There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Lao Cai, Coc Ly Market and Sa Pa: Part 4 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 2: Ha Long Bay
On to Part 4:

Joe warned us that Hanoi Ga (Ga being derived from the French gare) would be ‘chaostic’ and we should keep our hands on our wallets, but it was actually as calm and quiet as a major city station can be.

Perched on large traditional polished-wood seats – better to look at than sit on – we stayed in the first class waiting room until the platform was announced. In China no one is allowed out of the waiting room if there is any possibility of a train still being in motion, and then all must use the bridge or underpass. In Hanoi the stream of passengers happily trundled their cases across the tracks in search of the appropriate platform.

We settled into the standard four berth compartment and were joined by a British teacher from an international school in Ho Chi Minh heading north for her Easter holiday, and a young Vietnamese man who asked if we spoke French. Thinking he might want a conversation we told him we did, but not well. Apparently satisfied by our linguistic incompetence, he climbed onto an upper bunk, disappeared under his blanket and started making a series of phone calls in quiet but urgent French. Maybe he was an international terrorist, or perhaps he was cheating on his wife; we shall never know.

The train scored highly for its clean flush toilet with ceramic pedestal – luxurious by Trans-Siberian standards - but lost points for rattling and bouncing. Nonetheless, we managed a reasonable night’s sleep before being woken at 4.45 by the attendant informing us that we were 15 minutes from Lao Cai. At the station we followed the crowd into the concourse where we spotted a smiling young man holding a piece of paper bearing our names. ‘Hello, I’m Minh,’ he said.

It was a cool, misty morning. Outside in the square a street market was setting up and the pho stalls were already busy dispensing noodles. We would have settled for this, but Minh took us to the more upmarket Thien Hai Hotel. ‘The train will arrive an hour late,’ Joe had told us confidently. He was not wrong about much, but he was wrong about that; it had arrived, as scheduled, at precisely 5 a.m. which was a shame as the breakfast buffet did not open until 6.

It was a long hour, but eventually we ate and afterwards went to look at China. The Chinese border runs southeast down the Red River to Lao Cai, where it turns up the small Nam Ti River. Standing on the bank of the Nam Ti, we observed the Chinese town of Hekou across the bridge. Not for the first time, we noted how abruptly architecture changes across an arbitrary line. On our side were the tall, thin box-like buildings of the Vietnamese, while across the water was the customary Chinese attempt to make even the most modest country town resemble a flimsy version of Manhattan.


Hekou across the Nam Ti River
Lao Cai

On Christmas Day 1978, barely three years after the American War ended, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ousted the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. To punish them the Chinese invaded Vietnam, crossing the Nam Ti and occupying Lao Cai province for 16 days before being repulsed with heavy losses. Relations are better now, black market goods cross the river by night and legitimate goods by day. Locals need only show an identity card to cross the border.

As we had commented on the banyan tree we were standing beside, Minh offered to show us the largest banyan in Lao Cai, or possibly, northern Vietnam. A couple of hundred metres away, growing out of a bank above a circle of figures representing the Chinese zodiac was a very substantial banyan indeed.
Banyan tree and Chinese zodiac
Lao Cai
We followed the road up the bank to a kiosk selling incense sticks. It was still only 7 o’clock but business was brisk.


Selling incense sticks beneath the banyan
Lao Cai

We investigated the Taoist temple behind before returning to the car and setting off for Coc Ly.

Incene burner, Taoist temple, Lao Caio
The northern Highlands are home to a wide variety of ethnic minorities and Coc Ly, is a Hmong village. The attraction was its Tuesday market, and Minh’s advice was to get there early. We drove east down the well surfaced highway for some 30km, then turned into a side road, following it uphill until it petered out.

Altar, Taoist temple, Lao Cai

Some 3 million Hmong people live in China (where they call themselves Miao), Vietnam is home to another three quarters of a million while half a million more live in Laos and Thailand. There are many sub-groups of Hmong, usually identified by some aspect of their traditional clothing. In China we had met Black Miao, Long-horned Miao and Long-haired Miao. Coc Ly is a village of the Flowery Hmong (not, apparently, the same group as the Chinese Flowery Miao).

By 8 o’clock the market was in full swing. Most of the woman wore traditional clothes and it was easy to see why they had earned their name.


Flowery Hmong women
Coc Ly market

We started with the cattle and, once again, considered the possibility of buying a buffalo.


'I'm not sure about the big one, but perhaps we could take the little one as hand luggage.'
Coc Ly market

Then we walked through the rest of the market, pausing to eat a deep fried rice cake. Like their Chinese counterparts the Vietnamese Hmong grow much ‘sticky rice’ and sweeten it for use in cakes.


Deep frying sticky rice cakes
Coc Ly market

We bought some freshly roasted peanuts…..


Buying peanuts
Coc Ly market

…and watched Minh buy pineapples. Despite the cool weather the vegetation was clearly tropical and pineapples were plentiful. Minh paid 25 000 Dong (75 pence) for 5 kilos. The weather warms up later in the year to ripen the pineapples, but the Vietnamese pineapple – a distinctively small variety - is far less sweet in the north than in the sweltering south.


