Preserving the beautiful cultural traditions of Lô Lô ethnicity.
The Flower Lolo are the elaborately decorated ethnic minority people of Meo Vac, Vietnam. Their kaleidoscopic costumes are meticulously embellished with approximately 4000 hand appliquéd triangles resembling tetris block formations. Five triangles can take up to two hours to sew, I know because in August 2015 I motorbiked from Hanoi to Meo Vac to learn for myself. Constructing a single costume takes about one year to complete, outfits are sewn by mothers for their daughters, only worn on best occasions and stored in a lockable chest. For that reason the Flower Lolo‘s dress is publically revered as one of Vietnam’s finest sartorial accomplishments.
Conversing with the Chief
With the upmost respect, the chiefs eyes were dark, sunken and heavy with drink. Under-dressed in an aged ensemble of (once) white vest and shorts, he wasnt at all what I expected the “Chief” of the Lolo people to look like. I’ve never met a chief before, in my anthropological imagination (where I live as a combination of Indiana Jones and Anna Wintor) I assumed he would be donned in his finest regalia to make our appointment. The truth was, he barely lifted his head from the tobacco bucket bong he was puffing away at when I walked into the room. The stench of Sunday’s weekly rice wine sessions at the market surrounded his vicinity (in which I did not particularly what to get any closer to) and there was an awkward silence NOT lost in translation hovering between us. I kept smiling. Finally he slumped back in his chair, slapped both hands on his knees and looked me up and down through the stale smoke saturated air.
One hour of confusing conversation past us by, for whatever reason the chief had said “NO”. I was not allowed to stay in the village and photograph the Lolo women in their costume.
He pulled out numerous official looking documents and I kept pointing to the wall he had decorated with photos of women dressed up for traditional festivals. I showed him my website (for whatever it was worth) and unbeknownst to me he would reply by pointing to the calendar?? I would say “Khong hieu” translating that I don’t understand, he would say “Khong hieu”, and my host (who also spoke no English) would say “Khong hieu”. I had my palms in prayer position and was one step away from begging on my knees. Then we would all awkwardly laugh together before he looked at me again and said…. “No”.
As you can imagine I returned back to my guest house that afternoon absolutely gutted. The next day my hosts daughter who studied English in Hanoi had returned home to Meo Vac. Hilariously she explained that the reason I was not allowed to visit Sang Pa A Lolo Village was because you must have a translator by law to go (remember those official looking documents). Okay, problem solved? Not bloody likely, roll on the….
So I’m back in the village, Wooo hoo! I now have 2 translators, one girl that speaks Lolo and Vietnamese and one boy that speaks Vietnamese and English. I am now even invited to the house of my hosts grandma to look at the costumes! All I am looking for to complete my self imposed assignment is a few beautiful photos to share on my website.
Me: “Would it be possible for someone to put the costume on for me? So I can see how you wear it and what it looks like?”
Host: “NO. Today is the full moon. Lolo people believe it is bad luck to wear their traditional costume for the next three days!”
Of course….! The fricking lunar calendar was now out to get me, that’s why the chief was repeatingly pointing at it yesterday. I’d already been there 3 days (in the greyest town in middle earth), did I want to stay there another 3? Not likely. After a quick reccy around the village and countless refusals I was actually beginning to see the funny side. It was at that point my translator came out of a house with honouray smile of achievement across her face and asked if I would be willing to pay $5? Behind her sat 2 teenage girls in a living room listening to K-pop on the telly box. “Of course. As long as they are not worried about the bad lunar luck?” I replied. She shook her head. Apparently the new Lolo generation didn’t take the superstitions as seriously as their predecessors and would rather benefit from the extra pocket money.
Sewing Lessons with the LoLo
Later that afternoon my hosts Aunt offered me a sewing lesson. Graciously accepting I then spent the following 2 1/2 hours sat Viet style on a chair no taller than 4 inches off the floor. Pre-cut squares of cotton fabric are marked with a grid in a clear glue pen that is only visible against the light. Rainbow coloured strips about 30cm long and 3cm wide are placed on the grid. They have their edges tucked under and are then sewn diagonally along the fabric with razor blade precision. After completing my master piece I was informed that I was not allowed to keep the sample. My teacher would finish the full square in due time and use it for her daughters costume that would be completed later this year.
Lolo Textile Details
Here is a sample of close up details found on the jacket and scarfs. Textile techniques include batik, pom poms, beading and hand embroidery. So far from my research I have not managed to find out the cultural significance of the patterns used in Lolo culture. Costumes are only worn a few times per year at weddings, funerals and the famous annual “pray for rain” festival.
Costumes are composed of the following garments. Trousers with elasticated waist, skirt wrap crossing over at the front, 2 decorative waist sashes, jacket and head scarf.
Do you think the Flower Lolo is the most beautiful costume in Vietnam? Did you read my article on the Lolo of Lung Cu? Do you have any further information or links to add about the Lolo or Yi people of Vietnam or China? If you have any questions about this article and my experience please comment below, I would love to hear from you!
Where to Stay
Meo Vac is a tiny town with only one main road running through it. There are very few guest houses. I stayed at this one because the owners are Lolo. It was clean, spacious, basic and 200.000 vnd ($10) per night. If you have more time or you are booking a tour guide you could stay at the French Hmong homestay Meo Vac Auberge de Meo Vac – Mountain Lodge. I have not stayed there but it comes recommended.
How to get to there
Sang Pa A Lolo village is located in Meo Vac town, near the market. Just ask anyone for directions or tell your guide. The chief’s house is located about 50 metres up on the left side of the main entrance, it is pale blue with yellow pillars. (I am sorry I don’t have exact addresses, it’s not that kind of place!)
WARNING: They eat a lot of dog in Meo Vac. I unfortunately saw 2 dogs killed on the street outside restaurants while I was there. The sound is horrendous and I found it very upsetting.