OUT ON THEIR OWN

The remote Khang people in Vietnam’s northwest have some rather unique and interesting rituals.

By Thuy Duong on April 11,2019 09:43 AM

OUT ON THEIR OWN

PHOTO: THUY NGAN

Living in remote villages in the deepest, wildest mountain forests on the Vietnam - Laos border, the Khang are one of the smallest ethnic minorities in Vietnam and this is perhaps why they still perform quite interesting rituals.

The Khang traditionally live beside rivers in scattered communities in Son La, Dien Bien and Lai Chau provinces in Vietnam’s northwest, and are famous for the dugout canoes and rattan and bamboo homeware they make. Fishing and knitting rattan and bamboo are the mainstays of their economy, and they also hunt animals and forage in the jungle.

By the nose

There are only about 4,000 Khang people left in the hills of Chieng On, Muong Giang, Chieng Khay, Ca Nang, and Muong Gion villages in Quynh Nhai commune, Son La province, where they have lived since the dawn of time, making them one of the earliest residents in the northwest. A hunter-gatherer society, they also practice slash and burn agriculture - the ancient method of clearing vegetation from a patch of forest, setting it on fire, and then sowing crops in the ash-rich soil.

Among their customs is drinking through the nose. When a hot and stiflingly humid wind blows in from the west, the Khang prepare a herbal mixture that they drink through their nostrils. The practice, known as “tu mui”, dates back centuries and local researchers think it may be one way the Khang resist disease in such harsh living conditions.

Visitors should take note, though, that simply deciding to follow suit is heavily frowned upon, as the Khang are not keen on strangers copying their way of drinking, and if they detect any disrespect the response could be fatal. As well as medicinal, it’s also used to honor special guests at important feasts.

In the April and May season, when hot winds begin to blow in from Laos, the temperature can climb to 40oC in the shade and even the village dogs can’t do more than lie panting under a bush. It’s an unhealthy time, and the Khang people take it as a signal to practice “tu mui” to ward off disease.

The medicine used for the ritual is a mixture of herbs and spices - ground garlic, dried chili, citronella, basil and coriander - carefully pounded into powder that is dissolved in cold water. The mixture is then filtered until the liquid is clear. The drinking vessel is an ox horn with a small hole cut in the tip. Drinkers tilt their head upwards, put the tip of the horn in either nostril, rest their tongue on the top of their mouth to close off the bronchial tubes, and let the liquid run down the nose and into the mouth. About four or five minutes after drinking it, the garlic and chili in the mixture raises the temperature and causes a heavy bout of sweating.

The practice is believed to be an effective treatment for colds and flu, and is used by the Khang people whenever they feel sick. Housewives prepare the mixture in a copper basin and use it to treat everybody in the family, as long as they’re over 16.

The custom is also used on special occasions such as the lunar new year, hunting festivals, and harvest celebrations marking a new rice crop. For these feasts, the liquor from fermented bamboo shoots is added to the mixture, and it is used instead of wine to accompany meat dishes. Diners drink it through their noses as they are

eating, but in fact very little flows into the mouth - just enough to help down the food.

“Ruou can” festival

As well as their rather unique drinking ritual, which you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in the world, the Khang people have another drinking ritual that’s easier to practice - wine drunk out of a jar through bamboo straws and known as “ruou can”.

If you find yourself in Chieng On village, the first person you should track down is Mrs. Lo Thi Phau, Chairwoman of the local Resistance Cultural Preservation Club. And if your luck’s in, there may be a nose-drinking welcome party awaiting. If not, you’ll definitely be invited to a “ruou can” festival.

The Khang organize their annual wine festival from January to March of the lunar year, as a means of praying for a prosperous, fortunate, and healthy year. “Our wine festival only features the ‘festival’ part; there is no ‘ceremony’ like at other festivals,” said Mrs. Phau. “The Khang do not use alcohol to worship ancestors or spirits. We simply drink and dance together for fun.”

A “Cay Neu”, or so-called Tet Pole tree, is placed in the middle of a large flat expanse of land and decorated with colorful cotton flowers, lustrous balls, ribbons, and birds made from rattan and bamboo. Around the tree are three big jars of wine and others containing clean water. At the beginning of the festival, the Khang women, in their vivid colorful traditional costumes, hold bamboo sticks about 1.2 meters long, which they beat into the ground in a 3 - 3 rhythm, and then a dance called “tang bu” begins. Three men come to pour water into a wine jar and take wine from the jar at the same time. Everyone at a wine party has to drink at least two cups of wine made from dried ox horn when invited, or he or she will be considered impolite.

On regular days, Khang women wear plain clothes, with a white shirt and long black skirt not totally dissimilar to the outfits of the Thai ethnic minority. Only on occasions such as weddings or festivals do they dress up in more colorful costumes. The shirt worn by women features more vivid colors like purple, pink, blue or red, while the black skirt remains. The top may have short or mid-length sleeves with patches of brocade on the collar or a splint. Khang women wear green cloth belts every day, but at festival time these belts are also changed, by colorful belts decorated with ribbons, beads, or silver coins.

The way the Khang people wear jewelry makes them easily distinguishable from others. Women do not wear bracelets or rings, only silver neck braces with a long string attached, called “xa tich”, which is actually a traditional form of jewelry worn by the Thai. They put their hair in buns, adorned with colorful ribbons and silver ingots and covered by a beautiful scarf called “khan pieu”. It’s believed that the ribbons help people avoid evil and bad luck.

The “tang bu” dance is one of only five traditional dances they still practice at festivals and is considered the most joyful, according to Mrs. Phau. A thousand-year-old traditional dance of the Khang people, it resembles farmers poking holes in the ground as they cultivate crops. When the dance increases in tempo, people stand together to form a large circle, each holding a piece of bamboo of a suitable length. At the command of the dance master, dancers beat the bamboo on the ground, creating a rustling sound, as they perform a dance.

After a few rounds, the dancers turn around once. They jump around, stop a while to drink wine, shake their bodies to the sound of bamboo on ground, and shout out loud. The fun lasts until midnight, with the circles of dancers shrinking by the minute as the rice wine makes its presence felt.

We recommend that those who are not drinkers exercise caution while attending a “ruou can” festival of the Khang people! And remember, unless guided by one of the Khang people, don’t drink anything through your nose.

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