In Laos there are many ‘minority’ tribes – so called because they are not ethnic Lao, however minority tribes make up over 55% of Lao’s population so while individually the tribes are a minority, collectively they are in fact the majority. With over 230 different ethnic tribes in northern Laos alone, I will cover first the most common tribes that you would likely encounter if you were in northern Laos.
Luang Namtha province is the most ethnically diverse region in all of Southeast Asia, so it’s no surprise that many travellers visit specifically to learn about and spend time with minority tribes people.
The Hmong tribe is one of my favourites – I suppose it’s not entirely PC to have a favourite – but still, I admit that they are.
Hmong tend to be among the friendliest people in all of Laos (and combine that with Laos being the friendliest country in SEA in my experience!), always willing to share their experiences or food or drink with anyone who is interested, and additionally often wear their tribal dress in day to day life so they are really interesting for foreigners like me to learn about their customs and beliefs.
Hmong history is marked with war – fighting against the French colonisers and then aiding the CIA in the “Secret War” against North Vietnam and Lao. When the royalists lost the war in Laos and the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic became into existence, 10,000’s of Hmong died or fleed to Thailand, France and the USA.
Hmong have many subgroups, mainly definied by their elaborate clothing embroidery which their women stitch by hand after they have handmade their fabric from hemp. Hmong are well known for their handicraft skills, in particular carpentry and blacksmiths.
Their villages are usually in the mountains, although more recently quite a few tribes have moved into the lowlands but retained their traditional housing style of building their windowless, single-r0omed house on the ground with sometimes a small area curtained off for sleeping.
Hmong agriculture is mainly rice growing, in the past they were the main growers of opium also but now that this is illegal in Laos this trade has largely disappeared with only a few of the very remote tribes still growing opium poppies mainly for their own medicinal use.
Religious beliefs among the Hmong are manly concerned with spirits of the dead, specifically their ancestors and some other supernatural visitors that they believe are connected to their house. The floor of the house is considered to be nature, the roof heaven, and in between is the man made world. They are often quite worried about witches who they believe can cast evil spells on them or turn them into werewolves.
Hmong women are well known for their exquisite funeral garments; when they believe they will die soon they set about making their outfits to buried in.
These days many of the Hmong who have moved into the lowlands now dress like Lao people, although those who still live in the hills still usually wear their beautiful traditional dress, especially the older generation.
Homestays are a popular way to interact with the local Hmong – foreigners are prohibited by Lao law from staying overnight in a village unless the village has approval and they are accompanied by a guide. There are still many villages that have never seen a foreigner, or have maybe had just 3 or 4 groups come to stay with them. You definitely can’t find tribes who are really used to tourists YET in northern Laos.
Yet another awesome reason to visit Luang Namtha! Some photos of a lowland Hmong village can be found here.