You don’t always have to stick to the tourist trail in Vietnam; simply striking out somewhere for the hell of it can be richly rewarding. Bac Kan province is little visited by tourists, although its main point of interest, Ba Be Lake, attracts those looking for natural beauty outside of Ha Long Bay.
We took a wander through the area recently and savoured the flavour of rural Vietnamese life. Bac Kan is an ethnic and mountainous province — one of the poorest in Vietnam. In fact in 2009 it had the highest poverty rate in the country, with an average monthly per capita income of 669,000 VND.
Most of its income is from agriculture, but this is primarily small scale, household farming, rather than mass commercial production; so although the majority of households grow, breed or collect something, most of this is used for living, rather the for sale.
Corn is widespread, and can be seen hanging everywhere to dry. The corn isn’t eaten but is dried, split into kernels and then either made into paste by the householders to feed their own animals, or sold on. It sells for around 5,000 VND per kilogram.
Ginger is a good crop for the province as it’s easy to grow and can reap good financial reward for traders. The younger roots are often exported to Japan and within Vietnam; as well as being used fresh in cooking, it’s processed for medicinal use or as an instant tea powder.
Na Ri district is famous for its vermicelli — mien — noodles. The canna root that it’s made from is easy to grow and it’s then sold to local manufacturers to produce and package the noodles before they’re sold both in the province and further afield. Profit margins are low and cash flow causes problems for the smaller producers, but the noodles are good quality and in demand for special occasions and Tet.
Most produce, including mien, doesn’t get any further than the local markets. Quantities aren’t usually high enough to attract the interest of large companies further afield and transportation is difficult and expensive.
The market in Bac Kan town is certainly worth a visit in the early morning, as traders and farmers arrive ready to sell their goods.
The market sells all the goods you’ll see at wet markets elsewhere, but sprawls across a large square as well as having inside areas where most of the meat stalls can be found. Be warned — it’s hot and smelly. But the stall holders are full of laughter and smiles for outsiders, who are very few and far between.
Bac Kan town can be reached by bus from Ba Dinh bus station, via Thai Nguyen. Once in the town a few accommodation options are available. Try Thuan Ngo Hotel next to the station, which has clean and large en suite rooms for 250,000 VND to 300,000 VND, not including breakfast. From there take local buses or try to hire a motorbike — but be warned, the roads are bad and distances deceptive. Alternatively, hire a car for a day or so from Hanoi for around 2 million VND for a day trip, or more if you want to stay for a couple of days and travel around.