Cover story

Xoe Dance in the Northwest

Ten centuries ago, Xoe was a popular dance performed on the occasion of the establishment of the hamlets and villages or during the festivals of the Thai ethnic people. Now, it has developed into 36 dances and has become the symbol of solidarity among the ethnic groups in the northwest.
Muong So, Homeland of Xoe Dance of the Thai Ethnic Group

According to the legend of the Thai people in the northwest, in the 10th century, Lac Truong, the chief of the Muong Lo area (in Yen Bai Province today), led the villagers to Muong So area (in Phong Tho District, Lai Chau Province today) to reclaim land for farming and building their hamlets. It was the place where the Xoe dance of the Thai people in the northwest originated.

Initially, the Xoe dance was performed by the boys and girls in the hamlets, who held hands to form a circle and danced together. The musical instruments for the dance included gourd lutes, drums, two-chord fiddles, gongs and cymbals.

Before the Dien Bien Phu Victory (1954), the whole Muong So area was inhabited by the Thai people and ruled by King Deo Van An, a Thai native. He was amorous and loved the Xoe dance very much, so hundreds of teams of Xoe female dancers in Muong So were established and Xoe festivals were held throughout the years. During the festival, boys and girls from the hamlets of the Thai ethnic group gathered on the banks of the Nam Na River to get acquainted with one another, perform Xoe dance and drink corn wine. Under the flickering firelight, their singing and the melodious sound of the gourd lutes created a fascinating dancing night.

Before organising the Xoe festival, the Thai ethnic people hold a ritual
to plant a Neu tree and sing to invite Heaven to join the festival. Photo: Thong Thien

A Xoe dance of female dancers to welcome genies. Photo: Trang Linh

The traditional dress help the Thai dancers look graceful and lissome in Xoe dances. Photo: Trang Linh

In the past, the Xoe dance was performed by boys and girls in the hamlets
who held hands to form a circle and danced together with the rhythm
of two steps forwards and one step backward. Photo: Thong Thien

Bauhinia Xoe dance. Photo: Thong Thien

A Xoe dance with fans. Photo: Trang Linh

          In the life of the Thai people, the Xoe dance is commonly performed in most cultural activities, from a small ceremony of the family, such as the celebration of a new house, wedding and engagement to the big festivals of the village.

In the first years of the 20th century, from being a popular dance, Xoe became “a court dance” to serve the chiefs in the northwest. 89-year-old artisan Lo Thi Phe who is the last living dancer of the Xoe team of King Deo Van An said that before Dien Bien Province was liberated, the Xoe ensemble of Muong So area was taken to Paris to perform by the French and won the praise of the westerners.

She also said: “The gods and ancestors of our Thai ethnic group are living in Heaven. So, before we organize a Xoe festival we hold a ritual to plant a Neu tree and sing to invite Heaven to join the festival with the villagers.”

When we came to the hamlet, Phe was busily training the Xoe ensemble of Muong So who was preparing to go to Yunnan Province (China) for a dance exchange to strengthen the friendship between the two countries.

Today, the Xoe dance has grown and become the common “asset” of the ethnic groups in the northwest. It has become a symbol of the solidarity and cultural festivals of ethnic people in the northwest. The festivals are held every year in Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Son La, Hoa Binh and Yen Bai Provinces.

Xoe Party in Muong Areas

According to Do Thi Tac, a researcher and collector of folklore in Lai Chau Province, the Xoe dance with gongs is the biggest festival in spring of the Thai community in the northwest in general and in Muong Than in particular. The Thai people hold this festival to pray for good weather, bumper crops and a peaceful and happy village. The festival is so famous that it is considered a “Xoe party” because it has many fascinating items like the delicious and strange dishes of a party.

In the northwest today there are four areas inhabited by a large population of Thai people, namely Muong Thanh (Dien Bien Province), Muong Lo (Yen Bai Province), Muong Than (Lai Chau Province) and Muong Tac (Son La Province). These areas have the most renowned Xoe ensembles in the northwest.

Visiting Muong Than (Lai Chau Province) in spring, the season of unique festivals of the Thai people, tourists seem absorbed in a joyful atmosphere of the Xoe dance with gongs.

The musical instruments for the dance include bells, drums, gongs, cymbals and gourd lutes,
which not only help dancers dance to the rhythm but also give sounds to call people
from neighbouring areas to participate in the Xoe dance festival. Photo: Thong Thien

Xoe dance has become a distinctive tourist product in Mai Chau (Hoa Binh Province),
Moc Chau (Son La Province), Muong Thanh (Dien Bien Province),
Muong So (Lai Chau Province and Muong Lo (Yen Bai Province). Photo: Thong Thien

The Thai ethnic people often light a big fire for organising nights of Xoe dance. Photo: Trang Linh

Foreign tourists and ethnic girls in Lac Hamlet in Mai Chau,
Hoa Binh participate in a Xoe dance. Photo: Thong Thien

Drinking Can wine during the Xoe dance festival. Photo: Trang Linh

The festival of Xoe dance with gongs starts with the melody of the gourd lutes mingling with the laughter of boys and girls who come from different hamlets. The sound of gongs and drums urges visitors to join the festival. All people, regardless of the Thai, Mong and Dao groups hold hands to form circles and dance rhythmically and flexibly to the music. Seen from afar, the circles in layers, formed by the dancers in their traditional dress with sparkling silver buttons, look like a huge bauhinia flower in the forest.

Visitors to the festival enjoy 36 ancient Xoe dances performed by the girls from Muong Than. These included the dance with flowers, dance with rings, dance with conical hats, dance with fans and dance with scarfs.

Today, the Thai people in Mai Chau (Hoa Binh Province) have also established Xoe ensembles to serve tourists. For instance, in the tourist hamlets of Lac and Pom Coong there are nearly 10 Xoe ensembles.

Vi Thi Tuyet, a member of a Xoe ensemble in Lac Hamlet, said: “For us, the Thai natives, we do not need to learn Xoe dance because automatically, we can dance when grown up.” Then she sang a folk song of the Thai people: “Without Xoe dance we are not happy, without Xoe dance, rice does not grow ears, without Xoe dance maize does not grow ears, without Xoe dance boys and girls do not become lovely couples….”

In Lac Hamlet, it was cool with mist at night. Suddenly, we heard the sound of drumbeats, gongs and gourd lutes. It turned out that Vi Van Thanh’s family welcomed a delegation of 30 guests who came from France, Russia and China to enjoy the Xoe performance.

That night, a “Xoe party” was held in the yard of the house-on-stilts. The Thai girls in their traditional dress presented a Xoe performance, fascinating the visitors. Late at night they and the visitors hand in hands danced together and enjoyed the Can wine, a local delicacy of the mountainous area.
Story: Thong Thien - Photos: Trang Linh, Thong Thien


The Key to Open the Door for the Central Highlands Tourism

The Key to Open the Door for the Central Highlands’ Tourism

With the  spectacular natural landscapes of many hills, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and caves, and a great treasure of tangible and intangible cultural heritages of nearly 50 ethnic groups, Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands) has great potential for developing various types of eco-tourism, resorts, exploration of culture, lifestyle, caves, mountains, forests, and adventurous sports.