It's something of a shame, because to the east of Lao Cai city lies the other half of the province. The ground soars upwards again, to the peaks of the Chay River Massif, where the town of Bac Ha is to be found, 66km by road, at 700m above sea level.
Bac Ha is a 'little Sapa', and while it's much less developed for tourism, it's in an ideal location for off-the-beaten-track treks to visit colourful weekly markets. The Can Cau and Bac Ha markets, in particular, feature local scenes that have been going on every week for generations, where cattle, horses, goats and dogs are bought and sold, as well as many traditional goods like saddles and plowshares, along with elaborate textiles, handbags and other trinkets made by the local tribespeople, the Flower Hmong. Their intricately woven daily costume is one of the main drawing points in itself. This is an incredibly beautiful part of Vietnam.
It's a very convenient place to explore the surrounds, and basing yourself here rather than Sapa will knock off about three hours of travel time each way on a daytrip to most of the local weekly markets. And, at less than half the altitude of Sapa, the weather here is likely to be more clement in winter months, with an average year-round temperature of 19 degrees Celsius (4 degrees, on average, warmer).
But don't expect any pizzas or breathtaking mountain views. Bac Ha is still, first and foremost, a local market town, and the tourist industry is only being added on, wherever it fits in. This is of course part of the attraction — although expect to still be bothered by H'mong hawkers.
The town gets a weekly assault of tourists on Saturday at about noon, as daytrippers return from visiting the Can Cau market. Many stay the night to visit the Bac Ha market in town Sunday morning, and then it's back to Sapa.
There are some good accommodation options and it is possible to avoid the tourist orientated restaurants and find local food options. There are also some less-travelled trekking and homestay trips available in the area, with visits to a variety of ethnic villages, particularly the Flower H'mong. About half the tribes in the area are H'mong, with the rest being Tay, Dzao, Tu Zi, Nung, Phula, La Chi and Lo Lo, among others.
There's very little to do in Bac Ha itself if you're settling in for the night. Market days are party days for the H'mong men, so you might be able to find a cluster of thoroughly pickled blokes to join in with, and let them rail on at you in an incomprehensible patois of Vietnamese, Chinese and Flower H'mong. If that's not your scene, bring a good book.
There's no banking for foreigners in Bac Ha. There is a post office and internet is available at some of the hotels and opposite the Son Mai Hotel. Bac Ha is not a good place to handle travel logistics, so make sure you have all your ducks in a row before arriving.
There are precious few departures from the main bus station, which is mostly useful for getting back to Lao Cai. If you're headed almost anywhere else, you'll need to stand along the right road and flag down the right bus. No tickets are sold at the bus station — just buy when you board.
Street names are elusive in Bac Ha, but just south of the square is the road that leads to Pho Lu, (Route 153 on most maps). You'll find the post office on that road, just south of the intersection with the road towards the market.
Tour services are available at the Sao Mai Hotel and at Sapa Green Travel at the Hoang Yen cafe across the street. Sapa Green also runs the Hoang Vu Hotel and you can enquire there as well. The Spring Fair Restaurant, by the craft market, also claims to offer tours, but no-one was available to help on our last visit.
Post office: South of the town square, Bac Ha. T: (020) 388 0686, F: (020) 388 0470. Hours: 07:00 to 18:00
Sapa Green Tours: Hoang Yen Bar, Across from the Sao Mai Hotel, Bac Ha. T: (020) 212 710 (0912) 005 952, (0945) 378 198, (0977) 453 755. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sao Mai Hotel: West of the market, along the main road, to the north, Bac Ha. T: (020) 880 288, (0912) 060 862, F: (020) 780 352. email@example.com. http://www.saomaibacha.com.
Spring Fair Restaurant: Near the market entrance. T: (0977) 503 957, (01699) 569 000, (020) 378 0497. firstname.lastname@example.org
Text and/or map last updated on 23rd November, 2010.
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Can Cau market
I went to the Sau Mai hotel to hook up with a tour out to Can Cau market but the receptionist told me I could get there easily on the local bus. She then called the bus and it came round to the hotel and picked me up before proceeding to the market. It was full of flower Hmong women who all got off at the market.
I think the market has been changed by tourism, it now has the biggest section as stalls with expensive weaving and other souvenirs. I chatted to some of the stall holders and it seems they come from Bac Ha and then set up the same stalls in the Bac Ha market the next day.There were lots of tourists taking very intrusive pictures. There seem to be a few buses. I just jumped on one that stopped to there for about 10 minutes, but I'd been told there would be another one. Really the bus trips were the most interesting part of the morning because they were both full of minority people and their vast luggage. Very scenic trip too.
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By violets (dabbler)
Written on 7th June, 2010 after a visit to Bac Ha in April, 2010
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