Tuesday 3/19/13 - Coc Ly Market, Sa Pa

After a comfortable sleep at the Panhou Village, we woke up and left bright and early, before the hotel restaurant was even open. We would eat on the road. After waking up at 5:00 a.m. and taking showers, we were on the road by 6:30. Cuong wanted to make sure we got to see the Flower Hmong Market in Coc Ly, so we needed to make an early start. Reception didn't even seem to be open this early; Cuong must have dropped our key through the slot.

We drove past many kids who were making their early morning walk to school. We passed a primary school where the youngest were headed, and a while later we passed a secondary school for the older ones. The car wound up over the mountain, past the spot where we had seen the Yao men praying for their brother yesterday. We realized while backtracking that the only reason we had gone that way was to stay at the Panhou Village. It had definitely been worth it; we loved the spa treatments and the property was beautiful. As with any place on the trip so far, we would have enjoyed staying longer.

We stopped for breakfast on the drive at a little streetside food stall. This was not the kind of place where westerners tended to eat, and we were a source of curiosity for locals. They all looked at us with big smiles. We sat on plastic stools at low tables next to locals, some of whom dined in, and some of whom took out food. A woman was sitting and cooking food, and she scooped sticky rice with pork shavings, pork, and hard boiled eggs into a bowl and placed it in front of us. Cuong made us some coffee. As we ate, the woman kept refilling Craig's bowl and commenting on how hungry he was. A young woman with a baby pulled up on a motorbike. She got breakfast to go, tied her baby onto her back, and took off on the motorbike. It was something that would never be allowed in the U.S., but was commonplace here. We used the rest room at the gas station next door.

After our quick breakfast break, we resumed our long ride. We wound along narrow roads, passing lots of individual plywood plies drying in the sun on the side of the road. We had seen this sporadically during our travels, but here we actually saw the machine which planes the wood into plies.

After several hours of driving, we arrived in Coc Ly at around 11 o'clock. We parked with a lot of tourist vehicles, and went into a little shop to use the rest room and buy a Coke. We walked up a hill to where the animal market takes place. The market had been going since dawn, so we were actually only catching the tail end of it. Water buffalo are bought and sold here. We looked around and saw men in serious discussion, while a buyer put a potential purchase through its paces. Cuong told us that water buffalo cost between $700 and $900 U.S., so they are a significant investment. The adult buffalo had rope tied through their nostrils and they were tied to a stake in the ground. Baby water buffalo weren't tied up, the supposition being that they will stay with their mothers.

After checking out the animal market, we walked down the hill to see the rest of the market. The Flower Hmong, unlike the White or Black Hmong, don't make their own clothing. They buy it at markets like this one. Their outfits are very colorful, and consist of a variety of contrasting patterns. The women wear lightweight pleated skirts with multi-colored horizontal stripes. Under the skirts, they either wear black leggings or multi-colored woven strips wrapped around their legs like bandages. They wore little shawls, with or without sleeves, with intricate woven patterns. Sometimes beads dangled as fringe. Some of them augmented their outfits with brightly colored western plaid shirts. They wore bright colored kerchiefs on their heads, except for some who wore more western-style sun hats. They carried brightly colored woven purses. Some carried umbrellas to protect them from the sun. On their feet most of them wore the white flip-flops that we have seen everywhere.

This was a combination of a traditional market and a tourist market.There were plenty of stalls selling items to locals: all of the ethnic Flower Hmong clothing was available, as were flashlights, headlamps, batteries, food, colonial-vestige French pastries, traditional medicine, tobacco, wooden water pipes, mosquito netting, rope, cell phones, conical hats, and sugar cane. There were tables where families were eating bowls of rice noodles together, and other tables where men and women were enjoying rice wine. A chair under an umbrella served as a barber's chair. The barber tried to entice Craig to get a hair cut. Craig took off his hat and showed that he doesn't have much to cut.

The people were more used to seeing tourists and weren't as overtly friendly as the people in Ha Giang had been. They had handicraft items for sale to tourists, and the sellers were more pushy than they had been at the less-touristed areas. Most of the busloads of other tourists had already left; we were some of the last non-locals here. Some of the sellers were tired out after a morning's work. We saw one man laying down on his pile of wares shirtless, checking his cell phone. I snapped a picture of him and he promptly got up, embarrassed.

