Is Bac Ha emerging as a viable alternative for travelers instead of Sa Pa?

By Darren Barnard   November 25, 2023 | 05:22 am PT
For a considerable amount of time Sa Pa has been the most popular tourist destination in northern Vietnam amongst both domestic and international tourists, with thousands of visitors making their way to the mountainous town every day.

However, many travelers are becoming disgruntled with the overcrowded nature of what is supposed to be a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Long queues at tourism hotspots such as Fansipan Cable Car, busy hiking trails and loud karaoke at fully-booked homestays are common complaints among tourists who desire a more peaceful retreat to nature.

Photo by Darren Barnard

The view on the way to Bac Ha. Photo by Darren Barnard

When travelling to Sa Pa, visitors will usually either take the train or sleeper-bus via Lao Cai City and then head west a further 30 km to reach the popular town in the highlands.

Alternatively, one can travel approximately 70 km east alongside the majestic mountains dividing Vietnam and China and arrive in Bac Ha District. The winding road pierces the green mountains until you eventually reach Bac Ha town at an altitude of up to 1,500m above sea level.

The owner of La Beaute Bac Ha homestay reflects on the sedate nature of the area: "It’s a ghost town during the week and comes alive at the weekend for the market when my homestay is always fully booked."

The entire district spans nearly 700, however it only has a population of around 50,000 people. The majority of denizens are flower Hmong, belonging to one of the 54 ethnic groups across Vietnam.

Visitors can opt to stay in one of the 296 homestays available in the district that are nestled within the wild beauty and enjoy a more peaceful, personal stay compared to Sa Pa, where your host is more likely going to be preoccupied with attending to countless guests and their requests.

The highlight during a stay in Bac Ha will likely be your visit to the Sunday market, where thousands of people from Lao Cai and neighbouring province Ha Giang, travel to every weekend to purchase a huge range of items including specialty local foods such as dried meat and chestnut cakes.

The cultural market is also a fantastic display of colors as numerous ethnic groups gather in their intricate, handmade outfits demonstrating several months of painstakingly detailed embroidery. Navigating the market and its many walkways can entertain anyone for hours as it’s an opportunity to embrace the local culture, eat delicious food, buy souvenirs and soak up the welcoming atmosphere.

Beyond the Sunday market, tourists can also enjoy emerging tourist sites such as Hoang A Tung Palace, built between 1914-1921, the owner Hoang Yen Chao acquired much of the fertile land in Bac Ha and decided to build the grand palace to represent his wealth and power in the region. Chao, who was a member of the Tay ethnic group, had a monopoly on the sale of salt, drugs, food and other consumer goods in the area and with the protection of the French was able to accumulate a huge amount of assets.

Photo by Darren Barnard

Hoang A Tung Palace in Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province. Photo by Darren Barnard

Today, visitors can explore the heritage building and learn more about one of the most powerful families in the area who were able to dominate the market largely due to the tax regime enforced that required residents to pay tax on everything they made or grow in the area.

Beyond the town, you can also discover less-explored nearby places such as Si Ma Cai, a township close to the Chinese border and the vibrant Can Cau Saturday market.

Adventure seekers can also drive to Ban Lien village with bending scenic roads connecting it to Bac Ha town for the 45-minute journey by motorbike. Many visitors opt to arrange a local lunch with a homestay in the quiet village or participate in a traditional tea ceremony and enjoy specialties such as the delicious red plums from Tam Hoa trees that ripen in the Bac Ha plateau in May, before harvesting in June every year.

Photo by Darren Barnard

Visitors can enjoy a slower pace of life in Bac Ha surrounded by green fields and agriculture. Photo by Darren Barnard

Peace and tranquility are arguably more attainable in Bac Ha compared to Sa Pa, especially during the week, where life truly slows down and offers the opportunity to appreciate the natural surroundings. If one desires to escape the crowds and hike on trails without a sole in sight, except your local guide of course, then perhaps Bac Ha is a perfectly suitable alternative for you.

Local homestays will be able to be more attentive in Bac Ha, however you are unlikely going to encounter as many hosts who speak English as fluently compared to Sa Pa.

Bac Ha is certainly trying to emerge as another tourist destination within Lao Cai and offer more than just a pitstop between its extremely popular neighbours, Sa Pa and Ha Giang.

Its attractions certainly are not limited to just the thriving Sunday market and you will undoubtedly enjoy the charming embrace of the local people similar to Sa Pa, but without the crowds, although there is still work to do.

You may become frustrated if you are anticipating an established tourism sector there and there is certainly a much greater necessity to drive a motorbike compared to Sa Pa, where you can situate yourself in a village such as Cat Cat or Ta Van, where they will be services such as hiking guides, traditional massages and herbal baths on your doorstep.

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