Ha Giang is just 300 kilometers from Hanoi, but the life that unfolds in the province is a world apart from most other places, given its topography and ethnic diversity.
Between September and November is the most ideal time to visit Ha Giang with dry climate and cool weather with average temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius.
From the end of September to early October marks the ripening of its terraced rice fields, which are a spellbinding sight.
Buckwheat flowers blooming in November is another unique sight in the northern highlands province.
Nestled in the middle of a valley, the Dong Van Old Quarter, also called Dong Van Old Town, is a unique gem in Vietnam’s final frontier that is surrounded by high rocky mountains and limestone formations.
The old town was formed in the early 20th century with a few Hmong, Tay and Chinese families settling down here.
Now, the town has 40 two-storied houses with a touch of Chinese architecture such as yin-yang tiled roofs, yellow walls and red lanterns hung on the gables.
Since 2006, the town has attracted tourists by organizing a lantern festival on the 14th, 15th and 16th days of each lunar month, around the full moon time. All the local families hang red lanterns, display their special product – ethnic brocade – and sell their traditional food in an effort to boost tourism, somewhat similar to what the more famous Hoi An ancient town has been doing.
A cup of coffee at the Pho Co Café, one of the few places that have retained its Chinese-Vietnamese architecture, is a highly recommended experience.
Another cultural-commercial highlight of the town is its flea market, held every Sunday morning. It is a place to shop for local products made by ethnic minorities such as the Mong, Dao, Giay, and Tay and a place for young women to hang out with friends in their colorful traditional costumes, shopping and having fun.
Located in Sa Phin Valley of Dong Van District, the Hmong King’s Palace, the seat of the H’mong kings Vuong Chi Thanh and Vuong Chinh Duc, who ruled over the region during the French colonial era up until Vietnam regained independence in 1945, takes visitors to another age.
The palace consists of six two-storied houses with a total of 64 rooms, all connected to each other. The architecture features the Qing Dynasty style, with green pebbles, pine woods and terra-cotta tiles as the main building materials.
Admission fees cost VND20,000 per person.
Leaving Dong Van Town, a 25-kilometer road through steep paths and rugged mountains leads to the Lung Cu Flag Tower, which proclaims the nation’s territory and sovereignty, and is mark of pride for all Vietnamese citizens.
Built at the summit of Rong Mountain at the height of 1,700 meters above sea level, the octagonal monument is 33 meters tall and on top of the tower flies a 54-square-meter flag that represents 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam.
Visitors have to climb 389 stone steps and another 140 steps on a spiral iron staircase to get to the tower. A panoramic view of Ha Giang awaits those who reach the summit.
The Ma Pi Leng Pass is often described as one of the four most dangerous passes in Vietnam. Soaring over the pass is a mountain 2,000 meters high that is hugged tight by the Hanh Phuc (Happiness) Road connecting Ha Giang Town with the districts of Dong Van and Meo Vac.
The road was completed in 1965 after 11 years of construction mostly by workers belonging to the Hmong ethnic group.
Negotiating the pass is a tough task even for the most seasoned travelers and some foreign tourists have died driving off the pass.
"Ma Pi Leng pass is such a wonder of the world which lies right on the border of Vietnam and China. The pass offers breathtaking landscapes and exotic walking trails along the mount. Love this!" said Victor from Denmark.
"This might be one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. A bit dangerous, I suggest you pay for a service with a driver," Zupanc Nina wrote on Tripadvisor.
Currently, some tour operators also offer one-day tours for inexperienced tourists to navigate Ma Pi Leng Pass. Experienced tour guides will take them through the rugged curves and steep cliffs.
A boat trip on the Nho Que River’s turquoise waters at the foot of Ma Pi Leng Pass is another highly recommended travel experience.
Hire a motorbike taxi (xe om) to reach the pier and pay VND100,000 per person for a 30-minute boat trip.
Visitors can also request special photo stops along their way down Tu San, known as one of Southeast Asia’s deepest canyons.
There are 23 tourist boats that transport thousands of visitors who come to admire this majestic wonder every year.
"Before the Covid-19 outbreak, this place was crowded with tourists during weekends and holidays. Now we only get tourists traveling in groups to ensure safety," said boatman Trieu Chuong.
Along both sides of the river are rice fields planted by the Giay people.
Pho Tro, a small village on the outskirts of Pho Bang Town in Dong Van District, is characterized by traditional ‘trinh tuong’ houses with yin-yang tiled roofs.
As part of a rural renovation program, local authorities have improved infrastructure to develop tourism here. The village now has spacious headquarters and an elementary school. Cemented pathways provide easy access to every house. Households have received subsidies under the program to build bathrooms and indoor toilets.
As noted earlier, visiting Ha Giang from September until November is an opportunity to visit Hoang Su Phi District, famous for 3,000 hectares of terraced rice fields that form wavy, mesmerising golden yellow carpets.
There aren’t many places to stay in Hoang Su Phi, but homestays are available in villages or motels in Vinh Quang Town for VND250,000 to 550,000 ($10.68 to 23.50) a night.