After fully exploring the market, we got back into the car to find cookies with our water bottles in the seatback pockets. Cuong said that lunch would be a little late today, so he wanted to make sure that we had snacks. Craig and I smiled; with the wide array of great food available at every meal, we never had a chance to feel hungry during the course of the day.

We drove along winding mountain roads, past trucks so huge that we were surprised that they could even negotiate the corners. We drove along the Red River, which separates Vietnam from China. The river is about 20 feet wide here, cutting through rural farmland. The Chinese side looks no different than the Vietnamese. Had Cuong not told us, we never would have suspected that this was the location of a national border.

We arrived in the recently rebuilt city of Lao Cai. In 1979, the Vietnamese were feeling pretty good about themselves after having driven out the French and then the Americans. Apparently they made some boastful statements about first world countries being unable to conquer them. China took exception to that claim that Vietnam was invincible, and invaded northern Vietnam with 100,000 troops to seemingly prove a point, flattening the city of Lao Cai in the process. It has all been rebuilt since into a modern city with tall buildings.

We stopped at Trung Ha Com Pho (translating the name in Google Translate yields "Neutralization of Rice Noodles", which sounds pretty awesome) for lunch. There were two tables out on the sidewalk in front of the narrow kitchen. One table was full of locals, and we sat at the other with Cuong and Mr. Giang. The sun was very hot, but luckily our table was shaded. There was a lot of traffic, and large trucks spewed diesel fumes. This was a bit of culture shock - definitely the most urban environment we had been in since we left Hanoi five days ago.

The proprietor of the restaurant was happy to take photos with us as long as the restaurant's sign was in the picture. His waitstaff served us pork wrapped in crispy jungle leaves, pork shish kebab, rice, tofu, greens with garlic, and an omelette. It was all quite delicious. We had yet to find a dish that we didn't like.

The folks at the other table were looking at us with curiosity. A young woman kept trying to get a photo of us with her phone, but she was too embarrassed to make eye contact. We would have posed for her. The advent of camera phones has really shifted the dynamic between traveler and local. No longer is the traveler the only one with the ability to document their surroundings, and often the locals find the travelers as interesting as the travelers find the locals.

After lunch, we continued driving for an additional hour, climbing up and up and up into the mountains. As we left Lao Cai behind, we passed into a more wooded area. Cuong explained that when China gave back the land that they had invaded, the border ended up shifted a bit, so that a previously Vietnamese waterfall was now shared by the two countries.

We arrived in Sa Pa, and just as we were starting to get a view of the town, we went up a very steep narrow road which terminated in the parking lot of the Victoria Hotel. Cuong announced that this was our hotel for the night. Exploring town would need to wait until we had gotten settled in our room. At the front desk, they gave us a warm hand towel and a cup of cinnamon tea while we checked in. We were supposed to be on our own for dinner tonight, according to the itinerary. But we didn't want to just eat alone at the hotel, and we invited Cuong and Mr. Giang to eat with us. We only had so much time left together and we enjoyed their company so much. They happily accepted. Cuong told us that he knows the owner of a good restaurant in town. We made plans to meet Cuong in the lobby at 7 o'clock. In the meanwhile, we would have some free time. Cuong suggested that we could take a swim in the pool, or get a spa treatment.

The lobby of the hotel was decorated with the different clothing styles of the local ethnic minorities. Women gave demonstrations of weaving at a big wooden loom. There was seating around a fireplace, and a lounge where guests can play pool and watch TV. As we walked out into the courtyard, we passed a children's room filled with lots of colorful toys. We crossed the beautifully manicured grounds into the next building where our room (#130) was situated on the ground floor. The room key was hanging from a small water buffalo bell. It was adorable and I wished that the hotel sold them. It would make a great Christmas ornament.

The room was quite nice, with dark wood furniture and floors. The linens were decorated in local patterns. We had a very nice balcony overlooking the town. There were bathrobes and slippers for each of us. The bathroom was quite nice, with a wooden step up into the tub.

