Fog and mountain markets in Sapa


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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
November 11th 2009
Published: December 14th 2009
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We had a comfortable overnight trip on the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the station closest to Sapa. A prebooked bus drove us up the mountain to Sapa - very pretty trip though as the rice terraces had no water in them it wasn't as impressive as on our first trip in 2001.The bus let us off reluctantly in the centre of town (it was obviously planning on taking us to a hotel which would pay him a fee for bringing guests) where we found a room, right next door to the town bakery! After checking in we went off to explore - it was so much bigger and busier! There were virtually no hotels or restaurants there 8 years ago, now there was a tourist strip lined with shops, cafes and hotels. The place had a good vibe though and we had a great view of Mt Fansipan, at 3143 metres the highest mountain in Vietnam, from the balcony of our room. That afternoon we booked a trip to a market close to the Chinese border for the next day. We planned on going to a couple of markets in the area and chose markets which saw few visitors. Both were quite a long way from Sapa (one was 150 klms away) and therefore much more expensive then the trips to Bac Ha - one of the main tourist markets today. We visited Bac Ha on our previous trip - absolutely loved it, but even then the tour groups were visiting it.
The streets of Sapa are full of hill tribe people from the surrounding villages - friendly women and girls dressed in indigo dyed black (the fabric is repeatedly dyed over a month to turn the navy to black) tunics over short trousers, all decorated with embroidery in bright colours. Interesting additives to the dye vat include urine and rice wine. They wear a lot of silver jewelery, mostly made from old French coins. The main occupation of these ladies is selling craft products to the tourists - they are friendly but very persistent! None have ever been to school but all have the ability to 'tourist' speak in many languages. We were actually surprised to see them still wearing their traditional dress - realised it is for the tourists but were told by other locals that they prize their identity and culture strongly and are very loath to part with their dress. Vietnam is known for the brilliant costumes that the minority people still wear. One sad aspect of these ladies was that the girls marry as soon as they menstruate and can have ten children by the time they are thirty. Unfortunately most of these kids soon have children of their own and they all seemed to be plying for business on the streets of Sapa. They are not allowed into the restaurants but one night we had a table against the window and the whole meal we had a procession of grinning faces pressed up against the glass waving bags, jewelery and scarves at us
Next morning a rather luxurious 4 wheel drive collected us and we headed back to Lao Cai and onwards to follow the border with China for a few hours. It was scenically very pretty - blue skies, high terraces, pineapple and rubber plantations and lots of rice paddies. The market was small but very colourful - the local ethnic group are the Flower H'mong (the same group that frequent Bac ha) - very colourful costumes. The women wear blouses of satin or velvet, plus a wide gathered skirt. Both items are heavily embroidered and also decorated with commercial braid (the brighter the colour the better!). A lot of the clothes are covered with strips of dangling bead strands. All the women wear a bright plaid pattern woven headscarf wound around their heads. Their legs are wound with strips of cloth. Brown plastic sandals, umbrellas and a large fibre back basket finish off their ensembles. Babies are carried on the womens backs in bright fabric carriers and are rocked to sleep by the constant movement of their mothers.
We had a great time at the market. The locals were very happy for us to be there and we wandered around watching them purchase lengths of fabric, household products, tobacco, fruit and vegetables. Most of the people were missing front teeth - a direct result of chewing stalks of sugar cane. Everywhere we looked were piles of cane being chopped into shorter lengths ready to eat. It seemed to be the take away snack of choice. The market was surrounded by hills, and most of the stalls were shaded with blue tarps, adding to the colour. It was funny to look up and see a tiny little lady, very wizened, brightly dressed and thoroughly enjoying an ice cream on a stick! A group of men tried to get me to sit down at their table and enjoy some rice wine - sold out of grubby plastic drink bottles - but they were very drunk so I deferred. We had a fabulous morning at the market and were quite sad to leave. Another small groups of tourists arrived just as we left though we were the only foreigners there up until then.
On our return trip we stopped at a small village - a funeral dinner was taking place - it was actually 12 months after the death - at this time the body is exhumed, the bones broken and then placed into a small casket before reburial. This process is then followed by a dinner in celebration of the deceased life. They were very welcoming and one lady insisted on taking us to her house where she made us a cup of tea. Gorgeous lady with the widest smile (toothless) - she was my age and made us very welcome. Tiny wooden house - dirt floor, tiny television set, a picture of Ho Chi Minh and photos of a niece living in
Pleated traditional skirts for salePleated traditional skirts for salePleated traditional skirts for sale

