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By: Nguy Ha Posted: August-23-2009 in
H'mong woman selling fabric at the market
Nguy Ha

Lao Cai Province has long been famous for the former French hill station of Sapa, renowned for its all-year-round temperate climate, beautiful landscape and colourfully dressed ethic people. But another place that is well worth a visit is the rugged provincial market of Bac Ha, with its vividly garbed H’mong people and sweet smell of corn wine will leave you with more unique, unforgettable experiences.
Bac Ha market runs every Sunday morning and it is the communal meeting and trading place for people of the surrounding villages. The market is far more than a commercial meeting point; it allows isolated and difficult-to-access villages to disgorge their inhabitants, who, after a hard week working in the market, can meet friends, drink and gossip. By 8 am, young and old, male and female, happily make their way to the market in their ‘Sunday best’ – their best and most colourful costumes.

The first impression of Bac Ha market is the outstanding effect of the mind-blowingly intricate and colourful costumes of the H’mong people. Each woman stands with their flared dress spreading out in a riot of colour, as though a flower with extended petals, creating in my mind the fancy of the market as a garden.

In this market, the main goods are agricultural products, everyday farming implements, food, cattle, clothes and, of course, alcohol. Drinking is deeply rooted in male H’mong culture and a man who can’t take his drink, naturally to the point of excess, isn’t held in as high regard. In order to remedy any potential loss of face, Bac Ha market provides plenty of supplies of strong alcohol. At the entrance to the market, vats, barrels and kegs have women dispensing the various brews to groups of surrounding men. Feel free to try a vintage here, as taster samples are free, and pretty much everyone takes a few drops, even as early as 10 am.

In nearly every village in mountainous northern region, the local alcoholic preference is for corn-based alcohol rather than rice wine, and Bac Ha is probably the most famous place to buy a bottle. There are many villages in Bac Ha that specialise in corn wine, but the demon drink originating from Ban Pho Commune, four kilometres from the market, is the best. I meet Giang Seo Sung, the chairman of People’s Committee of the commune, at the market and he’s only too happy to talk about the famous brew, “In our commune, all 500 households make corn wine. Eighty-two hectares are used to plant rice while corn takes up 300 hectares. My father said that we began making wine long ago, about a century maybe. Corn alcohol is good but there’s no secret to it at all. Yellow or white corn – either are OK. After boiling the corn, we let it cool then we cover it with brewer’s yeast. We keep it for three days then put the batch in a wooden steamer and cook it in a bain-marie. Three kilogrammes of corn gives you one litre of alcohol. It’s something like 45 proof and burns after firing. When you drink it, at first get a strong burn, but you’re left with a sweet after-taste... and wobbly limbs!”

Although Sung says that there is no special secret to Bac Ha alcohol, the important factors in production are the water sourced from the local spring, called the Hang De, and the special climate of the Ban Pho valley. Nobody else with the same ingredients elsewhere in the north seems to be able to replicate the Ban Pho brew.

One of busiest places in the market is the food stalls selling the H’mong speciality of thang co. The thick, soupy stew can be made with meat horse or buffalo, and dog-meat thang co is also not unknown. Nung, the owner of a buffalo thang co shop says: “In the past, H’mong people only ate horse thang co because it’s the best. That’s why we jokingly call horses thang co. But now there are many varieties of the dish. But the best way to taste this special food is at the market because it’s a communal food. Talking, eating, drinking with people seem to add to the flavour.”

When tourists come here, they see the thang co but don’t dare eat it because they’re afraid of sanitary conditions. But in fact it’s not a problem: there’s little evidence of people suffering from food poisoning up here, it is primarily a problem in the cities.

The aroma of thang co is both pervasive and persuasive, pulling people towards the bubbling pots. Nung says “It’s very easy to cook thang co. Meat, bone and offal are cut into large pieces, and put into a big pig-iron pot, and boiled until cooked and flavoured.

On the table, there are three young H’mong eating thang co. They order one bowl (25,000 VND – $1.50) and slowly slurp and chew their way through the dish. They invite me to join them. A small cup of corn alcohol is drunk as a way of making friends, and soon we’re chatting over a bowl of thang co.

Thang co isn’t just a male preserve, women and children are happy to tuck into the pot. A family has come to market to sell a pig, and having sold the porker, they too begin tucking into their thang co as a treat. The wife takes out men men, steamed ground corn that H’mong people use instead of the white rice so beloved by Vietnam ’s majority Kinh people, and they order a bowl of thang co soup to eat with the men men. The whole family have a convenient and good quality meal.

In this market, tho cam (brocade) is one of main products. But the large shops are not owned by ethnic people but by Kinh people who come here, collect brocade from ethnic people, and sell it to tourists. Ethnic people can only afford small shops where they sell what they make. One of favourite things that young tourists like to buy is square scarves. I bought five scarves with different colours and they cost me only 75,000 VND ($4.40). People here are straightforward and very friendly. Even if you rummage through all their products, and ultimately don’t buy anything, they really don’t mind, and nor they do they overcharge. If you want to talk and ask them about how to make brocade, they are happy to spend hours explaining it. It seems that making money is not the main reason for people being at the market; instead they value the interaction most of all.

In addition, the ethnic people here are very honest. A H’mong man is selling a cat. The buyer asks that: “Is your cat good at catching mice?” He answers “No, he doesn’t like to catch mice but he’s a dab hand at catching chickens.” The potential buyers are put off by this sales pitch, but it reveals a deep-rooted honesty among the mountain people.

Ma Van Ly is selling a pony at the market; he seems happy that a man in Ban Pho wants to buy his horse for three million VND ($176.5). At first he agrees to sell but suddenly he demurs, which causes the buyer to become angry and storm off. When I ask him why he turned down the bid he merely says: “Suddenly, I don’t want to sell. That’s all.” After further discussion it turned out that Ly had suddenly got a bad feeling about the man – no more, no less. Selling H’mong culture is also not merely based on the item’s price but also on personality of the buyer. Ethnic people even with limited in education can sometimes out-fox the smartest Kinh trader.

I recall one documentary film director saying that “Visiting a market is the shortest way to explore the culture of local people” and this could not be truer of Bac Ha. A mere half a day at the market, and I realise that the market is much more than a point of trade, it’s where the loves, hates, desires and despairs of people take place, and the local people express their culture through their actions, costumes and language every time they come to market.

Read more articles by Nguy Ha


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