Monday, May 17, 2010

Well, that's my Christmas shopping done

I’ve been on a trip to the Sunday market at Bac Ha, surreptitiously taking photographs of women. Actually, it wasn’t that surreptitious. I was a white tourist with a big camera and people notice that. So I’d snap-snap-snap away and then they’d spot me, with a look in their eyes that said: “Oh, another one.”

Bac Ha has the most colourful market in the region and, being a good two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Sa Pa, attracts a different array of hill tribes. To date I’d met Black Hmong, Blue Hmong, Dzay and various others (I’m not always sure which is which, to be honest) and here was my chance to see Tay, Dao, Nung, Giay and Flower Hmong in all their finery. Yes, I did just copy those names from my guidebook.

To atone for being a blatant rubbernecker, I decided I’d spend some money this time, despite the slide of the pound. (I wish I’d brought even more dollars now. But things here are still pretty cheap and besides, the hotelier across the road from the Summit Hotel, where I’d been staying for the rip-off rate of $15 a night, had offered me a nice room with a balcony for $8.)

So I bought a few bits and bobs for the women in my life and, each time a deal was done, asked the lady I’d been haggling with if I could take her photo.

My one self-indulgence was to buy a pair of green ethnic trousers in a moment of madness. I’d been travelling with just one pair of long trousers and one pair of shorts and the previous evening, for no obvious reason, the trousers (bought in Siem Reap, Cambodia in early March) had suddenly ripped just below my left buttock as I was walking to the loo.

Outside the restaurant where various tour groups were meeting at lunchtime, I tried the trousers on over my shorts. “They’ll do for sitting around the house in,” I said to my fellow tourists, using an old phrase of my mother’s. Then I took them off. Two minutes later, I noticed my knees had turned green and for a moment thought it was something medical. There were green patches on my shorts as well. Bugger.

I was chatting to our guide (a very petite, bubbly 19-year-old called Mee who speaks excellent English and is, I suspect, an example of how Vietnam is going to Westernise one day) when a fight broke out between two local men. As they stumbled out of the restaurant, one struck out violently at the other. The punch connected with his torso, carried on and clipped my arm, though by this point its impact had faded. After that we just stood back and watched them brawl until they were dragged apart.

Keep out of trouble, that’s my motto. Or one of them, anyway. Did I mention I’m supposed to be flying out of Bangkok Airport in just over seven weeks?

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