Cat Ba Island / Bac Ha Market and Goodbye to Sapa

Sapa_sceneryCan’t believe I’m still catching up on the Sapa trip. Things have been so incredibly busy and it’s so difficult to write in the evenings when you’re really tired.

Anyway, right now we’re on a boat leaving Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay. It’s 8:30 in the morning and crazy to think of what I do on most other mornings at 8:30.

Anyway, back to the market. It was totally crammed with Flower H’mong people – all carrying things and selling – food, animals, silver, embroidery… apparently it is the main point of social contact for them, so you’d see them in big groups together, all having a good time… old men drunk and staggering on corn wine, big covered areas where they serve pho, market after market stall, an area where all the animals were being sold (ducks, chickens, water buffalo, puppies, etc…)Bac_ha_old_man

We wandered around – in some places it was really crowded, mostly with H’mong people but also lots of tourists. Steve and I ssat down at a food stall, even though lunch was at some restaurant somewhere. I think we were some of the only whiteys who actually sat down to eat the real food. People don’t seem too surprised to see you sit down next to them, but at the same time, they find it funny if you want some of the chili sauce, etc. A woman fed rice noodles to a baby beside us, while on the other side was a slightly-rowdy guy. Drunk maybe.

We saw a few tourists stop and point at us, no doubt amazed that we’d “gone native”, food-wise. (It was weird, meeting people who had been told back in their home countries “not to eat anything fresh”, because of the water, or whatever. It was weird, and a real shame, because the food was so amazing. They missed out on so much.)

I bought a watch (!) at the market – a 10,000d Casio digital watch, complete with alarm and light. Steve had to take the back off and insert a piece of plastic cut from a battery pack to get the third button to connect though.

We also bought a bottle of sweet corn wine, that we’d seen women selling in large tanks and small re-filled water bottles. We couldn’t tell if it was alcohol or petrol, at first. One woman I made the drinking motion to just looked away, but another smiled and nodded. It cost us 5,000d (50 cents!) and I’ve heard it’s flammable – at least 30%. We’ve only made it through a little bit so far.

All in all though, it was an incredible place to see.

The bus back to Sapa took three or four hours. Along the way, (near Lao Cai) we stopped at the Chinese border. It was quite surreal, as the only thing separating Vietnam from China (other than a few gates and bridges) was a river, so you could see right across the river (The Red River) to China.
Chinese border

Back in Sapa, we were put up in the other hotel – some partnership arrangement – which was three star instead of two star – which had a huge balcony out the front, and commanding views of the “flower valley”, which was unfortunately shrouded in cloud. A double bed! A shower and a bath! Disposable slippers!

We showered and went for dinner. It was a set menu – a bit strange, consisting of pumpkin soup, fruit curry, rice and spring rolls. We were still a bit hungry afterwards, but flaked out anyway.

The next morning, at 9:00am, we went with another guide on a hike to Cat Ca Village. The walk wound down the hills, down through a pretty village, where we were allowed to have a look inside a woman’s house. I bought some beautiful woven scarves!


We walked back up to Sapa – there was a bit of a drizzle so we were glad we’d brought our ponchos – and then had the rest of the day to ourselves before our bus back to Lao Cai left at 6:30.

We decided to go for a wander around Sapa. At first we just explored the surrounding area – the market there (I got a Sapa t-shirt!) and stopped for lunch at a little place. I don’t know if you’d call it a restaurant, as such, maybe cafe is a better word. In any case, they are often part of someone’s house, with four or five tables, possibly bia hoi and sometimes other things for sale. This place had bottled beer, made a beautiful fried rice and steamed spring rolls (wrapped in cabbage) and sold various “wines” (up to 20%, say?), like honey wine, medicine wine, etc., and packs of herbs, including dried starfish, and one that had a dried lizard on it.

From there we wandered up to the town square, and then to a large lake, lined with government buildings and a guest house.

A guy crashed his scooter right in front of us! On a straight road! I don’t know what he was looking at, but next thing there were sparks and he was sliding down the road underneath his bike. He leapt up, got back on his scooter and then raced back down the road, the way he’d come. We saw him stop a hundred or so metres down the road and have a look at his knee. Poor guy.

The rest of Sapa was quite beautiful, with a real alpine feel about it. There were an awful lot of huge hotels, which I found a bit surprising. Flash French restaurants.

We decided we’d go check out this restaurant that we’d seen earlier, that sold H’mong food, called the Green Sapa Restaurant. We went upstairs and found ourselves face-to-face with an old man in a beret, with an animated face. He brought us inside (basically his living room) and asked if we, since it was cold, would share some plum wine with him. We knocked back a couple, then he got out the “medicine wine” – made from medicine plants from Mt Fancipan (which was where he was originally from). It was actually very good.

Then his daughter arrived and he told her what we’d ordered, and she set about cooking it (H’mong grilled pork and fried fish with lemon). He went off to the market and left us with a cute wooden set of Connect-4, to keep us busy.green_sapa_restaurant_chess

The food was delicious, and when the old man returned, he challenged Steve to a game of chess. It was such a funny game, he came out guns blazing, and completely annihilated Steve. We had to run to the bus, but I think we grinned all the way back to Lao Cai on the bus, it was so neat.

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