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If Sa Pa’s well-worn tourist track and gung-ho hawkers have grown tiresome, Si Ma Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative. Phan Thuy pays a visit to the quickly developing district.
 
Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative
Si Ma Cai terraced rice field over view
Intrepid travellers consider the butterfly-shaped district of Si Ma Cai in mountainous northern Lao Cai Province to be a sleeping princess. This is especially so when compared to Sa Pa, which is also in Lao Cai. Visitors to Si Ma Cai find the same picturesque landscape of terraces and valleys filled with fog as in Sa Pa, but without the swarms of tourists. Like Sa Pa, Si Ma Cai is also a place to discover the vibrant lifestyle of some of Viet Nam’s ethnic minorities, including the Mong and Red Dao.
Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative
Beauty of Tam Giac Mach flower
Of course, while tourists have commercialised Sa Pa, they have also led to a proliferation of cafes, restaurants and hotels, allowing foreign visitors to expect all the modern facilities of a high-profile tourist destination.

There’s a lot less going on in Si Ma Cai’s main town than in Sa Pa. But Si Ma Cai town’s sleepy ambience lets the area’s untouched, rustic beauty shine even more brightly.

Long and winding road

I started my trip to Si Ma Cai early in the morning. It is supposed to take eight hours from Ha Noi to Si Ma Cai but our trip ended up taking longer than expected.

Once in the countryside, our car wound way along the narrow mountain roads of the north at a slow but safe speed. Yellow rice fields stood out against the green hues of the mountains. Getting nearer Si Ma Cai District, the road became more bumpy and delayed our arrival.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


Si Ma Cai is situated 1,500m above sea level in rough and rugged mountainous terrain. Maybe the area was neglected by tourists for a long time due to its location, nestled at the far end of a road leading to the border with China. The more easily-accessible town of Lao Cai is the main crossing point to China in the province.

Si Ma Cai used to be the smallest and most remote moutainous commune in Bac Ha District, but later became its own district in 2000.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


For a while after the re-zoned district was established, the area continued life as a remote backwater. The road leading to the district was narrow, and said by locals to be ‘as small as a horse belly’. The fog was so thick that visibility was sometimes reduced to only 1m.

But it wasn’t that long ago that the main type of traffic on the road was horses. In fact it’s horses that gave the district it’s name, according to most local acounts. Secretary of the District Party Committee, Trang Seo Hung, says that Si Ma Cai is another way of writing Sin Ma Cai, which in the language of the local ethnic minority people literally means ‘new land for a market to sell horses’. Many other locals back up this explanation of the place name, saying it Si Ma Cai means horse market or a place where horses are kept. The Mong people also say Si Ma Cai is famous for its legendary horses, whose hoof-beats resound across the valleys in the region. Of course there are other explanations for the district’s name, with some saying it means ‘land of the dragon’ in Chinese.
Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative

I finally arrived in Si Ma Cai when the moon was already hanging high up in the sky above the mountains. My friend and I were expecting the town to be almost totally dark, with not a guest house in sight.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


To our surprise, the road leading into town is relatively new. It’s not only wide but also lit with electric lighting so that we could get our bearings in this unfamiliar town. Along with the new road, the District’s People’s Committee also benefited from some construction funds, and is now located in a new building that is one of the smartest looking in town.

"After seven years, Si Ma Cai has changed for the better, which shows that it has a lot of potential to develop even further," says Do Dinh Luong, vice chairman of the District’s People’s Committee.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


Remembering the early days of the town’s settlement, when the local authorities and border soldiers began their campaign of developing remote areas, Luong couldn’t hide his emotions.

"The people and leaders were like brothers," he says. "We slept in their houses to help them improve the way they grew rice, showed them how to build houses and urged them to join local road construction projects."

He says many households voluntarily gave over some of their land for development projects and helped out with work on the new road.

The road has become not only the pride of Si Ma Cai but also the bridge linking the district with the rest of the province and a gateway for tourists from further afield. The number of visitors to the town has already been slowly increasing.

My first stop in town was a visit to a small no-name restaurant on the main drag that serves all the traditional local dishes. Popular among locals, it’s a good place for first-time visitors to Si Ma Cai to start their adventures.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


Sitting in the cold, moonlit night and enjoying the ethnic minority wine and food, all the tension and fatigue in my body slipped away. Unfortunately, by the time we finished dinner at about 9pm, the whole town was getting ready for bed, although we managed to find a karaoke bar to keep ourselves entertained until midnight.

There are about two or three guest houses in town, and we stayed in a simple but clean and comfortable one that allowed us to get lots of rest for the next day of exploration and adventure.

One-horse town no more

Horses are no longer the main mode of transport in town, but the local horse market is still a hive of activity. Can Cau Market used to be devoted to horse trading, but expanded to a general market place where local hill tribe people come to chat and sell their produce.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


There are still hundreds of horses around, which gives the town a kind of Wild West of the Orient feel.

The market is bustling with Mong, Dao and other ethnic people buying and selling meat, vegetables, fruit, clothes and other necessities of life as well as telling jokes and stories to unwind after a week of hard work. The market remains true to its origins, since it’s exclusively for locals to sell their produce and free of traders bringing items from Ha Noi or elsewhere.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


Among all the horses, many marked with signs to distinguish their owners, you’ll spot buffaloes, which are the main ingredient in one of the town’s most unforgettable local dishes.

Locals say thang co is the best local ethnic minority dish. To make it, you cut up a buffalo and cook all of its parts in one huge pot. The dish is an acquired taste, and some may be put off by the strange smell. But once you try some, you will never forget it.

Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative


Near Can Cau Market is a forest reserve, where logging has been banned. When the Mong Lunar New Year comes, people venture into the forest and worship its deities. They pray to the Forest God and pledge to protect it.



We didn’t get time to venture into Si Ma Cai’s forests or climb mount Quan Than San, which at 2,800m is the highest mountain in the district. There are plans for an ‘eco-tourist’ road to Quan Than San, which will make it more accessible to visitors in the future. But hopefully, the next time I return, Si Ma Cai’s tranquil and quiet charm will be unchanged. 
Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai offers an equally picturesque and more serene alternative
Traveler visit Si Ma Cai in Lao Cai province

Source: VNS


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