Walking out of the train station with hundreds of tourists, touts surrounded us shouting “Sapa?”. With our trusty (or not so trustworthy) Lonely Planet in hand, we headed to the bus station where the LP guide said we could catch further transportation to Bac Ha. We walked nearly thirty minutes to the stated bus station across a long bridge only to find out that the buses for Bac Ha left from across the train station. It is remembering times like these that will make me gleefully happy to burn our Lonely Planet on our return home. It was all I could do that day not to toss it into the river. We caught two motor bikes back to the train station and inquired about the bus fare to Bac Ha. The driver quoted us 120,000 dong which we knew was too much but we didn’t know the fair price so we walked back to the train station. Mini vans to Bac Ha and Sapa were lined up so we asked the price for the mini van and the driver told us US$100. We scoffed at the notion of paying $100 and asked what the bus to Bac Ha should cost. A nice woman flashed us four fingers quickly. With that information in hand we headed back to the bus station. I showed the bus attendant 80,000 for both of us. She gave us a knowing smile and accepted our bid, while the girl behind her giggled and sheepishly said “10 dollars?”. The further north you travel in Vietnam the higher the “foreigner tax”, but at least in the far north they do it with a smile and some panache.

Just happy that we got a fair price for the bus, we waited for another hour before they actually left the station. Although it is not rice growing season and the fields were brown, the drive was still scenic. Water buffalo and villagers worked the fields as we drove by. It was a peaceful setting commonly found in Vietnam. The ride for the most part was uneventful until we blew a tire. In typical foreigner fashion we snapped photos as the driver changed the tire. This caught the attention of our fellow companions and they stared at us like we were the curiosity. After helping to change the tire a few of the guys hit the opium pipe. Supposedly opium is illegal in Vietnam but it’s often smoked outdoors in broad daylight.

Eventually arriving in Bac Ha, it is a small market town reminiscent of small market towns in South America. Many tourist flock to Bac Ha on Sunday for it’s market where the Flower H’mong trade their wares. We decided to come in a day early so we could rise early and beat the tourist buses that crowd out the market. However, Bac Ha is pretty dead on every day except Sunday. We lost power five times that evening, all while we were trying to get things accomplished on the internet. Giving up on the internet and power, we headed out in search of a restaurant and found a nice little place near the market. They served us a heaping bowl of pho loaded with vegetables and noodles along with spring rolls (still not those special ones we had in the central highlands, but they were good just the same). We were the only two people in this huge restaurant until a fellow American walked in named David.

Over the course of our meal, David filled us in on all sorts of things to do in the area. He told us about the Black H’mong villages just over the pass from Sapa that paint their teeth black. He talked animatedly about the Ta Phin villages just out of town from Sapa and the 14 kilometer loop we should make by motorbike. He chatted about his various adventures in the area and filled us in on what the market would be like the next day. Through the course of conversation, we discovered that David has been traveling since 1992. He lives off the interest from his investments. Holy cow, we thought. What sort of investments did this guy make? He wasn’t that much older than either one of us. With the market tanking, he begrudgingly said he would probably have to head home soon. We enjoyed hearing all about his travels over the following few days, but we can’t imagine traveling for that long. Of course, he spends months in places and doesn’t move around so much (he was going on month 2 in Sapa) but we’ve found that there’s still nothing like home.

The next morning we rose early and headed out into the deep fog to watch the market come alive. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure if it was like the Otavalo market in Ecuador where mostly handicrafts are sold or whether it was an authentic market full of locals haggling over oranges and the like. As it turns out, the Bac Ha market is a mix of the two. Beautiful handicraft textiles and weavings for tourists are sold right along with the rice wine, vegetables, meat products, and livestock. It’s the perfect market.

We’ve learned many things about ourselves on this trip, but one undeniable fact is that we love markets. We enjoy sinking into the background, nearly unnoticed, to watch the market unfold. There is laughing and lively bartering. Children chase each other or stay clutched to their parents. Men gather around to shoot the breeze. It’s like a small town fair. If there was hot apple cider and elephant ears, I’d be completely at home. Ah but, hot apple cider is not served at this market. No, they serve up something much more potent—rice wine. The women bring in these huge canisters of rice wine (back home these canisters are more similar to the industrial-sized restaurant oil canisters). Most of the women selling the wine are surrounded by these canisters and siphon off their rice wine to paying customers. By midday the men were already tipsy, noticeable by the fact that huge congregations surrounded a couple guys at different stands trying to cut through a huge piece of meat in one fell swoop. Lively betting and jeering was going on all around them, making it fun to watch. At each table, the drunken man aimed the butcher knife as though he was going to karate chop a stack of bricks. This continued for what seemed like an eternity, so we eventually walked on.

