Vietnam: Bac Ha Sunday Market
by Scott McIntire, travel blogger for GLOBOsapiens
The Livitrans Express night train pulls into Lao Cai Station just after 5:00 a.m. I am standing drowsily in the aisle of the sleeper car along with the other predominantly backpack-laden fellow passengers who boarded with me back in Hanoi. I adjust the straps on my small pack as I wait for the conductor to open the door so that I can exit the train, locate my assigned local guide, and begin my two days of sightseeing and trekking in northwestern Vietnam.
Located on the Vietnam-China border, Lao Cai is the primary gateway for travelers heading to Sapa. Situated along a steep slope amid towering mountain peaks, the former French hill station of Sapa overlooks stunningly picturesque valleys sculpted with colorful bands of terraced rice paddies and dotted with ethnic minority hill tribe villages. In addition to trekking through Sapa’s spectacular natural surroundings and encountering ethnic minority hill tribes both in town, and out in the fields and local villages, the other main attraction in the region is a visit to Bac Ha. The remote and charming town is famous for its large, busy and very photogenic Sunday market. It is particularly interesting because it features a fascinating live animal section and is attended by a large number of Flower H’mong hill tribe villagers. They are perhaps the most colorful of the region’s ethnic minorities, which the French called Montagnards (‘highlanders’ or ‘mountain people’); though the Flower H’mong are the most visible, other hill tribes can also be seen in the market.
My personalized two-day itinerary in the region, arranged through Exotissimo Travel had me depart Hanoi on Saturday, by night train, and upon arrival in Lao Cai, proceed by car to Bac Ha. I would spend about 4 hours touring the Bac Ha Sunday market, followed by lunch and a visit to a traditional Flower H’mong house in the nearby village of Ban Pho. From Bac Ha, I would continue by car to the town of Sapa, where I would stay overnight and do a guided morning trek to view rice terraces and visit both a Black H’mong and Red D’zao hill tribe village. The tour would conclude with a 5:00 p.m. return drive to Lao Cai to take the Monday Fanxipan Express night train back to Hanoi.
I step off the train into the moist coolness of the dawn air beneath a sky covered in low clouds or early-morning high fog that reflects the yellowish glare of the rail yard lights and seems to amplify the low thrumming of the idling diesel locomotive. I make my way to the station building in the distance where, upon seeing my name on a hand-held placard, I make acquaintance with my guide, Mr. Hue Hoang. We walk across to Hiep Van Terminus, a hotel-restaurant located in front of Lao Cai Station, to have breakfast before the 70 km drive to Bac Ha.
Over the course of the meal, what begins as a light rain shower increases in intensity to become a full-blown downpour as we head outside to get into the car now waiting at the curb. My heart sinks when my guide tells me that plans may change if the rain doesn’t ease up, and suggests that the alternate Lung Phin Sunday market (12km northeast of Bac Ha) might have better weather.
We proceed due northeast along National Road QL 4D and QL 70, glimpsing views of China across the river for about 7 km. The road then heads southeast through a landscape of red earth crop fields, rice terraces, and verdant wooded hills rising steeply to prominent peaks obscured by drifting mist and heavy rain. By the time we turn onto Provincial Road TL 153 the rain reduces to a light drizzle, reassuring me that the Bac Ha market is still on the day’s itinerary. The surroundings soon become more mountainous, with ever-changing vistas rendered in muted tones beneath the overcast morning sky of dramatic ridge lines framing rugged valleys as the car labors up the now steep and winding road.
About 20 minutes outside of Bac Ha, we start seeing Flower H’mongs from the surrounding villages making their way along the road to the market with their goods by foot, over-loaded motorcycles and motor scooters, and sometimes on horseback seated in wooden saddles. The men are generally dressed in Western attire rendered in mostly khaki shades, with some wearing black pajama-style garments. The Flower H’mong women, who are definitely in the majority of those seen en route to the market, are attired in very bright and colorful traditional clothing which is embroidered in rainbow banding (called pa ndau, literally ‘flower cloth’) and trimmed in lace and beaded fringe, and wearing bright checkered head scarves in neon colors.
