Northern Vietnam : Ha Giang
The province of Ha Giang is located in the far north of Vietnam, surrounded by Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Lao Cai and Yen Bai, and contains Vietnam's northernmost point. It shares a long border with the south of China. There are 10 districts including Bac Quang, Quang Binh, Xin Man, Hoang Su Phi, Vi Xuyen, Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Vac, Bac Me and 1 city (Ha Giang city).
Ha Giang consists of various ethnic minorities (Tay, Hmong, Dao, Nung, Cao Lan, Hoa, Lo Lo, etc). They can be distinguished by their clothing.
The climate is divided into two distinct seasons: rainy and dry season. Depending on the altitude, climate will change. The province is good to visit throughout the year. September to November and March to May are when the temperature is most pleasurable, in their mid 20's. The summer months can be quite rainy and in lower altitudes humid, expect more than 30 degrees. December and a bit into February the temperature falls, especially in the mountains so carry some good clothing. There are years when snow has been falling over Ha Giang.
October and November is peak season for local Vietnamese tourists. It is the time when the buckwheat is flowering and expect that hotels, hostels and motorbike rentals can be very busy. It is a very good idea to book your stay and activities in advance during these months.
Ha Giang town, where most tourist will start exploring the province, is located 320 km from Hanoi. Most tourist take the bus to Ha Giang. From Hanoi the bus station with most buses is Mỹ Đình (some 10 km, 6 miles west of Hoàn Kiếm Lake) where you find day buses leaving from 5.30 am till 12.30 with close to hourly departures. The night buses begin departing from 18.00 till 21.30. Both the day and night buses are sleeping couches (with no toilets inside). The bus journey takes roughly 6 ½ hours with one mid-way stop. Note that the night buses arrive Hà Giang very early, but most bus companies let customer stay on-board and continue sleeping till dawn arrives.
Your hostel/hotel in Hanoi can often help you book tickets. If you arrive yourself to the bus station without ticket stay clear of touts (who sadly will do their best to cheat you for fares) and pay only by the ticket counter or if taken to the bus and being assigned a seat do not pay before departure. The bus conductor will take up bus fare some time into the journey. The price should be VND 200,000 (approx. US$9) except peak season.
Return to Hanoi departs with similar intervals/times as from Hanoi.
From Sa Pa you need to first get a bus to Lào Cai. From Lào Cai there are only two daily local buses connecting to Ha Giang. One at 6.00 am and another at 11.00 am. The same timing for the opposite direction. From Lao Cai it is taking up to 7 hours to reach Ha Giang town.
Hà Giang is sadly the last place in Vietnam where foreigners are required to obtain a permit to travel. These permits are required to travel on the road north from Tam Son to Dong Van and Meo Vac. Your hotel or hostel will be happy to assist you to get this provincial ‘admission permit’ (Dong Van Geopark permit). It cost VND 230,000 (approx. US$ 11 per person)
There is possibility to explore the province by local buses or by renting car with a driver. However, most tourist is probably doing the discovery of Ha Giang province by motorbike. There are a number of motorbike rental agencies in Ha Giang Town. As the province is getting more and more people discovering the province it can be good to book in advance, particular in October and November when the province also see the peak of local tourists.
Most travelers go on a loop of most northern Ha Giang (Tam Son, Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Vac, Lung Cu …). Note that the roads are tarmacked almost throughout, but they are narrow, winding, going steep both up and down and with potholes here and there and hence quite demanding to drive. For a motorbike tour try to allocate at least 3 days.
Many areas is also good for trekking.
• Ma Pi Leng Pass: The road is quite difficult but a stop in this pass will have a panoramic overview of the province. Scenery in Ma Pi Leng pass is unique with majestic and wild beauty. Looking to the north and northeast, thousands of gray mountains concatenate to the horizon. Over the Ma Pi Leng, there has a mountain with 2.000 meters height located on the 'Happiness' road connecting Ha Giang, Dong Van and Meo Vac town.
• Quan Ba Heaven Gate: about 1,500m above sea level , this is the entrance of Dong Van Plateau. The road to Quan Ba Heaven gate is winding, twisty crossing limestone mountains. From the top of the Heaven Gate, you could look down across a large valley of unending terraced fields, displaying a charming beauty like a paradise dimly visible through the clouds.
• Dong Van Plateau: Situated north of Ha Giang, near the Sino-Vietnamese border, this plateau is covered by karst mountains. Dong Van is an ideal place for trekking and mountain climbing, where grandiose mountains may challenge your spirit for real. In return, breathtaking landscapes, meetings with local ethnic minorities and learn from their life’s stories are nowhere can be found in the world.
• Rice terrace of Hoang Su Phi: an upland district of Ha Giang Province, it takes around 100km by bus from the center of Ha Giang to Hoang Su Phi. recognized as National Heritage in 2012, Hoang Su Phi terraced rice fields is an ideal destination for sightseeing as well as photographers.
• Hmong King Palace: located in Xa Phin Village of Dong Van District, which is around 24km away from the district’s centre. With an area of 1120 m2, this edifice was built in the early twentieth century in the form of the letter 王 (meaning "king" in English). This is not only a historical relic but also a fabulous architectural landmark of local ethnic groups. This edifice is also a destination always interested many visitors.
