Monday, July 15, 2013

Photo Essay: Vietnam's Bac Ha Sunday Market

Water Buffalo Being Brought into the Bac Ha Sunday Market

One of the highlights of my five days in Vietnam was the visit to the Bac Ha Sunday market in the country's mountainous northwest. The market is particularly interesting because it features a fascinating live animal section and is attended by a large number of Flower H’mong hill tribe villagers. They are perhaps the most colorful of the region’s ethnic minorities, which the French called Montagnards (‘highlanders’ or ‘mountain people’); though the Flower H’mong are the most visible, other hill tribes can also be seen in the market. A visit to Bac Ha is normally combined with at least an overnight stay in Sapa, which is known for its trekking, scenic hillside rice terraces, and nearby ethnic minority hill tribe villages. The city of Lao Cai, which is located on the Vietnam-China border, is the primary gateway for travelers heading to Bac Ha and Sapa; there is regular night train service between Hanoi and Lao Cai, with the train arriving into Lao Cai Station around 5 AM. 

Colorful Flower H’mong Pa Ndau Embroidery

I am met at Lao Cai station by my local guide and driver, and after breakfast we make the rainy 70km drive to Bac Ha; our scheduled 7 AM arrival time into town should allow us to begin exploring the market before the bulk of the crowded tour buses unload their passengers, and also to see Flower H'mong villages still making their way into the market and setting up for the days' business. About 20 minutes outside of Bac Ha on the scenic and winding Provincial Road TL 153, we start seeing Flower H’mongs from the surrounding villages making their way along the road to the market with their goods by foot, over-loaded motorcycles and motor scooters, and sometimes on horseback seated in wooden saddles. The men are generally dressed in Western attire rendered in mostly khaki shades, with some wearing black pajama-style garments. The Flower H’mong women, who are definitely in the majority of those seen en route to the market, are attired in very bright and colorful traditional clothing which is embroidered in rainbow banding (called pa ndau, literally ‘flower cloth’) and trimmed in lace and beaded fringe, and wearing bright checkered head scarves in neon colors. Most of the villagers walking along the narrow shoulder of the road are carrying their goods to market in large woven cane baskets strapped to their backs. Some of the villagers traveling on foot have their animals for the day’s sale or trading (a mix of water buffalo, horses, goats, pigs and dogs) trailing behind them on the ends of slack rope leashes. Other smaller animals, such as ducks and chickens, are riding to the market in wicker or metal cages strapped to rear of some of the slowly-advancing motor scooters and cycles that we overtake.

Flower H’mong Women from the Surrounding Villages Arriving at the Market

Exiting the car near what appears to be one of the main entrances to the market, we watch the influx of  Flower H’mong women continue to converge on foot and by motor scooter with their offerings for the day; some of the women are seen lugging large plastic jugs and fuel can-like containers within their slung wicker baskets. A morning spent in a busy marketplace is often the best way to sample a new destination’s culture, which is conveyed through its unique combination of sights, sounds, smells and the interactions between the locals. The street is lined with open-front shop houses and street-side vendor stalls beneath canopies of blue plastic sheeting selling a variety of items ranging from traditional ethnic hill tribe fabrics, clothing and hand bags, to dry goods and water hoses. A villager passes by leading a water buffalo via a thin rope looped through the nostrils and around the head towards the ‘large animal’ section of the market as approaching motor scooters toot their horns in warning; a group of wandering Flower H’mong vendor women creates a psychedelic patchwork of rainbow banding, colorful checkering and swaths of fluorescent hues as they huddle together and converse in their native tongue while they search their stocks for handicraft samples to show an interested tourist; two Flower H’mong women negotiate a transaction with a Vietnamese vendor woman involving a large live, yet surprising docile, rooster held dangling by its feet. 

Vendor Stalls Selling Hill Tribe Handicrafts
A Villager with a Rooster for Trade or Sale

As we make our way through the vendor stalls, we divert down a narrow side street that takes us beyond the market's north wall to a field strewn with low weeds and discarded sections of pre-form concrete curbing, where a group of men display small wood and mesh cages containing a variety of colorful song birds. He tells me that he wants to buy two song birds to take back home to his son later as a present. He checks out the different birds, and then engages the vendors in inquiries and/or negotiations in Vietnamese, some of which involving a third party via cell phone, while I shoot some photos and video clips of the surroundings. We reenter the market near the blacksmiths’ stalls en route to the food vendors. 

