultivation. Their roofs were covered with sheets of hide and canvas. Ha Nhi people abolished the nomadic life thousands of years ago and their roofs turned round and then square like today.

I entered Mr Luy’s house at 12.00. It was very hot outside but I felt as if there was cool air inside his house. Mr Luy said during the winter, it is very cold in the mountainous region, but it is warm inside the house.

Staying at Lao Chai village for several days, I was impressed by groups of Ha Nhi women wearing baskets on their back travelling to the rice fields early in the morning and returning home late in the afternoon. During the day, it is rare to see any women at home.

Mr Luy said his three daughters also get up at 4 o’clock, prepare the breakfast and then leave the house for the field in darkness. During the harvest season, they do not have time for the breakfast, but wrap cooked rice in dong leaves to eat on the way to the rice fields.

According to traditional customs, Ha Nhi women work between 15-18 hours a day and rarely have a day off during the week. Meanwhile, Ha Nhi men get up later and go to the rice field after breakfast. Of course, they are responsible for harder work such as clearing up the rice field, ploughing, chopping down trees for wood, and engaging in social communication.

In the Ha Nhi community, diligence is a top criteria for boys to select their future wives. It is strange that each Ha Nhi family has two beautiful trays made of rattan. A local boy, Trang A Vu from Y Ty commune explained that after marriage, the daughter-in-law will use one of the two trays and she is not allowed to eat and talk together with her husband’s father, elder brothers and relatives. The boy said this traditional practice aims to pay respect to the husband’s family.

Ha Nhi people today maintain their traditional cultural customs and religious rituals, as well as their treatment of forests. Forests are divided into different kinds. For example, the riverhead forests are strictly protected, parks are reserved for entertainment activities, and forbidden forests are for worshipping genies for the whole community. Among the annual festivals, Khuzaza is the largest and features solemn forest worshipping rituals.

Each village has its own regulations on forest protection. Locals are dully punished if they chop down trees for wood and raise cattle in forbidden forests.

Ha Nhi people live under the rule of regulations. All families get on well each other and help each other when in difficulty. Villagers will not go to the rice field within three days if a house in the village catches fire, as they consider the incident a bad omen.

VOV - (20/10/2005)


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