Can Cau Market This Saturday morning market, 19 kilometres north of Bac Ha town, is one of the most interesting and authentic, though you'll still see a lot of westerners snapping photos when the tour buses arrive between 10:00 and 11:00.
It's set in a beautiful valley only about four kilometres from the Chinese border, giving it a much more remote, frontier feeling than the market in Bac Ha, which is otherwise similar.
Here, Flower H'mong offer a wide variety of handmade goods — much of the clothing you'll see them wearing is on sale here, as well as bags, scarves and knick-knacks that seem to be targeted a bit more towards Westerners. Doll collectors will definitely want to check out some of the local product, which we imagine would be impossible to get anywhere else in the world. But there are practical wares as well, particularly baskets, wooden saddles, and plowshares. Bible fans should take note that the curved, triangular plowheads for sale are usually made from old bomb casings — literally, weapons into plowshares!
The locals love their meat, so the food stalls here are lined with vendors displaying steaming hocks of boiled beef, which you can order up a la carte, or in some noodle soup. The Flower H'mong are also known for their rice wine made from corn and fermented with Hong My seeds. It can be quite potent — a few cups at noon, and you'll have no trouble sleeping on the bus ride back. Livestock trading goes on early in the proceedings — mostly cattle, water buffalo, goats, horses and dogs. If you arrive on a tour out of Sapa you may be too late to see this, but if you're staying overnight in Bac Ha, you'll see the same goings-on at the market there. If you've already seen a number of town markets on your trip through Vietnam, rest assured that there is something much different about a real, tribal market in the countryside, and there's good reason to go out of your way to see one. However, but for the location, the Can Cau market is very similar to the one in Bac Ha town, so you can get by on seeing one or the other.
Organised trips can be arranged out of Sapa or Bac Ha.
Bac Ha Market
This Sunday morning market is easily visited on a daytrip from Sapa or Lao Cai, or after an overnight in Bac Ha, for those staying over after seeing the Can Cau market. The timing works out well for local businesses, who count on feting flocks of foreigners every Saturday night. Sunday morning, the market is just a short stroll from your hotel, but it's just as authentic, and very similar in many ways, to the one in Can Cau. Since the market is in town, goods range from the traditional, handmade wares also available in Can Cau, to more practical purchases trucked in from China. If you miss the livestock trading at Can Cau, get up early to see it here. Day trips out of Sapa cost around US$15 for a group tour and include a visit to Ban Pho village but to get the most out of it include an overnight stay as buses from Sapa don't show till around 10:30 or 11:00.
Coc Ly Market
This is the least visited of the popular markets, which runs on Tuesday mornings and is frequented by H'mong, Dzao and Nunh minorities. It's smaller than Bac Ha or Can Cau, but the attraction here is that a visit can be combined with a boat trip along the Chay river. It's 20 kilometres by road from Bac Ha, and Lao Cai is 48 kilometres further on, so it's easily visited en route. A two-day trip out of Bac Ha, including trekking, an overnight in a homestay, a visit to the market and a boat trip can be organised through Green Sapa Tour.
So many markets, so little time. We've heard of, but haven't had a chance to visit, markets called Lung Khau Nhin on Thursdays, Lung Phin and Xin Man (Coc Pai) on Sundays, and judging by our map, there are more markets to be explored. See the list below, and plan your selection of market around your schedule, if you're on a tight one.
Tuesday: Coc Ly Market
Thursday: Lung Khau Nhin (south of Muong Khuong)
Saturday: Can Cau
Sunday: Bac Ha, Lung Phin, Xin Man (Coc Pai), Muong Hum (northwest of Sapa)