Since the first French colonizers established the Sa Pa hill station, the rolling mountains of northern Vietnam have been a dream destination for trekkers and hill tribe lovers. The more audacious try to reach the peak of towering Fansipan, rising nearly 3,000 metres above sea level. The views of the green, rugged rice terraces and smiling Hmongs and Dzaos make perfect postcard-like pictures for all who come.
Now, though, with the area’s fast developing tourism, hill tribe villagers are often seen roaming the town’s streets, speaking broken English, offering guided-treks and overnight homestays as they compete with local trekking agencies. Without careful research prior to arriving, travellers can easily end up running into several groups of trekkers taking the same route. So, rather than sharing your mountainous landscape and tribal experience with others, why not consider heading to the much-less trekked areas such as Bac Ha, Ta Chi Nhu - Phu Song Sung Peak, Ba Be National Park and the stone plateau of Ha Giang?
Let’s begin at the remote mountain town of Bac Ha, roughly two hours from Lao Cai and three from Sapa. It never feels busy except on Sundays when it draws local Montagnards and tour groups from Sa Pa to its famous minority market. Flower Hmongs make up the biggest share of its ethnic minority population that also includes Dzaos, Giays (Nhangs), Hans (Hoas), Phulas, Nungs, Tays and Tholaos. The climate is warmer here compared to Sa Pa and it offers an improved choice of inexpensive hotels and restaurants as well as a few well-equipped trekking agencies and a laidback atmosphere with only a handful of visitors, thus, promising an exceptional experience exploring northern Vietnam’s mountainous landscapes for a few days.
Well thought-out trekking routes north of the town range from a half-day up to five days. The elevation, from 800 to 1,200 metres above sea level, lower than Sa Pa’s, still offers picturesque landscapes of rugged savanna hills, rice terraces and swaying grass fields, with overnights at different hill tribe communities. Daily treks can be as long as seven hours after leaving your overnight stay early, which the guides always suggest so you have plenty of time to hang out at the next village where you’ll sleep. Lunch is usually boxed, but there is the chance a local may invite you to their home for a meal, and if you are entertained by a Flower Hmong family, be sure to try their super strong, home-brew corn hooch, a favourite drink, especially during ceremonies.
A recommended Bac Ha – Lao Cai Trek begins early morning, trekking to Ban Pho Village, the town’s nearest Flower Hmong settlement. You’ll start walking on a concrete road, but soon enough head off on a small trail through a forest and past valleys encircled by low hills and rice terraces. Flower Hmong passers-by will probably greet your guide in the local dialect. In the afternoon, you’ll climb up and down slopes before arriving at an area of flat terrain where you’ll see farms and plum plantations near the Tay village, Ta Van Chu, and spend the night. On day 2, you are expected to arrive in Can Cau by lunch. Here, you may see the weekly market if it’s a Saturday. After that, the trek leads to the Phu La Lung Phinh Village where you will bed down in someone’s house. Day 3 incorporates trekking with a boat trip on the Chay River flowing by a beautiful forest on your way back to Lao Cai. Be sure to visit the Lao Cai Temple before ending your trip.
Treks around Bac Ha can easily be arranged once you arrive in town, and you can even leave on the same day. Mr Nghe, always attired in a suit, who runs Hoang Yen Restaurant and operates tours from Hoang Vu Hotel, is a good man to talk to. He can also help you find transportation such as private cars and motorbikes. Visit his website at www.bachatourist.com to learn more.
The best time to go is during the cool, dry season, from November to February, with average daytime temperatures around 27˚C and 18˚C at night. Mountains and rice terraces are green from July to September. Harvest season is in October while the rest of the year sees the landscapes turn yellow and brown.
If you plan to stay in town, the 65-room Sao Mai Hotel (www.saomaibachahotel.com) is the most luxurious accommodation, but it could be crowded with tour groups. Rooms are equipped with a fridge, LCD TV, hot shower and Wi-Fi. The Ngan Nga (www.nganngabachahotel.com) is a family-run restaurant and guesthouse. The rooms are much smaller compared to the Sao Mai, but they offer the same amenities and it feels cosier.
Lao Cai’s Train Station is your likely gateway if you travel from the south. Buses and minivans leave for Bac Ha several times a day. Buses cost 70,000 VND one way and take about 2 hours. To avoid a scam that tries to get you to pay double, walk out of the station. 300m south-west of the train station, down Phan Đình Phùng, you will find reasonable prices posted on a board.
Hoang Yen Restaurant, serving European and Vietnamese cuisine, offers a good choice of breakfast, traditional pho bo (beef noodle soup) and tasty pumpkin soup. If a good view of the Sunday market through huge glass windows is your first priority, reserve a place at Congfu Hotel’s restaurant.
Three other trek destinations of interest are the Ta Chi Nhu - Phu Song Sung Peak, Ba Be National Park and Stone Highlands of Ha Giang. The first, Ta Chi Nhu - Phu Song Sung Peak, includes the less climbed Fansipan, the country’s sixth highest peak, rising 2,980m above sea level. Part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range in Tram Tau district in the northern central province of Yen Bai, it is shrouded by clouds much of the time. The route offers views of grassy highlands with wild purple flowers and grazing cattle, virgin rainforest and bamboo groves. The trek usually takes three days, camping along the way. It is considered a hard trek; the peak is almost vertical. Sometimes, you have to walk along ridges, and the wind is often quite strong.
Next, Ba Be National Park is a reserve in the north-eastern province of Bac Kan Province. The park is famous for its picturesque lake, but multi-day treks can be arranged to include or avoid to that tourist-congested area. A trek can take you to see virgin rainforest with more than 550 recognized plant species, hundreds of types of wildlife, including 65 very rarely seen mammals such as Vietnamese salamanders, Burmese pythons, crested serpent eagles and oriental honey buzzards. There are 13 hill tribe villages in the area, most belonging to the Tay minority.
Last is the Stone Highlands of Ha Giang in the north-eastern province of Ha Giang. Well off the beaten track, tourism facilities are less-equipped. The Stone Highlands are formed by a karst plateau geopark that stretches through four districts, Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Meo Vac and Dong Van. The breath-taking scenery combines the renowned natural heritage of prehistoric rocks and fossils and 17 ethnic groups living on the plateau. Trek Ha Giang (www.trekhagiang.com) organizes customized treks that tie well with community-based tourism.