Sapa

Bac Ha Market: The Vivacious Spirit of Vietnam’s Northern People

Bac Ha Market (Vietnamese spelling: chợ Bắc Hà) is the largest market serving ethnic communities in the Northern Highlands of Vietnam. It’s located in Bac Ha City which is the center of Bac Ha District and part of Lao Cai Province (tỉnh Lào Cai). This colorful and dynamic market happens every Sunday, while smaller markets in the area operate on a different day. Bac Ha City lies due northeast of Lao Cai City or 65 km by road. It’s about 100 km from Sapa which is also part of Lao Cai Province. 

Bac Ha Market Pros and Cons

Bac Ha market is comparatively easy to access, especially from Lao Cai or Sapa. The only way to get there is by road, but it’s fairly easy to travel.  

Bac Ha Market is really lively and dynamic. It plays an important role in the social fabric of the northern highlands. Peoples from various ethnic groups, extended families, and friends meet to exchange news and tell their stories over drinks and foods.

You can see and interact with people from Red and Black Dao communities, as well as Nhung, Tay, and predominant Flower Hmong. The array of colors and commercial goods reflect this as well as the smorgasbord of local delicacies. 

Unfortunately, over the years, Bac Ha has been subject to what can be called over-tourism— both local and international. As a result, the character of the market has changed somewhat as has the quality and authenticity of goods.

One Day Trip to Bac Ha Market 

Due to commercial exploitation of the Bac Ha Market, responsible tourism largely discourages one-day stop-off tours to Bac Ha Market— especially from Hanoi and Sapa. These kinds of tours are mostly promoted by agents after a quick buck often romanticizing and fetishizing ethnic people. 

The Bac Ha Market, although only held once a week on a Sunday, is largely a morning market, and much of the highlights and throng wind down after 11 am. It’s not really worth a one day haul from Sapa and particularly Hanoi. From Sapa, it can take up to 3 hrs, Hanoi 6 hrs, but at least from Lao Cai it’s a little less than 2 hrs. 

What to See and Buy 

Porky Buy at Bac Ha Market
Porky Buy at Bac Ha Market
[ by Everjean from Flickr ]

There’s a lot to see and enjoy in Bac Ha Market. People come to trade everything from everyday essential goods to traditional clothing, jewelry, crafts, implements, fresh produce, as well as livestock including chickens, pigs, horses, buffalo, and dogs.

Most of all, Bac Ha is a gem of a place for fabric lovers. The average tourist may not have much use for traditional clothing sets, but products often geared towards foreign tourists include scarves, batik skirts, jackets, children’s hats, blankets, wall hangings, and more. 

Unfortunately, many such items are mass-produced in China. You need a good eye to pick out genuine products, which are often found at the back of the market. Jewelry items are often the most prized by local people, and one thing you shouldn’t miss are the many local food delicacies. 

Dos and Don’ts When Visiting 

Flower Hmong Women in Bac Ha
Flower Hmong Women in Bac Ha
[ by Biggs from Flickr ]

This is a rural area and people tend to be more conservative, so you should avoid tank tops or clothing that is too revealing. Bac Ha is only half the elevation of Sapa, but it can easily get chilly and misty. It’s best, therefore, to take at least light wind breaker even in the summer. 

Most important is to be discreet with your camera. Local ethnic people are actually quite shy and polite and often don’t really want their photographs taken. Be considerate, observant, and polite. You can ask before taking a picture. 

How to Get There

Night Train Arriving at Lao Cai
Night Train Arriving at Lao Cai
[ by Robert Brands from Flickr ]

If you book a tour from Hanoi, Lao Cai, or Sapa, your logistics to Bac Ha Market will be taken care of. If coming from Hanoi or Sapa, it’s recommended to do at least a two or three-day tour. 

Tours can be booked through agencies (online) such as Sapa o Chau, Ethos Spirit, Trekking Sapa, or Bac Ha Trekking Tour. Here is how you can get to Bac Ha on your own and plan your adventures from there:

Sapa Direct to Bac Ha 

Most people get a travel van from Sapa to Lao Cai and then transfer to a bus or van to Bac Ha city. Sapa to Lao Cai is a busy route and you can easily get a ride most times of day at the center terminal.

