The morning after our hike, we rose early(still jet-lagging), walked around a bit and had our Banh Cuon and Bun Cha breakfast. At 700 am we settled our tour and room tab and met our Guide for our over-night trip to the village of Bac Ha. Many people make the Sunday day trip to Bac Ha, but it's 3 1/2 (100+ kilometers)hours each way, so we thought we'd be able to miss the tourists by going a day early, and staying over night in Bac Ha and hitting the market before the crush of tourists. And we'd be able to visit the Can Cau Saturday Market to boot.
We met our guide, an amiable and very friendly young Man named Thinh, and our Driver, a very quiet(at first) young man named Thang. Meet our chariot:
We had gone the private guide and driver route. Our car was a diesel Toyota Land Cruiser, with a dead suspension, and the fumes sometimes almost got the better of us. But it was fun being able to stop whenever we wanted, and to have Thinh's vast knowledge to ourselves. We got much more out of our trip by going this route.
Once we left Sapa, and passed through Lao Cai, the road got a bit, well, rougher. Luckily, the previous night's rain hadn't been very hard, otherwise the road to Bac Ha would be washed out, and our trip canceled. We saw major road construction during several stretches of our trip, soon enough you'll be able to make the trip over nice smooth asphalt. Funny, but I think the trip will lose some of it's charm, though your spine and other internal organs may appreciate the modernization.
We passed some sparkling green tea growing(we bought some on the way back) on the hillsides:
And rice paddies in the valleys:
After a kidney crunching 90 minutes, we reached the steep and winding road up the Bac Ha Mountain range. A new road is being built, but was only one-fourth complete at the time of our trip. The weather had changed significantly as we drove through the mountains, and some of the views were spectacular.
It was much drier around here. Soon enough, we skirted more road construction and arrived in sleepy, dusty Bac Ha Village. Remember this photo, and compare it to the same shot in a future post.
After a short "break", we made our way to Can Cau Market. We passed the terraced mountains:
Except in Bac Ha it's corn, not rice, that is king. Can Cau Market is approximately 20 kilometers North of Bac Ha, and we had to pass through one "bird flu" inspection/disinfection station on the way to market.
Stepping into the market at Can Cau is like being instantly immersed in a different world. The market itself occupies several "levels" of an hillside. Food stalls occupy one level:
Dry goods, hardware, herbs occupy another:
And livestock can be found in the valley below:
As we walked past the "food court" and up the stairs, dodging "tipsy" older men walking on unsteady legs, we passed the vendors selling them the treasured local
moonshine Ruou Ngo(corn wine). You can see the plastic gallon containers in this photo.
There was one vendor who caught the Missus's eye:
This lady was selling Indigo dyed rice. The Missus wanted to try it out, and with the help of Thinh purchased some. The Missus only really wanted a taste, and had Thinh try to explain that to the woman, but she insisted on giving the Missus her money's worth!
Speaking of pretty, as you probably notice in the photos, the attire of the Flower H'mong is distinctly colorful and vibrant. Flower H'mong scattered in villages in the area all come to the Saturday market. Another thing we noticed is that compared to other "markets" Can Cau is relatively "quiet".
You can't help but be enchanted by the bright colors of the Flower H'mong:
It's not only the Flower H'mong who stand out. Blue(Green) H'mong women are also easy to identify, by what else, their bright blue embroidered skirts, leggings, and tunics.
Since Can Cau Market is close to the Vietnam-China border, you'll run into Chinese vendors selling items like herbal remedies.
And of course many of the H'mong sell brightly colored textiles.
It seems that you can get any of your necessities at Can Cau.
Of course, not everybody was happy to be here. This little piglet wanted nothing to do with any of the proceedings. I really don't blame the little critter......
We had noticed that all of the tourists had cleared out by this time. It had gotten pretty hot, and most of them had headed back to their buses. But for us; it was lunch time. We had made it very clear to Mr Thinh, that we didn't do the "tourist eating" kind of thing. And he guided us to the eating area, low benches(after sitting on those little stools in Hanoi, I was getting good at this squat-sit kinda thing), on a patch of dirt shaded by tarps....just like we wanted.....
