Ha Giang is touted by those who’ve travelled there as the most beautiful place in Vietnam. Nick Ross took a trip up to the country’s most northerly province to find out for himself
Zoom, Zoom (Let’s Go to the Countryside)
“The bus may be uncomfortable,” warns Zoom. “Sometimes people speak on the phone very loudly and at other times there are babies. My last trip was okay, but you never know.”
This is the second time Zoom, or Dung in Vietnamese, has told me this. The four of us — Zoom, Hoa, Quy and myself — have just finished dinner at Foodshop 45 in Hanoi and we are making our way to My Dinh Bus Station. Zoom’s leading our trip to Ha Giang and is trying to make an impression. With a journalist coming along, it’s a chance to show off the self-styled travel company that she set up a year ago.
Leading tours into the countryside, sometimes by motorbike or bicycle, sometimes by car or bus, or sometimes even on foot, for the past 12 months Zoom has spent her time taking groups around North and North-Central Vietnam. An American university graduate — she studied in Alaska — and with a one-and-a-half-year stint living and working in Malaysia, running tours is a new direction for her. She loves it, but it’s taken its toll.
“I’m burnt out,” she says. “I need a break.”
Yet as we arrive at the bus station you can see she’s excited. It’s written in her smile. She’s already made a dozen trips to Ha Giang, but there’s always more for her to discover. You can see the anticipation.
The sleeper bus comes replete with reclining bunk beds — four to a level either side of the aisle, two levels. Because of all the equipment I’m carrying — computer, camera and lenses — I don’t want to put my bag in the hold. So I pay for an extra bed. It’s a luxury, but I’m still uncomfortable. The beds aren’t just made for difficult sleepers like myself, especially someone who likes to sleep on their side. Here I have to sleep face up.
Nine hours later we arrive in Ha Giang City, our sleep interrupted by loud phone conversations and a midnight stop at a roadside restaurant. I breathe in the early morning air. I may be in the city — but after all these years of wanting to go to Ha Giang, I’m finally here. There is a spring in my step.
“I don’t like doing motorbike tours so much,” says Zoom as we eat breakfast. “It can be dangerous.”
The experience has taught Zoom to take precautions. One of them is speed. She drives slowly, sometimes infuriatingly slowly. But it’s safe, and at 30 or 40km/h any accidents have been minor. You also get to see the views and stop a lot — our itinerary takes in 100km a day.
Within 2km of leaving the city the countryside descends on us. Despite being overcast it’s already breathtaking. We stop, take photos.
“Just you wait,” says Zoom. There’s a twinkle in her eye. “Every day the scenery is different.”
As we enter the national geopark and start heading up into the Dong Van Highlands, the clouds are low, sitting like cotton wool in between the mountains, or looming grey and sullen above. It’s been spitting and the road is slippery, but the scenery is spectacular at every turn.
“Oh it’s so nice when the sun’s out and the skies are blue,” says Zoom at a photo stop. “Don’t worry, tomorrow. It’s always bad weather on the first day I arrive.”
For me the clouds and the drizzle create atmosphere — what passes in front of my eyes is already what I came here for. Mountains, lush greenery, valleys, small houses and villages. It’s the feeling, too, the emotion of being out of the town and in the wild. City life already belongs to another world.
We’re getting wet, but it’s surface water wet, a glistening film appearing over our waterproofs. Zoom has a full raincoat kit — trousers and jacket. Hoa has a see-through raincoat. Both myself and Quy just have rain jackets — our trousers are getting damp, but we’ll pull through.
Halfway through the second pass the sky darkens, the wind starts to swirl and a storm breaks. Our speed slows. Now we’re at 20km/h as the road hugs the side of ravines and falls into twists and breakneck turns.
The rain continues to come down, harder, pelting us with anger. A pool of liquid has formed in my shoes, my trousers cling like a wetsuit to my skin. I’ve forgotten to zip my raincoat all the way up to the top — my shirt is sodden and I’m starting to shiver. I left Hanoi with the remnants of the flu. This isn’t good.
Still the road winds on through the mountains without a house in sight. We stop, drenched, pause for breath and then continue on.
Another 15 minutes and we come to the first house, a wooden-fronted shack inhabited by a Hmong family. Zoom pulls in and we see two young girls playing on the porch. They have a makeshift swing — two strips of material hanging from a beam. They take turns swinging back and forward, supporting themselves with the strength of their arms.