A cheaper, although longer, alternative is a travel bus from Sapa direct to Bac Ha. Ha Son Hai Van (Hà Sơn Hải Vân) is the most common brand. Their coaches also depart from Sapa and stop at the public stations of Lao Cai, Bac Ha, and Hanoi (My Dinh). The web interface isn’t in English but it’s easy enough to navigate.

Lao Cai to Bac Ha 

Traveling from Lao Cai to Bac Ha city, buses depart every day from the man terminal at 6 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m., and it costs 70 000 VND one way. There are many tourist shops in Lao Cai that can also easily arrange faster private transport to Bac Ha.

Trains to Lao Cai from Hanoi are only overnight with trains departing at 20:00 or 21:35 or 22:00. Soft seats cost up to 8 USD and sleepers up to 17 USD per person depending on the grade. The journey takes about 8 hrs. 

Buses to Lao Cai from Hanoi depart throughout the day and the journey is only 5.30 hrs or even less depending on the route. You can also get a bus direct from Hanoi Noi Bai Airport. Prices range from 233 000 to 280 000 VND per person. Smaller tour vans cost a little more and renting a private car or van can be 3 million VND per vehicle or more. 

Protip: Many people like to take the sleeper train, but day time buses are cheaper and you can relax comfortably the night before your trip and adventures to Bac Ha Market. 

Hanoi to Bac Ha 

There are coaches (travel buses) from My Dinh Station to Bac Ha Station every day. Departing time depends on the coach. Takes around 6 hours. Price range around 300 000 VND. 

Things To Do Around Bac Ha City

Hoang A Tuong ‘Hmong’ Palace
Hoang A Tuong ‘Hmong’ Palace
[ by Hi Vietnam from Facebook ]

Hoang A Tuong Palace (dinh thự Hoàng A Tưởng) is a large abandoned estate built in 1921 by a powerful Chinese trading family. Often erroneously referred to as ‘Hmong Palace’, the Chinese-European fusion architecture is quite impressive. Entry is 20 000 VND. 

Bac HaTemple (đền Bắc Hà) is near one of the entrances to the Bac Ha Market. It’s worth a visit if you’re nearby. It was built to honor two brothers Vũ Văn Uyên and Vũ Văn Mật who were sent by Emperor Tu Duc to fortify the northern border area.

Bac Ha Archery and Horse Festival happens on 30 May. Local teenagers from different ethnic villages race against each other in this popular festival. Tours at this time make for some extra special activities.

Tien ‘Fairy’ Water Caves and Đền Trung Đô are due south of Bac Ha City inn Bao Nhai commune along the beautiful clear blue waters of the Chay River. You have to take a short boat trip to these interesting caves, and it’s nice to swim there too. Trung Do is a temple that used to be part of an ancient citadel.

Can Cua Saturday Market (chợ phiên Cán Cấu) is often part of a trekking route or a day trip. It lies further north of Bac Ha and is famous as a cattle or stock market. Due southwest is the smaller Coc Ly Tuesday Market (chợ phiên Cốc Ly).

Sapa vs Bac Ha 

View of Bac Ha Valley
View of Bac Ha Valley
[ by Biggs from Flickr ]

Bac Ha is a more laid back alternative to Sapa which is often saturated with other tourists. In terms of hiking and experiencing local cultures, both are quite similar. Bac Ha district also has beautiful valleys and terraced mountainsides, although not as dramatic as in Sapa. 

You’re unlikely to be hassled by stragglers or vendors when you hike around Bac Ha. Because trekking routes are not so well developed, it’s best to go with a guide. These tours can be a little more expensive than Sapa due to fewer people and less competition. 

You won’t find much in the way of fancy hotels in Bac Ha city, nor the variety of international cuisine and trendy cafes that you will have in Sapa. A couple of days or more in Bac Ha at a local homestay equates to really getting away from it all. 

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