The Love Market
By Jeff Tyler, 10/12/2001
It's Saturday morning. Market day in Sapa. A sleepy town perched on a high alpine pass in the northern mountains of Vietnam, close to the border with China. The main street bustles with young girls in traditional costumes, and European tourists clutching cameras. The Red Zao (Sau) stand out, with their shaved eyebrows. Their heads covered in red turbans adorned with silver jewelry made from old French coins. The Black Hmong win the prize for "most photogenic," posing in their home-spun indigo dresses with matching turbans. These kids have trekked down from their remote hillside villages to hawk souvenirs to the tourists who come to take their pictures.
Kids: "Maybe you buy bracelet or necklace...You buy necklace from me...You buy pillows. Pillows."Though Sapa is fairly remote, the locals are completely accustomed to tourists. In the evening, a minstrel busks for tips, playing a crazy bamboo contraption that is half flute, half bagpipe. I've come to Sapa for ANOTHER kind of music...another kind of MARKET...the love market. Supposedly, the young men and women from the nearby villages court each other by singing. And if the tunes ring in harmony, they become a couple. But, I was told, the love market had gone underground. Tired of having flash bulbs explode during a serenade, the lovers now hid from the tourists.
Around 10 PM, I tiptoe through the thick, cold fog down cobblestone steps in the back-streets of Sapa. My guide and translator says the Hmong are shy, and won't sing if they're being watched. I'm trying to be sensitive...when I spot a young couple, I keep my distance out of respect for their privacy. But to my surprise, they approach me and offer to sing.
Ming is 22, and his girlfriend, Zam, is 25. Actually, she's only been his girlfriend since last night. And as they start to sing, I realize that they are really using me as an intermediary to sing to each other.
The songs go on for six or seven minutes...a kind of improvisational pillow talk. Ming, roughly translated, sings:
Ming: "Today the weather is beautiful. I came to the market and met you. I like you very much. If you agree to marry me, I will give you money and clothes. In my family, we have many cows, water buffalo, and horses. I will be very happy if you marry me."How's that for a proposal? Then, Zam sings out her response.
Zam: "I am happy to meet you at the market. I will follow you to your house and get married, and I hope in the future we will have many children together."I have no idea if Ming and Zam will live happily ever after. Sometimes such courtships DO lead to marriage. But in this case, it leads to a solicitation. When they finish singing, the couple asks me for money. I guess, on market day, there's no such thing as a labor of love.
In Sapa, Vietnam, I'm Jeff Tyler for The Savvy Traveler.
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