Vietnam owns majestic mountains and winding passes, which can match the beauty of widely known spots in the world. When it comes to mountainous areas, we cannot help but mention Sapa and Ha Giang.
Both Sapa and Ha Giang are gateways to the outstanding mountain scenery of the Northwest and extreme north of Vietnam. However, in comparison with Sapa, the town hidden in the clouds, Ha Giang is not yet on the beaten trail. So, let’s get to know more about magnificent Ha Giang!
1. Overview of Ha Giang
As the northernmost province of Vietnam, Ha Giang is regarded by many as “The Final Frontier of Viet Nam,” which is a home for ethnic minorities such as Hmong, Tay, Lo Lo, etc.. Each of which has its own history, tradition, clothes, and cuisine that create a unique regional culture.
Ha Giang is also known for the buckwheat flower season in November, which drives people to visit this space to admire blooming flowers on rocks. Moreover, since it is far from the city center and the infrastructure is not yet expanded, tourism is left behind. Therefore, everything is reserved in their pristine beauty. Let’s make your way to Ha Giang to be rewarded by sweeping views of karst mountains, carpets of flowers, and colourful markets!
2. Geographical features
Naturally, Ha Giang is divided into 3 sub-regions. As the northern part is called, “Dong Van Karst Plateau”, there are numerous rocky mountains, deep canyons, large caves and separated rivers. The plateau is covered in bare limestone, which created bizarre, yet splendid sceneries.
Secondly, the western area consists of 2 districts: Hoang Su Phi and Xin Man. This one has many sloping mountain sides, high pass, valley and narrow springs, and is famous for its wonderful terraced paddy fields.
Finally, the southern part, including the small, provincial capital city of Ha Giang is mostly covered by low hills and valleys along the blue Lo river.
3. Local Culture (History, people)
Since ancient times of the legendary Hung kings, Ha Giang was called Tan Hung. It was an autonomous zone under the control of various tribes of Thai and Tay people.
In 1886, the French occupied this region and named it Ha Giang. After independence, Ha Giang was a part of Viet Bac, the local base of support for the Viet Minh troop. The city had to be rebuilt after being heavily bombed in both Indochina wars and Chinese’s artillery in 1979. It was not until 2010 did this city gain attraction when the Dong Van Karst Plateau was designated as a member of the UNESCO’s Global Geoparks Network.
People and Culture
Unlike many parts of Vietnam that are dominated by the Kinh ethnic minority, the community of Ha Giang are formed by minor ethnics, such as H’mong, Tay, Nung, Dao, Giay. While some of them have lived in the region for thousands of years, some have only migrated here in the last few centuries, living on different terrain and altitude. For example, while the H’mong live on the high mountains of 800m and above, the Tay live in valleys and near the rivers. After hundreds of years living together, their culture blended together, too, to create one of the most diverse yet unique cultures in northern Vietnam.
Among many ethnics living in Ha Giang, the Hmong people are a colorful and culturally and historically-rich ethnic minority that occupies the majority of the population in Ha Giang. If there are two things you should know about the H’mong culture, they are “Khen” and linen waving.
Khen is their traditional musical instrument. It is a polyphonic instrument in the shape of a set of bamboo pipes of varying sizes. This instrument is an integral part of the life of the Hmong people since they use it as a way of communication and express their liberal soul. Therefore, they always bring khen with them.
While khen is still a preserve of men, textile is the passion of Hmong women. They are still an important part of modern Hmong culture. The Hmong women employ many techniques such as embroidery, applique, reverse applique, and batik to brocade costumes with various symbols that tell stories.
A H’Mong saying goes: “A beautiful girl that can not make linen is also an ugly one.” Hence, Mong girls are proficient in weaving linen. Of course, in the modern context, you should not take this proverb literally. Please just bear in mind that this custom drives them to make the best clothes for themselves to wear on the festival, to go to the fair, and especially to dress-on on the wedding day.
4. Things to do in Ha Giang (What to eat, where to visit)
What to eat:
Steamed rolls: Trust me, Ha Giang’s version of steamed roll is quite different from Hanoi’s: stuffed with minced pork or cloud ear fungus; served with broth. Perfect for breakfast or a late-evening (9P.M or later) meal.
