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Threads of the La Chi

March, 2024

“Kum Pha” is the La Chi word for “full”

For the past two weeks, six elder members of the La Chi Tribe of Northern Vietnam have been coming to the Tea House to work. They arrive at seven, with the brightening sky and calls of the roosters. The men work almost exclusively with large freshly cut bamboo logs, the women with traditional clothing and embroidery. They are here to create a collection of wares to showcase at a cultural museum and gift shop in Ha Giang City – and as a means of making a little extra money on the side. At the end of the day, they pack up their belongings, collect their bags, and walk quietly through the gate before vanishing around the far bend in the road.

To watch these six elders, one cannot help but think about memory, cultural ingenuity, master craftsmanship, and about how systems of knowledge are created and transmitted. One of these men is a shaman within their tribe, another fought in the Vietnam War and still uses his patched green army pack to carry things. The women wear finely embroidered clothing made almost exclusively by their own hand. These elders inhabit a way of seeing and knowing the world that is increasingly rare to encounter in our globalized 21st century. When asked, they cannot pinpoint exactly where or when many of the designs, styles, or methods of their craft originate. What they can convey is, these are techniques that have been passed down for generations and practices which they, themselves, have been honing for the better part of their lives.

The La Chi are an ethnic minority group native to the hill regions of northern Vietnam. Traditionally they have relied on farming as a primary means of subsistence, although much of that is now changing with the influx of tourism and economic growth influencing the region. Estimates vary, but the current population of La Chi is thought to be somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 individuals. Their language, style of dress, and cultural traditions are among those at risk and it is this heritage which the Baiyue Society and Ha Giang City government is looking to help preserve.

The men start by taking large bamboo logs and splitting them vertically by hand, working the material down to long, thin strips which they continue to separate until they have the width and thickness that they need. Certain baskets require a thinner cut, others are designed to be more rigid. The men take a methodical approach to their work. They move with a patience and a rhythm that feels neither rushed nor slow. In the span of a few days, they have made pan-like trays, larger vertical containers with diagonal weave, and rounded collection baskets. In addition to their finished products, their progress is marked by the ever growing piles of discarded bamboo shavings. Sharp, butcher-sized knives and the occasional mallet are all that they require for tools.

The La Chi women’s task is almost more daunting, as they work to fashion different articles of clothing and other items of black linen cloth. They sew kilometers of precisely placed thread in the span of weeks. The final product, however, is mesmerizing. Small, vibrant lines of color work to contrast to the large swaths of black, dyed fabric that traditionally make up the La Chi clothing. The embroidery patterns themselves are based off of images found in nature, often resulting in an almost-fractal-like patterns. These patterns are considered to be sacred designs and protection for the individuals who wear them. The end result is a creation of sacred iconography that weaves together protection, tradition, and a cosmological world view by way of colorful filaments sewn across dark cloth.


The La Chi elders break for lunch alongside cups of tea, but otherwise they work almost straight through the day. Neither rushed nor slow, their movements contain a cadence, an easy assuredness, and an effortlessness that belies their artistry and mastery of their craft. They laugh and converse with an inclusiveness, often marveling at the foreign volunteers who struggle to keep up with even the smallest of tasks such as sorting leaves or rolling tea. Occasionally they will jump from Vietnamese into the La Chi language which, to the untuned ear, contains musical elements that echo the calls of birds.

At lunch time when the foreign volunteers and the La Chi elders all gather around the same table, different words for food are exchanged. “Kum,” is the verb to eat, “ali,” is the word for fish, alongside a long list of others. The dichotomy of worlds is striking, as are similarities. “Kum pha,” is the word for “full,” which everyone around our small table has grown in the habit of repeating these past two weeks.


In addition to the traditions that they embody, these elders carry a fullness presence and a fullness of a world view that is woven into their actions. They have mastered the art of bringing together disparate threads to create a thing of beauty that is stronger than the sum of its parts. And perhaps it is also this skill, along with their cultural heritage, that they are now helping to preserve.

Written by Sam Jacobson

Photographs by Matic Javornik


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