Vietnam – The North – Sapa and HanoiBack to Story

Hanoi and Sapa during the Tet festival


It has been 15 years since my last visit to Hanoi and obviously the change has been significant. The buzz of motorbikes has not changed but now the cyclos and cars have swapped places in the ratio stakes. In the past it seemed like you could count the number of cars on one hand and generally visitors got around on the cyclo. Now cyclos seem to be congregated around the old quarter but are still a nice way to see the city. It is during the lead up to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year that I find myself travelling to Hanoi for this visit.

The Old Quarter is definitely the most atmospheric part of town and many of the buildings are ancient reminders of  Hanoi’s long and varied history. Perhaps the second biggest change is the shops. The Old Quarter is full of quirky and interesting stores. Some containing souveniers but many containing local and interesting designers. Some of the old streets are still organised by the products or services they sell.

The traffic is almost at a choking standstill as everyone shops, cleans, cooks and makes their way to visit family. The Tet festival is the largest on the Vietnamese calendar and it is almost without exception that people return to their families. Gifts are given to each other, new clothes are purchased and “lucky money” is given to friends and family. The traditions are heavily laced with the preface of bringing good luck for the New Year. In the north there are two trees which you must have either of in your house during this period. The first in Peach Flower or blossom as I would know it. The second is the kumquat tree which is considered a symbol of Vietnamese culture. Everywhere in the north for the days leading up to Tet you can see people carrying trees and branches to their homes. It seems rich or poor some form of these trees are important.

There are whole streets in Hanoi dedicated to selling the trimmings of Tet. It makes for an amazingly colourful spectacle as the dominant colours are red and gold. Red is a lucky colour and there are decorations made to be hung on the trees similar to what might happen at Christmas. The Vietnamese believe that the spirits of their ancestors also join them for Tet so food is an important part of the holiday. Three days after Tet the ancestors leave again and chicken is cooked to farewell them.

There are queues of people lined up to buy the traditional cake called banh chung. This is a sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaf and boiled. In the centre is a bean and sometimes pork mixture. In the times gone by everyone cooked these at home but in a similar way as Christmas cake is now rarely homemade is more often purchased from a specialist.

Sapa and surrounds

The journey up to Sapa is taken on the overnight Victoria Express train. This journey is billed as a luxury train and (relatively speaking it is) – although don’t expect soft cushioned beds. One fellow guest described it as sleeping on an ironing board while others were caught in the romance of the journey and thought it was like travelling on the Orient Express before they had ensuites. Luckily I have a cabin to myself and before I know it we are climbing out of the carriage and into the fog. When they say Sapa experiences a little fog it is an understatement. The locals complain of not having seen the sun for a month and the fog is some of the thickest I have ever seen. This makes the winding road trip up to Sapa from the train station more like a rollercoaster ride than the typical transfer.

Luckily I have booked two days out of town visiting local villages and markets because Sapa is under a chilly blanket of fog. The temperature hovers in the early digits but feels colder because of the damp that comes with the fog. The first outing is to the Can Cau markets which is almost a day trip away, it is only 80kms by all accounts but the travel is slow. The damp air and general winter conditions have created thick clay based mud to drive through and later navigate the markets. We pass through the more frequented market town of Bac Ha – a town famous for its Sunday market. The road gets rougher and the mud deeper before we arrive at the very rural Can Cau market. This market is frequented largely by the minority group known as Flower H’mong. I had seen H’mong villages on a former trip travelling in Northern Laos, however the dresses are much for colourful in the Flower H’mong women.

As it is the lead up to Tet everyone has made the effort to come to the markets so it is busier than normal. New clothes are being shown off as well and it’s really the women who provide the colour here. They are wearing full skirts with a brightly woven fabric overlay (similar to an apron) and a single tone sash. The same fabric for the skirt is usually worn as a shawl with a head scarf to top off the ensemble. It is an amazingly colourful site to see especially in the backdrop of this very rural setting. The one concession to the environment is that many have practical rubber boots on to navigate the mud. A sensible addition to the outfit.

The market itself is fairly typical. They are selling a mix of fruit and vegetables but also fabrics and clothes. The women are all interested in buying fabrics, bright cottons and accessories. There are live chickens brought to the markets in small cages on the back of a motorbike which are destined for the Tet festivities. After the important shopping is done everyone collects for a bowl of noodles before returning to their families. Many of the tour companies will arrange a walk through the local roads and this is well worth the effort as it offers a more detailed insight into village life.

The visit takes us up further to the north of Sapa to the Muong Hum Market. Just when I thought the road could not get any worse it becomes steeper and narrower. We climb through the mountains and when you can peer through the fog you can see valley vistas and rice terraces in the mountains. In warmer weather and conditions this drive would be spectacular. Due to the cold climate the rice fields only produce one crop a year so they are looking bare for the winter time. I read in a local paper that because of the harsh winter the government are providing a subsidy for farmers to feed their water buffalo and also some rice for Tet.

On arrival to the small town it is clear not many people make the trip north as seeing a westerner is still somewhat of a novelty. These markets are even more crowded that Can Cau as people have come from far villages to see and be seen in the lead up to Tet. There are many Red Dao minority women in these markets. Their clothes are very elaborate and predominantly red and silver. The striking difference is their hats. They are elaborately laden with silver coins. Each is handmade by the women themselves. They also have a red sash across their bodies which sometimes has more silver on it and beading. The purpose of the market day is very similar to that of Can Cau markets – shop, be seen, and chat with friends.

In the past these markets were an important social gathering for young people to meet and many found their husbands / wives here. Sapa hosted a famous “marriage market” where young people could come and look for a partner. These days there are more opportunities to meet up and socialise as transport has improved and everyone seems to have a motorbike therefore they can travel the distances easier.

Sapa, Can Cau markets, Ban Xeo Village, Bac Hau, Muong Hum market.

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