In the Market for Love

Published May 9, 2016 in Episode 48

Once upon a time in the highlands of northern Việt Nam, a girl from the ethnic Giáy tribe fell in love with a Nùng boy from a neighbouring province. She was so beautiful that her tribe rejected her wish to marry an outsider. Their forbidden affair resulted in a violent conflict between the two tribes until the two lovers heartbreakingly agreed to part in order to end the bloodshed. Still, true love never dies and the girl and the boy found a spot in a village named Khâu Vai where they agreed to secretly rendezvous once every year.

Their tragic love story is the legend behind a tradition that has continued for nearly a century, wherein ex and wannabe lovers attend the Khâu Vai Love Market, also known as Chợ Tình, in Hà Giang province. The event occurs on the 26th and 27th days of the third lunar month, and this year fell on May 2nd and 3rd. Local ethnic minorities such as the Giáy, Nùng and Hmong people gather for the two-day festival filled with folk games, and eating and drinking in merriment. The old come out to seek out past lovers to reminisce and the youngdo so in the hopes of finding new love.

58-year-old Vũ Thị Kim Chi is a teacher from Sài Gòn who has travelled to see the Khâu Vai Love Market first hand.  

“This ritual of ex-lovers meeting again, is a part of the Hmong culture,” she explains. “During festival days, old lovers reconnect, and they can do whatever they want, not just simply meet. Meaning if later on the woman is pregnant, it’s not a problem.”

“They say, ‘The fish belongs to whichever pond is was found in.’ In other words, if the woman is married, and after meeting her ex-lover, she becomes pregnant, the child belongs to the current husband. They don’t get jealous. They have a very generous attitude in matters of the heart.”

The market participants wear their best clothes, festive outfits of bright and vibrant colours. Potential suitors engage in long-standing rituals that include performances of song and dance, as well as the act of bestowing love tokens on one another. First held in 1919, the festival is now heavily promoted by provincial and national tourism boards and has seen an increase of domestic and foreign tourists.

But for young lovers looking for romance, Khâu Vai is an important pilgrimage for courtship. The documentary “Looking For Love” filmed in Khâu Vai by Keith Halstead and John Watson shows how young Hmong girls broadcast their availability. A girl performs an improvised song professing her readiness for companionship:

I am not so beautiful, but I am kindhearted, so please come with me. I am young but I lead a hard life. When will my life become better? What can I do without a lover? So if anyone wants to become my friend please answer me.

Besides the annual Love Market in Khâu Vai, a similar tradition can be found on a weekly basis at the Sa Pa Love Market, in nearby Lào Cai Province.

Each Saturday evening, singles gather at the market, on the lookout for “the one”. If the stars align and sparks fly, the couple’s courtship might continue the week after, and may even result in marriage.

But Kim Chi says the influx of tourists in Sa Pa has added a commercial value to an otherwise romantic tradition.  

She muses, “Lately, the central area where the market is held has become too touristy. So the ethnic people feel embarrassed when they court each other and sing to each other. The space is not theirs anymore. So they just come to sing for money.”  

She further explains, “There’s only a couple of people who come out to sing, and they ask for money as they do it. They’ll sing a bit, stop and say, ‘give money’. If you don’t give, they won’t continue. It’s no longer interesting and emotional.”

Although the romantic allure may have worn off in recent years in Khâu Vai and Sa Pa, the Love Markets’ customs stand as an ode to the pursuit of love and everlasting desire.