What makes this market so interesting is the Flower H’mong that flock in from surrounding villages to do their trading.Their clothing is unlike any other minority community. The Flower H’mong embroider their textiles in bright colorful flower motifs. The market is awash with color and presents fantastic photo opportunities at every turn. There was so much activity that we were able to sink into the background and capture candid shots one after the other.

We wandered through the market, watching as the villagers bartered over all sorts of items. Along with your typical market items, there were things up for sale that we hadn’t seen in any other market. Plough blades lined one area of the market, and we watched as the men carefully inspected them. In another part of the market, blacksmiths were forging shovel blades and sharpening machetes on a grinding wheel. In yet another part, a man quickly made blood sausages one after the other. Puppies were for sale in the livestock market, an indication of the Chinese influence in this area.

The market is made up of Vietnamese and the minorities. From our perspective neither group entirely likes the other, but they seem to tolerate each other for market day. Others told us that the minorities don’t consider themselves Vietnamese and the Vietnamese don’t claim the minorities either. Watching this play out on market day makes for some interesting interactions. To us, it looked like the different groups sold specific produce. The Vietnamese sold oranges, bananas, and apples. Whereas, the Flower H’mong sold greens like lettuce, morning glory, and root vegetables. We watched with curiosity while a Vietnamese orange seller eyed her oranges like a hawk. With a scowl on her face, she didn’t seem to be pleased to have so many Flower H’mong at her stall. She yelled at one and hit another during what seemed like angry negotiations. In another instance, we watched as a group of Flower H’mong laughed hysterically at a Vietnamese boy trying to buy greens. We’re not sure of what was said between them, but the boy walked away fairly embarrassed.

Of course, a market day wouldn’t be complete without us taking part. The Flower H’mong sell beautiful textiles including purses. Over the years, I’ve become somewhat of a purse collector. What’s that saying about becoming like your mother?!? Like my mom, I rarely take any of these purses out for show but I still can’t resist buying them. So when purses unlike any others I’d seen walked passed me, I casually inquired about the price and was immediately surrounded. Before I knew it, we entered into negotiations. The thing about successful negotiating is that you always want to have a price in mind. For two purses, I wanted to spend between US$5-7; my adversary was asking quite a bit more but I was fairly certain she was asking nearly triple the fair price. So, we held out. This is what I enjoy most about bartering. We make small talk, every now and then coming back to negotiating the price. Both groups compliment the handiwork and the artisanship. And, both groups hold their ground until it’s time to move a little closer. By the end of our negotiations, I felt like I had a new best friend. We eventually paid just under US$7 for my purses.

Thanks to David, we realized we calculated our remaining days on our visa incorrectly. Instead of spending the night in Bac Ha as originally planned to take part in some rice wine drinking with the local men, we headed directly on to Sapa.

5 Responses to “Market day in Bac Ha, Vietnam”

  1. Jeannie says:

    Chris – Happy Belated Birthday!!!

  2. Wonderful diary of your visit to Bac Ha. I will return in Sept with group of Photographers. Check out my photos at http://www.pbase.com/ckuhn55
    PS luv your photos

  3. Tokyo Jim says:

    Ha, I was at the Bac Ha market the week after you guys. Anyway, it’s not really fair to blame Lonely Planet for the fact that the bus station moved. No guidebook can be up-to-date on all matters. I was told that buses for Bac Ha used to leave from that far-away station, but now leave from the station at the end of the road heading away from the train station, where the ticket booth sells tickets for D35,000. Of course you can also get them from in front of the train station for a bit more.

  4. For accurate results, space tests at least two minutes apart. Jarod Handicrafts

  5. Tsunami says:

    Thanks for coming Vietnam. Welcome to our other places! For example: Ha Long bay, Da Lat city, Hai Duong city… Nice day to you!