Sunday morning at Meo Vac Market – Ha Giang

Six o’clock I borrowed the hotel’s umbrella and followed the trickle of minority people heading down the street to the market. Some also carried umbrellas, others just got wet or wore raincoats or sheets of clear plastic that also covered their bamboo backpacks. Too early to smile at strangers our thin procession made its way to the large covered market.

Outside the gates was like a city of umbrellas. At first I thought the colorful women were selling water. Large plastic drums of clear liquid, but it was raining and water seemed pretty free. The street had three lines of women standing behind these drums, then I realized it was liquor, xeo, they were selling. The local firewater with thimble cups for tasters. Baskets and bamboo bongs were also on sale.

Through one of the side entrances into a smoke-blackened eating area, a pig’s head grilling on an open fire, long benches with bowls ready-laid-out of thick freshly made noodles and delicious yellow roast pig meat with thick wobbly layers of fat. Men in black jackets and berets, women in colorful skirts and headwear. Communication was impossible, a mix of languages. The smells of smoke and grilling meat in covered corridors with curtains of dripping water.

At the rear, an open tarmac.  Rows of teen and elderly women talking under umbrellas while other interests set up over-head tarps. Ropes and stays kept catching my umbrella’s tip. It was early and there was still a lot of space for arrivals to claim. Women sold large bamboo woven trays, still green, foot-long bamboo shoots like flaccid telescopes, stacks of sugarcane that they tore at with molars as strong as elephants.

On the stairs to the building, smoke wafted up from the open-fire kitchens. Chickens tucked under arms. People pushing past. Inside the market was still a good part vacant. A lot of Chinese clothes and hardware, stalls selling the local scarves, brightly woven in checkers on the loom. The Chinese shirt, black or blue, a stiff linen with dyes that leave your hands blue, displayed on tables outside the backwall. Medicine sellers, ginseng and little colorful bags full of herbs on strings to wear. I stopped for a bowl of noodles and the smoke stung my eyes. The pork was tender to die for but the broth was too salty and peppery. Men sat opposite, packed tobacco from small clear plastic packs into bamboo water pipes. I could count the smiles I received on one hand. The locals shy, unsure of foreigners.

8am… it was in full force and the rain kept on. By 11 it slowed and male drinkers were heading to the tent hotels out the back. By 1pm leaving buses were packed to the roofs. The young uninitiated males staggered home drunk, but the main show of the weekend was still on in the tent pubs and the mess hall. The women joined the men, throwing back shots and smoking. People were getting friendlier, smiling groups greeted me with invitations to drink. Tobacco and spirits, men and women letting loose after a long week climbing the towering terraced slopes and carting home loads. Dirty fingernails, glazed eyes, sugar cane and bamboo waterpipes. By Michael Smith in Ha Giang

Women selling vegetables at Meo Vac’s weekly market in Northwest Vietnam – Photo: Michael Smith

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