Hi All, we're fresh back from a 4.5 week family (parents and 13 & 15yo) tour of north Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong & Bac Ha), Laos (Luang Prabang as base), Cambodia (Siem Reap as base) and Thailand, of which a visit to Bac Ha was a definite highlight. In our original plan we were going to Sapa by overnight train to Lao Cai but after reading about all the development there we decided to go to Bac Ha instead.
Bac Ha was a delight. We stayed at Huy Trung Homestay (another delight) and pre-arranged for a van to pick us up from Lao Cai station when our overnight train from Hanoi arrived early in the morning (6am). We were duly met by the van driver who waited whilst we had breakfast at a cafe near the station and then we set off on the approx 1.5-2 hour drive to Bac Ha but stopping off at Coc Ly Market (as I heard it was open on Tuesdays mornings) about half way to Bac Ha. This was a great little village market to see the local hill tribe villagers (although the livestock sales aspect was fairly confronting for our kids - eg small pigs in bags with just their snouts sticking out etc). It was a pleasant drive to Bac Ha through limestone hills and rice terraces and our homestay was great and the owner most friendly (but not obsequious, thankfully - and his wife who doesn't speak english is a marvellous cook - some of the best meals on our trip). We spent 2D/3N here and the town and surrounds are lovely and surrounded by forested hills, as well as being untouristed (the only other tourists we saw being a family of French out touring). We engaged the owner to show us the sights on each day (although you could rent a motorcycle for $7 a day), and we enjoyed visits and walks thru hill-tribe villages as well as swims at waterfalls along the way. We all enjoyed it immensely even our owner/guide who said he rarely had the chance to swim at the waterfalls as the few travellers who come don't tend to swim. We had a very late checkout at the end of our stay and took a private van back to Lao Cai to catch the evening overnight train back to Hanoi (however there is cheap public buses between Lao Cai and Bac Ha). I would highly recommend anyone thinking of spending a couple of days in Sapa to instead go to Bac Ha. I admit I haven't been to Sapa but if it is at all like some of the newly overdeveloped areas of IndoChina I don't think I missed anything. I heard Sapa was beautiful and quiet a few years ago, however it seems Bac Ha is still that way now. Go now before the same thing happens, although hopefully the Bac Ha locals will learn from the mistakes of Sapa. I note we were in Bac Ha in early July (we had no rain), so perhaps it get more touristed in the dry season - or perhaps not.