Sapa is probably one of the most well-known sites in Vietnam, famous for its hills upon hills of rice paddy terraces, tended by ethnic minority ladies all dressed in multi-coloured traditional clothes. Unfortunately for us, due to be it being winter in Vietnam the whole area was covered in cloud and looked more like a set from a sci-fi movie rather than photographers paradise. As the fog loomed in the town you could barely see the other side of the road, and as the street lamps came on you could almost imagine Humphrey Bogart wearing a raincoat and Trilby in a film noir movie appearing or an alien coming out of the mist for E.T. contact. But film parodies aside…we were in a cloud on a cold hill.
Regardless of the weather we tried to make the most of our time in Sapa. We visited the museum of ethnology in the town, displaying some of the customs of the traditional people, and greatly admired the local minority ladies traditional dress as they unrelentlessly tried to sell us jewelry, bags or a trekking guide for the day (one of the negative impacts of the tourist dollar in the region). We even used the downtime to pick up some warmer clothes to deal with the cold weather in Sapa, and in preparation for our trip to China (watch this Space), and in the end all the waiting around was rewarded with one clear morning, giving us a view of the spectacular mountains around the town, making it look more like the Alps than Northern Vietnam. It didn’t last for long however, and that night over some mulled wine we decided to find an alternative to Sapa… somewhere with less cloud.
The answer was Bac Ha. A town still in the Northern Vietnamese hills but not quite as high, so instead of thick fog we were treated to sun and clear skies! In short sleeved t-shirts we wandered around the rice paddies, visiting ethnic minority villages, waving at smiley children and getting very lost en route. But the real highlight of Bac Ha was the trip to the local Saturday market at Can Cau. The market is around 18km from Bac Ha and is perched on a mountain side surrounded by terraced rice paddies and idyllic countryside in every direction.
Can Cau market is a true locals market, and attracts people from the Flower Hmong ethnicity (so-called for their colourful dress) from miles around to haggle for everything from mobile phones to puppies. Women dressed in their finest embroidered blouses and headdresses where haggling over colourful fabrics and beads for their traditional costumes, while the men drank rice wine and bartered over water Buffalos to work the fields. Entertainment for the day mainly came from water buffalo fights, organizes presumably to show off their strength and for a chance at a bet or two. It felt like for a couple of hours we’d stumbled back in time, to a very unique place…
The market was probably one of our highlights of Vietnam, and one of the best and most spectacular markets we have seen on this trip. Want our advice? Ditch Sapa and head to Bac Ha instead, you will be in for a real treat.
Next time, we’re on a boat….