As we got settled into the comfortable room, I saw the spa menu. Reflexology and foot massage...that certainly sounded nice. Maybe we should book one during our free time. Of course it was a lot more expensive here than it had been at Panhou Village.

But our first priority was laundry. We had brought many layers of clothing, but it was so warm that we were wearing our warm weather clothes all the time. We hadn't really packed enough short sleeve shirts. Looking at the exorbitant a la carte laundry price list in the hotel, we realized why Cuong had recommended a small shop next door to the hotel for their inexpensive laundry service. At $3 per kilogram, we decided to wash everything we had previously worn. Then we wouldn't need to worry about clothes at all for the rest of the trip.

We walked out across the hotel driveway to the shop. In addition to laundry, they sold various souvenirs, jewelry, and North Face trekking supplies. The woman who owned the shop went through our laundry bags, taking out each item and making me write it all down. She then weighed it - 5 kg. Only $15 to have every bit of dirty laundry cleaned? Yes, please! She told us that it would be ready tomorrow afternoon.

I saw a sign advertising $5 foot massages. The reflexology back at the hotel was very expensive, and needed to be scheduled. A more informal treatment here was much cheaper. Craig's foot and ankle had been sore from when he fell yesterday, and the idea of a foot massage sounded great to him. The owner heard us, and asked if we wanted foot massages. We decided that we wanted to take a walk through town to get some photos in the late afternoon sunlight while it lasted. We told her that we would come back in a little while.

We walked down the winding steep road toward town. We passed more stores selling trekking equipment and more hotels and tourism companies. When we reached the bottom of the hill, we crossed a large intersection to the town square, presided over by a modern looking Catholic church from the 1930's.

The town had been a hill-station retreat for the French during the hot summers of the colonial period. At 1650 meters, the weather can be considerably cooler than in places further south. Now it has the feel of an alpine village, with steep streets lined with narrow 4- and 5-story buildings. Restaurants, gift shops, bars, karaoke joints, and ubiquitous opportunities for foot and body massages. There were tourists everywhere, both local and foreign. Many of them were backpackers. It seemed very crowded. These curvy narrow streets weren't built to support the amount of traffic that they now receive. You always feel like you are in somebody's way.

We walked around the town, looking at the colorful buildings in the late afternoon sunlight. We wandered into several souvenir stores. They were rather pricey, though the clerks were always willing to negotiate.

The sun was hot as we made our way back to the square. Black Hmong girls approached us, trying to sell us their handicrafts. "You buy from me!" They were not shy. We smiled at them but it was not the same kind of interaction we had with the people of Ha Giang. Here they were jaded by constant tourist interaction. Apparently, at one point the government had tried to convince the ethnic minority women to sell handicrafts in the town square. This takes time away from their farming endeavors, and means that they absolutely need to earn money from tourists. They become very forward and unfortunately your natural instinct is to say no thank you and continue on your way.

A dozen adults were playing volleyball in the square. We walked back up the steep winding driveway up to the hotel. We stopped into the shop for our foot massages. Although we had been told that it is usually cool in the mountains here, the day was actually quite warm and we were overheated even after our short walk around town. As the owner of the store prepared for our foot massages, we asked if they had any cold drinks. Although their drinks were not refrigerated, someone ran to a neighboring store and returned with two ice cold Fantas.

The owner motioned us into a small back room where we sat in comfortable chairs and put our feet up on ottomans. She sat on my ottoman and started massaging my feet. About 5 minutes later, her daughter Tham arrived, and started Craig's foot massage. His foot was a bit bruised from yesterday, but the massage helped. Tham spoke very good English and was quite friendly. She asked us questions about ourselves, so we took out the little photo album we had brought from home. She flipped through and she and her mom looked at photos of our home and family. She said that tourists never think to show them photos from their own lives, not thinking that they would be interested. But they are very interested. We really enjoyed talking with Tham. Rather than spending a fortune on a foot massage at the hotel, we were getting to spend some time getting to know the locals, which is always one of our favorite things to do.

At the end of our hour-long massages (at the bargain basement price of $8 per person), they asked if we wanted our shoulders done as well, at no additional charge. We couldn't say no to that! Feeling fully refreshed, we looked around the store at the various souvenirs. Tham didn't put any pressure on us to buy anything, which made for a more pleasant shopping experience than we had had downtown.We picked up a couple of things for our godchildren as we paid for the foot massages. Tham threw in a package of postcards for free.