Birds for Sale Outside of the Main Market Area

A View of the Na Co River, Which Flanks the Live Animal Section of the Bac Ha Market

Typical Wooden Saddles Seen in the Bac Ha Area

Flower H'mong Mother and Child

In the vicinity of the food vendors, Flower H’mong women are selling the locally-made and highly-flammable corn moonshine that my guide calls 'happy water' from the large plastic containers that I had seen toted in earlier. It is dispensed via siphon hoses and funnels into the empty jugs and drinking water bottles provided by the customers. My guide leans in to speak with an older vendor woman, who removes the cap from the mouth of her dented and soiled white plastic drum, and tips it forward to fill the cap of a smaller jug like a shot glass. My guide takes it from her, tips it to disinfect the rim of the cap, then hands it to me with a smile. The ‘happy water’ is decidedly strong but surprisingly smooth going down. Passing some vendor stalls selling roots, herbs and traditional medical remedies, and another selling freshly-butchered pork, we stroll among the aromatic open-air eateries of the market’s food vendors. Surveying the diners seated at the rows of wooden tables and benches laid out beneath canopies of corrugated tin and plastic sheeting, it appears that the phoa (rice noodle soup) is the most popular breakfast item. Also in the offering are large steaming caldrons of mystery meat that may involve organs and entrails simmering over wood cook fires; a nearby set of horns attached a bit of brown hide-covered skull cap raises the possibility that the mystery meat includes goat. Blood cake, blood sausage and fatty pork are also on display.

Roots, Herbs and Traditional Remedies for Sale near the Food Vendor Section
Freshly-Butchered Pork and Pork Blood
Cooked Food Vendors
Dinning Tables in the Food Vendor Section
Mystery Meat (Possibly Goat or Horse Entrails)
Got Your Goat...

From the food vendor area, we continue walking along a sloped concrete walkway that leads up to an elevated open concrete patio or deck that abuts an embankment’s rock and mortar retaining wall. The patio comprises part of the live animal market where a variety of small to medium-sized animals are sold. Myriad ducklings peep incessantly from mesh cages and woven cane baskets; clucking roosters and hens wait solemnly in their wicker cages while others are taken out and held up by the feet to be fondled by prospective buyers; kittens, puppies, adult dogs and pigs of varying sizes sit or lay on the concrete at the ends of leashes, with the pigs emitting snorts and squeals of agitation as customers lean in closely to examine them; four large frogs dangling from a string draped over the extended middle finger of a young Flower H’mong girl.

The Small to Medium-sized Animal Section of the Market

String Frogs; Not Yet as Popular as String Cheese

We ascend the rock and mortar stairway to the crest of the rocky embankment where water buffalo are sold. Our vantage point affords a good overview of the market grounds, though much of it shrouded beneath terra cotta roof tiles and a patchwork of peaked blue plastic tarps, and the modest skyline of downtown Bac Ha amid a picturesque backdrop of serrated mountain ridgelines behind us. The view before us takes in the Na Co River and, on a lower flat between our embankment and the river, the grounds where horses are viewed and sold. Though a lot of Flower H’mong women are present, the men are in the majority and are doing all of the hands-on close inspections of the water buffalo, patting and prodding flesh and muscle, and visually examining the animal from every angle.

The Stairway Leading Up to the Market’s Large Animal Section

The Water Buffalo Viewing Area at the Top of the Embankment

Down below at the horse viewing area the din of the general market is replaced by the shimmering calls of cicadas and the sporadic whinnies of horses mixed with the murmur of conversations. A prospective buyer test-rides one of the horses, galloping up the dirt trail that winds from the river’s edge up to water buffalo viewing area at the crest of the embankment, and then back down. Afterwards, he stands gazing at the panting horse whose reins he now holds and contemplates his decision, as interested and smiling onlookers offer what seem to be light-hearted words of advice and encouragement.

The Horse Viewing Area between the Embankment and the Na Co River

We make our way back down the embankment stairway and across to the far end of the crowded patio, threading through people, tethered and caged animals, stacks of empty wicker shoulder baskets and parked motor scooters to tour the rest of the market. We turn right onto a noisy and busy narrow street lined with open-air barbers and vendor stalls selling hill tribe fabrics and clothing, dry goods and household items, eye glasses, ‘happy water’ and a lone vendor selling live ducks and chickens. Along the streets and in open courtyards are the scores of Flower H’mong women seated on the curbs, steps, or upon stools and cushions with their fruits and vegetables for sale displayed on plastic tarps laid out on the pavement.

