If you love noise, chaos, pollution and the crush of humanity that is a city, then you definitely do not want to head to the North of Vietnam. It’s stunningly beautiful, with rolling hills sculpted into snaking terraces of rice paddies, incredible karst formations, and a gentle way of life that you’ll never find in a city.
Take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The beds are surprisingly comfortable and after a few beers (which they come and serve you), it’s remarkably easy to be lulled to sleep as the train chugs towards your destination. The train reaches Lao Cai early in the morning, which is the place where you start your adventure- go west to Sapa, or east to Bac Ha.
Bắc Hà, the Hub of North East Vietnam
Catch the local bus from Lao Cai, no need to book, just find the guy hanging out the side of the bus yelling ‘Bac Ha’ and pay in cash (with the foreigner tax of course). The bus leaves the train station straight after the train arrives so don’t leave a toilet stop til the last minute like I did. Go to the toilet on the train, or the bus ride will be tremendously uncomfortable otherwise! The journey winds you through hills, past villages and rice paddies, arriving in a concrete island which doesn’t look like much, but is the centre of Bắc Hà.
If you do what we did and not book anything in advance, then wander further up the road, and on the left, you’ll find Ngan Nga Bac Ha Hotel, and Mr Dong. The hotel is clean, spacious, and does a great pho and coffee. Mr Dong is the answer to all of your questions. Need a scooter for a hoon around the hills? He can sort that. Need a tour guide to take you for a trek through local farms and villages? He knows people (good people). Want to hire a car and driver to take you to the far North?… he can magic up a lovely comfortable car and a couple of locals to take you around (that far North you need a permission slip from the local Government to allow you there, you can’t just turn up, China gets grumpy).
I recommend hiring a scooter and heading out on the hills for an adventure. There is a waterfall and a few places to visit but we just followed roads and soaked up the countryside. Enjoy winding up hills, dodging buffalo and goats, the miles of rice and corn farms, the fresh air and life just being amazing in general.
Bac Ha has a number of markets in the area, all fairly rustic, you’ll probably need a guide to get you there (did I mention Mr. Dong knows some great people? He has a book you can flick through with all the days the markets run and you can plan your visit with him). I’ll talk about that in the next blog….
An Overnight Homestay & Trekking
I just spent twenty minutes on Google Maps looking for the place we trekked to, with not even a sliver of success. But we walked somewhere, winding through the local farmland, watching children play among the buffalo and adults preparing and planting rice. Through villages, catching glimpses of a life so different to ours. Our guide was incredible, giving us huge insight into life here. How a buffalo is a sign of wealth, because without one, you have to make your rice paddies yourself. How little children become Mum to their younger siblings while their parents make a subsistence living on the farm. Rice, so much rice, wet rice, dry rice, how many rice seasons you get, how you grow rice, when you harvest rice, how you eat the different types of rice.
This is how noodles are made. Rice is pounded and made into a paste. Dried in circles such as you see here, and then hand cut and made into delicious noodles and pho
Eventually we reached our homestay. Mum, Dad, youngest son and his wife and their new baby. The meal they cooked for us is among the best I’ve ever had and the family were gorgeously hospitable despite a lack of common language. Don’t let the Dad give you too many shots of the local rice wine though… ha ha that could make the next morning difficult.
So many moments have stayed with me (this trip was two years ago)… The time I went into a shop to buy a bottle of water and a tiny Vietnamese man scurried from out the back. He looked at me and his whole face lit up. He gestured at me and laughed with joy, apparently six-foot tall women are rare in the area. He was astonished and overjoyed at my arrival and was child-like in his excitement. Our guide, with her incredibly clear English (one of many languages she spoke). Her warm hospitality, her intelligence and frank assessment of the political and social pressures in Vietnam. She truly was a beautiful woman and I don’t even have a decent photo of her. My travelling companion and I spending a lot of time on the front stoop of the hotel, drinking coffee, watching life unfold in front of us. The tiny but tough Vietnamese women hand unloading 50kg sacks of fertiliser while the men watched. Bac Ha was truly an amazing place and there is still so much more to explore!
Next blog…. To market, to market.