These are mass produced - 6 years ago they were all hand made!
America, but not much else. Tea was drunk from tiny badly cracked china cups - she just kept refilling as fast as we drank it! We took her photo and had a copy made which our driver said he would take to her next time he was in the area. Hopefully she now us it hanging next to Ho Chi Minh. We had a late lunch at Lao Cai which is the border crossing between China and Vietnam. It was at this crossing 8 years earlier that we decided that we wanted to visit China. We revisited the area but could barely recognise it as it had changed so much. All trucks and high rises - previously it had been hand carts and bicycles. Such a major difference in such a short time.
We woke next morning to barely a view of the mountain - it had turned foggy and damp. Hoping the fog would disappear we decided to walk down to Cat Cat, one of the villages nearby. It was lower in the valley down a road and steep slippery steps. There was a lot of rubbish on the ground, too many stalls selling the same products that the
Buying VCD's Buying VCD's Buying VCD's

VCD's are a cheaper version of a DVD
street sellers had in their baskets and a lot of mud. We did see a lot of fabric drying after dying and saw the vats of indigo dyes around all the houses. Walking through the village we came to a small waterfall which was pretty. By then the fog had become thicker and colder so we headed back up the hill to our hotel room. We spent the rest of the day quietly - thankfully Sapa had some great restaurants, all with fireplaces lit. They stayed lit over the rest of our time in Sapa - we didn't see the sky or Mt Fansipan again - in fact most of the time we barely saw the shops on the other side of the street! At least we were able to use the winter clothes we had been lugging around since we left home.
If anything the next day was even more cold, foggy and damp. Spent the day watching Dvd's and reading. The fog hadn't deterred the street sellers - they were still out in force. The market area within Sapa township was a very interesting market - many tourist stalls but as many stalls aimed at the local people,
Braided fabric for saleBraided fabric for saleBraided fabric for sale

These strips are wound around the women's legs
particularly the hill tribes folk. They were full of interesting vegetables, snake wine (each bottle has a snake inside it) and many stalls selling medicinal herbs. I think the snake wine must be a medicine as it was being sold from these stalls. The area where food was cooked and eaten was constantly busy with groups of the H'mong eating and chatting. That evening in the main square (which was lined with stalls) there was to be a love market where all the young tribal people came in and dance and mingle with each other. I doubt it is very traditional any more - probably more for the tourists - but we didn't go as the weather was so bad. The fog had got even heavier which did not seem possible. And next morning we were to leave at 5.30 am for another day at a market.
Thick fog greeted us next morning. We were heading in a different direction to the previous market - to an area we had visited on our previous trip. Then the roads were just being built - there was hardly any tourist traffic because of this - now the same roads are being widened.
Buying fabric at the Lung Khau Nhin market.Buying fabric at the Lung Khau Nhin market.Buying fabric at the Lung Khau Nhin market.

These ladies are from the Flower Hmong tribe
I was quite worried about driving in the heavy fog though the young driver wasn't at all concerned. We were hoping to see the fabulous views from the top of Tram Ton Pass, plus a waterfall nearby. In 2001 we had spread some of David's ashes from the top of this pass. No view today and we bypassed the waterfall as there wasn't much point in stopping. We were driving to Sin Ho market - at least a 3 hour drive away. Our driver was fabulous - thankfully as we had heavy fog all the way. We were very disappointed not to see any view but after an hour of driving I was more concerned about arriving safely. We were driving around some pretty high roads, lots of bends and in many places very narrow., all in very heavy fog. Our guide assured us that the drivers are very used to fog and know the roads well - it would be foggy in the area now everyday for the next four months! In many places we had to go around road construction sites as the road is being gradually widened. Regular blasting takes place though as it was Sunday not much was occurring that day.
We kept passing brightly dressed people walking along the edge of the road heading towards various village markets - they suddenly appeared in the fog in front of us. Eventually we stopped at a colourful market for a break. It was very busy as it was on a main road. We laughed when we heard a duck squawking loudly - check the photo out - his friend had just been carved up for dinner and he was going to be next! Two hours after leaving Sapa we arrived in Lai Chau - remembered from previous visit as a tiny village where we spent the night in a bamboo guest house - now it was a conglomeration of ugly cement houses and hotels being constructed around an artificial lake. It appears that the Lai Chau we remembered is now on the site of a large dam being built to supply North West Vietnam with water so it was “moved” to a new site a few miles away. I doubt it was moved as it was a totally new town - very ugly! The fog had lifted in this area but Sin Ho was still 51 klms away along a very rough and winding mountain road. We were soon back into heavy fog which occasionally lifted to give us a glimpse of stunning scenery. We had to stop for a short while in a village where the road was being repaired - all the village males were fascinated with the grader and were lined up watching it. They were all still watching hours later on our return visit. There's not a lot of entertainment there obviously.
The fog lifted a couple of kilometers from Sin Ho - it had taken two hours to drive the 51 kilometers from Lai Chau!
The market was well worth the long trip. Absolutely stunning! We were made to feel really welcome though there was absolutely no English spoken. Even our guide had trouble communicating as they spoke a different dialect. This market sees very few tourists - it is just too far from anywhere. There were many ethnic groups - my favourite were the Red H'mong. The women wore brightly embroidered and appliquéd clothes with totally over the top hair. Their hair was wound around horse hair and then covered with turbans of red wool which looked like enormous helmets on
Sin Ho market - buying (and trying) bamboo water pipesSin Ho market - buying (and trying) bamboo water pipesSin Ho market - buying (and trying) bamboo water pipes

