Sapa & Bac Ha Sunday Market – Vietnam – November 2014

Sapa came highly recommended by nearly everyone we spoke with.  I don’t think they have ever been there in the winter time.  However, before I get into our experience, lets back track to getting to Sapa. 

After doing some research online, we learned that the train is very expensive.  We found that the local bus from Hanoi goes up to Lau Cai for 200,000vnd each. From there you can catch a bus for 55,000vnd each to Sapa putting our total at 510,000.  However, we would also have to pay about 140,000vnd for a taxi to the bus station from our hotel bringing our total up to 650,000vnd.  Our hotel offered a tour bus that would take us up for 315,000vnd each and they pick us up from the hotel.  Funny how a local can seemingly get you a better price.  This also wasn’t the best price because we met a girl on the bus who paid 250,000vnd to go up.  If you want to go to Sapa, the trick is to find a company that is willing to bend for you.  Our hotel manager also preached about how much safer it is on the tourist bus. 

5-6 hours later we arrived in Sapa.  A small village nestled in the mountains situated about 1300m above sea level.  As we get off the bus, it is noticeably colder.  We are instantly hounded by locals attempting to make small talk by asking “Where you from?” but really that’s their way of breaking the ice to sell you on a home stay in their village.   I have heard good things about the home stays but this approach of aggressive sales woman is very unappealing to me.  I just want to find a hotel and relax for a day or two while we figure out what to do.  They also need to realize that we just got off a 6 hour bus, we’re tired, we have to pee, and we don’t want to be harassed. 


It’s very foggy in Sapa.  Like pea soup thick fog.  We find a budget hotel for a little bit more than we wanted to pay at 300,000vnd.  We asked for a discount but everyone claimed they were busy despite the plethora of available rooms everyone seemed to have.  They also tried to sell us on “the view”  of thick fog.  Temperatures have dropped to around 6 degrees as the sun sets and none of these hotels seem to have heat.  When you walk into a hotel or restaurant, you are greeted by staff members bundled up in winter coats.  We are not prepared for this at all.  We have been all fun in the sun since we left and didn’t even pack warm clothes.  I have 2 long sleeves and a rain jacket along with one pair of pants that are light and breathe well. 

We want to find our way to the Bac Ha market for tomorrow since Bac Ha is known for its Sunday Market.  We can take a local bus to Lau Cai and another bus to Bac Ha for 55,000vnd for each bus, each way which equals 440,000vnd.  We found a tour that takes us directly to Bac Ha (with return), with an “English Speaking guide” and we also got to walk through a village and visit the Chinese boarder for 250,000vnd each.  Notice a trend?  It’s seemingly cheaper and better to book a tour.  Being that it was late Saturday night and the tour leaves early Sunday morning and only on Sundays, there was no room to haggle. 


Since we needed to leave by 7am and breakfast wasn’t included, we knew we had an early morning ahead of us.  We decide to try to sleep early but of course it’s Saturday and there is a live performance going on right outside our window.  At least that’s what my ears told me because I couldn’t see more than a meter through the fog.  The traditional music of the tone deaf hill tribes is awful to listen to.  I can understand and appreciate history, but every instrument is off key, the drummer is off beat and I’m pretty sure my ears started bleeding.    

The following morning, about 5 minutes before my 6am alarm went off… the music started again.  I try to look out the window… still foggy.  All I know is that whoever I can hear twanging their crappy instruments, I hate them.  The sun isn’t even up yet! We pack our bags as we found a hotel for under 200,00vnd on Agoda.

We get on the bus to Bac Ha.  Our guide speaks very broken English and is not very comfortable with it.  It’s both okay and disappointing because I pay for a guide so I can learn about the land and the culture but the tour was cheaper than doing it on our own… Kind of a win-lose.  We arrive at the Bac Ha market around 10:30am.  This place is flooded with locals and tour busses. 


