That was the question we asked ourselves recently when in the enviable position of being able to choose while dallying in northwest Vietnam. If you too are able to juggle your schedule and be in the area on a Saturday (Can Cau) or Sunday (Bac Ha), which should you opt for?
The simple answer is: either. The markets are remarkably similar in many ways. Both are predominantly attended by Flower H’mong and both sell a similar range of products. So if your timings only enable you to get to one, don’t worry that you’re missing out — you’ll get a good experience whichever you visit.
That said, some notable differences between the two may sway your decision.
On a practical note, Can Cau is further from Lao Cai train station or Sapa. It’s around a 45-minute drive from Bac Ha, or just under three hours from Lao Cai. This is not such a big deal if you’re using private transport, but if you’re on the bus you’ll need to change in Bac Ha, and as the buses only run at 08:00 or 09:00 — information was sketchy — that likely means an overnight stay. In theory it’s possible to arrive by train from Hanoi in Lao Cai, catch the 06:30 bus to Bac Ha and still make it, but we wouldn’t like to guarantee that. The bus back to Bac Ha from Can Cau is at 14:00.
Practicalities aside, the setting of Can Cau market is truly magnificent. Not only does the drive there afford some breathtaking views along the valley — if you’re on a motorbike, it’s worth the drive there alone — but the market itself has a backdrop of tree-covered mountains and villages. It’s a shame there’s no cafe or bar there in which to while away a few hours. Although the view across the lake in Bac Ha is impressive, it doesn’t have quite the same effect.
Bac Ha is bigger, however. We were surprised at how compact Can Cau market was compared with the sprawling mass of Bac Ha market, which seems to take over the town. So although the basic goods sold are the same — hardware, meat, vegetables, livestock, souvenirs — Bac Ha has a greater variety of produce on offer and can keep you entertained for longer.
Bac Ha also has more options for sitting and enjoying a coffee or cold drink as a break from the market and although both have plenty of food stalls, if you prefer to sit in a chair and choose from a menu, Bac Ha is the place for you.
The livestock section is one of the main attractions of both markets, and although Bac Ha is livelier and more varied, we really liked this section at Can Cau. We only saw cows and buffalo for sale — no squealing pigs or clacking chicken — but the setting is beautiful and at least five minutes can be spent watching the buffalo enjoy a mud bath. Song birds are also on sale in Can Cau, hanging from trees in a shady area overlooking the mountains.
So which did we choose? Of course, we went to both. Having arrived in Lao Cai on Saturday morning we took private transport straight to Can Cau — with a coffee and loo break in Bac Ha — stopping at a Phu La village on the way back to Bac Ha. We then visited Bac Ha market early on Sunday before heading to Sapa. We wouldn’t recommend putting yourself out to visit both markets, but if you’re planning on basing yourself in Bac Ha rather than Sapa — or have time for a stint in both — then a visit to both markets with a trek on Saturday afternoon would make for a good weekend. Can Cau can also be included in a two-day trek with homestay, starting on Fridays.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.