The total population of Bắc Hà District in Vietnam is estimated to be 50,000 people and it is an understatement to call the provincial capital of the same name anything other than; sleepy. But the quiet little town comes booming to life for a few hours every Sunday morning when it holds its weekly market. Located 13 miles (22 km) south of the Chinese border, the Bắc Hà Sunday market has become something of a tourist attraction attracting both Vietnamese and Western travelers in addition to the several thousand minority ethnic people who attend the market every week.
There are over 50 different groups of minority ethnic people inhabiting Vietnam. In Bắc Hà province the largest group is known as the Flower Hmong. Originally from China, the Hmong migrated to Vietnam several centuries ago. They are mostly subsistence farmers and their ways of life have changed very little since they first settled in the region. The Hmong further differentiate one group (or Klan) from another by their dress. Flower Hmong women are easily identifiable by their brightly colored and intricately decorated clothing adorned with flower-like patterns. On market day many of these ladies put on their most elaborate costumes which are simply stunning to say the least.
The trading starts early, at 6 a.m., peaks about 10 and by noon most people are headed back to their villages, many on foot, with bamboo baskets full of rice and other basic staples. Amazing arrays of products are sold here including foodstuff such as meat, produce and rice, clothing and household goods. As many of the shoppers here are farmers a wide selection of agricultural equipment from hand and power tools to pumps and machinery is also available. Visiting tourists need not feel left out; there are plenty of locally made handicrafts for sale at both fixed stalls and by vendors wandering through the crowd. When the shopping is finished there are plenty of places to sit and people-watch while enjoying freshly made snacks and glasses of “cafe sua da”, a rich dark iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
For my part, I was most intrigued by the sale of livestock. One particular area on the eastern side was dedicated (in this order) to the sale of pigs, chickens, ducks, household pets and one lone goat. Overlooking the squealing pigs, on a bit of hill, are the big guys, the water buffalo. In many parts of Southeast Asia the buffalo has been replaced by tractors and are kept mostly as a nostalgic status symbol. But not in this part of Vietnam where they are still yoked to handmade wooden plows and used to till the soil of the rice terraces. It amazes me that these enormous yet gentle animals are as important to rural farmers today as they were centuries ago.
I found the market a very difficult place to take photographs. By 8:30 a.m. the sun was beating down unmercifully, casting harsh light on my subjects and driving them under the cavern-like darkness of umbrellas or under awnings. Several times I was struck on the head by these same umbrella-wielding shoppers as they worked their way through the crowds. I was pushed and shoved by men, women and children of ages in addition to one hot and irritated buffalo that put his head against my thigh and gave me shove. I cannot wait to go back next weekend.
Whenever I visit Bangkok, one of my favorite cities, I try to utilize public transportation as much as possible. I particularly enjoy traveling on Bangkok’s elevated rail system known as the Skytrain or BTS. These modern electric cars whisk passengers through the business district's maze of skyscrapers several stories above Bangkok’s chaotic streets. Not only is it much less expensive then relying on taxis, it’s faster and much more interesting than being stuck in traffic. A single trip on the BTS can be had for as little as 43 cents, but for tourists, a day pass of unlimited rides is a fantastic bargain at $4 USD. Purchasing a pass is easy as each station has several ticket kiosks which are staffed by friendly, helpful English-speaking Thais.
The Skytrain system is composed of two lines named Sukhumvit and Silom after key neighborhoods in downtown Bangkok. They join together at Siam Station, the location of one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls. In fact, if shopping is your pleasure, many of the city’s most popular malls, markets and districts, such as Siam Paragon Mall, Chatuchak Weekend Market, Patpong Night Market and Ratchaprasong Road can all be reached by the BTS.
To see Bangkok’s most iconic tourist sites such as Wat Pho and The Grand Palace, take the Silom line to Saphan Taksin station and connect to the Chao Phraya Express boat. Wat Pho is about a five-minute walk from Pier Number Eight, while The Grand Palace can be reached from Pier Number Nine.
Visitors utilizing the Skytrain can also connect to Bangkok’s underground metro system known as the MRT. Also convenient and inexpensive, the MRT can be used to reach Hua Lamphong Railway Station, China Town and must-see sites such as the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.
I really dragged my feet traveling though southern Vietnam, so my time in the north was limited to six days. Taking the train from Huế to Hanoi wasted a half day and was my least enjoyable train ride. Not only was the trip very long, 14 hours, but unlike the trains south of Huế there was virtually nothing to eat or drink on board. The other trains I had been on always had attendants pushing carts of food and drinks down the aisles and were constantly trying to sell me something. On the Hanoi leg there was one or two barren carts with a couple of bottles of water, and the attendants basically ignored me. I suggest that anyone planning on making this journey bring plenty of drinks and snacks. In the future I will probably fly from Danang to Hanoi and skip this leg all together.
Hanoi is a really interesting city which has become a very popular travelers’ destination.
The main tourism hub is the “Old Quarter” area; a busy neighborhood composed mostly of buildings left over from the French period. This is a good place to find budget hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants. The area is conveniently located close to Hanoi’s most visited sites including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Presidential Palace.
I only spent one day touring Hanoi before heading north to the town of Sa Pa in Lao Cai Province. Located roughly 23 miles (37 km) from the Chinese border, this small town sits at the base of Vietnam’s largest mountain which is known (in English) as Mt. Fansipan. Lao Cai Province has become a bit of a tourism hotspot with Sa Pa as its epicenter. The area is a breathtaking mixture of mountains, hills, valleys, rivers and waterfalls; a nature lover’s paradise. Living among this beautiful landscape are at least a half dozen different minority ethnic groups. These charming people are essentially subsistence farmers who subsidize their meager income by producing and selling a variety of handicrafts. They also act as trekking guides for the many visitors who come to this area specifically to hike to the remote ethnic villages scattered around Lao Cai Province.
There is no airport in Lao Cai Province; most travelers journeying from Hanoi will take either a bus or train to Lao Cai station and then connect to a local bus for the remaining one-hour trip into Sa Pa. A faster and better, but more expensive, option is to book a seat on the Sa Pa Express bus. This is a “luxury” motor coach which features large reclining airline style seats and makes the 196 mile (316 km) trip from the Old City in Hanoi to Sa Pa in five and a half hours. Tickets can be booked online on their website, or purchased from one of the many travel agents in Hanoi.
Sa Pa is an extraordinarily beautiful place inhabited by warm, friendly and welcoming people. However, travelers should keep in mind that the weather there can be quite intense. When I arrived on Thursday afternoon the town was engulfed in a thick fog, mariners call it black fog. It was cold and wet and I joked about it with the taxi driver on my way to the hotel. That afternoon I hiked to the west of town along Dien Bien Phu road and as worked my way up the hill above the valley the fog gave way to sunny blue skies. As I returned to Sa Pa town after the eight-kilometer trek, the fog began to clear and it started raining. A couple of hours later it was absolutely pouring rain which continued until around eleven the next morning when the clouds parted and the sun came out in all its glory. They say that Sa Pa has four seasons, sometimes all in the same day. The point is that travelers to Lao Cai Province should be prepared to deal with some cool soggy weather.
In the two and a half days I was in Sa Pa I managed to trek over 30 miles (50 km), see a number of minority villages and meet many friendly local people. Sa Pa was the highlight of my trip through Vietnam. It impressed me and I wished that I had more time to spend in the area.