Big market with a wide range of ethnic groups: Hmong, Dao, Nung, and merchants from other ethnic groups who come all the way from China to sell their products. Several Pa Zi women sell traditional incense made from the bark and resin of scented trees.
Muong Khuong market takes place on Sundays and is located in a small border town, which is frequented by Flower H’mong, Tu Di, Tay and Giay ethnic minorities. They come from surrounding villages to buy and sell local products such as food and material for agriculture and fabric.
The district is looking to develop into an eco-friendly destination
Muong Khuong district is planning to remodel itself into a centre of community-based eco-tourism in northwest Lao Cai Province in its current period of development (2005-10), said the chairman of the district people committee Nong Van Hung at a recent tourism conference.
The district, which has 13 markets and seven handicraft villages, has chosen tourism as the driving force that can better the lives of its population of 51,000 who’s current capita per head is VND3.5 million (US$209).
Muong Khuong District is about a 10-hour train ride from the capital and then approximately 50km east from Lao Cai centre. The district is then accessible by motorbike or bus from Lao Cai City, Vietnam.
The locality is home to 14 ethnic groups including Mong (the largest group who account for 43 per cent of the population), Nung, Dao, Pa Di and Phu La. The mix in ethnicities lends the area a colourful character, visible in the market and the wares each group has to offer.
“The market is one of the main tourist attractions which sees a lot of visitors, especially as the district also serves as a link to other famous sites like Sa Pa Town, Bac Ha (Bac Ha tour)and Si Ma Cai districts in the province and the border gate with Yunnan, China,” said Hung.
“The agriculture-based district will target community-based eco-tourism in a sustainable manner that will help develop future social-economic projects over the course of the next few years,” he said, adding that the district is expected to open more border gates for increasing tourism traffic from China.
Muong Khuong District is well-known to travellers for its many markets lining National Road 4D. It gives visitors a chance to glimpse into the life and traditions, not to mention goods on sale, of the Mong, Nung and Dao.
“We want to transform tourism in Lao Cai Province into a powerful industry and Muong Khuong District is just one of the tourist destinations we want to focus on and improve upon. Currently, we are upgrading the infrastructure and landscapes in the district to make it more attractive to tourists,” said vice director of Lao Cai Province’s Culture, Sport and Tourism Department, Le Duc Luan.
During the conference, travel agents highlighted the problems tourists faced and how they needed to be rectified as it was important to ensure that travellers did not leave with bad impressions of the area.
“We are fully aware that Lao Cai is famous for its sites, especially Sa Pa Town and Bac Ha District and how tourists are drawn to the area’s weekly markets and lifestyles of the different ethnicities. However, we are afraid that an overload of tourist traffic could prevent visitors from travelling throughout the province,” said Dang Thi Tho, head of the Hanoi branch of Phoenix Voyage travel company.
“What we have learned from our 10 years of offering tours in the province is that authorities need to open more sites so that visitors have more options to avail of when they visit Lao Cai. Our customers, mostly from France, would visit Sa Pa and Bac Ha but never considered prolonging their stay in the province because nothing attractive was on offer there,” Tho added.
Tran Thi Huyen Thanh, director of Wild Lotus company, said: “I have seen just how beautiful Muong Khuong District’s natural landscape is. That is its advantage but it needs to tap into it and explore creative ways to promote it so that the area becomes an ideal destination for travellers to Lao Cai Province.”
However, the 34-year-old director said that the District needed to revamp the markets to make them easier to access and browse through in a carefree manner. He said locals needed to be made aware of norms of social etiquette in their dealings with tourists.
“At the moment, many locals do not even smile or turn their heads if tourists want to take photographs with them. Instead it is common for them to ask for a little money if they are asked to pose for photographs or they trail tourists, and harass them into buying their wares. This chaotic atmosphere needs to change,” said Thanh.
The district opened a lodge in centre of Cao Son Village, where visitors could stay overnight and then go on a trek the following day throughout forests and markets in or near Cao Son, Lung Khau Nhin, Pha Long, Ta Gia Khau, Ban Lau, Ban Xen and Lung Vai.
Many spoke of their pleasure visiting brocade weaving sites and maize wine villages in Ta Chu Phung and Di Thang. Perhaps more such lodgings need to be opened.
In the current 2005-10 five-year plan for tourism development in the district, authorities in Lao Cai hope to complete work on a road that will link Muong Khuong and Si Ma Cai districts to Ha Giang next year. This should facilitate tourism in the area as it will give travellers opportunities to explore in a convenient manner.
The road will also turn Muong Khuong District into a centre of tourism and provide a viable trade route from Hekou, Ma Guan and Yunnan in China to Bac Ha, Si Ma Cai districts in Lao Cai and Ha Giang provinces.