The Markets and Hill Tribes of Northern Vietnam

Whilst travelling Vietnam, we stopped in two places in the north of the country: Bac Ha and Sapa, famous for their tribes people and markets.

Bac Ha

In Bac Ha we stayed at a small hotel run by the most friendly, on-the-ball manager we’ve ever met. We ate breakfast and dinner there each day. The food was fantastic with a variety of dishes that came in large portions. The first morning worked out well but each day after that, in some shape or form, the staff got the order wrong.

On one occasion we ordered two fried noodle dishes and ended up with a fried rice dish as well. We didn’t want to pay for it as it wasn’t our mistake; the manager said, “the cook wanted to give you something extra”. We knew this was a cover-up but we didn’t mind as we had rice to share for free!

Bac Ha Sunday Market

The main reason for being in Bac Ha was the huge Sunday Market that takes over the town on a weekly basis. Selling everything from produce and jewellery to puppies and kittens, the vast market stretches the length of the streets. It takes a good while to explore it all! The market lasts for a good portion of the day but, as the hours wear on, the stalls slowly begin to disassemble and the tribes people return to their outlying villages.

There was a lot that we could have bought – intriguing foods, clothing and handicrafts for example. But when you’re travelling you have to keep in mind two things when it comes to markets: you have little space to put anything extra and also it may well get damaged when on the road!

The Sunday Market of Bac Ha

Can Cau Saturday Market

We also visited Can Cau Market, a small Saturday market 20km north of Bac Ha that attracts many tribes people including the Flower Hmong and the Blue Hmong. Spilling down a hillside, the market sells everything from fresh produce and packaged goods to livestock at the bottom of the valley.

A disturbing experience for us, being vegetarians, was witnessing live goats being roughly man-handled, their hooves bound as they were thrown onto weighing scales. The poor things were screaming for their lives. That was enough for us; we jumped on our rented scooter and departed!

Markets are interesting places and offer a great insight into local life, demonstrating that even now in this age of gadgets and fast-paced living, the old ways still exist. With sights and smells that threaten to overwhelm the senses, they aren’t, however, for the faint hearted!

Can Cau Market


We also visited Sapa, another mountainous town in the north, which has a church, clock tower and lake at its centre. Sapa is surrounded by stunning countryside that can be explored on foot or by rented scooter.

Indeed, hiking opportunities abound; there are also many rustic homestays in the area, run by people of various tribes, which allow you to experience life in a rural Vietnamese village. With sweeping panoramas, terraced hillsides of crops and cascading waterfalls, Sapa is a delight to any adventurous traveller.

The town of Sapa, however, can be somewhat tiresome; every way you turn there are women from the Red Dao tribe, offering you trekking to remote villages. The problem is that the tribes people assume that if you are white and western, you are on holiday and loaded. Because of this assumption you get hounded continuously, be that walking around of even sitting outside a restaurant at dinner.

We had women approach us, displaying handmade bags and scarves, saying “Yes, shopping. You buy!” This becomes aggravating very fast! Oddly, it’s not the men you see juggling a baby and trying to make a living to support their family. You can’t blame them really. It’s just sad that the tourist stereotype has become so ingrained that they know no different other than, ‘see foreigner, think money.’

The Rolling Hills of Sapa

Despite the hassles that are perhaps part-and-parcel of travelling, Northern Vietnam has some stunning mountain scenery that is well worth a good couple of days, or even weeks, of exploration. Vietnam is a fast developing country that no doubt will become more touristed but, hopefully, at least some of the bucolic scenes and rural villages will remain intact.

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