Published: June 26th 2010June 25th 2010
The sleeper train from Hanoi pulled in to Lao Cai station at 5am, it had been a painless ten hour journey and I didn't feel quite awake yet as we followed the crowds leaving the platform.
Fleet after fleet of minibuses labelled 'Sapa' filled the carpark outside and into them plodded nearly all the trains passengers. It was at this point that we felt very glad to be heading in the opposite direction! Instead of Sapa we wanted to go to Bac Ha, a town with a famous Sunday market and beautiful hillside location. The six remaining tourists and us, left in town, found a local bus and after the usual price negotiation were on our way.
As the bus slowly wound it's way up the steep narrow roads the sights of carpeted green hillsides of maize and rice terraces were gradually lost in the clouds that engulfed us. As we got higher the bus filled up with surrounding village residents catching a lift to the market.
Some of the nearby villages are home to the Flower Hmong people, just one of many hill tribe minorities living in the north of Vietnam. The Flower Hmong are a very
colourful clan, their woven skirts, bags and collar-necklaces in shades of pink purple yellow or orange, worn with sequined leggings, bright headscarfs and arm warmers.
Bac Ha seemed to be an old fashioned market town, bustlingly busy one day of the week and then eerily quiet for the rest. The market itself was pretty big and the first of many stalls we came to was run by a toothless old lady selling rice wine. She insisted that we take a shot of this near pure alcohol, highly flamable, petrol-like beverage: never mind that it's only 8am! It was bloody strong stuff, not to be tried again, thank you. With alcohol running through our blood we diverted to the food area for sustinance. Here there were groups of wooden benches gathered around stoves where expert cooks would dish up overflowing bowls of noodle soup with unusual animal parts floating on the surface. More graphic meat was found on the nearby tressle tables, pork is a favourite meat and there were trotters, ears and even tails on display. Worse than this for me to experience was the live animal section, here there were piglets chucked squealing into sacks, ducks and chickens
galore and even dogs in tiny cages. But this is life and while it was horrible to see animals being treated this way, it was an important part of the trading for these people and constitutes vital income and food respectively. Off to a slightly happier fate were the water-buffalos and horses. It was interesting to watch the would-be owners examining the feet and looking into the mouths of a prospective purchase, while the current owner does his best to make the beast look powerful. A life of tough agricultural work awaits so power is clearly very important.
For us the best experience of the market day was to see the hill tribe community in all their beautiful attire buying and selling all manor of goods, slurping noodles at the smokey food stalls, and socialising with each other.
We'd soon had our fill of the market and so went back to the Congfu hotel. We decided to stay here despite the rude and unfriendly management, as the room itself was very nice, it even had a bath! Later on we went for dinner and were surprised to see so many drunk men doing shot after shot of rice
wine, they seemed to be either celebrating or commisserating the successes and losses of the day.
At a little restaurant where you felt like you were sat in someones living room, we ate a delicious bowl of Pho and then shared some baked taro-root and green tea with a chirpy old lady.
Ban Pho village is just 2km from Bac Ha so the next morning we set off for a hike planning to make up our own route from there. It was a cloudy morning but when we reached Ban Pho we could still make out a cluster of houses high up on the peak of the hill, we made that our destination. As we climbed higher and higher we left the urban world behind, all around us were patchwork fields of crops growing at all angles up the hillsides. We saw huddles of snot nosed, muddy and utterly adorable children and watched the age-old farming techniques of ploughing a rice paddy: surf behind your buffalo holding it's tail! The scenery got more beautiful as we gained altitude and the sun came out giving us huge panoramic views over the valleys below, and a spot of sunburn on
our necks. One of the best sights of the day was of a little boy (no more than 8) emerging from the mist riding on the back of his buffalo. He shyly hopped down as he got near us and competantly led the rather scared (of us) creature past us and down to the village below.
The whole walk there and back had taken only 4hours but our legs were tired and stomachs were rumbling by the time we got back, the only remedy for this is to have a curry and plenty of beers and put ones feet up, or so Lewi tells me!
After a relaxing evening sitting on our sunny balcony watching an amateur tennis match and talking to the parents via skype we got an early night. The next morning Lewi wakes up and says, "I think we should go to China today". We'd been working out a rough plan, where we'd like to go etc, and the collosal distances involved meant we would need every day we could spare. So we went for it...China here we come!!
There are more photos below