One of Sapa's biggest appeals is the abundance of captivating local markets which happen throughout the towns and villages. These colourful and exciting markets rise with the sun, bringing with them a feast for the senses. People from different ethnic groups and different villages come together to sell their own produce and buy their supplies for the following week. The markets have stall upon stall of fascinating goods from hand-weaved fabrics to fruit and veg and even livestock. It is also a fantastic place to meet the local people and find out about their cultures and traditional crafts.
The markets take place in different villages on different days of the week, so you may want to plan your trip accordingly if there is a particular market you wish to visit.
Monday: Ban Phiet Market
The majority of the stall holders at Ban Phiet Market belong to the white Hmong ethnic group Like many of the markets, Ban Phiet Market starts at the crack of dawn. Although this is a comparatively small market, you will still be amazed by the lively atmosphere which is alive with colours and smells and the welcoming sound of friendly banter.
Tuesday: Coc Ly Market
Coc Ly Market is located in a picturesque location near the Chay River, and it attracts local people from all over the surrounding areas. Here you can meet people from the Flower H'mong, Phu La, Black Dao and Nung ethnic groups, all distinguishable by their beautiful traditional clothing.
Although at first glance, Coc Ly Market may seem like a chaotic whirlwind of colour and activity, it is actually very well organised. The market is divided into four different areas according to the type of produce being sold.
The textile section features some of the most exquisite samples of fabric, all of which are weaved and dyed by hand using traditional techniques. At the market, you have the opportunity to talk to the women who made it and learn about how this skill has been passed down through the generations. The remaining three areas are split into highland produce, cattle and food and drink. This is a great place to pick up some fresh vegetables or try some of the local dishes.
Wednesday: Cao Son Market
This remote market is located in Moung Khoung District, just north of Lao Cai. Like most of the weekly markets, Cao Son has many functions from buying fresh food for the following week to buying handmade homewares to getting a new traditional outfit. This is an authentic local market which sees little tourist footfall, so you will be able to get a real feel for the cultures here. You will see the crowds of people from the H'mong, Phu La, Dao and Han ethnic groups, all dressed in their finest outfits for the social occasion. If you are keen on sampling a local speciality, you can join the local people for a steaming hot bowl of Thang Co.
Thursday: Lung Khau Nhin Market
Lung Khau Nhin is one of the most northerly of the markets, just 20km from the Chinese border. It is nestled in a forested area, amongst the mountains, which comes alive each Thursday from the early hours of the morning. The majority of the traders here come from H’mong, Nung, Man, Kinh ethnic groups. Its remoteness means that very few tourists venture to this market. Here people meet mainly to buy and sell fresh produce and livestock.
On Friday: Chau Market
Chau Market, which is held every Friday, is another example of how the traditions and cultures of the ethnic groups in this area have been almost completely preserved. This weekly market is not only a chance to buy, sell and barter for the week ahead, but also a celebration of culture and the chance to meet with and socialise with friends.
Saturday: Can Cau Market
Can Cau Market is known for being the largest water buffalo market in the north-west. It is held weekly on a Saturday in the mountainside town of Si Ma Cai. Each week people bring their finest buffaloes from miles around to attend the market. This market highlights how important the buffalo are to these rural communities. These powerful and hardy animals serve many different purposes such as working on the farms, breeding and forming part of the diet. Buffalo trading is a lucrative business as the animals are highly regarded. All deals are made verbally, and it is fascinating to watch the traders gathering in groups to scrutinise the animals and make a good deal. As well as the herds of buffalo shuffling in the dust, there is also a section full of the usual produce and freshly prepared food.
Sunday: Bac Ha, Sapa, Muong Hum Market
The Sunday market in Bac Ha is the biggest and most exciting event of the week. People from the Flower Hmong, Phu La, Black Dzao, Tay and Nung ethnic groups travel to Bac Ha to sell all manner of goods. From sunrise on Sunday morning, the market square is turned into an enticing patchwork of colourful produce. As you stroll through the throng, you will find piles of fresh food, medicinal plants to heal all manner of ailments, exquisitely crafted clothes and fabrics and stalls of silver jewellery.
On top of this, Bac Ha is famous for its horse trading which always garners a lot of attention. As well as the amazing sights, you will be charmed by the jovial atmosphere of the market. The sound of people greeting friends and family, joking and catching up on the stories of the week is accompanied by singing and dancing, making the market feel almost like a festival.