This year, the annual Khau Vai festival from April 14-17 in Meo Vac District, northern Ha Giang Province, will be bigger than ever, Tran Kim Ngoc, vice chairman of the district People’s Committee and head of the festival’s organising board, told Viet Nam News.
Young women and men prepare their most beautiful costumes for the coming festival at Khau Vai Love Market, where parted lovers forced apart meet once a year has become the venue for a festival featuring many cultural activities.
“The market attracts many tourists to the region who readily join in cultural activities in search of the local character,” Ngoc said.
“This year’s festival will be held alongside Culture and Tourism Week to introduce visitors to the most unique features of the region and to promote culture and tourism,” he added.
While authorities expect that organising the festival imposingly would help promote tourism, tourists express worry that the noisy festival with outsiders may damage traditional culture and custom of the locals.
Glenn Phillips, from Australia, twice visited the love market and enjoyed learning about Mong culture and other hill tribe people. He and his friends drank a lot of ruou ngo (maize wine) and even picked up some ethnic words.
Admiring the beautiful landscape, Phillips expressed concern that the number of large tour groups visiting the love market could have an impact on culture.
“I think authorities should look to the love market in Sa Pa, northern Lao Cai Province, as an example of how tourism can damage cultural experiences,” he said.
“The days when young men and women would meet there and fall in love are long gone, because there are just too many tourists with cameras nowadays,” he explained, “Authorities in Ha Giang Province should learn from this mistake, and work with the local people to protect their living culture.”
Ngoc said locals participating in the love market naturally feel a need to make a date and meet each other, taking full advantage of the day to have fun.
Men often carry pigs to the market, and even though they might fail to sell it, they still have a great time, he added.
“The Khau Vai love market used to be known as a place for parted lovers, but now, it’s also a rendezvous point for young men and women who come to find partners.”
“They come to the market and sing and dance to entertain each other. I guarantee that all ethnic people welcome tourists to join in their performances,” Ngoc said.
During the four-day festival, tourists will be treated with cultural programmes including a Lo Lo ethnic ceremony to pray for rain, a Mong pan-pipe demonstration, a beauty contest presenting traditional costumes and an art performance in which artists play out the traditional love story.
“The people not only pray for rain, but also for prosperity and happiness,” Ngoc said, “On the occasion, they meet each other and exchange experience in farm works.”
Besides nightingale and bull fighting, a goat fighting competition will also be held for the very first time.
“The Stone Plateau, covering the main part of Ha Giang Province, is an attractive destination, but brings locals much difficulty in cultivation and production, with most remaining poor,” Ngoc noted.
“We expect that by attending the festival, tourists will appreciate the culture, tradition and moral strength of locals,” he added.
The Love Market convenes once a year on the 27th day of the third lunar month based on the love story of a couple from different tribes. A violent conflict broke out between the two sides to oppose their marriage. To stop the bloodshed, the two lovers sorrowfully decided to part, but planned to meet once a year at Khau Vai, which became the meeting place for those in love but unable to marry as well as those in search of partners.
On market day, both wives and husbands attend in search of their respective exes without the interference of jealousy seeing as exchanges remain strictly temporary.
Phillips, who works for Explore Indochina, recommended that local authorities talk to locals who traditionally attend the love market about how they feel about tourists and work with them to manage tourism.
“As access to mountainous areas improves, there will inevitably be cultural change, but local authorities should make sure that the local people have some degree of self-determination over the impact of tourism on their lives, culture and history,” he said.
Preparations for the festival commenced several months ago, according to Nguyen Chi Thuong, chairman of Meo Vac People’s Committee.
The festival will feature food and drink culture, song performances and folk games, ethnic costumes, jewellery and local music instruments alongside culture and art publications.
Tourists will be charmed by specialities including mint honey, men men (steamed maize meal), thang co (horse meat, beef, bones and viscera cooked together), dried beef and vegetables.
Posters and banners introducing the festival will be presented in Vietnamese and English in an effort to lure both domestic and foreign tourists.