Ha Giang

 
 
 

My husband and I spent an incredible 6 days and 5 nights in Ha Giang on a trip organized by Ethnic Travel in Hanoi.  I had contacted several local travel companies and decided to go with Ethnic Travel because they seemed to have more experience than many other companies with this province and because many of their tour guides were Hmong.  From my previous trips to Ha Giang I knew that Vietnamese was not widely spoked outside cities.  We ended up with a delightful Hmong tour guide originally from Sapa and an outgoing and friendly driver. 

On Day 1 we drove from Hanoi to Ha Giang, stopping for lunch and to take a walk through a Tay village.  We checked into our hotel in Ha Giang district town and were very happy with what our 250,000 per night room provided-- clean, air conditioning, hot water, wifi, and international cable channels.  That night at dinner a group of local men were so taken with seeing foreign tourists that they insisted we joined them for drinks till dinner came.  They did speak Vietnamese and were local teachers celebrating a colleagues promotion.

Day 2 we went from Ha Giang to Meo Vac, stopping at a village that has a hemp cooperative and seeing the different stages of weaving hemp and making handicraft products from hemp to be sold back in Hanoi.  We also walked to a Hmong village but mostly we marveled at the incredible scenery and filled up our cameras memory card.  Near Meo Vac we did a local trek through some villages and met some nice people, mostly green Hmong.

Day 3 we woke early to go to the Meo Vac Sunday market.  This was a great experience and in the hours we spent walking around the market we saw four other foreign tourists.  Unlike my recent trip to Sapa, not once did I hear “buy from me, buy from me”.  In fact, when I wanted to buy a woven Hmong basket backpack the seller looked stunned.  I ended up with a lovely basket for 100,000.  We then went back to Dong Van, checked into a hotel, and took a walk through the old section of Dong Van.  One of the lovely old buildings is now a cafe, mentioned in the New York Times travel piece.  We walked in at about 3pm and the place was empty.  We went back after dinner and the place was packed with locals.  The extremely friendly owner speaks very good English and hanging out here over a couple of beers was great fun.  That afternoon we took a walk up to the old French fortress at the top of a mountain behind the town.  The view was great, but more interesting was the young Tay couple having their wedding photos taken.  The bride had several outfit changes, first traditional Tay wedding clothes, then a Western wedding dress, and then traditional Hmong clothes.  After about an hour of watching the photographer posing them in various positions, and offering our own opinions of poses and backdrops, we wished them well on their marriage and walked back down to dinner. 

Day 4 we went to the Lung Co Flag Tower.  We saw people driving up part of the way but the ticket taker informed my husband and I that we had to walk all the way, we couldn’t drive up because we were foreigners.  Oh well, we walked all the way, enjoyed the view, and decided we had earned a big ice cream.  On the way back to Dong Van the driver dropped us on the side of the road and we were to take a 10km walk through some fields and villages and meet him back in Dong Van.  We met several curious kids, some friendly but most shy, and then came across a woman chasing after 2 geese she was trying to take home, when she caught one the other would get away.  It was quite a comical and soon everyone, including the woman, was laughing.  The woman spoke no Vietnamese but as we had a Hmong guide we were able to communicate.  She happily posed for a picture of her and her geese when they were finally caught.  As we walked through one Hmong village we met a young couple who had come to visit her mother.  Her and her husband lived in a village about an hour away.  They invited us to their home and offered us corn mush, the local diet staple, and rice wine.  Again, the family spoke no Vietnamese.  The mother had 7 children, the visiting daughter was the oldest at 23 and the youngest was 3 years old.  When the daughter was 18 her parents said they knew of a nice man in another village who wanted a wife, did she want to get married?  She said okay, and met him on their wedding day.  Her 13 year old brother got married last month to a 14 year old girl.  They asked lots of questions about us and our lives and we asked lots of questions about them and their lives.  After several hours, and a phone call from our driver wondering what had happened to us, we reluctantly said goodbye and walked onto Dong Van.  That night was the annual Khau Vai love market.  Both our guide and driver were very excited because they had never been.  Khau Vai is a grueling 30min. drive from Meo Vac, along a road filled with cars and motorbikes also going to the love market.  You park about 1km away from Khau Vai and walk.  It was like a carnival and packed with people.  Mostly it was packed with Vietnamese tourists.  The only other foreign tourists we saw were a group of 6 Danish visitors.  There were some cultural performances, lots of food, and booths selling clothes and shoes and other misc. items.  We did see several groups of young men and women, mostly Hmong and Zao but also a few Lolo.  Then we lost my husband.  The driver finally found him drinking with some Hmong men.  Apparently he was wondering around taking pictures and one man had taken him by the arm and led him to drink.  The love market was interesting, but nothing great.  As our Hmong guide said, it was more like a night market than a love market.  Our driver bought several shirts and then came running back to show us a stall selling Obama flashlights.  It was definitely strange to see pictures of Obama plastered on flashlights at the Khau Vai love market.  After walking around for a couple of hours it was back to Meo Vac for the night.  This hotel lacked air conditioning, wifi, or cable TV but was 500,000 for the night because of the demand generated by the love market.

Day 5 was Monkey Day according to the lunar calendar, which is the day the Lung Phin local market is held.  We had a lot of fun walking around and watching the shopping and socializing.  This was more a love market that Khau Vai as groups of young men stared at groups of young women and vice versa.  One man had purchased a herd of goats and was putting them on top of a local bus to transport them home.  After the market we did some more hiking and ended up back in Ha Giang for the night. 

Day 6 was the long drive back to Hanoi and saying goodbye to our excellent driver and guide. 


We had a terrific trip and definitely want to return to Ha Giang again.  I’d been to Sapa just a few weeks before and its so different from Ha Giang.  First, there were so few tourists in Ha Giang and no one ever tried to sell us anything in 6 days.  We had several people offer us food, beer, and corn wine but no sales pleas.  Second, the scenery is quite different.  While there are terraced rice paddies similar to Lao Cai around in Ha Giang district, once you get into Dong Van and Meo Vac, where the new UNESCO geopark is, the rice gives way to corn.  The steepness of the terraced corn fields is amazing.  They can plant one row of corn and then its down to the next terrace for the second row.  Any tiny patch of soil that lands in these limestone rocks has a corn plant in it.  Although the scenery was amazing, the highlight was the people we met and how warm and generous they were.


I definitely encourage everyone to visit this incredible area that is well off the usual Vietnam tourist path.  If you decide to go, try and find a travel company that has Hmong speaking guides.  If we had a Vietnamese guide who didn’t speak Hmong our trip would definitely not have been as rewarding.  I was extremely happy with Ethnic Travel, both with their Hanoi office staff during the trip planning and with our incredible driver and guide, and highly recommend them.

 

Ha Giang: Gorgeous Scenery, Incredibly Warm People, Virtually No Tourists