Even before the sun was up we could hear the steady stream of traffic heading to the market. It takes a while for the market to get going so we are in no hurry. The tour buses from Sa Pa won’t arrive until nearly 10:00AM.
In the dining room of the hotel a sizeable group of French tourists are having breakfast. The server doesn’t like the fact they have taken up three large tables (half the dining room) and asks them to move to just two. A few of them put up of fuss and refuse to move until their group leader, a French speaking Vietnamese, comes in and they immediately submit to her request. A little drama to go with our crepes, banana and coffee.
Although larger, the Bac Ha market is very much like the Can Cau market. Some say that that Bac Ha is more touristy but these days both markets have large sections that sell tourist trinkets – mostly fabric items and silver jewelry. The rest of the market, however, is still an authentic working market. The Hmong women dressed in native costume line the main street selling herbs and vegetables. Peppers are a hot item – no pun intended – dried, powdered or as a sauce. We wander to the live stock area in the back. Here they are selling mostly chickens and puppies. I’m guessing that these cute little creatures are for eating – all the same breed and about the same size. We climb the hill that overlooks this area to where they are selling water buffalo and cows. We watch the market below, a cacophony of puppies whining, pigs squealing and horns blaring.
Back in the main area we sit and have a coffee. As we wait for our freshly brewed coffee to drip into the glass (this can take 15 minutes) we watch the market around us. In front is a rope stall; to the side a woman is sewing the sole back onto a shoe; in back of us a woman is making a pan fried pancake served in a banana leaf; on the other side is another woman making filled deep-fried donut-looking balls; and across from her are a group of Hmong women looking at a photo with an on-looking tourist taking pictures of them.
We take another spin through the market to see how the crowds are progressing. Still not so many tourists but more and more locals. The chicken and puppy area is now packed.
We go to the soup area for some noodles. No tourists here just locals. Tables are set out with the various choices -on one a selections of cooked meats, on another cut up raw meats and three types of noodles. The woman points to the noodles for us to choose and shows us a 20,000 dong note indicating the price. Seems reasonable enough and we hold up two fingers. We are not offered a choice of meat, but rather served two bowls of noodles with chicken, garnished with cilantro and a side of mint and lettuce. On the table are a jar of chili pepper and a bottle of chili sauce to spice it up if we want. Not the most flavorful soup, but the atmosphere is fun as we watch the locals and they watch us.
We arranged for a car to take us to Sa Pa. Really much more than I wanted to pay. Tours from Sa Pa to the Bac Ha market and back cost $15-20US, but we couldn’t find a way to get a one way ride just back to Sa Pa. We ended up paying $100 for a private car. This afforded us a comfortable drive, arriving in Sa Pa just after lunch with enough time to hike down to Cat Cat village before dark.
Before the hike down we stopped at Sapa Rooms to refuel on cake and coffee. Either we were hungry or the cake was really good or both. Tasted the chocolate tart, a not-too-sweet dark chocolate pudding in a buttery pastry, and a moist pumpkin bread served with a cinnamony homemade jam. Yum!
Sa Pa was cloaked in fog. It can stay that way for days or weeks this time of year, but as we started to descend, the valley below became visible with terraced fields and a few farm houses.
A pretty setting for the touristy “Cat Catland”, a series of traditional shacks selling tourist trinkets with the usual cry, “you buy something for me” (no that is not a typo). They are more aggressive here and some will follow you down the street insisting that you buy something. At the bottom of a steep staircase that winds through the shops is a pretty waterfall. Then a climb back up the road with motorbike drivers incessantly asking if you want a ride. The same one passing multiple times, each time asking again if you want a ride. I was glad to get the exercise, but I could have done without “Cat Catland”. As we climb the sun falls behind the mountain and the fog rolls in thicker. By the time we are back in Sa Pa the streets are concealed in a cloud. I wonder if we will ever really “see” Sa Pa.
The Hotel Casablanca has good reviews in both the guide books and on Tripadvisor, but don’t expect much. It is still a cheap room. We got the deluxe room with mountain views for $30US. Sadly, the fog was so thick we could barely see the street in front of the hotel let alone the mountains. The rooms are decorated in warm colors in a low-budget-hip style. However, only the colors are warm. They do provide a heat lamp in the rooms, but like the Confu Hotel in Bac Ha, the public rooms are frigid. I swear colder than outside. The bathroom was grungy with a stained tub, moldy caulk and intermittent hot water. The owner is friendly and tries to be helpful, but his English was not as good as I originally thought making it difficult to make arrangements for transportation or treks through him. Instead, on recommendation from another guest, we went to the tourist information office where the agent spoke great English and found us the type of day trek we were looking for.
We tried the Italian restaurant Delta for dinner. Again recommended in the guide book and on Tripadvisor. The large dining room is decorated in a trattoria style but somehow lacks that cozy feeling you get in a real trattoria, even with a wood fire burning in the corner. We ordered the bruschetta, Greek salad with eggplant, Siciliana pizza, mushroom risotto, tiramisu and a bottle of Umbrian Primativo. Overall the food was reasonably good for Italian food in the mountains of Vietnam, but of course you pay for the privilege.