Bac Ha or by bus…..doing it Vietnamese style!

As I mentioned, walking to the border and crossing on the Chinese side was easy, and it looked like the Vietnamese side was going to be too! Wrong! Armed with our passport and Vietnamese visa, which we had obtained in Hong Kong, it was supposed to be a “stamp and walk through”. In theory! In practice, the visa had been issued for a month from the 16th September to the 16th October. We had been told that we would be granted a month from the date of entry. Wrong again! We would only be granted the days that were left from the date stamped on it. Now, I am no genius at maths, but we arrived on the 8th of October, which meant that we would have to leave Vietnam by the 16th of October. That was so not going to happen! Alex was the one to pick up this “discrepancy”, once the visa on our passport had been stamped. We could not believe it! We tried to negotiate, and tell them that there had been a mistake. Several minutes later we were discussing our plight with several others, some of whom spoke English. The bottom line is that they stuffed up in Hong Kong, and that you do not get a month from the date of entry, but rather, a month from the date that is placed on your visa. No use arguing! An error had been made, and we had to rectify it! Despite their friendliness, we were being told that they could organise an “overnight” visa for us for USD$50.00, which we knew was exorbitant. The solution? Make our way down to Hanoi and organise it ourselves!

We both took several deep, deep breaths of air, and reminded ourselves that worse things in life could happen. All we needed was a piece of paper and a bit more money to organise it! We were healthy, well and unharmed, a luxury which is not afforded to so many other citizens of the world!

Bac Ha

We had decided on our first stop being Bac Ha, only a couple of hours away from Lao Cai, which is the first town on the Vietnamese side of the border. It’s quite amazing how a border crossing really can make so much of a difference. Within minutes, Alex and I were on the back of two motorbikes, backpacks and all, being zipped off to the local bus station. Indeed, motorbikes were zipping around everywhere. It looked and felt so very Vietnam!

The bus station looked deserted. Lunch break perhaps? We tried to “ask”, via sign language, when the next bus to Bac Ha would be, and from what we could understand, it would be in approximately an hour. After all the time we’d wasted at the border, it really did not seem to matter. The few people that were around seemed fascinated by these two foreigners, with big smiles and no Vietnamese! We managed to “chat” to a few fruit and food vendors, whilst various onlookers leered at us like we were circus acts! Having said that, now that I think of it, with our facial expressions and miming in bid to be understood, they probably weren’t too far off the mark! We felt happy, and were getting the impression that the Vietnamese are a fairly happy lot.

I am not sure where they all appeared from, but come time for the bus to leave, people started appearing from everywhere and packing on! What did I miss? It was just after 1.00pm and we were off! Not very far north east of Lao Cai, the winding roads presented some spectacular scenery. When we had done our research, it grabbed our attention, as it did not seem to be as touristy as like what most of the rest of Vietnam has (and continues to) become. We were the only foreigners on the bus, and both Alex and I saw that as a good sign. In a little under three hours we were in the centre of the very small township of Bac Ha. From the point of view of its being small, it was not long before we found ourselves a place to stay. Bac Ha is famous for its Sunday market, but being a Monday, I couldn’t see us hanging around for a week to see it. It’s also famous for a Tuesday market, which is held at a place some 35 kilometres away called Coc Ly. That sounded more doable!

Our first afternoon was spent wandering around and doing things such as munching on potatoes and corn cooked on tiny little outdoor grills, whilst chatting to the locals. We learnt very early on, that in Vietnam you have to bargain for absolutely everything, as tourists nearly always get inflated prices. If done in a jovial manner, however, you can usually reduce the cost (almost never to the Vietnamese price), and everyone remains happy, and no-one offended! This area also has a large concentration of hill tribe people, and it was lovely to watch them come and go, in traditional dress. I much prefer this to doing what I call a “hill tribe freak show”. We found an excellent restaurant called Mimosa, run by a young Vietnamese couple, where the food was fantastic. After a month of the culinary equivalent of “Nightmare on Elm St”, Alex and I were both of the opinion that if you’re onto a good thing, stick to it! Mimosa became our faithful friend and companion for our few days in Bac Ha!

