The small town of BAC HA, nestling in a high valley 40km northeast of Highway 7, makes a popular day-excursion from Sa Pa. There’s little to see in the town itself except on Sunday, when villagers of the Tay, Dao, Nung, Giay and above all Flower Hmong ethnic minorities trek in for the lively market. At 1200m above sea level compared to Sa Pa’s 1600m, Bac Ha is less spectacularly beautiful, although it’s still scenic, with cone-shaped mountains bobbing up out of the mist, and it’s also much less touristy, giving out a workaday sense of a bustling agricultural community rather than an alpine resort.
Bac Ha provides a stark contrast to Sa Pa, with little in the way of tourist facilities beyond a few guesthouses. As Sa Pa becomes saturated with tourists seeking out a more authentic experience, so Bac Ha has attempted to emulate Sa Pa’s success by developing its own trekking business focused around the nearby rural markets. For the moment, however, it lacks sufficient infrastructure – which, in many ways, is the key to its charm.
If you’re travelling independently it’s worth spending a whole weekend in Bac Ha, in order to take in the rustic and colourful market at Can Cau on Saturday. Bac Ha also makes a good base for trips out to the surrounding Flower Hmong villages of Ban Pho and Coc Ly.
The Sunday market
The Sunday market, the town’s one big attraction, gradually fills up from 8 to 10am, and from then till lunchtime it’s a jostling mass of colour, mostly provided by the stunningly dressed Flower Hmong women looking for additional adornments to their costume. The scene is filled out with a sizeable livestock market, meat and vegetable sellers, wine sellers and vendors of farming implements. The town returns to a dusty shadow of its former self by 5pm when the ethnic tribes return to their outlying villages.
Hoang A Tuong Palace
At the northern end of town, on the left along the main road, you’ll find the remarkable folly of Hoang A Tuong, formerly known as Vua Meo, or Cat King House. Two storeys of pure wedding cake surround a courtyard built in 1924 by the French as a palace for a Hmong leader, Vuong Chiz Sinh, whom they had installed as the local "king" (Meo, or "Cat" in Vietnamese, is a disparaging term formerly applied by Vietnamese and French to the Hmong). The building is now a tourist information office, with a few displays of local ethnic dress and a shop selling hilltribe gear.