The moniker 'Little Sapa' is applied to the remote town of Bac Ha in eastern Lao Cai province more because of its proximity to local attractions than because of the atmosphere or services.
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It's a very convenient place to explore the surrounds, and basing yourself here rather than Sapa will knock off about three hours of travel time each way on a daytrip to any of the local weekly markets. And, at less than half the altitude of Sapa, the weather here is likely to be more clement in winter months, with an average year-round temperature of 19 degrees Celsius (4 degrees, on average, warmer).
But don't expect any pizzas or breathtaking mountain views. Bac Ha is still, first and foremost, a local market town, and the tourist industry is only being added on, wherever it fits in. This is of course part of the attraction -- a walk down the street here is wonderfully free of hawkers or motorcycle-taxi drivers, and locals are not in the habit of trying to squeeze every dong they can from every foreigner that passes by.
The town gets a weekly assault of tourists on Saturday at about noon, as daytrippers return from visiting the Can Cau market. Many stay the night to visit the Bac Ha market in town Sunday morning, and then it's back to Sapa. We can only imagine the locals of Bac Ha spend the rest of the week being thankful they live here and not there.
On our 2008 visit, Bac Ha's town square (shaped like a triangle) was being torn up and revamped, and the whole place felt like one, big, muddy pile of bricks. Hopefully it'll be a bit more charming by the time you get there, and Bac Ha definitely has the potential to charm.
There are some good accommodation options (and more on the way) where market views are the prime selling point, with very authentic local food and drink available, and unless the local economy changes radically overnight, the Sunday morning market in town will continue on in the foreseeable future as it has done for generations past.
There are also some less-travelled trekking and homestay trips available in the area, with visits to a variety of ethnic villages, particularly the Flower H'mong, who, as the name suggests, are a much sweeter crowd of folks than their Red and Black kin to the west. In fact, if you visit Bac Ha after a stay in Sapa, you may notice that many of the goods being fobbed off as 'local hand-made products' in Sapa were actually bought wholesale here. About half the tribes in the area are H'mong, with the rest being Tay, Dzao, Tu Zi, Nung, Phula, La Chi and Lo Lo, among others.
There's very little to do in Bac Ha if you're settling in for the night. Market days are party days for the H'mong men, so you might be able to find a cluster of thoroughly pickled blokes to join in with, and let them rail on at you in an incomprehensible patois of Vietnamese, Chinese and Flower H'mong. Even our Vietnamese guide had no idea what these guys were trying to say, but they seemed to be very happy about whatever it was. If that's not your scene, bring a good book.
There's no banking for foreigners in Bac Ha. There is a post office and internet is available just down the street (if the power hasn't gone out) for 6,000 VND per hour. Bac Ha is not a good place to handle travel logistics, so make sure you have all your ducks in a row before arriving.
There are precious few departures from the main bus station, which is mostly useful for getting back to Lao Cai. If you're headed almost anywhere else, you'll need to stand along the right road and flag down the right bus. No tickets are sold at the bus station -- just buy when you board.
Street names are elusive in Bac Ha, but just south of the square is the road that leads to Pho Lu, (Route 153 on most maps). You'll find the post office and internet on that road, just south of the intersection with the road towards the market.
Tour services are available at the Sao Mai Hotel and at Sapa Green Travel at the Hoang Yen cafe across the street. Sapa Green also runs the Hoang Vu Hotel and you can enquire there as well.