Nestled high in the mountains of northern Vietnam, adjacent to the China Border, live the eight ethnic minority groups of Sapa.
Most notable are the Flower Hmong, whose colorful fashion delight from head to toe. When I arrived for the Sunday Bac Ha market, I couldn’t consume enough of the bright colors and varied patterns adorned by young and old alike. And I couldn’t decide which I liked best – gazing from afar at the masterpiece of seemingly clashing pieces paired together in perfect harmony, or pouring over the fine details up close. Either way, their fashion was simply art.
The Bac Ha Market is known for being the most colorful market in Vietnam. Hundreds of bustling Flower Hmong gather to sell their wares, mingle with friends, and snack on traditional foods and sugar cane treats. When I arrived in the morning, it was all business. I found myself knocked around as women with large hand-woven baskets on their backs moved with quick purpose to and fro. As the day progressed, crowds thinned and the atmosphere became more relaxed, with smiling faces and laughter replacing the stern looks of haggling buyers and sellers.
There were many tourists, like myself, pointing and clicking their cameras as the Flower Hmong went about their business. But it did feel a bit intrusive of their local market gathering. So I bought fabric, a dress for my niece, and a big bag of sweet popcorn (which I ate all in one sitting it was so good) to feel like I wasn’t just taking, but actually partaking in the affair.
There were a few professional photographers, who got territorial when point-and-shoot tourists encroached on “their” space and “their” photo opportunity. Like this one I snapped of a girl in an elaborate headdress.
The trek to Sapa, and the Bac Ha Market in particular, is a little far flung from the regular tourist path, but definitely worth it. I hope for the sake of the people and the beautiful traditions they’ve been so far able to uphold, that the growing tourism in the area doesn’t strip them of what makes their culture so unique.
May the Flower Hmong, along with the other ethnic minority groups of Vietnam, continue to flourish and bloom.
GETTING TO SAPA:
There are two options to get to Sapa from Hanoi. The overnight train, and the express bus on the new highway. You’d think after my crazy Myanmar train “adventure”, that I’d opt for the bus. But with a splurge on the soft sleeper train (I paid $84 roundtrip for the Chapa Express), you can get pretty nice accomodations. There was framed art on the walls, a bedside lamp, fluffy new comforters, complimentary bottles of water, hair combs, wet wipes, and toothbrushes, and a decent communal sink and bathroom area. Talk about night and day from Myanmar! I heard the bus was nice from fellow travellers, with reclining seats and wifi. However, there is currently no overnight option for the bus, so it cuts into time you could spend in Sapa, which is why I opted for the train.
Warning: we fell victim to a scam on the overnight train on the way to Sapa. My friend and I were the only two in our room as the train departed from Hanoi station, and we thought we’d lucked out with the four-person-sleeper room to ourselves. But then, with the help of a woman who worked for the train and took liberties with her key to unlock our door, we found six Vietnamese locals barging their way into our carriage at the next stop. And with six sets of eyes staring back at us from the top and bottom bunks, it was not a comfortable situation. After an increasingly heated stand-off, where none of them could produce proof of tickets, all but two finally left our room. So if you find yourself with a partially empty room, close and lock the door before you leave the station, so no one can stake where the empty beds are to get a free ride.
BEST TIME TO GO:
Time your trip to attend the Bac Ha Market, which only runs on Sundays. You can take the overnight train Saturday night and start your Sapa trip with the market. Or you can end your trip with the Bac Ha Market and make your way to the train station directly after to continue on to your next destination.
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