On our last morning in Sapa, still feeling the jet lag, we rose early, and the Missus decided that She wanted to take a "short hike" down to the waterfalls near Cat Cat Village. With our last "short hike" still fresh in my mind, I was a bit hesitant. But this turned out to not be too bad. To reach the trail down to Cat Cat Village, you walk through the Sapa Market, and down the road. The early morning view of the misty valley is breathtaking.
After paying admission at the entry booth, you start heading down the well paved road. Young Xe Om drivers stop as you head down the hill, each one lobbying for the ride back up the hill. "Mister, I'm Coca-cola(tugging his coke hat), you remember me for later ok?" "I'm Lucky Strike(showing me his lucky strike T-shirt), maybe I give you ride back. You remember me ok?" And so forth. Luckily, we arrived early, and the cool morning air made everything much more pleasant.
Instead of heading through Cat Cat Village we just stayed on the main road, eventually crossing this bridge.
There are two or three different trails that lead around the hills. After passing several fields growing Indigo plants, we ended up at the falls, and the bridge that crosses the river. It's a nice place to take a break.
If we headed across the bridge, we'd have looped through Cat Cat Village.
Weary of the "hard sell" we decided to turn around and head back.
We were lucky to have had an early start. We passed large groups of tourists making their way down the road. It was a nice little morning hike.
Famished from our morning walk, we noticed a quaint looking little shop just down the street from the hotel. This was in the opposite direction of most of the businesses in Sapa, so the street was a bit quieter.
The place was called Drop & Drop Restaurant. We walked in and had a seat. When it came to ordering, the Missus still wanted more vegetables. So we started with the Mixed Vegetables(10,000 VND - about 60 cents/US).
For this price we hadn't expected much, and this was just a basic stir fry of onions, cabbage, carrots, and tomatoes. Light soy sauce and black pepper flavor, the tomatoes were very good.
I had decided to try one meat dish, and settled on the H'mong Style Beef(24,000 VND - $1.50/US):
The dish arrived on a sizzling plate, well seasoned, and pretty tender. The meat had a good beefy flavor, and was much better than I thought it would be.
The story of the next dish was interesting. I recalled seeing the wonderful watercress in the Sapa Market, and was happy to see stir fried watercress on the menu. When I ordered it, the Young Lady took a long pause, and looked at us, and said; "okay, we can do that!" While we were eating our stir-fried vegetables, a Girl entered the restaurant carrying a bundle of fresh green watercress, which was stir fried, and made its way to our table a few minutes later.
Fresh, crisp, slightly bitter, with a hint of sweetness this was quite good (16,000 VND - $1).
After our meal, I managed to arrange for a late check-out with the hotel($9). Soon enough the day passed and we caught our Bus back to Lao Cai.(31,000 VND/each)
In Vietnam they don't tell you anything Part 2:
Now it gets a bit strange. We arrive at Lao Cai, but instead of stopping at the Train Station, we stop in front of a restaurant. The Driver gets out and announces, "okay, everybody, you stop here and eat before you get on train." Huh? Not getting a good explanation as to what was going on and unable to get any information, we crossed the street, and walked over to Lao Cai Station.
We knew we had to exchange our tickets for boarding passes, but where was the question of the day. As we head to the train station, we see the "Guy with 3 wives" sitting with a young lady at one of the juice stalls in front of the train station. So I ask very innocently, "Is this your wife?" And he gives me a weird look and say, "no, no, we are not married." I dunno, working on wife #4 perhaps? After asking around a bit, the Missus figures out where we exchange our tickets. We had to go 2 blocks from the train station, into another restaurant, and up to the second floor to a desk to exchange our tickets for boarding passes. I'd say they've got a bit of a racket going.
After buying a few oranges we settled in. I noticed a couple looking confused, and disoriented, just like we were 30 minutes ago. I went up to see if I could help them out. They turned out to be tourists from France. I had gotten to them a bit late. They had just paid someone $5 to get their tickets exchanged. I dunno, but I don't think I'd hand my train tickets over to some stranger.....
Soon after sunset, our train was called, and the huge mass of humanity boarded the train. Just as on our train ride to Sapa, we thanked Beach for making sure we had an entire 4 berth to ourselves. Not much sleep tonight, but lots of excitement. Tomorrow night we'd be in Siem Reap!
