Can Cau Market


Each Saturday, in the remote north of Vietnam, the Flower H’mong tribe travel from surrounding hills for the weekly market. The area is just 9km from the Chinese border with green slopes of rice paddies and corn rows spilling downwards from the hilltop market. Stalls are densely packed with makeshift food stalls on one side, livestock on another, and everything else from cloth to electronics to vegetables clumped together on top.

Arrival involves a treacherous half hour of hair pin turns, drop offs, and patches of flowing rain water and mud. We hired a car and driver from Bac Ha, the nearest town. Opening the door felt like stepping out of one century and in to another. Baskets of vegetables, ducklings, and chicks lined the dirt path with dozens of women wearing a cladiescope of colors. Among many differences of hill tribes of Vietnam, the Flower H’mong are distinguished by the colorful and elaborate costumes.

Squeeling Pigs

Alex and I both glamorize the past. Modern life has an increasing number of blinking gadgets calling for our attention, and so we imagine a calm world of communities closer to nature and one another. A bloody cockfight brings us back to reality.

The livestock section is the noisest part of the market, and the piglets are the most vocal. Their screams cut through the din and will stop you in your tracks. Each is repeatedly shoved in and out of a burlap sack. Their struggle seems to be some demonstration of health.

There are surprisingly few tourists for how close we are to other sights. The area is known for great hiking, and it’s mid-June. An older group of French couples showed up earlier, but half hour later they were gone. It is clear that tourism is already having an impact. A few stalls are filled with crafts and kitschy souvenirs. The vendors are dressed in modern clothes, and are more aggressive when white, camera-toting prey appear.

No Whole Foods

Walking through the bewildering chaos, its hard to believe we inhabit the same planet. Back home, our grocery store is a monstrous buzz-word friendly pile of “green”, “organic”, and “fair trade” stuff. Well paid consultants design every detail from the font (Archer, by HF&FJ) to color schemes and aisle spacing.

Yet, hygiene considerations aside, most of the goods here fulfill the eco-mindset requirements. The produce is grown by a small scale, local farmer who can rarely afford pesticides, or GM seeds. Even carbon emissions are negligible, as much is pulled to the market by horse or oxen cart.

Witnessing the daily struggles here makes much of our modern worries feel absurd. Just before leaving for the market I was stressing over deadlines for a marketing campaign, which had to be ready for Monday. The beautiful thing about travel is not so much the landmarks and sightseeing, but rather the sense of perspective, and coming face to face with the reality of our world.

Jul 23, 2010

Can Cau, Vietnam

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