“Can we stop for a bit?” Zoom asks a slightly older girl standing in the doorway. We get a yes and we descend from our bikes out of the rain.
It’s cold, very cold, and it’s summer. We stand there shivering, but gradually start to interact with the kids and their mother. Zoom gives them some toys — she’s brought a bunch of masks, fluffy toys and rattles with her — and a conversation picks up. We’re in the middle of it all, taking photos, chatting, laughing, bridging gaps that are otherwise difficult to be bridged. The Hmong are a private people, and here we are in the middle of them.
The Drunken Husband and the Masks
It’s afternoon of day one and the scenery has changed. Within 5km of leaving Quan Ba the mountains start to loom high above, the vegetation becomes sparse, and the rock turns black, volcanic black.
“The people are so poor here,” Zoom tells us, directing her arms towards the mountains. “Look at it, they can’t even grow rice.
She leads us to a shack next to a school. The Hmong woman living there is someone she’s met a few times. “She’s so poor and I think her husband is a drunk.”
“Last time I came here she was sick,” she adds. “I don’t like giving people money — I normally give her food. But I gave her VND100,000 to buy medicine.”
Inside the shack the place is a mess. Corn, part ground for food, part whole, sits on a plastic tarpaulin in its midst, and pots and pans are strewn across the floor. Zoom has bought some fluffy toys. She gives one to each of the kids. The smiles emerge. The kids are entranced.
We move on and within a couple of kilometres we see a boy chasing a goat down a road. The goat runs into the alley besides us and into the house. We get talking to the boy and his sister, and give them masks that Zoom has brought from Hanoi as a present. But quickly our presence is discovered and more kids arrive. Some are meek, some more confident, but each one is intrigued by the four strangers and the masks. The laughter starts to rise, games start getting played, adults stick their heads out of houses and watch.
It’s morning in Yen Minh and the town is full of ethnic minorities. Some are Hmong, some are Tay, some are Red Dao. I stand opposite a gas station and watch as they rock up to fill their bikes, or amble down the street with baskets or young kids strapped to their backs. Out of the corner of their eyes they watch me back.
Unlike elsewhere in Vietnam, the Hmong here wear a mixture of traditional garb. Some women proclaim their ethnicity through their brightly coloured headscarves; others through pleated dresses or the blouses they wear. The men are uniformly dressed in hemp-woven black shirts. The Red Dao women, however, are in full traditional dress — black garments with a red lining. Their men look like they could be Vietnamese.
As we head out of town and up the first set of inclines, there are more people, more ethnic minorities, all walking. It’s market day, I’m told. They’re headed in and out of town. Mostly walking, many are carrying heavy loads up the side of mountains. Only a few are on motorbikes.
The inclines get steeper, the houses disappear, the roads start to wind. Still there are the walkers, colourfully dressed, camera shy, some demanding money if we try to take photos, some looking away in disgust.
We get higher up and Zoom points out some cannabis growing on the side of the road. It’s a mild strain, used here for weaving hemp. It’s grown legally.
The air starts to get cold, the mist drops and we find ourselves in a government-constructed village. It’s called Pho Cao and it’s typically un-Hmong — one wide, straight road with houses on either side made out of concrete.
Quy sees something, goes into a house and starts talking to the owner. Hanging outside on the washing line are brightly coloured pink and tartan Hmong scarves. And behind them, barking, is a dog chained up to a small hut. It’s a Hmong Dog. Fluffy, mountainous with an unusual face, it’s different to every other dog in Vietnam. It’s strangely beautiful — I stare at it, it barks back.
Inside the house the family are watching a Hmong fighting movie from the US, and the owner, who takes the Vietnamese name Son, is chopping up pork. Although corn, the Hmong staple, is strewn on a tarpaulin on the floor, you can see this family is relatively wealthy. Relatively. And, by coming down from the mountains to settle in a Vietnamese-constructed village, they’re brave, too. They’re integrating into Vietnamese society. Not too much — the language spoken in the house is still Hmong. But they’re not living lives of mountain isolation.
We move on and the road continues to wind and pass through ravines. And then we come upon the first thing to really startle us — a valley filled with black, volcanic rock intermingled with emerald green vegetation. We stop at an observation point for lunch in a place called Sa Phin.
Wisps of cloud fill up the valleys below. More black-rock mountains shade like grey and black silhouettes into the background. And the wind is up. Not too high to be painful, but enough to make you breathe the air deeply into your lungs and not let go.