As I started typing this up, the Missus peered over my shoulder; "no, not another market!" Me: "Yep...." She: "Just how many markets are you going to do posts on?" Me: "All of the markets we visited." She: "I am soooo over all these market posts."
Sigh, so yes, it is but another market post. I believe that each market we visited had it's own personality, and told me much about the towns, villages, and cities we visited. Cho Sapa was no different. It may have been smaller than all the others we visited, but I learned a bit.
The Sapa Market is located right off the main street down a set of crowded slippery steps, or the down the alleyway lined with produce a block further.
And though the market has a nice section of fruit.
We noticed most of it was being unloaded from large trucks early in the morning, coming from elsewhere. It was the sparkling fresh vegetables that really caught our attention.
In spite of the fact that we had already spent over a week in Vietnam, our internal clocks were still off kilter. But one of the benefits of jet lag, was rising early. Walking around Sapa Market in the morning, you could see the fresh vegetables arriving.
By motorbike and by foot.
Up the steep hills from the green valleys below.
The slow procession of fresh, green produce made its way to the market.
If this were San Diego, people would be going ga-ga over this stuff.
I found these very fresh young and tender bamboo shoots to be inspiring, as you will find out later on in this post.
And though I found many similarities to the steep climbs we had in Cusco.
I never saw anything like this old man carrying a bed frame up the hill from Cat Cat Village!
Or the "meat delivery".....
I noticed something very interesting at Sapa Market. All the butchers were women, and they worked with such skill and precision.
You knew they were not to be trifled with.
There was only one or two vendors selling fish.
But I managed to snap this photo of some very alive Rice Paddy Crabs, since I know they have many fans in the States.
Though we never found a bowl of Bun Rieu in Sapa. Perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough.
Later on in the day, the area around the market steps comes alive with prepared food. You can find Banh My, Banh Bao, and other snacks. One booth had long sausages coiled up, it was a nice variety to go along with the offerings from the "food court" in the center of the market. This booth had a variety of cut and shredded pork.
We watched this lady preparing and chopping pieces of pork into thin little strips. Until it hit us. She was making Bi(pork skin and finely shredded pork) by hand!
The item below is quite interesting. We had been told about it, but had never seen it until our last day in Sapa. H'mong Smoked Pork.
It's not very surprising that the H'mong smoke a good amount of meat, since it looked like many of the homes in the villages we visited lacked electricity, and thus refrigeration. Smoking is probably common practice as a means of preservation.
Of course to some, this is just another day at the office.
But to me, it was a wonderful melange of sounds, sights, and smells, that has been welded into my grey matter.
Even the little things, like the little coal cylinders used for the stoves. The Missus mentioned them as being part of Her childhood in Qingdao. No central heating then, so the coal was used for the stoves, and the long lasting radiant heat for warming the family during the cold, Qingdao winter nights. Not to romanticize the whole thing, I'm quite happy with modern conveniences. But as a child of Hawaii, I am forever fascinated about these type of things.
We returned to Sapa from our overnight trip to the Can Cau Market and Bac Ha feeling a bit tired. We wanted something a bit more comforatable than the rooms at the Mountain View Hotel. After checking out a few places, we decided that a back room at the Auberge Dang Trung would fulfill our needs. The price? $18/US per night.
The room we had was quiet, though it was a bit of a march up several flights of winding stairs, and through a raised courtyard.
After stowing our stuff, the Missus and I were a bit hungry, but we weren't ready to face the hoards of hawkers on the streets trying to sell us stuff. We decided to grab a bite at the hotel's restaurant/lobby/bar/tour office....or whatever you may want to call it. The Missus had one condition; "no more pork, or even meat for that matter." Say what? No meat?
The menu was an interesting hodge-podge of almost everything. In fact, we noticed that many French tourists eat here. They all seemed to order the "ohme-let-te"; fried eggs with a baguette.
We started with the stir-fried vegetable of the day. Which ended up being cabbage. Ehhh. But what should I have expected for 10,000 VND (less than $1)?
The rice was also typical of what we had in Vietnam, unpolished, off-white, with little gritty bits.
The stif fried noodles with vegetables was decent, mainly because I really enjoyed the soy sauce that was used for the dish. (20,000 VND - approx $1.50)
I scoured the menu for something that I thought would be good. Having seen the lovely fresh bamboo shoots at the market, I ordered the stir fried version, in hopes that it would be fresh bamboo shoots ($15,000 VND - approx $1). And these delivered mightily. If you've never had fresh bamboo shoots, you're missing something good. The texture was a wonderful mild crunch, followed by an almost meaty bite.
