Bac Ha, Vietnam

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On the night we left for Bac Ha from chilly Hanoi, we heard that it was SNOWING up in the North, and that it was almost freezing temperature, so we were feeling pretty anxious about what we’d find, as we’d hoped to hike in the rice fields when we got there. Our journey to Bac Ha was – as well as being cold – our first real experience of locals ripping us off, as our bus stopped in Sapa (a town a few hours away) rather than Bac Ha, and the incredulously rude bus guys didn’t wanna hear about it at all (despite having sold us the tickets in the first place!) and forced us out into the rain and the 3 degree temperatures, at 6am.

We were quite weird for wanting to go to Bac Ha, as Sapa is really the big tourist draw due to very tourist-ready hiking tours / hustling locals, but we wanted to visit Bac Ha for its famous indigenous Sunday market (it was Saturday), and for some hiking in a less sales-y / independent hiking environment. However, as we pulled into Sapa in a hailstorm, with the surrounding mountains hidden in snow and mist, it became clear there probably wouldn’t be trekking anywhere. And, in fact, most of the hotels were closed for business! After shivering our way around town for half an hour failing to find any open hotels (our feet freezing in wet, icy sandals!) we found a restaurant that served delicious spicy Bun Bo Hue (spicy beef pho), and then happened upon a bus company running to Bac Ha, so we made the impulse decision to just keep travelling rather than pit-stopping in Sapa.

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After a couple more buses and more wet, cold, walking through small towns, we found ourselves in Bac Ha, a cute tiny market town amounting to little more than a town square and a small temple, surrounded by mountains. Given that it was Saturday, about 4 degrees, and we’d been on a night bus/travelling for the last 15 hours, we promptly found a nice hotel room, some warm food (delicious pho cooked in a restaurant with an open fire going on… it was THAT cold!) and settled down for the evening under three duvets. It was so cold we could even see our breath in our room, and we had hats, leggings and jumpers on the whole time! We kind of hibernated for the day, despite having bought some rice wine with the aim of having a ‘bedroom party’, but Cable TV and sleeping got the better of us!

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On the Sunday we woke up early, put on our full cold clothing regalia, including multiple layers, scarves and gloves, and hit the Sunday market! Despite having schlepped so far just for this market (it was far too snowy in Sapa to even make the journey there) I’m still glad we did it. It was really cool seeing all the different indigenous groups represented, each with their own tribal outfits – from checked scarves, to matching skirts and boots (all available on the market). They had tons of fresh produce, from veggies to spices to fresh meat, and we picked up some super cheap fruit and stopped for a pho ga (chicken pho) on the market made with delicious fresh meat and pink noodles (enriched with blood!). We took a look around the market, from the more tourist-ready stalls to the fabrics being bought by indigenous ladies, stopped for a few coffees, then hit the cattle market.

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Walking up a heaving cobbly road, we saw the stalls starting to change their wares from clothing, to household stuff, eventually to animal regalia like saddles and whips. By the time we reached the animal market, I was getting a bit spooked as there were HUGE animals – buffalo, cows, bulls, and massive pigs – just standing around, loosely tied into hooks in the ground. Sam was ballsier and strolled around for some photo shoots, but I – trying to stay upright on the mud and ice, was a bit more reserved around the animals! Given that they’re transported to market on the back of trucks, I’m sure they’re super subservient to people, but still!

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Post-market, we went for a quick walk around a lake near town to admire the surrounding hills, and then quickly retired to our room for a hot shower and further snuggling under duvets for warmth!

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When we finally left, we ended up getting scammed AGAIN by the buses, and – whilst trying to reach coastal Nha Trang – we got turfed out halfway in Hoi An, saying that the bus ‘stopped there’, and the next connection was full, because the company didn’t check. The lady was super rude and didn’t seem sorry at all! Luckily we had been to Hoi An before and loved it, and given it was super sunny there (we were happy to be back in the South!) we just chilled out and stayed at the great hotel we’d been to with our pals, shmoozed around markets, drank cheap bia hoi, ate lots and enjoyed our little stop off!

Then, eventually… to Nha Trang!