There is something unearthly about this place. The rock is not from this planet. It can’t be. Even in the literature on this area this comment is made — moon rock, reads the badly translated English. Moon rock.
We’re at Lung Cu, the most northerly point in Vietnam, and we’re talking about the village we just passed through. Is it Má Lé, meaning ‘cross-eyed mother’ or Ma Lé — ‘cross-eyed ghost’? We’re so tired from our rain-drenched motorbike drive, which meandered through mountain passes and regal valleys. When we settle on ‘cross-eyed ghost’, we don’t discuss its strangeness.
We don’t need to.
The scenery here is breathtaking. It defies words. You can describe it, yes — rolling hills, dark mountains, black rock, deep green foliage, terraced fields, winding roads, alpine furs, adobe houses — and with a role of the tongue you can add colour, verbiage for all the foliage, flowers for all the mountains. But words can only capture the emotion this place evokes, not the place itself. Everything that is not the mountains is small, tiny, a dot on an imposing horizon. Man is just a speck of dirt on the majesty of nature.
But here, in the space where Vietnam sticks up into China like a sore thumb, we’re about to experience something else. That country up north.
Lung Cu is known for its tower, a mountain-top column and flagpole overlooking the border. On its top flaps an enormous Vietnamese flag, placed as if to remind the northern hordes beyond of that upstart nation to the south. It’s on the tip of the nail, the pointed nail of that thumb, and the tower and flag loom resplendent below the imposing sky.
As we climb the first set of steps — there are 270 to get to the base of the tower — Communist Party music drifts out of the speakers. It’s imposing and yet soothing, peace-breaking yet relevant.
For the whole of the 1980s, Vietnam fought off the Chinese on its northern border. The Chinese managed to get no more than a kilometre into Vietnam. With an already war-hardened army and borderlands like these, it’s no surprise.
At the base of the tower the question is asked again and again. “Where is China?” No sign marks it out. I think it’s to the north, but when I look later on Google Maps, it’s to the east and west as well, no more than two kilometres either way. From where we stand, there are villages on the other side of the border that can only be reached by road from Vietnam. But at this moment we don’t know that, and climbing to the top of the tower — another 144 steps — we ask again.
This time the answer comes with the wind. It soars here in blusters, hitting you in the face. Beyond the valleys below, China is everywhere you look, but it’s not here. Certainly not here.
We have a different vantage point at the top of the tower to the one we see on the road. And we could stand here and soak in the effect of man and nature for hours. But we have to move on. It’s late afternoon and we have to get on to Dong Van for dark.
Leaving Lung Cu and China behind, we head back south into Vietnam and through Ma Le. Yes, we confirm. The name means ‘cross-eyed ghost’.
There’s an Old Quarter in Dong Van, a French Quarter with century-old houses. And in one of them lives a woman selling possibly the best banh cuon I have ever tasted.
“What do you call it?” I ask her. “Banh cuon Ha Giang?”
She laughs. “It’s just banh cuon,” she says, “But you can call it banh cuon Dong Van if you wish.”
The wet rice paper is folded with an egg inside it and is then served up with a bowl of pork broth with chopped spring onions and gio lua (pork sausage). It’s spicy, it’s filling, it’s wholesome. And it tastes delicious. I could eat this all morning.
“Do they sell this elsewhere?” I ask Zoom.
“Yes,” she says, “but this place is the best.”
Heaven on Earth
Just two kilometres out of Dong Van town you enter the district of Meo Vac. The Vietnamese press has labeled Ma Pi Leng, the pass we are about to go through, as ‘Heaven on Earth’. It’s majestic. It’s huge. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s a place that makes your jaw drop. It’s what tourists should be coming to this country to see. Instead Sapa and Halong Bay fall onto itineraries. Ma Pi Leng and the Dong Van Highlands don’t come close. In a way I’m relieved.
Even with the clouds settling in the ravines, and the Nho Que River flowing 1,500m below; with the terraced paddy fields, the colour of the ethnic minorities and all the superlatives and emotion you can throw at this collection of mountainous valleys, it’s not heaven on earth. But it’s certainly the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Vietnam, and I’ve travelled a lot in this country. It’s unearthly.
It takes us almost three hours to drive the 13km between Dong Van and Meo Vac. Not because of the roads — they are well-paved here. I love it here, I could spend all day here. But it’s not heaven. At least not my heaven. That’s something else, a different figure of a different imagination. Greek columns, bearded gods and angels clad in white togas; floating stairs, early morning sunshine peaking through patches of cloud. I’m very classical in that way.
