We were just settling-in to our four-berth cabin on the Victoria Express for our ten hour, overnight journey from Ha Noi (Hanoi) to Sa Pa when the steward brought in someone else’s luggage. We had booked a (four-berth) cabin but as there was only three of us the train company had decided to bunk another person in with us! After some argument we allowed our new room-mate to join us, or else we were told he would have to be left on the platform. Luckily, our new room-mate was discreet and quiet through the night and left for the dining car early the next morning.


We arrived at Loa Cai station at 7am and were met by our guide, Hong. We and our bags were loaded into a minibus together with Annette and Marco, two Dutch folks who were undertaking the same Sa Pa Adventure Tour

as us. We enjoyed a two-hour journey to Bac Ha market alongside beautiful rice paddies being worked by dozens of cone-hatted people. (A Vietnamese cone hat is called a ‘Non la’.) As we neared our destination we noticed most women of all ages were dressed in the same very colourful outfits, the traditional dress of the local hill tribe, the Flower H’mong. Further on we came across another group of women wearing different dress colours of the Black H’mong. We had passed two groups from different tribes making their way to one of the largest markets in the region, only held on a Sunday morning.


Bac Ha is the largest market in the area and an amazing experience. Water buffalo, of which we had passed many in the rice paddies during our drive, were for sale and were being walked through the market on display. Hong

explained that selling a buffalo allows the farmer to buy a Chinese-built Honda motorcycle. The pigs and dogs, also for sale, were being sold for their meat; the smaller or younger dogs to protect the house, presumably until they also get big enough to eat. The larger pigs were kept tied to nails in the wall and the piglets trussed with bamboo, presumably so they could be more easily tied to the Honda for the trip home. This market is a very large one and people walk, or nowadays ride their ridiculously overloaded Hondas, for hours to attend it. Squeezing between the stalls we were viewed with some bemusement as not many outsiders visit their market. The traditional Flower H’mong dresses are the most colourful but most women avoided having their photographs taken.


Sa Pa region, Vietnam

Many of the stalls were selling stuff we were unable to identify and often we couldn’t tell whether one should eat it, rub it on or sit on it. One group of ladies were selling what we thought was paraffin from large water containers. At least it smelled like paraffin from where we were standing but Hong told us it was maize alcohol. Customers bring their own empty plastic water bottle, take a sip to taste from different vendors, then buy a bottle-full of whichever brew they prefer. Hong lives in the Sa Pa region and told us that after market many people are very drunk and those who have to drive home weave their Hondas all over the road. We spent a fascinating couple of hours at the market then had a local beer, fried rice with vegetables lunch from a roadside café. After lunch Hong took us for a short walk to see some local houses and meet some of the residents.

Two old ladies, again dressed in their colourful outfits, sitting talking outside their houses together were again not happy to have their photographs taken. Hong told us that they believed having their photograph taken would make them ill, whilst younger and stronger people would not mind so much.


To make a little money the locals sell handicrafts such as bracelets and blankets to the few passing tourists. They shamelessly use their adorable children dressed specially in national costume for the ‘hard sell’ because they are so hard to refuse. So, at just a few pennies a piece Leah was soon stocked up on ‘mouth harps’ and embroidered bracelets. The waterfall with mountains in the background was very pretty and would have made quite a photograph but you’ll have to imagine it! (We do have a video, though!) When we had enjoyed the falls we trekked back up the steps and stopped at a small café where we shared a cold drink with some visitors from Scotland and swapped stories on the best places to visit. We were told that, rather than climb all the way back up the hill we could hire a bike taxi

Liquor seller at Bac Ha market

Flower H’mong women on their way to market

to take us. This was one of the more hilarious experiences of the trip for Leah and Paula who both shared one small Honda, together with the driver. Leah claimed she made the whole 15 minute trip with one buttock on and the other alternately off the bike as it bumped it’s way back up the mountain. We were then quite openly over-charged for the experience as we were asked an enormous 50,000 Dong fare. However as this was only about 6 or 7 Singapore dollars, or £2, we were not exactly taken to the cleaners. We wandered around the town for a while; found little else of interest so headed back to our hotel.


We had found that the power in the hotel would go off at various times and we came back to candles and the log fire in the hotel reception as the power off again. As it was now dark the hotel was serving hot mulled wine to

residents in the reception/lounge by candle-light as it was too dark to sit in our rooms. Very romantic. Leah and Ian played pool and of course Leah beat him three games to two. A quick game of Jenga and an unsuccessful attempt to swim in the cold swimming pool later, we went back to our room to try to get ready for dinner in pitch darkness until a receptionist arrived with three candles.


Flower H’mong

Flower H’mong girl

The next day we joined Annette and Marco, our new Dutch friends who we had toured the Bac Ha market with on our first day in Sa Pa. Our agenda for the day was to visit another, very different market at Coc Ly. This one is located on a hillside next to a river, miles away from the main road, and very picturesque in a jungle hillside setting. At the market we saw another hill tribe dress and Paula bought a similar baby-sized traditional outfit, which we later had framed. The dress is hand embroidered and quite beautiful. After another good look around Hong led us down to the river where we boarded a small, covered boat that was to take us ten kilometres down river. And what a wonderful trip it was. We weaved our way through tree-lined gorges carved out by the river. Along the riverbanks we saw a large number of spectacular butterflies but surprisingly few birds. The gorge was spectacular and very beautiful and we passed many water buffalo bathing in the river. We moored near a large overhang after about an hour for a packed lunch and we sat and ate whilst enjoying the silence and the river.

After lunch we set off again only to moor up again a short while later at a muddy river ‘beach’ where where we were met by a local buffalo who seemed quite interested in his new visitors. We walked through the fields until we came across a couple of local houses, both made of wood and mud and with thatched roofs. In the middle of the road were two small children, both naked, both crying hysterically. (Well, you would, wouldn’t you, if you came across a party of Europeans with no clothes on…..the children, that is, not the Europeans.) Hong took us to one house of a family with three children, one of which was only one month old and being held in a papoose on its mother’s back. Both adult women were again dressed in traditional costume and were very happy to meet complete strangers

walking in from the river and allow us to peer into their home. No light inside their house, one large bed for the entire family and three quarters of their house made of packed mud. However they all seemed very happy, normal and relaxed and it was a delight for us to spend some time with them, Hong translating back and forth for all he was worth. We walked around the nearby rice paddy where the father was drying his recent rice harvest. The living conditions were very spartan and made mostly of what they could find and make themselves.


We made our way back to the boat and continued down river where our river journey ended at a very rickety-looking bridge where our driver picked us up. We were driven back to Lao Cai where we looked over the river which is also the border with China before being taken to the station to catch our overnight train back to Hanoi. Before we boarded we all paid 20cents for a shower in a small backpackers cafe in the station square, and then a very welcome cold beer before saying goodbye to Hong and our American friends and boarding the train. Our fare included dinner on the train and after such an adventure we stayed up late with Annette and Marco, shared too much wine and talked about what we had seen and other travel experiences. Thankfully the night brought no more surprise guests into our cabin!



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Coc Ly gorge