Alpine ethnic people in Vietnam – P6: Getting drunk at the market

More than a few men drink themselves unconscious right in the marketplace

Two women struggle to walk a man home from a Dong Van market session in the northern province of Ha Giang.

Mong ethnic men from the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang often use market sessions as an excuse to binge drink with friends until their sympathetic wives carry them home.

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It is not uncommon for the local market to be filled with wives, mothers, and children patiently waiting for the men in their lives to finish their drinks before heading home.

One early morning in late April, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters were making their way through the crowds at Sa Phin Market in Dong Van District when a man donning a traditional black Mong shirt stumbled past and fell to the ground.

“Leave him alone. He’s only been drinking corn wine. He’ll be able to get home on his own after he wakes up,” an elderly wine peddler told the concerned reporters.

The scent of corn wine, a local specialty, wafts through the heart of the market, a gathering hub where nearly a hundred men sit at rows of tables downing drink after drink when sales begin to slow down for the day.

Dozens of women dressed in brightly colored traditional dresses calmly wait nearby for their husbands to finish drinking.

Lao Chong Ngo, 37, cordially invited the Tuoi Tre reporters to join him and his drinking crew as they sipped from seemingly endless glasses, the scent of alcohol clinging tightly to every breath.    

A man passes out from alcohol right in the heart of Sa Phin Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The joyous vibe might leave even the most somber of visitors feeling ‘high’ without the slightest need for indulgence in the corn wine.

“Mong people like to bond with others and love socializing during gatherings,” Ngo said, explaining that he was at the market despite not offering anything for sale during the day’s session.

Sitting next to Ngo were his mother, wife, and young son, all three smiling as their eyes stayed glued to the drinking table, waiting patiently for Ngo to finish.

“As a wife, I’m supposed to wait for him. I’ll keep waiting if he continues drinking,” Ngo’s wife said.

Lu Thi Dinh, 43, was also quietly waiting for her husband, whose face had turned red from drinking.

“My husband has his hands full herding cattle and working the corn field all year. He really needs some time to drink and mingle with his buddies when he comes to the market,” she said.

“This is our way. We live, lie down and die on rocks. We drink wine distilled from corn grown on rocks. We come to the market only to be guided home by corn wine,” said Thai Pa No, an elderly man residing in Lung Tao, Dong Van District.

Drunk off corn wine, the Tuoi Tre reporters rambled down the asphalted road towards Sa Phin Cow Market, a local mountaintop where farmers from nearby communes gather to trade livestock.

Groups of men huddled over cups of wine, chatting away as their wives stood contentedly behind them.

Later that afternoon, two women struggled past, guiding a man home as he drunkenly tried to break free and rush back to the drinking table.

“I’m used to it. It’s my duty to get my husband home when he’s drunk,” said Ly Thi Tinh.

Seo Thi My, who has peddled wine at Sa Phin Market for 20 years now, calls the scene common.

“If the women don’t take their husband home, he’ll pass out right at the market and they’ll have to wait for him to wake up,” she added.

My sells an average of six to seven liters of corn wine each market session. On good days, when market-goes linger until the afternoon, she can sell up to 10 liters.

“The men sweat all year round on paddies spread throughout the mountain range, so they rarely see one another,” My further explained.

Women are always on hand while their spouse drinks with his buddies. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Market sessions throughout Dong Van and Meo Vac Districts, including Khau Vai, Nam Ban, Son Vi, Lung Phin, Sung La, Pho Cao, and Pho Ban, all have space reserved for drinking.

According to Dr. Mai Thanh Son, of the Central Region Social Sciences Institute, market sessions in the highlands are festive occasions during which women dress their best and men drink themselves unconscious while confiding in their friends.

“The marketplace is not only a retail area but also a reflection of local folk culture,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Ly Trung Kien, head of the Dong Van District Party Committee’s Propaganda Department, shared that Mong women take great pride in the large company their spouse enjoys and the number of drinks he is offered.   

This is indicative of Mong women’s tolerance and contentment with their nuptial life, she noted.

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