Simply seasoned with some decent quality soy sauce and black pepper, this hit the spot. In fact, we made sure to have this again before we left Sapa. Not a bad meal for 50,000VND(a tad over $3/US).
While we were walking around Sapa, we took a ton of photos. Here's an interesting one; the Pink Floyd Bar & Restaurant, in Sapa? Somehow, I can't make the connection between The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon and Sapa. Hmmm, maybe Animals? There must be a story behind this......
Here's a photo of the Vietnamese-China Border crossing from the town of Lao Cai, which is the dropping off point from the trains arriving from Hanoi to Sapa.
Crossing over the Red River via the Ho Kien Bridge and you'd be in the town of Hekou, Yunnan Province, PR China.
We stopped by on our way back to Sapa to take a photo for the Missus's Parents. We thought they'd get a kick out of it. And of course, while we were there, we ran into some Chinese visitors:
Who told the Missus She should visit Hekou; "you don't need a visa, just sneak across the border, see, no problem, we do it all the time when we have visitors." Ummm, no thanks.
So what the heck does Hekou have to do with Com Lam and street food in Sapa? That'll become evident a bit later on. Street food is quite easy to find in Sapa. Little stalls and vendors line the streets around the Main Square.
Actually, I'd be pretty generous in calling these stalls. In most cases, the set-up consists of a few tiny stools, a grill, and maybe a plastic table.
All of these little stands sell basically the same thing; grilled pork skewers, duck eggs, sweet potato, chestnuts, sometimes grilled sparrow...and Com Lam. Com Lam is basically sticky rice cooked in tubes of bamboo. We were awestruck at the immense amount of these little stands....all selling the same thing.
We chose one, manned by this young lady:
Who turned out to be Chinese, and originally from Hekou! Leave it to the Missus to find the only vendor in the whole area who is Chinese. The young lady was overjoyed when she found out the Missus is Chinese.
As she grilled our Com Lam, we learned her story. She was born and raised in Hekou, and ended up marrying a Vietnamese man from Sapa. He was a schoolteacher by trade, and makes a decent amount of money, but it is not enough for the family of three(she has a 5 year old daughter) to make a decent living. In order to make ends meet, she mans this little stand 5-7 days a week, for up to 12 hours a day during the weekends.
This was on our first evening in Sapa, and we could tell a storm was brewing. Several times the winds almost blew the umbrella off the stand, but the Missus helped her hold it in place. For some reason, it is one of my favorite photos.
Soon after my little tube of sticky rice was ready; and with skill and precision(and a knife), the bamboo was peeled back to reveal the tube of rice within.
The rice is chewy, and mildly nutty in flavor. I really like the "dip" made of peanuts, salt, chilies, and a bit of sugar. You can read more about Com Lam on Wandering Chopsticks blog, here and here on Oishii Eats. While the Missus was waiting for Her item to be ready, She learned a bit more about the young lady. Her Mom who she tries to visit every month, still lives in Hekou. Her Vietnamese is not very good, which makes her kind of isolated among all the other vendors, though she has a few "friends". You could tell that the young woman missed speaking in Chinese.
Can you see what the Missus is getting?
Yep, it's what they call Trung Vit Long...aka Balut. Something I've had before, but don't really seek out, and this version was way past it's "due date". Egad, I can't even describe it. Good fertilized eggs have a wonderful "juice" that tastes like the essence of the bird, this one didn't.
I've never seen Balut that already had feathers.......we couldn't make it past a mere taste. The Young lady though it was funny. At that point, the wind was whipping up, and it looked like the rain was on the way so we left. Knowing that the young woman was starving for some company that could understand her native language(the Missus told me the accent was sometimes very difficult to understand), we decided to drop by and grab a bite before leaving Sapa.
She told the Missus a bit about her life in Sapa(where men love to gamble, and a "justifiable" beating of your wife is still deemed ok by some), about having a daughter who barely knows her because she works all the time, and the feeling of being so close to your "home", but feeling so far away.....
There is a large group of covered food stalls just North of the main square, and while walking through the booths we saw this, the "pig on a stick".
