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 as Khen, 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.