The Akha migrated from the Tibetan Plateau several hundred years ago, and live in the mountains of Phongsaly. They follow a cultural code called Akha Zang, the “Akha Way”, which defines traditions and laws, as well as how they farm, hunt, treat illnesses, and relate to each other and outsiders. Women wear black cotton miniskirts, tight-fitting bodices, embroidered jackets, and intricate head-dresses. Villages feature tall swings and gates marking the boundary between the human and natural worlds.
The Haw are considered ethnic Yunnan Chinese, and some 9,000 live in Phongsaly. They are not known for traditional garb, though many have adopted the clothing of their ethnic neighbours. The Haw rarely make handicrafts, but tend to purchase them. They live in the lowlands and valleys in communities of 30 to 70 homes. Their houses are large mud and thatched structures with indoor fireplaces for heating and cooking. Though they farm, the Haw are mostly traders, a way of life dating back hundreds of years.
The Khmu form the one of the largest ethnic groups in Phongsaly, and are considered as the “guardians of the land”, having settled much of northern Laos. They reside in the mountains and live by dry-rice cultivation. The main Khmu festival, known as “Teck Neum “, celebrates the rice harvest season and offers thanks to the land spirits. It is also a time when locals ask for a better life and good yield for the next harvest.
The Lolo is the smallest minority in Laos, having migrated from southern China. Their language is considered a mix of ancient Lolo and Chinese. Lolo are known as farmers and traders, who use horses to transport goods over the mountains. They practice animism with elements of ancestor worship. The Lolo were the dominant power in southern China in the 8th and 9th centuries, when they migrated to Southeast Asia.
The Phou Noi inhabit portions of Phongsaly. Very little is known about them, except that they are similar to other Tibeto-Burman people, who migrated from southern China into northern Laos. As hill people, the Phou Noi are hunters and gather forest products, as well as farm. Phou Noi villages consist of small groups of houses made of wood or bamboo, built on stilts, and clustered against the sides of the hills. They practice an ethnic religion, which is often a blend of animism and ancestor worship.
Ancestors of Phongsaly’s Tai Dam migrated to the province’s valleys from north-western Vietnam in the late 19th century. Unlike Buddhist Tai groups, the Tai Dam worship phi (spirits) and their ancestors. Women wear colourful head-scarves and tight-fitting shirts with silver buttons. They make potent lao khao rice alcohol, and produce fine silk and cotton textiles.
The Yao, also known as the Mien, are highland people, who originated in China. Their houses are made of durable hardwood, and known to be large and sturdy. They grow rice and corn, and gather wild jungle products such as resin and honey. Young men study Chinese characters to express Yao concepts. Yao men wear earrings and embroidered tunics, while women dress in elaborate costumes with bright red collars. The Yao are influenced by their ancestors, as well as their animistic and Tao beliefs.