Monday, October 12, 2015

Can Cau Market

Water Buffalo Section of Can Cau Market
After seven years, my wife and I finally got to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Can Cau Saturday Market and the Bac Ha Sunday Market in Vietnam.  I had planned on us visiting these two attractions back in 2008 during our last journey to Vietnam.  Unfortunately on that journey, our detailed arrangements were made through a friend and then through a travel agency that subbed it out to another agency.  In the end we ended up pretty much with a standard tour to the Sapa Region albeit a private tour but excluding our specific wish to visit Can Cau and Bac Ha.

This year I personally handled all our arrangements either through the Internet or through the hotels where we were staying.  It was all quite simple and - we got to experience exactly what we wanted.  Vietnam has changed a great deal in the past seven years.  The best change and most welcoming change is the growth and increased awareness for service in the tourism industry.  You still have to be aware of taxi scams and some "fly-by-night" travel companies but the Internet can greatly help you to avoid them and provide reliable and honest alternatives to them.

After spending 36 hours in Hanoi, we boarded the night time train to Lao Cai in the Sapa Region.  We arrived in Lao Cai at around 6:15 A.M. after a sleepless and restless night aboard our "soft sleeper" car.  We had anticipated not getting much sleep based upon our previous trip in 2007.  However as is often is the case in long distance travel to exotic places - the excitement and enthusiasm to discovery new experiences carries you through the day after a night of little sleep.

We exited the train station in Lao Cai to find ourselves in a  large parking area in front of it.  The parking area was filled with vehicles of all types, sizes and condition.  Many of the larger and newer vans and buses were there to take people up the mountain to the town of Sapa (Sa Pa).  Some vans as well as cars were from tour companies waiting for their clients to go to Sapa.  The older and less fit, buses were public transportation to the various towns and villages in the area.

We did not have a reservation and did not know what we were doing other than we wanted to go in the opposite direction from all the others going to Sapa.  That is not a problem.  You do not even have to speak Vietnamese.  But you do have to know where you want to go!  I spoke to a man who looked like he was available to take people where they wanted to go.  We headed across the lot with him towards a newer looking van, I finally got him to give me a price - $50 each.  I did not like the sound of that and told him that it was too much money.  I had read somewhere during the Internet research that the price from Lao Gai to Bac Ha was $18 each.  We wandered through the lot towards the main street at the perimeter of the area.  We encountered another young man and his price was roughly $40 for both of us.  We accepted his offer.  He took us across the street to wait with some people who were sitting around a couple of sidewalk stand selling drinks and food.  The people were friendly and pleasant.  We did not have long to wait before the young man reappeared standing on the running board of the doorway of a small mini-bus.  A mini-bus is a bus type vehicle with capacity for about 20 passengers.

Our mini-bus was most likely at least 20 years old and covered with dust.  It did appear to be in reasonable mechanical condition.  We entered the bus and walked around a beer keg that was in the aisle.  We walked past some seats that were stacked with cardboard boxes and cloth bundles.  We took seats at the back of the bus.  We were the only foreigners on the bus. It appeared that we were in for an adventure.

We headed off in the bus with the young man standing on the running board at the open doorway.  It was obvious that he was looking for more passengers to join us.  We drove slowly towards the outskirts of town and picked up a couple more passengers and their cargo. I was anticipating that we would be picking up crates of live chickens or even a trussed up pig but it never happened - somewhat to my disappointment. The people had been to the market and were returning to their villages and perhaps their restaurant with fresh food.

Twice outside of the town we stopped and the young man got out and talked with some people along the way. He then returned to the bus to retrieve a box for the people.  I was thinking that at our current pace, we would not get to Bac Ha.  After awhile the bus picked up speed to a normal pace and we headed up the hills to Bac Ha.  We made a couple quick stops to discharge people and their cargo including that keg of beer.  Our driver was a good driver and we were able to enjoy the surrounding countryside and sights as we traveled along.

Upon checking in to our hotel, Sa House, in Bac Ha, I informed Mr. Sa that we would like to visit the Can Cau Saturday Market. A quick phone call and 30 minutes later we were on our way to the market.

The Can Cau Saturday Market is located on the main road 20 KM north of Bac Ha and just 9 KM south of the border with the People's Republic of China.  The surrounding countryside is mountainous and punctuated with many rice terraces carved into the mountain sides.

The Can Cau Market is situated on the down slope side of the road that goes to the border.  On a promontory that juts out into the valley below, the Market fully utilizes the available space - the top of the jutting land, its slopes, and the land surrounding its base.

South Side of the Market
 The Market is roughly divided up into sections with each section dedicated to a specific type of merchandise and goods.  The North side of the market - the top as well as slopes and even the base of the promontory is dedicated to buying and selling of animals - mostly water buffalo and a few head of cattle.

Duang Passes A Muddy Water Buffalo On Her Way to Bird Market
At the base of the market, in a small wooded area was the bird market.  In the bird market, many nicely constructed wood bird cages were hung from the overhead tree branches.  Clusters of potential buyers stood and stooped around the cages observing and carefully listening to the songs of the captive birds.  Birds are selected for purchase based upon their beauty and singing skills.

Another section of the market is dedicated to hill tribe fabrics typically embroidered strips of colorful cotton.  In this section, coin purses, handbags, pillow coverings are also placed for sale - either hanging from bamboo poles or on makeshift tables constructed from rough wood or bamboo.

Hill Tribe Fabrics For Sale

Along the steep paths that lead to the various levels of the market, people had set cloths and tarps on the ground upon which they sold surplus vegetables from their home gardens or items that they had collected in the forests.

People Selling Some Produce From Their Gardens
At the east end of the upper market underneath and next to a permanent octagon structure were vendors of clothing.

Clothes Shopping at Can Cau Market
The market area, a conglomeration of some permanent structures but many more temporary booths created from bamboo posts and beams covered with either the ubiquitous blue tarps or recycled corrugated metal roofs, was the place for the local peoples to meet and socialize.  Shopping at local markets is as much a social experience as it is an opportunity to purchase what you need ... be it clothing, livestock, moonshine, vegetables, meat, fruit, knives, machetes, farming tools, tobacco,  kitchen utensils, snack food, and toys from China.

It was a very interesting place with plenty of interesting people and activities going on.

Across the road from the main market area, there was a temporary barber shop set up and doing a good business.  I thought of the old days back in Connecticut when men would get their hair cut on a Saturday morning too.

Scattered about the markets were open kitchens where people could sit down and enjoy a freshly cooked meal and a drink.  The smells of exotic foods and spices wafted through the market area.  Every where groups of men and other groups of women stood about in conversation. It is not the culture to rush in, get what you need and then make a fast track back to your home.  People spend quality time amongst themselves and the vendors.  Most of them linger until around Noon when the market starts to shutdown before headed back.  Like many of the locals, we left at noon to head back to Bac Ha.  Although we were headed back to our hotel, we were not rushing.  There were opportunities and people to meet along the way.  But that is another blog for another day.

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