An Open-Air Barber Shop near the Animal Market
Pedestrians and Motor Scooters Share the Market’s Narrow Paths
Rice Vendors a Bit Too Close to the Open-Air Barbers given the Prevailing Breeze
‘Happy Water’ (Corn Moonshine) Vendors
Produce Vendors on the Steps of an Open Courtyard

Near the Bac Ha Temple, we head back up Ngoc Uyen Road to complete the guided tour. I strike out on my own before we leave the market to tour a traditional adobe-walled Flower H’mong house, returning to the food and live animal section to take more photos and video clips. I stop to watch a spirited negotiation session over what looks to be a section of large bee hive laden with trapped honey, with the irritated Flower H’mong seller pointing her umbrella at two bottles of dark amber liquid as if to justify her hard-line position on the price. Near the entrance to the animal section, two men play a slow and somber melody on the ken bau, a traditional Vietnamese double reed wind instrument (as heard in the opening and closing of my videos, which I provide links to below), providing a counterpoint to the litany of tooting motor scooter horns and imprinting yet another memory of my visit.

Vendors in Front of the Bac Ha Temple

A Live Fowl Vendor Located Among the Handicraft Vendors

Preparing to Leave the Market
A Cute Flower H’mong Girl
Vendor Women from One of the Region’s Other Hill Tribes

As I leave the Bac Ha market grounds, I’m thinking that the experience has more than met with my expectations. It is perhaps the most interesting market that I have encountered so far in my travels around Southeast Asia, and in and of itself was well-worth the lack of decent sleep on the night train journey from Hanoi. 

Below are links to videos that I shot which capture the sights and sounds of the Bac Ha Sunday market:

Bac Ha Market - Part 1          Bac Ha Market - Part 2

The Countryside on the Outskirts of Bac Ha

Just outside of town, we stop to tour a traditional Flower H'mong home in the village of Ban Pho, which is nestled amid the scenic hills that we passed on the drive into Bac Ha. We park the car near one of the village houses, which sits on atop a small slope at the end of a dirt path, and after meeting the host family spend about 20 minutes touring the home, which unlike the wooden-walled homes latter seen in the Black H'mong villages, is build using the local adobe-like clay for the structural walls together with wooden beams, planks and siding.

A Flower H'mong Home in the Village of Ban Pho
Corn Moonshine Cooking on the Earthen Hearth of a Flower H'mong Home

My  guide takes me first to the kitchen area, where atop the earthen hearth a batch of Flower H'mong corn moonshine is being cooked over a low wood fire prior to being fermented. He then takes me into the house's central living room that lies just inside the entrance, with a couple of the family members observing us as my guide begins to point out and explain the various features of the house. The loft-style second level appears to mainly be used for storage, with the other living and sleeping quarters, which we don't tour, located off the living room behind hanging cloth drapery to our right and a single wooden wall covered with photos, calendars, a few certificates of some sort and what looks like saved pages of newspapers. The wall opposite the entrance features a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and what appears to be hanging shrines. In the Flower H'mong animistic tradition, it is believe that specific Gods or spirits guard and watch over certain parts of the house, and as such different hanging shrines are place in specific locations to honor each of them, such as the Gods of the house, living room, guest room, bedroom, storage area (white in color) and the entrance (red in color). There is also a shrine on the wall opposite the entrance to honor the family's ancestors. 

My video clips of our visit to the Flower H'mong village of Ban Pho can be seen here.

At the conclusion of our tour, we bid farewell to our hosts and drive back a restaurant in the vicinity of the Bac Ha market so that I can have a solo set-menu lunch while my guide and driver leave to have their lunch at another location. My meal, taken with some hot tea and a Lao Cai Beer, includes an excellent skewer of smoky and savory charcoal-grilled goat that is seasoned and marinated in a style similar to the 'thit nuong' grilled pork that I enjoy so much in the numerous Vietnamese delis, sandwich shops and restaurants back home in and around San Jose's Little Saigon. I am presently the only patron in the restaurant, an during my meal a young and very cute Vietnamese waitress hovers attentively nearby and watches for signs that I may need assistance. Each time I glance up at her, she flashes me a little somewhat embarrassed (and perhaps mildly flirtatious?) smile, and when I speak a few words of Vietnamese her smile becomes wider as she chuckles.
A Papaya Stop on the Road Back to Lao Cai
After about 30 minutes, my guide and driver returns, and after making a brief stop at a roadside stall so my guide can pick up a papaya to take back home, we get back on the road to retrace our course back to Lao Cai then continue south to Sapa for an overnight stay and some trekking among the nearby rice terraces and hill-tribe villages. I recount that portion of my two-day excursion from Hanoi in Northwestern Vietnam: Rice Terraces and Hill-tribe Encounters in Sapa - Part 1: The Streets of Sapa, and a Black H'mong Girl Named Ha.


  1. Replies
    1. Actually, I am not an escort services provider, rather just a guy who enjoys traveling in SE Asia and sharing his experiences in words, photos and videos; that being said, I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. Cheers!