Why visit Ha Giang?

           Ha Giang Province is located in the far north of Vietnam—as far north as you can get without crossing over into China. Still relatively unpopular among foreign tourists, it has a certain mystique that I found very appealing.

But it’s not like people are whispering about Ha Giang—the secret is definitely out, especially among Vietnamese tourists and the expat community in Hanoi. Still, Ha Giang has an aura; a reputation for being an untouched paradise far removed from the trappings of over-tourism. Its reputation is well-deserved—Ha Giang is certainly beautiful and offers a tourism experience you simply can’t find elsewhere in Vietnam.

khuoi my mountain

There are three things people come to see in Ha Giang: The dramatic landscapes, the ethnic diversity (more than 90 percent of Ha Giang’s residents belong to 16 ethnic groups), and the Dong Van Loop road, which offers some of the best motorcycling in Vietnam.

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H’mong people are at the fair

Ha Giang or Sapa?

There was a time when Sapa (Sa Pả) was considered a fringe destination. That’s certainly not the case anymore. By 2020, Lao Cai Province (Lào Cai) where Sapa is located is expected to welcome more than 6 million tourists annually.

Sapa is far more accessible than Ha Giang, with more accommodation options and better tourist infrastructure. But the downsides of over-tourism in Sapa are now well-documented and well-known. Could Ha Giang be ‘the new Sapa’?

I sometimes hear people refer to Ha Giang as ‘the Sapa of a decade ago’. Ha Giang is geographically close to Sapa and offers a lot of the same experiences—rice terraces, trekking, homestays, ethnic minorities, Sunday markets.

The breakneck speed of development in Sapa has produced some rather troubling side-effects, including environmental destruction, commercialisation of traditional culture, and social problems. I’ve heard that a lot of children in Sapa are being put to work in the tourism industry and are missing out on an education as a result.

I’ve heard stories of women who stalk tourists relentlessly when trying to sell them handicrafts. I’ve heard that many hotels and restaurants in Sapa are owned by business people from the city, and that the local community sees little return.

Sapa has a lot to offer tourists (there’s a reason it’s so popular), but it’s losing its appeal. I’m sure these things are going on in Ha Giang too—but I really hope Ha Giang isn’t destined for the same fate.

Tourism in Ha Giang is still in its early stages. That’s why it’s so important to travel responsibly and set a good precedent.

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How Travelling in Ha Giang by?

Motorbiking in Ha Giang is a right of passage for many young Vietnamese people. Travelling in the days after Tết (Vietnamese New Year), we saw literally hundreds of couples riding. More and more backpackers and expats are heading up to Ha Giang to conquer the Dong Van Loop. In the next few years, I expect Ha Giang will probably become a ‘must-do’ for tourists visiting Vietnam.

Even if I did ride a motorbike, I would think twice before riding in Ha Giang. I know plenty of people who have done it—they are far braver than me! The roads are rough and unforgiving. The highway is often plied with trucks carrying rocks. The distances between homestays are long.

If, like us, you don’t know how to ride a motorbike—or if you’re travelling with kids—you’ll need to find an alternative way to get around. It’s possible to travel to Ha Giang City or Dong Van City by bus from Hanoi or Lao Cai (Sapa). From there, you can use a combination of public transport and hire cars to see most of the sights.

You will have to sacrifice on certain things though, and it will be a lot more complicated to organise and time consuming to execute. Of the options that currently exist for non-bikers, private car is by far the best choice.

Road safety and the comfort factor was important to us—and our car certainly delivered on that. We were a bit concerned that being in a car for long periods of time would make use feel disconnected—but I didn’t find that to be the case.

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Stilt houses on the rice field

Our 5-day Ha Giang tour itinerary

Our five-day Ha Giang tour followed the classic Dong Van Loop tinerary. The loop normally takes three or four days to complete by motorbike, starting and finishing in Ha Giang City. Since we had some extra time, we added in a full day of trekking in the villages around Ha Giang City.

