A Guide to Travelling in Ha Giang Province, Northern Vietnam
Most people who travel to northwest Vietnam opt for the comforts and commercialisation of Sapa, while the much better looking Ha Giang Province gets almost entirely overlooked. I guess some people like mountain towns like they like their women: easy and not that attractive. Not me though. I preferred Ha Giang Province — the scenery is incredible, the locals are genuinely friendly and I never once heard “You buy from me!!”. That demand (it’s never phrased as a question) is rampant in Sapa — so if you’re sick of the hard sale and want to see a special region of Vietnam, make your way to Ha Giang Province.
Lao Cai to Ha Giang City
From Sapa I took a tour to Bac Ha Market which eventually dropped me off in Lao Cai. This small city is only a few kilometres from the border and you’ll pass through if you’re heading to China (or Sapa) by train. I stayed in a cheap hotel for a night and prepared myself for a 6.30 am departure to Ha Giang City. I woke up at 5.30 am and it was freezing. There was also a game of cricket just asking to be streamed on my laptop. Those two things convinced me to take the midday bus instead. I caught the bus on the street heading down from the train station (you’ll see a board with Ha Giang written on it). It left at around 12.30 (120,000 VND) and took around six hours. It was a bitterly cold journey — bring warm clothes if you’re travelling during winter.
Ha Giang City
I arrived at around 7 pm and quickly found a guesthouse for the night. If you’re looking to do the same, turn right as you exit the bus station and you’ll see a place that rents motorcycles. Knock on the door and say you need a room — they have two rooms and they only charged 100,000 VND a night. It’s about a minute away from the bus station which makes it the perfect place to stay. It used to be the case that you had to buy a permit to visit this region in Ha Giang City. You still need the permit but it’s possible to get it in Dong Van (just ask at the hotel you decide to stay at) meaning you don’t need to spend much time in Ha Giang City. The permit costs 220,000 VND.
Ha Giang to Dong Van
As soon as I arrived in Ha Giang I asked the guy in the bus station ticket office what times the buses left. He told me the first one was at 5.30 am, so I got up at a ridiculous (and cold) hour and stumbled to the bus station. He then told me the bus to Dong Van didn’t leave from the bus station told us (me and a Korean guy) to take a taxi and then hop on a bus to My Linh, where we would have to change to a bus to Dong Van. I’m pretty sure Dong Van bound buses do leave from the bus station so we were either conned, missed the 5.30 am bus (we were there around 5.20am) or there was a massive misunderstanding. In the end the convoluted procedure cost us about $2 extra and maybe 30 minutes, which is hardly something to get too annoyed over. The bus to My Linh cost 80,000 VND and My Linh to Dong Van was 50,000 VND. The road weaved through some beautiful scenery but the low clouds hid most of it. The buses, including the one from Lao Cai to Ha Giang, were cold, crowded and uncomfortable. You’re also likely to be the only tourist onboard — it’s a nice change from the open tour buses that make their way between Saigon and Hanoi.
This rough round the edges town surrounded by rocky karst mountains is the best place to base yourself in Ha Giang Province. There are lots of hotels, a few decent, local restaurants and world class hiking close to town. There is also a Sunday market where the local hill tribe folk go to sell their products. I wasn’t there on a Sunday so I missed it, I’ve heard good things though. I found the people in Dong Van (and Ha Giang Province in general) to be incredibly friendly. Old men offer cigarettes, tobacco bongs and super strong rice wine. Kids wave, smile and try out the five or six English words they know. Old, colorfully dressed Hmong women shoot genuine smiles while hauling heavy goods on their backs along hilly trails. The people on Vietnam’s tourist trail have a bad reputation and lead many to claim that this country is home to the most unfriendly people in Southeast Asia. I used to think that as well, but then I visited Ha Giang Province.
Hiking near Dong Van
I wrote a full post about the hike that I did just outside of Dong Van, so I won’t go into too much detail here. I will say that it was one of the best short hikes that I’ve been on in Southeast Asia. The people, the scenery and the fact that I was the only tourist out on the trails that day combined to make it a rare and special experience.
FURHTER READING: Hiking in Dong Van: A Peaceful Walk through the Countryside
The Ma Pi Leng Pass
This 22 km stretch of road connecting Dong Van and Meo Vac is a dream to drive down. It winds its way past shapely karst mountains, through tiny villages and allows for some outstanding views of the green Vietnamese countryside. I joined with another tourist to hire a car to see the Ma Pi Leng Pass (as well as Sa Phin) which cost us 800,000 VND, but it’s also possible to hire a motorbike, a xe om (motorbike taxi) or walk.
FURTHER READING: Dong Van to Meo Vac along the Ma Pi Leng Pass
I didn’t spend long in Meo Vac but it seemed like a nice little town — try and stay for a night or two if you have the time. The town is (of course) surrounded by great scenery and I’m sure there are some good hikes in the area.
I joined forces with the aforementioned Korean tourist to hire a car and driver to take us along the Ma Pi Leng Pass and then to Sa Phin, another small town close to Dong Van. The clouds had come back in full force by the time we reached Sa Phin but the drive was predictably scenic up until then. The main site in Sa Phin is an old house built well over a hundred years ago. The mist outside was thick and I was the only one looking through the massive, mysterious old building. It sounds like a horror movie in the making… I was just lucky that I wasn’t accompanied by some good looking young college students from America or I might not have made it out alive. A small gang of children had gathered outside, and after playing with them for a while we headed back through the mist towards Dong Van.
Ha Giang to Hanoi
I caught a bus around lunchtime from Dong Van to Ha Giang, which arrived at 6 pm. I then booked a ticket on a night bus from Ha Giang to Hanoi. It cost 200,000 VND and left at around 8.30 pm, arriving at the Gia Lam bus station in Hanoi at 4 am (I slept on the bus until 6 am though).
Ha Giang Province turned out to be one of my favourite places in Vietnam. A lot of people hire motorbikes to travel around this region but it’s easy (and still an adventure) to do it on public transport. If you’re travelling in Vietnam and the country still hasn’t completely won you over, head straight for Ha Giang Province; it won’t disappoint.
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Did I convince you to visit Ha Giang Province? Let me know in the comments below.