The Ha Nhi are one of the most decoratively dressed but elusive ethnic groups in Vietnam. The various sub groups that encompass this diverse culture reside in mud clad houses, sloping up the mountain sides of Lao Cai and Lai Chau. Each Ha Nhi village dons differently styled traditional attire, showcasing a multitude of textile skills across the region.
In 2017 Haute Culture visited the Ha Nhi of Y Ti village numerous times and built relationships with artisans there. Together, we developed a textile workshop for our annual Hill Tribe Textile Tour of Vietnam. In Y Ti, the residents wear a unique black cotton ensemble meticulously appliquéd with motifs made of coloured cording and a stunning head dress braided from black acrylic yarn and real human hair.
Who are the Ha Nhi
The Ha Nhi are a collective of different ethnic sub groups living in the north of Vietnam. They speak their own language, which is said to be similar to the Akha people living in Thailand and Laos. Before 1986, the Ha Nhi were known to farm poppies for the opium trade. The Vietnamese government have since illegalised the trade, so they now live off the rice they grow on their terraces and keep pigs and chickens for meat.
The Ha Nhi people live in single story rectangular houses made from mud, timber and rice stems. Villages vary in size but normally range between 30-50 households. Each house is likely home to three generations of family members. The houses are divided into three or four open plan rooms for the kitchen, living space, bedroom and storage; the toilet and water for bathing can be found in a separate out house.
The Traditional Dress
The traditional dress of the Ha Nhi women from Y Ti village is composed of a black synthetic fabric jacket decorated with appliquéd linear motifs that frame the garment’s edges. The intricately designed decorative borders and bands are predominately made from a cord which has been hand sewn from strips of blue, pink, and white polyester fabric. This is machine stitched onto garments in rows of repetitive geometric patterns. When the women are not in the rice fields, they spend their leisure time preparing this cord that decorates their traditional dress.
Oriental frog fastenings and aluminium buttons embossed with Chinese dragons and lotus flowers are attached to an octagonally shaped front panel on the chest. A simple cord is tied around the waist to prevent the hem from flapping around. The jacket is paired with black trousers and a very unique head dress. The full attire is primarily worn during special occasions such as weddings, ceremonies and festivals.
The Hairy Head Dress
The Ha Nhi head dress is one of the most surprising and interesting designs I have ever seen. There are two different styles which vary in assembly but share the same astonishing characteristic of mixing human hair with acrylic yarn to create a thick black mass, measuring over 120cm in length.
The human hair and yarn are braided together at one end, the section in the middle left loose and flowing, and the opposite end is tightly compressed together into pom pom style pods with a contrasting brightly coloured centre.
The Rapunzel-esque wig is coiled around the wearers head on top of a scarf with the pom poms hanging to one side. The second style has two braids that meet in the centre of the head. Both designs are worn together with either a hand embroidered folded scarf or commercially produced scarf.
Do you want to join me on my fashionable adventures around the world? Haute Culture’s Hill Tribe Textile Tour of Vietnam 2018 is on sale now. Click the image for more details.
Charming Children’s Hats
Mothers make hats for their children. The boy and girl designs are slightly different but both are used to protect the child from evil spirits.
The girl’s hat is the most elaborate of the two styles, being beautifully decorated in brightly coloured fabrics, corded stripes and spirals, reverse appliquéd motifs that match the women’s jackets. There are silver chains, embossed aluminium disks and protruding pom poms that stand up right from the centre top of the hat.
Haute Culture’s Hill Tribe Textile Tour of Vietnam
Although the Ha Nhi village of Y Ti is hard to reach, it’s the highlight of the tour. The village is incredibly remote, way up in the mountains of Lao Cai, but well worth the journey. Unlike many other tribes in the region, the Ha Nhi have very limited interaction with foreigners. When we visited them in 2017, I worked with two translators (Ha Nhi to Vietnamese to English) which helped us to establish a relationship with some of the women there. Together, we developed a textile workshop which gives our participants the opportunity to learn the traditional cording technique directly from Ha Nhi artisans.
On the day that we visited Y Ti on our first Vietnam Textlile Tour, we arrived in the morning and walked through the village of mustard coloured mud houses up to our host’s home. There, we spent the next four hours studying their clothes, watching a demonstration of the elaborate head dress making and learnt how to make cording into Ha Nhi inspired bracelets. The textile technique itself proved to be much more complicated than we all expected. An immensely tight grip on the cord is required to create the compact spirals and motifs used in their designs. But, everyone persevered and we all came away our own Ha Nhi cord; a skill not many people are ever given the opportunity to experience first hand.
What stood out the most to our participants was how little the Ha Nhi physically possess. The traditional house is the most basic of all the ethnic groups that hosted us. The village is surrounded by beautiful scenery, but the infrastructure there is below basic. We sat on a simple mat in the middle of the floor in a dark room, with only the door entrance for light. The only other furniture in the house was a simple wooden bed that slept five people.
My desire to work with the Ha Nhi stems from wanting to help the women who have little to do outside of the rice season, and no means of income. I thought that by working together, I can help them to develop some products to bring to market, that could provide them with a supplementary income. At the moment no products are currently in production but we left the Ha Nhi with lots and lots of new sewing equipment and new coloured satin cord from Hanoi to experiment with at their request.Although the journey to connect with this group has been challenging, it has also been deeply rewarding, fingers crossed that by 2018, they will be able to produce a product that I can sell via our website.