Hilltribe Markets - A Visual Treat, Cultural High & Unrivalled Scenic Adventure

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
One of the best things about travelling through the mountainous regions of Vietnam is to rise early in the cold & misty mornings & head straight to the local market for coffee & to try a local hill-tribe delicacy.

For centuries hilltribes have descended from exceptionally remote villages set high in the mountains so as to conduct these markets. Many arrive on horseback, even more accompanied by wildlife of every sort but all clad in their traditional, & need I say exceptionally colourful, hand-made attire. It represents a fabulous chance for sensational photos & a unique opportunity to try traditional foods, or to purchase authentic hill-tribe products in particular textiles, jewelry & accessories.

The markets represent a culturally enriching insight into the deep history & rich traditions of these people, a world about which the normal visitor knows little. To the observant eye they can represent culturally unique opportunities for hill-tribe folk to meet, & often there are games with varying cultural significance, entertainment & sometimes competitions unique to the hilltribes concerned.

Vietnam is rich in the number of hilltribes living in the area each with their own distinctive attire, culture & traditions. Here's my notes from how I found it...

Needless to say, the better markets are to be found in the less ‘tourist visited’ areas. In my humble opinion the market in Sapa, for example, has seen better days. Bac Ha is still worth a visit particularly as it is attended by the Flower Hmong in their incredibly colourful attire & there is a genuine trade in product & livestock between residents & not just in tourist trinkets.

Ha Giang province is the best place though to see these markets. It also provides some of the most sensationally beautiful riding in Vietnam, indeed in the world. The reason it is so good is that the province adjoins China where a war broke out in 1979 between the 2 countries – the result has been that permits are required to ride in the area thus diminishing tourist traffic thereby ensuring that the authenticity of the area remains in tact. It is also a great area to ride due to the stunningly beautiful landscape around Meo Vac - there are few more gob-smacking places in the world!

The hilltribe markets in North Vietnam are many & varied. Riders should always be enquring as they move along as to when markets in remote northern Vietnam villages are being held & endeavour to attend those that are least likely to have tourists.

Here’s a list of towns & villages at which markets may be found for riders heading to the north via Mai Chau:

Sin Ho
Those travelling through the small village of Sin Ho are probably doing so in taking the scenic alternative route to the main road between Muong Lai & Lai Chau some 39kms in from the turn-off from Hwy 12 after Muong Lai or 60kms from Lai Chau. This detour ensures that the village is less visited by tourists & is worth a visit if you are looking for a break from riding. The Sin Ho market is held every week-end with Sunday being the busier day. Red Dao, Hmong, Phu La & Cong are amongst the hilltribes gathered.

Muong Hum
Muong Hum is situated some 78km north of Sapa but fortunately has maintained a certain authenticity. Held every Sunday the market attracts a diverse number of hilltribes including the Hmong, Ha Nhi, Phu La, Tu Di & Giay hilltribes.

Sapa’s market is held every Sunday & involves the local Hmong & Dao hilltribes. Flooded with tourists it is now lacking in cultural tradition & authenticity.

Sapa Market


Coc Ly, Cao Son & Lung Khau Ninh
Coc Ly is a small village situated some 92km northeast of Sapa via Lao Cai with Cao Son & Lung Khau Ninh some 25km & 35km further on respectively (I would check first concerning the appropriate access route as the later villages may be better accessed from the Pha Long road. Pha Long actually holds a market each Saturday but it’s a long ride especially when retracing one’s steps for the return). The markets are held every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday respectively making it an option to see the very colourful Flower Hmong if you have limited days available & you will also see the Phu La & Black Dao hilltribes in Cao Son whilst in Lung Khau Ninh the Black Dao, Giay & Tay should also be present. Ask around to see which market is ‘firing’ if you have a choice of days as recovering your tracks on 3 consecutive days is probably not worthwhile. A good trek for those with the time.