There appears to be a tourist section and a local section all packed with handcrafted items.  Some of the items are very cool and nice looking but you need to really inspect the quality to make sure you are not getting ripped off.  Prices of course start quite high but our guide tells us that we should be able to get between 30-40% off the asking price if we are good at haggling. 


We did buy a couple bracelets that may or may not hold up while we travel.  There were under 50 cents each so we’ll see what happens.  Though when I paid her, I only had a bill that was too big and she tried to keep it and not give me any change.  Finally someone who spoke English translated for her and she gave us our change with a smile on her face.  I’m so confused right now. We spent most of our time tasting strange street foods around the market.  One item was a clump of dough filled with what tasted like brown sugar.  Picture eating warmed up but uncooked bread dough with sugar in the middle.  It was also quite greasy. 


We did, however, come across one treat that was delicious.  Bo bia ngot.  It’s a wrapped “small crepe” filled with coconut, something that looks like particle board(but is sweet malt candy), and sesame seeds.  The local in front of us had a bag full of them, and paid 10,000vnd… We got one each and were charged 10,000vnd.  We’re getting used to this, we call it “White Tax” 


Around 1pm we hop back on the bus and go to the H’mong village for a walk through it.  That’s literally all you do.  You get to enjoy some great views of a rice field and walk through a deserted village.  Everyone is at the market so there were maybe 5-6 people hanging out in the village. 


Their houses made up of different materials, mostly of concrete and wood.  There are some old clay houses but our guide tells us they will all be rebuilt within 10 years. 


One of the most interesting conversations I had with the guide went like this.
M: “What is your favorite food?”
G: “I like many foods but nothing crazy”
M: “When you say crazy, you mean like dog & cat?”
G: “Yes. The Vietnamese people eat everything. Dog, Cat, Horse, Snake.  We eat it.  I like vegetables”
M: “I like vegetables too”
K: “We saw puppies for sale at the market with the pigs and cows… are they for eating?”
G: “Sometimes but mostly small puppies are for growing to guard but when they get old, they might be sold for eating”

It’s weird to think about how different our cultures are.  They don’t see dogs as pets but rather as guards for their crops or their stores or houses.  Then when it dies, they eat it.  They don’t build relationships with dogs the way we do in North America.  It’s no different from killing a cow or chicken to eat.  I personally couldn’t eat dog or cat meat since I grew up having both as pets.  However, I don’t judge people who do the way I used to.  It’s just a difference in culture and it’s really not our place to decide what’s right and wrong.  I just hope we aren’t served it by mistake one day while we are here.  That would be ruff… get it? Ruff. Like a dog’s bark! Hilarious.


We hop back on the bus to go to the Chinese boarder.  It’s a river that separates the 2 countries and a bridge to walk across the boarder.  That’s it.  Nothing exciting.  We stopped for 10 minutes to take pictures (though there really isn’t anything to see).  We arrived back in Sapa around 6:30pm and despite being hungry, we decided to go straight to our new hotel.  Our new room is still not heated but it does feel warmer.  It also has one amazing feature… an electric heat pad under our sheet.  We will sleep warm tonight!

Food in Sapa is extremely average.  There are more restaurants than there are people.  With all the advertisements for hill tribes, you would think you could find more traditional cuisine.  Instead the streets are lined with “Authentic” Vietnamese restaurants serving up 1 page of soup, 1 page of Vietnamese dishes and 4 pages of western dishes.. mostly pizza and pasta.  Every menu from door to door is the same.  Prices are all relatively similar too.  We had some very unmemorable meals here.  Service is funny because if you go to look at a menu, an employee immediately comes out to try and bring you to a table.  But once you’re at a table, you need to flag them down to come by and take an order or get a 2nd drink.  It just doesn’t make sense.  It’s like they want to give the impression that there is good service but don’t want to provide service when it’s time to do the job. I never expected good service to begin with but most food I’ve eaten in Vietnam has been 25k-50k vnd and the food here is all priced around 100k vnd as though there is a certain service or quality level here that definitely does not exist.  The food was never bad but it certainly wasn’t twice as good as other food that I’ve eaten. 


