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Bac Ha, Vietnam

Since the dawn of time, clothing has been a symbol of one’s own style, work, culture and status. This personal expression is proudly displayed by the Flower H’mong minority group of Bac Ha in the hills of Vietnam’s far north. The name Flower H’mong alludes to the wealth of colour and texture of their intricately woven costume consisting of layers of skirts, embroidered tops, and a pillbox hat or scarf, all of which wonderfully represent their history and culture. For those hoping to glimpse the colourful palette of the Flower H’mong women, a visit to the vibrant Sunday market held in Bac Ha provides the best vantage point.

As the ground soars upwards from the city of Lao Cai on the Vietnamese-Chinese border to the peaks of Chay River Massif, rice-terraced fields contour the mountains, stepping level by level to their zeniths. An everyday scene in these mountains shows the contrast of the local lifestyle. There’s the cultivation of all possible arable land by women in colourful costume, hacking away with hoes whilst a baby sleeps firmly strapped to her back. Or an entire family of four, possibly five, some traditionally dressed, some in modern attire, but all mounted on a scooter heading into town.

Bac Ha, at 700 m above sea level, is about half the altitude of its well- known counterpart Sapa. Each Sunday, the village hosts a vibrant market targeted at the local ethnic groups, such as Phula, Black Dao, Tay, Nung and, the most colourful, Flower H’mong. This festive sea of colour has been taking place every week for generations and is the social event on every local’s weekly calendar. A wide street lined with stalls selling a colourful patchwork of handbags, quilts and cushion covers welcomes you to the main entry of the market. This entry then splits off to a maze of alleyways and paths distinctly organised by product or produce, where cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and goats are bought and sold, as well as many traditional goods like saddles and plowshares. Advice from traditional medicine doctors can be sought alongside fragrant incense stalls, as well as elaborate textiles and other trinkets made by the local tribespeople.

On the drive up to Bac Ha, you will see locals from far and wide starting their ascent to the hilltop market in the early hours of the morning. It could take more than four hours for some to climb the mountain in full costume to their regular social and trading gathering, afterwards gathering up their wares and trekking all the way down the hill to their home. The market and its surrounds are a place for cultural and sentimental exchange, where all paths and mountain roads are full of people and horses pouring into the market. And, of course, food is the epicentre of all gatherings, and the Bac Ha version of the food court is a hive of energy, with the clattering of soup pans, tossing of herbs and chattering of friends.

Walking through the market has an impact on all five senses, from the endless aromas and the chaotic sounds of market trading, to being nudged by a water buffalo. I come across a uniformly dispersed group of finely dressed Flower H’mong women shading themselves from the winter sun with modern umbrellas, all holding a leash with a puppy tethered to the end. I am momentarily distracted by the handwoven basket ladies and the magical sound of their handmade flutes, but as my eyes refocus on the ladies with the puppies, I realise that these adorable and cuddly specimens are not being sold as pets – they are actually the live meat market. The sharp reality of the variety of Vietnamese cuisine hits me and I discover that the neighbouring ‘fresh’ meat section is not for the faint of heart.

From one end of the spectrum to the other, I find myself fossicking through stall after stall of the Flower H’mong clothes, caressing the textures of the patterned fabrics and exploring their intricate detail. Nowadays, Flower H’mong women tend to wear heavily beaded skirts and jackets manufactured in China, as opposed to the traditional handwoven fabric. Experimenting with the modern-day mix-and-match concept, they even adopt headwear – such as a colourful scarf or a comb embedded in their hair – of other minority groups to differentiate themselves. Though tourists are not in short supply at Bac Ha, they are not the focus, which is a pleasant change from the constant sales pitch and hours of being followed by the Sapa locals. Most locals at the Bac Ha Market pay little attention to the tourists, rather choosing to focus on their business and seize this short social opportunity out of their hard- working week. This comes as a blessing to me, and I take the opportunity to really absorb the wonderful sites, sounds, smells and social interactions amongst this culturally eclectic and visually stimulating group of village people.