It was an eye-opening photography group tour to exotic HaGiang, Vietnam’s most northerly province bordering Southern China, together with five avid photographers. In comparison to all my other trips, Ha Giang takes the trophy for its amazing mountains and tribal ethnic landscape.
Although just 300km from Hanoi, the arduous land journey chomped up more than 7 hours from Hanoi as the infrastructures are somewhat basic and inconsistent at best. The region is still not quite opened to international tourism as yet while the local cuisine may not agree with most of us from foodie-mad Singapore. But therein lies the “off the beaten track” allure, as Ha Giang, unlike Sapa, is relatively unknown to most people.
Ha Giang is not for everyone. If you like a clean, dust-free environment and fussed over garnishing on your meals, Ha Giang is not for you. But if you have a yearning for the exotic, then you will love this place where you get rewarded with spectacular nature and locals with that genuine smiles.
Brief Insights on Ha Giang
Ha Giang shares a 270 km border with Yunnan province of southern China and as such is known as Vietnam’s final frontier. This northeastern province covers an area of 7,945.8 sq km and had a population of about 705,000 people from a 2008 census. It’s the most remote and economically poorest part of the country, where most residents come from one of the province’s 17 ethnic minorities.
Visitors who braved the arduous journey can expect to see some of the most beautiful landscapes, with mountainous scenery, ringed by rice terraces, forests and rural villages. Being not quite ready for mass tourism, coupled with lesser tourists ironically, makes it one of its biggest draws. The Ha Giang town is the ideal base from which to explore this region.
Trip Route Map & Travel Tips
My travel tips for Ha Giang will be different from all of my other travelogues, which I regularly recommended self-driving. The route from Hanoi to Ha Giang is challenging as only the 1st 40km of the 300km are on the highway, with the rest being sandy rocky roads interspersed with properly maintained tarmac roads. Ha Giang is best experienced with a registered local travel agent familiar with the province. Communication will especially be a key barrier for travellers thinking of doing the DIY way.
Attractions in Ha Giang
One of Ha Giang’s key attractions is its Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, which takes up a sizeable area of four of the province’s districts – Mèo Vạc, Đồng Văn, Yên Minh, and Quản Bạ. The geopark is about 23,568 km2. The average elevation within the geopark is 1400 to 1600 meters above sea level. It is a member of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network and Asia Pacific Geoparks Network, since Oct 3, 2010.
Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark – a UNESCO GeoPark
This is one of the most beautiful sceneries in the whole of Vietnam, along the Ma Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac. Mã Pí Lèng Pass is a mountain pass on Highway 4C in the territory of Pai Lung and Pa Vi commune and is about 20km long at an altitude of 1,500 m. The road was first built by Yao, Hmong, Tay and Lolo minority people.
This is definitely one of the most Instagrammable places, anywhere in the world. A million-dollar view indeed. The wooden deck where you posed on is owned by a local with a 5000VND (S$0.30) usage fee. Totally worth it!
The Tham Ma Slope, situated on the 4C National Highway, is about 5 km long, from Van Chai commune to Lung Thau commune in Dong Van district, at an altitude of about 1,500 m above sea level. There are many bends that will test the driver’s driving skills. The name came from the folk tale that in the past, horses had to lug heavy loads from the base to the crest of the slope to test the strength of horses.
The Hmong ethnic tribal children at the Tham Ma Slope rest stop certainly spiced up the venue. Many are dressed in their ethnic costume carrying floral baskets. It was a pleasant surprise to see them not demanding money when posing with them (unlike those I saw in Khao Kho in North Thailand).
Their smiles came naturally and sincerely. Instead of money, I see tourists distributing sweets bought from a stall manned by an elderly tribal lady and distributing it to the kids. I guessed the sales of the sweets is their income.
Along the route, we chanced upon many beautifully cultivated flower beds along with strategic spots, which are owned by locals. Entry to the floral fields is subject to a fee of about 5000VND (S$0.30/person). In the picture above, you can see a few European ladies with their arms secured with safety padding. They represented the majority of the foreign tourists we spotted on the trip, with most backpacking and exploring the region on motorbikes.
This lovely old lady, the owner of one of the floral beds, held an umbrella for one of our photographers unconditionally. What amazing hospitality!
At the Ma Pi Leng Pass during sunset, we captured what looked like a bolt of lightning emanating from one of the mountain peaks but is actually the outline of clouds fringing the peak, with back-lighting from the setting sun. The cloud casts its shadow like a halo in the skies.
