Tourism takes toll on Vietnamese love market
DATING is never easy, but finding the perfect partner when you live in a tiny, remote village in the Vietnamese mountains is almost impossible. The solution? A love market.
For generations, young people from the patchwork of ethnic minority groups in northern Vietnam went to the local town of Sapa on Saturday nights to find their future spouse.
"It was so exciting. I wanted to see if I would meet any nice girls," traditional Hmong musician Vang Giang A, 50, said of his first visit to the love market three decades ago.
One girl stood out from the crowd.
"When I saw her for the first time, I was playing my violin. I asked her if she liked it, if she liked me. I was a little nervous," he said.
Fortunately, his affections were returned.
For the next few weeks, he went back to the market to meet his sweetheart, Xo Vang Thi, and play music together as part of a Hmong courtship ritual - him on a traditional violin and she playing a leaf.
The Hmong play on a leaf - usually a banana leaf - by curling it up and positioning it in the mouth so it vibrates when blown to make a loud, high-pitched sound.
The pair soon got married and have been together ever since.
"I was a very lucky man to meet her in the market, but I think she was lucky to meet me too!" he said.
Sapa is the main attraction of Lao Cai province, which received 1.2 million tourists last year, up from just 360,000 in 2003, according to official figures.
While this influx has brought a measure of prosperity and development, it has also affected local customs and traditions, Ms Xo said.
"The love market is very special for me, as it was how I could meet a good husband like him," she said.
"Now I don't like it, as people are playing music just for fun, for the tourists, to get money, and we are losing part of our culture."
As more young people attend schools or work in Sapa for tourism, they do not really need the love market or arranged marriages, which were a tradition in the area, said Mr Vang.
"They might meet a boyfriend or girlfriend in the village, or in town...they choose for themselves," he said.
Said My Ly Thi, 54, a Hmong woman who met her future husband at the market: "Now people just perform - they aren't doing it for real.
"Before all the tourists, the market was just for locals.
"Now it's a business... everyone comes to make money and sell trinkets."