Bac Ha Sunday market

Loving Bac Ha

The next day was the market in Bac Ha, the little city that I loved even more, the longer I stayed. This market had more for tourists than yesterdays Can Lao market, but was still a simple place with most of the commerce happening between local people. I got rather obsessed with the beauty of the women and girls and their costumes, in particular their leg wrappings. Most of them did not mind my taking photos. (I never take a photo if someone indicates they do not want me to.)

Since I was staying right near the market I could spend the entire day going from one area to the next and back again. I could stop and try some food, bargain for some items and wander about. The smells were rich and pungent the sight varied and exciting.

I had a good time buying items for my store. It is a rewarding challenge to pick out some items you like and then bargain with people who may not share any language. I find a note pad, a calculator and a calm, willing attitude work well.

Travel Tip: A good way to start bargaining is to inquire about the same item from a few people to get the price range for what is being asked and then thinking ahead what you might be willing to pay (often 40-60% less than original asking price). In most cultures it is considered impolite to start bargaining if you do not intend to buy the item. That does not mean you cannot walk away if you don’t get a price you are satisfied with, but it is uncool to talk down multiple vendors and not buy. When bargaining, people can get quite animated and dramatic, which is great, but stay calm and in good humor. Inexperienced shoppers sometimes get flustered and agitated which is unfortunate cause it can be a lot of fun. If a vendor is really aggressive or annoying, just walk away as there is almost always a better deal somewhere else.

I spent the whole day wandering the market and nearby streets. One of my favorite, but very simple meals I had, was multicolored sticky rice served on a leaf with some salty, ground peanuts as a garnish. I loved the gal and her friend that served it to me and sat with them for a while.

My favorite market, ever!

The town of Lao Cai

The night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai is very pleasant and inexpensive so one can splurge and get a simple, yet comfortable berth to sleep in.  I arrived in the chilly dark, before dawn where the other travelers got onto a bus for Sapa.  I however, was heading the opposite direction to Bac Ha, in hopes of experiencing a couple of lesser known market days that I had researched ahead of time. I finally found the local bus going that way and was one of the first ones aboard. The next two hours were the classic scene of more and more people, wares, livestock, and supplies being loaded in, tied onto and piled on top of the old bus. I was the only westerner, and I was excited to start seeing some of the hill tribe people in their traditional dress. It was a long steep ride, with lots of stops that allowed me to just sit and observe life in that neighborhood.


Bac Ha is a small city of about 50,000 and is the capital area of the Flower H’mong people.  I found a decent place to stay with friendly staff and really liked everything about the place. There were not very many westerners around so we had the tendency to stop and chat with each other and frequently share meals. There were men on horse drawn, wooden wagons that added a nice touch to the visual appeal of the place.

The market of Can Lao (the favorite one)

One of the staff at the hotel agreed to take me on his motorbike to the Saturday market in Can Lao for a good price. We had to get up early and drive through the chilly morning fog. When we got there it was all I had hoped for and more.

It was a market by the local people for the local people selling and trading of new fabrics, older textiles, bags, herbs, meat and produce. The ground was rough, the smoke of cooking fires wafted through the air and bright colors of the Flower H’mong people were everywhere. The livestock included water buffalo, horses, chickens, pigs and dogs. There was an area above, under the trees where a variety of birds in lovely bamboo cages were being sold, for what purpose I do not know.

The people were either friendly or ignored me, the vibe was very pleasant. I enjoyed myself so very much and there were only a handful of other westerners there. My guide showed me around and explained some things, but also let me wander freely. On the way home we just missed a rock slide and had to wait a couple of hours for the road to be cleared.

Other villages and homes

We stopped at a couple of villages and my guide took me right into a few peoples homes. I was worried about being intrusive, but everyone was very gracious and welcoming.  I drank a little rice whiskey with some very inebriated young people in one village. Don’t worry, I wasn’t drinking with these youngsters below.



Over all, it was one of my favorite travel days ever. I bought a few things for the store I’d had at the time, tried some new foods (couldn’t tell you what they were tho) and had a peak into another rich and fascinating world.

Faces of SaPa

Hill tribe villages of SaPa area

Sapa is a small city in northern-most Vietnam surrounded by many hill tribe villages. It is a 10 hour night-train ride from Hanoi and can be socked in by cloudy, wet weather much of the year. All the while I lived in Vietnam, I wanted to visit the area, but my time off and the seasons never agreed. When I visited in 2012, I made it a priority to make the trip.

This was one of my favorite travel adventures ever, so I am going to cover the highlights in the next 3 posts. Here’s my basic itinerary for the week I spent in the area:

  • Took night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai at the Chinese border, arrived just before dawn.
  • Found a local bus to Bac Ha, spent 2 nights.
  • Hired motor bike guide to Can Lao for a remote, very local market day.
  • Market in Bac Ha the next day.
  • Bus to Sapa
  • Left next day for 3 day trek with my guide Zao.
  • Returned to Sapa, with sore throat and barely able to walk from achy muscles, but so very happy with my adventure.
  • Train back to Hanoi to recuperate at my friend Linda’s lovely home.

I took a lot of photos and I will share them as the story unfolds.

Above are a few of my favorite faces from the hill tribe people.  They are Flower H’mong, Black H’mong and Red Dzao ethnic minorities. I promise to tell you more about them in the upcoming posts.