The Hmong people are known for their knowledge of the forest, herbal medicines, and expertise at raising animals, particularly horses, pigs and chickens. They are very industrious and trade a variety of forest products and agricultural goods. Their traditional dress is adorned with intricate embroidery and heavy silver jewelry. Hmong New Year is celebrated in December/January with numerous festivities including top-spinning competitions, trade fairs, singing and the tossing of the mak kone (a small ball made of fabric) by young men and women as part of a charming courting ritual.
The Lanten wear distinctive dark indigo-dyed cotton clothing with pink trim and silver jewelry. They have migrated south from China over the past few centuries bringing cultural practices and beliefs based on a mix of Taoism, ancestor, and spirit worship. The Lanten live primarily along the province's smaller rivers and streams, and are sometimes reffered to as Lao Houay, meaning “stream Lao”. The Lanten produce high quality cotton cloth, wooden spirit masks and durable bamboo paper. They have a well developed writing system based on ancient Chinese characters. Men record religious texts, rituals and legends on the bamboo paper which is mainly produced by women.
The Tai Lue are linguistically linked to the lowland Lao and other Tai-Lao speakers such as the Tai Dam and Tai Daeng. The Tai Lue originated in southern China and are believed t have begun setting in the Muang Sing area (Xieng Kaeng) in the 14th century. They are known for their beautiful, many-stilted houses with long sloping roofs. Their traditional head scarves and brightly colored blouses are commonly seen for sale in the market. Tai Lue are Buddhist and every village must have a Buddhist temple and monks. In the center of each village is also a sacred village pillar.
Like many of the groups indigenous to the area, the Lahu have moved southward from China and now live across parts of Myanmar, Thailand and northern Laos. The name Lahu is derived from the word la hou, which means to breed tigers in the Lahu language. Like the Akha and Khmu, the Lahu practice their own distinct form of spirit and ancestor worship, with good and bad spirits associated with natural phenomena, the house, livestock, the forest, and many other things. Rituals and celebrations associated with the agricultural cycle, marriage and house-building take place throughout the year. The most colorful is the New Year festival that usually takes place during January/February each year
Part of the Mon-Khmer branch of the Ausro-Asiatic linguistic family, the Khmu represent one of the largest ethnic groups in Laos. There are many Khmu sub-groups including the Khmu Lue, Kwaen, Rok and Ou. The Khmu settled the area of present-day Laos several thousand years ago. Like many of the ethnic groups in northern Laos, the Khmu are not Buddhist, but practice their own form of animism.
Most spirits are very accessible, even to common villagers, and do not generate much fear. The Khmu in Luang Namtha generally practice mixed economies, growing rice, gathering forest products and producing handicrafts which provides some cash income.
The material culture of the Khmu, their tools, utensils, baskets and net-bags, for example, all reflect their continued reliance on the forest. Try a taste of their famous brew known as Lhao Hai (jar alcohol) while visiting one of the many Khmu villages in the province.
The Akha are a Tibeto-Burman speaking ethnic group tht first appeared in Laos around the mid-19th century. Akha life is characterized by a ritual and ethical code which provides them with strict guidelines on how to live their lives-this is sometimes called the “Akha way” (Akha zang). The “Akha Way” not only includes all their traditions, ceremonies and customary law, but it also determines how they cultivate their fields, hunt animals, view and treat sickness, and the manner in which they both relate to one another and outsiders. Akha have an amazing knowledge of the forest and rotational agriculture, with many villages still located high in the mountains. Akha women are easily recognizable by their distinctive costumes which consist of black cotton mini-skirts and black, tight-fitting bodices covered by jackets decorated with embroidery and applique designs, topped by and intricate head-dress.
The Yao women are easily recognized by their intricately embroidered clothing accented by a thick red collar. Like the closely related Lanten they produce bamboo paper, have a written launguage based on ancient Chinese characters and follow Taoist religious practices mixed with animism and spirit worship.
Characterized by colorful head-scarves and tight-fitting shirts adorned with silver buttons, Tai Dam women are easily identified. The Tai Dam are believed to originate in northern Viet Nam, and to have begun migrating to the Namtha Valley in the late 19th century. Tai Dam differ from many other Tai groups in that they are not Buddhist, but instead practice a form of ancestor and spirit worship. They make a potent form of Lhao Lao that is consumed socially and used for ritual purposes. Well-known producers of fine quality silk and cotton textiles, many local Tai Dam Women export directly to markets in Japan and the USA.