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Vietnam--Her Trip to the Love Market

 

Canadian, Karen Dougherty is a TV researcher, writer, singer, songwriter, voracious reader and world-traveller. While travelling in Vietnam she learned the art of finding a suitable husband. Karen writes...

In some places, finding love is as easy as shopping for clothes. Take Northern Vietnam, for example, in a little village called Sa Pa, high in the misty mountains. Every Saturday evening as the sun sinks swiftly past the edge of the world, dozens of brightly costumed members of several area tribes turn the centre square of the village into a Love Market. And this night, just before Saint Valentine's Day, is no exception. Fruit stands are being cleared away to make room for tables and benches. There is excitement and anticipation. Love is in the air.

 

Time for a mate...

Just hours earlier the Dao, Black H'mong, and Tai women were hawking their wares here, chatting in sign language with the handful of tourists visiting in low season, bartering sugar cane for rice, handmade silver jewelry for tiny, sweet oranges, and tribal clothing for much-needed vegetables. But now, in the fading twilight, focus turns to their unmarried children. It's time for them to find a mate, and the children will do it for themselves under their parents' watchful eyes. I cannot wait to watch the evening unfold.

I am here by way of a beat up Russian Jeep and a rather reckless Vietnamese guide. We, my newly acquired travelling companions and I, drove northwest from Hanoi for eight hours up into the mountains where it's winter. We bumped and rollicked past endless rice paddies, tea plantations, a hundred shades of green, each vying for brightest. We passed people still using oxen to plow the wet ground to plant rice. Hard-working women and children spend their days knee-deep in freezing brown water. The roads are chaos even out in the country and we narrowly missed over a million chickens, cows, cyclists, ponies, and pigs.

 

Up, up the rocky road...

The hobbled, pitted road wound like crazy and our driver, silent and focused, took it fast. The passing milestones looking alarmingly like gravestones...Lao Cai--178 km--RIP. I think I lost a filling as well as a couple years off my life.

We reached the final stretch to Sa Pa, coming at one point within a half kilometer of the Chinese border. We careened up, up, up the rocky road, the view becoming more and more spectacular in the rosy, late-afternoon light. We pulled into Sa Pa and checked into an empty guest house suggested by our guide and run by his "friend." (This is common practice in Vietnam. Cab drivers and guides often have a pre-selected, kick-back driven list of restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels at their disposal). Since there weren't many to choose from, we checked in, catnapped, and set out for dinner (same old--rice, pork, and cabbage) in one of the two eating establishments in the village. We spent the rest of the evening succumbing to the calming effects of the rather tasty local wine. We headed to bed early-the warmest place on a cold Vietnamese winter's night.

 

Good morning, Vietnam......

Sa Pa was established as a French hill station in 1922. When the French pulled out, many of their lovely buildings were abandoned to ruin. An old cathedral stands bored and empty in the middle of town, possibly puzzled by the hours of Vietnamese propaganda played over loudspeakers every day at 5 a.m. Good morning, Vietnam! However, that's not what wakes me the first morning. It is cold. I can see my breath in the air. There is no view out my window -- the village is wrapped protectively in a low, grey cloud. I dress hurriedly in layers. I wear everything I have. I consider wrapping myself in a blanket. I decide against it.

As I walk conspicuously through the little ghost town, I half-expect tumbleweed to roll vacantly through the one street. Instead, I'm buffeted by yellow dust and blowing sand and I'm befriended by a gaggle of Black H'mong girls. They are pretty little things with wispy brown hair and sparkling eyes. They wear navy-blue embroidered costumes and colourful headdresses and big heavy silver earrings. They follow me for hours through the village practicing stilted English and touching my hair. They keep up a steady stream of repeated phrases designed to flatter, shame, and cajole me into making a purchase.


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