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A Journey Back in Time: The Pho Cao Tribal Market

May 1, 2023
4 Min Read
Written by 
Women buy goods at Pho Cao market in Vietnam

“Just another Sunday market”, is what many will think when they pass the gates of Pho Cao market in Dong Van district, Vietnam. The northern region of Vietnam is well known for its Sunday markets in big cities such as Bac Ha and Meo Vac. But the Pho Cao market is not like any other in the region. 

Colorful clothes are sold at Pho Cao market, Vietnam

What makes it unique compared to other markets in the region is the fact that it opens every six days. If it’s open on Sunday this week, it will open on Saturday next. This extraordinary concept means that no one, except the locals, exactly knows when to visit the market.

Vendors sell goods with mountains in the background.

Located in-between the high mountain ridges of Ha Giang, visiting Pho Cao feels like stepping back in time. While women sell hand-made paper and incense, the men gather and enjoy the dieu cay, a bamboo pipe used to smoke tobacco. The plastic bags containing your freshly purchased goods, however, swiftly take you back to the realization that this is, in fact, still the 21st century. 

Women wear colorful clothes at Pho Cao market, Vietnam
A woman smiles at the camera at Pho Cao market, Vietnam

Apart from just being a market, Pho Cao is also a meeting hub for the many ethnic minorities in the area. Locals from up to 17 ethnicities come to the market to enjoy a drink, eat a bowl of pho, or just to meet with their friends. 

Women buy goods at Pho Cao market in Vietnam

With an estimated area of 1000 square meters, the market is reasonably small, and space must be used thoughtfully. So the market is divided into multiple areas, offering different types of goods. 

In the indoor area, you’ll find vendors selling a wide array of goods such as textiles, cooking utilities, and even medicines. When you stroll past the stands, you’ll drown in a sea of colors. Traditional clothes are sold and worn by locals from ethnic minorities such as the Dao, H'mong, Giay, and Tay. 

Women buy goods at Pho Cao market in Vietnam

As the market is located close to the border in-between Vietnam and China, you’ll notice plenty of Chinese produce, such as medicine, and it’s even possible to exchange your Vietnamese dong for Chinese yen. Many locals have family members working in China; their money gets passed on to family members in Vietnam, who exchange it for Vietnamese dong at the market.

Walk a bit further and you’ll end up in the food area, where you’ll find vendors serving bowls of noodles, sticky rice being sold out of woven sacks, and traditional pancakes being grilled above smothering coal. 

A woman buys meat at Pho Cao market, Vietnam

The noodle dishes sold at Pho Cao Market are handmade and unique to this region. Locals from all around the area walk for hours just to get a taste of these handmade noodles in a fresh beef broth topped with scallions.

Alongside the colorful textiles and local delicacies, you’ll also find dozens of jerry cans piled up together. Jerry Cans filled with homemade liquor such as rice wine and corn wine. Liquor seems to be in high demand judging by the crowd that gathers here. After all, we’re still in Northern Vietnam.

People sell goods at Pho Cao market, Vietnam
A woman sells goods at Pho Cao market in Vietnam

The last area of the market is located just outside its gates. Walk along the road, and you’ll be met by the livestock market. Mainly women gather in this open area to sell piglets and other small livestock, such as chickens and rabbits. Some are sold to keep as pets; many are not. 

A woman sells piglets at Pho Cao market in Vietnam

When the market comes to an end, it’s time for the locals to make the long journey back to their villages. Either with goods tied to their motorbikes or in baskets on their backs, they make their way along the steep mountain roads. All to come back to the valley in six days.  

Pho Cao Market feels like a fairy tale. When you walk among the locals from all those different ethnic minorities, when you maneuver your way past wooden stalls, and when you eat food you’ve never eaten before. That’s when you truly appreciate how obscure a place such as Pho Cao Market is.


A traveller who enjoys photographing colorful local markets and mountain kids.

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