Our next stop after Hanoi would be the mountains of Northwest Vietnam to see the beautiful landscape and to meet people from the various ethnic minorities. We knew we were in for quite an adventure when we had to cross multiple train tracks just to board our overnight train…no need for a platform here. Our good friend from Shanghai, Guilia, met us in Hanoi to tag along for this leg of the journey.
We arrived in Lao Cai around 7am and had arranged for a driver and guide to take us to the Can Cau Market near the border of China and Vietnam. Hundreds of people, mostly the Flower Hmong, from villages on either side of the border travel by foot, horseback, and motorcycle each Saturday to trade livestock, produce, clothing, and other necessities.
After a quick breakfast in Lao Cai, we began our 3 hour journey to the Can Cau Market. About two hours in, we came upon a roadblock and realized we would have to take the road less traveled. In this case, the road less traveled was completely unpaved with rocks jutting out of the dirt. Although we arrived a bit late for the main hustle and bustle of the market, it was still a sensory overload. Between the smells of buffalo “chocolate” and the sights of the Flower Hmong’s clothing, we were immediately transfixed. The Flower Hmong are just one of the many ethnic minorities living in the mountains of northwest Vietnam. Unlike many of their peers, the Flower Hmong have maintained their traditional dress for reasons other than tourism, albeit with a few tweaks here and there. For example, many now wear lighter synthetic skirts manufactured in China instead of the traditional hand embroidered hemp skirts.
The Hmong people originally descended from China and through the centuries have spread throughout Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Despite oftentimes tough socioeconomic standards, they are rich in culture and a proud people. Prior to our trip, we spent some time to learn about the US Army’s recruitment of Hmong people in both the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos. For more information on the Hmong people, Wikipedia offers a pretty good summary (here).
The day we visited the market the heat soared into the mid-nineties yet the women still donned multiple layers of brilliantly colored clothing and wrapped sweaty infants onto their backs while they worked. Many tried to stay cool under umbrellas and a vender sold extremely popular homemade young rice and sugar popsicles. First we visited the area where men sold water buffaloes. A full grown bull could run up to $2000 USD. We resisted the urge to splurge on a young calf if for no other reason than for a slightly smoother ride back to our hotel.
After the livestock, we explored the food and clothing sections of the market where we sampled local sticky rice and a yellow cucumber the size of a baseball bat. We spent most of our time sneakily observing the women working in the market and snapping pictures. We would perfect this process after a few more days in the region.
The guide and driver took us to Bac Ha, a small town where we spent the night. The three of us checked into a hotel and set off to explore the town. A couple invited us into their home. The woman was making fresh sheets of rice paper to be cut into pho noodles and the man was doing meticulous paper cutting. Everywhere we went we encountered children who eagerly waved and showed off the little English they knew (“Hello! Hello!”). We stumbled upon the abandoned palace of a former Hmong king and watched a pick-up soccer game as the sun set. We settled into the town square for a few drinks. Hanoi Three Seater doesn’t have the same appeal in much slower Bac Ha.
For dinner that evening we stopped by a hole in the wall restaurant. The family who ran it was eating their own dinner when we arrived. In an attempt to order, we pointed out a few of their dishes that looked good. Apparently these dishes were not on the menu so they just gave us a portion of their dinner (a delicious pig’s ear salad wrapped in rice paper). They then rushed off on their motorbike to get us cold beers and offered us free local corn vodka in the meantime. We were already blown away by their hospitality when they brought out some mind-blowing pork rib and bamboo shoot vermicelli noodle soup. It was one of our most memorable meals on the road so far and we returned the next morning for breakfast.
On Sunday mornings, Bac Ha hosts a bustling market, much larger than the Can Cau equivalent we’d visited the day before. Flower Hmong women head-to-toe in traditional dress peddled colorful handicrafts while the men for the most part sat and drank homemade liquor. The livestock section was slightly depressing and we all briefly considered vegetarianism.
Ting and Giulia bought and wore Hmong skirts, much to the delight of all the locals. Walking around in the skirts attracted quite a bit of attention and was the perfect ice breaker to make lots of new Hmong friends. We shared a locally brewed beer sold in an old Coke bottle with one elderly woman, who wasn’t a big fan of the taste. Everywhere we went Hmong women tugged at the skirts to fix them and offered suggestions for additional clothing purchases to make the outfits more complete.
In the afternoon we rented two motorbikes and sped around the roads weaving through the rice terraces for three hours. We stopped for a swim at a pool at the base of a beautiful waterfall. We rode high into the mountains for spectacular views and visited a small hamlet called Ban Pho village where we chatted with a few boys rolling metal wheels with sticks. We couldn’t do it at all. They ran along our bikes rolling their wheels to escort us out of town.
For more images from Can Cau & Bac Ha, check out our Can Cau/Bac Ha Gallery. Follow our trip on Instagram #wanderingtable2013 or instagram.com/ttl1111