Bắc Hà is a town in north-western Vietnam, on the border with the town of Hekou in Yunnan, China. The main reason to visit this town is its colorful Sunday market. Many travellers place Bắc Hà on their itinerary when they visit Sa Pa.
Travelling from Hanoi to Lào Cai
Vietnam Rail operates some of the carriages in the train, but others are operated by private companies (Fanxipan Express, Friendly, Ratraco, Tulico, Victoria Hotels, and many others). Some of these cars are significantly nicer than the standard cars. You may need to arrange with a travel agency to get tickets on these tourist cars, but any traveller can purchase tickets for the Vietnam Rail cars at the Hanoi train station. Warning: several of these cars are not significantly better than standard Vietnamese sleeping cars, but are still substantially more expensive. Pumpkin second class is actually a Vietnam Rail car booked through this company. Even Pumpkin first class only has a squat toilet (although a sign above the toilet door says "Western-style toilet"!).
Prices vary according to both the type of seat purchased and the season during which you are travelling. Dates around Vietnamese holidays are particularly expensive and tickets cannot be assumed available for same day travel, so book ahead if possible. Travellers are strongly recommended to purchase a berth in a soft or hard sleeper car, though the trip in soft-seat class is not intolerable.
- Cheaper travel. Cheaper tickets, especially in hard sleeper class, can be difficult to come by at times, as tour companies and travel agents will snap up these to foist on their own customers (too frequently a promised soft sleeper berth will turn into a hard sleeper when it comes time to board). To avoid ripoffs, it is better to go to the train station yourself and get the ticket from the ticket office. This is the only way to make sure that you will get what you have paid for. Although one cannot be assured of finding a place, it is often possible to arrive at the station a short while before boarding time, as there are usually young men hanging around trying to hawk unfilled berths at the last minute. The price of these tickets will fall dramatically as departure time draws near.
- More expensive travel. For a bed in a hard or soft sleeper carriage, expect to pay in the area of 430,000–525,000 dong one way. For a soft seat, expect to pay 220,000 dong one way (May 2012). Tickets can be booked online from a travel agent such as Vietnam Impressive. You will be emailed a voucher which must be printed out and presented to a train company representative at the station about 30–60 minutes before the departure time to obtain the actual tickets.
- The Victoria Hotel train has a dining car serving good, surprisingly affordable noodles (10,000 dong) and rice porridge (10,000 dong), but other trains such as Fanxipan do not. On the latter train a packet of biscuits, a banana and a bottle of water are provided as part of the cost of the ticket (October 2013), and it is possible to purchase pot noodles and snacks on board. However, you may prefer to purchase your own hot food, snacks and drinks from vendors in the grounds of the railway station. There are toilets on the train but no showers.
It is recommended that you book a return ticket when you buy your outward journey, as picking up tickets in Lào Cai is harder than in Hanoi. The staff do not speak as much English, and they possibly only sell tickets for travel on the same day, so sleepers may already be sold out unless you go first thing in the morning. Pay attention to the time of your return train. Trains leaving Lào Cai around 20:00 will arrive in Hanoi at around 05:00. If you are planning to stay in a hotel or hostel that does not have a 24-hour reception and do not make prior arrangements when you return to Hanoi at an early hour, you may find yourself sitting outside your hotel waiting a few hours for the reception desk to open.
Sleeper buses run direct from Hanoi to Lào Cai for around USD15–20. Ask at the local tourist office, a reputable tour agency, or your hotel or hostel regarding tickets. These buses are reasonably modern, the beds are small and recline back, typically in three single or two double rows. The bus will make stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, and once in Lào Cai city. If you are a light sleeper the journey could be uncomfortable with many sharp twists and turns, and some claim that the mountain roads are dangerous, although there is no evidence of accidents on the route. The bus stop is near the lake area.
Travelling from Lào Cai or Sa Pa to Bắc Hà
Conducted coach tour
Many people visit Bắc Hà as part of a trip to Sa Pa. If you are thinking of doing the same, it is worth planning your travel so that you arrive in or leave from Lào Cai on a Sunday, as Bắc Hà is nearer to Lào Cai than Sa Pa. Your hotel in Sa Pa may be able to arrange for someone to meet you at the Lào Cai train station and put you on a coach tour conducted by a local guide (USD15 in October 2013) that will take you to the Bắc Hà Sunday market; a village inhabited by the Flower H'mong; and the border between Lào Cai and Hekou, a small town in Yunnan, China; and then bring you to Sa Pa (or the reverse if you are leaving Sa Pa and catching the train from Lào Cai).
