An unhurried and friendly town, Bac Ha makes a relaxed base to explore the northern highlands and hill-tribe villages. The atmosphere is very different to Sapa, and you can walk the streets freely without being accosted by hawkers. To experience a small, untouristy mountain town, Bac Ha is an excellent destination.
The town has a certain charm, though its stock of traditional old adobe houses is dwindling and being replaced by concrete structures. Wood smoke fills the morning air and chickens and pigs poke around the back lanes. For six days a week, Bac Ha slumbers, but its lanes fill up to choking point each Sunday when tourists and Flower H’mong flood in for the weekly market.
This Sunday market is a riot of colour and commerce, and while the influx of day trippers from Sapa is changing things fast, it’s still a worthwhile and relatively accessible place to visit. The other markets around Bac Ha are also gradually becoming more visited by tourists, so if you’re after a truly authentic experience try and head to the mountain town of Sinho instead.
Bac Ha is a good base to explore the surrounding highlands, as it has an improving choice of inexpensive hotels and the climate here is noticeably warmer than in Sapa. There are 11 hill-tribe groups that live around Bac Ha: the colourful Flower H’mong are the most visible, but other groups include Dzao, Giay (Nhang), Han (Hoa), Xa Fang, Lachi, Nung, Phula, Tay, Thai and Thulao.
One of Bac Ha’s main industries is the manufacture of alcoholic home brews (rice wine, cassava wine and corn liquor). The ruou corn hooch produced by the Flower H’mong is so potent it can ignite; there’s an entire area devoted to it at the Sunday market.
Sights & Activities
(unrise-2pm Sun) This Sunday market is Bac Ha’s big draw. There’s an increasing range of handicrafts for sale, but it’s still pretty much a local affair. Bac Ha market is a magnet for the local hill-tribe people, above all the exotically attired Flower H’mong. If you can, stay overnight in Bac Ha on Saturday, and get here early before hundreds of day trippers from Sapa start arriving.
Flower H’mong women wear several layers of dazzling clothing. These include an elaborate collar-cum-shawl that’s pinned at the neck and an apron-style garment; both are made of tightly woven strips of multicoloured fabric, often with a frilly edge. Highly ornate cuffs and ankle fabrics are also part of their costume, as is a checked headscarf (often electric pink or lime green).
( 6am-1pm Sat) This Saturday-morning market, 20km north of Bac Ha and 9km from the Chinese border, attracts a growing number of visitors. Some tours from Sapa now visit Can Cau on Saturday before moving on to Bac Ha for the Sunday market. A few Bac Ha stallholders also make the journey to Can Cau on Saturdays. It’s still a mecca for the local tribal people though, including Flower H’mong and Blue H’mong (look out for the striking zigzag costume of the latter).
The Can Cau spills down a hillside with basic food stalls on one level and livestock at the bottom of the valley, including plenty of dogs. Locals will implore you to drink the local ruou with them. Some trips from Bac Ha include the option of an afternoon trek (for those still standing after ruou shots) to the nearby village of Fu La.
( 6am-1pm Sun) Lung Phin market is between Can Cau market and Bac Ha, about 12km from town. It’s less busy than other markets, with a really local feel, and is a good place to move on to once the tour buses arrive in Bac Ha from Sapa.
( 6am-1pm Tue) The impressive Coc Ly market attracts Dzao, Flower H’mong, Tay and Nung people from the surrounding hills. It’s about 35km southwest of Bac Ha along reasonably good roads. Tour operators in Bac Ha can arrange day trips here.
(‘Cat King’ House; 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm) Don’t miss the outlandish Vua Meo, a palace constructed in a kind of bizarre ‘oriental baroque’ architectural style on the northern edge of town. It was built in 1921 by the French to keep the Flower H’mong chief Hoang A Tuong happy, and looks like a cross between an exotic church and a French chateau. A shop selling ethnic minority crafts is also here.
There’s a waterfall near Thai Giang Pho village, about 12km east of Bac Ha, which has a pool big enough for swimming.
There’s great hiking to remarkable hill-tribe villages around Bac Ha. The Flower H’mong village of Ban Pho is one of the nearest to town, from where you can walk to the Nung settlement of Na Kheo, then head back to Bac Ha. Other nearby villages include Trieu Cai, an 8km return walk, and Na Ang, a 6km return walk; it’s best to set up a trip with a local guide.
