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Bac Ha Market, Vietnam

The busiest day in the region is Sunday when Bac Ha Market takes place in Lao Cai province. Once held on a hill in town, the market is now held in a building with a cement floor and sheet-metal roof. In the past, Bac Ha Market was characterized by the flamboyantly colorful skirts of Flower Mong women, brewed corn liquor from pho Village, and groups of men socializing over offal hotpot and cups of homebrew and challenging one another to horse races. Sadly, the scene has changed. Those who want to experience an authentic highland market must now travel to Can Cau Market, which is held every Sunday in the Si Ma Cai District some 30km away from Bac Ha.

Drawing Flower Mong and Giay people, Can Cau market has recently began to attract scores of foreign tourists. At the market, I hear a mix of languages. Ethnic fabrics are piled in the stalls and hung from poles. Silver necklaces shimmer upon nylon sheets laid out on the ground. I can smell fragrant local condiments, the scents of ‘mac khen’ and ‘doi’ grains mixed with those of corn homebrew and boiling offal hotpots. All around is a merry mix of color and laughter.

Rice in the surrounding terraced paddies is harvested in September and October. Photographers from all over Vietnam head to the northwestern mountains in the autumn, traveling along the National Highways 2 and 4 to capture beautiful rural scenes in the districts of Y Ti and Bat Xat in Lao Cai and Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai. These locations boast a dream like beauty. Terraced fields ascend to infinity, mingling yellow and green patches of rice plants.

Everyone is busy during the harvest season. Rows of porters and horses carry grains to the markets and vendors trade agricultural products for utilities. Needles, thread, oil, fish sauce, fabric and batteries are necessities. More expensive purchases include cattle, chickens, jewelry, and recently cell phones and MP3 players. Songs from battery-fueled radios are gradually replacing the sounds of lip lutes and umbrella dances. The lure of an urban lifestyle is swirling over even the remotest corners of Vietnam.

In Dien Bien and Lai Chau, there are fewer rural markets, as they are being replaced by commercial urban areas. A socio – economic center of this region, Dien Bien is home to large – scale markets like those seen in many other regions, although the products still reveal the special identity of the highlands. Here, visitors will see Thai ethnic women selling mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and rice, or vendors chopping reeds to reveal the chit worms that live inside of them. The locals believe that fermented chit worms boost meds virility. Bottles full o[these white worms inspire both terror and delight in foreign visitors. Glutinous rice and dried beef are other great gifts sold in Dien Bien Market.

The markets in northwestern Vietnam are diverse. Some markets take place on large boats, such as those that travel along the Da River and stop at villages to sell oil, rice, cattle and chickens. Some markets are located on the precipitous cliffs around Ba Be Lake, where market-goers arrive on horseback, by boat or on foot through dense forests. Locals go to the market to shop, but also to meet old and new friends. Either along rivers or on high mountains, these markets embody the soul of this wild region. Regardless of the weather and thick fog, these highland markets offer a vibrancy and tranquility that is unseen in modern life.