Photographer's Note


This is a scanned picture of a Bac Ha kid in Dzao minority costume.

Getting off the night train that departed from Hanoi the previous evening at Lao Cai, you have two options: 34 km to the west is Sapa (nick-named “the roof of Vietnam”) or 144 km to the east to visit Bac-Ha where you can see 10 different minority groups at Sunday Market — a weekly hill tribe event that draws locals in from all over the surrounding area.

Bac-Ha is warmer than Sapa and much less tourists than Sapa. The market is a riot of color and noise, a place not only for trade but also for socializing. All paths leading into town are filled with people going to market, some riding horses or water buffalos, and the square is a mix of different minorities, buying and selling, or gathered in groups around a central pot of food. Minority men are heavy drinkers and it is amazing to see groups of tribal women heading home, each one leading a horse behind her with her drunken husband on the saddle. Anyway, the people and landscape are far more interesting than Sapa.

These minority people live highest in the mountains, and are renowned for their musicality, songs and word-play. The women wear tunic-style dresses of hemp fabric, dyeing with natural indigo to a deep purple-black. They wear strips of indigo cloth as leggings, and stunning silver bangles around their necks and arms, with richly colored clothes of bright red, blue and pink, and skirts embroidered with delicate flowers. The market has been a major tourist attraction and it is important that visitors to the region are sensitive to local culture and traditions, particularly when taking photographs of people.

Bac Ha District is home to 1,611ha of plum farms. Production has ranged from 11,000 tons to 13,000 tons per ha over the last few years. Local authorities encouraged people to switch to plum farming in lieu of the opium industry in the mountainous areas…

Well, let Samantha Coomber tell us more about the location:

Surrounded by distant mountains, Bac Ha is refreshingly timeless and seems to have escaped the onslaught of tourism as witnessed by Sapa. An unassuming agricultural community, its delightful rustic charm is still intact. The smell of musk wood fire permeates the morning air and chickens and pigs run amok along the dusty main street. During the day, all and sundry head out to the neighboring fields to work. Tourists are hardly catered for here — English is little spoken and there are no tourist agencies. There are only a few guesthouses and one or two simple phở restaurants. In mid-week — when I arrive — the place resembles a ghost town. At the weekend however when Bac Ha's Sunday market is underway, the town brims to capacity with tourists and many of the hill-tribe groups arriving in from outlying areas. But by Sunday evening, a mass exodus takes place and Bac Ha returns once more to its old deserted self.

Thanks to my friendly guide, I find a delightful family-run guesthouse away from the centre — not that there is a great deal of noise to avoid. The room has simple wooden shutters and a shared balcony with excellent views across town. Thick bedding quilts and open fires indicate the drop in night-time temperatures. Each morning I am handed a thermos of hot water for concocting fragrant Chinese tea.

There are some interesting little hikes around Bac Ha that can keep you entertained for days. Some of the fourteen hill-tribes in the vicinity can be visited; as well as the Hmong, these also include the Tay and Dzao. The circuitous, narrow paths from town lead up to their remote bamboo thatched huts and deep-inclining cultivated land. Farmers and bell-clad cows sidle past regularly. Every so often there are large, dilapidated barns crammed to the rafters with harvested gourds, sweetcorn and grain. On one of several forays with a local guide, we arrive at a remote hamlet. Friends of the guide invite us inside their simple abode; dirt poor, their hospitality is overwhelming. We sit on the bare floor and they encourage me to partake in the ritual of smoking on the family's pipe. The inhalation of the purest tobacco takes my breath away — literally — and we spend a few idle moments chatting and smoking.


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Additional Photos by Ngy Thanh (ngythanh) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 471 W: 125 N: 2332] (8458)
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