Although many of Vietnam’s visitors head to Sapa for a taste of hill tribe life and colourful markets, the more adventurous itineraries will take you much further north, to Ha Giang on the Chinese border.
A full day’s drive (with breaks) from Hanoi, Ha Giang is one of Vietnam’s least accessible destinations - truly off the track, with extraordinary mountain scenery and an authentic hill tribe culture that is largely untainted by tourism. Tree-covered limestone crags tower above deep rural valleys that are packed with rice terraces and tea bushes. Families work this land with ox-drawn ploughs, their methods unchanged for centuries, even if they do now wear denim and football shirts while they’re at it.
This is a world that still revolves around market days, where people walk for hours from across the region to exchange goods and news, maintain bonds and forge new ones. With a bit of forward planning, your trip should coincide with a market day or two, so you can immerse yourself in humanity’s oldest alternative to social media. Ha Giang’s markets are the place to see knots of women wearing the brightly coloured traditional outfits that identify their tribes, and nattily dressed farmers sharing beers and corn wine whilst eyeing up livestock. Need a new piglet, or a couple of chickens? Or perhaps just some dried spices would be more practical as a souvenir...
There’s not really much going on in Ha Giang town itself, but it is an excellent base for a few days of exploring the region’s spectacular landscapes. For meals you’ll be choosing from a small selection of local restaurants - even the ubiquitous McDonalds hasn’t reached Ha Giang, although that is a scary thing to type because doing so feels like tempting fate! For now, though, it’s all about fresh local ingredients in interesting eateries. Don’t worry if you’re not the bravest of souls when it comes to entering local hostelries - your guide will lead the way.
The region is not exactly overflowing with grand hotels, and those that do exist, although generally new and air-conditioned, are still getting the hang of customer service. But there are some very interesting homestays, which allow for an intriguing taste of local life. Many of the homestay owners are farmers, and you’ll get the chance to witness their methods and daily routines close up.
One of our favourite homestays is in Ba Be National Park, one of Vietnam’s most spectacular areas of natural beauty, and featured in our From Phở to Paddy itinerary. The park protects a swathe of evergreen forested mountains, freshwater lakes (including the largest one in Vietnam) and cave systems, as well as several minority villages. A number of exciting animals live here, too, including red giant flying squirrels, which is over 40cm long and can glide for up to 75 metres, the lovely slow loris, and Chinese pangolins.
The homestays offer pretty basic accommodation, but they do put you in an excellent position to visit mountain villages and hike through the landscape. There’s walking for all abilities, from gentle strolls through farmland to full on mountain treks. Be prepared for a fair bit of driving, too, since everything is quite far apart, and the roads wind up and down through the mountains. It’s worth the effort, though, with glorious natural landmarks like Heaven’s Gate (an impressive viewpoint) and Ma Pi Leng pass providing plenty of excuses to stop for photos.
Dry season in Ha Giang spans from October to April, with harvest-time in October being particularly pretty, with fields of purple flowers blooming between October and November. It gets chilly in December and January, but the sunshine and clear skies make up for it, so pack some layers and get your hiking boots on! Do be aware that the weather here is not always perfect, and fog can obscure the glorious views, so bring flexible expectations, too. Speak to one of our Vietnam Specialists about timing your visit to coincide with a market.