Story: Ha Pham
Photos: Nguyen Ba Ngoc, Trinh Thu Nguyet

No visit to Vietnams Northwest is complete without an outing to a colorful highland market

The sun is just rising and mist hangs low over the trails, hiding the people and animals as they walk towards the market. In the mist, one can only hear the animals’ bells tinkling in the cool air. This happy sound heralds the advent of the market – a cultural gathering often held at midweek, or on the weekends.

As the morning dew disappears we can see the scene’s bright colors. The men are dressed in their finest clothes. They walk together with their wives and horses. The H’mong women wear traditional dresses as colorful as butterflies. Excited children scamper behind them. Many people carry something from their gardens: vegetables, fruits, livestock to trade…

People walk long distances to reach these fairs, hiking along narrow mountain trails. Markets in the Northwest draw people of H’mong, Nung, Dao, Man ethnic groups. The air is full of excitement. Each ethnic group has its own traditional clothing and commodities. For example, Cao Son Market (in Cao Son Commune, Muong Khuong district) is dominated by ethnic H’mong, Phu La, Dao and Black Han people, who form the majority of residents in the Muong Khuong district. Typical goods for sale include brocade fabric, dresses, blankets, baskets, hoes, plows, and shovels. In another corner, vendors sell fresh produce: bok choy, peas, peanuts, corn, etc. Another area of the market stocks products sourced from the forests, such as wild plants and mushrooms.

While the women sell their wares or stock up on essentials, the men often gather together to enjoy steaming pans of “thang co” and bowls of corn liquor. As their parents are busy working or socializing, the kids take the chance to play, clinging to branches laden with flowers or playing games of tug-o-war or tag. They run around the market screaming with excited laughter.

These highland markets are not just places to buy and sell necessities, but places to socialize. Each market is a festival of bright colors, of pleasant drunken feelings and of happy children laughters. By sunset, most of the men are drunk. Their wives stuff goods into their baskets and set off for home. The good husbands will carry the heaviest items, such as giant pots and pans, all the way home.

Unique fairs in Lao Cai

The most famous fairs in Lao Cai province take place in Muong Khuong, Bat Xat, Bac Ha districts. As far back as the nineteenth century, Muong Khuong district was known for its bustling markets held in remote areas. Along with the markets of Muong Khuong, Cao Son, Pha Long, and Ban Lau, Chau Market in Lung Vai Commune is well known. This market is not only a place to trade and meet friends, but a popular spot for dates. Many local customs may still be observed at Chau Market.

Bac Ha Market remains the most prominent Sunday market in Lao Cai, and is one of the most exciting markets in Southeast Asia. While all manner of goods are sold here, Bac Ha Market is focused on horses. Hundreds of horses are bought and sold here every day.

All of the highland fairs share similar features, yet they all have their own characters. Visitors will find many opportunities to eat local delicacies, sip corn liquor, sit with throngs of locals and listen to harmonica tunes. These fairs are important events for local people. Without them, many ethnic groups, especially the H’mong who live high on remote mountain peaks, would have few chances to socialize. These gatherings add excitement and fun to farmers’ lives.  High in the mountains of northern Vietnam, people are maintaining their ancient ways of life, dressing in their traditional finery, sharing cups of warm corn liquor, and meeting friends at a highland market.