Our 2nd day in Sapa, we had high hopes that the fog would lift and we would get to photograph and appreciate some of the wonderful scenery that was hyped up.  It didn’t.  It was cold, foggy and wet.

There are really only four things to do in Sapa:
1) Go Trekking
2) Enjoy the Views
3) Stay in a home stay
4) Shopping

Trekking – With it being cold and muddy, you better love trekking to do it in November here.  I could get past the mud if there were views to admire but with the fog, there is nothing to see.  I like trekking when I can admire the wildlife. 

Enjoy the views – It’s pretty foggy here right now.  There’s nothing but grey everywhere. 

Home Stay – With how cold it is, we really had no interest in hiking to a village and doing a home stay.  A lot of the villages are quite muddy too.

Shopping – Because what my backpack needs more weight

We just are not prepared for this weather.  Sapa is a very miserable place in the winter time before the snow falls.  A constant cold chill is not very appealing.  The most disappointing thing is that we were encouraged to visit here by locals.  Like they didn’t know that this is an awful time of year to visit.  Turns out the best time of year is in August and September when they harvest all the rice and you get a beautiful Fall season where all the trees turn color and the fog hasn’t reached yet.  Unfortunately, we are a bit late. 


We booked a night bus out of Sapa and spent the day inside drinking hot tea and eating pho.  This was not enough to keep us warm, unfortunately.  As the sun set, we tried to go for a walk to warm up but were just too cold.  Then we saw it.  On a massage parlour sign: Sauna.        

I hope this is the answer to our freezing toes.  We go in and ask for the price.  We’re told 80,000vnd each.  We hesitate and she comes down to 60,000vnd.  We decide this is a fair price and instead of going inside, she walks us down the street to another massage parlour.  So you don’t have a sauna?
We take off our shoes and are given sandals to wear.  Both pairs are the same size… about 3 sizes too small for my feet.  This seems pointless. We have to go down some slippery when wet (and they’re wet) cement stairs.  I take slow, short steps in the sandals as I try not to lose them off my feet or slip and fall down the 15 cement stairs. 

We go into massage vip room #2 and are pointed to another door in the room.  The guy shows us how to turn it on and off and leaves us to change.  We strip down and head in to the most horrifying sauna ever! It’s a small bathroom with a steam maker in it.  There’s damp wooden stools that are freezing cold on my ass when I try to sit.  Huddled around the toilet, we are still freezing.  The floor is ice cold and the steam just isn’t warming us up. 


Finally after about 20 minutes, we start to warm up.  Then I lean back on the grungy looking wall.  It’s ice cold and the chills come back.  We finally warmed up and decided we were done with the “sauna”.  This truly is a “you get what you pay for” situation.  At the end of the day, it did warm us up and bring feeling back to our fingers and toes.  Also we got a free drink for going there.  I had a beer and Kristi had a tea. 

We ate dinner and got ready to leave Sapa. 

Unfortunately, this is just a bad case of timing with Sapa.  It’s just a bit too cold here and there’s nothing we’re passionate enough about doing to stay here.  The locals are very pushy when it comes to selling things, they even follow you trying to convince you to buy something.  I hate this pushy method so much.  I don’t want to buy your stuff.  If I did, I would approach you.  Same goes for the home stay women.  Don’t be so pushy.  I don’t want to feel like a customer in your home stay, I want to feel like I’m a part of your family and I’m happy to pay money knowing that it’s going towards people that I like.  If I were going to book a homestay here it would probably be through one of the 116 tour companies just because I don’t like the way I was approached in the streets.  Sapa has left a bit of a bitter taste in our mouths, maybe we’ll try again when the weather is nicer.  Despite average events so far in Sapa and Halong Bay… I’m still really enjoying Vietnam.  I think I’m learning more and more about their culture everyday.  I’m also picking up the language a bit better. 

There will be many highlights to come.  Unfortunately, Sapa in the winter time is not one of them.  



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