When we first got to Phonsavan, we discovered that we were in the midst of Hmong New Year! I was really excited because after I’d read the wonderfully eye-opening book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I’ve been fascinated with Hmong culture. Our first night in town, we strolled around the carnival area, and I ended up in a roller rink, with a bunch of celebrating, rowdy Hmong and Lao teens. Half the children were taking serious falls left and right and just laughing it off. They had no qualms about grabbing onto me and taking me down with them either! A lot of the older teens asked me where I was from and tried to teach me how to skate backwards — it was a BLAST!
Mitch and I discovered that Xieng Khuong province has a large population of Hmong people, and since Phonsavan is the capital, many Hmong from around the world return to Phonsavan for the New Year celebrations. In fact, many return to find life partners, knowing there will be a large group of people celebrating from which to look.
While driving to and from the jar sites, we saw hundreds of Hmong teens and children celebrating by playing a traditional ball tossing game. I believe it was traditionally used as a sort of flirtation/mingling/courtship game, but it seemed like teens were mostly playing for fun with friends. Even younger children joined in for fun. It was wonderful to accidentally be amidst this celebration.
The next day, everyone in town kept talking about the big rodeo event, so we decided to check it out for ourselves. We hopped on our motorbike and literally just followed the tuk-tuks full of traditionally dressed Hmong people out into a huge dirt patch where we found a huge carnival set up and the main attraction: bull fighting.
There was literally no arena for the bull fighting: people (mostly men) just created a circle around the two bulls to watch. Different bulls would be introduced, and spectators watched to see whether the bulls would fight, often with the bull handlers goading the bulls on. Sometimes, a bull would charge out of the ring, and the crowd had to be on their toes to quickly disperse. It was precarious to say the least.
Regardless of how you might feel about bull fighting, it is part of the Hmong culture, and it was truly amazing and a blessing to be a part of this unique experience
New Year festivities last for days, and we continue to see people celebrating as we make our way throughout Laos.
Happy Hmong New Year!