Until very recently most of the minority people in these hills had no formal education, but the government has opened several schools in the last few years. Most hill-tribe children now receive an education (in the Vietnamese language). Boarding schools are favoured because the communities are so spread out, so children spend the week away from their families and sleep in dormitories. Tour guides in Bac Ha can arrange visits to rural schools as part of a motorbike or trekking day trip.
( 0912 005 952; www.bachatourist.com; Green Sapa Tour, Ɖ Tran Bac) Spend any time at all in Bac Ha and the irrepressible Mr Nghe will no doubt find you. This one-man cheerleader for the considerable charms of the Bac Ha area offers trekking and day trips to the best of the area’s minority markets, longer two- to six-day adventures integrating village homestays, and more physically challenging mountain hiking.
If you’re keen to set out on your own, he also rents motorbikes (US$5 to US$6 per day), and is hands down the best person in town to see to make sense of the intricacies of onward travel east to Ha Giang province.
( 020-388 0264; www.bachatourist.com; 5 Ɖ Tran Bac; r from US$8) It’s nothing fancy, but the spacious rooms offer good value (all have TV and fan). The best spot in town for budget travellers.
( 020-384 1747; 1 Ɖ Vu Cong Mat; r 200,000-350,000d; ) Bac Ha’s newest opening, on the edge of the market and main square, is colourful and bright. Look forward to good value and clean rooms.
( 020-380 0286; www.nganngabachahotel.com; 117 Ngoc Uyen; r US$18-20; ) This friendly place is above a popular restaurant that does a roaring trade in tasty steamboats for travellers and the occasional tour group. Tours to homestays and markets can be arranged.
( 020-388 0254; www.congfuhotel.com; 152 Ngoc Uyen; r US$30) This place has 21 attractive rooms and its restaurant (meals from 60,000d) is one of the best in town. Book rooms 205, 208, 305 or 308 for a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Bac Ha Market. Excursions to the Can Cau and Coc Ly markets can also be booked.
Of Bac Ha’s hotel restaurants, the Congfu has great views of the animal market area through huge plate-glass windows, while the Ngan Nga Bac Ha does great steamboats. Both get very busy for Sunday lunch on market day.
Note that tourists are often overcharged at the cafes near the market, so establish the cost of food and drink up front.
(Ɖ Tran Bac; mains 60,000-100,000d; 7am-10pm; ) Hoang Yen’s menu includes good breakfast options and a good-value set menu for 140,000d. Cheap beer and wi-fi access are both available. You’ll find it right on Bac Ha’s main square.
(mains 50,000-80,000d; 7am-6pm) This place is handily near the market and has big portions of reliable Vietnamese food, plus it’s usually largely free of tour groups.
There’s an ATM at the Agribank, and wi-fi access at the Hoang Yen Restaurant.
Green Sapa Tour (www.bachatourist.com; Ɖ Tran Bac; 8am-6pm) The main booking office for Mr Nghe if you can’t find him at the Hoang Vu Hotel or the Hoang Yen Restaurant, two other businesses he’s involved with.
Getting There & Away
Sleeper buses run to/from My Dinh bus station in Hanoi (US$20, 11 hours, 7pm daily) and normal buses head to Lao Cai (60,000d, 2½ hours, 6am, 8am, noon, 1pm, 2pm).
Tours to Bac Ha from Sapa cost from around US$20 per person; on the way back you can bail out in Lao Cai and catch the night train back to Hanoi.
If you’re headed east to Ha Giang, there were two options at the time of writing, but we recommend checking the latest information with Mr Nghe. Option one is to catch a xe om from Bac Ha 35km northeast to Xin Man (US$15), and then a public bus (200,000d, five hours, 6am and 11am) to Ha Giang. Option two is the public bus south from Bac Ha to Bac Ngam (40,000d, 45 minutes, 6am), followed by another bus from Bac Ngam to Ha Giang (400,000d, five hours, 7am). Note this is a very tight connection.
Motorcycle & Taxi
A motorbike/taxi to Lao Cai costs US$25/70, or to Sapa US$30/80.