As soon as we stopped the van in Na Luong village, a group of women and children surrounded us. Before we knew it, one of the women had taken Dale by the hand and led her off to the longhouse, chattering away the whole while in Laotian.
Na Luong is a village of 94 households in Lai Chau Province consisting of about 400 ethnic minority Lao. According to Wikipedia, there are about 15,000 Lao in Vietnam (other than those along the Vietnam/Laos border) and there are mostly in this northern area. They originally came to Vietnam from southern China and today they make up the majority of the population of Laos.
The older women of the Lao people blacken their teeth, a centuries-old custom of the Japanese called Ohaguro that found its way to China and then southeast asia many years ago. The women that practice this custom do it for beauty, but a lucky side effect of the process is that it also protects their teeth from decay.
One of the younger women in the longhouse showed us the process, melting a mày tỉu (“shimmer powder”), a sap, I think, then spreading it across her front teeth:
It seems that the custom is dying out. Most of the younger women we met in the village now have a few gold-capped teeth instead of having them blackened. Here’s a closer look at one of the younger women we saw that still blacken:
While some of us were watching the teeth blackening, Dale was in the main room of the longhouse teaching the children how to count in english. The little boy to the right of Dale nominated himself to be our guide for a tour of the village.
As we walked along, he called out to his friends to come join us. Of course, the treats we were handing out were an encouragement, too.
The houses are all obviously hand-built.
Most are traditional stilt houses like these. In the bottom, left photo, hanging from the rafters, are spindles for spinning thread. We saw these and a reconstructed Lao stilt house at the Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi the other day and here they are, still in use in this community!
The women seemed curious about our presence and many of them interrupted their daily chores to come up to touch and talk to us, smiles aplenty.
I felt like the Pied Piper as we walked along accumulating children.
The little ones were all napping at the village school, so cute.
After leaving Na Luong village, we drove a few miles downstream to see what Loc called a “water wheel,” a rarity these days. It turned out to be an ingenious irrigation system made of bamboo.
Out in the stream on a bamboo raft was a party of local teenagers, all dressed up and out for a celebration.
They wanted a photo with us; Bill and I were happy to oblige.
Dale choose to pose with a little girl on her way home from school.
A memorable day in the northern highlands.