Tours from Sa Pa which take in the Bắc Hà Sunday market, and often the stops mentioned above or others, leave Sa Pa at 07:00 and return around 16:00 or 17:00. These cost USD10–12.
Buses leave from Lào Cai for Bắc Hà at 06:30, 07:30 and 13:00 daily, take roughly two hours and cost 60,000 dong. Beware of a common scam: bus conductors may try to charge you USD10 or at least 100,000 dong for the bus ride. There will be no argument if you walk to the bus station which is 300 metres southwest of Lào Cai railway station down Phan Đình Phùng, and purchase a ticket there. Buses returning to Lào Cai leave Bắc Hà at 17:30 and 0:00.
It is possible to ride a motorbike to Bắc Hà from Lào Cai (63 km) or even Sa Pa (110 km). However, the road is not great at parts and can be very dusty in the dry season. Travellers have reported that a tarmac road is in the process of being built. When it is complete, motorcycle trips will be a good deal more pleasant.
Bắc Hà is small, so most things within the town are within walking distance.
Bắc Hà Sunday market (tourist buses will stop in a parking area in the centre of town; from there, roadside stalls will be visible, and walking in their direction will bring you to the heart of the market). The Sunday market (which is much larger than the Sa Pa market) is a big, colorful bazaar overflowing with everything under the sun. Most visitors will probably be interested in the embroidered fabric handicrafts such as cellphone pouches, clothes, handbags, purses, and cushion covers, tablecloths and table runners sold by minority hill tribes. Also available are scarves; T-shirts; metal jewellery and trinkets; carvings and figurines made of metal, wood and stone; and home furnishings such as place mats, and lacquered bowls and chopsticks created out of bamboo. The meat and vegetable markets make for interesting photographs, and braver tourists may even want to try eating while perched on low benches or stools at one of the roadside food stalls in the market. Locals also visit the market to purchase tools, children's toys, and household items.
See the description of the Bắc Hà Sunday market in the "See" section above.
There are a number of restaurants in the main square in the centre of town, and a few on quieter side streets.
Hoang Yen Restaurant, 9 Street 20-9 (beside the car park at the end of Ngọc Uyến Road), ☎ , , e-mail: email@example.com. The food is average but it has a lively atmosphere as Sapa Green Tours arranges for its customers to dine there.
Papa Russe (the only brick building in the market). A friendly host, originally from Ukraine, offering pho (Vietnamese rice noodle soup) and fried rice dishes with meat, tofu, bamboo shoots and other vegetables, and so on, at socialist prices – 20,000 dong for everything! Sure, you still pay more than the locals, but the place offers quite good value for money and a friendly atmosphere. Come late, say 19:30, to get the best of Papa's own dinner. from 20,000 dong.
Restaurant Sunday Boulevard (next to Hotel Sunday Boulevard at 001 Vù Văn Mật Street), ☎ . Located on a quiet lane away from the main street, the restaurant serves reasonably priced noodle and rice dishes, fresh and deep-fried spring rolls, and other Vietnamese staples. There are two pleasant outdoor tables beside the street.
1 Spring Fair Restaurant (at the crossroads before the large Sao Mai Hotel). Best spring rolls in town, and other freshly made local dishes at reasonable prices. From 20,000 dong.
Thanh Son Restaurant (across the road from the bus station), ☎ . 06:00–22:00. A reasonably priced restaurant catering mainly to tourists.
In general, there's no reason to stay overnight in Bắc Hà unless you have arrived on Saturday afternoon and wish to visit the Sunday market the next day, or your onward journey from Bắc Hà is on the following Monday.
Hotel Sunday Boulevard, 001 Vù Văn Mật Street (on a side street just off the town centre). 200,000–800,000 dong (more expensive on weekends; May 2013).
1 Toan Thang Hotel (opposite Sao Mai Hotel), ☎ , , fax: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Basic budget rooms in an old wooden building, and slightly more comfortable heated ones in a modern stone building. Friendly owner with rudimentary English. An OK choice for a longer stay – negotiate a price in advance. 160,000–200,000 dong.
- If you are unable to visit the Bắc Hà Sunday market or are staying for a few days, the following markets (some of which operate on other days of the week) are in the vicinity of Bắc Hà:
Lung Phin Market (about 12 km from Bắc Hà). every Sunday.
Coc Ly Market (about 35 km from Bắc Hà). every Tuesday.
1 Can Cau Market, Bàn Phố Road (about 20 km north of Bắc Hà). every Saturday.