I've been back from my first trip to Vietnam for a month now. It's time to give forward after all the tremendous help other Fodorites had given me during my trip planning. Instead of a chronological trip report (many excellent ones already exist on this forum), I'll try to give some travel tips. These were questions I had before the trip and now I know, so I'll pass the knowledge along to future travelers. Thanks again, all, for your help and inspiration for my trip!
* Bac Ha Sunday Market Transportation
During my planning, I was struggling to find information on transportation from the Lao Cai train station to the famous Bac Ha Sunday market, but couldn't find anything reasonable. I asked this forum, searched on the web, and even emailed several hotels and travel agents in Sapa and Hanoi. The answers were either 1) First go to Sapa, and then join a group tour to go back to Bac Ha market. This wastes a lot of time, as you have to back track on the road to Sapa twice, as Bac Ha is in the opposite direction from the Lao Cai 2) Rent a private car, which is quite expensive -- anywhere from $75 to $150 -- which I wasn't sure was worth it just to look at the market.
So, instead of booking anything, we decided just to wing it. We took the overnight Fanxipan train from Hanoi and arrived in Lao Cai early in the morning at 5 a.m. Stumbled out of the train station, and voila there was a privately run mini bus to Bac Ha. It was filling up, and had a few seats left, and we hopped on, Cost -- $17 USD per person total from Lao Cai to Bac Ha, and from Bac Ha back to Sapa, w/ direct dropoff at your hotels in Sapa.
This information must have been in some French guidebook or something, but the bus was filled with French, one German couple, and us from the US. The drive took about 1+ hour on winding road through mountains covered in mists. They dropped us right at a restaurant in front of the Bac Ha market, so we could grab some breakfast and told us to meet back there in 3 hours (plenty of time for lunch before the ride back to Sapa). They didn't even collect any money until we got dropped off at our hotels in Sapa. I guess the figured no way people could just take off and go back to Sapa on their own.
Bac Ha Sunday market is really worth it! I'd say a highlight of my trip to Sapa. It's a big sprawling market full of different ethnic folks from surrounding areas coming to buy, sell, and trade. Women dressed up in their colorful and best outfits go shopping here. A feast for the eyes, and they didn't mind us taking photos and were quite friendly about it in fact. This is also where you see the Flower Hmong women, who wear very elaborately embroidered outfits (supposedly it takes a year for them to make one by hand). I like the more modern women who wore motorbike helmets along with their traditional outfits!
The market sells almost everything, from metal plows to plastic tubs, from giant mountain grown bamboo shoots to homemade corn wine (we tried a bit and it's lethal stuff!). Most interesting are the live animal markets. Go to the back and up the hill where they had a water buffalo market -- live ones for sell! I asked how much was for one, and the young woman selling it hesitated a bit, smiled and said the equivalent of $1500 USD. I think she was trying to give me the tourist price (these people are generally very honest, so her smile probably betrayed an attempted lie), as if I were going to buy a water buffalo and take home w me! Go a little further and along the river, there's another market that sells horses and another birds for pets or fighting.
Anyhow, it's worth a trip if you happen to be in the area on Sunday. Anyhow, just want to let people know that there's a less expensive and more convenient transport option directly from the Lao Cai train station to the market and back to Sapa. If you have a party of 3 or more, then a private car would make more sense.
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