‘We call this the Happiness Road’, our guide, Trang, exclaimed. We were skittering along one of the most perilous stretches of highway I’ve ever travelled on, our car hugging hopefully onto the side of a limestone cliff. Laid out before us was a classic view of Northern Vietnam—infinite hills, peaks and gorges; stacked rice terraces, and concentric circles of walking tracks and unpaved roads etched into the mountainside. It was February, and the first rays of spring sunshine bathed the hills in light and shadow, giving the landscape even more depth. This wasn’t like anywhere else I had been in Vietnam. It wasn’t like anywhere else I had been in the world.
Ha Giang (Hà Giang) is Vietnam’s final frontier. Infinite in size and sparsely populated, it was the last part of the country to open up to tourism. The ‘Happiness Road’ we were travelling on was only completed in 1967; before that, Ha Giang was practically insulated from the rest of Vietnam, closer to neighbouring Yunnan Province than it was to Hanoi. Even today, you still need a government permit to visit the politically sensitive Chinese border area. In the far north of Ha Giang Province, a 350km loop road cuts through the mountains, guiding visitors through some of Vietnam’s most rugged territory.
After decades of isolation, Ha Giang’s popularity amongst tourists is growing fast. Since it’s so spread out and still lacking in infrastructure, having your own transportation in Ha Giang is pretty much essential. Riding motorbikes along the Dong Van Loop is the thing to do in Ha Giang—but for anyone who (like us) doesn’t know how to ride, travelling by car is the next best choice. It’s possible to hire a car and driver once you’re in Ha Giang—but for the sake of ease and comfort, we decided to travel on an organised tour from Hanoi. We chose a five-day custom Ha Giang tour with YESD Vietnam, a responsible tourism outfit based in the capital.
In this post, I’ll tell you why I think it’s worth spending a bit more time and money to visit Ha Giang. Ha Giang often gets compared to Sapa—so I’ve included a few thoughts on this and why it’s a good lesson on the importance of responsible tourism. Travelling by car in Ha Giang doesn’t mean having to compromise or miss out on any of the popular sights. In fact, choosing a company like YESD will give you access to some parts of Ha Giang other tourists don’t typically get to see. After our detailed Ha Giang itinerary, you’ll find my honest review of our five-day Ha Giang tour with YESD Vietnam.
Table of Contents
Why visit Ha Giang?
Ha Giang Province is located in the far north of Vietnam—as far north as you can get without crossing over into China. Still relatively unpopular among foreign tourists, it has a certain mystique that I found very appealing. But it’s not like people are whispering about Ha Giang—the secret is definitely out, especially among Vietnamese tourists and the expat community in Hanoi. Still, Ha Giang has an aura; a reputation for being an untouched paradise far removed from the trappings of over-tourism. Its reputation is well-deserved—Ha Giang is certainly beautiful and offers a tourism experience you simply can’t find elsewhere in Vietnam. But I don’t want to romanticise Ha Giang—with extreme isolation comes poverty and a whole bevvy of social and environmental issues that we, as tourists, shouldn’t ignore.
There are three things people come to see in Ha Giang: The dramatic landscapes, the ethnic diversity (more than 90 percent of Ha Giang’s residents belong to 16 ethnic groups), and the Dong Van Loop road, which offers some of the best motorcycling in Vietnam.
Ha Giang or Sapa?
There was a time when Sapa (Sa Pả) was considered a fringe destination. That’s certainly not the case anymore. By 2020, Lao Cai Province (Lào Cai) where Sapa is located is expected to welcome more than 6 million tourists annually. Sapa is far more accessible than Ha Giang, with more accommodation options and better tourist infrastructure. But the downsides of over-tourism in Sapa are now well-documented and well-known. Could Ha Giang be ‘the new Sapa’?
I sometimes hear people refer to Ha Giang as ‘the Sapa of a decade ago’. Ha Giang is geographically close to Sapa and offers a lot of the same experiences—rice terraces, trekking, homestays, ethnic minorities, Sunday markets. I haven’t been to Sapa yet but from what I’ve heard, the breakneck speed of development in the area has produced some rather troubling side-effects, including environmental destruction, commercialisation of traditional culture, and social problems. I’ve heard that a lot of children in Sapa are being put to work in the tourism industry and are missing out on an education as a result. I’ve heard stories of women who stalk tourists relentlessly when trying to sell them handicrafts. I’ve heard that many hotels and restaurants in Sapa are owned by business people from the city, and that the local community sees little return. Sapa has a lot to offer tourists (there’s a reason it’s so popular), but it’s losing its appeal. I’m sure these things are going on in Ha Giang too—but I really hope Ha Giang isn’t destined for the same fate.
Tourism in Ha Giang is still in its early stages. That’s why it’s so important to travel responsibly and set a good precedent. One of the main reasons we chose YESD was their commitment to social and environmental sustainability. I’ll talk more about their various initiatives at the end of the post.
Travelling in Ha Giang by car
Motorbiking in Ha Giang is a right of passage for many young Vietnamese people. Travelling in the days after Tết (Vietnamese New Year), we saw literally hundreds of couples riding. More and more backpackers and expats are heading up to Ha Giang to conquer the Dong Van Loop. In the next few years, I expect Ha Giang will probably become a ‘must-do’ for tourists visiting Vietnam.
Even if I did ride a motorbike, I would think twice before riding in Ha Giang. I know plenty of people who have done it—they are far braver than me! The roads are rough and unforgiving. The highway is often plied with trucks carrying rocks. The distances between homestays are long. If, like us, you don’t know how to ride a motorbike—or if you’re travelling with kids—you’ll need to find an alternative way to get around. It’s possible to travel to Ha Giang City or Dong Van City by bus from Hanoi or Lao Cai (Sapa). From there, you can use a combination of public transport and hire cars to see most of the sights. You will have to sacrifice on certain things though, and it will be a lot more complicated to organise and time consuming to execute. Of the options that currently exist for non-bikers, private car is by far the best choice.
Road safety and the comfort factor was important to us—and our car certainly delivered on that. We were a bit concerned that being in a car for long periods of time would make use feel disconnected—but I didn’t find that to be the case. I was personally anxious about missing out on photo opportunities, but our driver was always more than happy to stop. Trang included lots of trekking and short walks in our itinerary to break up the long drives. We stopped off at all the scenic viewpoints (Trang always knew the best place to break), and we often pulled up a few hundred metres out so we could walk the final stretch.
Our 5-day Ha Giang tour itinerary
Our five-day Ha Giang tour with YESD Vietnam followed the classic Dong Van Loop itinerary. The loop normally takes three or four days to complete by motorbike, starting and finishing in Hanoi. Since we had some extra time, we added in a full day of trekking in the villages around Ha Giang City. We also dedicated a morning to visiting a small Hmong village outside of Dong Van. One of the best things about travelling with YESD was the chance to explore parts of Ha Giang where few other tourists go. These ‘add-ons’ were by far the most enjoyable and rewarding part of our trip.
Our route through Ha Giang went as follows: Hanoi — Ha Giang City — Thon Tha & Khuoi My — Ma Pi Leng Pass — Meo Vac — Dong Van — Sa Phin & Sung La — Lung Tam — Nam Dam — Tam Son — Hanoi
Here are some of the highlights of our time in Ha Giang with YESD.
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Thon Tha village
After meeting our guide, Trang, and driver, Mr Ky, in Hanoi, we hit the road. The drive up to Ha Giang took us the better part of six hours. Once we arrived in Ha Giang City, we headed straight to Thon Tha (Thôn Tha), a small village of about 500 people just outside the main centre. Tourists have been coming to Thon Tha since 2007 and the village is well-equipped to accommodate guests. Several families have turned their traditional wooden stilted houses into homestays. Anyone who can speak English freelances as a guide. Most people in Thon Tha are from the Tay ethnic group and make their living off the land. YESD has been working with the community here for several years to help elevate the quality of the homestays, provide hospitality training, and implement responsible tourism practices.
