Bac Ha market is heavily populated with the colour clashing, pattern loving, bead encrusted, Flower Hmong hill tribe people of Vietnam. Women and girls of all ages are a sight of sore eyes sporting an almost psychedelic colour pallet of rainbow adorned cultural clothes that contrast against the drab concrete backdrop of the town. 2 1/2 hrs drive from Sapa makes Bac Ha market it a worthy destination for any textiles tourist traveling the Lai Chau and Lao Cai provinces.
There are many groups of Hmong people living in different geographical regions across Vietnam. The Black Hmong of Sapa, White Hmong of Ha Giang, Glitter Hmong of Don Van, Red Hmong of Pa Co and Dien Bien Phu, and the Flower Hmong of Bac Ha, are just some of the hill tribe Hmong people living in North Vietnam today. Other subdivisions know as Blue and Green Hmong can be seen in neighbouring Laos, Thailand and Myanmar after migrating from Southern China in the 18th century.
Up until the 1970’s Hmong people had a pictorial written language. Much of their history was recorded, preserved and communicated by women who translated their Hmong daily life, folk stories and spiritual practices into symbolic textile motifs and patterns. Traditionally blankets, baby carry, bags and clothes use skillful and time-consuming handmade techniques like batik, applique and embroidery. These family heirloom story cloths are referred to as Paj Ndau, which literally translates into flower cloth in Hmong language.
Today authentic Paj Ndau are few and far between. Increased tourism and modern technology have caught up with hill tribe communities in Bac Ha and across Asia who are adapting their way of life to earn an income and break free from the poverty cycle many of them live in. Much of what was is now forgotten as Chinese replicas of Hmong fashion can be produced in a fraction of the time and at a considerably reduced cost.
Still regardless of these developments the Flower Hmong women of Bac Ha market show no signs of conforming their vibrant visual identity with the rest of Vietnamese society. Even if each and every outfit is no longer diligently handmade, most women customise their fashions by adding sparkly embellishments, beaded fringing, pretty ribbons and neon embroidery.
Flower Hmong Fashion
Costumes and clothes come in a kaleidoscope of colours that can be compliment or contrast against each other. Flower Hmong women can chose to mix and match or coordinate their look, but it doesn’t matter as either way every combination looks like a effortless sartorial success.
Conventional costumes comprise of a full circle skirt gathered in at the waist, a yoked blouse with stand collar and center zip opening, a front and back apron, checkered scarfs covering the head and waist, and leg wraps worn from ankle to knee.
Hill Tribal Textiles
Bac Ha Market
The market it’s self was a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells. The atmosphere was a concoction of business meets pleasure as families, friends and lovers travel far and wide to converge at the weekly market for a catch up. The market is big and spreads out of the center into the surrounding streets selling everything from cats to candyfloss.
Bac Ha it’s self is a little drab with not much happing there the rest of the week, by mid morning on market day the site is over run with tourists arriving in a continuous stream of minivans. I am advised by my friends at Ethos Spirit in Sapa that there are some more authentic and intimate Flower Hmong markets a little bit further away with the option of a homestay.
Have you seen any textiles tribes in Vietnam? What do you thing of Flower Hmong fashion and textiles? Have you been to Bac Ha market? Do you have any tips or advice to recommend to Haute Culture readers? I would love to hear from you, please share your experiences in the comments box below.
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How to get there
Bac Ha market is a extremely popular and long day trip out of Hanoi (4hrs) and Sapa (2 1/2 hrs). Most tour agencies in the city will offer this activity. Alternatively you can take the night train from Hanoi and arrive in Lao Cai at 5 am and jump on a local bus across from the station. I would strongly advise to find a guest house on Saturday night and head to the market for 6am to miss the droves of tourists (yes on this occasion I was one of them). Other great hill tribe markets in Vietnam are Pa Co with the Red Hmong and Dong Van where you will see Black Dao and Glitter Hmong.
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