Lao Lu people have many different names and live in a range of countries spanning South East Asia’s boarders, in Vietnam this decorative and resourceful Buddhist group reside in isolated and introverted villages found deep in the low lands near the mountains of Lai Chau province. Miles away from the nearest roads visiting the Lao Lu feels like you have stepped into a National Geographic postcard. Women can be seen weaving and wearing their traditional threads on a daily basis, smoke billows from chimneys on top of wooden stilt houses, and fields of corn crops blow lightly in the breeze against a back drop of forest clad highlands.
In January 2016 I motorbiked from Sapa across the Tram Tom Pass with expert ethnic tour guide Ethos Spirit of Community whom have been working closely with the Lao Lu villagers to create an educational excursion for tourists. Focused on learning traditional textile techniques the experience aims to give one a authentic insight into how one of the last secluded ethnic communities have managed to sustain their traditional way of life for generations.
After a week of snow and sub zero temperatures in Sapa, I awoke on my final day at Ethos to a sky filled with sunshine and my head filled with hope. Today was my last opportunity to visit the Lao Lu people of North Vietnam. After a few phone calls to check the roads were clear and the weather was safe, Phil, My and I loaded up the bikes and headed out at 8am on the 2 hour drive towards Binh Lu. The journey was treacherous and stressful at times but still one of the most impressive scenic routes in all Vietnam. Riding above the clouds and down the hairpin roads we ricocheted into the valley’s steep crevasses until we arrived at the the tiny town of Binh Lu. After buying some food for dinner we set off away from the markets mayhem and down a rumble road. The next leg of our journey led us along rivers, over a suspension foot bridge and through fields of farmland for a further 20mins.
That was when I saw her. Standing outside a shed, carrying a couple of buckets and looking magnificent, there was a elderly lady wearing a lopsided black turban, rainbow striped jacket, co-ordinated tubular skirt and pom pom earrings. Dazzled and confused by my indecision and awe-struck appreciation, I nearly crashed my bike. Torn between stopping to pick my jaw up off the floor and the need to continue driving as distance between my companions and I gained, I waved at the women. She simply replied by shooting me a tantalizing smile of her teeth smothered in black lacquer.
The village itself was small and simple. Containing no more than 15 stilt houses all made from a honey tinted wood and roofed over with sheets of corrugated steel. Some discarded loom paraphernalia and dripping dye vats were scattered in the shadows under the stilts of the house and had become a playing ground for piglets and chickens. Our host Mrs Si welcomed us from the window above before beckoning us up the rickety stairs into her home with the promise of tea and snacks after our mornings bike ride.
- Tubular skirt made of 3 main sections – Red, purple or maroon pinstripe waist. Intricately woven middle section in a rhombus and zig zag design filled with flower patterns and made from silk. Multicolored and patterned vertical striped ribbons appliquéd down the center front of the hem panel onto black hemp fabric.
- The jacket is made from 5 panels with a curved hem. Rows of woven ribbons are pin tucked together and appliquéd to the edges and style line before embellishing with silver studs or coins.
- The turban varies in length but is approximately 4 meters long with the width folded into quarters. It wraps sideways around the head askew to the left side before tucking into itself.
- Accessories include silver or aluminum necklaces, hairpins and bracelets, pom pom ear plugs and black painted or gold plated teeth, which is a similar practice to the Dao people at Meo Vac market and a popular beauty ritual for many hill tribe women.
Textiles are intricately woven into every Lao Lu community, house hold and women. Mother and daughter are often seen sitting side by side, click clacking away whilst waving from left to right as no Lao Lu home is complete without 2 looms on the go. One loom is used primary for the ornate silk brocade found on the front skirt panel, and the second loom is used for training young girls how to weave the ribbons found on the jacket style lines and seams. The patterns themselves are time consuming and complicated requiring the upmost patience and skill in order to avoid any mistakes.
Locally grown cotton, hemp and silk are exchanged between neighboring ethnic minorities in the area and are used to weave the fabrics basic fabric for the traditional dress. Natural dyes such as indigo (navy/black) and Annato berries (orange/red) are mixed with a lime stone solution then rigorously plunged with a ladle bucket to speed up the oxygenation process that activates the dyeing pigments. Fabrics and fibers are dyed from 1 day to one month depending on the intensity of the colour required.
Elusive Lao Lu
I am never bored or unimpressed by the way people dress around the world. Every time I see someone that has gone above and beyond convention to make a impression with their visual identity I am in awe of their efforts. The Lao Lu people did not disappoint with their weaving, natural dying and clever garment construction and turban draping techniques they have definitely laid a claim to individuality in a region peppered with pretty ethnic ensembles.
What makes the Lao Lu people so special is how secluded they are from Vietnamese people, not just physically but socially. You wont see many Lao Lu women walking around town. Hidden away in the hills some of the teenage girls confessed to never crossing the river’s bridge a mere 1 km away. I think this is the first authentic ethnic village I have visited where there was no real evidence of these things changing. Life for the Lao Lu was seemingly comfortable and happy. They lived the same way today as they could have done 30 years ago (give or take the odd motorbike and television). Above all the locals seemed very happy amongst themselves, sociable and welcoming towards tourists.
To book a responsible visit to see the Lao Lu people contact Ethos Spirit of Community directly.
Are you a weaver or a dyer? Have you visited ethnic minorities in Vietnam or SEA? Have your tried any of these natural dyeing techniques? Please share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the comments box below.
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