When travelling it always seems the most amazing places are arrived at only after the longest of journeys. Bac Ha near the Sapa region of northern Vietnam was certainly one of these situations. In 15 hours I use every method of transportation possible to make it from Hoi An in the central part of the country to the north, all to see the Flower Hmong at the Sunday Bac Ha Market.
Stepping out of an uncomfortable night train into the Lao Cai train station at 6:00 am in a drowsy haze, I have zero idea of how I am getting to the village three hours away. There aren’t exactly online schedules posted for the local villager who decides to earn some extra cash by picking up passengers on his way back from his weekly trip to stock up on toilet paper and ramen noodles. A godsend appears telling me how to find the local bus that is leaving in two minutes and clues me into the price I should really pay. I run ahead, find the aging vehicle and begin the haggling, which almost leaves me stranded. You can only stand your ground so long when the person you are up against knows you have no other option. So I let the backpacker pride go and hop on, out more money than I would like to be.
Mountain climbing bus rides were once the worst things that could happen to me, but now I find them oddly peaceful. New scenery at every turn. Locals trickling down the hillside from villages dotting the landscape or tucked in beyond sight. People (and animals!) hopping on and off. The amazing durability of vehicles that seem like they should have gone to bus heaven decades before. Even with death-defying moments, it’s my meditative, quiet time.
This particular ride is extra special because the surrounding area is full of people preparing for the big event of the week – the Bac Ha market. Snaking up the mountain I get my first glimpse of the Flower Hmong people’s colorful dress and textiles. Families of five somehow stuff onto a single scooter with an oversized barrel of vegetables to sell – all in the most colorful clothing I have ever seen. Elderly villagers pop into the bus as we get approach and I can help but stare at their intricate tribal jewelry and plan out how to get my hands on their scarves. The closer we get, the more intense the colors and anticipation.
We arrive in Bac Ha and I completely lose my mind at the sight of so much color. The market hasn’t even gotten into full swing and I’m overwhelmed. I quickly drop by backpack off at one of the two accommodations available in town, grab a camera and hit the ground running.
Cue history lesson: the Hmong are an ethnic group from southern China that emigrated beginning the 18th century to northern Laos, Vietnam and Thailand due to economic and cultural repression under the Qing Dynasty. They primarily inhabit the mountainous regions of these countries and make up a significant portion of what is referred to as “hill tribes”. Hmong is an umbrella term for many subgroups. Tribes are named after the distinguishing features of the textiles and dress colors – for example, White Hmong, Black Hmong, Red Hmong, Striped Hmong etc. These groups also each have different languages, customs and traditions.
Flower Hmong – or Hmong Lenh and Hmong Hoa – are named after the bright, colorful embroidery of their textiles called pa ndau, which literally translates to “flower cloth.” Hmong textiles are characterized by geometric or pictorial patterns with symbolic motifs that are used to communicate stories and tradition. They use a variety of techniques including batik, applique, reverse applique and embroidery. Interestingly, pa nadu was actually used as a communication tool when Chinese oppressors prohibited Hmong from communicating in their own language.
Flower Hmong textiles are markedly different in color and texture than the other Hmong groups. I’ve travelled to a number of Hmong populated regions in Southeast Asia and the region around Bac Ha, Vietnam is the only place I’ve seen textiles of these kind. The range of colors is wider than other tribes with hues bordering on neon. Flower Hmong also layer garments and incorporate a wide range of pieces. Traditionally, all textiles were woven from hand stripped and tied hemp, dyed, embroidered and sewn – all meticulously by hand. But nowadays, a lot of ready-to-wear and cut-and-sew pieces are made in factories, which women buy at the Bac Ha market and personalize with embroidery and embellishments. The result is the ultimate pattern mix.
The market goes down as one of the most sensory-blowing experiences in my life. Nevermind the colors and patterns, there is so much vibrance, energy and excitements filling a tiny little village as this is clearly the highlight of every person’s week. It’s where they make money, meet friends, play, eat, drink and even find love – lots of young men and teenagers skeezing on the ladies. Everything imaginable is sold and while the fabric and craft vendors take up most of my time, the best part is the animal auction down by the river where people engage in hilarious sell tactics.
The most eye-catching crafts are anything having to do with babies. The most intricate of all Hmong embroidery is used on the baby carrier attached to the mother’s back. Babies are also given a cap after they are born which Hmong believe will be mistaken for flowers by the spirits, who will then leave the baby alone. The beauty of the textiles is also supposed to intrigue the baby and prevent its spirit from wandering, which will keep the baby healthy.
I wander the market for hours on a creative and sartorial high as these colors and textiles are satisfying every artistic urge I have. A dying battery on two different photo apparatuses forces me to emerge from behind the lens and just soak it all in and let its energies fill me. I even try sugarcane for the first time! As sundown approaches, the market winds down and I take a little break to admire my new wares and meet some fellow travellers. With my new friends I wander back outside a few hours later and the find a quiet, empty ghost town of a village, void of all the color that gave it life.
I walk away from the market with a few, but well bargained for treasures. The bracelets are something I wear all the time and the tribal collars always have me stopped by people admiring their intricacy. I haven’t yet figured out how to adopt the beaded, embroidered top into my own wardrobe, but while playing dress up, Miss Geronimo Balloons herself partnered it with a pair of ultra light-wash boyfriend jeans and it worked out pretty well.
In the late 1960’s a lot of companies hopped on tribal textiles popularized by the hippie movement. These two vintage 60’s skirts now up in the MoMu store are not exactly authentic Hmong, but they replicate the aesthetic with a flower motif and even have the same accordion pleats. Head over to the store to fetch them now!
all photos my own.