Au tau porridge: As its name suggests, the dish is made from rice with au tau’s root and porks’ legs. The main ingredient, au tau, gives the dish a bitter taste, and can cause harm if not made well. Luckily, the locals of Ha Giang are experts in using Au Tau. They turn the poisonous roots into something that helps ease joint pain and aiding sleep.
Recommendation: Ms.Huong’s porridge, at 161 Tran Hung Dao Str., Ha Giang City.
Thang Co: The dish’s name derived from Chinese, which literally means “soup cooked in the big pan”. The main materials of Thang Co are bone, internal organs (heart, lungs, nerves, e.t.c…) and meat of a horse, or a buffalo, cooked together in a big pan, then served in a small bowl. It is common to have a sip of corn wine while savoring Thang Co . The added spices such as hemp, cardamom, cinnamon, and anise made Ha Giang’s Thang Co unique and, probably, the best Thang Co in northern Viet Nam.
Where to go:
Ma Pi Leng Pass: Undoubtedly, Ma Pi Leng Pass is one of the most astonishing mountain roads in Vietnam. The 20 kilometre-long road has many sharp turns and incredibly panoramic views. Especially from Ma Pi Leng Viewpoint, you can overlook Tu San Canyon and Nho Que River which flow between its ridges. An hour boat-trip on the Nho Que River is a must when visiting Ha Giang.
H’Mong Royal Palace (Palace of the Vuong): Located in Sa Phin valley is the residency of Vuong Duc Chinh, the King of Opium. Built from stone and fir wood and terracotta tiling in a combined Qing-Chinese, French, H’mong traditional style, the building is considered a gem of the northern district of Dong Van.
Legend has it that before the beginning of the construction, Vuong Chinh Duc went to China to find a Feng-shui Master to Vietnam. They went through 4 district areas under his jurisdiction to find out the best terrain. Ultimately, they decided to choose Xa Phin village – the land located in the middle of the Sa Phin valley. Thanks to a block of soil rising high like a turtle’s hood, symbolizing the Golden Turtle God in Vietnamese legends, this place was chosen. It was believed that by forming up Vuong Chinh Duc’s erection in this territory, his ambition would become true.
As Vuong Chinh Duc was a Hmong wealthy and powerful man for trading goods, especially opium. Sa Phin is the transshipment place for opium from the Burmese golden triangle and the Yunnan region of China to Indochina. This made him decide to incorporate the design of opium into the building. The pillar footstones are shaped into opium fruit, its outside also has unique patterns. Not only the footstones of the pillars but under the eaves and rafters are also sculpted in the shape of opium fruits and poppies.
Khau Vai love market: Another must-do activity is to visit Khau Vai love market, a special and unique annual festival that is held at 26 of the third Lunar month. Lively, colorful and crowded, this is the place where lovers meet and talk, ex-lovers who can’t make it together reunite and tell the story of their life.
Hoang Su Phi: The western mountainous district of Hoang Su Phi is famous for its wonderful terraced paddy fields, poetic Shan Tuyet tea hills from Thong Nguyen’s famous trekking path and the gigantic 2400-meter high mountain of Kiou Leou Ti (Chieu Lau Thi).
Lung Cu Flag Point
Located on the top of Lung Cu with a height of about 1.470m above sea level, this flag’s size is exactly 54 square meters, representing Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups.
Lung Cu Flagpole was built first in the Ly Thuong Kiet dynasty and was originally made of wood only. However, it has been rebuilt and repaired many times, and nowadays, the 9m high flag handle is made of stainless steel.
Interestingly, this place has various legends. The most famous one is attached with King Quang Trung. The legend tells that after a grand victory over Thanh’s army, the King was punished for placing a gigantic drum on Lung Cu’s peak. At a particular time, he signed a soldier to beat the drum three times to affirm Vietnam’s sovereignty over China. After years, as a habit, whenever there is a problem at the border, the Vietnamese beat the dumb again to awake people’s patriotism.
What to do, see: From the top of the flagpole, you can admire two ponds on both sides of the mountain that never run out of water. The landscape at the foot of the Lung Cu flagpole is mountains interspersed by terraced fields creating a wild beauty, the typical feature of the Northwest regions of Vietnam that you do not want to miss. The most exciting and unexpected thing is that coming to the Lung Cu flagpole, you will stand right next to the border of Vietnam and China to have a glance of the neighboring country.
Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate
Located at 1.000 meters above sea level, Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate is the first gateway of Ha Giang to Dong Van Plateau. It owns the pretty magnificent scenery of the Northwest mountains. The most exciting thing is that Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate creates the feeling of bringing visitors up to the clouds to touch the sky, true to its inherent name.
Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate is associated with many historical events, especially military ones, such as the struggle between Vietnam and France to preserve the country. Therefore, during the war years, the gate had a wooden door built by the French to separate two ethnic groups, the Kinh and Hmong. However, presently due to severe weather conditions, that door was replaced by a large sign which makes Quan Ba heaven gate just a distance between two mountains. Even so, the landscape that you can observe from the Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate will take your breath away.
What to do, see: Climb to the top of the mountain to observe a breathtaking view of the Dong Van Plateau, and sightsee the vast valley of Quan Ba, offering the silent charm of the yellow ripped rice, the terraces, the houses of hill tribes, and Co Tien Twin Mountain, which is a natural work of art that makes a captivating poetic frame of clouds stretching all the way. Also, Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate is the first attraction in Ha Giang, so you can grab coffee and locally produced honey here after a long ride.
Lung Tam Weaving Village
Located not far from Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate, Lung Tam village is a small valley with a flowing through Miem river. It is also a home for Hmong people, who are seasoned professionals in textile art.
In the past, Lung Tam village was a typical village of the hill tribe. However, when the traditional trade seems to be extinct, one strong, smart woman appeared to save the craft and bring brocade linen products to the domestic and international markets. The name of this woman is Vang Thi Mai, the founder of The Linen Co-operative. Despite the traditions of hill tribes, where a woman’s role is limited to household matters, Mrs. Mai helps people continue to preserve and uphold traditional values and culture by bringing Lung Tam linen down the mountain, up to the city’s streets and then fled abroad.
Linen weaving in Lung Tam is a traditional handicraft with a long history, not only bringing income to households in Lung Tam village but also contributing to preserving the traditional cultural values of Mong people. And thanks to one wonderful woman, the linen village of Lung Tam is now an unmissable authentic destination that attracts thousands of visitors.
What to do, see: Coming to Lung Tam village, you can see beautiful Hmong batik hemp panels, hear stories about savior Mrs. Mai, who they are proud of, and linen development. Of course, you can also purchase hand-crafted hemp products with specific details, which have a particular meaning, as a souvenir. In addition to buying special gifts, you can also learn about the uniqueness of an old brocade-weaving village of Ha Giang mountain land and join in some parts of the 50 stages of waving linen.
Nho Que River
Nho Que River is one of the deepest canyons in Southeast Asia and one of the unique geological formation valleys in Vietnam, which originates from the mountains of Nghiem Son (China), from an altitude of 1500m. Nho Que flows smoothly all year round through the majestic mountains with a poetic, mysterious, and fanciful beauty that you will find hard to leave.
In previous times, the Nho Que River was not as smooth as it is now and considered to serve the fishing purposes of the Ha Giang people only. However, since a hydroelectric project was built, water flows more smoothly. Moreover, after construction, locals opened boat trips on the river to help travelers explore Tu San Canyon, the deepest canyon in Southeast Asia.
What to do, see: Nho Que River is quite wide, therefore to fully admire the beauty of the Nho Que River, you can settle on the Ma Pi Leng pass to observe all the splendor of the river and the grandeur of nature Ha Giang. There are two stations leading to this blue river, one can be reached by foot, one by bike. Make sure when traveling to Ha Giang, you can try to mingle with nature on the Nho Que river and combine a Tu San canyon visit, which will bring exciting experiences.
Meo Vac Market
Since Ha Giang is the home for various ethnic groups, to explore local culture, the best way to do it is to shop like the locals at their markets. It is highly recommended to visit the famous Meo Vac market, which is a museum about the lives of ethnic minorities in the borderland of Meo Vac. Every Sunday, all minority groups will come there to hold the market in the middle of the district’s central town, which makes a good chance for you to survey locals’ culture and lifestyle. It is also a fantastic venue to see the ancient bartering of remote ethnic people in Ha Giang.
It is unknown when the Meo Vac market was formed, but every Sunday at dawn, people are eagerly dragging each other down to the market at crossroads. Going to the market has become an indispensable cultural feature of Meo Vac people in particular and Ha Giang highlands in general. After those hard-working days, the market day is also the time for ethnic minorities to go to the market, to purchase necessities for daily life. Also, it is a very important need, exchanging with each other. This is a rather special value of the Meo Vac upland market, different from the lowland markets. It is a mental factor characteristic that you do not want to miss.
