After spending a few days getting acquainted with Phonsavane, I traveled further west in Xieng Kuang Province to Nonghet District, quite close to the border with Vietnam. I went there to capture some photo and video media for two local organizations running youth leadership development projects, and was also lucky enough to experience Hmong New Year in full-swing.
The Hmong are an ethnic group who live mostly in the mountainous areas of Laos (as well as in other countries in the region, like China, Vietnam, and Thailand). They are one of the largest minority groups in Laos. Following the United States’ “Secret War” in the 1970s, many Hmong fled to the US, which is why there are relatively large communities living in some parts of the States (mostly in the west and midwest) and I met many Hmong Americans back visiting while in Phonsavane.
Hmong is a completely different language from Lao, sounding more to the untrained ear like Chinese than Lao and Thai. Hmong doesn’t use the Lao alphabet, but rather has a generally accepted Romanized transliteration. Most of the older people I met could speak Lao, to varying degrees, depending on their education, as children are required to learn Lao at school. I didn’t pick up that many Hmong phrases, but Nyob Zoo Xyoo Tshiab (Happy New Year) was usually enough to get a smile and greeting.
Hmong New Year is celebrated in November and December each year and brings together families and communities for 3-10 days of celebrations. Young women dress in their brilliant traditional outfits and young people play pov pob, a ball tossing game, which for older children is a way to socialize and flirt with members of the opposite sex. Younger girls line up with one another to practice and play, tossing a tennis ball back and forth and catching it nimbly with one hand (or dropping it and running after it, costumes jingling, in the youngest kids’ case).
As my car wound through the precarious and quease-inducing mountain roads on the way from Phonsavane to Nonghet I saw brilliantly colored packs of adorable girls playing this game outside their villages, often worrying close to the unpredictable winding road. Although narrow, these roads are becoming a main highway for massive construction vehicles and overloaded trucks coming from Vietnam, which often hurtle past the small villages flanking the road seemingly without regard to the many farmers and children passing over these routes on foot.
The reality of life in Nonghet is drastically different from the Laos I know in Vientiane. The main source of income here is agriculture, and people of all ages help their families in the fields. Houses are Hmong, rather than Lao, style, built to the ground (rather than on stilts), with packed clay floors and cool dark interiors with few windows. Here in the mountains of Nonghet, the temperature was even colder than in Phonsavane (approximately 50s-60s F), and although the sun heated up the afternoons, evenings were cold, with no protection, except layers, from the chill.
In addition to wearing costumes and playful kids’ games, Hmong New Year, like most holidays, revolves around eating and drinking, and inviting friends and family to the house to wish you well for the new year. Over the course of the several day festival, people drop in from house to house in the villages for food and a glass of Beerlao or shot of potent lao khao liquor. While not working, my friend and I stopped by the many houses to which we were invited to be overstuffed with rice, chicken and broths, but unable to politely turn down a request to eat or drink. In this case, “I just ate at the last house” is not a valid excuse, as everyone wishes to offer their own hospitality for the new year. Several days afternoon lunch oozed into dinner time and beyond, with hours of straight eating, and I went to bed full, swearing not to eat white rice again (until I was served a plate of it the following day).