Can Cau Hillside Market Can Cau Hillside Market by Josh ShoeString
22 Dec 2014

"Pleeeeaase... let me go! Release meeeee! I beg yooouuuu!" I could almost hear that pleading in oink language; in what seemed to be the loudest and longest wail of a pig's agony I'd ever endured. My heart went for the pig.

Just down from the main road, the irregular-shaped mild slope landing about the size of a badminton court was the pig section. Puppies also shared the space. All over the red earth landing, owners stood and waited for prospects to come and buy their legged properties.  Some leashed to the owners, some to wooden poles sticking out from the ground. At some spots, there was a filled clump of a gunny sack lying on the dusty red soil, with a hairy pig snout jutting out of a fist-size hole at the bottom of the sack.

 Flower Hmong baby

A young Flower Hmong mother with her baby strapped to her back had a leash tied to her piglet's hind leg. The creature kept trying to scramble away but was held back by the leash on its hind leg. It fell several times. The girl walked over and started kicking the piglet back to the landing like a stubborn football that refused to move. Kick! The piglet slid on the dust. Kick, kick, kick! The poor piglet slid back foot-by-foot near the center of the landing.

Suddenly, there was a tussle and commotion. I turned to the noise and saw a man bending down and trying to coax a pig into a pig-size, sausage shaped, rattan basket. Skillfully, he drove the animal in and upon getting up, started flipping through a bundle of notes. He handed over the money to the lady seller who was smiling ear-to-ear, obviously pleased with her sale.


Going further down the slope was the buffalo section. Rows and rows of buffalos and cows were exhibited for buyers to inspect. The going rate for a solid male buffalo ranged from USD1000 to USD1400. Buffaloes were mainly used to plough the fields. Cows were cheaper as they were used for breeding. As usual, the owners stood nearby ready to negotiate with prospects. Price depends on the appearance, size and sex of the animal.

As we traced back up the slope, we came across a makeshift barber 'shop' just next to the main road. It was barely sheltered by a few sheets of corrugated roof supported by a skeleton of thick bamboo poles. Hanging from one of the upper horizontal poles that framed the structure was a mirror the size of a car window. The customer sat on a cheap plastic chair while the barber with a face-mask on went about his business grooming his client.

Open air barber

The Can Cau market happens every Saturday morning at the slopes of a hillside 20km north of Bac Ha and just 9km south of the Chinese border. Many of the eight ethnic minorities come here after a long arduous week of farming to trade, see friends, relax, eat, drink and meet new people. And lovers come to meet lovers! I spotted a few teenage girls trying to break into conversations with shy boys at a secluded corner behind the main market lane.

Flower Hmong women dominated the Can Cau market scene. The women wore multiple layers of dazzling traditional clothing. Each piece had lines upon thin horizontal lines of different coloured threads running across with circles and flower patterns here and there. We also saw two puberty-age White Hmong girls with the most undescribable eccentric head dress. Obviously, the women folk knew how to get attention from their men!

Peddler with her steaming hot dumplings

On the upper hillslopes across the main road was the bird section. Cages and cages of nightingles and other bird species were hung on wooden posts. Scores of bird admirers crowded around them to watch and hear the birds sing. Some were hung on the few available trees further up the barren slopes. In front of the bird section, right next to the road was a long line of peddlers. There was a section selling red skin sugar canes. There were also cabbages, banana leaves, dried chillies, ginger and many other types of vegetables on sale. A lone lady sat on the ground with a metal basin of boiling water steaming up her dumplings in a pot. Not far away, there was a weird-looking contraption. At the bottom was what looked like those home cooking gas cylinders with four wheels underneath. Above it was a smaller upright transparent-looking cylinder filled with green coloured liquid. The two cylinders were connected by a short pipe. Joined underneath the smaller cylinder was a long black hose that ended with a snout-handle similar to those at the petrol station. It must have been a portable mini petrol 'station'.

Crossing over to the main market, there was a shorter line of peddlers in front of the 'building'. Our tour guide gave us a taste of freshly-harvested groundnuts. They must have been the best groundnuts I'd ever tasted! In these remote mountains, all the farming must have been on pure organic methods; hence the great taste. We couldn't resist buying a big bag of groundnuts to fly home!

As we entered the market proper, we saw a stall selling all manners of knives, farming blades, hoes and metal implements. On the other side, another stall sold modern plastic products. On the 'inside', we were surprised to see many stalls selling products obviously targeted to tourists. Adorning the stalls were ethnic-style fabrics, table runners, cushion covers, shirts, embroidery, dresses, big handbags, medium-size bags, mini bags and more bags! Seeing that there were more of the same on every stall, we moved to the next section of the market.

As we walked down a brick staircase, we'd noticed rows of dazzling costumed Flower Hmong women sitting on the stairs on both sides. Next to them were a few plastic containers double the size of the typical car engine lubricant oil large container. We thought they were selling some sort of chemical. Using funnels, they poured the clear liquid into empty Aquafina mineral water bottles brought by the customers.

"They are selling corn wine," our tour guide answered us. We had a few occassions to drink corn wine during our stay. They were strong and the inevitable heat that came in the chest as the liquid went down was surely welcomed in the almost freezing cold nights in these highlands!

Meat, meat, meat

At the base of the staircase marked the ready-cooked food section of the market. Groups of men and women sat at different stalls to eat. The stall on the left had a big flat rattan "plate" with big chunks of meat. In the plate's center was a round chopping board with a chopper. Resting next to it was a charred burnt head of a dog. Dog-meat stall for sure! There were all manners of meat on offer. There was even horse meat! Most were boiled and served with a bowl of white noodles in hot soup with a few pinches of local minty leaves.

The folks chatted away as they enjoyed the weekly meal here with their friends. Some drank while others smoked using thick bamboo pipes. We meander around the stalls in a circle until we came out to the front of the market again.

Flower Hmong woman selling meat

Earlier on, as our minibus drove from Bac Ha, we were treated to wonderful vistas of rice terraces on the mountains. Giant steps were carved into the slopes where mainly paddy, corn and vegetables were planted. Some of the terraces must have been at least twenty storeys high. It was an amazing sight to behold!

As for the Can Cau Saturday market, the traditional costumes of the ethnic minorities were even more spectacular to behold. The market was completely overrun by the women clad with exotic clothing and the multi-coloured spectacle was an experience not to be missed!

If the Sapa and Bac Ha highlands are the far-flung dwelling places of these minorities, then the Can Cau market personified the convergence of the people where one can see, meet, communicate, listen and experience the multi-ethnic groups of the mountains in one convenient place!

If you ever go to northern Vietnam, don't miss Can Cau!

Last modified on Saturday, 14 January 2017 11:09

Hello... I Am Josh

A Travel Writer & Photographer from South East Asia

A little about me

Josh For some, it's shopping therapy. Others, movie therapy. Yet more, reading therapy. For me, it's writing therapy.
Why writing? When I travel, I enjoy first-hand the experience like in shopping therapy. But when I write about my travels, I live vicariously the experience again, as if like a movie sequel (or more like GroundHog Day, except that this is fun!). Yes, writing evokes the memories, the fun and the not-so-fun but all-in-all it gives the satisfaction of reliving the sense of place once more.
With images, it enhances the experience down one's travel memory lane. With this in mind, I hope to share my travel stories in words and images with you. For your escape therapy! More...

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