Sometimes I’m a planner. I research cities, regions and countries with a fervor that expands my knowledge base and reveals hidden gems I may never have stumbled upon otherwise. Other times I just show up and figure it out.
My trip to Sapa was the latter. When I arrived, I knew only two things: where I was staying that night and what I was going to do the following day. I hadn’t really thought beyond day two and drew a bit of a blank on how to occupy the rest of my time.
In a rare moment of travel laziness, I forfeited control of the planning reigns and appealed to a member of the hotel staff. Surely she could talk me through my various options and suggest some worthwhile activities.
Upon hearing my request, she mutely reached for a hefty, three-ringer and shoved it down the length of the reception desk to my place on the other end. I looked down at it and back at her. Her attention had already shifted to the stack of errant papers in front of her.
I opened the book and perused its protection-sheet clad pages with half-hearted interest. There were some black and white photos, a few bold type words and all too many dense paragraphs presumably expanding on both.
Despite getting my best sleep yet in Asia, it was still early in the day and I was tired. I just wanted someone else to tell me what to do, where to go and when to report.
I walked myself and the activity bible over to the woman and gave her my best helpless expression. After over two months in Southeast Asia, I have perfected the look. A mix of confusion, anxiety and defeat, I wrinkle my forehead and squint through my eyes so it appears I am seconds from crying. The woman glanced in my direction and upon seeing my face, hastily opened the binder and asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to see or do while I was in Sapa.
I should have gone into acting.
We quickly settled on a one day trekking tour, but had more difficulty deciding on activities for my other days in town. After I nixed homestays, she suggested I arrange for a motorbike tour with accompanying guide. “Sounds expensive,” I ventured. “Oh,” she responded. She flipped a few more pages and pointed to one about a weekend market. She stopped and didn’t continue.
Realizing my options were rather limited, I agreed to the tour and thanked her for her time. Visible signs of relief expressed themselves in her face as her body slackened and she resumed her position at the opposite side of the desk.
I say all this because I want to make it clear I had no idea what I was signing up for and had very little in the way of expectations. This is why I was pleasantly surprised by the market’s local culture, bustling energy and excellent food.
Upon stepping off the bus, it was clear the Bac Ha Market is a major hub for the neighboring mountain tribes to sell their goods, mingle with each other and procure whatever is needed for the coming week.
Socializing is a huge aspect of the day and it was fascinating to watch the routine unfold. Women in native dress set up their stalls, roam the aisles and trade for their family’s weekly supplies. Men sit in clusters along the street drinking rice wine. Handicrafts are plentiful for the tourists that arrive by the busload, but I saw many a skirt and shawl purchased by locals.
After a couple hours wandering the maze of aisles, petting the puppies that were for sale and avoiding the copious piles of cow crap scattered along the road, I found my way to the center tent for lunch. I scanned each station to survey my options and deduced pho was the dish du jour. I plopped myself down on a vacant slab of bench and calmly waited for my steaming bowl of beef and noodle deliciousness.
It was only after I was seated that I took in my surroundings. A pile of intestines sat inches from my place at the table and everyone was staring at me. It was only then that I noticed I was the only westerner to have ventured into this enclave. Their loss. That pho was the best pho I’ve had in all of Vietnam.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon doing a couple more laps around the market before retreating to a cafe to read and relax. A few hours is really all you need to soak up this local experience.
Bac Ha is located approximately two and a half hours away by bus from Sapa. The market only takes place on Sundays and tours typically cost $15 USD.