Train to Sapa and the Can Cau Market, Vietnam

I can’t believe I slept until 6:00AM on the world’s hardest bed. Mattresses in Asia are generally much firmer than in the West, but the beds at the Confu Hotel in Bac Ha are as hard as a carpeted floor. Luckily we were dead tired from having taken the night train to Lao Cai, in the mountains of Vietnam near the Chinese border, and having hiked a good couple of hours in the afternoon.

Most travelers come to this region via the night train from Hanoi to hike in the terraced hills and visit the minority hill villages. Soft sleeper tickets can be bought at one of the train station offices, travel agencies or hotels. Several agencies run their own sleeper cars that attach to the same state-run train engine. From what I’ve read, and from observing the other sleeper cars at the station, I don’t think there is much difference between cars in this class.

The night before in Hanoi, after an Indian dinner at Tandoor – a casual restaurant with super tasty food -we met the Et-Pumpkin folks at their office in the Old Quarter. Along with the other tourists traveling with them that night we were taken to the train station and lead through the maze of train coaches to their special Pumpkin coach. Not as classy as the Cinderella variety, the compartments are small and basic, each containing four berths. Don barely fits in the narrow bed.  The sheets are clean and the mattress softer than at the Confu hotel.

The train departs at 9:00pm for the eight hour journey to Lao Cai. I wake up at 2:00am. Our cabin mates, a young Vietnamese couple with a small child, are restless and noisy. It must not be possible to whisper in Vietnamese. They get up several times and finally get off the train at 4:00am. But it’s hard to fall back to sleep. The train rocks back and forth and up and down. There’s a rhythmic krr-clunk krr-clunk as the train passes over the seams between the tracks; the engine roars; and every joint of the old coach squeaks. I doze in and out and we finally arrive at our destination at 5:45AM.

I arranged with the Pumpkin folks to have a car pick us up at the train station and take us to the Can Cau Market, 18K north of Bac Ha. We start the journey in the dark and can barely discern the passing country side. It starts to get light and the hills are draped in fog. The simple houses that hug the roadside are more often wooden than stucco with banana trees and vegetable garden in the small yards. Although this is Saturday, the driver continually honks to warn the children that are biking to school.

About an hour into the drive we start to climb. At one point the fog is so thick we cannot see the valley below. As we emerge from this cloud we see the terraced hill sides. It’s early spring so many of the fields are freshly plowed waiting to be planted. In others, tender greens are just coming up.

It’s a good paved road to Bac Ha. We stop at the Confu Hotel to check in, drop off our bag, and eat a little breakfast. An older woman who doesn’t speak any English gives us a paper listing the breakfast choices. Only Western options centered on bread and eggs. The fried eggs are scrambled and are tasty with lots of sweet onion. The toast is of the sweet Asian-bread variety.

 After the town, the road to Can Cau becomes a rough dirt track that climbs through the mountains. Although it is only 18 kilometers to the market it takes another 40 minutes.  We arrive at 8:30, ahead of tour buses but not ahead of some of the tourists. While the guide books might lead you to think otherwise, this market has been discovered. Entire sections are devoted to selling crafts to tourists. There is, however, still plenty of local commerce to be explored. Women, dressed in the traditional Flower Hmong costume of a predominately orange and white multicolored brocade, sit along the roadside selling their few items – this time of year it’s greens, cilantro, mustard, cabbage and other cool weather crops.

In the back there is a livestock market where mostly men gather around to examine the specimens and haggle over the price. The animals, mostly horses, water buffalo and cows, do not look well tended, often scrawny with mangy coats. These animals are meant to work.

In the center of the market are the dry goods and packaged products – rubber shoes, detergent, snacks, rope and metal blades. Goods the local Hmong need in their villages.

The last section we visit is the kitchen. Long wooden tables are set out with big caldrons of stock simmering and cuts of meat and greens lying on the tables. A few are eating their morning noodle soup, but it’s still a bit early for a mid morning snack.

As we leave the market at 9:30 more and more tour busses are filing in. We find our driver and head back to the hotel for a nap.

Rooms at the Confu Hotel are clean and basic, about what you would expect for $25US. We have a balcony overlooking the street in front. Although there is a heater in our room, the public rooms including the restaurant are ice cold. You can see your breath at breakfast.

Lunch at the hotel, beef noodle soup, vegetable stir-fried noodles and stir-fried mixed vegetables warms our hungry bodies but isn’t worth commenting on further.

Wandering around town there is not much to see. It’s bigger than the description given in the guide books, multiple roads with a mix of painted stucco buildings and other more run down structures. Interesting to walk through but not high in the charm department.

The road to Pho Ban, a nearby village, however, is more pleasant, passing small fields and wooden farm houses with a back drop of terraced hills. Life is hard here. A woman smoothing the plowed field rides on a platform pulled by a water buffalo. Her three children are playing in the field, the youngest sitting on the bare earth howling as the mother passes back and forth.

We never do find the path back to town mentioned in the guide book and have to retrace our steps back along the road. Sometimes it would be good to have a guide.

We decide to skip the hotel dining room and go into a restaurant just two doors down. It looks like a converted garage with a cement floor, a dog, and six wooden tables with chairs. At two of the tables are groups of Vietnamese eating hot pot and peanuts tossing the shells on the floor. Our young eager waiter speaks no English, but hands us a menu with English translations. We ordered stir-fried chicken with lemon grass and chilies, beef with lemon grass and onion, mixed stir-fried vegetables, vegetable stir-fried rice and beer. He calls back to the kitchen when we order the beer, tells us “OK” and then speeds off on his motorbike. He returns about five minutes later with a case of beer. The dishes are all hot and flavorful, unlike at the hotel, and the people watching priceless. All this including tip for just 200,000 dong, about $10US.

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