The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Embroidered into the swirl of vibrancy in Bac Ha.


 We’ve enter a world of bling. Where rows of chandeliered beading envelopes around vibrant kaleidoscopic hues of pink, blue, teal and purple and elaborate hair clips and brooches - entwined through lush volumes of thick black hair that cascades down the back – wink in the sunlight.
The Flower H’mong people radiate in their bejewelled colours, as beautiful as the Blue-throated Bee-eaters with their glorious tail streamers, their sparkles and dashes of colour blaze in the sunshine and their infectious laughter and smiles send an electric vibe into the atmosphere of sleepy little Bac Ha. 

It’s Sunday morning, seven am and the weekly market is already in full swing. There’s barely room to walk down the streets as we jostle for room with the locals and villagers from the surrounding hamlets who have all converge on the main market square to buy and sell their produce, essentials and special something's.

Covering numerous streets and a large market area it is a hive of activity with pigs being unceremoniously lifted from their plastic seed-bag holders and walked wheel-barrow style for the buyer, receive a prodding and eyeballed test, and are lifted squealing back into the bags.  Ducks sitting patiently with feet tied are haggled over, then draped across backs of scooters, and water-buffalo, shy eyed and squeaking, sounding more like mice then large bovines with lethal horns, are inspected with thorough intensity. 

In another area rows upon rows of intricately embroidered outfits, blankets and baby carriers are sorted, haggled for and treasurly carried off .  The street food section is standing room only and across from it, hoses drain a fire-starting but drinkable (if your game) hooch into containers for eager customers looking to enjoy a tipple or two.    

We arrived the previous afternoon after thoroughly enjoying the delights of Sapa’s magical landscapes, including a hike along the Golden Stream (looking a tad more emerald than gold) to Love Waterfall (which according to M is named such because – “you’d love for all these steps to stop and finally be at the falls”) and a visit to the Silver Springs waterfall, which although impressive also required the side-step shuffle as we were inundated with offers to buy scarfs, trinkets and drinks.  The drive from Sapa to Bac Ha had us oohing and ahhing over more stunning mountain scapes that changed from rice terraces to tea beds, coffee plantations and groves of bananas.  As the road wound its way up mountains that seem to go forever and I found myself wondering if Bac Ha sat higher than Sapa.  It’s certainly much quieter.  Pulling into the main street we notice there was only a couple of people wandering around, locals, and at our hotel, one foreigner. 
We settle in and then make way down the main street to find what makes this little town tick.  It was so easy to amble along with only the occasional vehicle in sight.  We follow yells of delight up a lane way and find a huge sports ground, filled with boys  having a elated time chasing a soccer ball. The grassy oval looks so soft and spongy, the running track around it however is another thing altogether – rocky and gravelly it's more like a hiking track than a spot for the hundred meter dash.  An enormous propaganda poster covers the stadium.  I absolutely love these ‘pop-art’ style placards.  The men and women in them look resilient, strong and determine.  They depict the harvest of success, a vision of a nation, the pride of being. Further along the street the pride of being stands so evident with a multitude of flags hanging on every post and outside every home and business.  

A horse and cart trots past and then a basket laden scooter.  They - and a toddling child on a dinky car - are the only vehicles we have to contend with.  It’s pure bliss to be able to cross a road without the constant-on-loop-mental-picture of being run over playing across our eyes.



The homes of Bac Ha show a prosperity; ornate with lacy balconies and brightly painted shutters, their fronts spotlessly clean. I notice the whole street is spotlessly clean, not a toss of rubbish (or leaf) anywhere. We peer down the side streets; they are the same, neat and orderly with pretty double and treble storey homes sporting swirly iron railings and potted garden balconies.  Rounding a bend we stumble upon a ‘house’ of such elaborate ornateness it definitely puts an end to any competition for grandest Bac Ha house.

Palalis du Hoang A Tuong looms large in it's fading Gatsby-esque grandeur complete with sweeping staircase leading into a tower entrance, of which behind is a small version of a baroque chateau - a gift to the Chief of the Flower H’mong back in the 1920’s. M declines to go into the building, claiming it looks a bit ticky-tacky, and wanders off to check out something a bit more authentic for him - a mechanical garage. 


He’s soon engrossed in a grease and oil change on a truck and admires their log safety brake that holds the cabin up. I explore the palace.

The  building is a glorious profusion of swirls and lace with flamboyant balustrades, concaved-convexed roof tiles and inside the rooms rich stained polished floors and wedding cake plaster ceilings.  The smell of apple infuses the air and tickles the tastebuds and I find a little timber barrel-still dripping away into a plastic dish out the back of the palace.
On the other side of the stone wall an enormous flat-bottom cast iron pan bubbles away over an open fire and the smell of something spicy emanates from it.  The aroma stings my eyes a little; possibly chilli.  In the bottles displayed on the counter infront it appears they are making some type of salsa, or sauce.  It definitely looks like a top and bottom end burner!

A luna eclipse graces the village sky that night and the moon becomes  tinged in pink.  We all watch for close on an hour as it goes from full to crescent, sipping our beers on the balcony of Mr Nghe’s restaurant.  Even the locals stop and stare up in wonderment.  Earlier, by afternoons end M’s and my cockiness of being ‘the only tourist in the village’ had dissipated as local busses and private cars filled with tourists descended upon Bac Ha, all eager to beat the rush of tomorrows market tour buses.  More have also walked in from the many trekking trails surrounding the village, and it look like Mr Nghe's is the place to come to.

The locals have also poured into Bac Ha, coming from the surrounding hills and villages, bringing with them enormous baskets of goods, livestock and produce in readiness for both that evenings night market and the mornings big Sunday market. The bustle is starting to feel a little bit like Sapa’s main street, sans the touts.

We wake early. Well actually we didn’t sleep.  Our host had insisted we be placed high up in his hotel, in a quiet room. This had meant climbing five floors up a narrow, winding, heart-attack inducing staircase with a railing so low that any move to the side to let someone else past could mean toppling over and having the quick way down – and it almost did happen for one chap!  But being five floors up didn’t mean it was any quieter.  The road noise may have been muted but someone had forgotten to tell the multitude of roosters who lived outside on the rising slope of the hill next to our window, that our room was suppose to be a quiet one.  And that there’s no need to crow all flaming night! 
Up early we dallied down to the Sunday market to be wowed by the vibrancy and festive mood. It's Easter Sunday and I'm delighted to find there's not a chocolate egg or rabbit in sight. Instead just about everything and anything else is sold at this market and it is not only a crush of colour, but almost a crush in itself with everyone trying to get through all at the same time.  This truly was one of the most crowded places I’d ever been and at times we barely moved.  Once around and with a couple of small purchases of bling for ourselves, we soon left and head back to the main street to stake a spot in one of the cafes before the everyone else has the same idea.  We only just made it.  Just about every eating establishment or any establishment that had a free chair was filled to the brim with tourists who just needed a break from the crush. The large village square area was parked out with vans and busses and what narrow line of road is left was filled with every conceivable wheeled contraption crammed to the hilt.
And a parade of joyous smiles passes by, their bling dazzling under glorious blue skies as they make their way back to the hills. Bac Ha is truly delightful.



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