After two hours on our motorbikes we had left behind all the noise and fumes of the city and we were riding through a vast green carpet of crops, with the aroma of ripened rice and smoke from burning straw filling the air. The chill of Bac Ha district in northern Lao Cai province made its way through even the smallest opening in our clothing. After riding up and down and around numerous bends we reached the colourful highlands with flowering plum trees and the honest people of the countryside.
Upon arriving in Bac Ha we stopped for breakfast before beginning the main reason for our trip - the weekly market. Phở Hanoi (Hanoi noodles) and phở bò Nam Dinh (Nam Dinh beef noodles) are common everywhere around Vietnam but you can’t claim to have really been to Bac Ha if you don’t try the local specialty phở gà chặt miếng (noodles with chicken).
Whenever I’m in the area I always have a bowl of local phở for breakfast. Unlike in the city, the thin, flat noodles here are made by hand and the chicken is bought locally. After being boiled it is cut into bite-sized chunks rather than torn into small strips.
After our delicious breakfast we headed to the market and soon found ourselves drifting amid a stream of people. We were then among a large crowd of girls and women in colourful floral skirts. Attempts at finding the ‘right’ place to take some photos were fruitless given the huge crowd.
The market was much more crowded than usual, we were told by some of the vendors, because farmers from around the area have recently finished the harvest and have some free time to come and enjoy themselves or do some shopping, which added to the hustle and bustle.
We finally made our way to the food and drinks area, where we found large, boiling pots of thắng cố (stewed horse meat) and pork soup, together with translucent corn cake, noodles, and alcohol. Some children were enjoying ice cream cones.
Bac Ha Weekly Market is ranked by the travel magazine Serendib as among the Top 10 weekly markets in Southeast Asia. It’s a special tourist site in Lao Cai province and is a beautiful cultural feature of the local ethnic minority people. The market is open every Sunday and is especially vibrant around Tet (the lunar new year) and after the harvest, as farmers bring their latest produce to sell.
A lot of popular markets have become over-commercialised but Bac Ha Market hasn’t suffered such a fate. Most people come to buy produce like chickens, pork and fresh organic vegetables, which have been brought down by farmers from misty mountaintop fields. The most exciting corner of the market was the place where farmers sell domestic animals. Seeing a H'Mong ethnic minority man holding a lead attached to the neck of a black pig, I asked if he was selling it and how much it was. ‘VND700,000,’ he said. ‘It’s 19 kilos.’ I asked how much per kilo, and he said, ‘VND45,000.’ His maths were a bit off, so we pointed out that his asking price should be VND855,000, not VND700,000.
Leaving the corner where the animals were on sale we were attracted by the sound of a group of men sitting together in a circle and singing. As we approached we saw two men sitting in the centre of the crowd and playing a wooden wind instrument. I made friends with a middle-aged man, Cao Chung Lin, a Mong ethnic minority living in Coc Ly commune.
Seeing how curious we were about the wind instrument, Lin explained that ‘it’s played at important events like weddings and funerals and is made from a fig tree.’
I took the instrument and began to play. It had seven circular holes, like a bamboo flute. While we were talking about the instrument the two men were still enthusiastically playing as if they had not noticed our presence. After a while we went to other places in the market but the going was slow because of the crowd.
On both sides of the main entrance to the market were vendors selling brooms, baskets, horse saddles and bamboo handicrafts. Then we reached a place where people were selling incense sticks. These are just one of the traditional products of the Mong minority people in Bac Ha. The incense sticks were in bundles and are quite big, and according to my friend are quite special.
In front of the market was a line of people selling green sticky rice. They had just harvested the crop so had a lot to sell. What was special was that there was ‘khau rang’ - a type of rice used for cooking sticky rice, with big grains, and it’s delicious.
When it was noon we planned to have some thắng cố and drink some local alcohol, which people describe as ‘being squeezed out of the earth’. But we couldn’t refuse an invitation from a restaurant, and sat down to enjoy sour phở Bac Ha. The noodles were pink and sticky. The soup was a little sour, made from pickles and crushed fried peanuts. Some salt was added when served.
At first I wasn’t sure I could eat such a strange dish but it turned out to be really tasty. We were then treated to a dish of fried buffalo meat and some horse offal stir-fried with starfruit. Such dishes are only meant for guests in these highland parts.
The weather was chilly but my friend was sweating. I looked at his bowl and saw a lot of chilli pickle, another local specialty. We kept drinking the corn and yeast wine made from herbal plants and whiled away the afternoon.