It was 240,000 VND a Kilo($15/US)....there was no way the Missus and I could eat a kilo of pork meat. Somehow, we managed to let them know that we wanted a half-kilo. We chose some leg meat, and some back meat. It was pretty disappointing. The skin, instead of being crisp, was more sticky and hard, and the pork had no flavor.
Oh well, at least I got "pig on a stick!"
One last thing. Here's your typical Sapa full service masseuse, barber, hair dresser, and most importantly ear cleaner.
Ear cleaning must be a pretty big event, he's even got a spectator!
*** My apologies, this is another super long post.
The Sunday Market in Bac Ha is considered to be the largest of it's kind in the mountainous region of Vietnam near the Chinese border. Most days, Bac Ha is little more than a sleepy, dusty, mountain village, with nary a horse drawn cart roaming the main streets. But on market Sunday, the place is alive, and you can feel the electricity in the air.
There were vendors everywhere selling all sorts of goods.
Yesterday, what was a major construction area, was today filled with food stands.
All of these were making different versions of Xoi Chien, fried sweet rice snacks.
Chewy, mystery meat filled, greasy, fried sticky rice cakes about sums it up.
It really did seem that Bac Ha finds its "Glass Slippers" every Sunday, and is transformed into Cinderella. Or as the Missus would say, "more appropriately Yè Xiàn."
The main area of the market is a portable Fes-like maze of alleyways created by the various stands and vendors. There are areas I saw, which I considered even more ponderous than the cliffs of Pisac.
Here you can pick your poison; some Thuoc Lao for your nicotine fix. With free samples!
Or chilies, so fresh that smelling them can bring tears to your eyes, for those who think "red means go." Actually, these chilies have a nice heat, but also a sweet, fruity finish as well.
Or maybe you need a cure for what ails you.
Herbs direct from China just a few kilometers away.
Perhaps your Botox is wearing off, and you're in need of a "freshening up". Well, let me introduce you to the "not so latest thing".
Maybe some Python Fat would be just what you need.
Perhaps you need to consummate that Vietnamese Plastic Slipper fetish you have, or maybe you're just channeling your inner Imelda Marcos. Well, they've a cure for that here as well.
I know what, you're thinking; "why doesn't this idiot just stick with the food."
Check out the fresh Bamboo Shoots. I picked one up(it was nice and heavy), took a whiff, and I swear I could hear the whistling of the wind through the leaves and feel the cool breeze on my face.
Thinh stopped by this little snack stand....I wonder why?
This fried sticky rice cake was so greasy, that it made the Xoi Chien seem like diet food. It was also tasteless; well unless you can tell me what the taste of cardboard is.
Skirting the other fried food stands, we made our way to the market perimeter. This is where all the "real" food vendors are.
Just as in markets everywhere in Vietnam, Cambodia, and even Peru, all the prepared food vendors are organized by the type of food served.
The largest section served up pork, pork, and more pork. The pork was divided into different cuts(the belly looked really good), the ribs, skin, and even sausage was available.
Another section was indicated by this.
Apparently, that is the Vietnamese universal sign for Horse. And the large woks and pots were bubbling away.
Unfortunately(or maybe fortunately) for me, it wasn't ready to be served.
Further on is the area serving Tiết Canh, or fresh blood soup. I was told this was pork blood since everyone was afraid of bird flu, so duck blood is not being served.
Now here's something you can help me with. I asked Thinh what this was, and was told, "corn noodle".
It looked like something created with a gelatinous thickener, and was cut from large blocks.
As you can see, an interesting variety of food, and I'm sure I missed a lot.
Compared to other markets, the meat section was rather small. As was the selection of fish and seafood, since we were quite far for any large bodies of water.
The selection of dried fish, though, was quite extensive.
And all you need to find it is to use your nose.
And just in case you want to try your hand at making Ruou Ngo(corn wine/spirit/hootch/moonshine - or literally "alcohol"), I was told that these are the "yeast cakes" used.
So tell me, what do you think these 2 guys are doing?
Comparing notes? Contemplating Ruou futures? Deciding what numbers to select for the Fantasy Five? In actuality, this was a fairly intense negotiation session. Over what you may ask? Meet our newest model Water Buffalo, comes with all the latest features, standard.
Does that look like 7,000,000 VND(approx $440/US) worth of Water Buffalo to you? In all seriousness, it has been a tough year. The long, cold winter has taken a toll on local livestock, and water buffalo are in demand. It was fascinating watching this transaction take place. Much of the conversation and negotiation is done very quietly.
