Vietnam's Ethnic Minority Markets
There is a multitude of ethnic minority communities throughout Vietnam, all members of one of the country’s 53 distinct ethnic minority groups. Some are sub-groups of larger groups such as the many H’mong communities – Red, Black, White, and Flower H’mong, for example, distinguished only by different costumes and variations of rituals and customs, but most are completely distinct. However, nearly all those in remote areas have access to a network of local markets.
Most local markets occur at regular intervals, usually weekly, but some vary according to local circumstances. Others are adapted to the terrain – the floating markets of the Mekong Delta are a good example. Some are more akin to the traditional fairs common in medieval Europe, involving livestock sales, traditional entertainment, contests and ceremonies occcuring on set dates. Although the ostensible purpose is to buy and sell produce and goods, they also fulfil the vital roles of communication and social centres. For ethnic minority communities living in remote areas, many without electricity, the weekly market is an opportunity to trade, but also a chance to socialise and pick up the latest news. For young people, they are a means of meeting and courting members of the opposite sex, as in the ‘love markets’ of the northern mountains.Inevitably, they are also a big attraction for tourists wanting to see the ‘real’ Vietnam!Sadly, all too often, the effect of tourism is to destroy the very thing that the tourists are seeking. The young people who used to congregate discreetly to sing traditional love songs to each other during the markets in and around Sa Pa are gone, driven away by cameras and camcorder. In there place, young boys and girls demand money from the tourists to kiss and cuddle ‘western-style’ in a grotesque parody of the ancient love market that used to be a regular feature of Sa Pa life.Sa Pa is a hot spot in the struggle to find the right balance between environmental preservation and economic development in Vietnam. The advent of tourism has attracted large numbers of Kinh ethnic majority people to set up businesses to exploit the unique skills of the ethnic minority people and particularly the H’mong. They commission large quantities of material and clothes for resale to tourists in the boutiques and souvenir shops of Hanoi for many times the prices paid by the villagers. By doing so, they are simultaneously degrading the cultural value of the traditional garments, especially those with a ceremonial role, and depriving the poverty-stricken mountain communities of the income derived from the trade. The markets in Sa Pa and Bac Ha attract large numbers of ethnic people to sell the intricately embroidered and decorated clothes and material produced in the villages. By buying there, you’ll at least be giving the producers a fair price.
We encourage our guests to visit the more remote markets where the commercial activity is based upon the needs of the local people, not tourists. For visitors, few items on the stalls could be considered as souvenirs, but the experience is the real thing.
Because we travel only in very small groups and urge our customers to respect local conditions and mores, such as avoiding photography in Dao communities, our impact is minimal.