The Khua are a sub-group of the Bru-Van Kieu ethnic minority group that lives in the mountainous areas of the north-central region of Vietnam. In Quang Binh, the Khua mainly reside in the northern Minh Hoa District, a remote area along the Lao PDR border and nearby the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park. Similar to many other ethnic minorities in Vietnam, the Khua live a self-sustaining life based on surrounding forest resources and household-based agriculture, whereby some also retrieve income from extended farming and husbandry activities. In the mountainous areas of Quang Binh Province, minorities mainly cultivate cassava, maize, (dry) rice, sweet potatoes and fruits as well as many keep pigs, cows and/or chicken.
arts & crafts
The Khua specialise in the weaving of rattan and bamboo baskets. Everything that is produced is used in daily life, e.g. for the collection of fruits and vegetables, for market days or for tool holders. It is only the men who do the weaving, including the collection and preparation of the material. Each weaver has his own technique and way of weaving. Basketry weaving in general is quite work-intensive and usually done when agricultural field work rests. Depending on the size and the difficulty of the weaving pattern, the making of a basket can take between 5-14 days. Done with care and smoked to protect it from insects and moisture, the baskets can last a lifetime.
Unfortunately, fewer Khua men are familiar with the art of making baskets and younger generations show little interest in learning. As we are intrigued by the care these baskets are made and by their simple beauty, the Tree Hugger tries to support a small group of men by encouraging weaving, whenever the men have time.
customs & traditions
So far, there is little written down on Khua customs and traditions and so, during our get togethers with the weavers and their families, we were keen to know more. Here are parts of it, but please note that some customs and traditions may only apply to some of the villages and may not be valid for all Khua ;).
marriage & thereafter
Commonly, young people get married from the age of 18 onwards. While, most often, they get to choose whom they will marry, parents still often have a say in who is the right person for their daughter or son. During the marriage, women are wearing silver jewellery (usually 3 bracelets and 2 pairs of earrings), men are wearing the Lao skirt and a scarf. Celebrations often taken place in public, however, no official invitations are written, people just ‘know’ and are invited to join in. In former times, besides the family members, the village head would also often be involved in the preparation of the celebrations.
After the marriage, there are two options for the freshly married couple to choose their future place of living: either the couple stays with the husband’s family (which is usually the case) or the husband moves in with his parents-in-law. This may be the case when the bride’s family does either have no son in the family themselves or if an extra hand is needed for field work etc. Then, a ´compensation´ is negotiated with the broom’s family.
Commonly, a bridal gift, also called ´di su´, has to be handed over by the broom’s family. This is usually done in three steps over a time period of at least three years. On the morning of the first day of the marriage, the bride’s family would ask with the broom’s family for a pig. If the family household does not possess a pig, then a chicken is asked for. After around one year, the bride’s family will do a second visit and ask for a pig or a cow to be handed over once again. After another year, a pig or a cow will be asked for a last time. Afterwards, the bride’s family is not allowed to ever ask for any gift anymore. The time periods between these visits, however, are not fixed. Depending on the wealth of the broom’s family, the bridal gift may never be received by the bride’s family. Furthermore, the gifts and the amount of animals given to the bride’s family might vary from village to village.
Some of the villages’ marriage customs are slowly being blended with
Kinh traditions. The three steps of marriage, for instance, are slowly being abandoned by some of the communities.
getting children & schooling
While both men and women are appreciated in Khua culture, the preference of giving birth to a boy is still prevalent. Male descendants are most often thought to secure a family’s existence as well as it is often also the son’s responsibility to take care of the parents in later years.
Before the Vietnamese family planning policy in 2009, households used to have between 6-7 children on average; nowadays there are on average 3 children in a household.
The large majority of children has access to a school nowadays. Almost every village features a primary school (up to the fith grade). Then, the children either drop out of school or they have to leave home to attend a secondary/ boarding school. Education is free of charge. Only very very few pupils get to complete 12 grades, which need to be passed in order to apply for university entry tests. Most often, children will drop out from school early as they are needed to secure the income of their families and help on the field and in the household.
dress & language
Many Khua do not wear any ‘traditional’ clothing anymore. However, as the Khua in Vietnam feel close to their counterparts on the Lao side, you would still find many wearing the long ´Lao skirt´. In the old days, the Khua were able to weave clothes by themselves. Except during the wedding ceremony where men would wear a vest and a scarf, men would not wear anything ‘special’.
Khua speak Khua which is only a spoken (and not written) language.
Lẽ côt tay (‘lucky praying ceremony’)
Lẽ côt tay are called the wristbands (or simple rubber bands) that many Khua wear around their wrists. They are thought to bring stability and luck in life. The band has to be tied around ones wrist by another person and is worn at all times.
Lế giáng sơn (‘nature praying ceremony’)
´Lế giáng sơn´ is a public event held at least twice during the year (just before the crop season starts). It commonly lasts for half a day in month 2 (of the lunar calendar) and is very often celebrated together by villages located nearby each other. Community members praise the god of the rivers and the mountains and wish for luck, good health and a good harvest season. Usually, villagers gather and share jar wine, chicken and sticky rice.
