The Flower H’mong and Blue H’mong trek into Can Cau for their weekly Saturday morning markets. There are semi-permanent market stalls that spill down the steep sides of the valley 12km north of the town of Bac Ha, and very near the Chinese border. The animals are offered for sale in the lowest part of the market, the cookhouses sit higher up the slope and the produce, clothing, tools and farming implements are arranged on tables under blue tarpaulin roofs on the level of the muddy road.
Few outsiders venture this far from Sapa, but clearly tourism is increasing because many of the items that would interest foreign visitors are arranged in stalls around the outskirts of the market.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
As we descended out of Sapa we travelled below the level of the clouds and the visibility improved tremendously. We stopped briefly at the Chinese border to take a quick photo but we didn’t waste more time than that. The market at Can Cau is held in the mornings and by early afternoon, the hill tribe people are beginning to pack up and make their way home on foot.
We knew that we would be leaving the highway and travelling along a secondary road, but we hadn’t anticipated that the road was being ‘improved’ and that for the time being, it was a very muddy track and in places it was very difficult to negotiate the slopes. It had clearly rained much of the night before and those on motorbikes were having a particularly hard time.
I hadn’t made the best choice of clothing for the day, wearing light coloured trousers, but at least I was inside a vehicle and wasn’t being splattered with mud. When we arrived at the market, we stepped out into a light drizzle so we headed quickly towards the covered areas of the market and began to wander along admiring the handicrafts on display. We were watched politely and quietly by the vendors, there was no pressure to buy at all.
Wouldn’t I have loved a huge duffle bag so that I could stuff it with some of the wonderful textiles displayed before me? Of course, I’m not into buying handicrafts after spending almost a year getting rid of all that I’ve collected over the years, but my camera comes in really handy for taking photos of some of the items I admired.
After some time, I turned my lens on the wonderful people at the market, making every effort not to take photos of people’s faces if I felt they would rather not be photographed. I have found in the past, that if there is a grandmother carrying a beloved grandchild, they often agree to me taking a photo of the two of them together. I have also noticed that many of the old men seem to be very much ignored by photographers, and when motion as if to ask if I can take a picture, I usually get a big smile in return.
While we had read that we could expect to see beautifully dressed women from both the Flower and Blue H’mong tribes, it appeared that none of the Blue H’mong women were at the market the day we visited. I did a search on the Internet after our return to the hotel, and I could see that the clothing styles of the Blue H’mong are definitely different from the outfits we had seen at Can Cau.
We were not the only foreigners at the Can Cau market that day, but there weren’t too many of us. I did have a chat with a young woman visiting from Hong Kong when I stopped to admire her brightly coloured rubber boots. Unlike all of the hill tribe women, her skirt was very short while theirs were long, but at least she had the sensibility to wear tights and not arrive with bare legs.
During the hour and a half that we wandered around the market, we could see that most of the buying and selling had been completed, many villagers had eaten their fill at the cook houses and others were beginning to set off home with their purchases and the items that would have to wait to be sold the following Saturday.
As I made my way towards our waiting vehicle, I came upon a young girl standing above the muddy road on a high rock. She had her hands tucked into her belt and the most serene look on her face. When I moved along a little further, I could see that she had a baby brother or sister in a carrier on her back. The baby was sound asleep, snug and warm with a knitted cap on its head.
I had taken dozens of photos in the market that day, but the photos of this little girl will always remind me of Can Cau, and will definitely remain my favourite.
On the way back to the main highway, we found that the departing vehicles had really churned up the mud and made progress almost impossible. Our hearts sank when we saw the local bus get stuck and the passengers begin to get down to stand nearby. Our driver wasn’t keen to try and pass the bus, but the mist was beginning to close in and it was getting very gloomy.
We were getting a little concerned when a van overtook us and went boldly past the bus on the left-hand side. Once we knew that it had made it through, we knew we could as well, and we plunged on into the mud. It was a huge relief to get back to Sapa and our warm hotel. We made no attempt to explore the town as the fog and light rain wasn’t the least bit inviting.
We had come to see the Can Cau market and tomorrow we were pushing on to visit the weekly Sunday market at Bac Ha. We’ll just have to come to Sapa another time, preferably during the warmer, drier months of the year. After all, it was during those very months that the French vacated Hanoi to enjoy the fresh air in the mountains. Too bad our itinerary forced us to come under less than ideal conditions.