Most of the villagers walking along the narrow shoulder of the road are carrying their goods to market in large woven cane baskets strapped to their backs. Some of the villagers traveling on foot have their animals for the day’s sale or trading (a mix of water buffalos, horses, goats, pigs and dogs) trailing behind them on the ends of slack rope leashes. Other smaller animals, such as ducks and chickens, are riding to the market in wicker or metal cages strapped to the rear of some of the slowly-advancing motor scooters and cycles that we overtake.
We pull into Bac Ha just before 7:00 a.m., arriving before the busloads of tourists and early enough to still see Flower H’mongs arriving to set up for the day’s business. The driver lets my guide and me out across from the market at the wide intersection of Ha Noi and Ngoc Uyen Road. My guide tells me that he has some local business to tend to that will take perhaps 20 minutes, and that I can do some solo wandering around the market, and then meet back up with him afterwards for a guided tour. As I cross the street, Flower H’mong women continue to converge on foot and by motor scooter with their offerings for the day; some of the women are seen lugging large plastic jugs and fuel can-like containers within their slung wicker baskets. Camera in hand, I enter the narrow inclined street that looks to be the preferred route into the market and get my first impressions of the place.
A morning spent in a busy marketplace is often the best way to sample a new destination’s culture, which is conveyed through its unique combination of sights, sounds, smells and the interactions between the locals. The street is lined with open-front shop houses and street-side vendor stalls beneath canopies of blue plastic sheeting selling a variety of items ranging from traditional ethnic hill tribe fabrics, clothing and hand bags, to dry goods and water hoses. A villager passes by, leading a water buffalo via a thin rope looped through the nostrils and around the head towards the ‘large animal’ section of the market, as approaching motor scooters toot their horns in warning.
A group of wandering Flower H’mong vendor women creates a psychedelic patchwork of rainbow banding, colorful checkering and swaths of fluorescent hues as they huddle together and converse in their native tongue while they search their stocks for handicraft samples to show an interested tourist. Two Flower H’mong women negotiate a transaction with a Vietnamese vendor woman involving a large live, yet surprising docile, rooster held dangling by its feet.
A light rain begins to fall as I head across Ngoc Uyen Road to rejoin my guide and begin my official tour of the market. We walk back through the market and beyond its north wall to a field strewn with low weeds and discarded sections of pre-form concrete curbing, where a group of men display small wood and mesh cages containing a variety of colorful song birds. My guide tells me that he wants to buy two song birds to take back home to his son as a present. He checks out the different birds, and then engages the vendors in enquiries and/or negotiations in Vietnamese, some of which involve a third party, via cell phone. Meanwhile, I shoot some photos and video clips of the surroundings. We reenter the market near the blacksmiths’ stalls en route to the food vendors.
In the vicinity of the food vendors, Flower H’mong women are selling the locally-made and highly-flammable corn moonshine that my guide calls ‘happy water’ from the large plastic containers that I had seen toted in earlier. It is dispensed via siphon hoses and funnels into the empty jugs and drinking water bottles provided by the customers. My guide leans in to speak with an older vendor woman, who removes the cap from the mouth of her dented and soiled white plastic drum, and tips it forward to fill the cap of a smaller jug like a shot glass. My guide takes it from her, tips it to disinfect the rim of the cap, then hands it to me with a smile. The ‘happy water’ is decidedly strong but surprisingly smooth going down.
Passing some vendor stalls selling roots, herbs and traditional medical remedies, and another selling freshly-butchered pork, we stroll among the aromatic open-air eateries of the market’s food vendors. Surveying the diners seated at the rows of wooden tables and benches laid out beneath canopies of corrugated tin and plastic sheeting, it appears that the phoa (rice noodle soup) is the most popular breakfast item. Also in the offering are large steaming caldrons of mystery meat that may involve organs and entrails simmering over wood cook fires; a nearby set of horns attached to a bit of brown hide-covered skull cap raises the possibility that the mystery meat includes goat. Blood cake, blood sausage and fatty pork are also on display.