Tết (end of the year celebrations)
Tết is similarly celebrated by the Khua as by the Kinh. It is always taking place during the first three days of month 1 (of the lunar calendar) and considered as a time for family gatherings and visiting friends.
Local communes currently subsidize 15kg of rice per person for minority groups in Vietnam. Although these amounts are sometimes not regularly distributed due to access difficulties, families are provided with rice during at least 6 months of the year.
Commonly, families would have at least two meals per day. Bổi, a sticky mix of rice and maize is one of the specialty dishes. Whenever an animal is being killed, the Khua would thank the ‘forest god’.
Common beverages include rượu cần. It is a sort of home-made jar wine, which is only opened up on special events or when welcoming visitors. There are also specific customs attached to drinking rượu cần including e.g. how much needs to be drunk or with whom the wine is consumed together in what way etc.
Many Khua men and women smoke tobacco leaves (called ‘La Dong’), which mostly derive from own cultivation.
Most of the Khua houses are built on stilts and many of the floor plans of the houses follow a strict structure. When entering a house it feels like a one-room-one-house idea, yet, there are separate spaces: there is a common seating area in the middle of the house as well as there is a taboo area for the wife either to its right or to its left side (around 2-3 meters to the right or left of the entrance). Nearby this area would be the resting place for visitors or for babies. The sleeping-berth next to it is reserved for the husband only (with the exception of also allowing a very young child to sleep here), followed by the sleeping-berth of both husband and wife. The next berth would be kept for the eldest son, the one after for the second eldest and so on. Then, the oldest daughter’s berth would follow etc.
Divorces are not uncommon, and so the sleeping area may have to be extended for the returning daughter or son. However, this also depends on the spirit blessings and nowadays it is more likely that a new house will be built. Most commonly, the kitchen and the hearth can be found in a separate corner of the house. If this does not exist, then the hearth will be in the middle of the seating/ entrance area.
Construction materials for the houses are almost exclusively extracted from nearby forest areas; in a ceremony, the ‘God of the forest’ will be thanked for the gift.
sleeping area for babies or visitors
band + wife
taboo area for wife
becoming a hamlet leader
Hamlet leaders are considered the ‘mayors’ of the villages. The villagers elect a representative for a 5-years period, which can be extended by another 5 years thereafter. During this term, the house of the hamlet leader will also serve as the public meeting house of the village.
If somebody passed away, relatives gather at the home of the decedent in the following morning. An animal is killed (commonly a cow or a pig) and people eat lunch together. After one or two days of mourning, the body, wrapped only in a bamboo mattress, is brought to the communal cemetery area. An appropriate grave site is spotted by the priest by holding an egg in his hand. He tosses the egg to the ground and if it breaks, the right spot is found for the body. Three days after the funeral, relatives return to the cemetery during the early night. Going there, three stretches of the road are marked in equal length leading from the decedent’s home to the grave. Upon return from the grave to the household, the first stretch is lit up by candles and torches. On the second night, torches and candles are lit up for the second stretch and, finally, during the third night, the last stretch to the decedent’s home is being illuminated. After these three nights, relatives do never visit the grave again as it is believed that the spirit of the decedent has returned back home. On the first day of every lunar month as well as on the third day after the lunar New Year, people remember the decedents.
Funeral customs might slightly differ from village to village though: In a different village, we were told that a priest will talk to the dead body and prepare him/her for the funeral. Afterwards, a grave will be excavated. The day after, the dead body is taken to the grave. Yet, the priest is taking an axe along which is thrown into the grave. If it breaks, the body accepts the grave. Should the axe not break, this procedure is repeated until a resting place is found. Graves can be right next to each other. Likewise, the grave is never being visited again after the funeral. It is believed that the ghost of the dead person will find home by him-/ herself again. Visiting the grave would mean for someone to risk that a ghost from a neighboring grave follows the person home, resulting in a significant disturbance of domestic peace.
In a different village again we were told that, after a person has passed away, relatives and friends gather at the decedent’s house and mourn between 2-3 days (depending on the person’s position in the village). After the funeral, the grievers return to the house. To guide the dead person’s spirit ‘home’, they return once more to the grave. The return way to the decedents household is divided into three stretches again which are being lit up in three consecutive days. On the first day, for example, a distance of 700m will be covered, on the second day a distance of 500m and on the last day, some 300m will be illuminated. A so-called ‘ca dang’ will be prepared for the spirit at the house - a small basket, containing, rice, water, meat and some cigarettes. After another three days, the mourning crowd will walk along the road towards the grave in the early morning hours and with the first louder bird sounds, the ´ca dang´ will be thrown into the shrubs. The spirit, however, will remain in the house and a priest or the village oldest will be asked to say his prayers in order to ‘clean the house’ and wish for luck. A worship space will be set up for the ghost. After around one year, a feast and prayers are held in commemoration of the decedent.
At times, people are also buried underneath bigger trees. In fear of the ghost of the decedent, people would not dare to cut these afterwards.