Ha Giang Province- travel guide
Ha Giang is the final frontier in northern Vietnam, an amazing landscape of limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops. The far north of the province has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, and the trip between Yen Minh and Dong Van, and then across the Ma Pi Leng pass to Meo Vac is quite mind blowing. Ha Giang should be one of the most popular destinations in this region, but its proximity to the Chinese border still keeps visitor numbers at a low level.
Travel permits (US$10) are required to travel on the road north from Tam Son to Dong Van and Meo Vac, but there are simply paid directly to whichever hotel you choose to overnight in along the way.
The province is best managed with a car and driver or by motorbike. If you are going to splurge on private transport once during you trip, this is the time to do it.
Public transport is improving and it is relatively simple to journey by bus from Ha Giang city to Dong Van, but at the time of writing there was still no public transport from Dong Van onward to Meo Vac. However, there are buses, along the low road, between Meo Vac and Ha Giang city, so but hiring a xe om or taxi in Dong Van for the stretch to Meo Vac, it is entirely possible to be a headache as there is no public transport from Meo Vac to Bao Lac.
Whichever way you tackle Ha Giang, you all be among only a handful of travellers to the area and will experience some of Indochina’s most jaw-dropping scenery.
Ha Giang is somewhere to recharge the batteries on the long road north. This town, bisected by the broad river Lo, Is a provincial capital with clean streets and an understated ambience. The main drag is P Nguyen Trai, with runs north south paralleling the west bank of the Lo for 3km or so. You all find hotels, banks and restaurants on this road.
There is little to keep you in the town itself, but the spectacular limestone outcrops that are soaring skywards over the suburbs hint at the amazing scenery in the surrounding hinterland.
Quan Ba Pass
Leaving Ha Giang, the road climbs over the Quan Ba Pass (Heaven is Gate) around 40km from the city. Poetic licence is a national pas-time in Vietnam, but this time the romantics have it right. The road wind over a saddle and opens up on to an awesome vista of knobby topped Limestone Mountains.
At the top of Quan Ba Pass is an information centre and lookout with amazing views down into Tam Son.An English-language information board details the 2011 initiative to declare the Dong Van Karst Plateau part of the Unesco Global Network of National Geoparks. It is the first Unesco-recognised geoparks in Vietnam and the second one in Southeast Asia, after Langkawi Geological Park in Malaysia.
Dong Van is the Ha giang region is most popular overnight stop. The main road through town isn’t particularly inspiring, but in the old quarter a clutch of traditional Hmong houses still clings on and timing your visit to be here for the chaotic Sunday market is highly recommended. The town is also a good base for day treks around nearby minority villages and nearby sights such as Lung Cu.
Dong Van Market
(Đ Vao Cho; 6am-2pm Sun) Once a week, local villagers from the surrounding hills, including the Hmong, Tay, Nung and Hoa ethnic minorities, flood into Dong Van for the Sun-day market. It’s an entirely local affair full of noise, colour, and the hustle and bustle of commerce.
(off P Co)At the northern end of P Co, just part the old market plaza, a narrow lane, backed by a limestone cliff, meanders into the compact old quarter of Dong Van .The traditional terracotta- coloured adobe houses here, with timber details and slouchy tiled roofs, date from the French colonial period.
(admission10, 000d; 8am-5pm)Around 25km north of Dong Van and right on the Chinese border, Lung Cu is a massive flag tower erected in 2010 to mark the northernmost point of Vietnam. The summit is reached by almost 300 steps from a midlevel car park, and the views across rural villages are stunning. You’ll need to show your passport and Ha Giang permit twice – at the local tourist police and army checkpoint near the top.
Meo Vac is a district capital hemmed in by mountains and, like many towns in the northwest it is steadily being settled by Vietnamese from elsewhere. The journey here along the spectacular Mai Pi Leng Pass, which winds for 22km from Dong Van, is the main attraction. The road has been cut into the side of a cliff with a view of rippling hills tumbling down to the distant water of the Nho Que River far below. Right at the top of the pass is a lookout point where you can stop to take in the scenery.
Don’t be surprised if you’re offered a slung of a local speciality, ‘bee wine’, while you’re in town. We’re still trying to work out if it’s made from bees and honey, or just ‘100% bees’. Either way, it’s a bracing drink on a chilly Meo Vac night.
Meo Vac has good Sunday market. Its proximity and timing with Dong Van’s Sunday market means that it’s easy enough to combine the two by xe om.
South to Bao Lac& Cao Bang
Foreigners are now permitted to travel from Meo Vac to Bao Lac in Cao Bang province. You must have your Ha Giang permit to do this spectacular trip. The road is now paved, through it is still best on trail bikes or by 4WD.
Heading south from Meo Vac you’ll pass through the town of Khau Vai after about 20km, which is famous from its annual love market, where the tribal minorities swap wives and husbands. Though it’s undoubtedly a fascinating tradition, many busloads of Vietnamese tourists now gatecrash the dating scene, and this unique event has become something of a circus. It takes place on the 27th day of the third lunar month in the Vietnamese calendar, usually from late April to mid-May.