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Getting there & away
Travelling from Hanoi to Lao Cai
Vietnam Rail operates some of the carriages in the train, but others are operated by private companies (Fanxipan Express, Friendly, Ratraco, Tulico, Victoria Hotels, and many others). Some of these cars are significantly nicer than the standard cars. You may need to arrange with a travel agency to get tickets on these tourist cars, but any traveller can purchase tickets for the Vietnam Rail cars at the Hanoi train station. Warning: several of these cars are not significantly better than standard Vietnamese sleeping cars, but are still substantially more expensive. Pumpkin second class is actually a Vietnam Rail car booked through this company. Even Pumpkin first class only has a squat toilet (although a sign above the toilet door says "Western-style toilet"!).
Prices vary according to both the type of seat purchased and the season during which you are travelling. Dates around Vietnamese holidays are particularly expensive and tickets cannot be assumed available for same day travel, so book ahead if possible. Travellers are strongly recommended to purchase a berth in a soft or hard sleeper car, though the trip in soft-seat class is not intolerable.
Cheaper travel. Cheaper tickets, especially in hard sleeper class, can be difficult to come by at times, as tour companies and travel agents will snap up these to foist on their own customers (too frequently a promised soft sleeper berth will turn into a hard sleeper when it comes time to board). To avoid ripoffs, it is better to go to the train station yourself and get the ticket from the ticket office. This is the only way to make sure that you will get what you have paid for. Although one cannot be assured of finding a place, it is often possible to arrive at the station a short while before boarding time, as there are usually young men hanging around trying to hawk unfilled berths at the last minute. The price of these tickets will fall dramatically as departure time draws near.
More expensive travel. For a bed in a hard or soft sleeper carriage, expect to pay in the area of 430,000–525,000 dong one way. For a soft seat, expect to pay 220,000 dong one way (May 2012). Tickets can be booked online from a travel agent such as Vietnam Impressive. You will be emailed a voucher which must be printed out and presented to a train company representative at the station about 30–60 minutes before the departure time to obtain the actual tickets.
The Victoria Hotel train has a dining car serving good, surprisingly affordable noodles (10,000 dong) and rice porridge (10,000 dong), but other trains such as Fanxipan do not. On the latter train a packet of biscuits, a banana and a bottle of water are provided as part of the cost of the ticket (October 2013), and it is possible to purchase pot noodles and snacks on board. However, you may prefer to purchase your own hot food, snacks and drinks from vendors in the grounds of the railway station. There are toilets on the train but no showers.
It is recommended that you book a return ticket when you buy your outward journey, as picking up tickets in Lao Cai is harder than in Hanoi. The staff do not speak as much English, and they possibly only sell tickets for travel on the same day, so sleepers may already be sold out unless you go first thing in the morning. Pay attention to the time of your return train. Trains leaving Lao Cai around 20:00 will arrive in Hanoi at around 05:00. If you are planning to stay in a hotel or hostel that does not have a 24-hour reception and do not make prior arrangements when you return to Hanoi at an early hour, you may find yourself sitting outside your hotel waiting a few hours for the reception desk to open.
Sleeper buses run direct from Hanoi to Lao Cai for around USD15–20. Ask at the local tourist office, a reputable tour agency, or your hotel or hostel regarding tickets. These buses are reasonably modern, the beds are small and recline back, typically in three single or two double rows. The bus will make stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, and once in Lao Cai city. If you are a light sleeper the journey could be uncomfortable with many sharp twists and turns, and some claim that the mountain roads are dangerous, although there is no evidence of accidents on the route. The bus stop is near the lake area.
Travelling from Lao Cai or Sapa to Bac Ha
Conducted coach tour
Many people visit Bac Ha as part of a trip to Sapa. If you are thinking of doing the same, it is worth planning your travel so that you arrive in or leave from Lao Cai on a Sunday, as Bac Ha is nearer to Lao Cai than Sapa. Your hotel in Sapa may be able to arrange for someone to meet you at the Lao Cai train station and put you on a coach tour conducted by a local guide (USD15 in October 2013) that will take you to the Bac Ha Sunday market; a village inhabited by the Flower H'mong; and the border between Lao Cai and Hekou, a small town in Yunnan, China; and then bring you to Sapa (or the reverse if you are leaving Sapa and catching the train from Lao Cai).
Tours from Sapa which take in the Bac Ha Sunday market, and often the stops mentioned above or others, leave Sapa at 07:00 and return around 16:00 or 17:00. These cost USD10–12.
Buses leave from Lao Cai for Bac Ha at 06:30, 07:30 and 13:00 daily, take roughly two hours and cost 70,000 dong. Beware of a common scam: bus conductors may try to charge you USD10 or at least 100,000 dong for the bus ride. There will be no argument if you walk to the bus station which is 300 metres southwest of Lao Cai railway station down Phan Đình Phùng, and purchase a ticket there. Buses returning to Lao Cai leave Bac Ha at 17:30 and 0:00.
It is possible to ride a motorbike to Bac Ha from Lao Cai (63 km) or even Sapa (110 km). However, the road is not great at parts and can be very dusty in the dry season. Travellers have reported that a tarmac road is in the process of being built. When it is complete, motorcycle trips will be a good deal more pleasant.
If you are unable to visit the Bac Ha Sunday market or are staying for a few days, the following markets (some of which operate on other days of the week) are in the vicinity of Bac Ha:
- Lung Phin Market (about 12 km from Bac Ha). every Sunday.
- Coc Ly Market (about 35 km from Bac Ha). every Tuesday.
- Can Cau Market, Ban Pho Village Road (about 20 km north of Bac Ha). every Saturday.