A tourist stop has been erected at the best-known viewpoint and down below a castle-like tower has been built out over a Grand Canyon-like ravine — the distance to the river at its base is 1,500m. We stop here for half an hour, looking, breathing, taking photos. I think of Sapa. After Ma Pi Leng, the jewel of the Northern Highlands is ordinary. Very ordinary.
Every day on this trip has been different, every morning, every afternoon, every hour, every minute. But I realise while we drive away towards our stop for the night, that this was the pinnacle, the climax. As we go to the next town, Bao Lam, we descend stunning valleys, pass through small towns, follow river valleys, see a woman weaving hemp, meet kids on bridges and walk through paddy fields. But now it’s all ordinary. A bit like Sapa, I think again. A bit like Sapa. Except that it’s Ha Giang.
The Cattle Market
The next morning in Bao Lam my head is pounding — pounding with the constant changes in altitude, pounding with a bad night’s sleep the night before. The town is full of ethnic minorities walking the main street — Tay, Hmong, San Chi, Red Dao — we are told it’s market day. Again.
But when we look for the market, we can’t find it. Eventually we stumble on a makeshift space next to the river. I climb down. It’s a cattle market.
“How much?” I ask one guy who’s just handed someone a wad of crisp VND500,000 notes. “Six million,” he replies. “Six million for this calf.” Later I discover it’s cheap. In Hanoi the price would be double.
The market is packed, mainly with ethnic minorities — only occasionally do I hear people speaking Vietnamese. Men are parading their wares, trying to sell cows and calves while the women look on, commenting, gossiping and making the decisions. A fight breaks out, man against woman. A crowd gathers — but the argument is not in Vietnamese and by the time I get over the woman is in tears. No-one is coming to her aid.
I’m confused, overwhelmed with a feeling of not belonging I rarely feel in other situations in Vietnam. I decide to leave.
The Valley of the Nung
“This is stunning,” I say to Zoom as we look over the paddy fields, stilt houses and mountains. “But after yesterday morning, it’s an anticlimax.”
She agrees with me. She also agrees with me that this area, Ban Bo, has got potential. Huge potential.
“No tourists come here,” she says. “They never pass through this place. But it’s only good from April to September, when the rice is high. That’s when it’s beautiful.”
We’ve been driving further and further into the valleys of the Nung, another of the ethnic minorities living in the area. Once again, the scenery is different to everywhere else we’ve been. Rolling hills, paddy fields, stilt houses with tiled roofs — some even have glass windows. Black pigs, chickens and goats run freely here, and unlike the Hmong, the Nung look Vietnamese. They no longer dress in the traditional clothing of their people. But the roads are terrible here, broken up by the dual harshness of time and weather, and the going is slow.
“Maybe we should have taken a different route,” Zoom says, as she turns over my comment.
“No,” I say. “The buildup was perfect. We hit the pass on day three. The problem, I think, is getting back to Ha Giang. There’s no easy way.”
Here Comes the Sun
For almost 70km the road has been following a river, and around it are untouched swathes of jungle and houses perched on the side of soaring, 1,000-metre-high mountains. After the anticlimax, the magic is returning. Even in the Central Highlands, on the road from Dalat to Dak Lak, you don’t see valleys so pure, beautiful and untouched. Perhaps in Quang Binh and Quang Tri, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the mountains. But nowhere else. And here there’s another difference. Every few kilometres there are iron and wood-crafted suspension bridges, decade-old structures crossing the river to the other side, connecting otherwise disconnected villages with the highway leading to Ha Giang City.
“Look,” says Hoa from the motorbike in front of me. “The sky! It’s turning blue.”
We all stop, excited. It’s late afternoon and we’re 20km from the city. Finally — after four days, right at the end of the trip the sun is coming out. The azure of the sky shines back at us from the other side of the river. Finally I can see what this part of the world looks like with a background of blue rather than white.
As we get closer to Ha Giang, the sun appears through the clouds and in the final collection of valleys before we hit the city, it gives us a sunset. Filling the mountains with soft light, it creates a different mystique.
We stop, look over and catch our final breath of beauty before heading back to civilisation.
To get to Ha Giang you need to can catch an overnight bus from My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi. The journey takes nine hours. Motorbikes can be hired in Ha Giang City. Alternatively, hire a car in Hanoi.
For more information on Zoom’s tours, go to zoomzoomtravelvn.com or pop into her office at 23 Dao Duy Tu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi