Colorful morning markets in Ha Giang. Photo by Justin Mott.
The provincial capital, Ha Giang city, is the natural starting point for most trips to the province. There are no great attractions in the city itself, but it is fortunate to have a magnificent example of responsible community tourism right on its doorstep. Just a few kilometers from town is Tha Thon, home to a community of warmly welcoming Tay minority people living as they have for hundreds of years.
Visitors have been known to lose entire weeks here after planning a simple morning visit, so be warned—if you put Tha Thon on your itinerary, the rest of it may have to change! Trekking opportunities are plentiful with a small number of guides well-versed in all the area has to offer.
From Tha Thon the road north passes through more minority villages before ascending high into the mountains toward The Quan Ba Pass. Here, the lookout point lives up to it’s name: Heaven’s Gate. Below, a patchwork of paddies is dotted with low, dome-shape hills against a backdrop of jagged ridges and forested mountains stretching toward China.
Quan Ba is also the gateway to the UNESCO recognised Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a landscape characterised by lofty limestone peaks and rock strewn fields. The roads that weave paths among this region serve up the ultimate in motorcycle or bicycle adventure.
Recognised tourism sites are few and far between on the Ha Giang loop, but high up near the border with China stands a Hmong king palace in the village of Sa Phin. Built in 1902 during the French occupation, the wooden framed palace is built in the traditional Chinese style and oozes character. Descendents of the king who called this palace home are still living in the area and are sometimes available to give an unofficial tour (translator required).
Another highlight of a trip here is the diversion north to Lung Cu, where a gigantic Vietnamese flag blows proudly at the border with China. The best time to arrive is late afternoon as the heat subsides making the climb of 200 steps a little kinder. The grand mountain view as the sun drops is enough to stir the romantic poet in you.
The drive down into the town of Dong Van is impossibly beautiful, and the town itself holds two principal attractions: a small but captivating old quarter with ancient buildings and a market that is a riot of colour every Sunday as various minority groups come down from the hills to trade, chat, eat and make merry.
The Ma Pi Leng Pass is the jewel in the crown of Ha Giang’s many stupefyingly stunning stretches of road. Part of the brilliantly named Duong Hanh Phuc (Happiness Road) which was built from 1959-1965, the Ma Pi Leng Pass links Dong Van and Meo Vac, clinging improbably to vertiginous mountain slopes. The highlight is a lookout point where the road snakes past a deep gorge carved by the Nho Que River at around 1,500m.
From here the road winds down to Meo Vac, another town with a lively Sunday market. This is also the place to stay if in search of a little more comfort thanks to the Auberge Meo Vac, a wonderfully restored and upgraded Hmong house.
24 hours is not enough to experience Ha Giang, but those with very little time could drive out from the city and spend the morning at Tha Thon village and take a small, guided trek before lunch. In the afternoon, drive out to the lookout at Heaven’s Gate before returning to the city.
With two days it is possible to enjoy a full loop of Ha Giang province, travelling past Heaven’s Gate and the Hmong King’s Palace before spending the night in Dong Van. Enjoy a morning coffee in Dong Van’s old quarter before driving over the magnificent Ma Pi Leng Pass. After a stop in Meo Vac, drive back to Ha Giang city through more magnificent scenery with a brief foray into neighbouring Cao Bang province.
Ha Giang is hugely popular with Vietnamese tourists in November when there is now a festival based around the flowers that bloom at this time of year. September through to November is a good time to visit, while April to June is also pleasant. July and August can be very hot, but if the midday sun is avoided, this can still be a good time to visit.
Ha Giang city, the gateway to the province, lies almost 300km from Hanoi. Day and night buses run daily or tours can be arranged from Hanoi. Public transport around the province is limited, so either hire a motorcycle (available in Ha Giang), or do this trip with a car and driver.