Shifting Sands in Coc Ly

Coc Ly Market

 We nearly didn’t make it to Coc Ly market in the mountains above Lao Cai near the Chinese border in N.Vietnam. The road was unsurfaced, uphill and potholed, and to make matters worse it had rained the night before . Our jeep slithered about on the sticky red mud struggling to hold its traction and kept getting stuck, but Nguyen, our Vietnamese driver, was skilled and patient, and eventually we made it.

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Coc Ly is one of the smaller markets in the area, mainly for locals with very few tourists. It seemed a little down in the mouth and subdued compared with some of the other markets I’d visited, and it wasn’t just because of the mud.
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 I found out that a few years ago it had been a much more lively, vibrant affair at the heart of the community with many of the local hill tribes including Flower Hmong and Black Dao coming down from the surrounding mountain villages  on foot and with their horses carrying goods to meet, trade and socialise every Tuesday . There they were joined by Tay people who live along the river banks of the river Chay where the old market was situated.
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 Damn the Dam!

  Then, In 2011 the Chinese dammed the river to produce hydroelectric power just downriver from the marketplace, and submerged the area dislocating the not only the market  but also many of the locals, a story repeated many times over in S.E.Asia. In recent years there has been a flurry of dam building projects, mainly Chinese driven, with conflicts of interests playing out and with many negative repercussions particularly affecting the poorest people, many of them from ethnic minorities.

The Coc Ly market was relocated to a much less favourable location on a hilltop, much less accessible to locals and is now much less well supported and frequented.
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Flower Hmong


When I visited, most of the people at the market were Flower Hmong (pronounced ‘Mong’), and there were very few Tay and no Dao.

Flower Hmong baby
The Hmong originated in mountainous China and started migrating south in the 18th century. The Flower Hmong, one of the many sub-grous of Hmong, are so-called because of their distinctive multicoloured traditional clothing made of ‘pa ndau’, literally ‘flower cloth’.
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Originally, their clothing would have been hand-made but now they mostly buy ready made versions often manufactured in China from modern materials, though some add their own embellishments of embroidery and beading.

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 Flower Hmong lady selling traditional style skirts made from modern imported materials.
(click on individual photos for viewing)

Many of the traditional Hmong designs have signature patterns which symbolise aspects of their life.

Baby carriers are beautiful and often heavily decorated with beading. 
The Hmong have their own language and many, especially the older ones, don’t speak Vietnamese. Luckily I was travelling with a local Flower Hmong boy, Chô, so I’d been able to pick up some of the language. He also knew many of the locals in the market and had an easy charm and good sense of humour, which lead to some lovely interactions opening up and I was treated to some fantastic opportunities for photography.

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Many Hmong women have gold overlays on their teeth which are a fashion and status symbol rather than a dental necessity.

The area where the men sell their homemade ‘happy water’ as Chô calls it is always a good place to find a friendly face and they’re always generous with their samples!

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Love how this man’s craggy teeth have learnt to fit perfectly together over the years!

The medicine men or women are always popular, selling hope of cures for every ailment imaginable in the form of what seems to the Western eye like weird and unlikely medicaments. The healing and selling process starts with an often elaborate explanation of the wonders of what the medicine promises to do.

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The medicine man plying his trade. Nguyen, our driver, sits in the middle of the three and listens intently.


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Roots, needles, potions and lotions all in the armament of the medicine lady. Mind you, if I can sit like that when I’m her age I’m having some!


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The Hmong grow sticky rice and sometimes sweeten it for use in cakes and flavoured snacks. Chô bought one of his son’s favourites, a sweet rice coloured bright purple and wrapped in banana leaf:

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I came across one small boy having a quick haircut at the market. He didn’t look too happy about it.

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This was a lovely Flower Hmong family we stopped and chatted to. The little girl in the orange top had no shoes, and was munching on a giant cucumber.

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©ClareRowntreeXF18mmF2 RX-E1FUJIFILM                                       Big sister helps steer a course through the muddy market.

A sight you often see in rural Vietnam, is people, usually men, enjoying a long slow smoke of homegrown tobacco using a traditional bamboo water pipe known as a ‘dieu cay’ or ‘bong’ in English. Markets in these communities are about so much more than a simple exchange of goods, they’re also a place to eat, drink, relax, catch up, ‘network’, reinforce community ties, have a haircut! They play a pivotal role in the survival of traditional communities, they are their life blood  which is why it’s such a shame when they are threatened or lost by developments such as the dam.

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As we started to leave, we met a family heading home with their young child sitting at the front of the bike with the shopping, and I couldn’t help wondering whether she would still be bringing her own children to markets like Coc Ly, dressed in all their finery, as her ancestors have done for hundreds of years before.

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 Photos ©Clare Rowntree – Please do not reproduce without consent
Categories: VietnamTags: , , , , ,


  1. Thanks Clare, another wonderful story & images. Love the flower Hmong as well, such great colours, must have been a little daunting being the only tourist.Certainly seems the way to go with own guide, able to get into so many more smaller places. Must go back now and check out my Hmong images, one of the ladies looked really familiar, although I guess they all look similar. Cheers, Barb

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Barb! It’s hard to feel daunted when you’re with Chô – yes I love travelling with a local guide who can take me to some off the off beat places. Finding one that not only knows the area but also speaks the language and is great with people you’re trying to meet is key I reckon. and Chô was all of these.


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