In the rugged mountains of northwestern Vietnam, the town of Bắc Hà holds a big, bright and busy market every Sunday. Attracting hundreds of colourfully dressed ethnic minorities from the surrounding countryside, this market is not only a draw for locals, it’s a big hit with foreign and domestic tourists too. On the one hand, Bắc Hà market is a fascinating spectacle: a superb example of a traditional minority market in Vietnam’s wild northern mountains. On the other hand, it’s a tourist circus, where minority peoples are often treated like performing animals, and much of the financial profit finds its way into the hands of the majority ‘Kinh’ Vietnamese, not the minorities. It can be a confusing and, sometimes, unsettling experience. One thing’s for certain: the increasing number of tourists is changing Bắc Hà Sunday market. It remains to be seen whether this will be for better or for worse.
Early mornings in Bắc Hà, around 800m above sea-level, are often misty and cold. Whatever the weather conditions, the activity starts shortly after dawn at the marketplace. A two minute walk from the town square, Bắc Hà market covers a larger area than any other minority market in Vietnam. There are thousands of people and hundreds of stalls. It’s a unique spectacle. The produce is varied, fresh and colourful. The minority women and girls look fantastic in their traditional clothing. The men are just as intriguing: drinking various local liquors, smoking local tobaccos from bamboo pipes, slurping local noodles, and exchanging local gossip. It’s impossible not to be drawn into the vortex of this lively, dazzling Sunday market.
The breakfast crowd: soup, rice liquor, and ‘Lao’ tobacco at 7am, Bắc Hà Market
But it isn’t just a local market anymore: it’s a tourist market. Now days, trinket and garment kiosks surround the original market stalls. The products – including crockery, scarves, statuettes, and shawls – are very attractive and beautifully made. But, it’s immediately apparent that these kiosks are managed by majority ‘Kinh’ Vietnamese people, not ethnic minorities, and that their customers are tourists, not locals.
Calls of ‘You buy something!’ echo around the market, shouted in English every time a foreigner passes by a stall. Brief bargaining takes place between foreign tourists and Vietnamese stall owners. After the sale is made the Vietnamese stall owners shout to each other in Vietnamese, bragging about how much money they fleeced the foreigners for.
Lots of fun and interaction with locals can be had at the superb hot food section of the market
In general, I don’t feel comfortable at Bắc Hà Sunday market. I like it and loath it. After all, I am one of the hundreds of camera lenses at this market (the photos in this article are proof of that). I didn’t buy any red chillies from the minority woman I offended, and I was tempted to purchase one of the souvenir trinkets from the ‘Kinh’ stalls. Like most tourists, I don’t like to think of myself as a tourist, but Bắc Hà market reminds me that I am. It would be nice if more tour companies employed local minority people as guides around the market. This would produce a few jobs for local people and it would encourage foreigner-minority interaction through translations provided by the local guides. To see the market at its best, get here before 9am. To give something back to the market and the people who make it happen, buy some of the exotic fruit on offer, try some of the local liquor, wolf down a bowl of the local soup, and ask before taking a photo.
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