High in the rugged northern reaches of Vietnam, craggy limestone peaks jut towards the sky and slow-moving rivers meander through gentle rolling hills and rice paddies. Far from the helter-skelter streets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city, Ha Giang is a hidden corner of Vietnam most travellers don’t see.
This part of the country is ideal for outdoor activities such as camping and trekking. It’s also a very popular spot for motorbike touring as the roads are thrilling and offer unparalleled views. For example, the mountain pass entrance to Dong Van Plateau is called Quan Ba Heaven Gate and as you pass through it you will be rewarded with a vista of endless misty green terraced fields – making you feel like you have entered paradise itself.
Ha Giang – Remote and Untouched
Ha Giang is one of the rare travel destinations in the world where there isn’t a 7/11, Starbucks or MacDonalds on the corner and crowds of tourists piling off buses and taking photos.
Life in this region still happens as it did centuries ago and the tribal culture is well preserved – 90% of the population is ethnic minorities. The Hmong people migrated there in the 18th century, running from unrest in southern China.
The area is only now opening up to visitors in recent years since the tension from a 1979 Chinese invasion is fading. The Vietnamese government has been investing in hotels, roads and infrastructure. And that means more foreign visitors, as well as middle class Vietnamese, are beginning to travel to Ha Giang.
The best time to visit Ha Giang is the spring or the autumn. The weather will be warm, there will be little rainfall and the foliage will be lush and bright. Avoid visiting during the rainy season from May to September, because the weather can be very wet and the roads can be dangerous.
If you visit during the Spring Festival the week after the Lunar New Year you’ll be able to join in the festivities as everyone will be drinking, feasting and singing.
The Top 7 Reasons To Visit This Beautiful Part of Vietnam
1. This is the ideal time to visit. The region is developed enough to have basic infrastructure, such as ATMs, food and accommodation. However, it doesn’t draw enough tourists yet to have been completely transformed by outsiders.
2. The scenery is breathtaking. Lush green rice terraces and massive limestone mountains will have you captivated at every turn.
3. Ha Giang is home to some of the oldest societies in Vietnam, which offers you a fascinating opportunity to connect with these indigenous peoples and learn about their heritage.
4. You can visit the Hmong King Palace, which is not just an interesting historical attraction but also an intriguing landmark of local ethnic groups.
5. The ethnic minority groups here are known for their artistic skills and the hand-woven textiles they produce are stunning. You’ll be able to admire these handicrafts and perhaps even take them home with you. There are several ethnic markets that take place throughout the region, mostly on Saturdays and Sundays.
6. Another reason to visit is the food. You’ll have the chance to taste some of the region’s traditional dishes, such as sticky rice porridge with pig’s trotters, ground meat and herbal leaves or juicy steamed rice rolls with egg.
7. The weather in these high altitude mountain villages is refreshingly cool, a nice break from the sweltering heat of many other parts of Vietnam.
How to Get There
There is an overnight train from Hanoi that will take you to Lao Cai, a city approximately 70 miles from Ha Giang. There, you can catch a local bus that will take eight hours to make the journey through the misty and winding hills. These roads are not for the weak-stomached and you will be twisting, dipping and winding your way around the side of a massive gorge.
Even the journey there can be a cultural experience. In an article for Matador, Ben McKechnie writes “I find that taking the train provides an insight into a place’s society and culture, and allows the chance to interact with people from different social backgrounds in first, second and third class carriages.”
In order to get into the remote areas of Ha Giang Province you will need to purchase a permit, which costs 10USD. It can be obtained at the police station in Meo Vac or the Immigration Office in Ha Giang Town. Make sure that you keep this permit on you at all times, as it might be checked by the police.
Philipp Dukatz from Escapology.eu writes about how he was on the way to enjoy the viewpoint at Lung Cu when he was escorted into a police station only to realize that he had left his permit inside his passport at the hotel in Dong Van. He was not allowed to visit the viewpoint and had to head back to Dong Van immediately. “So if you think you can easily go without a permit, don’t do it,” he writes.
In recent years the road conditions have improved, which means that accessing this isolated part of the country is a little bit easier. Many visitors choose to explore the area on motorbikes, as the winding mountain passes and scenic back roads make for a thrilling journey. Motorbikes are available to rent in Ha Giang City and you can ride a loop of 320 km. It is possible to complete in 2 days, but you will want to take 3 or 4 so that you can stop along the way and savour your surroundings.
Taking the time to venture out to Ha Giang will give you a glimpse into a remote and unspoiled part of the country and make you feel like you have slipped back through the centuries to a simpler time.
Have you explored the Ha Giang region? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Kelly Dunning is a Canadian freelance travel writer. She lives a nomadic lifestyle with no fixed address – working from the road for the last 5 years with her partner Lee, a web-designer from England. They have traveled to over 40 countries and they offer travel tips, stories and inspiration on Global-Goose.com.