Coc Ly market

On Tuesday we hired a couple of guys and their motorbikes to take us the 35 kilometres out to the Coc Ly market. Although not far from Bac Ha, it took us over two hours to navigate the windy, mostly muddy tracks. The feeling was exhilarating! It was us, the bikes, the drivers and nature at large! With the wind blowing through our hair, and scenery which I can only describe as spectacular beyond belief, we watched the world fly by! This was the real deal! We saw traditional wooden houses, women washing in streams, men fishing and working the land, construction under way with implements that seemed to date back to the 50’s, and children watching in amazement as we flew by. I felt overwhelmed! Overwhelmed at being alive, and able to appreciate this show, which is called life! Tears welled in my eyes, and I shed silent tears, perhaps the product of a natural high. I never, ever lose sight of the fact that I am so very, very lucky to be able to see and appreciate this wonderful world we live in.

We arrived at the tail end of the market. It was already 12.30pm, and the market supposedly finished at 1.00pm. There were very few foreigners, and it was mostly the locals wheeling and dealing. The stunning scenery was a marvellous backdrop to the many vendors, dressed in resplendent traditional clothing. This area is home to a number of hill tribes, and the traditional dress varies from tribe to tribe. On market day, one can see them in all their glory, and if you look closely you can also see how their dress varies. There are sometimes obvious but at other times only subtle nuances that differ one tribe’s dress from the next’s. What I loved most about this market was that it was small and it was mostly by and for the locals! Always ready to seize the day, or the opportunity least, many of the vendors have cottoned on to giving out inflated prices. On the other hand, many people pay! Their philosophy no doubt is that why to go the lower price if you can go the higher! With my bargaining shoes laced up tightly, I got myself a couple of traditional styles silver hill tribe earrings.

Walking through the market gave us a fascinating insight, but one which also provided a tad too much information! I just don’t do chunks of unrefrigerated meat on wooden slabs close to the floor! To be more specific, in this case, a very muddy floor! And people were buying it without qualms. Over the last few weeks, Alex has slowly been turning to the vegetable and fruit family, as the meat one just doesn’t seem to cut it for him either! I just love markets! They are the heart of a nation and show and tell you a lot about its culture. Although the market was wrapping up, still got a pretty decent feel for it.

It was 1.30pm, and we were off again. So many things were whirring in my head, and the time seemed to pass very quickly. Before we knew it, we were back “home”, in Bac Ha. Our drivers also took us to Ban Pho, only a few kilometres away from Bac Ha. It’s a terrific little place to see how the Montagnard (mountain people) live. This area is home to the hospitable Flower H’Mong people. We jumped off the bikes and took a stroll around the small village. Being the only foreigners, we were able to appreciate the locals simply living as they live. There were a lot of “sin jows” (hellos) on our behalf, to which many happily responded.

We decided that we would visit Sapa, south-west of Lao Cai, despite the fact that it was supposed to be ultra touristy. I have never been to Vietnam before but have been told that many places have indeed become super touristy of late. I suppose that’s what they call progress! We thought we’d give it a go anyway! The trip took several hours, as first, we had to make our way back to Lao Cai, and then we had to get another bus onto Sapa. Whilst the trip between Lao Cai and Sapa was pleasant enough we could not really see much, due to the really thick mist and fog. Sapa is in the Vietnamese highlands and is supposed to be the coldest place in the country. It has been said that it is fantastic…….if you can see it! As you will read on and find out….we saw it…..just!

At an altitude of about 1600 metres, overlooking a beautiful valley, and surrounded by lofty mountains towering on all sides, Sapa, in theory, offers views to die for. Unfortunately, we did not manage to see these awe-inspiring views, as we caught Sapa in the mist! Having said that, it was still an interesting place to be in and observe. After our arrival, and finding a place to stay, we had a bit of a walk around. Lots and lots of hill tribe people, mainly from the Hmong and Dao tribes. As my friend from Canberra, Bec (Moorby), forewarned us: “The town itself has some hardcore hassling minority people pushing handicrafts and drugs to tourists”. That, sadly, just about sums it up! Whilst it was intriguing seeing the various hill tribe people in traditional dress, I was blown away not only by their brilliant command of the English language but also at how superb they were at hassling you to the point of wearing you down. Also very sadly, there seemed to be only one solution, to ignore them! I hate doing this and it goes against the very grain of my being, but we soon found out that even a friendly smile or hi, would ensure being harassed for at least 10 minutes. Ah yes, and then there’s the drug issue…. again! YES, I’m a foreigner and NO, I don’t do drugs! I cannot stress enough how debilitating buying drugs from these people is not only to the individual but to the community! If you are a traveller, I urge you to be responsible and not to indulge! Your choice has a profound effect on those who you buy from! Think about your lifestyle, and then think about theirs.

