Oddly Enough

Shopping for love in Vietnam's mountains

KHAU VAI, Vietnam (Reuters) - Once a year, with his wife’s blessing, Lau Minh Pao gets to have a guilt-free tryst with his ex.

Ethnic Hmong wait for their lovers at the Khau Vai 'love market' in Vietnam's northern Ha Giang province, 500 km (310 mi) north of Hanoi May 10, 2010. REUTERS/Kham

Their rendezvous’ have played out more like strolls down memory lane than salacious flings, but they are part of a treasured tradition in this mountainous corner of northern Vietnam that may challenge some more linear concepts of love.

“In the past, we were lovers, but we couldn’t get married because we were far apart,” Pao simply as he waited for his date on a dark night in the village of Khau Vai in Ha Giang province.

Now when they meet, he said, “we pour our hearts out about the time when we were in love.”

They are not alone.

For two days each year, on the 26th and 27th of the third month of the lunar calendar, the tiny village of Khau Vai, strung along a saddle in the lush hills near China, is transformed into a “love market.”

Hundreds of members of Giay, Nung, Tay, Dzao, San Chi, Lo Lo and Hmong hill tribes, among others, trek in from across the mountainous districts nearby to attend.

Pao’s wife was there, too, meeting her old flame.

Some travel for days, even from neighboring provinces.

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This year, local artists in colorful clothing performed the local myth telling the story of the origin of the Khau Vai love market.

Legend has it an ethnic Giay girl from Ha Giang province fell in love with an ethnic Nung boy from the neighboring province of Cao Bang.

The girl was so beautiful that her tribe did not want to let her marry a man from another tribe and a bloody conflict ensued between the two tribes.

Watching tragedy unfold before them, the two lovers sorrowfully decided to part ways to avoid further bloodshed and to restore peace.

But to keep their love alive they made a secret pact to meet once a year on the 27th day of the third lunar month in Khau Vai. Thereafter, the hill village became known as a meeting place for all of those in love.

These days, the tradition is carried on, albeit with a modern edge.

Giggling girls in native headdresses make dates by text message on their cell phones, and hold them up to snap digital photos of performances.

New roads have made the village that lies some 500 km (310 miles) north of Hanoi more accessible. In the Nung language, Khau Vai means ‘clouds among the mountains’.

“The young generation now go out together, and find each other, and it is more modern, freer and clearer. Back in the old days, our grandparents had to pursue love in secret, not like today,” 23-year-old Hua Thi Nghi an ethnic Giay.

Under the dark sky, as other couples cavorted nearby, Pao was looking forward to seeing his old girlfriend.

“We’ve arranged to meet and she’ll be here a little bit, around 10 pm. We meet together to re-tell the tale of how it was when we were in love back then,” he said.

The next day, however, he said their meeting had been cut short by a downpour.

But there’s always next year.

Writing by John Ruwitch, editing by Miral Fahmy