Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bac Ha Sunday Market







Breakfast At Bac Ha Sunday Market
Duang and I accepted Mr. Sa's offer to take us down the hill from Sa House to the weekly market down the hill in the center of Bac Ha.  We rode down on the back of motorcycles driven by Mr. Sa and his brother who works at the hotel.

In no time at all we were at the intersection of the village road and the main road in town that leads on to Can Cau and the border with PRC.  The center of town, which was quite quiet and boring just 24 hours earlier upon our arrival by bus from Lao Chai was now teaming with people and the air was charged with the excitement often encountered when people from rural areas go into "the big city" for periodic shopping excursions.  However the difference here was the unique cultural aspects of this local market.  Most of the patrons of the market were hill tribe people - typically Flower Hmong and Black Hmong.

Flower Hmong People Selling Produce From Their Family Garden
There were two main reasons that they had come into town for the market - to buy things and to sell things.  People came to sell fresh produce from their family gardens. People came to buy things such as rice threshing machines, ready made clothing, plastic toys, livestock, and large translucent plastic filled containers.  Side activities included socializing and getting haircuts with perhaps a restaurant meal.


Checking Out A Manual Rice Thresher
Unlike the Can Cau Market, 20 km to the north, which is set in a rural location, the Bac Ha Market is in a more "urban" environment.  I have researched the population of Bac Ha town but I have not come up with any statistic other than the population of the entire Bac Ha District which is roughly 50,000 people.  My guess is that the population of the town is around 5,000 - small by many standards but large enough to have  a couple hardware shops where foot operated rice threshing machines can be purchased and where people can get their chain saws repaired if they choose not to buy many of the new ones on display in the shops.  Other permanent town shops offer goods and services that the rural people are unable to make for themselves.





The Bac Ha Sunday Market is situated in the town square area and like tentacles of an octopus or squid reaches out along side streets as well as alleys adjoining the square.  It seems that every open space during the remainder of the week is commandeered on Sunday - merchandise is sold off of tarps and sometimes just an empty rice, sugar, or fertilizer bag set on the ground tended by vendors squatting next to their goods sometimes under a handheld umbrella for protection from the sun.


In the more "developed" sections of the market, stalls are set up underneath large tarps, typically blue, Suspended from temporary wood columns and tied off to just about anything that the people can find.

Shelling White Corn At Bac Ha Sunday Market

Woven Baskets for Transporting Animals - Small Animals and Tightly Packed Animals

At the edge of the market is the area where animals are bought and sold.  There were only a few water buffalo for sale but there were plenty of ducks, pigs, chickens and even some small dogs.  The pigs were small and spent most of their time in a gunnysack.  When an interested buyer showed up, the piglet was pulled out by its hind legs and displayed for the potential buyer to checked out.  No matter if a sale was concluded or not the pig, often with some difficulty, was returned to the recycled  rice, sugar, or fertilizer bag.


Bac Ha Pig Market
Ducks as well as chickens were kept in either hand made woven baskets or commercially made wire baskets.

Bac Ha Poultry Market
As you will find at all markets in Southeast Asia, there are plenty of stalls, booths, and outdoor restaurants where you can buy a snack or a "sit down meal"  The sounds and smells of ethnic foods being prepared as well as cooked adds to the exotic atmosphere of these markets for foreigners.  You want to know what the local people eat?  Go to a market and watch.


Markets are also a great location to people watch and for environmental portraits - portraits of people doing what they typically do and where they do it - a moment captured as well as a glimpse into their everyday life.


Markets are also a family affair - often 4 generations of a family along with extended members travel together for their "day" at the market.  They arrive on foot, in the back of pickup trucks, in the back of stake body heavy vehicles, on the backs of motorbikes (2,3, 4 and sometimes 5), mini-vans, mini-buses, with a few even arriving on horse back.


One of my favorite locations at the Bac Ha Market was a section where a couple of stalls were selling bulk tobacco.  The vendors had large mounds of chopped new tobacco on their tarp placed on the ground.  This chopped tobacco did not look like the tobacco that you find in commercial cigarettes.  The tobacco at the market looked exactly like shredded tobacco leaves direct from the outdoor drying racks that you can find outside of the homes where it is grown.  I guess it didn't have all the 599 ingredients that American companies have admitted to using such as ammonia, Ethyl - whole bunch of different stuff, Dimethyl - whole bunch of stuff, grape juice, Sodium - various things, Sugar - not components of tobacco but things that they added to THEIR tobacco.

Customers Sampling Some of the Tobacco Mounds

Customers are encouraged to sample the tobacco that is offered for sale.  The vendors had 4 to 6 bamboo bongs readily available for their customers to use.  Smoking for many people in southeast Asia, especially hill tribe members, is very different than what many foreigners are accustomed to.  First of all they do not typically smoke cigarettes or even in what we call "pipes".  The people smoke the tobacco using bamboo and sometimes PVC bongs 4 to 6 inches in diameter.  They also do not use a great deal of tobacco when they smoke - about 1/8 teaspoon placed in a very appropriately sized small bowl near the bottom of the bong connected at an angle with a small diameter tube.  The tobacco is ignited and the user sucks in with their mouth and nose the prodigious amount of smoke that exits from the top of the bong.  The smoker savors the smoke for a short while and then blows it out through their mouth and nose.