What to do, see: There you can walk through stalls that are divided into 2 sections: outdoor and indoor markets selling everything, starting from mobile phones to livestock.
On the livestock section you can see little piglets, goats, chicken, ducks and even puppies sold along the street. Not far from this section, you can also find a cattle market, where locals inspect water buffaloes or cattle on sale. Besides, you can watch how the various parts of the animals are checked before a sale is completed.
What is most fascinating is that here you will get treated to some interesting views, such as locals walking a piglet with a lead, men carrying a couple of chicken holding their feet, motorbikes passing where the chicken are hanging with their feet down the handle, or having to share a cage at the back of the bike with a dog. However, if you are not a fan of such views, you can move to the indoor market, another area to explore local culture. There, you can find a few food stalls with the fireplaces preparing food, which make a great sight. It is a nice place to have a cheap, uncommon delectable breakfast.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Ha Giang is in dry season: from early October to late April
October: It is the time when the paddy field turns yellow, which is stunningly beautiful. Also, it is interesting to see local ethnics in their colorful dresses happily harvesting the rice, putting it in the sack and transporting home. It is recommended that you should visit Hoang Su Phi’s terraced paddy fields during this time of the year.
November: The northern plateau is covered by the purple of buckwheat flowers, the symbolic flower of Dong Van. Sidenotes: This is also the time of “Buckwheat flower festival”, therefore a large number of tourists will flock into Ha Giang, and the whole plateau suddenly becomes crowded. Reservations should be made at least a week prior to the trip.
December – mid January: It is when rapeseed flowers blooms. The weather gets really cold, and the wind is chilly. There might be snow-if you are lucky enough, which is amazingly beautiful, but also quite rare in a tropical country like Vietnam.
Late January – February: It’s the end of a Lunar year, and the beginning of a new one. The people of Ha Giang celebrate Tet, too, just like any other Vietnamese, and all tourists are welcomed to join. You’ll have a good chance to learn the culture and traditions in the most natural way.
March: When the mountains of Ha Giang enter springtime, the landscape is full of life with numerous kinds of different species of flower bloom at its fullest beauty, most notably the pink color of peach blossom, and the white of plum flower, along with their nice fragrance. Many spring festivals are held, such as Buffalo fighting, Horse racing, Long Tong (the festival of Tay ethnics people to pray for a good crop and bountiful harvest).
April: It is the time when the local people water the terraced paddy fields so they look like giant mirrors, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The weather in April is also warmer, which makes trekking and biking more pleasant. It is also the time when the famous Khau Vai love market festival is held.
How to get to Ha Giang
Located northwest of Ha Noi, without an airport or railroad connected, the most recommended form of transportation is bus, which is surprisingly cheap, from 8 to 13$ for a ticket, depending on departure time and how comfortable the bus is. It would take 6 to 8 hours to get to Ha Giang.
Travel in Ha Giang : Of course, it is possible to travel in Ha Giang by bus or private car, but I strongly recommend to hire yourself a bike, so that you can stop at any point of your adventure, and take a snapshot of the breathtakingly beautiful nature of Ha Giang
Some alternative route to Ha Giang: Beside the main road of QL2 straight from Hanoi to Ha Giang, Ha Giang can be accessed from the nearby attractions such as Sa Pa, Ba Be Lake or Cao Bang.
From Sa Pa: The border road from Sa Pa, via QL4D through Lao Cai City – Muong Khuong- Si Ma Cai – Xin Man (Coc Pai)- Hoang Su Phi Ha Giang. You can also take a detour to visit the beautiful town of Bac Ha, which is only 10km from the main road, or take a half-day, or a full-day trekking in Thong Nguyen or around the Kiou Leou Ti mountain in Hoang Su Phi.
From Ba Be Lake: There are two options: From Ba Be to Yen Phu town of Bac Me, then take a detour to Du Gia Commune of Yen Minh – a famous destination for trekking and Meo Vac town to start the famous Ha Giang Loop via DT176 and DT182, or straight to Ha Giang City via QL34.
How many mountainous areas in Vietnam have you visited? Please tell us, we would love to hear from you. Get prepared with more tips and travel plans in Vietnam at Eviva’s blog or contact our travel consultant for more support.
Writers: Pham Thi Nhat Le and Nguyen Le Hai