After our Ninh Binh detour we were back on track, heading to the north Vietnam highlands by overnight train.
We arrived in Lao Cai, the boarder town with china, in the early hours of the 28th. Lao Cai is the stepping off point for Sapa and Bac Ha, both well known for their stunning terraced rice paddies and weekend markets where the diverse hill tribes, H’mong, Phu La, Black Dao, Tay and Nung dressed in elaborate ethnic costumes, meet, shop or sell wares. Most tourists head straight to Sapa and take a 2 hour bus trip to the weekend markets of Can Cau (Saturday) and/or Bac Ha (Sunday). We decided to head straight to Bac Ha itself and get the drop on the tourists. (Still can't understand why people do it from Sapa!!!)
We spent the rest of the day walking around and sussing out the town.
Bac Ha itself, is a quiet, sleepy town, small and little in the way of ‘attractions’. We did the few sites that were there and spent the rest of the day exploring the back streets enjoying watching daily life. It actually is a lovely place. We stopped for lunch at a little local shop house for a big bowl of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup with either beef, pork or chicken). Pho is ubiquitous with Vietnam with each region having their own take on it.
Although the home stay offered home cooked meals with the family, being my birthday, we opted to try our luck in town. Oh boy… this is where we found out how quiet it really is… and how touristy it isn’t. There was hardly a sole around. Not many places to eat and we didn’t want another bowl of pho, or fried rice. We found a place where the customers were jovial and calling us to come in. We could see pictures on the wall and we were confident we could communicate enough to order. There was always google translate or just point at what the other diners were eating. We sat and waited and waited until our patience was running low, we tried to get attention but everyone, accept the other customers, were ignoring us. I eventually cornered a lady and she waived me away. She didn't want to deal with us at all. We tried again but they weren't interested. Annoyed we just left. We walked around and everything was closed. One hotel tried to get us in but he was too pretentious and rude. We tried another place where the kitchen out the front was stir frying something that smelled delicious. Again we tried to get someone and they said “No! no cooking”. They just didn't want to deal with us. Patience had run out and hunger had set in and we were over it - some birthday!! ;-) Pete was so annoyed, so decided to go back to the first place and use Google translate to tell them they weren't being fair (he actually asked if they were racist). After a few more phone translations and the staff being scolded by the customers, they apologised and quickly and easily took our order!!! The food actually was quite good! The locals having dinner insisted we sit with them for a few “happy waters” (corn based moonshine!!!) to apologise for the staff behaviour, ended up being a pretty fun evening.
Another couple, with guides, had arrived during the afternoon and joined us at the family dinner table happily enjoying Mr Trungs cooking and drinking home brewed corn spirit that he infused with mushrooms and honey, very drinkable!!!
The taxi picked us up at 6:30am the next morning for the 30 minute drive to Can Cau and its market. Like most markets in Asia it's best to get there early but here it's even more important so you can avoid the tourists coming up from Sapa who arrive around 9am.
Needing breakfast we decided to sit down at a place where they were cooking curd and greens in an enormous wok over an open fire, we found out it was a local tofu and herbs. It was served with a very spicy dipping sauce, greens and rice and was delicious. The locals loved the fact we sat down to have some. Obviously most tourists just wander past looking at the food, taking photos…. But too scared to try!! That's not us! ;-)
By 9.30 the market felt flooded with tourists and cameras (yes… we are tourists.. and yes we have cameras… but we are different!, just ask us) so it was time to head back.
We casually checked out of Huy Trung Homestay over a lovely cup of Vietnamese coffee (Pete loves this stuff) then moved to the Congfu hotel in the town centre. Boy what a come down, and this we found out later was one of the better hotels of the town too!!!
We also discovered that the town was suddenly full of white people that weren't there before, they had arrived by the bus load and had filled the previously empty hotels and streets. By Sunday night they would be gone and the town would revert to its sleepy self
We were picked up by a local bus to Sapa, the next morning. The girl at our hotel organised for us to sit in the front seat, driver took a fancy to Pete and kept putting his hand on his knee. I thought it was funny, Peter thought about his sexuality....