Far away from the tourist hotspots, Ha Giang Province provides untouched nature, traditional villages and the most breathtaking scenery in Vietnam…
In the outermost edges of Northern Vietnam lies the remote province of Ha Giang. Also known as Vietnam’s final frontier, this isolated expanse of land is the country’s last territory before reaching the border of China.
Due to Ha Giang’s isolated location and mountainous terrain (upwards of 1600 feet above sea level in some areas), the province has gone largely unspoiled by modern industry. For miles over the distant horizon are never-ending waves of limestone mountains, fresh water lakes, and fertile valleys rich with rice paddy fields.
This is truly a land that time forgot. For travellers looking for adventures well off the grid, look no further than an epic motorbike trip through Ha Giang’s luscious countryside.
Forget Sapa. This is how you get to Ha Giang…
Ha Giang is not easily reached, but it’s worth the effort. While the roads leading north from Hanoi have gone through a series of improvements in recent years, they are still far from perfect.
You’ll still find yourself competing with overzealous buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes as all manner of traffic vie to overpass each other on the only road leading north. On paper Ha Giang City is only 300km from Hanoi, but expect a six-hour drive through some very bumpy roads.
Thankfully, there are variety of ways to get to Ha Giang. The cheapest option being the ordinary bus [150,000VND], which the local Vietnamese frequently use to head back and forth between Hanoi and Ha Giang for business or to visit family.
While these buses are meant to seat forty-five, companies will often overbook their buses to allow riders to sit in-between the aisles. Go early if you don’t want to find yourself stuck in the middle.
Another option is the overnight sleeper bus [200,000VND]. These bunk bed style reclining seats allow you to lay down and can be comfortable enough…if you are not exceptionally tall.
Remember that these compartments were made for the Vietnamese and maximum capacity in mind. Sleeper buses are still the best way to get some proper shut-eye before reaching Ha Giang.
Lastly there is the “VIP” van [300,000VND]. VIP being the loose term here. The well-padded chairs of the compact van seats up to eight people just fine, but there is not much else in the way of frills.
You can take solace in knowing that since the van does not stop along the way to pick up stray passengers, this is the fastest way to get to Ha Giang…unless you take a motorbike.
Buses can be found leaving all times of the day from My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi.
Once you finally make it to Ha Giang city, for those planning on continuing the trip by motorbike, there are plenty of rental shops along Nguyen Trai street.
Prices on average are about 250,000VND for a manual motorbike and 300,000VND for a scooter per day. Gas is not included. It’s also possible to rent a taxi or private car as well.
Now that you’re finally here in the northern most region of Vietnam. In a land that many rarely get to see…here’s a list to help you make this adventure a truly memorable experience…
#1. The Old Quarter of Dong Van Town
Dong Van town is approximately 130km north of Ha Giang city. It requires another four-hour bus ride to reach this small township, but it’s the perfect home-base to start your quest.
From here it’s a short motorbike ride to the Meo Vac trail, where you will find the most stunning views Vietnam has to offer. The hotels in Dong Van are also above standard.
This quiet little mountain town is the northern most settlement before reaching the Chinese border. The grey limestone mountains protrude over the horizon of the peacefully quiet streets. Towards the center of town, you’ll find the well-preserved old quarter (pho co).
Although significantly smaller than the old quarter in Hanoi, Dong Van also has a century old French colonial style area lined with clay and brick buildings, many of which have been transformed into cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
On Sunday mornings, from 5am to 10am Dong Van town comes alive for the weekend market. Here you’ll see locals from all over come to buy and sell everything from handmade clothes, freshly grown produce to livestock for either tending the fields or eating.
If you ever needed a full-grown pig, this is where you’ll find it.
#2. Ascend The Lung Cu Flag Tower
Located to the far north of the Dong Van district, the Lung Cu Tower sits atop the peak of “Dragon Mountain”. The 30-meter tall tower, which by no coincidence bears a resemblance to the Flag Tower in Hanoi is also adorned proudly with a massive Vietnamese flag.
The flag commemorates the outermost frontier of Vietnam before reaching the Chinese border just some 2km over the residing mountains.
