Bắc Hà （北河）is a district of the Lao Cai province in the Northeastern region of Vietnam – 80km from Sapa.There is a fabled Sunday market there that I have been yearning to see after reading about it on Lonely Planet and I finally did it last December! (yes, i know, i write with an approximate lag of 1 year. but hey, better late than never right?)
Vege sellers outside Bac Ha’s temple
My first and only travel experience in Vietnam was an eye opener and the experience at Bac Ha market definitely took prime spot in my “things to do in Vietnam” recommendation. Of course, this day trip to Bac Ha would best be tied in with your visit to Sapa, another legendary ‘must do’ town to visit when in the northern part of the country. In fact, i wrote about it (well, partially) earlier this year, read about it here
The trip to Bac Ha was an epic one. W and I took a midnight sleeper train (Pumpkin)from Hanoi to Lao Cai. 2010 fees are about USD 33/pax. Was squashed in a little bunk bed and kept half awake the entire night with the screeching of the train wheels on the track. Memorable part of the journey was poo-ing onto the tracks (could see the rail through the latrine hole) as the train sped through the night. Pretty cool.
The train pulled in rather early at Lao Cai. I remembered stumbling out of the carriage, dazed, onto the platform at 6am in the morning. Was led to the Et Pumpkin hotel (just beside the station) and provided with a breakfast (Pho, again) to start the day. After about 2 hours of waiting and wandering around Lao Cai, we were packed into a van with 8 other strangers from around the globe and started our nauseating 2.5 hours drive up the windy roads towards Bac Ha. Nauseating because I am not great at car rides on mountain roads. (Too bad all the interesting places are tucked in obscure corners of this Earth)
Notwithstanding the nauseating car ride part, i had a pretty good time peering at the little towns that we passed by on our way to Bac Ha. It was my first encounter with tribal people in N. Vietnam and was simply intrigued by the colorful outfits (all personally handwoven) that they don. Trivia:There are more than 50 indigeneous tribes living in the region, and each can be distinguished by their traditional dresses (colour schemes, head scarves, etc.)
The touristy section of Bac Ha market. Walk through it, fast.
After what seem like eternity, we were dropped at the southern end of the Bac Ha market area where we were free to roam for a couple of hours. My initial response upon disembarking was “what? i sat a blistering 2.5 hours ride ..for this?” and this = a wider version of your Lady’s Night Market （女人街） in HK. Where’s the authenticity? I couldn’t believe my eyes when we walked past stall after stall of handicrafts and clothes that were obviously targeted at the tourists. Was feeling a little dejected until i caught sight of a crowd congregating at the top of the knoll situated at the end of the street that we were walking on.
Finally. the REAL Bac Ha market.
erm…Pig’s head anyone?
It was a surreal experience walking through the maze of stalls at Bac Ha. Besides your usual wet market grub, there were more bizzare items like horse legs, horse innards, pig’s head and home made alcoholic brews like cassava wine, rice wine and corn liquor (smelt intoxicating). Tribal sellers (dressed in their finest) fervently promoting their goods (in a language i can’t fathom), Vietnamese men sampling the alcohol (contained in jerry cans and served in bottle caps), cooks stirring their cauldron of innards from some unknown animal – with the furry skin left beside the pot basking in all its glory, a Vietnamese fishmongeress (is there such a word?) waving her chopper at an aggressive customer…. the walk through the market was simply bewildering!!
Horse stew. hmm..still not up for it yet.
Walking further north and out of the crazy maze-like market, we stumbled upon an opening where (dog-lovers, you might like to stop reading right now)…. little puppies and dogs were for sale. The yelping furries which were caged up in ratten enclosures were a depressing sight. And i don’t really want to know what become of them after they are purchased. But I do know for a fact that dog meat is one of their specialities.
We saw the tribal ladies gnawing on sugar canes wherever we go
Venturing deeper into the market, we climbed up a flight of steps onto an elevated ground where we took in the scenery of the surrounding countryside and hills….in the company of water buffalos and chuckling Flower Hmong tribal ladies. Turns out that the highest point in Bac Ha market serves as a Water Buffalo trading ground.The animals were roped (through their nostrils) to a huge rock on the ground and traders will move amongst them to survey the size and robustness of the creature before haggling with the owners. As one might know, water buffalos are probably the most important animal in Asia (in my opinion) as they contribute crucial manual labour, and thus, to the economy of the agriculture/rice-farming societies in this region. This is their physical SGX!
Water bufflos for sale
After exploring the final section of Bac Ha market, W and I walked down the hill and got ourselves lost for awhile before stumbling onto an open road which led us to a temple. Surprisingly, it was no different from our typical Chinese temples in Singapore with its stone carvings and tiled arched roofs. Althought it was pretty unimpressive, it provided us with a serene place to unwind and zone out of the hustle and bustle that we have unwillingly left behind at the bazzar before taking our ride back towards Sapa.
The view from the top
The great thing about this travel experience was the fact that the tribal villagers and locals were so immersed in their trading and socializing activities that we (the tourists) blended into the background. To the locals, the Northface-clad aliens with Canon-DSLRs dangling round the necks were on the other side of the screen. Sure they could see us, but we were inconsequential to their agenda for the day, and thus faded into oblivion. Love it.
Flower Hmong ladies on the hill top
Do pop by Bac Ha during your visit to Northern Vietnam. March to May (dry season) is apparently the best time to visit the region. Day tours (leaving from Sapa or Lao Cai) can be signed up at both towns or at Hanoio’s old quarter. Hurry before the area gets invaded by mass tourism and the Hmong ladies start selling you Bacardis instead of their homemade moonshine.
Master brewers and their jerry-canned whiskeys