The livestock area at Bac Ha market is huge, and everything is being sold. From dogs of all ages(don't ask).
To pigs, carried in burlap bags, on leashes, and even stacked like firewood.
By this time, the crowds were beginning to arrive, slogging the already cramped walkways. It was time to leave. Bac Ha's main street was filled with motorbikes, buses of tourists, and people milling about. And while the market at Can Cau is smaller, and full of charm in a quaint kind of way; the market at Bac Ha is larger and much more intense.
It is a sight to behold. And we were glad to have seen it this way. You see, in addition to the nice smooth asphalt that vehicles will be driving on soon, we walked through major construction on our way to the market.
Once those buildings are completed, most of the market in Bac Ha will be moved indoors. So you'll be able to walk on nice clean and new concrete, past well marked signs, and look out over the new man-made lake. And feel positively civilized.
Yes, it seems that the Wild Stallion that is the market at Bac Ha will be tamed. It is just progress I guess.
A few times since we've returned from vacation, I've had dreams of dusty pavements and lively swirls of color......
And have woken with the taste of Ruou on my lips. I guess I was dreaming about Can Cau and Bac Ha again.........
We were jarred awake from our Ruou fueled slumber by Vietnamese blaring from speakers mounted on the hill above Bac Ha. The Missus, rolling over, trying to escape the commands being issued, mumbled, "this is so Communist!" Having been raised in Qingdao, I'm sure She'd know. Raising my head, I noticed that the back door to our room was wide open! Instantly wide-awake, I started checking our belongings. After making sure that everything was in place, I'm guessing it was probably just the wind(?), or maybe Obake? After washing my face, and brushing my teeth, I noticed that the Missus had walked out to the balcony, where She snapped a few photos of the people down below. It looked like everyone was on their way to Market.
All together now, "Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it's off to market we go!"
Not so fast. We met Thinh downstairs having tea, and he told us that things are just getting set-up. So why not grab some breakfast? Why not? We walked past various people making their way to market. Oh, and what was being blasted from the speakers? Thinh told us; "they are telling people to do their exercises!" The Missus turned to me and said; "see, I told you, this is soooooo Communist!"
Watching this woman made my back hurt. I wanted to go over and help her, but she looked like she'd be able to body-slam me, and make me scream uncle, so I left her alone.
Thinh walked up to this doorway, took a peek inside, smiled, and walked in.
So of course we followed, and found a Mom-and-Pop kitchen going full blast.
One of the great things about these places is that you can get up close and personal with your food.
Of course the dining area included the standard kiddie stools and low tables(makes it easier to attain the squat-eating position), and even a communal Diếu Cày(bamboo smoking pipe), which I made sure to keep away from the Missus.
The Missus and I shared Banh Cuon and Bun Cha(15,000 VND just a bit onder $1 US):
This version of Banh Cuon had the least amount of filling of any we tried in Vietnam, but the "noodle" had a nice toothsome-elastic texture, and was not as "Sticky" as other versions. The Bun Cha, was on the chewy side, but the Nuoc Mam Cham(fish sauce based dip) added a nice savory touch.
Overall, quite a filling breakfast.
After breakfast, we found that we were still a bit too early for market. So we strolled over to Ngan Nga for some coffee. And just to "people watch".
While this young lady was getting some help adjusting her little one, her pony was eating the profits!
This Ruou Ngo(corn wine) vendor was doing some great business.
The Young Flower H'mong Women were wearing their "Sunday best", better to catch a mate with.....
Even though the Bac Ha Market is off in another part of the village, you wouldn't be wrong if you said the entire village becomes a market on Sundays. In every corner, every nook and cranny, is a stall or table selling something. Whether something for the tourist trade.
I was beat after boozing and eating it up at the Can Cau Market. Returning to Bac Ha, I was ready for a nap as we arrived at our hotel for the night, Toan Thang Hotel. All of the hotels in the area have basically the same set-up, a multi-functional lobby area that is used as a combination check-in, lobby, restaurant, bar, and basic hang-out area. This hotel was interesting, there was an "old" wing, complete with corrugated metal roof, and a brand new building with a faux Euro-Asian design attached to it.
In a way, this was a perfect example of what we saw in Bac Ha, a village in transition, growing quickly, a convergence of the old and new. You'd as soon see a sleek, modern mini-bus and motorbikes(with the requisite horn honking) going in one direction, and this going in the other.
