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Vietnam--Her Trip to the Love Market

 

You husband...?

I buy a little pair of earrings from one, and that's it. I've lost control completely. "Why you buy from her you no buy from me? You joking me!" says the littlest, badly in need of a tissue.

"How old you?" asks another, and, when I answer, replies sweetly, "Oh, very young. You very pretty girl." She looks at me sideways with a universally calculating twinkle. I raise an eyebrow back at her and she laughs.

"You husband? You children?" No. No husband. No children. They look concerned. I see them thinking--I am very old to be single. I am single beyond repair.

A tug at my arm--"You want this? One dollar!" The little girls think maybe jewelry will console my poor, poor heart. I have found another universal here in Sa Pa. "Oh, Ka-lane! [Karen] You buy from me!"

"Maybe later, Ta-mai."

"Maybe? You say 'maybe' you no buy!" They trip me up. They crowd me. They hold my hands. They learn quickly. They know my name. And I learn theirs. Yin. Ta-mai. Lila-mai. I am simultaneously enchanted by their intelligence and irritated by their persistence. The feeling is very familiar. I have fallen in love.

 

My heart is bursting...

Later in the day, once the mist clears the morning mountains, the sun shines brightly in a blue, blue sky. I can see for miles upon lonely miles. Tiered rice paddies slope towards the horizon. A cold river slices through the valley. Cattle paths wind up the hills and out of sight. It is beautiful and wrenching. My heart is bursting. I wish I could capture this moment forever. I will realize later that I have.

And now the sun is setting, the shadows long and lengthening. I am standing against the wall in the village square, waiting for the festivities to begin. The adult, married women cook rice and cabbage and pork in the centre of everything. The men sit and smoke and drink and talk. The various tribes have their own little cordoned-off area--there is very little intermarriage. Tribes have made hours-long journeys on foot and by pony from their villages into Sa Pa. They will sleep overnight in the town square.

 

Like a high school dance...

I try to blend into the shadows as the ritual begins and soon realize this is not as foreign as I thought it would be. The marriageable children (about 10 to 16 years of age) huddle in groups just like at the high school dances of my youth, the girls seated on a bench, the boys trading courage on the fringes. There are whispers and glances and giggles. After the shyness subsides a little, the first brave boy approaches little Lila-mai's sister. He takes her hand and she smiles at him. For the most part, that's the last they will look at each other for the night, but they will not let go hands once. Eventually, there are many boy-girl pairs punctuating the crowd, but the conversation is still all girl-girl, boy-boy.

At midnight, the singing begins, signifying the end of the evening. A lone voice calls out a pretty, plaintive melody, a love song. The voice is met and matched. The form is call and response-it is not sung in unison. The song becomes a round. The crowd participates, one sweet voice at a time, overlapping, and surprisingly in tune. It is lovely and haunting. I am drawn into its embrace. I close my eyes and begin humming along.

Oops. I am suddenly on the receiving end of about 30 surprised and open-mouthed stares. My mouth snaps shut. I have disgraced myself. I practice a look of horrified apology. There is laughter. A faux pas, but a funny one, so all is forgiven.

 

 

One bride, many gifts...

The singing dies down. The women pack up. The families retire to their blankets on the floor of a covered section of the town square. They will return home tomorrow, some with an extra little girl in tow. In the Dao tribe a boy who likes a girl will take her to his house, lodge her in his room, and bring her food and gifts for three weeks. If, after that time, they still like each other, he can ask for her hand in marriage, give her parents gifts of money, livestock, or silver jewelry, and set the date--a love match made in Sa Pa on a Saturday night. Others will have to wait until the next Saturday. Or the next. But certainly not forever. There are no old maids here in Northern Vietnam. As an observer I can't help thinking... ah-h-h, if only finding a husband was that simple where I live.

 

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