Bac Ha is a 'little Sapa', and while it's much less developed for tourism, it's in an ideal location for off-the-beaten-track treks to visit colourful weekly markets.
The Can Cau and Bac Ha markets, in particular, feature local scenes that have been going on every week for generations, where cattle, horses, goats and dogs are bought and sold, as well as many traditional goods like saddles and plowshares, along with elaborate textiles, handbags and other trinkets made by the local tribespeople, the Flower Hmong. Their intricately woven daily costume is one of the main drawing points in itself. This is an incredibly beautiful part of Vietnam.
It's a very convenient place to explore the surrounds, and basing yourself here rather than Sapa will knock off about three hours of travel time each way on a daytrip to most of the local weekly markets. And, at less than half the altitude of Sapa, the weather here is likely to be more clement in winter months, with an average year-round temperature of 19 degrees Celsius (4 degrees, on average, warmer).
But don't expect any pizzas or breathtaking mountain views. Bac Ha is still, first and foremost, a local market town, and the tourist industry is only being added on, wherever it fits in. This is of course part of the attraction — although expect to still be bothered by H'mong hawkers.
The town gets a weekly assault of tourists on Saturday at about noon, as daytrippers return from visiting the Can Cau market. Many stay the night to visit the Bac Ha market in town Sunday morning, and then it's back to Sapa.
There are some good accommodation options and it is possible to avoid the tourist orientated restaurants and find local food options. There are also some less-travelled trekking and homestay trips available in the area, with visits to a variety of ethnic villages, particularly the Flower H'mong. About half the tribes in the area are H'mong, with the rest being Tay, Dzao, Tu Zi, Nung, Phula, La Chi and Lo Lo, among others.
There's very little to do in Bac Ha itself if you're settling in for the night. Market days are party days for the H'mong men, so you might be able to find a cluster of thoroughly pickled blokes to join in with, and let them rail on at you in an incomprehensible patois of Vietnamese, Chinese and Flower H'mong.