Sapa lies to the Northwest of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border, in Lao Cai Province. Much of Lao Cai Province is dominated by the Hoang Lien Son Mountain range and Mount Fanispan(the highest peak in Vietnam). It is a region dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French, who first settled and started to develop Sapa in the 1920's. And though both Jesuit Missionaries(in 1918) and the French(in 1909) claim to have "discovered" or "settled in" Sapa; the area has long been populated by the "Hill Tribes", called the Montagnards("mountain people", "from the mountains") by the French. In and around Sapa, the 2 main ethnic groups are the H'mong(most notably Black Hmong) and the Dzao("Zao", mostly Red Dzao). Sapa is also known for the mild weather; I was told it hardly ever gets warmer than 30 degrees Celsius(about 85 F), and it does get down to as low as 4 C(about 40 F), this year had been especially cold, and there had been some snow! Some of these facts might have gone through my head(my mind has been called a "cesspool" of useless information), had I not been so tired and hungry. We had been dropped off right at the bottom of a street called Cau May. We decided to shop around and see what prices and rooms were like, and many places will let you check out the rooms before making a decision. We eventually chose the Mountain View Hotel, not because of the price(rooms $10-$15/ night), nor the rooms, which were run down, shabby, and had an "outhouse-ish" smell to them. But because of the view.
And the Missus had some "plans" in mind, where we'd really only stay here for one night.
You can see why they call it the Tonkinese Alps.......
By now, I really didn't care what fiendish plan was simmering in the Missus's head(to my chagrin.....more later). I was just plain hungry. Now in every city, town, or community there seems to be a "central market", you can call it "Mercado Central", A Farmer's Market, or whatever; it is, in most basic terms, a gathering place for the community to shop and socialize. And these markets usually includes a few places serving food. In the case of Sapa, it was simply named "Cho Sa Pa", Sapa Market.
And in the middle of the bustling market, were the food stalls. Heck, call it a food court if you will.
One section served soups, one section fried items, in this section, some major heat was on display.
And the Husband and Wife team specializing in two dishes. The Husband manned the grill(it's universal, isn't it?), cooking the ubiquitous "meat on a stick". You could smell the Bun Cha from quite a distance.
His Wife, slaved over the large pot of boiling water, covered with a metal frame with linen, making Banh Cuon, those wonderful thin sheets of rice floor noodle/crepe.
A scoop of batter was poured and spread over the base.
Covered, than folded with minced pork and cloud ear fungus.
So naturally we had to have one of each. All of the classic garnishes and accompaniments were provided; pickled papaya, a warm fish sauce based dipping sauce, the runny-sweet-mildly spicy hot sauce that I've come to miss, and of course herbs and greens.
Tons of fresh mint, and the Missus, for some reason, really liked the lettuce(?).
The Banh Cuon(15,000 VND - just under $1/US) arrived first, steaming hot.
The Bahn Cuon was topped with fried shallots, and Pork Sung, what we call "Rousong".....basically dried shredded pork. Not my favorite thing in the world, but in this case I wasn't bothered too much by it. This Banh Cuon was much more delicate than the version I had in Hanoi, and it had a nice bit of stretch to it. Not as much filling as that version, but I enjoyed it more.
The Bun Cha(3 skewers - also 15,ooo VND) arrived soon after.
While the Husband was setting the plate of pork down, his wife ran over to one of the booths just outside of the eating area, and came back with a plate of Bun. This was the best Bun(Rice Vermicelli) we had on the entire trip, just the perfect combination of slightly sticky, and very mildly chewy. The dipping sauce was like almost every other we had, basically a fish sauce "broth". The Bun Cha was "jerky-ish" but tasted very good. Lemon Grass and Fish Sauce were the prevailing flavors, with just a hint of citrus, onion(I'm thinking shallot), and sweetness. We enjoyed ourselves so much, we returned the next morning!
The couple who ran this stall was very nice; the Husband was the more outgoing and social of the two. Somehow, on our second visit, through gestures, we figured out that his Mother ran the stall next door. Looks like the family business is going strong! And though his wife, the quieter of the two, was in constant motion, whether cleaning, or doing some other task, sometimes with their infant on her back. On our first visit, she noticed the Missus's interest in the Banh Cuon contraption. Yep, you guessed it, a Buon Cuon lesson was in order. First she demonstrated.
Now it was the Missus's turn. Can you tell that she's a bit concerned, perhaps about the Missus burning Herself, or maybe seeing their profits being wasted?
Actually, with a bit of help, the Missus did Herself, and me proud. Not a bad job overall.
Yes, Banh Cuon so good, the Hmong eat there.....
After the meal I was ready for a nap, but that was not to be. The Missus had other plans in mind. We returned to see the Black Hmong getting ready for a busy day of "selling".
Still in a bit of a stupor; I sat down with Mr. Phuc, and went through what we wanted to do in detail. I really didn't pay attention to what I requested for this morning.........