Some of the streets were just dirt paths, but right outside the city, major work was taking place. The roads were being widened, and fresh asphalt was being laid.
But at the time, I had something else on my mind. Specifically, a nice leisurely nap. Unfortunately, the prospect of a visit to dreamland was to be put on hold. The Missus had caught Her third, or was it Her fourth wind, and was ready to go. I was still trying to summon up my second, or even hoping for my first wind, and perhaps some fumes. Off we went, trading my leisurely nap, for a not so leisurely walk. It's not like you can get lost in Bac Ha, it seems that all roads end up in the same place. And it was an interesting seeing the "new" Bac Ha:
Right across the street with the "old".
Yes, folks, Bac Ha is going places....where she stops? Nobody knows.
After taking a short walk we somehow, unintentionally, ended up back at our hotel. Like I said, all roads in Bac Ha, lead to the same place. I decided to stop by the "lobby/restaurant/bar" to purchase some water, and have some tea. Here's where I ran into(no pun intended) a bit of a gastro-intestinal "blip". I was sitting at one of the tables, drinking my bottled water, when the really nice Woman who ran the place decided to scurry to the back room and grab me a glass. The glass looked like there was some residue on it, and perhaps a good layer of some unknown detritus, which I tried to discreetly wipe off. But, I couldn't insult her by not using the glass, so I poured water into it and had a sip. It definitely tasted a bit off...and one sip was all it took. For a few hours, my stomach made sounds like the HMS Titanic sinking into the Atlantic, I contributed to global warming in a very unpleasant manner, and there was a toilet paper shortage in room 301. Lucky for me, it was just a passing(again, no pun intended) thing. Furthermore, there was no way I was going to miss dinner! And so with the help of a few "pepto", and the stuff being sold from this pot:
I was fixed up in no time. The pot contained sugar cane simmering in ginger water. The ginger had me back in no time.
Yes, boys and girls, I hope you see the irony....I was cured by street food! By the time we met Thinh for dinner, I was ready to go...no, not there...I was ready to eat.
The restaurant selected was where we stopped for a break on our way to Can Cau Market the previous day. Like many of the places in Bac Ha, this was another Hotel/Restaurant. In this case, named Ngan Nga.
We took a table outside and were handed menus. Going down the page I read, "omelet, Pho, fried noodles, fried rice, french fries?" Say what! I didn't make a miraculous recovery from death's door to eat french fries! Thinh just laughed and said, "one minute, I'll order the food." After a few minutes Thinh returned, and by that time, the Nuoc Mam Cham arrived, along with.......guess what? Salt&Pepper-Ground Chili(this one was really good)-Lime, of course.
The first dish to arrive was a plate of blanched than sauteed Chinese Broccoli(Gailan), which I was told was called Cải Làn (pretty close) in these parts. It really wasn't anything we haven't had before, except that this version used both soy sauce and fish sauce.
The next dish that arrived was a cold chicken dish. In this case the simmered chicken was chopped, and topped with thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves.
As I enjoy cold chicken dishes much more than the Missus, I was fine with this. The chicken was on the chewy side, as wild, roaming chicken should be. The flavor was 100% true chicken; the lime leaves added a nice citrus-sour flavor, and a dip in the chili-lime-salt concoction helped out as well.
A plate of simmered pork arrived next, mildly flavored, and leaner than what we had for lunch. The chopped pork was combined with a herb that had a basil-cilantro type flavor. Thinh wasn't able to tell us what was used. The Missus, still recovering from the pork at lunch, passed on this one.
The next dish made the dinner a success. According to Beach, this is called Cha Com:
These are fried patties or fritters if you will, made with minced pork and green rice. Man, this was good! The pork added a nice richness as only pork can; the green rice added some crunch, along with a mild nutty sweetness. Oh man this was good.
The last item was steamed, vegetable spring rolls, which we found to be on the bland side. Still, this was a pretty good meal. Of course, we had started in on the Ruou Nga(Corn wine).