After witnessing the spectacular last light at Ma Pi Leng, we stayed for another hour to shoot a long exposure of the windy road beneath, waiting for passing vehicles to cast their light trails on the windy road.
The “snake road” of Ma Pi Leng Happiness Road. An iconic venue that all photographers who visited Ha Giang must come.
On one of the mornings, we tried our luck for sunrise photography at one of the more picturesque lookout points at Dong Van GeoPark. But the sun decided otherwise. Maybe we will get it on a future trip here?
The wispy clouds moving around the mountains peaks, soft against hard, wispy against the firm. A sight to behold indeed.
Dong Van Hill Tribes Weekend Market
Hill-tribes markets are a special cultural trait in the mountainous northern regions of Vietnam and Dong Van Sunday Market is among the most outstanding gatherings. This market gathers weekly on Sundays. It opens opportunities for the locals to sell products and tribes to socialise. This is considered as the largest market in Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, the “commercial centre” for exchanging products of the hill tribes and also a key hub of social activities, where singles meet their future life partner.
The mayhem greeted us even before we reach the market but that is the fun part. This market was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. You feel as if you stepped right into a Discovery Channel documentary.
Each tribe displays signature skills like such as knitting, carpentry, pottery, etc. A wide variety of unique local hand-made products here will please the most ardent cultural souvenirs shopper.
Happiness is a mindset and comes from within, wherever you are, however the situation. Can you see the authentic joy in this tribal lady’s laughter?
Many tribal ladies put on their Sunday best for the weekend market. Little is known about the history of ethnic minorities in Vietnam. It is widely believed that the groups like the Hmong (Meo), Zao, Nung, Lan, Giay and Lolo, are descendants of the ancient migrants from southern China who settled in the northern border regions. Others, like the Tay, Muong and Thai are deemed to be related to the lowland natives of Malays who were forced into the highlands by successive invasions of Mongoloids from China.
An elderly cook preparing a bowl of phó, with the perfect morning light accentuating the steaming soup. Definitely one was my fave photo moment at the market.
A vendor selling traditional corn cake called ‘Pa Pa’ in Hmong dialect, heating up her bread on the charcoal pit. The entire row of charcoal pits makes this section of the market felt like an oven.
Vietnamese like smoking this tobacco in a bamboo, called “Thuoc Lao” (Lao tobacco). Usually, it’s very light, golden tobacco. The water inside the pipe cools the smoke. Thuoc Lao is strong pipe tobacco smoked after a meal on a full stomach to “aid indigestion” and is one of the old customs in Vietnam.
The market has a uniqueness and culture that’s distinct from other markets. The colours of this hill-tribe gathering are diverse and interesting enough to enthral any first-time visitors. This market takes place in a spacious area, with the entire layout in a “U” shape. The market attracts numerous kinds of goods (agricultural products, brocades, livestock, handicrafts, etc.).
There is scarce archives about the history of Dong Van Sunday Market because no one knows exactly when the market was formed. It takes place as early as 3:00am when the mist is still covering the hill and the tribes are descending from the mountains to arrive at the market in time. Often, the market begins about 5:00am and ends at 12 noon.
I “stalked’ this lady, as she spoke intently on her handphone, shooting her in various poses and angles. This shot best epitomized how technology has altered the cultural fabric of the tribes, with them getting more connected and closely knitted. One of the common usages of the handphone is using it to download music and playing it on the farm as they work.
Heaven’s Gate @ Quan Ba
Quan Ba is the gateway to the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark. Those who visited Guilin in China will find the karst mountainscape and deep valleys familiar. All this fabulous nature, winding roads and unique local culture make Quan Ba a must-visit attraction.
Quan Ba district consists of a township and 12 communes inhabited by 16 ethnic groups, 60% of them Mong, 14% Dao, and 11% Tày. Quan Ba is the only place in Vietnam that is home to the Pu Y ethnic group of 880 people.
This has to be one “sexy” attraction – The famous Fairy Bosom. It is located in Tam Son town and visible from the Quan Ba ‘Heaven Gate’. The two limestone peaks evoke the shape of two female breasts that are associated with a Mong legend about a fairy named Hoa Dao (peach blossom) who fell in love with a Mong man. They got married and had a little boy. Furious, the Jade Emperor forced Hoa Dao to return to heaven. Upon leaving the earth, she left her breasts to feed her baby. Later, her two breasts turned into two mountains that the locals dubbed “Fairy Mountain”.
