On both sides of the road from Lao Cai province to Bac Ha, white, grey and light yellow grass grows freely, standing taller than a man and stirs restlessly in the light breeze.
Golden sunlight lights up the grass and the verges glow with bright color.
The entrances to Ban Cam, Ban Phiet, and Phong Hai town all exit from this road. To reach Bac Ha, turn left at the Bac Ngam T-junction, and then continue driving on a winding and narrow road for another 30km before reaching the town.
Under a bright sun and cloudless sky, we view a range of green mountains. Wild violet flowers cover the ground at our feet.
My stomach is no longer affected by altitude/ car sickness. Instead my anxiety shifts. Will the car reach the next milestone? Or will we have to stop halfway up the mountain, or--even worse, skid into the rocky dry steam below?
Built on a slope, Bac Ha leans against the Kieu Lieu Ti mountain range. Beautiful and shining down at visitors, the town, warmly welcomes all who arrive. At the centre of Bac Ha town, my mobile phone has limited service.
During the Tran Dynasty, Bac Ha belonged to Thien Hung town, but during the Nguyen dynasty it was a part of Quy Hoa district. Then it became a district of Hoang Lien Son province (the old province). Nowadays, Bac Ha district belongs to the northern province of Lao Cai. Bac Ha town is situated in a valley on a limestone upland 1800 meters above sea level.
Bac Ha is pronounced “Pac Ha” by local people and Pakha by the French colonist in former times.
Pac Ha means “100 bunches of straw grass". Today, this kind of grass is hardly found but “Tam Hoa” plum trees grow everywhere in Bac Ha. The plum flowering season has not yet arrived. The grey – white trunks stand sadly in the light breeze and sunlight. From a distance, plum orchards peek through the fog on hillside. Come closer yo see hundreds of bare branches cast shadows on the faces of people standing below.
Bac Ha is not an attractive tourist site as some are concerned for lack of activities. In daily itineraries of travel agents it is only a promoted destination in the “Hanoi – Sapa” tour package. If you visit Bac Ha on a northern day, when Mong and Dao people are not wearing colorful costumes to market, you might feel bored because Bac Ha has nothing worth visiting. (We do not include here the famous Can Cau market, which is crowded with colorful costumers of the Mong Hoa people. This belongs to Simacai district but tourists still think it as a part of Bac Ha.)
Besides some old wooden houses, providing the features of an old mountainous settlement, most of the houses here have been rebuilt in brick and along the lines of the typical delta architecture. There is only one rather big two star hotel, the rest are small guest houses, cafes and low-price restaurants, with cheap plastic chairs and Chinese pictures. You won’t find a single proper place of entertainment here. The one building really worth visitong for its architecture is a semi-ruin: The palace of Hoang A Tuong – Meo King.
The owner of this palace is a Tay person, not a Meo person as the local people call him. His name, in recorded documents, is Hoang Yen Chao. His son is Hoang A Tuong, on inheriting the position, Pac Ha’s landlord documents that he made his fortune from a monopoly on forest exploitation and the sale of salt, opium, and food. In 1914, before the Hoangs built the palace, a geomancer was invited to choose a good position for the palace.
It was built on a large piece of ground and was designed and erected by French and Chinese architects. It has a harmony and grace about it but also with huge domes, like those in a Middle Ages Monastery. Graceful maidens in colored clothes appear and disappear. The scene calls to mind the images of highborn girl in a feudal society.
After visiting Hoang A Tuong Palace, we paid a sunset visit to Pho village--the bumpy road with its simple thatched cottages, and the innocent children--all these things evoke a sense of sadness. The sunset casts light across the smiling faces of maidens but the charm of the terraced fields can not lighten the atmosphere.
Perhaps Bac Ha of Still in a deep sleep, waiting for the white and brilliant plum flowers to bloom.
Travel tip shared by lan Nguyen