Which brings us on to the next part of the night. You know by now, that magical things happen when Ruou is in the picture. At the end of dinner, our driver Mr Thang made an appearance. Already hitting the Ruou with the other driver and guides(they all know each other), he kept apologizing. Of course, this meant another refill of Ruou! Soon enough, the other drivers and guides drifted to our table, as if some unseen signal was being sent. And the Ruou was flowing! As the sun set, our loud and raucous laughter started drawing the attention of the tourists having dinner in the restaurant. But none of them wanted to have a drink with the "crazy Asians". It didn't help when Thinh actually lit a cup of Ruou with his lighter to show us "what it was made of". With tongues loosened by the corn wine(most of these guy weighed less than 50-55 kilos - it didn't take much), we started getting the "real dirt" on these normally serious and stoic drivers. Thang, who was to married in a few weeks, met his wife to be when he almost ran her over. They got into an argument which continued when they later saw each other in Sapa later that day. A few days later, Thang saw her teaching a class at a school....and was smitten, I guess it was love at third sight. One of the guides, who was one of the larger Vietnamese guys I met at 75 kilos(guess my weight was a popular drinking game), was appropriately named the equivalent of "Hero" in Vietnamese, and enjoyed flexing his muscles, Hulk Hogan style.
It seems that drinking with a female was foreign to these guys; this manifested itself in some fairly strange and humorous ways. Several times, the Guys raised their hands and asked the Missus, "madam, may I go to the WC(water closet)?" Ruou fueled regression? And then came the high lite of the evening. One of the drivers told us he had three wives! You read that right; three wives! Thinh was beside himself, almost rolling on the ground. He'd known this driver for several years, and didn't know the guy had three wives. And no, polygamy isn't legal in Vietnam. Apparently, he has a bus route that takes him to some far flung villages, and so things just kinda happened(yeah right). All was well now, for they all knew about each other....they even get together and go out to dinner once in a while(I'd love to see that)! No wonder this guy was so skinny! Since this story couldn't be topped, we decided to call it a night. It was fun seeing this bunch of guys hanging out, and acting, well...like any group of young men. Some things are universal. Our dinner, and at least 4 refills of Ruou ran 220,000 VND( a bit less than $14/US). We staggered our way back to the hotel, where we were greeted by the Owners and staff, who asked us to have dinner, and (of course) some Ruou with them. I went upstairs and shared the last of the snake wine, and we had a few toasts before calling it a night.
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!
Indigo rice is eaten for good luck, and really doesn't have much additional flavor. It was very pretty though.
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!
When I left off, I mentioned sitting down with the Tour Director of the Mountain View Hotel, and putting in our requests for various tours. The Missus had given me a list of items, and I went through each, and ensured that all our requests were clarified. The Missus had wanted to do something called the Matra-Taphin "trek", which I didn't really know anything about, and frankly didn't pay much attention to....I just went ahead and paid for it. 15 minutes later, we met our guide, Mai, a friendly young lady of the Black H'mong group. Black H'mong women are easily recognized by their indigo dyed, hemp clothing. As we were walking to the Van that would be dropping us off, I was reminded that the hike would be about 15 kilometers or so. 15 kilometers! Yes, just what my sleep deprived mind and body needed, a "little" 15 kilometer hike......
We were dropped off about 8 miles outside of Sapa, walked down a short dirt road, and started on our way.
And I must say, the rice terraces lulled you into a kind of pastoral peacefulness.
I took my time, and snapped photos while the Missus's grilled Mai, with all kinds of questions..."why do you where leggings?" "What happens if a Black H'mong marries a Red Dzao?" And on and on....Mai took it all in stride.
Growing rice in Sapa is not an easy task; there is only one crop a year, and a short window for planting. And this year's window was extremely short. The winter had been cold, long, and dry, and many Water Buffalo, key partners in the tilling process had died, and so much of the planting was taking place without them.
The beautiful landscape belied the fine tightrope that the people who worked the land walked.
The harmony between man and beast was quite apparent, as the free roaming livestock paid us no heed.
And spring had brought on the birth of offspring of those that survived the winter.
Well, most of the livestock paid us no attention. This Water Buffalo seems to be a bit irritated at having his photo taken; as if to say "whatta you lookin' at?"
As we approached the Black H'mong village of Matra, we saw more and more children. This kid was pretty talented.
He was bawling his head off, and tightrope walking on the dike at the same time!
Hemp is the textile most used by the Black H'mong, many other types of cloth will not "hold" the indigo dye. The indigo plant is processed and made into a powder. It is then made into a liquid that will "hold" to the hemp, often using urine and rice wine, among other additives. The whole soaking process can take up to 2 months. A nice post can be found here.
