Saturday, May 3, 2008

Day Trip to Bac Ha

start walking....
You must have surmised at this point that this blog is not going in any particular order. If not, let me preview then by saying that in order to get to Bac Ha, you would most likely be coming from another town, like Sa Pa, for instance. Sa Pa serves as the nexus for many day excursions, such as this one, and others for trekkers, which you'll never hear about from me as climbing is out of the question. We are now in the northwest part of Viet Nam, and this is a gem of a place for rubbing elbows with tribal people. Very much like Thailand, where we did see tribes as we went north of Bangkok, into Chiang Mai, and further north. There are striking similarities between those tribes, owing to the fact that they all are groups split from the original southern Chinese miao tribes.

People usually herd when they travel I am with some newfound friends; I was very surprised to see many young women travelling alone.

Our first encounter with the tribes of Viet Nam happened during our visit to Ha Noi a year earlier, as I had a check mark next to the Museum of Ethnology. Had we known what was in store for us there, we would have planned for an entire day at the Museum, rather than a couple of hours. The collection they have put together is nothing short of amazing, and on the second floor, we began to learn about the tribes, their habitats, their origins, and their vibrant colored garbs. I think we decided at the moment, subconsciously, that a trip to the north had to be on the agenda at some point. You'd be amazed to see how many people they can load in this little bus

We'll stick to the people of Bac Ha and their little corner of the world for now. From Sa Pa, if you are going on a "guided" tour, which really means someone who knows how to get there is driving, and you have a mini-bus filled beyond capacity making its way. Not all minibuses are created equal; some are old and in dire need of new shocks, and as the road is mostly unpaved and quite rocky, prepare to be jolted for 100 miles or so. To help with orientation, here's a little map of Northwest Viet Nam; you can then see that from Sa Pa, you are moving northeast.

The day to go to Bac Ha should be Sunday, as this is when everyone gets all dolled up to shop and mingle and gossip etc..Your tour will start early, around 7:00 am or so, as it takes about 3 hours to arrive. The predominant tribe in the area is called the H'mong Flower Tribe, and they are instantly recognized by the head dress which consists of a headscarf tied in the back, with mostly pastel colors, but some with red as well. It can get more complicated with two scarves: one tied to the back, and the other, in a different pattern, tied under the chin. (no it's not that cold there). The scarves are usually woven in a crisscross pattern, and here I'm tempted to call it scotch plaid, but that's too somber. Have a look at the pictures which will save 1000 more words, at least.

these young women wear no headgear whatsoever; perhaps a new generation?

All buses have a specific drop off and pick up point which is smack center of the village. As you get out, you find yourself immersed in long ribbons of winding color in call directions. Everything is sold here, from jewelry, to wovens, to meat (pigs especially), to tobacco and humongous joss sticks, which I had to have. The scent is very Ha Noi, and every time I use one at home, what immediately comes to mind is the ride from Noi Bai airport to the city. Also quite interesting to watch were the men who were smoking tobacco (at first we didn't think it was tobacco!) through hollow bamboo reeds. Also, tobacco is sold loose at the market and I suppose it's easier to inhale through the reed than to have to roll it in paper. We must have gone back and forth in the food tobacco area, where a communal lunch seemed to have been taking place. They were all sitting on small plastic chairs and passing bowls around. Nearby the vendors' lunch area were kitchen utensils, pots and pans, home goods not geared to the tourists, but for the inhabitants of the area.

feeding baby with chopsticks!!
For those who stay here for a few days, though for the life of me, I can't imagine why, there are small hotels that will accommodate. Make sure you reserve in advance. Bac Ha is not by any means "gentrified" as is perhaps Sa Pa, but it should remain the way it is, otherwise its charm and genuine character will be lost, like all things that are overexposed. Yes, there are eyesores, but nothing you can't get through with a good pair of hiking shoes. Most everything costs the same, so don't knock yourself out looking for the "bargain" of the day. We made the mistake when we first came to Viet Nam of thinking that going from VDN 30,000 to VDN 15,000 was a big deal. It's not; we're just talking about a US dollar difference.

One thing is noticeable almost instantly: the women are doing all the work. They are carrying heavy loads, selling the goods, feeding the children, and still smiling. It's amazing. It's almost as if the men blended into the background. You'll find them wearing the green army helmets most of the time, riding donkey carriages.
The H'mong Flower tribe is one of about 55 different ethnicities in Viet Nam. Because most of the tribes live in the mountainous north, they were given the name "montagnards" by the French. As with most Viet Namese, they made their way here from Southern China for socio-political reasons. They are, for the most part, an agrarian society with skills in textile dyeing, weaving, and fashioning silver jewelry. The more than quarter million Viet Namese who inhabit the U.S. are from the H'mong tribes.

The video below, which is about 3 minutes long, spotlights Sunday Market in Bac Ha. Though the color is a bit faded, I have compensated with the pictures that we have taken which show the vividness and joy of the clothing and people.

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