A kaleidoscope of tribal cultures, mountains shrouded in winter mists or adorned with summer bloom, stepped mirrors of rice terraces - the extreme north of Vietnam is often believed to be the country's jewel. It is very much the case of "if you have not been there, you have not been to Vietnam". Most tourists go to Sapa, well-developed and advertised. The problem is, "most" stands for "thousands per month", - which means the tribal villages are corrupted beyond recognition, and the gorgeous landscapes are likely to have a tour bus sticking in the middle. Of course, nothing stops you from picking absolutely any township in the region and exploring, but if you would prefer to sacrifice a bit of that trail-blazer's feeling in exchange for a modicum of predictability, bookable hotels, and some info in English (including brief coverage in the main guidebooks), the best such compromise would be Bac Ha.
Bac Ha region is home to a variety of hill tribes, different from those in Sapa but no less diverse. The largest ethnicity here, like in most of North Vietnam, are the Hmong. Green Hmong and Flower Hmong, recognizable by the strikingly embroidered plaited skirts of the women, are the dominant sub-groups in the area, but Black and Red Hmong may also be seen with a bit of luck. Phu La, another common tribe here, are pretty much endemic to Bac Ha. Other tribes include Tay, two sub-groups of Dao, and Nung. On a market day, the colors of ethnic costumes flood the streets, swirling, flowing, and creating endless photographic opportunities. Quite a few prize-winning shots have been taken here. Such markets - essentially, county fairs - are the best way to see all the local tribes at once, dressed to impress. Those operate on a weekly basis. Conveniently, the Gregorian 7-day week is used in Bac Ha (unlike the markets in Ha Giang, based on the 12-day Chinese Zodiacal cycle).
Tribal markets are crowded, hectic, noisy gatherings of thousands of villagers coming to sell their produce. A few rows are always dedicated to textile, and very few cheap modern outfits are seen among the colored madness of traditional dresses. Livestock sections are not for the compassionate vegan types - the hill tribes eat everything that did not crawl away, cats and dogs included. Expect cute furry puppies praised for their healthy fat, dozens of doomed Fidos crammed into chicken wire cages, and meowing kittens tethered on pieces of clothesline waiting for their turn to become thit meo, lucky cat meat. Wild meat, technically illegal, is often also present. Sadly, this may be your best chance to see many endangered species in Vietnam, some caged, some already butchered. Unlike in Sapa, there are no souvenirs as such - if you are desperate to bring home a material memento, consider buying an embroidered belt, a length of hand-dyed fabric (perhaps to convert into a pillowcase or something), or some local utility, like a bamboo cup. Look for Hmong women selling ruou, local rice moonshine from huge plastic canisters. You will almost definitely be offered a sip to try if you linger next to them. Approach with care: Hmong ruou has 50-60% alcohol content and may or may not be distiled well enough to completely remove methanol and other toxic by-products. Male tourists, in particular, will likely have to face friendly drunk locals insisting on sharing a drink. Their intentions are genuine, but the booze itself will very quickly put you under the table unless you are Russian or Irish. The main market in Bac Ha town is held on Sunday, but tour groups occasionally visit it, and while it is the largest of the lot and still entirely authentic, you may wish to explore other venues. For example, Lung Phin also congregates on Sundays and is a sure way to see the village trade undisturbed by other tourists. Can Cau runs on Saturdays, and Coc Ly, on Tuesdays, has a slightly different palette of tribes: more Dao, fewer Phu La.
Vua Meo Palace in the center of Bac Ha town deserves a perfunctory visit. It is a mansion built by the French for a Hmong king of the past, and it looks like any colonial building in the former French zone of domination. Thai Giang Pho and Ban Pho are two of the biggest waterfalls in this mountainous area. Otherwise, the main attractions are the tribal villages. All are perfectly traditional, even more so if you stay away from the main roads. Like most of North Vietnam, this is a great area for trekking - hilly enough to feel adventurous, but seldom high enough to be exhausting, green and natural, yet too well populated to get dangerously lost. Technically, no guide is necessary to get around, but unless you speak fluent Vietnamese (or Hmong, or at least Chinese, which has become a trade language here), you would need one to get more than just the visual impression of the local cultures.
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