You can ascend the 140 steps to the top of Lung Cu Tower and be treated to an expansive panoramic view of the surrounding fields of rice and the sprawling mountains of both Vietnam and China.
As you begin your climb, you’ll be greeted with the ever so joyful Vietnamese communist party music.
Perhaps it’s one part to instill you with Vietnamese patriotism and another part as a reminder that at least for a few more kilometers, you’re still in Vietnam.
#3. Take a Motorbike Along the Mountain Trail of Meo Vac
The Meo Vac district begins after a 2km ride from Dong Van. This epic stretch of road, which winds up and down through the mountains is the reason many adventurers flock to Ha Giang.
This is where the true beauty of Ha Giang and Vietnam are on full display. Hiring a taxi or private vehicle is possible, but the Meo Vac trail is best experienced from the freedom of a motorbike. You’ll find yourself stopping way too often to take in the stunning vistas that greet you at almost every turn.
It is best to start your Meo Vac journey early. Just as the sun begin to rise, mist starts to form over the mountain peaks. Well above sea level, there is no better feeling than cruising through the narrow mountain paths with views such as these from all sides.
#4. Exploring the Rice Terraces, All Year Round
Stunning rice fields are scattered throughout all of Ha Giang, but none are as spectacular as the rice terraces found in Hoang Su Phi. Formed into stair-like formations to help the irrigation process, Hoang Su Phi’s rice fields stretch as far as the eyes can see. Look closely down below to see the tiny specks of farmers working diligently beside their water buffalo.
Hoang Su Phi sits in one of the most remote areas of Ha Giang. Rarely seeing tourist, it is about a 3-hour drive through twisting roads from either Ha Giang or Bac Quang.
There are two different seasons in the life of rice. There’s the wet and dry season, both having their own distinct beauty. From the months of April and May the fields are flooded with water to start the cultivation process.
During these months, the fields resemble staircases of miniature lakes reflecting in the mid-day sun. By October and November, the rice field’s yellow reeds are in full bloom.
As seen in this video…
#5. Go When the Buckwheat Flowers Are in Bloom
The buckwheat flower (Tam Giac Mach) is considered the symbol of the Ha Giang province. Although the plant did at once time grow naturally in its highlands, buckwheat is now sown by local farmers to produce wine, cakes, candies, livestock feed and of course to lure tourists.
You can expect to pay 10,000VND per person if you want to enter a farmer’s field and take photos amongst the flora.
The buckwheat flowers are most plentiful in the Dong Van pass and begin blooming as the temperature dips during the months of November and December. As they begin to bud, the normally green landscape turns a delicate pinkish hue.
Since the budding of the buckwheat flowers symbolize renewal for many of the minorities. Towns such as Dong Van use this time to honor the flower with a series of festivals.
#6. Visit the Local Villages and Get to Know Its People
Ethnic minorities make up the majority of Ha Giang’s population. Rich in ethnic traditions, Ha Giang is home to close to 90% of Vietnam’s minority population. Hmong, Tay, Red Dao, Lo Lo…there are 22 ethnic minorities in total, many can be differentiated by the color of their headscarves and elaborate handmade clothing.
Foreigners are still a rare sight for the locals here, especially the children. Who are often shy, but curiosity always takes over. Some will use this opportunity to practice the only English word they know…”hello!”
The village of Ma Le (Cross-eyed Ghost) is approximately 15km from Dong Van town. The peaceful town is home to many minorities. There are a few homestays here that are very welcoming to foreigners.
Life often centers around the local market and Dong Van’s Sunday market is the meeting place for many of the people of Ha Giang, many of whom travel great distances from high in the mountains to buy and sell their wares every weekend.
Watching the hustle and bustle of the extremely busy market definitely fills you with a sense of how the people of Ha Giang live their everyday lives.
There Is Never Enough Time To See Everything…
It’s almost impossible to see all of Ha Giang’s offerings in one, or even a half dozen visits. For everything mentioned in the short list above, there are a trove of other discoveries waiting to be explored.
The breathtaking Ban Gioc Waterfall sits on the edge of Vietnam and China’s eastern border. While the beautiful natural rock formations of Phuong Thien Cave is located just 7km south of Ha Giang City.
Both are on the bucket-list for my next trip up to Vietnam’s final frontier…