Bac Ha Can Cau Market Vietnam
Sprawling near the banks of a river, Can Cau Market is a clearly defined shantytown, packed with crude stalls covered with thatched roofs. The start of a few simple settlements can be seen high above, many of whose residents now make their weekly pilgrimage to the market. We are only 9kms from the Chinese border and some traders make the journey across from China on horseback. Unfortunately foreigners are not allowed to reciprocate this set-up, however tempting it may seem.
By 9 am, the market is crammed to capacity. It's lively and surprisingly fun. The locals are mostly of the Flower Hmong minority group. You can't miss them -their traditional costume of green checked headdress and multi-colored, meticiculosly stitched and layered garments are simply stunning. Few foreigners make it to Can Cau; those that do brave the journey come either with a small tour group in four-wheel drives, or - if half-mad and on a tight budget like me -on the back of a motorbike. The handful of Westerners here this morning are the object of intense - though friendly- scrutiny. There is much laughter as we try to make basic conversation. Although the majority are painfully shy and not accustomed to seeing foreigners, some cheerfully allow photographs to be taken.
Can Cau is predominately a livestock market and not the sort of place to buy some choice gifts for the folks back home. Beyond the fenced-in perimeter, pot-bellied pigs, chickens and water buffalo wait patiently by the river to be sold. They rub shoulders with magnificent wild horses, some of whom will be transporting their masters back over to China. But the market also sells the basics: traditional clothing, sacks of rice, bundles of coarse, raw wool and ironware. Some stalls sell fresh tobacco and a rather sad array of root vegetables. Many women sell their wares from large, wicker baskets and sit weaving whilst waiting for a sale. I note that there are many giant plastic containers lying around with attached tubes. I mistakenly think this is gasoline, but it is in fact the omni-present rice wine and some folk are spotted wisely filling up their water bottles for the long ride home. Food stalls serve bowls of steaming fat noodles in broth and indescribable plates of what I can only assume are some sort of animal innards. It is almost like being transported back in time. There are few traces of the outside world, save the occasional soccer tee-shirt cast off and digital watch. As I observe the incredible costumes, deep shyness and the dark, weather-beaten skins, it is hard to imagine that this is the same country as freewheeling Saigon City in the south. It might as well have been on another planet.