Let’s consume ethnicity!

Let's consume ethnicity!

Each Sunday in Bac Ha in mountainous Sapa, Vietnam, subsistence farmers from the surrounding hills descend on the normally sleepy market to watch tourists perform feats of amateur ethnography and find new ways to trivialise their culture.

Flower Hmong with traditional musical instrument

Local hilltribes get into their Sunday best to hit the market mostly for mod-cons and consumer durables: new lightbulbs, fabric printed in Flower Hmong patterns imported from Hanoi, kitchen implements, traditional musical instruments (above). At the entrance of the market is my favourite moment of staged authenticity: a photo booth where tourists can pose for a shot with their selection of garishly-dressed local women and children against an equally garishly printed waterfall backdrop. Travellers are then shuttled off into the nearest village so that they can capture the smiling local kids for posterity in their more authentic setting.

Because I feel uneasy treating subsistence farmers as a tourist attraction by virtue of their silly hats, I hit up the (mostly) ethnically Vietnamese vendors for food.

Shopping for pork at Bac Ha Market

The weekend meat of choice seems to be slabs of incredibly fatty local pork. I don’t think that I’ve ever visited a market so pig-centric, with a long line of pork-only butchers displaying their cuts on a row of wooden trestles.

Pork on sale at Bac Ha Market

This little pig went to market. Belly seems to be the popular cut and butchers cut each slab into more manageable slices to order.

Citrus patties, Bac Ha, Vietnam

On the ready-to-eat front, I found a vendor selling these small disks of orange rice flour batter, deep fried until crispy on the outside but still chewy. The whole batter is infused with a mandarine/citrus flavour, giving them a slightly tart and sour edge as well as (I assume) their lurid orange color.

Buffalo on sale at Bac Ha Market

The market also does good business in live buffalo, the going rate reported to be around $600 per beast. There is much quiet discussion and consideration of each animal and very little hustle to indicate that a sale is actually taking place.

Location: Bac Ha Market runs on Sundays in Bac Ha, North of Lao Cai in Vietnam.

11 Comments Let’s consume ethnicity!

  1. Robyn

    I wouldn’t lump all photographers of subsistence farmers into one category. That said – the opening photo is pretty disturbing. Why on earth would anyone want to take a photo of a subject so obviously uncomfortable (frightened, whatever) by the venture?

  2. mouselovesrice

    This post is spot-on. The Sapa ethnic-minority free-for-all is a terrible sight to behold. I mean, the terraced rice patties are lovely — but, the place is a zoo, except that the animals on display try to sell you their jewelry.

    There may be no “authentic” travel experiences left — there may never have been any — but something as trippy as Sapa deserves the fullness of Phil’s sarcasm.

  3. Phil

    No – I certainly wouldn’t want to lump all photographers of poor people together. There are much more equal grounds upon which you can tell otherwise untold stories of poverty through photography, with the full involvement of your subjects.

  4. a

    I’m glad someone else opened this can of worms because I already get into too many arguments with people over this sort of thing all the time. I am at times uncomfortable with my own camera and photo taking. Even walking around my neighborhood in Bangkok, where I’ve lived for some time, people get a little weird while I’m taking pictures of noodles or pieces of meat.

    On a recent foray into northern Thailand, I had some very unfortunate encounters with other foreigners who were obviously a little perturbed by my presence and how it spoiled their “authentic” and “off the beaten track” experience.

  5. Maytel

    Hey, I just read your profile statement, and while Gut Feelings may not pay handsomely it does provide free accommodation, wifi, roof top pool and late night sausage snacks….those be some pretty good fringe benefits in my books

  6. Pingback: Sapa Hills, Footscray – The Last Appetite

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