To get to Thon Tha, you have to stray from the main Dong Van Loop. As a result, we didn’t run into any other tourists during our stay. Sleeping in a stilted house surrounded by lush rice fields, we certainly felt like we had ventured off the beaten track. It was the perfect start to our time in Ha Giang.
We spent our first afternoon walking around Thon Tha and trekking to a nearby waterfall, chaperoned by a few local kids who were still on school holidays for Tet.
Khuoi My village
Our second day was spent trekking with our local guide, Mr Lim. We set off early and apart from a brief afternoon shower, had perfect, crisp February weather. We weren’t long into the trek when we crested a small hill were met with one of the most spectacular scenes we saw in Ha Giang—a sparkling rice terrace, as tall and wide as the eye could see.
As we continued walking up into the mountains, the landscape morphed quite dramatically—one minute we were scaling slippery rice terraces, the next we were in the middle of a tea field, and then suddenly we were under a canopy of palm trees. By lunchtime we had reached our destination—Tay Con Linh (Tây Côn Lĩnh) peak and another village, Khuoi My (Khuổi My).
Home to 200 families from the Dao ethnic group, Khuoi My also has some basic tourism infrastructure, including a few homestays. We scaled the wooden stairs of one stilted house to eat lunch with a local family. They were incredibly welcoming, proudly showing off their collection of traditional Dao costumes (they even let me try one on). We were gawking over the beautiful textiles when the family patron—a man in his 80s—reached up into the rafters of the house and pulled down a plastic bag full of leather and cardboard-bound books. He leafed through them, explaining that they were records of Dao coming-of-age and marriage rituals, handwritten in the most beautiful script. Next, he pulled out a shaman’s robe embroidered with fantastic Taoist motifs. That house is a living museum; a repository of age-old traditions hidden away in the hills.
After lunch, we trekked back to our homestay in Thon Tha. Our host, Mr Thien, and his family have been working with YESD for several years. We were among the first guests to stay in the new house Mr Thien recently built to house guests. It’s built in the traditional Tay style—complete with thatched roof—but with en-suit bathrooms added. Like all the homestays we visited in Ha Giang, Mr Thien’s place was incredibly homely and comfortable.
Independent travellers are also welcome to stay at Mr Thien’s Homestay in Thon Tha. Meals are available at an extra cost, and he can also help with organising treks and transport.
Ma Pi Leng Pass & Heaven’s Gate
Day three of our Ha Giang tour and we were back on the road, headed east towards Dong Van. As we drove, the landscape started to shift quite noticeably. Tea fields and rice paddies quickly gave way to limestone peaks and rocky canyons as we entered into the Dong Van Karst Plateau, a UNESCO-recognised geopark.
This is what people picture when they think of Ha Giang. Towering mountains, bottomless valleys, patchwork fields, precipitous rice terraces. The views from the car window were breathtaking. I was a bit nervous about asking Mr Ky to stop for photos—turns out I had nothing to worry about. It was his first time in Ha Giang too, and early in the day he set up his selfie stick and started live-streaming the drive to Facebook. Seeing Ha Giang with fresh eyes, he was just as enthralled with the landscape as we were. Even Trang, who has been to Ha Giang a hundred times, was visibly affected by the beauty we were seeing.
We stopped to climb a hill for a view of Ha Giang’s famous ‘Fairy Breast Mountains’. Quản Bạ Valley was shrouded in mist, so unfortunately the visibility wasn’t so great. By the time we arrived at Ma Pi Leng (Mã Pì Lèng) Pass, the weather had cleared enough for us to catch a glimpse of Chinese territory on the other side of the iridescent Nho Quế River. We encountered groups of children and young couples taking in the views as well.
We were now travelling on Ha Giang’s famous ‘Happiness Road’. The 180km stretch of highway was built at the behest of Ho Chi Minh himself who after visiting Ha Giang for the first time in the 1960s, thought it was about time far-flung Ha Giang Province was connected with the rest of Vietnam. More than a thousand volunteer youth from across the country constructed the road using rudimentary tools. Many perished in the effort. The road officially opened in 1967 and was given its nickname to commemorate the young people who toiled to build it.