It gets cold at nights and early in the morning, so taking a jacket along is a good idea when visiting Hoang Su Phi. Extra care has to be taken when driving on the road from Ha Giang Town to Hoang Su Phi because it’s narrow, winding and crowded with trucks.
Built atop a mountain in Yen Dinh Commune in Bac Me District, the P'apiu Resort is particularly favored by well-to-do couples who wish to enjoy a peaceful, secluded atmosphere and green landscapes.
The resort is also unique in that all its staff are local ethnic minority residents. Room prices start from VND9.8 million a night.
The Hmong Village resort in Quang Ba District, around 50 kilometers northeast of Ha Giang Town, has 25 bungalows surrounded by green trees and picturesque natural scenery.
Bungalows designed in the shape of rattan baskets that Hmong women sling on their backs to carry rice and other things are a distinctive feature of the resort.
It also has a community guesthouse that can accommodate up to 40 people at VND400,000 a night. A night's stay in the bungalows costs from VND2.4 million ($105.31).
To gaze up on the rice terraced fields during the golden season from their windows, the Hoang Su Phi Lodge and Kinh Homestay in Nam Hong Village are ideal options.
Dong Van and Meo Vac districts offer budget-friendly homestays with prices ranging from VND100,000-230,000 per night.
Given the diversity of ethnic minority communities who live in Ha Giang, a culinary exploration of the province is a rewarding exercise.
The xoi ngu sac (five-colored sticky rice) – red, yellow, blue, purple and white – is made by using fruits, roots and leaves of plants. Glutinous rice is soaked in water for 6-8 hours and divided into five parts. Apart from the original white color, the other parts are dyed with a natural food coloring agent and steamed until tender.
The dish can be found at the weekly flea market in Dong Van Town.
From mid-October onwards, the Ha Giang rock plateau blooms with buckwheat flowers, a season which has already made the place a major tourist attraction. Residents use these flowers to make a signature dish - triangle buckwheat cake – that is difficult to find elsewhere.
The buckwheat seeds are harvested, dried and crushed into fine powder. The power is mixed with water to make flat round cakes that are then steamed for about 10 minutes. The cakes bought at the markets can be taken home as a special gift.
Tourists can buy this cake from street food vendors or food stalls in the Dong Van flea market.
Thang den is another signature dish made with glutinous rice flour in Ha Giang. It looks like banh troi, the cake with a sweet filling that is popular in Hanoi.
The thang den is made by mixing glutinous rice flour with sugar, shaped into balls and steamed. They are served with a syrup made with sweetened coconut milk and ginger. A bowl of thang den is topped with peanuts and/or black sesame seeds.
Though the steamed rice roll, banh cuon, is a popular dish in the north of the country, the version in Ha Giang is quite different. It is filled with pork/egg and mushroom, topped with dried shallots and served with a bowl of delicious bone broth flavored with fresh coriander, chopped scallions and Vietnamese pork sausage.
In Ha Giang’s chilly mornings, a bowl of hot broth with banh cuon makes for a great breakfast.
The most popular restaurants to try this dish are: Ms.Ha’s stall at 31 Dong Van Town; and Ms. Cuc’s stall opposite to Ha Giang Town’s social security center.
A special porridge favored by the Hmong people in Ha Giang is made of the root of the monkshood aconite plant, known as au tau, which grows on Ha Giang’s highest mountain peak, Tay Con Linh.
The process of cooking the porridge is very time-consuming, because the roots can be poisonous without being processed and cooked in the right manner.
After harvest, the roots are soaked in water for a night and then simmered on a fire for about four hours. They can then be turned into dough and mixed with glutinous rice and pork trotters.
The porridge is only sold at night and is served with fried minced pork, pepper, herbs and sour bamboo shoots.
You can find this treat at Ngan Ha Restaurant at 161 Tran Hung Dao Street.
The black chicken hotpot is a not-to-be-missed dish on a cold day in Ha Giang. It is normally had with cabbage, peas and other vegetables that make the hotpot sweeter.
Unlike ga ac, a kind of black chicken in the Mekong Delta, the Hmong variety is a rare breed found in the northwestern mountainous provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Bac Kan. It is a favorite of the Hmong people, who believe that it helps enhance human vitality, including libido, and is good medicine for heart disease.
The hotpot is served at Oanh Hieu Restaurant in Dong Van Town and at Phan’s Restaurant on Hai Ba Trung Street.
Ha Giang Town is 300 kilometers from Hanoi and the most popular method of transportation is by overnight sleeper bus, for which tickets can be booked/bought at the My Dinh Bus Station. The journey of around six hours to reach Ha Giang Town costs VND200,000-350,000 ($8.54-15) per person.
On arrival, hiring a motorbike for VND150,000 a day is probably the best way to explore the undulating paths that embrace the province’s mountainous terrain.
With one’s own motorbike, take National Route 2 to Vinh Yen Town, turn into National Route 2C past Tuyen Quang and Viet Quang towns to reach Ha Giang. This is the easier route, though slightly longer.
Story by Hoang Phong