Cultural flourish

The Thai people are not only the second most populous of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities but also boast among the richest of cultures

By THAI A on April 08,2019 11:28 AM

Cultural flourish

Photos: THAI A

FESTIVALS AND CEREMONIES

The Thai, one of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, settle mainly in valleys near waterways, which are suitable for growing wet rice and flax. Dien Bien, Hoa Binh, Son La, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Nghe An, and Thanh Hoa provinces are where the majority of the Thai people live. They have rich traditions and customs, which have been maintained for centuries. Among activities displaying the richness of their culture, festivals and ceremonies are celebrated throughout the year, including the “Xoe Gong” Festival early in the first lunar month, festivals to pray for a good growing season (also called new rice festivals), “Xen Xo Phon” (festivals to pray for rain), held before the rainy season starts (usually at the end of the tenth of early in the eleventh lunar month), and “Lung ta” (hair washing ceremony) of the white Thai people, at noon on the last day of the lunar year, to mark the end of the old year and welcome in the new.

When travelers think about Vietnam’s northwest mountainous region the first thing to spring to mind may be the magnificent beauty of its mighty mountains and the sense of adventure tackling its winding roads. Add to that the rich culture of the Thai ethnic minority group, who number the second largest in the region and whose people are famous for their hospitality and their civilized lifestyle and customs.

Sophisticated food

After many years of traveling from one region to another in Vietnam, for me the best place to sleep is in a stilt house of the Thai people. And their food is undoubtfully the best. Any trip to their homeland in the northwest - Dien Bien, Son La, Lai Chau and Hoa Binh provinces - is likely to be among the most memorable. There, one can become lost wandering among white peach, plum and pear blossom forests in the spring, surrounded by endless mountains. When night falls, you may be fortunate enough to be invited to join a traditional dinner of the Thai people. Close to the fire of the kitchen, in a corner of the stilt house, their dining area is a focal point, a gathering spot for family members and guests. It is common for Thai families to use round trays made from rattan. The more they are used, the shinier they become. Same for their rattan chairs, on which hosts and guests sit in a circle and enjoy a meal of grilled meat, fish cooked with sour bamboo sprouts, various types of steamed vegetables, and steamed glutinous rice. Thai people’s food is famous for its sophisticated manner of cooking, in which various spices, collected from the forest and mountains, are used. “Gioi” (Michelia tonkinesis) seed, a type of aromatic seed, is used to flavor fish and meat, while “mac khen” (Zanthoxylum rhetsa) seed, with its unique hot spice and fragrance, enriches the taste.

Thai people steam newly-harvested glutinous rice and serve it with grilled chicken. Living close to nature, they apply another way of cooking: pouring glutinous rice and water into a bamboo tube, which is closed tightly and burnt over a fire. After it is cooked, they take off the bamboo cover, revealing the delicious and sweet-smelling rice inside. Each piece eaten gives a taste of the forest: simple but sophisticated.

Cultural flourish

Folklore researcher To Ngoc Thanh recalled the days of the past when forest still covered most parts of the northwest and National Road No. 6 only handled a few buses every day. At that time, in the 1960s and 1970s, the villages of the Thai people were scattered along the Da River. Their cuisine often surprised visitors due to its richness and luxury. They caught green catfish and “nganh” fish (Cranoglanis), removed their innards, mixed them with wild spices, and cooked them. The body of the fish was thrown back into the river for fish and shrimp to eat. The soup cooked from the innards was unbelievably delicious, to a point that some people believed famous royal meals of Hue could not compare. Those days have long gone, however, as such fish are now expensive at restaurants and local people are more likely to sell any they catch.

Charming dance

The stilt house is a symbol and cultural space of the Thai people. When they welcome guests at their home or in their community their hospitality includes Thai women performing their traditional dance, called “Xoe”, which is charming and natural. Thai women don’t have to learn this dance, because in the course of growing up they automatically take it onboard.

The Thai are divided into different groups, with the most populous being the white Thai and black Thai. The difference lies simply in their dress, not in their skin color, and their traditions bear many similarities. No matter which group they belong to, all are refined in their dances. While the Muong ethnic minority group is famous for the beautiful sound of their gongs and the H’Mong dance with their “khen” (a special woodwind instrument) to attract lovers, the life of the Thai people is attached to the “Xoe” dance next to the fire. Their oral history has it that ten centuries ago, “Xoe” was a popular dance performed when new hamlets and villages were built or during festivals. Now, it has developed into around 40 different dances and has become a symbol of solidarity among ethnic groups in the northwest. Initially, the “Xoe” dance was performed by boys and girls in hamlets, who held hands to form a circle and danced together. The musical instruments for the dance included gourd lutes, drums, two-chord fiddles, gongs, and cymbals. As it is a collective dance, guests are invited to join in, making the night more eventful and memorable, added by the wine (be it corn wine or “ruou can” - wine drunk through bamboo straws), which is generously served.

Colorful costumes

Thai women are tender, treating their family members and guests gently, and their personalities are somehow reflected in their clothing. In their traditional outfits, which include a close-fitting blouse, a long black skirt, a special brocade head scarf called “khan pieu”, and silver ornaments, they attract the eyes of visitors whenever they go to the market or participate in a festival. Other features of the outfits include silver “xa tich” hung around their waist, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rows of buttons on blouses considered to be works of art. Depending on the customs of where they live, these buttons are designed in various shapes, with the most popular including butterflies, bees and flowers. All their traditional clothes must have silver buttons made by silversmiths, of which the most precious are made from “hoa xoe” (one piastre) silver coins, the currency used during French colonial times.

The most precious brocade for the clothes of the Thai people are made by women on their looms, month-after-month, year-after-year. Because it takes a long time to weave enough cloth, in the old days each set of clothes was considered an asset and sometimes inherited from their mother. Nowadays, with the convenience of ready-made clothes, the brocade-weaving tradition is mostly maintained in remote areas. In tourist attractions such as Mai Chau district in Hoa Binh province, however, visitors can observe Thai women following all the traditional steps of weaving.

Cultural flourish

When wandering in the remote mountainous villages of the Thai people, it is wonderful to learn about their broad-minded tradition of bathing in springs. Thai women love to have a bath in the open air. When night is yet to come, they go to a spring or river, away from strangers’ eyes, to indulge themselves in the water. They also sleep in other people’s homes (before their wedding, the bride and groom go to each other’s home to sleep and talk about their families). Friends and cousins can also come to other people’s house to talk and sleep. Thai people consider this to be a way of caring for each other and showing their hospitality. Another interesting point is that young Thai are free to choose their husband or wife. “Choc san” is one of their traditions: when a man likes a woman, at night time he comes to her family’s stilt house, using a stick to poke on the floor as a signal for the woman to know he is there, then they go into the forest on a date.

Today, it is much easier to travel to the northwest, power has come to the villages, and TVs are common. The lives of Thai people have changed significantly. But if we were to travel far enough, we could still meet Thai women bathing under pear and plum flower canopies by a spring and playing like the fairies in popular songs about the region, written half a century ago, which have moved and encouraged people to come here to experience a few days in fairy land.

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