Many people are familiar with the dairy farms of the Moc Chau Plateau in northern Son La province, which supply fresh milk and other dairy products to many parts of the country. But relatively few people realize that every Autumn Moc Chau also plays host to an ethnic minority “love market” which attracts Hmong youngsters from all over the north west.
Moc Chau town is situated around 200km west of Hanoi, an in early September every year this remote settlement is awash with ethnic colour, becoming a veritable “garden of Eden for thousands of young Hmong boys and girls who are in love or wish to find love. They travel here from as many as 14 mountainous provinces, from Nghe An in the north-central region to Lao Cai in the far north, hoping to date members of the opposite sex and find their ideal life partner.
While the love markets in Khau Vai (Ha Giang) and Sapa (Lao Cai) have become widely known, the one in Moc Chau remains quite basic and undeveloped. Nonetheless it has a long history, having been established centuries ago at a time when the Hmong ethnic people of northern Vietnam still lived a large nomadic life. Today, although Hmong communities now live amore settled existence, the market continues to be held every year, for three days and two nights in early September.
“Ever since I was a child, Hmong people have been gathering here every year for the love market,” said Mrs Oanh, who has lived for more than 30 years in the centre of Moc Chau.
“After all these years it still takes place here exactly the same way it always did. Every year I still fell a tingle of excitement when the love market gets under way. And although I am not of Hmong ethnicity myself, I still wear the traditional Hmong costume when I walk around the market,” Oanh said.
A few months before the love market, girls aged between 15-17 prepare their most beautiful costumes and young boys of the same age practice dancing while simultaneously playing a large mouth organ known asKhen, made up of seven or sometimes eight pairs of bamboo tubes fitted into a hardwood soundbox. In recent years there has been a decline in the number of Hmong boys who can dance and play the khen, but even those not proficient in this ancient art form are expected to show their talent in some way before they can win the hearts of any self-respecting Hmong girl.
According to 70-year-old Sung Luong, a Hmong man who grew up in the late colonial era, the love market is traditionally one of two occasions during the Hmong calendar- the other being Lunar New year –when Hmong people practice the customs of “bride kidnapping” or marriage by abduction.
Mentioned in To Hoai’s short story Vo Chong A Phu (Husband and Wife A Phu), bride kidnapping can happen in two ways: one with the consent of the kidnapped girl and the other without.
Following the kidnapping, the groom’s family take the bride out to worship their ancestral spirits. After this the girl has no choice but to accept the young man who has kidnapped her.
Nowadays the wife-kidnapping custom is not practiced as widely as it was during the French colonial period, but the Hmong people are still one of a few ethnic groups with a special style of courtship, at once spontaneous and strange. It generally takes each couple around three days to get to know each other and decide to become husband and wife.
Many lifelong relationships have begun at the Moc Chau love market, where for centuries boys and girls have met, exchange gifts and promised to meet each other in the following year. But the 12 months which pass between each love market can be a stringent test of the relationship between two people who live far apart and may not meet from one year to the next. If they do still remember each other, they will keep the gifts they received and bring it to the next love market.
Sadly, not every couple finds a romantic happy ending. Sung A Kim, a man in his early 40s from Sapa in Lao Cai province, arrived in Moc Chau one day before the love market started. During three days he sat quietly on a hill near the centre of the town, staring sadly at the ever-moving throng of people. More than 20 years ago on this hill, when he was just 18 years old, he found the love of his life. At that time, just like today, he had to travel hundreds of kilometers to the market. The old saying that for love one might “cross mountains and streams” is undoubtedly true for many Hmong people in the North-Western part of Vietnam and seems particularly apt in Kim’s case. But although he exchanged gifts with the girl, he had not been able to find her again ever since.
When he was 23 years old he married another woman. Yet despite the fact that he now has four children of his own, he keeps going to the love market every year in the hope of meeting his lost love once again. The reason he gives for attending the love market is quite simple: “As I’m married, I just want to meet an old friend again to see if she is happy, to find out whether or not she is blessed like me. If she is I will be happy, too.”