A Photo Essay Of Northern Vietnam
Given that Vietnam is a very large country, five weeks simply weren’t enough. Like usually, the rushing sets in at the end of a trip. So four days was all we could spend in Vietnam’s scenic Northwest, focusing on SaPa and Bac Ha. In each place we moved around independently, avoiding tours!
We have two stories to tell about SaPa. In 2003, after travelling together for three weeks all over Vietnam, Gilles had to go back home, whereas Heidi extended the trip and took the night train north to SaPa. A memorable journey, with a few fun hours spent in the restaurant car, drinking beer with young Vietnamese students. The area around SaPa Heidi explored with a local guide. Just the two of us leisurely walked for three days, passing bright green rice terraces and remote Black H’Mong villages. Late afternoon we checked in with some local farmers. Some had learned that adding a little guest room would provide a bit of income – My first time ever drinking schnaps made of rice and staying in a house lit by a SINGLE light bulb powered by a small generator in a nearby creek.
Gilles didn’t get to know SaPa until January 2015. Now the new direct express bus from Hanoi breezes the distance in five hours. Once in SaPa, Gilles opted for a motorbike to discover the area on his own. This allows freedom to move around, especially away from the touristy places… Not an option for the very inexperienced driver, though: roads to the more remote villages can be extremely steep and quite bumpy. But that’s where you want to go – these are not visited by tour groups, like the ones closer to SaPa!
January is definitely not the best season to visit SaPa. First of all, the rice terraces are barren, as rice cannot be planted in wintertime, which brings us to the other downside. Temperatures can be iffy. It can be quite pleasant during a sunny day, but at night it gets downright cold. To make matters worse, insulation is unknown and rooms can be freezing… When riding a motorbike, bring your mittens!
From SaPa To Bac Ha – Falling For A Scam!
It is a long but easy way: there are buses from SaPa to Lao Cai every hour (28.000 VND or 1,4 USD). The bus leaves you in Lao Cai about 300 meters from the main bus station, where you can hop on a bus to Bac Ha, for a 2.5 hour drive (60.000 VND or 3 USD).
Reaching Lao Cai bus station we were welcome by a man who took us to a ticket booth and sold us a ticket to Bac Ha, than took him to the minibus… Price was slightly above what was mentioned in the Lonely Planet (7 USD), so nothing to really worry about… Except that once on the minibus, we discovered that this ticket was worthless (and totally overpriced)… Well, we will survive the 6 Euros. Next time, we will be more careful… And remember that on mini buses, you pay in the bus!
Also worth mentioning: there are direct buses from Hanoi to Bac Ha and back, for 280.000 VND or 14 USD. This most visitors ignore, and few people seem eager to share this information except in Bac Ha…
The surroundings of Bac Ha are picturesque but not nearly as spectacular as SaPa. What makes Bac Ha a very pleasant place to stay for a few days? It is off the tour group trail, except on Sundays when busloads arrive at precisely 09:30 am for the popular market.
An early start will get you ahead of the masses. From 7:00 to 9:30 am, Bac Ha Sunday Market is yours, a festival of colors, a true photographer’s dream. Locals come down from surrounding villages and trade things needed for everyday life: food, rice wine, clothes, you name it! And they couldn’t care less for the few visitors that are meddling in the crowd.
When the masses arrive, it is time to jump on a motorbike (you can get a motorbike taxi if you do not feel like driving yourself) and head for Luong Phin Sunday Market, much smaller but completely ignored by the tourist masses who stick to Bac Ha. There again, bright colors everywhere, with mostly H’Mong women still traditionally dressed for their Sunday shopping.
Afterwards, if you are on a motorbike, you can visit some of the more remote villages… A good opportunity to give some locals a lift on your motorbike… That way, Gilles ended up with one old man and his two grand children on the rear seat. It was quite a challenge to keep control over the bike, but Gilles just drove slowly to the next village, where he was invited for a cup of tea (that he accepted) and smoking pipe (that he declined)…
Damn you take some good photos, Gilles! We’re so bummed that the day we rode through Bac Ha it was misty and no markets about. Your pictures make us want to go back! Thanks for sharing 😀
Thanks a lot – I was just thinking about writing a short text on taking pictures at Markets. Your feedback just gave me the kick to do it… Just have to find some time 😉
If you still have a bit of time until you leave Vietnam, I would really consider going back there, and stay (at least) from Friday evening to Sunday night. That way you can discover several markets. And they are simply amazing! Take 2 scooters and leaving the market, give a lift to some locals. Good fun… and a challenge driving 😉
If you do so, stay at Sa’s House, a really great Home Stay, and Sa is really a cool guy, as I know you, it would make a great interview of him!
Hey Gilles and Heidi,
Lovely to read this post and your pictures are fantastic. It really brought me back to north Vietnam, ha especially the need for mittens. I’m surprised to hear how fast tourism has grown in Sapa, I was only there in January 2010 and we were virtually on our own, certainly no air-con bus from Hanoi.
I didn’t get to the Bac Ha market- seems like that is one very good reason to return!!:)
Yes, SaPa has turned extremely touristy, it is now very well on the tour groups route, with quite large groups going around. And that was in the lowest season… I cannot say when it really took off, but it must have been a few years already.
Hence the need to move from SaPa after a few days to more relaxed and less touristy places, as Bac Ha.
PS: thanks for the feedback 😉