Directly to our right, the lounge lizard crowd was going strong. This was their "Friday Happy Hour", and they were sure hitting the Ruou pretty hard.
Thinh told us to wait, and got up to grab our food. I did tell him one thing; to please skip the Thit Cho. It really, ahem, didn't look very tasty. Thinh told me, he doesn't care for it anyway.
Thinh returned with a bowl full of simple boiled pork(he couldn't find any Thang Co - Horse meat stew).
Along with a bag of sticky rice, and the standard issue chili paste-lime-salt-herb dip, this was a simple, yet fatty dish. I enjoyed the mild chewiness, and thought the fat parts had some pretty decent flavor. The Missus was kinda grossed out over the look of the dish. This is free range pork, with a decent fat content, it is not the "other white meat".
We also got a piping hot bowl of soup; a clear broth with a strong white and black pepper flavor. The hand cut noodles were a nice al dente, though this pork was on the tough side.
When it comes down to it, I'd take this over Northern Pho any day of the week. The one item that came with the soup that the Missus loved were the simple pickled mustard greens. Salty and sour, the Missus said it reminded Her of childhood.
Now this is where it gets interesting. We had noticed that people were starting to pay more than a passing amount of attention to us. After a few minutes; 2 gentleman of the Giay people spoke to Thinh. Thinh came back to us and said; "they told me that they want to have a drink with you, because tourists never eat with them. They are very happy and proud that you would eat the same food". What can you say? Of course, we were obligated to. So we had first one, than another, than another round. I had Thinh get them a refill of their Ruou(at 8,000 VND - 50 cents, it's a bargain). Ruou Ngo is pretty smooth with a mild finishing bite. After a few more rounds, everyone became less inhibited, and the conversation(with Mr Thinh's translation) flowed. We were told that "they don't believe you're American. They say that you cannot be American, you don't look like Americans. Americans rarely come here, and those that do are afraid of the food, and won't drink with them. They take their pictures and leave right away." This was a common theme for us through the trip, "no, no, you cannot be American, Australian maybe?" In the end, we settled for, "ok, tell them, I'm Japanese, and the Missus is Chinese." About this time, the Missus asked if She could try and have a smoke with one of the men's bamboo smoking pipes(Diếu Cày). The crowds started gathering, I guess the show was about to start.
Thinh prepared the tobacco(Thuoc Lao), and the Missus sucked harder than an Oreck Vacuum Cleaner, and you could hear the water in the bottom of the pipe start to gurgle. And then it was; "cough, cough, choke, gasp, gag, blech" and a whole range of gagging and gasping noises(In her spasms, the Missus accidentally blew a smoke ring!). The
Mucous's Missus's beet red face told the whole story. "Whoa, that was strong." By now the Missus had become a real novelty(an Asian no less) in this conservative society where women don't smoke, nor drink in public. In celebration of the Missus's (lack off) smoking prowess we had a few more rounds. Because I was starting to enjoy the Ruou a bit too much, I knew it was time to leave. We paid our tab (30,000 VND - just under $2 US), and as we were leaving the proprietor of the pork stall came by with the standard issue used plastic water bottle filled with Ruou. Thinh explained that he wanted to have a drink with us. He made a toast which Thinh translated, "to Vietnamese and Chinese, we are brothers and neighbors, and brothers sometimes fight, but in the end we are still brothers".
We were told an old joke about Can Cau Market. "In the mornings, the people arrive, the husband is walking, and the wife rides the buffalo. In the afternoon, the people leave, the wife is walking, the husband is sleeping, laying across the buffalo." Well, this "husband" really needed an afternoon refresher by now.
This had been one of the more memorable experiences of a trip full of memorable experiences. Can Cau Market seemed a million miles away from Sapa; still unspoiled, the people work hard during the week, and enjoy life on Saturday at the social center that is the Can Cau market. These are good country folk, tough, sincere, and under the hard earned calluses, warm and generous. It was hard for us, and is still difficult for us to fathom. The exotic market, the colorful people of the Hill Tribes, eating, and drinking firewater with the locals. These are the things you read about, that happen to other people, to have lived it ourselves made us feel blessed. Days like these make it all worth while.......
I realize this humongous post may be a bit hard to digest, but I hope you enjoyed it!