Eat a horse

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A man cooks th ng c ố at Bac Ha Market. The dish is enjoyed as much for its taste as the friendly ambience in which it is served.

If you are so hungry you could eat a horse, Bac Ha Market in the north-western province of Lao Cai is the place for you. And you have it straight from the horse's mouth.

Giang Seo Sau, a 65-year-old resident of Lao Cai's Bac Ha District, is known for his expertise in cooking thng cố (horse meat soup).

He says the dish appeared in the area nearly 200 years ago when the H'mong people settled down in the district, and to this day, the specialty of the ethnic mountainous people is said to be the most delicious at Bac Ha.

Although the recipe itself is quite simple, experience is necessary to produce tasty thng cố, Sau says.

He explains: After a horse is slaughtered, the meat, bones and innards are washed and cut into pieces. These are marinated in a mixture of salt, black cardamom and grilled địa Ä‘iền (a spice used in north-west Vietnam) before being placed in a big pan and fried. Water is then added to the pan and simmered for several hours.

HOW TO GET THERE

- The Bac Ha Market is open every Sunday in Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province, 354 kilometers from Hanoi.

- Tourists can book a tour to the market via travel companies like Sinh Café (http://www.sinhcafe.com.vn) and Viet Sail Travel (www.vietsailtravel.com).

- If tourists prefer to travel independently, they can take a train or bus from Hanoi to Lao Cai Town. From here, they can catch a bus for a two and a half hour trip to Bac Ha District.

Visitors are likely to get an enticing whiff of the thng cố cooking as they enter the Bac Ha Market. The horse is slaughtered earlier at the homes of the soup vendors and brought for cooking to the market.

A special feature of the dish is that it is typically served in a cauldron, so customers do not have thng cố alone. Several people sit around the cauldron and fill up their own bowl for a sumptuous meal, exchanging stories about trading, the crop, hunting and their children.

For young men and women, a turn at the thng cố cauldron is an opportunity to socialize and even find their soul mates. Many people who have met over a bowl of thng cố soup have gone on to solemnize their vows.

For the men, maize wine is an indispensable accompaniment to thng cố. In fact, there is a saying among the H'mong people in Bac Ha to the effect that those who have thng cố without drinking maize wine from Ban Pho Commune (also in Bac Ha District) have not enjoyed the dish yet.

When the dish is had as a family, the usual accompaniment is cơm nm (rice balls) and mèn mén (steamed maize powder).

Thng cố is famous not only for its taste, but also for the animated and friendly atmosphere in which it is enjoyed.

The traditional dish of the H'mong people has become a cultural glue that brings people closer together.

In the old days, thng cố was only made with horse meat, but these days it is substituted with meat of the buffalo, goat or pork. All these thng cố varieties are available at Bac Ha Market.

A giant thng cố pan with a diameter of three meters weighing 1.6 tons was displayed at the Bac Ha Market on the occasion of the Bac Ha tourism and cultural week in May 2008. It was recognized as Vietnam's largest thng cố pan. Three horses were slaughtered and cooked in the pan to serve around 1,000 visitors at the fair.

The market is open every Sunday. Various ethnic groups living in Bac Ha District and surrounding areas bring to the market many kinds of mountainous produce: tea, fruit, honey, wine, brocade, and orchids, not to mention horses, buffaloes and pigs.

The colorful brocade dresses and scarves of H'mong girls as they move about in the market are itself an attraction; and visitors can also buy brocade and handmade pictures here.

In fact, the general ambience here is not of trading, but of a hospitable, amiable place for people to meet and make friends, swap stories and have a good time. It is not surprising that this mountainous market was ranked first in the list of ten most attractive markets in Southeast Asia by Serendib Magazine's first issue in 2009.

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