Bac Ha can be reached by a nine-hour train journey from Hanoi to Laocai (pronounced lao kai), followed by a separate transfer to Bắc Hà.
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 Laocai 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 Laocai 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 Laocai 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 Laocai 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.