Tribal Vietnam

Bac Ha Market
In Northern Vietnam on the Vietnamese/Chinese border is a town called Lao Cai which happens to be in Lao Cai Province. On the Chinese side is Hekou in Yunnan Province, both towns are seperated by a river which forms a natural border between the two countries. From Lao Cai you can travel east or west to enter the tribal areas to visit Hilltribe towns and villages. I cycled from the quite modern and touristy Sapa which lies to the West and is overshadowed by Fansipan Peak (3143m), the highest mountain in the area and the entire Indochina Peninsula which is lovingly referred to by north Vietnamese as the 'Roof of Indochina', all the way down to Lai Cai and back up to the east to Bac Ha, a small undeveloped town which holds an exciting Indigenous market one day a week.

Flower H'mong girl at Bac Ha Market

Bac Ha market is already quite famous and inquisitive visitors can take tours from Hanoi or travel on coaches from Sapa. The problem with that is it seems to be such a rush from what I could gather. I arrived in town the day before and was up and at em' by 7am which is the done thing if you want to catch it at its best. The coaches that arrived all the way from Sapa arrived about 11am when the whole thing had already peaked and was slowly winding down. Shame for them!

My Marawuti Mountain Bike

The Extraordinary thing about Bac Ha Market is the Minority Group which frequents it. The Flower H'mong or Flowery H'mong are an extremely distinctive tribe due to their flambouyantly coloured dress. Their tribal attire is something very special, so colourful it makes the extravagantly coloured tail feathers of a peacock look drab. The intricately embroidered geometric designs are bold and contrast greatly with the Black H'mong whose tribal costume consists mainly of black due to the garments being dyed with Indigo.

                Flower H'mong Child                                                                               Flower Girl

The difference between seeing the Indigenous peoples in Bac Ha to seeing them in Sapa is that there is a more genuine authentic feel to it. In Sapa you can see a number of different minority groups but tourism is the key trade there these days and I did'nt feel too comfortable watching huge groups of Hmong, Dao and Tay touting for business, flocking around tour groups like bees around a honeycomb trying to entice them to there villages for a guided tour. As an independant traveller I cycled to those villages and did'nt get any hassle. In Bac Ha you won't get accosted by the Flower H'mong although some will try to peddle their beautiful textiles.             

Flower H'mong Girl Selling Ethnic Bags

Now the market itself is, as is normally the case with these things, very vibrant, busy, colourful, exciting, and above all else a place to be amazed by the cultural diversity that this small globe of ours has to offer but who knows how long for! The place is teeming with the Flower H'mong or Hmong, so don't forget your sun glasses if your thinking about a visit, not only to protect your eyes from that tropical sun but also from the bright finery that these peoples wear.

Flowery Umbrellas at the Dog Section

There is a wide variety of produce and goods at the market, you can take traditional breakfast of noodle soup at one of the many food stalls that also sell other snacks and refreshments not mentioning the rice wine, hic. There is an abundance of tribal textiles for sale which are not soley for tourists but predominantly for the local peoples. Pleated skirts and headscarves, shoulder bags and hats plus some beautiful wall hangings decorated with intricate geometric designs and vivid colours.

Tribal Textiles

Sections at the market include an area towards the back of the market where the land opens up a bit away from the main part where dogs are being bartered over. Onwards from that you can see horses being taken for a test ride by characters who look and act not too disimilar to Gengis Khan just setting out on one of his Mongol Invasions. Around this area also the Cattle Market section can be found where lots of Water Buffalo, big and small are being pondered over by eager traders quite literally hoping to get a piece of the meat for a reasonable price.

Cattle Market Section

Another hugely interesting facet to the market is the fresh string tobacco that is available. It's a case of try before you buy and of course everybody loves a freebie so it's not unusual to see the men stopping at a smokers stall for a quick toke on a mighty bamboo hookah or waterpipe which are very fashionable still all over northern Vietnam and not only with the ethnic groups. People seem to have no qualms about loading up a complimentary pipe from the pile of tobacco at a stall, lighting her up, having a good puff and then moving on to mooch or mingle around the market in search of other delights.

Fresh String Tobacco Stall

Complimentary Smoke

                    H'mong Man                                                                               Woman With Waterpipe

And as with all these tribal markets the women and men tend to carry their shopping in bamboo baskets that are draped over their backs, here though I have seen the traditional shoulders straps made of twined buffalo hair and if they have'nt got a bamboo basket over their backs it could be a child.

Baby Carrier

Flower Hmong with Bamboo Baskets

And last but not least as we wind up this little trip around Bac Ha market, a couple of Indigenous faces to bring this post to a closure. I love the characters at these places, full of humour and high spirits, there faces are full of stories, they're very interesting people whom I'm sure could to teach us a thing or two if only we had the ears with which to listen......


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