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Barter at the foot of a plum tree




(No.1, Vol.2, Jan 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

At noon, the market was over. The Hmong women left the market for home with weary steps, their feet _wearing Chinese plastic shoes. On the way to the parking place, I met a Dao woman who was trying to hold the handles of her basket with some empty plastic containers hanging loosely, her merchandise having been sold away, and her basket was also empty. Her other hand was holding her horse’s bridle, a man who might be her husband was dead drunk with his neck twisted, his whole body lying overbearingly on the horse moving back and forth at each step of the horse.
At 9 a.m., I arrived at the market day Coc Ly, located a dozen kilometres from Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province in the north west. It took me nearly one hour and a half to reach it, because I had to ride my motorbike very slowly on the pebbled road and at the same time stop to ask for the way to the market. According local people, Coc Ly means the foot of a plum tree. Bac Ha is famous for plum trees. In the spring, the forest is all white with plum flowers, ethereal and brilliant, looking indistant in the screen of white mist as if it were woven with heavenly silk dotted with white flowers, hanging loosely over a young girl’s shoulder.
Most people in this area live in the mountainous region dozens of kilometres from the market. Therefore in order to get to the market in time for the market day, they have to leave home very early, at 2 or 3 a.m., mostly on foot or on horseback. If I were given a choice among the traditional market days of the ethnic people in Lao Cai, such as the Bac Ha, the Can Cau, the Coc Ly market, I would pick Coc Ly as the best ...
As compared to the Love Market at Khau Vai in Sapa, which has been changed into a commercialized city owing to tourism, all three markets Bac Ha, Can Cau and Coc Ly (met respectively on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) remain traditional ones that have not been commercialized.
However I like to talk about Coc Ly where money doesn’t seem to count, since some people sometimes go to the market and get back home with a basket full with groceries without spending one cent. At the market, beside selling home-prepared maize alcohol, specialties picked in the forest such as bamboo shoots, mushrooms, bee honey, and buffalo meat, horse meat, pork, and chickens ... people go to the market just to meet people for talks or make friends with new people. At Coc Ly market people can come to barter a buffalo for a horse, five chickens for a pig, some detergent for a basket of hot pepper, or some cucumber ...  Of course people still use money. A Hmong girl about eight spread a piece of canvas on the ground, on which a few bunches of wild berries were displayed for sale for VND1,000 ($0.05) a bunch that weighed as much as one kilogram each. In order to pick as many as 20 bunches of wild berries, she and her brother had to walk around in the forest the whole day yesterday. At 5 a.m. this morning she had to walk over two hills to the market. Next to her ‘merchandise’ was the shop of cheap multicoloured Chinese candy and cookies owned by a Dao woman. The wild berries were not attractive for the Tay, Dao, Hmong women at the market, they swarmed up to buy and eat the multicoloured snacks.
On the right corner, the ethnic women were competing with each other to have a photo taken for souvenir. They were combing their hair shyly waiting for their turn to be called by the photographer to have their photo taken. A piece of discoloured cloth was hung on the wattle for the background for the camera shots. I had to stand a little far away from the scene or else these girls would feel embarrassed and run away.
Coc Ly offers such nice items as brocade bags, silver wristlets, or nice-looking earrings made by the ethnic minority people. I found out that the price the tourists paid for these items at Coc Ly was much lower than at the other markets. A brocade bag costs VND80,000 ($3.81) at the Sapa market would cost only VND25,000 ($1.19) at Coc Ly market.  For a pair of silver earrings that costs VND20,000 ($0.95) at the Sapa market, the tourists would pay only VND8,000 ($0.38) at Coc Ly market. Ly Ping, a Tay ethnic woman who sells batteries, detergent, insecticide, VCD, rope, boots, etc ..., is counting her money. I asked if she had made any profit, she said she had made VND15,000 ($0.71) since early in the morning.
What surprises me is that this ethnic woman is very clear and logic in calculating. Ly Ping added, ‘I get the merchandise from the Chinese, not from the Vietnamese lowlanders, which is very expensive’.
At noon when the sun was at its zenith, everybody swarmed up to the camp to eat ‘thắng cố’ and drink maize alcohol. ‘Thắng cố’ is the traditional dish of the Hmong ethnic people. The ingredients used to cook ‘thắng cố’ consist of  a cow’s, a buffalo’s, a horse’s or a pig’s heart and liver, intestine, blood, meat, bones, etc ...  All these items would be put together in a big pot and cooked until they have become well-done, then some green vegetables and onion can be added. They eat while the food is still being cooked. Many women also enjoy eating the ‘thắng cố’ as much as men. But they do not drink as much.
It would be a great joy for the Dao, the Tay, the Hmong men to be able to go to the market to sell a pig, buy a buffalo, eat a ‘thắng cố’ meal and drink maize alcohol at Coc Ly market. The women would be more interested in beautiful skirts. They would get a skirt that costs as much as VND500,000 ($23.80) if their husbands can sell a horse for three or five million dongs.
To get to Coc Ly market one can either go by land from Bac Ha or take a boat trip on Chay river, cross Bao Nhai bridge and walk about three kilometres.n



Text and photos by Hang Nga
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