Lu People in Vietnam
Lu people, also known as Nhuon or Duon, is a recognized ethnic group in Lai Chau Province, Northern Vietnam. Like any other minority groups in the area, Lu people have their own language and possess many useful skills to survive in the mountainous regions; such as farming, carpentering and weaving. Their traditions have been carefully preserved by generations of tribe members.
Their traditional houses
Hon Village in Lai Chau Province, home of approximately 5,000 Lu people, is one of a few villages in Vietnam where people still live in stilt houses. After going down a long winding path to the village, you’ll see beautiful maize fields and many roofs close together with a mountainous backdrop.
Although Lu people are quite isolated from other minorities in the area, they particularly appreciate love, friendship and neighborhood. Therefore, they build their houses very near so that they can easily communicate and help each other.
Lu houses have two roofs with the front roofs lengthened to shade whole terraces and stairs. Main doors usually face North. Basements are used as a warehouse for keeping wood, looms or other things of the family dry. Lu people enter their house from the back by walking up and down one set of stairs. The stairs have to have an odd amount of steps because they believe that will help them avoid bad luck.
The middle area of a house, where daughter-in-laws are not allowed to enter, is used for worshiping ancestors. The kitchen links to another part that is used as the living space. Every house has two fires; one for daily cooking and one for making tea for guests.
Whenever a couple gets married, a whole village will join and celebrate all together. Everybody comes to help with cooking, preparing rituals and building a house for the newlyweds.
Black Teeth Custom
While many people love the look of pearly white teeth, Lu prefer their teeth black. They believe only wild animals and demons have white teeth, so a special paste is applied in order to avoid being associated with evil. On VOV, a Vietnamese TV show, a 73 years old woman, Ms Tao Thi En, in Lai Chau said: “I’ve blackened my teeth since the age of 13 and have been keeping this habit ever since then. Everyday after dinner, I dye my teeth for an hour before going to sleep. If I don’t do it for a day, I will feel uncomfortable…”.
Mr Lo Van Ngan, a Lu man, explained “The custom was started a long time ago. Every girl had to dye their teeth. Otherwise, she would be seen as a lazy girl and no man would ever want her to be their girlfriend”. This dying technique not only has aesthetic meaning, but also functional use. The black paste applied on their teeth works as a sealant which cover the teeth’s surface and prevents decaying teeth. It is made by mixing black-honey shrub with gum benzoin siam for 1-2 hours. After that, the mixture is heated until melted. Despite its traditional purposes, the custom has gradually faded amongst younger generations. We now only see Lu women above 30 years old with black teeth.
Lu women costumes
Their colorful patterns on clothes reflect images of trees, plants and flowers to represent Lu’s beauty. After a long time living close to nature, they have learned how to grow cotton, raise silkworms, spin thread and weave fabrics to meet their home and community’s needs. Their costumes contain unique features and characteristics, especially women costumes which include turbans, blouses, skirts and belts.
Lu turbans are made of cotton and dyed in black indigo. They are over 4 meters in length, 0.3 meters in width and have 0.2 meters fringe on each end. On the black background, the turbans have 18 alternating black and white lines with 2 yellow stitches sewn horizontally for decoration. When worn, turbans are folded vertically 4 times and wrapped around their heads many times with head buns tied to the left.
Lu women wear four-part blouses in black indigo, pieced by 6 pieces of cloth with curved edges. Woven patterns on the blouse are combined with grafted fabric decorations (many small pieces of cloth sewn together to form patterns). Long sleeves are sewn to be smaller at the cuffs and hemmed with tiny flower patterns. Small diamond and bird’s feet motif embroideries are also sewn on the upper arm as decoration. On the left part of the blouse, there is an embroidered line with colorful thread which goes straight from the collar to the blouse’s end.
Around the waist is a long patterned cloth, which is called “meandering stream”. Under the “stream”, there are many small colorful embroidered triangles. Two flower fabric strings are sewn on both labbet sides. The right string has five colorful fringed yarn sewn with colorful beads. When putting on, the left side overlays the right, then they are tied together and the left dangles freely to create flexibility and the appearance of extra softness to the women’s step.
Skirts are made from 3 different pieces of cloth, which are sewn by hand in a tubular shape. It consists of a waistband, the main part of the skirt and the bottom.
The waistband is woven from brown cotton with no decoration. The skirt’s body is woven from silk by using complicated weaving techniques; which require expert craftsmanship in order to create custom patterns. The body of the skirt has 2 different weave parts. While the upper is woven in dark brown; joined to the waistband and has many yellow and red horizontal parallel lines, the lower is woven in silk with different patterns and yarn embroidery. Most common patterns are rhombic or diamonds with 2 people inside turning their head in opposite directions. The skirt’s bottom part is dyed black and decorated with 9 vertical colorful pieces of cloth.
Lu belts are made from white cotton. Each end has fringes and many embroidery stitches.
The unique Lu weave
It can be said that Lu weaving is the most developed handicraft. Before getting married, all Lu girls must know how to weave and the bride-to-be will make their own wedding dresses a year before the wedding day; sometimes with her mother’s help.
On local festival days, women wear their best dresses and full sets of silver or aluminium necklaces, bracelets and rings. Well-made clothes not only show good taste, but expert weaving skills. During the time before Tet Holiday (in February), if you visit Lu villages, you will find many Lu women sitting by the looms, meticulously spinning thread to prepare for new clothes.
Even though nowadays goods are traded a lot easier among different minority groups than before, Lu women still love to wear their own hand-made traditional clothes. On the Lai Chau Online newspaper, Ms Tao Thi Cam, a Lu woman living in Ma Quai Commune, proudly said: “Every family has 1-3 looms. Lu women have been proficient in embroidering, sewing, spinning and making clothes since they were very young. We spend a lot of time out of the year making clothes for ourselves and our families.”
Dying fabric is hard work that requires strength and patience from the makers. Sharing her own experience, Ms Tao Thi Chan, another Lu woman, said: “Fabrics used to make clothes must be dyed in indigo for a whole week. Everyday, we must dye and dry cloth twice; then finally dye it in black.”
The most difficult and complicated part is making the white cotton weave on the skirt’s body. It takes a highly experienced weaver up to 6 months to make only a skirt, and most of that time is spent on weaving the pattern. A weaver has to concentrate in every single step to make a precise pattern and then embroider it by hand with colorful thread.
With unique hand-weaving techniques and aesthetics in mind, Lu people are one of the minorities in North West regions of Vietnam who have a special and exquisite traditional costume. The weave from Lu skirts reflect the combination between artistic eyes and talented hands. Their special weave is one of the most fashionable weaves to be incorporated in accessories.
A video about Lu Minority Group in Tam Duong District, Lai Chau Province, Vietnam