We also dedicated a morning to visiting a small Hmong village outside of Dong Van. One of the best things about travelling was the chance to explore parts of Ha Giang where few other tourists go. These ‘add-ons’ were by far the most enjoyable and rewarding part of our trip.

Our route through Ha Giang went as follows: Hanoi — Ha Giang City — Thon Tha & Khuoi My — Ma Pi Leng Pass — Meo Vac — Dong Van — Sa Phin & Sung La — Lung Tam — Nam Dam — Tam Son — Hanoi

Here are some of the highlights of our time in Ha Giang

Thon Tha village

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Thon Tha Village

Tourists have been coming to Thon Tha since 2007 and the village is well-equipped to accommodate guests. Several families have turned their traditional wooden stilted houses into homestays. Anyone who can speak English freelances as a guide. Most people in Thon Tha are from the Tay ethnic group and make their living off the land.

To get to Thon Tha, you have to stray from the main Dong Van Loop. As a result, we didn’t run into any other tourists during our stay. Sleeping in a stilted house surrounded by lush rice fields, we certainly felt like we had ventured off the beaten track. It was the perfect start to our time in Ha Giang.

We spent our first afternoon walking around Thon Tha and trekking to a nearby waterfall, chaperoned by a few local kids who were still on school holidays for Tet.

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Waterfall in Thon Tha

Khuoi My village

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Thon Tha Gate

As we continued walking up into the mountains, the landscape morphed quite dramatically—one minute we were scaling slippery rice terraces, the next we were in the middle of a tea field, and then suddenly we were under a canopy of palm trees.

By lunchtime we had reached our destination—Tay Con Linh (Tây Côn Lĩnh) peak and another village, Khuoi My (Khuổi My).

Home to 200 families from the Dao ethnic group, Khuoi My also has some basic tourism infrastructure, including a few homestays. We scaled the wooden stairs of one stilted house to eat lunch with a local family. They were incredibly welcoming, proudly showing off their collection of traditional Dao costumes (they even let me try one on).

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We were gawking over the beautiful textiles when the family patron—a man in his 80s—reached up into the rafters of the house and pulled down a plastic bag full of leather and cardboard-bound books. He leafed through them, explaining that they were records of Dao coming-of-age and marriage rituals, handwritten in the most beautiful script.

Next, he pulled out a shaman’s robe embroidered with fantastic Taoist motifs. That house is a living museum; a repository of age-old traditions hidden away in the hills.

After lunch, we trekked back to our homestay in Thon Tha. Our host, Mr Thien, and his family have been working with us for several years. We were among the first guests to stay in the new house Mr Thien recently built to house guests.

It’s built in the traditional Tay style—complete with thatched roof—but with en-suit bathrooms added. Like all the homestays we visited in Ha Giang, Mr Thien’s place was incredibly homely and comfortable.

Ma Pi Leng Pass & Heaven’s Gate

Day three of our Ha Giang tour and we were back on the road, headed east towards Dong Van. As we drove, the landscape started to shift quite noticeably. Tea fields and rice paddies quickly gave way to limestone peaks and rocky canyons as we entered into the Dong Van Karst Plateau, a UNESCO-recognised geopark.

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Ma Pi Leng on the road

This is what people picture when they think of Ha Giang. Towering mountains, bottomless valleys, patchwork fields, precipitous rice terraces. The views from the car window were breathtaking.

Seeing Ha Giang with fresh eyes, I believe many people was just as enthralled with the landscape as we were. Even me, who has been to Ha Giang a hundred times, was visibly affected by the beauty we were seeing.

Sa Phin & Sung La

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people go to the fair

I was pleased to leave Dong Van behind and get back to greener pastures. We set off early, driving north towards the Chinese border, armed with the registration certificates our hotel had issued for us overnight. We were well and truly off the tourist trail and following the most perilous road we drove on in Ha Giang.

We were headed for a small Hmong village hidden in a valley behind Dong Van. Thick fog and the poor condition of the unpaved road eventually made driving too dangerous. After a few kilometres, we got out and walked.mo

Trang led us into the tiny Flower Hmong village. Bordered by ancient, towering Bodhi trees, it was incredibly atmospheric and more than a little bit eerie.

