Welcome to Bac Ha, Vietnam!
Tucked away in the northwest mountains of the Lào Cai Province, Bac Ha is a true cultural gem. It is home to several different minority groups, who all bring their own flavors to the town. Its Sunday market is lively and colorful, full of folks from the surrounding villages. It is quite possibly one of the most amazing places I have ever been, certainly within Asia.
When my friends and I began planning our trip to Vietnam, including an overnight trip to a town called Sa Pa was recommend several times. I enjoy traveling off the beaten path, experiencing real people and real culture. I thought a trip to Sa Pa might offer that insight. However, the more I researched, the more touristy Sa Pa began to sound. I saw one paragraph on a random website that mentioned Bac Ha as a more authentic experience. Since there was little else to go off of, I figured Bac Ha was the place we wanted to go. Knowing that their big market occurred on Sunday mornings, we decided to head out on Friday and spend Saturday and Sunday exploring the town and countryside.
We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The overnight train is quite the experience! I highly recommend taking it over the bus. We purchased two sleeper cabins, which allowed us to have two people per cabin. That gave the four of us plenty of room to spread out, store our gear and avoid being placed with strangers. Since each cabin technically sleeps four, we had to purchase all four tickets in order to have the cabin to ourselves. So, really, each of us purchased two tickets there and two tickets on the way back. Honestly, given how far the dollar goes in Vietnam, it was not a big deal. The cabins had snacks and drinks for us when we arrived, and we were able to order coffee and snacks to be prepared in the morning.
Once we arrived in Lao Cai, there were a vast number of transports waiting outside. After doing some bartering, we were able to get a ride to Bac Ha. Don’t be afraid to say no and walk away. The drivers want to fill their vans. So they will haggle with you to get you to go with them. The ride up was wild! We would stop in random villages to pick up people, food, supplies. Anything that needed to get to Bac Ha for the market on Sunday was picked up and brought along. It made for a long ride. Plan for about three hours crammed in a van.
Once we arrived in town, we found a place to stay on the edge of town. The owner rented us some scooters, and after a quick bit to eat, we were off to explore the countryside. We followed the main road out of town. The road cut through valleys of rice farms and cow pastures. It ran past waterfalls, mountainside lookouts and small villages. The photos truly don’t do it justice! Even on this overcast day, the landscape was just breathtaking.
Hoang A Tuong Palace is definitely worth the visit if you are spending some time in Bac Ha. For a nominal fee, you can tour this incredible residence turned museum and learn about Bac Ha’s rich past. The architecture and paintings are beautiful. It is an easy walk from the main area of town. I recommend taking a walk around the lake before or after your visit.
Each Sunday, Bac Ha hosts a large market for the locals in the surrounding villages. People come in from far and wide to trade, barter and sell their goods. If there were only one reason to visit Bac Ha, this would be it. Not only was it the highlight of our time in Vietnam, but possibly the entire three weeks we were in Asia. The cultures, colors, and food were just incredible!
Once we arrived in Bac Ha, we were told that the market in Sa Pa had become so crowded with tourists, that tour companies had begun busing folks down to Bac Ha from Sa Pa. The three- to four-hour drive meant that tourists would begin to arrive at the market around noon. Knowing this, we decided to get to the market as soon as it officially started, 7 am. By the time we arrived, plenty of locals were already milling around. Out of everyone there, we were only a handful of “visitors” at the market. This gave us an incredible opportunity to take everything in. We spent the morning eating, shopping, speaking with locals (thanks Google Translate!). We spent five hours wandering the market, taking it all in before the first buses from Sa Pa arrived.
I desperately wanted to be respectful of the people we were interacting with while still trying to capture the essence of what we were seeing. I made sure to keep my distance while taking photos. We saw one woman pleading no and covering her face as a tourist stuck an I-pad in her face to take a picture of her. Visiting places like Bac Ha and experiencing these culture is a gift. We need to respect that these are individuals going about their lives. They are not an attraction. So please, be respectful!
This woman and her son cooked us lunch. Meats were displayed on the table, and you could tell her how much you wanted. It would then be cooked and served in a broth soup. It was delicious! Freshly cut vegetables, dessert and drinks were also on the menu. If you are offered “happy water”, know there is a reason why it is called that. After a few sips, you will be feeling quite happy. Then probably a little hungover. Consider yourself warned!
For my not meat friends, there are vegetarian/meatless options. You will just need to seek them out. Most of my diet while in Asia consisted of eggs, rice and tofu.
My favorite part of our time at the market was watching and interacting with the local children. They are so happy! Most of our interactions were limited to hand signals, but that didn’t matter. There was plenty of laughing and playing. It’s amazing the conversations you can have using the simplest gestures.
Definitely not Dunkin!
These guys sat around playing music together for the better part of an hour. Occasionally, they would stop. Someone would yell at the other for messing up. The group would erupt in laughter and begin playing again.
After our day at the market, we headed back to the hotel to pack up and catch our ride back to Lao Cai. The hotel owner was nice enough to arrange the transport for us. From there, it was another overnight train ride back to Hanoi.
Our two days in Bac Ha were truly amazing! If you get the opportunity to visit and are looking for something a little off the beaten path, please go. You will not be disappointed.