Destination: Ha Giang
Activities: motorbiking, cultural exploration, mountains, scenery
Ha Giang is the most beautiful province in all of Vietnam. Ok, I know this is a bold statement but hear me out. Three years ago, I traveled Vietnam for 40 days from the north (as far as Sapa) to the south (Phu Quoc Island). Now, I have lived in northern Vietnam for 4 months: two months in Hanoi and two in Lao Cai. So, I’ve spent some time exploring the country and seeing its attractions. This is why I can say, with confidence, that Ha Giang has, in my opinion, the most breathtaking scenery in all of Vietnam.
If you are the adventurer type, the first thing to know about Ha Giang province is that there is really only one way you should travel through it: by motorbike. For those that have more time and want to really challenge themselves, then a bicycle is the way to go (you will have jacked legs after this, I promise you). With only 4 nights and 5 days to play with, we decided to go by motorbike.
We arrived in Ha Giang from Ha Long Bay in the wee hours of the morning. Thankfully, our bus booted us off in front of Kiki’s House, where we were warmly greeted and given a bed to sleep on for a few hours. Kiki’s House also offers motorbike rentals, which I highly recommend (my little beater back in Lao Cai wasn’t suitable for the inclines on the roads there). The bikes we rented were reliable, ran very well and were rented for a reasonable price (150 000 VND/day). We left first thing in the morning, anxious to get started on the adventure. The travel gods smiled at us that day and gave us a perfect blue bird sky.
The goal of the first day was to head straight north and reach Quan Ba. It wasn’t long after we started our drive that we stopped to take a picture and enjoy the jaw dropping view. The lush mountains had such unique shapes, with some pointing straight into the sky like fangs, and with others forming extended ridges. The day was a gradual incline, switchback after switchback, with every turn of a corner offering a surprising new view. For the most part, the roads were empty of houses except for a few little settlements at which locals would sit outside and sell dried foods and natural medicines. I bought an essential oil of the pine tree that grows in the area that I am very pleased with. It smells wonderful, feels nice on my skin and the purchase helped to support local people.
Upon reaching Quan Ba, we decided to scout out a place to stay that night. We found a homestay online and googled its location. Homestays are where you stay and eat with a local family (more on this in a bit). We decided to follow Google maps to the pinned location which turned out being a wonderful mistake. On one hand, we were directed 40 minutes out into the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand, we got to motorbike along small paths through villages at the golden hour of the day. The children in these villages were absolutely adorable! It seemed as though we were the first foreigners that they had ever laid their eyes on. They curiously but cautiously approached us seeming timid at first. Once they sussed us out, we enjoyed a nice game of “Hello” as I like to call it: they say hello, I say hello then they say hello, then I say hello… it continued in this manner (this is a fun and popular game often played between foreign travelers and locals with no common language… the biggest perk is that you can play anywhere in the world free of cost! “Hello” can also be replaced with “Bye Bye” if you’re feeling some variety).
We arrived at Ly’s homestay in the evening, just on time for dinner! The Ly family was apart of the Dao Tribe, which is one of the many local ethnicities in the area. The woman of the Dao tribe adorn themselves with beautiful handmade embroideries, tassels and jewelry. Many Dao can be seen working in the fields during the day or selling their goods at markets. We enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked vegetarian (by request) meal with the family that consisted of veggies, rice and tomato tofu, followed by rounds of “happy water”, home brewed rice wine. We slept well that night despite the lack of heating system, thanks to the happy water.
The next day, we set out toward Lung Cu, the most northern point of Vietnam. We didn’t make it all the way there that day because we diverted from the loop to visit Lùng Tám, a small village that displayed Hmong Tribe (another local ethnicity) traditional hemp weaving (more on this in post to come!).
From Lùng Tám, we continued north. The landscape started to drastically change. The road first lead us through winding shallow valleys that made you feel apart of a mystical movie. We stopped along here for coffee in a pine forest. Interestingly, the further we proceeded, the trees started to become replaced with shrubs. As the sun set, we found ourselves surrounded by rock garden mountain sides. With the sun down and the temperature quickly falling, we decided to post up at a random hotel along the road.
The next day offered an even more shocking landscape transformation as we moved closer to Lung Cu. The mountains got taller and became more piercing as the valleys got deeper. At the bottom of the valleys were rice terraces and the horizon was a stunning display of layered of mountains. Finally, we arrived at Lung Cu (pats self on back). At the top of the tower marking Vietnam’s most northern point is a massive flag overlooking the Vietnamese/Chinese border.
From Lung Cu, we started to make our way south again. Down we went, toward Ma Pi Leng Pass, also known as the “Happiness Road”, a name which we soon found out suitably describes one’s sentiment driving along it. This road is said to be the most beautiful road in all of Vietnam. There seemed to be an endless amount of shapes and sizes of mountains, a scene that could fill any person with a sense of wonder. There was such a tranquility and peace to the area. The roads were mostly clear of traffic, however we would honk our horns as we approached every corner to warn oncoming traffic of our presence. Finally, we reached Mèo Vạc, where we spent Christmas Eve celebrating with travelers from around the world at Mr. Hung’s Guesthouse.
Our final day, we worked our way down and back toward Ha Giang City. The mountains and scenery never failed to stun me. I especially enjoyed motorbiking through the villages this day. The kids here have seen more foreigners along the road and were excited to interact. We ended up buying a couple of bags of candy to hand out to kids as we passed by. The return from the kids for this was priceless: usually a BIG smile and a high five!
We finished the loop when we arrived back in Ha Giang, where we enjoyed our first warm shower since the beginning of the trip.
As I have already mentioned, I believe that Ha Giang is the most beautiful place in all of Vietnam. Of course there are roads, cities and villages that I haven’t traveled, but I can say with confidence that Ha Giang is no easy competitor when it comes to natural beauty and for an immersive cultural experience.
Ha Giang Travel Tips:
- Dress warm in the winter (January to March).
- Try the local dried foods/products.
- It is good to not book things in advance so that there is more opportunity for spontaneity (open up and let the opportunities come to you!).
- Take the time to leave the recommend loop path to check out some smaller villages.
- Talk to the kids – it helps them learn English (or whatever language) and being bilingual is always a step up.
- Play “Hello” with the locals (game explained somewhere above).
- Get some candy or treats to give out to the kids along the road.
- Don’t trust the allocated time for the distance on Google maps. For a more accurate estimate, double it.
- Take your time!
A recommended route:
- Hà Giang to Quản Bạ: 54 Km
- Quản Bạ to Lung Cu: 115 Km
- Lung Cu to Mèo Vạc: 56 Km
- Mèo Vạc to Hà Giang: 158 Km
It seems a bit choppy, but this is pretty much what we did and we were happy with our decision. Ultimately, I recommend staying there even longer to take the time to absorb the smaller villages and cultures.
If anyone is planning on heading that way and is looking for any more recommendations, PM me!