As we drove further into the mountains, we started noticing groups of girls and young women on the roadside. Their brightly coloured clothes made them stand out like flowers against the grey and stony backdrop. Mountain-dwellers, Flower Hmong women dress in vibrant colours to look conspicuous. We stopped to talk to a few girls and learned of a festival happening in the nearby town of Meo Vac (Mèo Vạc). The friends had walked for hours up steep mountain tracks from their villages to participate in the festivities.
We arrived in Meo Vac too late—the festival was already over. We took a quick stroll around the small city instead, passing by young Hmong couples courting in the parks.
Dong Van City (Đồng Văn) caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to see such a ‘developed’ city in Ha Giang. Tourism has definitely taken off in Dong Van, catering mainly to Vietnamese visitors. The biggest city in Ha Giang Province and a popular pit stop on the Dong Van Loop, the city centres on an ‘Old Quarter’—a courtyard ringed with coin-roof houses that have been converted into cafes and souvenir shops.
I found Dong Van too touristy. It wasn’t really my thing, so I opted to spend the afternoon soaking in a Dao herbal bath at the only resort in town. After a pleasant dinner at the best restaurant in town, we were early to bed. The next morning, we found Dong Van’s better side after following an alleyway behind the square. We got our first look at traditional Hmong rammed-earth houses, all dressed up pretty for Tet.
Sa Phin & Sung La
I was pleased to leave Dong Van behind and get back to greener pastures. We set off early, driving north towards the Chinese border, armed with the registration certificates our hotel had issued for us overnight. We were well and truly off the tourist trail and following the most perilous road we drove on in Ha Giang. We were headed for a small Hmong village hidden in a valley behind Dong Van. Thick fog and the poor condition of the unpaved road eventually made driving too dangerous. After a few kilometres, we got out and walked.mo
Trang led us into the tiny Flower Hmong village. Bordered by ancient, towering Bodhi trees, it was incredibly atmospheric and more than a little bit eerie.
This particular village was a sharp contrast from the other communities we visited in Ha Giang. It was extremely isolated and visibly poor. We wandered around and admired the earth houses.
As we made our way down a hill to the outskirts of the village, two separate families invited us into their homes to drink rice wine. They were incredibly generous, sharing what little they had with us.
Trang had to communicate in basic Vietnamese with one of the kids—all the adults in the village spoke exclusively in Hmong. We asked one teenager if he planned to leave the village and move to the city. I was surprised when he answered us ‘No’. The village looked idyllic, but life there must be tough.
Outside one of the houses, we came across a group of kids collecting stagnant water in plastic containers. Trang explained to them how they could use river stones to filter out the debris and impurities before drinking it. As we were leaving, Trang mentioned how she’d like to invest in the community and possibly bring a group of volunteers in to set up a water purification system.
In the afternoon, we continued driving along National Road 4C to Sa Phin Commune (Sà Phìn) and Dong Van District’s most famous tourist site, the Hmong King Palace. Vương Chính Đức (AKA the Hmong Kind) was a well-known figure during Vietnam’s period of French colonial rule. He famously joined forces with Ho Chi Minh in the fight for independence. Vương‘s home, built in the 1920s, demonstrates an interesting mix of European and Chinese styles. Lavishly decorated, there are poppy buds and flowers carved into almost every wooden surface (Vương made his fortune trading opium).
Vuong’s house now lies empty and is undergoing restorations. Some of the family’s decedents still reside in Sa Phin—a few of them in houses opposite the palace gate. I had to laugh when Trang pointed out where the ‘successful’ Vương lived—the house with the Viettel billboard for an awning. From opium to mobile phones. How times change!
Our next stop was Sung La (Sủng Là), another small Hmong village. Set in an idyllic valley surrounded by fields of flowers, Sung La was made famous by the book and film Story of Pao. Sung La is also well-known for its flowers. Most of the roses sold in Hanoi are grown here. A few enterprising locals have set up small wildflower plots at the village entrance and charge tourists a fee to take selfies (we recently saw this in Mai Chau as well). The village was packed with Vietnamese tourists when we visited, so we only managed a quick stroll around.
