It's something of a shame that few tourists venture beyond Sapa, 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, 66 kilometres by road.
Bac Ha, at 700 metres above sea level, 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 plus 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 at mid-morning on Sunday as daytrippers arrive from Hanoi to visit Bac Ha market. Those with time arrive on Saturday, either from Can Cau market or Lao Cai, and stay over to visit the market early the next morning: it's at its best before 09:00 although does carry on until lunchtime.
There are some good accommodation options and it is possible to avoid the tourist orientated restaurants and find local food places. 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.
With no banking for foreigners in Bac Ha make sure you bring enough cash to get you through. There is a post office and internet is available at some of the hotels but Bac Ha is not a good place to handle travel logistics, so make sure you have all your ducks in a row before arriving.
Buses back to Lao Cai, which is where most visitors head, leave from outside the temple early morning and afternoon. Or speak to your hotel or Mr Nghe at Green Sapa tour who will likely be able to arrange a pick up.
Tour services are available at the larger hotels and at Sapa Green Travel, which also runs out of the Hoang Yen Restaurant.
Post office: 96 Ngoc Uyen Street, south of the town square, Bac Ha. T: (020) 388 0200, F: (020) 388 0285. Hours: 07:00-11:30, 13:30-17:00 (mid-April to mid-October), 07:30-12:00, 13:30-16:30 (rest of year)
Sapa Green Tours: Hoang Yen Restaurant, 9 Duong 20-9, Bac Ha. T: (0912) 005 952 http://www.bachhatourist.com
By Sarah Turner.