Many weekend visitors to Sapa opt to visit Bac Ha marke, which is easily accessible on an organised day trip from Sapa. But if you want to avoid the tourist hordes, Muong Hom market is a more interesting option… if you can get there.
Our trip started at 07:00 from Sapa town. It was cold and foggy as we donned helmets and crawled onto the back of motorbikes along with our guide, Ta May. Despite the fog, the first part of the journey was enjoyable, in a “we’re on an adventure” kind of way; views were limited, but occasionally a magnificent panorama broke through.
Sitting on the back of the bike, I started to write this post in my head: “The road was narrow but paved and we passed hardly any four-wheel vehicles, so despite the occasional steep drop to our right and rough patch of road, we had no concerns about the safety of the journey…” Then it all changed.
Suddenly the road, still on a hill, turned to mud as we entered a construction zone. Honda Waves were not made for driving up muddy hills. After the second rear wheel slide I jumped off and walked through the worst of it before re-joining my group further on. From there until the market, mercifully only a few more kilometres, the road was slightly less treacherous but nonetheless, there was an edge of fear. We passed a few buses, unable to move until the mud dried out a bit — in December in Sapa I wasn’t holding out much hope that the passengers would get home for dinner.
By the time we arrived at the market, at around 09:00, it was heaving with customers. Most vendors and customers travel from Muong Hom or nearby villages and are from four ethnic groups, the Red Dao and White H’mong being the most noticeable. After the crowds, the next thing that struck me was the wonderful array of colours, from the women’s clothing to the material, rugs and other items being sold. Photo opportunities are everywhere.
Unlike Bac Ha, Muong Hom is not a livestock market, although there are some livestock sales early in the morning. Most stalls sell textiles — clothing, cloth, ribbons, bedding — but hardware and foodstuff, particularly dried goods, are also available.
The market also has a lively food section. Our tour organisers had packed us sandwiches in the expectation that we wouldn’t want to eat at the market stalls, and while I’m generally not too fussy about where or what I eat, and have a strong stomach, in this instance I was quite happy to have the filled baguette in my backpack as we were 50 kilometres from a decent toilet. I did, however, try some of the bread that our tour guide purchased, made of fermented something or other… It had more of a bread consistency and tasted vaguely of alcohol, although we were reassured that it didn’t contain any.
We were the only tourists at the market, and although we stood out — not just for our faces and height but the brightly coloured raincoats we were all wearing — we didn’t feel at all like tourist attractions, as is the case in some less touristed areas, nor did we feel unwelcome or get overcharged for the small items we bought. We were accepted and pushed and shoved along with the rest of the crowds.
We only spent an hour or so at the market as it’s not particularly large, but then wandered around the village and by the river before commencing the journey home. Fortunately, driving downhill through mud isn’t quite as treacherous as driving up, but numerous hair-raising moments still ensued and the rain didn’t help. Still, we made it back to Sapa wet, but in one piece, with a great memory to take away.
We wouldn’t recomment travelling here after or during rain and ideally leave a trip until the road is completed — whenever that may be. If you are desperate to go, arrange a 4WD vehicle and leave Sapa early. I’d recommend against going by motorbike at the moment and even when the weather’s better it should only be attempted by experienced drivers.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 19th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.