Our visit to Hoang Su Phi completed the next stop was Bac Ha in neighbouring Lao Cai province. The plan was to take the early bus from Vinh Quang to Xin Man from where we were reliably informed we could pick up another bus directly to our destination. The bus system in this part of the country always appears to work remarkably well despite the apparent lack or organisation or published information and by early morning we are en route to Xin Man.
There is initially plenty of room on the bus but is quickly gets filled with people, parcels and produce which are picked up and dropped off at random points along the journey either because they have reached their destination or they are to be transferred to another bus. The journey takes about twice as long as Google Maps suggested but we safely arrive in plenty of time for lunch.
Xin Man is very much an under-developed frontier town. It is at the western extreme of Ha Giang province and bordered by China in the north. The contrast with the rapidly developing cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where overseas coffee shops and fast food restaurants are increasingly evident, is stark. I wonder what it will be like here in 10 years time? For now, we enjoy a tasty home cooked local lunch.
There is, however, bad news as we learn that the (one and only) bus to Bac Ha has been cancelled. Seems the bus company operate like a low-cost airline and will cancel a service if there are insufficient customers. Rather than wait and hope for a bus tomorrow we decide to opt to find a car and driver to take us the 75 km to Bac Ha and we finally arrive in the early evening just before darkness starts to fall in the mountains.
Bac Ha is best known for its Sunday Market which although it does attract tourist remains a focal point for local minority groups to gather to buy and sell produce ranging from livestock, fruit, vegetable, tobacco, liquor and textile products. The auction of buffalo (so important for local agricultural work) is always an energetic aspect of this colourful market.
Having spent a few hours looking around the market we head out of town by hired motor bike to the area of wild tea trees that we are aware of. We had, in fact, visited the trees once before towards the end of last year and had met with some of the family for dinner the previous evening. This time we wanted to have a closer look at the trees.
It is a 15 km ascent from the town to the wild tea tree area which we estimate lies at somewhere between 1100 and 1250 metres. Like our other wild tea from Lao Cai (Muong Khuong) province a characteristic of the trees here is that they produce leaves with purple hued leaves. This is quite natural and not the result of breeding as in other parts of the world. I have never found out why this occurs; whether it is due to the soil, climatic conditions or that the trees are a subtly different variety. The leaves vary from a purple tinge to a full-on deep purple.
The trees spread out from around the village houses and up the slopes. The trees around the house appear to be up to 100 years old and seem to be the result of more deliberate planting than in some other areas where the trees grow in a mixed forest environment.
A difference with the Muong Khuong tea is in the processing where pan firing and drying is used rather than the more common drum baking used in Vietnam. Pan frying results in a very distinctive leaf shape but also absorbs more from the wood fire than drum baking does. Making tea other than for personal consumption is new initiative here and it shows a great deal of potential. The tea is initially floral and fruity but becomes more woody and earthy with later steepings. We like this tea and it is now available for sale as Bac Ha Green Tea at our shop in Ho Chi Minh City and online.