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Bac Ha


020 pop 70,200 elevation 700m

in the last few years, this small highland town has emerged as an alternative to Sapa. Compared with Sapa, tourism is still in its early stages here and, if you arrive in the middle of the week, the town has empty feel to it. But things are changing fast – new hotels are being constructed and restaurants are learning how to make banana pancakes.

 Perhaps slowing down the tourist boom are two sets of loudspeakers; one on a hill overlooking the town and one at the market. These relay clamorous and crackly Voice of Vietnam, which reverberates through the valley from 5am to 6am and again from 6pm to 7pm everyday. Take your earplugs. There is a movement underway by some hotel owner to get these loudspeakers turned off completely; it’s a plea we can only hope will triumph over the din.

 The highlands around Bac Ha are about 900m above sea level, making it somewhat warmer than Sapa. There are 10 Montagnard groups that live around Bac Ha: Flower H’mong, Dzao, Giay (Nhang), Han (Hoa), Xa Fang, Lachi, Nung, Phula, Thai and Thulao, plus the Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese).

 One of Bac Ha’s main industries is the manufacture of alcoholic brews (rice wine, cassava wine and corn liquor). The corn stuff produced by the Flower H’mong is so potent it can ignite! Bac Ha is the only place in Vietnam where you’ll find this particular ferment; there’s an entire area devoted to it at the Sunday market.

 Harvesting opium used to be a major source of revenue, but the government put a stop to that several years ago.

 Keep a torch (flashlight handy if wandering around town in the evening. Bac Ha’s electric power supply isn’t very stable and sudden blackouts are a common occurrence.


Montagnard Markets

There are several interesting markets around Bac Ha, most within about 20km of each other.


Bac Ha Market This lively and crowded concrete bazaar is the main market in Bac Ha proper. You’ll see plenty of Flower H’mong – so-named because the women embroider flowers on their colorful skirts. Items on sale include water buffaloes, pigs, horses and chickens. Tourists, however, seem to stick to buying handicrafts and local wine. The market operates on Sunday.


Can Cau Market This is one of the most fascinating open-air markets. It’s 20km north of Bac Ha and just 9km south of the Chinese border. Can Cau attracts a large number of Chinese traders, evidenced by the booming dog trade here. The market is only open on Saturday. You can get there on the new road.


Lung Phin Market This small market is between Can Cau market and Bac Ha town, about 12km from the town, and is open on Sunday.


Coc Ly Market This Tuesday market is about 35km from Bac Ha. You can get here via a fairly good road, or by road and river; hotels in Sapa and Bac Ha can organize trips.


Trekking to Local Villages

Villages around Bac Ha provide a good opportunity to see how Montagnard people live. Ban Pho is nearest, and the villagers luve simply. The Flower H’mong villagers are extremely hospitable and some of the kindest people you’ll meet in Vietnam. Ban Pho is 1 7km return trip from Bac Ha. You can take a loop route to get there and back.

 Other nearby villages include: Trieu Cai, an 8km return walk; Na Ag, a 6km return walk; and Na Hoi, a 4km return walk. Ask at your hotel for directions.


Plum Blossoms

There are many plum trees in and around Bac Ha and in spring (March) the countryside is white with blossoms. May and June produce some of the best plums.


Places to Stay & Eat

Because of the loudspeakers, it’s fair to say thay, for now, there is no quiet place to stay in Bac Ha. As in Sapa, room rates tend to increase on weekends, when tourists come to town fro the Sunday market. On weekends it’s hard to find a room, and there’s also no air-con accommodation. Be prepared for the masses of (mostly) friendly flea-bitten dogs that wander into restaurants looking for scraps.

 Sao Mai Hotel(   880288, fax 880285; rooms in old/newish/newest sections US$10/15/20) is popular with groups, and the rooms are clean and pleasant, with an older concrete building and two recently built wooden houses. However, the staff we met could do with a lesson in good manners.

 Tuan Anh Guesthouse(   880377; rooms 100,000d) is a family-run place that is no-frills and fine for the price.

 Dai Thanh Hotel(    880488; rooms 80,000-150,000d) was being refurbished when we visited; check out the new standard when you visit.

 Dang Khoa Hotel(   880290; rooms 120,000-150,000) is a bit run-down, but the adjacent restaurant has a decent menu.

Minh Quan Hotel( 880222; rooms 120,000-150,000d) is a good hotel, with comfortable rooms, and balconies with views over the Bac Ha market and mountains.

 Anh Duong Guesthouse(   880329; rooms 80,000-100,000d) is a friendly place that oerlooks the market. Rooms are small, but are bright and were renovated in 2002.

 Tran Sin Hotel(   880240; rooms US$7-10) overlooking the market, has balconies and mountain views from some rooms and it’s restaurant is one of the few in town.

 Tuan Lien(   880261; rooms 70,000-80,000d) just next door to the Tran Sin, has small and grubby rooms and should be a last resort. It had just changed hands when we visited, so hopefully standards will improve.

 Apart from hotel restaurants, the best option is Cong Phu restaurant(   880254; open lunch & inner, closes about 9pm) for tasty, low-priced meals on an English menu.


Getting There & Away

Minibuses depart from Lao Cai for Bac Ha (40,000d, two hours) around 6.30am, 11am and 1pm daily. Buses from Bac Ha leave for Lao Cai around 5.30am, 11.30am and 1pm. The road is well maintained and the rural scenery is lovely.

 Locals on motorbikes will do the Lao Cai-Bac Ha run for about US$5, or even Sapa-Bac Ha 9110km) for US$12. Sunday minibus tours from Sapa to Bac Ha cost around US$10, including transportation, guide and trekking to a minority village. On the way back to Sapa it’s possible stop in Lao Cai and catch the night train back to Hanoi.

 Bac Ha is about 330km (10 hours) from Hanoi. Some cafes in Hanoi offer four-day bus trips to Bac Ha for around US$60, usually with a visit to Sapa included.


Vietnam Guide Book

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