These pipes are regularly used by men and women for smoking tabacco
their heads. Their clothes were heavily embroidered and appliquéd and were predominately pink. Another group were all dressed in black - embroidered black trousers plus a black tunic (with blue cuffs) with pink wool falling from coins on the back of these tunics. They also had heavy silver jewelery and black turbans. These women were very striking - quite angular faces but very attractive. They all had shaved the hair on their foreheads (or maybe their whole heads).
Many of the women were still wearing the handmade pleated dyed and appliquéd skirts, though a lot were also dressed in the cheaper factory produced ones. There were only a handful of women (all stallholders) wearing Western dress. Most of the men were, but all carried wide blue fabric shoulder bags which were decorated with pink wool fringes and embroidery. The photos attached (there are a lot!) will give you some idea of the colour at the market. We were so pleased that we made the effort to visit that market! After dragging ourselves away we had a late lunch at a local hotel. There was a wedding celebration on there - most of the male guests (bridegroom included) were getting very
Join us for a drink!Join us for a drink!Join us for a drink!

Friendly men at market wanting to ply me with rice wine
drunk and loudly singing karaoke. The new bride looked very much out of her depth! As we were leaving the hotel a French man came out of one of the rooms - he had just started a month long trip with his wife when she stepped backwards to take a photo and stepped off a step. She had severely damaged all the ligaments in her leg and the tour group she was with (they had been visiting the Sin Ho area though not the weekly market) had left them in the hotel awaiting a helicopter to take her to Hanoi where she was to fly back to Paris for surgery.
Thankfully the fog had lifted for most of our return trip, though every so often it would come down again. We were held up by a road accident - a car hit a bike (rider seriously injured) and all the people concerned where having a fierce argument about compensation and weren't letting any cars past until it was sorted. The scenery, now that we could see it, was all that had been promised - quite stunning. Vistas of mountains with pointy tops, deep valleys, tiny villages, rice terraces and some
Hello! - at Sin Ho marketHello! - at Sin Ho marketHello! - at Sin Ho market

She really wanted to look at her face on the camera - they were really friendly people
of Vietnam's only virgin forrest. It was just on dusk when we arrived back at Tram Ton Pass and immediately Jerry and I spotted the area where we had spread Davis's ashes. Much more overgrown now of course but in a distinct and still very beautiful spot. It was very dark when we arrived back into the foggy streets of Sapa - we found that the fog had not lifted at all during the day - and the end of what had been a very special day. We were very pleased that we had made the decision to go to Sapa again. It was very changed but the two days we spent at the markets were highlight of our time in Vietnam so far. The fog gave us an excuse to read books in the warm of a cosy cafe and watch cable tv in our room.We also enjoyed some walks away from the main tourist strip, met some like minded travellers, and there were always the local markets to revisit. As we had previously booked return tickets on the train to Hanoi we really had no choice but to stay anyway! On my last morning in the town I
Ladies at Sin Ho marketLadies at Sin Ho marketLadies at Sin Ho market

These ladies shave their foreheads - supposedly to stop hair falling into their husbands' food when they serve it!
ventured upstairs in the market - for some reason I hadn't been there before. I found a large area where all the Hmong women had sewing machines set out and were busy making up all their traditional bits for the tourist market. I would have liked a little longer to watch them at work - though as soon as they saw a tourist all work ceased and the hard sell started... They were still trying hard to sell to us when we boared the bus which took us back to the railway station that night. Nice ladies but they got a little tiresome after a few days of pressure. They did however have gorgeous smiles!


Additional photos below
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A beautiful smile!A beautiful smile!
A beautiful smile!

She was so welcoming! And most embarrassed about having no front teeth - all broken from chewing sugar cane..
Chinese / Vietnamese borderChinese / Vietnamese border
Chinese / Vietnamese border

At Lao Cai - Vietnam in the foreground - China over the river


8th February 2010

Fabalous photos and text. We will certainly add Sapa to our next trip.

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