From the food vendor area, we continue walking along a sloped concrete walkway that leads up to an elevated open concrete patio or deck that abuts an embankment’s rock and mortar retaining wall. The patio comprises part of the live animal market where a variety of small to medium-sized animals are sold. Myriad ducklings peep incessantly from mesh cages and woven cane baskets; clucking roosters and hens wait solemnly in their wicker cages while others are taken out and held up by the feet to be fondled by prospective buyers. Kittens, puppies, adult dogs and pigs of varying sizes sit or lay on the concrete at the ends of leashes, with the pigs emitting snorts and squeals of agitation as customers lean in closely to examine them. Four large frogs dangle from a string draped over the extended middle finger of a young Flower H’mong girl.
We ascend the rock and mortar stairway to the crest of the embankment, where water buffalo are sold. Our vantage point affords a good overview of the market grounds, though much of it is shrouded beneath terra cotta roof tiles and a patchwork of peaked blue plastic tarps, along with the modest skyline of downtown Bac Ha. The view before us takes in the Na Co River and, on a lower flat between our embankment and the river, the grounds where horses are viewed and sold. Though a lot of Flower H’mong women are present, the men are in the majority and are doing all of the hands-on close inspections of the water buffalo, patting and prodding flesh and muscle, and visually examining the animal from every angle.
Down below at the horse viewing area the din of the general market is replaced by the shimmering calls of cicadas and the sporadic whinnies of horses mixed with the murmur of conversations. A prospective buyer test-rides one of the horses, galloping up the dirt trail that winds from the river’s edge up to water buffalo viewing area at the crest of the embankment, and then back down. Afterwards, he stands gazing at the panting horse whose reins he now holds and contemplates his decision, as interested and smiling onlookers offer what seem to be light-hearted words of advice and encouragement.
Stroll through the Bac Ha Sunday market’s live animal section here.
We make our way back down the embankment stairway and across to the far end of the crowded patio, threading through people, tethered and caged animals, stacks of empty wicker shoulder baskets and parked motor scooters, to tour the rest of the market. We turn right onto a noisy and busy narrow street lined with open-air barbers and vendor stalls selling hill tribe fabrics and clothing, dry goods and household items, eye glasses, ‘happy water’ and a lone vendor selling live ducks and chickens. Along the streets and in open courtyards are the scores of Flower H’mong women seated on the curbs, steps, or upon stools and cushions with their fruits and vegetables for sale, displayed on plastic tarps laid out on the pavement.
Near the Bac Ha Temple, we head back up Ngoc Uyen Road to complete the guided tour. I strike out on my own before we leave the market to tour a traditional adobe-walled Flower H’mong house, returning to the food and live animal section to take more photos and video clips. I stop to watch a spirited negotiation session over what looks to be a section of large bee hive, laden with trapped honey. An irritated Flower H’mong seller is pointing her umbrella at two bottles of dark amber liquid, as if to justify her hard-line position on the price. Near the entrance to the animal section, two men play a slow and somber melody on the ken bau, a traditional Vietnamese double reed wind instrument (as heard in the videos), providing a counterpoint to the litany of tooting motor scooter horns and imprinting yet another memory of my visit.
As I leave the Bac Ha market grounds, I’m thinking that the experience has more than met my expectations. It is perhaps the most interesting market that I have encountered so far in my travels around Southeast Asia, and was well-worth the lack of decent sleep on the night train journey from Hanoi.
Scott McIntire is an engineer who has worked in the aerospace and automotive industries, but whose true passion is traveling. He enjoys sharing his experiences on the road and abroad through his photos, videos and travel writing, and contributes to the travel blog GLOBOsapiens.