We went back to the hotel and stopped in at the hotel's boutique gift shop. I found a lovely pink and purple reversible cashmere and silk blend shawl which was woven into a beautiful pattern. I couldn't resist buying it. Though it was surely more expensive in a hotel shop than it would be on the street, the price was still very reasonable and the shawl was of high quality. It was so soft and pretty. We were realizing that so far we haven't really purchased much of anything, aside from some small fragile ceramics pieces, which would be lucky to make it home intact.

At 7 o'clock, Cuong met us in front of the hotel. We waved to Tham in her shop and walked down the hill to the main street, where we ran into Mr. Giang. Cuong led us to the Nature Bar and Grill. We climbed the stairs and were shown to a table overlooking the street. The table contained a platter full of raw beef, pork, and chicken with carved pineapple slices along the edge. There was also a smaller plate full of raw prawns. There was a gas burner in the middle of the table, and they soon brought out a large stainless steel covered pot. The pot was divided into two in the shape of a yin-yang symbol. Half of it held spicy broth, and the other half held mild broth. Cuong explained that this was a "hot pot". The raw meat on the table would be cooked in the broth by us.

We were served chicken wings and a sizzling plate of chicken marinated in honey. It was delicious. Mr. Giang poured us some of the rice wine he had brought from the guest house. He poured us shots and we toasted "Chuc suc khoe!" Next came a plate of freshwater clams. Mr. Giang began the process of cooking the food. He started with the seafood, placing the prawns and clams into the broth and letting them cook. He and Cuong ordered a bottle of local Hmong apple rice wine and we had more toasts. It definitely had a more cider-like flavor than the guest house rice wine. It had a sweetness to it, and a bigger kick.

Mr. Giang extracted the clams and prawns from the broth. We started eating the clams. I am not normally much of a shellfish eater, but I wanted to at least give them a try. It was fun trying to open a clamshell and eat the meat with chopsticks. They were delicious! The prawns made a quick trip to the kitchen to be shelled and deheaded. I don't normally like the texture of shrimp, but I found these to be quite enjoyable. The hot pot was delicious, and we sampled all of the different meats, as well as tofu and mushrooms. The flavors all mixed with the broth were delicious. We kept eating and drinking, enjoying one another's company.

We were all staying within easy walking distance of the restaurant, with Cuong and Mr. Giang just a few doors down, and us down the street and up the hill. Mr. Giang insisted on walking us partway home. He led us down an alley which popped out at a market. We walked up steps until we found ourselves at the Catholic church. It was lit up, cycling through a variety of colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue... It looked very impressive. We said goodnight to Mr. Giang and walked up the hill to our hotel. Tham's mother waved at us as we passed her store. We went to bed at around 10:20.


View Larger Map

Coc Ly
View Larger Map

Sa Pa
Panhou Village grounds

Panhou Village grounds

Breakfast at a food stall

Breakfast at a food stall

Breakfast at a food stall

Breakfast at a food stall

Women and water buffalo, Coc Ly market

Women and water buffalo, Coc Ly market

View from animal market

View from animal market

Seller taking a break at Coc Ly market

Seller taking a break at Coc Ly market

Eating noodles at Coc Ly market

Eating noodles at Coc Ly market

Baby, Coc Ly market

Baby, Coc Ly market

Woman, Coc Ly market

Woman, Coc Ly market

Rice wine toast, Coc Ly market

Rice wine toast, Coc Ly market

A new plastic truck from Coc Ly market

A new plastic truck from Coc Ly market

View from our balcony, Room 130, Victoria Hotel Sa Pa

View from our balcony, Room 130, Victoria Hotel Sa Pa

Sa Pa

Sa Pa

Dinner at Nature Bar & Grill (Photo couresty of Cuong)

Dinner at Nature Bar & Grill (Photo couresty of Cuong)

Mr. Giang adds food to the hot pot

Mr. Giang adds food to the hot pot

Catholic Church Sa Pa

Catholic Church Sa Pa

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