Bac Ha
Due to the market’s easy access from Sapa & wonderful reports covering the market on this forum the Bac Ha markets are more & more visited by tourists. An option, I suppose, if you have limited travel options. Held every Sunday the market is famous for its gathering of Flower Hmong. Bac Ha is a good base to use for this interested in trekking in to see actual hilltribe villages, for visiting more remote markets accessible by foot only or for preparing to visit Ha Giang province.

Lung Phin
Situated just north of Bac Ha Lung Phin is a great market full of a diverse number of hilltribes & packed with ambience. There’s great tea to be found, interesting (corn) wine & the brocades (richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics, often made in colored silks and with or without gold and silver threads) are amongst the best in all of Vietnam. (My choice nowadays given that Bac Ha is firmly established on the tourist trail).

Coc Pai
For those privileged enough to tour Ha Giang, the relatively isolated Coc Pai’s week-end market represents a good way to start enjoying hilltribe markets. Hmong, Nung, La Chi & Cao Lan will be present & this is a great place to start savouring hilltribe delicacies if you like chili!

Vinh Quang
41kms eastwards of Coc Pai passing through wonderful scenery (of which Ha Giang is packed) lies Vinh Quang whose Sunday market is famous for ‘selling virtually anything’. Another chance for the chili freaks! The Hmong, Tay, Nung, Dao & La Chi will be there to greet you.

Ha Giang
A large & robust market held on Sundays in the centre of Ha Giang, the capital of Ha Giang province. Red Dao, White Hmong, Tay & the Nung will be present. An interesting ‘early morning coffee’ option in a town where most travelling this beautiful area will stop so as to complete administrative documentation as required to ride along the Chinese border/Meo Vac.

Tam Son, Yen Minh, Pho Cao & Pho Bang
Three villages on the road heading north-eastwards from Ha Giang; the route taken by most looking to see Meo Vac (& probably wishing to overnight at Dong Van so as to endeavour to see it at its best). The Tam Son & Yen Minh Sunday markets are big, though representing more of the ‘market’ than the ‘hilltribe’ part of the equation. If stopping, try the local wine in Yen Minh to wash down the Chili! Pho Cao market is of interest to travelers as it is conducted ‘ day earlier than the previous week’ (so if it’s saturday today next week it will be Friday, the Thursday the following week & so on). Plenty of colourful hilltribes to see. Finally Pho Bang – found along a slight detour shortly after Pho Cao & situated right on the Chinese border, Pho Bang is well worth visiting if only to see the houses of the village many of which are hundreds of years old. As with Pho Cao the market is held ‘a day earlier than the previous week’.

Dong Van & Meo Vac
Many wishing to optimise conditions for seeing Meo Vac - well the sensational Ma Pi Leng mountain pass - will spend a night in Dong Van. The township holds a large morning market every Sunday & it’s worth visiting early for coffee & a breakfast of local delights, the likes of which you will not have seen. Meo Vac holds a similar market to Dong Van & is well known for its livestock sales with a varied & quality offering always on show. People wishing to see the Ma Pi Leng pass at its best can easily spend a few days waiting & be occupied in trekking to various hill-tribe villages from either Dong Van or Meo Vac. All I can say is that Ma Pi Leng pass is amongst the most sensational sights you will ever see. It’s one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts so if you’ve come this far spare a few days, if necessary, to catch it at its best.

Khau Vai “Love Market“
I suppose this report would be incomplete to not mention the “Love Market” in Khau Vai, situated some 22kms south of Meo Vac & held in March or April each year depending on the lunar calendar. In days gone by it was here that members of diverse ethnic tribes came to find love, to find their partners for life even to reencounter former lovers who they were not permitted to marry. Unfortunately this unique & culturally rich tradition has been lost amongst the busloads of tourists trucked in each year. Sad, very sad but I feel privileged to have seen it before the road infrastructure went in place to ultimately destroy this treasure.
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Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Thanks for that run down on the ethnic markets in North Vietnam, Rod.
It's good to see you keeping in touch with one of your favourite biking destinations.
I will add a couple of photos next week.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
Great shots of the Flower Hmong!
What a shame to be reading with such regularity of young hilltribe girls being trafficked across the border into China & sold as childhood brides to Chinese men.