Bac Ha

An unhurried and friendly town, Bac Ha makes a relaxed base to explore the northern highlands and hill-tribe villages. The atmosphere is very different from Sapa, and you can walk the streets freely without being accosted by hawkers. To experience a small untouristy mountain town, Bac Ha is an excellent destination.

The town has a certain charm, though its stock of traditional old adobe houses is dwindling and being replaced by concrete structures. Wood smoke fills the morning air and chickens and pigs poke around the back lanes. For six days a week, Bac Ha slumbers, but its lanes fill up to choking point each Sunday when tourists and Flower H’mong flood in for the weekly market.

This Sunday market is a riot of colour and commerce, and while the influx of day trippers from Sapa is changing things, it’s still a worthwhile and relatively accessible place to visit. The other markets around Bac Ha are also gradually becoming more visited by tourists, so if you’re after a truly authentic experience head to the mountain town of Sinho instead.

Bac Ha is a good base to explore the surrounding highlands, as it has an improving choice of inexpensive hotels and the climate here is noticeably warmer than in Sapa. There are 10 hill-tribe groups that live around Bac Ha: the colourful Flower H’mong are the most visible, but other groups include Dzao, Giay (Nhang), Han (Hoa), Xa Fang, Lachi, Nung, Phula, Tay, Thai and Thulao.

One of Bac Ha’s main industries is the manufacture of alcoholic home brews (rice wine, cassava wine and corn liquor). The ruou corn hooch produced by the Flower H’mong is so potent it can ignite; there’s an entire area devoted to it at the Sunday market.