The total population of Bắc Hà District in Vietnam is estimated to be 50,000 people and it is an understatement to call the provincial capital of the same name anything other than; sleepy. But the quiet little town comes booming to life for a few hours every Sunday morning when it holds its weekly market. Located 13 miles (22 km) south of the Chinese border, the Bắc Hà Sunday market has become something of a tourist attraction attracting both Vietnamese and Western travelers in addition to the several thousand minority ethnic people who attend the market every week.
There are over 50 different groups of minority ethnic people inhabiting Vietnam. In Bắc Hà province the largest group is known as the Flower Hmong. Originally from China, the Hmong migrated to Vietnam several centuries ago. They are mostly subsistence farmers and their ways of life have changed very little since they first settled in the region. The Hmong further differentiate one group (or Klan) from another by their dress. Flower Hmong women are easily identifiable by their brightly colored and intricately decorated clothing adorned with flower-like patterns. On market day many of these ladies put on their most elaborate costumes which are simply stunning to say the least.
The trading starts early, at 6 a.m., peaks about 10 and by noon most people are headed back to their villages, many on foot, with bamboo baskets full of rice and other basic staples. Amazing arrays of products are sold here including foodstuff such as meat, produce and rice, clothing and household goods. As many of the shoppers here are farmers a wide selection of agricultural equipment from hand and power tools to pumps and machinery is also available. Visiting tourists need not feel left out; there are plenty of locally made handicrafts for sale at both fixed stalls and by vendors wandering through the crowd. When the shopping is finished there are plenty of places to sit and people-watch while enjoying freshly made snacks and glasses of “cafe sua da”, a rich dark iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
For my part, I was most intrigued by the sale of livestock. One particular area on the eastern side was dedicated (in this order) to the sale of pigs, chickens, ducks, household pets and one lone goat. Overlooking the squealing pigs, on a bit of hill, are the big guys, the water buffalo. In many parts of Southeast Asia the buffalo has been replaced by tractors and are kept mostly as a nostalgic status symbol. But not in this part of Vietnam where they are still yoked to handmade wooden plows and used to till the soil of the rice terraces. It amazes me that these enormous yet gentle animals are as important to rural farmers today as they were centuries ago.
I found the market a very difficult place to take photographs. By 8:30 a.m. the sun was beating down unmercifully, casting harsh light on my subjects and driving them under the cavern-like darkness of umbrellas or under awnings. Several times I was struck on the head by these same umbrella-wielding shoppers as they worked their way through the crowds. I was pushed and shoved by men, women and children of ages in addition to one hot and irritated buffalo that put his head against my thigh and gave me shove. I cannot wait to go back next weekend.