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Sa Phin Market

This particular village was a sharp contrast from the other communities we visited in Ha Giang. It was extremely isolated and visibly poor. We wandered around and admired the earth houses.

In the afternoon, we continued driving along National Road 4C to Sa Phin Commune (Sà Phìn) and Dong Van District’s most famous tourist site, the Hmong King Palace. Vương Chính Đức (AKA the Hmong Kind) was a well-known figure during Vietnam’s period of French colonial rule. He famously joined forces with Ho Chi Minh in the fight for independence. Vương‘s home, built in the 1920s, demonstrates an interesting mix of European and Chinese styles. Lavishly decorated, there are poppy buds and flowers carved into almost every wooden surface (Vương made his fortune trading opium).

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H’mong King Palace

Vuong’s house now lies empty and is undergoing restorations. Some of the family’s decedents still reside in Sa Phin—a few of them in houses opposite the palace gate. I had to laugh when Trang pointed out where the ‘successful’ Vương lived—the house with the Viettel billboard for an awning. From opium to mobile phones. How times change!

Our next stop was Sung La (Sủng Là), another small Hmong village. Set in an idyllic valley surrounded by fields of flowers, Sung La was made famous by the book and film Story of Pao. Sung La is also well-known for its flowers.

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Valley of flowers

Most of the roses sold in Hanoi are grown here. A few enterprising locals have set up small wildflower plots at the village entrance and charge tourists a fee to take selfies (we recently saw this in Mai Chau as well). The village was packed with Vietnamese tourists when we visited, so we only managed a quick stroll around.

LUNG TAM

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Brocade weaving village Lung Tam

We arrived in Quan Ba (Quản Bạ) District and the green valley floor we had admired from a hilltop a few days earlier. Having almost closed the loop, we were coming towards the end of our Ha Giang tour.

We stopped in at Lung Tam Commune for a brief visit with the local hemp co-op. Managed by a group of Flower Hmong women, the business is run in partnership with Craft Link and a few other NGOs. The ladies produce exquisite natural hemp cloth that they colour with natural dyes. They also do applique, batik and embroidery.

I really love the contemporary motifs they use in their designs, made to symbolise the Dong Van Geopark and other points of interest in the local area. Their textiles and accessories make for perfect Ha Giang souvenirs. (You can also purchase their products at the Craft Link shop, one of my favourite souvenir shops in Hanoi.)

After a brief demonstration of the various stages of hemp cloth production, we were ushered into the gift shop. A group of Vietnamese tourists joined us—most of them left with bolts of hemp fabric bought off the roll for very reasonable prices. I ended up buying a wall hanging.

NAM DAM

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Ly Quoc Thang Homestay

We spent our last night in Ha Giang in a traditional coin-roof house in the small village of Nam Dam (Nậm Đăm). We shared dinner and drinks with our Dao host family and the homestay’s other guests.

I’ve experienced this kind of ‘hands-on’ hospitality again and again in Northern Vietnam—where visitors are welcomed sincerely, and not just served. It’s one of the things I love most about travelling here.

TAM SON

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The final stop on our Ha Giang tour was the town of Tam Son (Tam Sơn). Fortuitously, it was a Sunday—market day—so we got to spend some time at the wet market. Once a week, families from surrounding towns and villages converge on Tam Son to do their shopping.

Most come dressed in their Sunday best, i.e. their traditional garb. The result is a colourful conglomeration of ethnic groups—Hmong, Dao, Giay, Nung, and many more. Paired with the gnarly stalls and the dimly-lit market interior, the vibrantly dressed women made Tam Son feel really authentic. We were flies on the wall for almost an hour as we lapped around the marketplace in awe.

Stallholders at Tam Son primarily sell fresh produce, but we also saw lots of agricultural supplies and a few stalls selling handmade textiles. Our Ha Giang tour ended the same way it had started—in a small town, surrounded by friendly people and full of eye-opening experiences.