As we approached the village of Matra, we started seeing many more children. The first thing I noticed, was in spite of the very rural conditions, many of the homes had satellite dishes......after all, you gotta have television, don't you?
We were really enjoying our walk; learning a lot about life in these villages from Mai, when it happened.....The Attack of the Red Dzao.
Now, we're not adverse to people trying to make a living, and frankly it comes along as part of the package anytime you travel, whether it's Peru, Cambodia, Vietnam, you name it. But I don't think I've ever felt more like I was being held hostage(well, perhaps other than having to attend a time-share presentation years ago), than I did on this stretch of trail on the way to Taphin. This gal would not take no for an answer, and even got a bit nasty at the end. "I walk all this way, with baby....you have to buy something! Have to!" And the tough thing was, she invited three of her other close friends.
At least after this experience, we knew what the standard script was. In order, this is how it went every time:
"What your name?" "Good name, good name!" "Where you from?" "How long you in Sapa?" "You buy from me ok?", followed by "Why you no want buy from me?","If you buy, you only buy from me. ""You have to buy from me." And so forth.
It seems like only the Young Dzao Women are this persistent; the Older Women are funny, on our way back to Sapa we picked up a group of them who looked like they needed a ride. They where having a heck of a time in the van. And though they tried to sell us stuff, they weren't nearly as aggressive as the younger Red Dzao women. When I returned from vacation, I was reading one of Vietnam guides, which mentioned how "shy" Red Dzao women are.... Hmmm. Luckily, Red Dzao women are pretty easy to pick out by their bright red head-dress and their shaved eye brows. The also shave the front potion of their scalp.
This put Mai in a very tenable position, she could see that we were being aggressively accosted, and we'd been stuck to for over 2 kilometers, with no sign of a let-up. The village of Taphin is also a Red Dzao village, and there was the potential of picking up even more folks trying to sell us stuff. On the other hand; though Mai told us that this isn't a very popular hike, she does bring tourists this way, and needs to keep up a good relationship with everyone. Her solution soon became apparent, she took us off the regular trail, and we ended up skirting the valley. And we were thankful, not only for the chance to enjoy some peace, but for the views this afforded.
The area around the building you see in the background was where we were headed; Taphin.
Eventually, we came across a concrete "road" where we saw a few tourists on motorbikes, and entered into the village of Taphin. Don't let the more modern looking path fool you; life here is still quite hard.
One of the concrete paths ended at this cave. The Missus read the sign in Chinese next to it, and told me it was the "Dragon Cave". According to Mai this large cave is where many of the villagers hid during the war. After a short rest to soak up the cool air, we decided to head on over to the lunch spot.
As we turned back and headed down another path, where we came across 2 girls trying to chase down some runaway goats. Their giggling was infectious. And if you enlarge the photo(click on it), you can get a peek at a man sitting on a water buffalo watching on in amusement.
We stopped at the end of the path for lunch. you could tell that this was the place by the motorbikes. And if that didn't tell you that this was the place to stop, the Water Buffalo parking sure did.
At this point we sat, and Mai disappeared. Only to reappear about 10 minutes later with plates of veggies, fruits, and Banh Mi.
And some really nicely fried eggs(and don't forget the laughing cow cheese)...when it dawned on us; Mai had carried this stuff in her back pack, than prepped and cooked everything for us.
We felt kinda bad....and we mentioned this to Mai, who told us, "oh no, sometimes I have to carry and make lunch for 10 people, that is heavy." The lunch was deceivingly filling and refreshing at the same time. During lunch we got to know a bit better, She has been a guide for 1 1/2 years, and is only 19 years old! And here's the kicker, Mai has been working her whole life, whether helping in the fields, or caring for one of her 8 siblings and was never able to go to school, and thus is not able to read or write in her own, or any language. Mai's English was excellent, so we were wondering how she learned English. Mai told us that she picked up English from tourists. Talk about being resilient...
After lunch, we made our way to our ride, and back to Sapa. In addition to being bushed, I was in need of a shower. We had learned much from our hike, and much of it was due to Mai. If you're ever in Sapa, maybe you'll consider getting a local guide, we think you'll be glad you did. Thanks Mai!
That evening, still strangely full from lunch, we had some street food(that is another post all together) and dodged raindrops back to the hotel. We sat on the balcony watching the lightning, and staring in amazement as we watched the wall of fog move up the valley envelop us. All while sipping on the wonderful Snake Wine from Le Mat. Life was good!
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.........