Later that night we found some street vendors, chose one and sat by the roadside, whilst munching on some goodies that were being cooked over an open fire: sticky rice cooked inside bamboo, corn and sweet potato. We stayed there chatting for several hours to the lady who was cooking and her family. There were a couple of guys next to us, who was also eating and drinking a pure alcohol concoction, which they kept offering to Alex. Although it came in small glasses, it smelt lethal, and they were not taking no for an answer! After about the fourth one, Alex insisted in a friendly manner that he just could not drink anymore. I am not sure if it was a “blokes” thing, but I was not offered any, which I had absolutely no problem with! This is what Alex and I both love so much about travelling – mixing with the locals.

The next day was not nice at all, neither to walk nor cycle, and it drizzled all day. We still could not see the supposed spectacular scenery. So, we just chilled, caught up on the internet, and sat in a cafe, whilst pushing back a few coffees. We ended up at a Western-run establishment, which had expensive coffee and average food with tiny portions. To be honest, we were not at all surprised, as this is the usual outcome in such places! Besides, we usually like to support local places and people.

Finally, the next day provided us with weather that was a little better, but still not marvellous, so we booked a sleeper on the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi, which was leaving at 9.00pm that night. We walked around town and visited both the fruit market downstairs and the clothes market upstairs. I spotted a beautiful jacket that I wanted to buy, but the prices being quoted were ridiculous, and they were not coming down! Had it been a Monday, I may have had some luck, but being a Friday, and the day before the famous Saturday market, I was in “no way Jose land”! Why sell to me for USD$10.00 when the people in mass tour groups were going to pay several times that amount tomorrow? Cest la vie, hey!

Cat Cat village

Later that afternoon we visited Cat Cat, a village some three kilometres away. The hike down was steep but impressive. We saw waterfalls, rice fields, and lots of locals in minority dress. Whilst it was pretty, it seemed a little construed. Not quite Disneyland (yet!) but a little set up for the tourists. We drew the line at an entrance fee! Although small, we got around it, by entering a back way. Please do not get me wrong, but it seems ludicrous paying to walk into a village. Imagine paying to get into Melbourne’s China Town! This, I repeat, is not about “come visit the freaks”, it is about experiencing the culture! We can help give to their community in other ways, such as buying goods, food and drinks. What infuriates me is that the “entrance fee” does not go to the locals, but to the government, who sadly sees these people as a commodity and a way to make money. Whilst on this walk we met Mitta from Indonesia and her young son Kenzie. What an amazing woman! We chatted at large, and she expressed how important she felt it was for her son to have a cross-cultural education. I really admire people like this! Congratulations Mitta, and I promise that I will take you up on your offer, and come and visit you in Indonesia one day.

Later that day we caught a bus back to Lao Cai, which left us very close to the train station. Before we knew it, we were on the train, and off to Hanoi. The cabin had six beds with three bunks on each side, and we were in the middle. I know that I promised that I wouldn’t act like a princess again, but I started to scowl, and turn up my nose when I saw that the sheet on the bed was not clean! I carry a pillow case cover with me, so that went onto the pillow in a flash. The blanket hadn’t exactly been washed yesterday either! I lay down, put my head on a “clean” pillow, covered myself with the blanket (but not too close to my face, yuk!), and went to sleep. On awakening, a new adventure would no doubt be awaiting us.


The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves” – Oscar Arias Sanchez (1941 – ).

(Photos: 1.-Crossing the border into Vietnam. 2.- On the bus, on the way to Bac Ha. 3.- Locals on a water buffalo, near Bac Ha. 4.- Hill tribe girls, Coc Ly Market. 5.- On the motorbikes, Alex behind & Ombi infront. 6.- Hill tribe elder, Coc Ly market. 7.- Wheeling & dealing, Coc Ly market. 8.- Little boy & traditional clothes drying, Ban Pho, near Bac Ha. 9.- The misty hills around Sapa. 10.- Black Hmong elder, Sapa. 11.- The scantily clad locals, on the walk between Sapa & Cat Cat village. 12.- Man at work, Cat Cat village, near Sapa. 13.- Woman at work, upstairs clothes market, Sapa.)

Check out our interactive map on our Start Here page to see where we are now and where we’ve been?  There are still so many countries that are still on our to-do list. What would you recommend? Where would you like to go?

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One Life! Live It!
Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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