Showing its true colors

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A lesser known ethnic minority market in the northern province of Lao Cai is graced with natural colors and simple, straightforward people

More women than men buy rice wine at Coc Ly Market, which opens every Tuesday in Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province/PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

When I visited Lao Cai Province recently, I missed the famous Bac Ha Market that its Hmong residents open every Sunday to exchange goods, the one that has become a famous tourist attraction.

The reason was that I had spent too much time in Muong Nhe District in the nearby Dien Bien Province, thus arriving in Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Town, only on Monday.

However, the delay helped me discover the Coc Ly Market in the commune of the same name, not far from the Bac Ha Market.

"You should visit Coc Ly. The market held there every Tuesday is a lot of fun," a receptionist at my hotel told me.

Following her directions, I rented a motorbike and drove through a road under construction that cars were not allowed on. 

On the way, I saw groups of foreign tourists walking briskly in the same direction, and I wondered at their evident enthusiasm.

I did not have to wonder for long.

Located on the banks of the Chay River, the market is a riot of color. Whether it is the pieces of brocade displayed at fabric stalls or the different dresses worn by women of ethnic minority communities like the Mong, Tay, and Dao, bright colors shone everywhere.

The women gathered in groups at brocade stalls, chatting, while young girls, giggling and laughing, were busy making up and taking turns to be photographed against a landscape poster featuring mountains, rivers and birds. 

Even the farm produce sold at the market added color - green herbs, wild vegetables, red rice, yellow mèn mén a local specialty in which rice is cooked with finely ground corn.

With green forests and mountains in the background, vibrant and alive unlike the poster that the girls were being photographed against, the Coc Ly Market made a striking picture that one is not likely to forget for a long time.

Kindred spirits

Like other markets of ethnic minority people, Coc Ly also trades in buffaloes.

Having visited buffalo markets across the northern western region of Vietnam, I think the one at Coc Ly is the biggest, in terms of the area where the trading takes place, and the number of buffaloes bought and sold.

Moreover, I was touched by the way people sold the animal that they seemed to have emotional attachments to.

Although people were selling their buffaloes because they needed money, they were very particular about choosing a new owner for the animals. If they could not find any suitable person, they would take the animal home, and return for the next market session. Thus, it is not uncommon that at Coc Ly, it took a farmer a few weeks to sell their buffaloes.

Even after a deal was struck, people showed their sadness as they watched their beloved animals go off with the buyer. The buffaloes, meanwhile, would turn their heads back with teary eyes and start mooing.

Never had I seen such farewell scenes, not at home and not at famous animal markets in Asia like the one held by the Toraja people in Indonesia's Rantepao Town, and the Karakol Animal Market Central Asia's largest in Kyrgyzstan.

At rice wine stalls, I saw many women carrying empty bottles waiting to buy liquor; strangely, the men were much fewer in number. 

When I teased a young Hmong woman for buying alcohol, she blushed, shook her head and said: "No, I do not buy it for me; I buy it for my husband!"

With such simplicity and beauty around, it is not surprising that the Coc Ly Market is attracting more and more tourists. It distinguishes itself from those in Sa Pa and Bac Ha, where sellers have become more calculative and are selling increasing volumes of Chinese goods to make higher profits. 

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