After spending time at the tobacco vendors, we walked over to the edge of the market where two men had set up competing barbershops on the opposite sides of the footpath just down from the pig markets.  As we approached, one of the barbers and his customer enthusiastically welcomed us and motioned us to sit down on the small home made wood bench at his area.  After walking around for at least three hours with my 15 pound camera gear backpack on, I welcomed the opportunity to take it off and to sit down.  Duang, however, had other ideas.  He walked over closer to the barber and off to his side.  After the barber and his customer finally realized that speaking Vietnamese to Duang did not do any good, they realized that she was just observing and not interested in sitting down.  If I had $1 USD or 22,000 VND for every time that people thought that Duang was Vietnamese, I would be writing this blog entry from Vietnam on our second trip to Vietnam in a month.

Haircut Time In Bac Ha
Why was Duang so interested in observing.  Nine years ago she graduated from beauty school.  Since then she has cut my hair every month.  She does a very good job but she is slow.  I have often joked with her that if she had a beauty shop, she would go out of business fast - doing 4 haircuts a day at $3 each.  Duang cuts my hair mainly with scissors and finishes it off with electric shear.  Most of the barbers that I have seen use the electric shears and finish off with the scissors.  Duang has her way and I do not complain - when you are retired, what difference does it make if it takes 30 minutes for a haircut or 5 minutes?

We had a nice time - the customer and barber trying to get me to have my hair cut while I kept telling them that Duang cuts my hair at home - for free.  We all gave as good as we got.  I kept busy photographing while Duang was observing.

A Satisfied Customer  "Hansum" Man

The other barber across the walkway was doing just as much business.  He also had observers but unlike Duang, they were actual Vietnamese people


We have been home back in Thailand now for a month.  Duang has cut my hair once - applying the technique that she learned back at the Bac Ha Market.  She now uses the electric shears for most of the cutting and uses scissors to apply the finishing touches.  She is thrilled and ... much quicker now.

In doing my extensive research for our trip to Vietnam, I came across several blogs and websites where people wanted to know about which market was the best to visit and if you could only go to one, which would you pick?  Some of the answers as well as some reviews of the markets talk about the markets in terms of losing their ethnic flare, becoming too commercialized (hmmm - rather odd for markets?), and being crowded with tourists - Vietnamese, Chinese, and Westerners.

Well - here is my quick answer - "It is up to you"  Personally I would go to both!  One is on Saturday and the other is on Sunday.  An overnight stay in Bac Ha is not expensive.  My attitude is typically - this is a trip of a lifetime and when do you think or expect that you will return.  Getting somewhere is typically the biggest cost - spending an extra day or two to see everything is much cheaper than returning again.

As for guide books and Internet travel sites - I read them all the time and use them to plan our trips.  My wife and I are travelers rather than tourists.  Travelers?  Yes - travelers go places and do things that tourists do not.  Perhaps they are orientated more for tourists than travelers. Our travel style and preferences are shared in these blogs.

 As for the Can Cau and Bac Ha Markets being crowded with tourists - that was not per our observations.  I saw perhaps 10 to 20 obvious tourists - people who did not appear to be locals.

 I ran into the same issue in regards to attending the Poi Song Long Festival in Maehongsong - "crowded" according to the "experts".  Our experience for all three visits - 40 - 50 for the daytime processions but 4-6 tourists at 4:30 AM, "the best time", when the boys are dressed and have their make-up applied by family members inside the designated Wat.

Travel guides and some reviews advised against visiting the refugee camps of the Kayan people ("long necked women") referring to them as "human zoos" and "circuses".  I have been there 6 times and Duang has gone 4 times and did not have that experience.  We ended up making friends and learned some of their life as people without a country.  The key for us was to spend up close and personal time with the residents - not jumping out of a bus with 30 other people with 30 minutes to spend.

My research for a trip to Cusco, Peru for Inti-Raymi indicated that the city was crowded for the festival.  In reality, I had no difficulty booking my hotel of first choice, or watching the 12 hour parade in the center of town - crowds were 2 to 4 people deep along the parade route - overwhelmingly Peruvians.  Leaving the reenactment site for the festival was crowded ... but that is to be expected for event with thousands of spectators again the vast majority being Peruvian.  I considered it to be part of the event experience.

My use of travel resources is to determine locale opportunities and to develop my initial expectations but never to make a decision to go or not go to a certain locale or event.  My mind is made up, and my goals are defined before I start my research.  I have yet to be disappointed in not completely trusting travel resources.

The Can Cau Market and Bac Ha Market visits, eight years in the making, were work the time, money and effort.  For me a highlight of our trip to Vietnam was being told by my wife, who had vowed to never return to Vietnam 7 years ago - tell me out of the clear blue sky (well actually overcast sky) that she wanted to come back soon with our grandsons, Peelawat and Pope.

In the end, as Duang so often says "Up to you"

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