The wide vista of the province facilitates some of the best opportunities for droning enthusiasts to capture stunning images and videos. But do be cautioned that signals can be erratic in such highlands terrain and retrieval of drones are likely impossible in the event of misadventure.
Corn plantation is just as important for the tribes. The shift from rice to corn has proven successful where from rice to corn cultivation in areas with one crop a year and those facing difficulties in irrigation. Corn cultivation brought in between VNĐ5 to 10 million per hectare more than rice and requires less water and fertilizer than rice.
Lung Cu Flag Tower
This is a monument is located in Lũng Cú commune of Dong Van district. The monument consists of a 30-metre tall tower on the summit of Lũng Cú Peak. The tower is topped with a large Vietnamese flag. But since it windless that day, we didn’t have the flag fluttering nicely. The monument was built to mark the northernmost point in Vietnam although the farthest north point on the Chinese-Vietnamese border is actually located over 3.3 km farther north.
The commune of Lung Cu, as shot from the Lung Cu Flag Tower. The rice terraces giving the area a nice scenic feel.
A short drive from the Lung Cu Tower, we were lucky to chance upon this group of farmers harvesting their padi field, as this year harvest season was 2-3 weeks early due to the weather. The tribes have a proverb, “No mountain is higher than the knee of the Hmong people,” meaning that they can overcome the hardship and challenges of nature. These people cultivate a special variety of rice called Khau Mang since it produces fragrant and tasty rice seeds. The price of Khau Mang is always around twice that of other rice varieties.
Team work and community are ingrained cultures among the tribes, as households helped each other out during harvest season.
Visitors can also try to help in the harvesting process as the friendly farmers are usually receptive to outsiders. But i suspect, most visitors do it solely to share that moment on social media. Do stay longer for an inclusive experience and feel the warmth of the tribes.
A short walk from the rice field, we “gate-crashed” a junior school for some candid shots. I think this bunch of kids is not too keen to be photographed.
Ethnic Tribe Lifeline @ Lung Tam Cooperative
The matriarch of the Hmong tribe working on hemp, which is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its products. It is one of the fastest-growing plants and was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibre 10,000 years ago.
Thousands of Vietnamese women are trafficked or tricked across the border each year and in this remote northern mountainous region of Vietnam, just a short distance from the Chinese border, women and girls frequently disappear from their communities. China’s buy-a-bride industry is on the after-burners being fueled by an imbalanced gender surplus of 30 million males.
Some women go willingly, others are kidnapped or find themselves coerced into marriage. The lucky few who escape marriages or sexual slavery in China often face stigma on their return to Vietnam and are shunned by neighbours. Driven to offer such victims a lifeline and an income – Vang Thi Mai set up the Lung Tam Linen Cooperative in 2001.
From all the hard work, out comes the beautiful hemp products that tourists can buy home and serve a useful purpose too.
I can see progress written on the Hmong ladies’ face. And bookkeeping is carried out to track the sales for salary distribution, the main reason why I did not request for the book to be removed as I shot this picture.
Ha Giang Local Cuisine
Throughout our 1-week trip to Ha Giang, we observed the ingredients used to be of pretty good standard considering the challenging mountainous highlands. However, the cooking style and seasoning did not quite bring out the taste of the dish, especially to us, foodie-crazy Singaporeans. The following are some examples of dishes we were served on our trip.
The steamed pumpkin with minced pork dish was presented reasonably well and the skin can be eaten while the pumpkin was not sweet. However, I failed to discern any obvious taste while the local soya sauce didn’t do much to lift the dish.
The veg-wrapped minced pork rolls were reasonably good but were let down by the lack of any dipping sauce.
This sliced pork with fats cooked with onion was hard and dry while I can’t discern the seasoning. Ha Giang dishes tend to be not spicy and typically bland in comparison to other Asian cuisines
I like to describe this visit to the Ha Giang as one of the most exotic adventures among all my trips. Long windy mountain roads, laid-back, rustic and non-touristy, it’s a marked contrast to the frenetic city of Hanoi. With proper planning and a good travel companion, a trip here will definitely serve up some of the most memorable times ever. I do feel one visit to this amazing place is simply not enough, as there are so many more areas to discover in this stunning region.
Many thanks for coming along the pixels journey. Do look out for updates on my website for other photography group tour to Vietnam in the near future. For other self-drive adventures, do check out my other travelogues here.
P.S – All pictures used in this blog are all rights reserved and copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography