Markets And Mud

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Where I stayed
Sao Mai Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  , (VM19),
Saturday, December 31, 2011

After feasting on copious amounts of rice and noodles for the last month, it was time for a bit of a physical challenge to tweak the metabolism a bit before my resemblance to the Happy Budda became any greater. To that end we arranged for some mountain biking out of Bac Ha which was located east of our fog safari in Sapa. We were joined on our 2 day bike adventure by a couple of Aussies, Sarah and Andrew- Sarah's family was Vietnamese and she quickly became the team translator, and we suspect that Andrew was something of an international fugitive as he was originally from South Africa with a couple of quick stops before hiding out in Oz.

Our first stop was a small village, Can Cau, that was hosting their weekly market. We weren't the only tourists here (we kept tripping over some sort of camera club trio that must of had a bylaw requiring them to take many photos of the exact same subject- as well as one that required that they never smile nor thank their subjects), but the market was meant for the locals and we tried to observe without interfering. Sugarcane, tobacco, livestock, and clothing were on offer and if you had a spare moment you could get a haircut, shop for a pet bird, or sit down for a meal served out of a boiling vat of who-knows-what. The costumes worn by the local women were almost uniformly colourful and spectacular, and looked to be in Sunday-go-to-church condition. Our guide suggested that the attractive dress was because the market was also an opportunity for the women to attract a suitor- good story but not an explanation for the more senior in the crowd who looked to be well beyond any dating concerns. Regardless, it was great to stand in the middle of this explosion of colour and chaos and contemplate the gap between an authentic experience like this and the just-completed Xmas shopping extravaganza back home.  

Bac Ha was the kind of town we were hoping for in the north of Vietnam, somewhat rustic and lived-in, but that meant that our accommodation was going to be a little more basic (who would put an opening in the shower wall that successfully vented any steam into the hallway but also ensured that you were able to converse with any neighbours walking by??). After settling in we put our bikes to use in order to explore the surrounding areas.The bikes were a step above the basket buggies we were using in Laos but they had obviously been ridden hard and maintained poorly- DH found herself limited to one gear (which became a problem on the uphills) and my chain exploded (which became a problem on all hills). We had a spare bike so we were able to get back to town with no further mishaps (although a newly developed bowlegged walking style might be counted as a mishap).

Our New Years Eve was a tame affair (although some festivities were on display in the larger Vietnamese centres, the big party for Vietnam is the Tet Lunar New Year which takes place later this month), but our guide helped bridge the cultural divide with a bottle of "happy water" that looked to have been the end result of a moonshine corn-whiskey brewing process that we had seen earlier on our bike ride through the villages. Given the throat burning effects of this hooch, drinking for two is becoming more of a challenge than expected (any empty shot glass was immediately refilled). Our hotel had also arranged for a 'light show' which was an outdoor series of dances by local women, and despite not consuming any of the "happy water", DH had some sort of high-school dance flashback and jumped up to join in. Based largely on her self-styled 'Electric Boogaloo' she wasn't out of place with her dancing but she did tower above her much smaller dance partners- sort of a Gulliver's Travels sequel. Despite all of the drink and dance we didn't see midnight as we looked to rest up for an even longer day of bike riding.

To start our New Years Day, we spent a couple of hours touring the Bac Ha market. Like the market of the previous day, this was a truly authentic experience with a livestock section that DH was unwilling to explore (one of the 'benefits' of having a Vietnamese speaker with us was finding out just how pervasive dog meat is on local menus). Although very much a part of North Vietnam life, it was still very hard to see dogs in an environment that is well outside of our established comfort zone as pet and trusted companion. Squawking chickens, squealing pigs, water buffalo, and others were being actively bought and sold but it was the dogs and cats that really tested our resolve- you just wanted to scoop them all up and take them home (if we had a home!).

After finishing up with the market we eased our way back onto the bikes (which had all been resuscitated through some sort of overnight maintenance program) for our 90km ride back to Lo Cai. The backsides were a little sore but the spirits were high and we headed downhill and it was quite a downhill. I don't think we let up on the brakes for the first 25kms and just to add to the fun, it started to rain and we were soon soaked and covered in mud (dirt bikers pay good money to look like that but with our limited wardrobe, we were wondering how we would get on the train at the end of this ride). The rest of the ride was rolling hills, and once the rain stopped we were able to dry out- despite the uncooperative weather it was a great way to see the countryside and we had the local kids cheering us on the whole way. A quick stop at the Chinese border (is there any better example of free enterprise than a shoe cleaning guy who would give you a loaner pair of slippers to tour the border area while he got the mud off?), and we were ready for the overnight train back to Hanoi. Suitably exhausted, we thought we would sleep but on this trip we were paired up with a couple of enthusiastic snorers.
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Doe on

Hope you bought those dogs and posted them to me....make them understand the dogs are made for loving and definitely not for eating....I am serious!

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