Minh (left) buys pineapples
Coc Ly market

In many places home grown tobacco was being smoked in waterpipes very like those of South West China. ‘It’s just a simple bong,’ Minh said as I took the photo below. I had previously known the word 'bong' to apply only to a pipe for smoking cannabis and I had never thought about where it came from. I assume that the word, with its slight change in meaning, entered English from Vietnamese via returning American soldiers*. Perhaps everybody except me knew that.


Water pipes
Coc Ly market

We had been told that Coc Ly was entirely a local market, with nothing aimed at tourists. This is no longer quite the case; as more people like us turn up the market is growing the inevitable handicrafts section aimed squarely at the tourist market. For the moment it is a small (and empty) part of the market, but it may not always remain that way. Tourism, as I have observed before, kills the things it loves and Coc Ly is currently standing on the gallows and eyeing up the trap-door.

After a good look round we left the market following some chicken in a basket – though not the 1970s pub version.


Chicken in a basket
Coc Ly market

On the way back to Lao Cai we stopped at a tea plantation. It is a mystery why anybody first tried infusing the leaves – the plant looks no more promising that privet – but I am frequently glad they did. A great deal of tea is grown and drunk in northern Vietnam, but coffee is also grown in the Central Highlands and is popular in the south.


Tea plantation
between Coc Ly and Lao Cai

We passed through Lao Cai and drove a further hour or so westwards to Sa Pa.

Sa Pa was developed as a hill station during French colonial rule. The town fell on hard times after independence until its reinvention in the 1990s as a tourist centre. In March it is a cool, misty place, but a perfect centre for walking. Perched on the edge of a plateau it overlooks the deep MuongHoa Valley and is overlooked in turn by Mt Fanxipan, at 3142m the highest peak in Vietnam – at least that is what the guide book says. The valley hid in the mists below, while Mt Fanxipan lurked in the mists above.


Sa Pa, in the mist and on the edge of a plateau

For lunch, we walked with Minh up the main street, across the square where the French built the Emmanuel Church in 1930 and into the Vietnamese quarter. There we sat, well wrapped up, on a restaurant terrace and ate soup, pork with onions and mushrooms, roasted tofu in a tomato sauce, assorted cabbages and copious quantities of rice. Minh is Kinh (that is ethnic Vietnamese) who make up only 15% of Sapa’s 40 000 inhabitants. 52% are Black Hmong, 25% Dao, 5% Tay, 2% Giay and the rest are odds and sods. In the next few days we would stay with a Dao and a Tay family as we walked down the Muong Hoa valley.

Emmanuel Church, Sa Pa

We walked back to our hotel through the market which was on two levels (easily arranged in a hill town) with food above and local handicrafts below. Then, as the sun emerged briefly and the mist partly cleared, we walked a little way out of town in a half successful quest for a photograph.


The mist considers clearing
Sa Pa

Our hotel was at the end of the main street, which, strangely, reminded me of Betws-y-Coed. Lined with outdoor shops, bars and restaurants it is full of tourists, most of whom will never stray more than a couple of hundred metres from a motor vehicle.  Here you can eat pizza, burgers or biryani, or buy a rucksack or a pair of walking boots – you can even hire a pair for 60p (which is probably not possible in Betwys, and seems a perfect way to ruin your feet.)

Where Sa Pa differs from Betws is that for every tourist there are three Black Hmong women attempting to sell them handicrafts. Those careless enough to make eye contact will immediately discover a bewildering array of scarves and knitwear are produced from the wicker basket that every Black Hmong woman wears on her back and thrust into their faces. Those foolish enough to engage in conversation will attract four or five more women offering identical goods, while anyone so naïve as to believe that a purchase will get rid of them will find the seller moving on to bracelets and hats while the others take turns muttering ‘you bought from her, why don’t you buy from me?’ Their persistence and desperation is such that should you be knocked down by a motorbike and taken to hospital, at least three Hmong women would accompany you in the ambulance in case you needed an emergency mobile phone cover.


Black Hmong women surround a tourist
Sa Pa

This problem is, of course, not unique to Sa Pa or even Vietnam, though it is as bad here as anywhere we have been. Experienced travellers develop a way of saying a cheery ‘hello’ without breaking step or making eye contact. This stood us in good stead and allowed us to spend part of the afternoon sitting over a beer outside a café watching the antics of the less experienced while being little bothered ourselves.

Although it remained good humoured, the selling is only half a step up from begging; many tourists find it disconcerting and, far worse, it demeans the Hmong. The authorities are aware of the problem. In the square by the church a large multi-lingual sign tells tourists to buy only in the market and not from street sellers. However being aware of the problem is only the first small step towards solving it. It would be a shame if it put anyone off from coming to Sa Pa; the days we spent walking through the ethnic villages of the Muong Hoa valley were among the highlights of the trip.

*Though Chambers cites the Thai word baung as the origin.

Back to Part 2: Ha Long Bay

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know about the etymology of bong, either, and am oddly delighted about it. I am just waiting for a moment when I can slip that into conversation... Sunday lunch with the in-laws, perhaps...

    Also delighted by your Botanical Interest pictures. That is indeed and impressive banyan.

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