We arrived in Quan Ba (Quản Bạ) District and the green valley floor we had admired from a hilltop a few days earlier. Having almost closed the loop, we were coming towards the end of our Ha Giang tour. We stopped in at Lung Tam Commune for a brief visit with the local hemp co-op. Managed by a group of Flower Hmong women, the business is run in partnership with Craft Link and a few other NGOs. The ladies produce exquisite natural hemp cloth that they colour with natural dyes. They also do applique, batik and embroidery. I really love the contemporary motifs they use in their designs, made to symbolise the Dong Van Geopark and other points of interest in the local area. Their textiles and accessories make for perfect Ha Giang souvenirs. (You can also purchase their products at the Craft Link shop in Hanoi.)
After a brief demonstration of the various stages of hemp cloth production, we were ushered into the gift shop. A group of Vietnamese tourists joined us—most of them left with bolts of hemp fabric bought off the roll for very reasonable prices. I ended up buying a wall hanging.
We spent our last night in Ha Giang in a traditional coin-roof house in the small village of Nam Dam (Nậm Đăm). We shared dinner and drinks with our Dao host family and the homestay’s other guests. I’ve experienced this kind of ‘hands-on’ hospitality again and again in Northern Vietnam—where visitors are welcomed sincerely, and not just served. It’s one of the things I love most about travelling here.
Early the next morning, we went for a stroll around Nam Dam village, where we found a field of pink buckwheat flowers.
The final stop on our Ha Giang tour was the town of Tam Son (Tam Sơn). Fortuitously, it was a Sunday—market day—so we got to spend some time at the wet market. Once a week, families from surrounding towns and villages converge on Tam Son to do their shopping.
Most come dressed in their Sunday best, i.e. their traditional garb. The result is a colourful conglomeration of ethnic groups—Hmong, Dao, Giay, Nung, and many more. Paired with the gnarly stalls and the dimly-lit market interior, the vibrantly dressed women made Tam Son feel really authentic. We were flies on the wall for almost an hour as we lapped around the marketplace in awe.
Stallholders at Tam Son primarily sell fresh produce, but we also saw lots of agricultural supplies and a few stalls selling handmade textiles. Our Ha Giang tour ended the same way it had started—in a small town, surrounded by friendly people and full of eye-opening experiences.
An honest review of YESD Vietnam
We try our best to travel responsibly no matter where in the world we are. But we felt it was particularly important to choose a responsible company to travel to Ha Giang. By the same token, we wanted to go with an experienced outfit that knew the area well. We wanted a guide, and we wanted the chance to visit a few less-touristed spots while also ticking off the main sights. YESD Vietnam was a perfect fit for us.
Ross has been volunteering for YESD for a couple of months, so we had a pretty good idea of what they’re all about. The company was founded by three friends—all young Vietnamese women. They use local guides and homestays, and a percentage of profits from every tour goes into a community fund for Thon Tha village. They also lead volunteer trips to Ha Giang, where groups of students come to work on a specific project, such as building a library. YESD walk the walk when it comes to responsible tourism. They are truly pioneers in their field. YESD has been instrumental in bringing tourists to Thon Tha and ensuring the industry develops in a way that’s beneficial to both communities and the environment. We felt confident that our money was going into the right pockets and was going to be put to good use.
We were impressed with how organised YESD were in the lead up to our tour. Booking and online payment was easy, and Trang gave us the opportunity to customise our itinerary. The price of our tour was very competitive—our private van was great, and Mr Ky was a very professional driver. During our trip, Trang took care of everything, including accommodation, meals, entry fees, and our Ha Giang permits. She was by our side throughout our five days on the road, always keen to answer our questions, rattle off facts and share stories about Ha Giang. Trang pours so much energy and passion into her work. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide.
You can find out more about YESD’s Ha Giang Discovery Tour here. YESD also run ‘easy rider’ motorbike tours in Ha Giang, and offers a range of other tour packages throughout Northern Vietnam.
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