• Lung Cu Flag Tower: Built on the top of Dragon mountain, in the district of Dong Van and modeled on the flag tower of Hanoi. Plug in the 12.9m flagstaff is a national flag with an area of 54m², representing for 54 ethnic groups of Viet Nam. At the foot tower, there is a commemorative house, where displays production tools, costumes and cultural products of the ethnic groups in Ha Giang. The staircase that leads to the summit has 389 stone steps but to reach the top of the tower, you must also climb a spiral iron staircase of 140 steps.
• Pho Bang Village: peaceful and calm town, which is 117 km from Ha Giang city, Pho Bang Village is the home of Hoa and Mong ethnicities. The houses here embrace the traditional architecture. They have wooden columns and mud walls.
• Dong Van Old Town: located in the middle of valley surrounded by rocks. The quarter is formed form the early 20th century, only has a few families of the H’mong, Tay and Chinese, gradually, more and more other local residents find it. The oldest house is the house of Luong family built since 1860. The common architecture here is the two-story house and yin and yang roofs. The lifestyle and daily life of ethnic people such as: Kinh, Tay, Mong, Hoa... is very impressive.
• Meo Vac Town: lies snugly in a smallish valley surrounded by rocky mountain. The journey here along the spectacular Mai Pi Leng Pass, about twenty kilometers from Dong Van, is the main attraction. There are different ethnic minorities groups living in Meo Vac including the H’mong, the Kinh, Tay, Dao, etc. Most ethnic groups have maintained their culture untouched from the outside world.
• Markets: The markets of Ha Giang, such as market Quan Ba, Yen Minh and particularly the Khau Vai love attracts many visitors. The Dong Van market is held every Sunday. On sale are local products made by Mong, Han, Dao, Giay and Tay ethnic people. To reach the market on time they have to leave their homes very early in the morning or even one day earlier. The Khau Vai Love Market is held only on the 26th and 27th of day of the third Lunar month. In there, both single and married people in different ethnic groups can come to find ones’ ideal life-partner and sharing their feeling and understanding to each other.
• Yen Minh - Dong Van pass. Ideally would be to spend a night in Yen Minh to break the journey. There are motels and a few hotels there,a morning market with minorities, a blue nice motel near the market too with reasonables prices. Set off to Dong Van early in the morning (around 7-8am) and prepare your camera because the journey is fascinating: misty silent hills, windy roads with gorgeous high mountains and a few villages in the valleys. You can also get closer to the border checkpoint and see the old style houses which even have some Chinese writings on it.
Crossing roads that mender through stunning mountains, see with your own eyes the villages of ethnic minorities tucked in hillsides or lost in the valleys.
Markets are also ideal places for those who want to experience local life and culture of ethnic minorities.
Thang Den (glutinous rice cake)
Thang Den is a popular dish in the province of Ha Giang. It looks like Banh troi in Hanoi, also made of glutinous rice flour. Flour will be kneaded into sphere shapes and boiled in a hot pot of water. This dish is served with sugar and ginger soup. Toppings combine with some sesame and peanuts. Suitable for cold nights in the winter.
Au Tau porridge (Cháo Ấu Tẩu)
Wandering in the town of Ha Giang in the winter, you can easily find a small restaurant and taste the Au Tau porridge. This dish is a combination of deliciousness: the tasty scent of sticky rice mixed with glutinous rice harvested from golden terrace of Ha Giang; the nutty flavor of simmered water caltrop with pig’s trotters; and the taste of herbal leaves; and the moreish taste of ground meat. Au Tau porridge is available in Ha Giang all seasons however only sold in the evening.
Dried pork or buffalo meat
You can enjoy dried pork or buffalo meat in many places in Ha Giang. It is special food in the meals of Black Thai. This meat is usually made from muscle of buffaloes and cows freely on the northwest mountains. With the dried buffalo, the flavor of smoke is almost intact. This dish can be served with corn alcohol.
Steamed Rice Rolls
Steamed Rice Rolls is a dish from northern Vietnam. Bánh cuốn are made from rice flour batter, poured out on a flat plate and steamed then rolled up and stuffed with filling. But there is a special type of steamed rice rolls which has become a specialty of Ha Giang, a mountainous province in the northeast of the country: steamed rice rolls with egg. Weather in Ha Giang is cool all year round, so it is a nice treat for both locals and visitors when seeing vendors offering hot steamed rice rolls early in the morning when fog still hangs in the air.
There are several hotels ranking from 2-3 stars in the city of Ha Giang. There are also plenty of cheap hotels around the bus station for around VND 200,000 to 250,000 for a private double room.
The homestays (cottages) are increasingly popular where tourists can participate in daily activities of the villagers such as eating, sleeping, and even working.
If you arrive early in the morning (4am), just walk away from the bus station and get a few hours sleep in the nearest motels. It won't cost you a lot, and at least you'll get a decent rest before starting the journey.
Ha Giang Tourist Information
City: Ha Giang
Area total: 7 914,9 km²
Population: 771 200 (2013)