Ha Giang is the final frontier of Northern Vietnam, a rugged and awe-inspiring landscape of limestone and granite formations. The Ma Pi Leng Pass is the remote highway through the ‘mini mountains’ and is well worth the required $10 travel permit.
It is not necessary to book this journey as part of an organised tour, simply hire a car and driver or brave a ‘xe om’ for the ride of your life. Limited public transport is available but only in some parts. You can take the local bus from Ha Giang City to Dong Van but at the moment there is still not public transport across the pass to Meo Vac.
The view is at its best in November when the rainy season has ended, the flowers are in full bloom and the vegetation is lush. The terrain is rough yet strangely beautiful and certainly feels a million miles from the hustle of the city.
This is the real, remote and ancient Vietnam, drink in the ancient landscape and admire the giant looming rock outcrops as you venture through this quiet and mysterious location. You won’t witness scenery like this again and it’s only a matter of time before Ha Giang starts to get busy as people learn about the simple charm of this stunning wilderness.
Don’t expect a bustling tourist scene when you get up to Ha Giang, you will be one of just a handful of foreign visitors in this remote region. Enjoy it, tourists are a novelty here and attract plenty of attention, purely out of curiosity. Use your Vietnamese phrases and plenty of sign language to make friends and communicate your requirements to the locals.
If you are a fussy eater then make sure that you bring some supplies. When you travel like a local in remote regions of Vietnam you have to eat like a local too – you won’t happen across a MacDonald’s on the Ma Pi Leng Pass.
Top Tip – Book hotels in advance, the area simply isn’t geared to tourist and can be overwhelmed by the volume of visitors.
Getting there :
Ha Giang is over 300km from Hanoi and there are no local train stations so you must take the bus (or a car and driver). Some extreme motorbike lovers swear that hiring a motorbike or taking a “xe om” is the best way to enjoy the view but it’s a very long journey if you aren’t used to bike riding.
Bus: The main bus station in Ha Giang is centrally located just off Nguyen Trai, west of the Lo River. Day or sleepers busses take approximately 7 hours from Hanoi to Ha Giang and cost between $5.50 and $10 depending on seat type.
Dong Van karst plateau spans a massive expand of 2,350 square kilometers; it covers four districts in the Ha Giang Province and shares a border with China in the north.
In October 2010 Dong Van was officially recognized as the first Geopark in Vietnam, making it only the second Geopark in Eastern Asia. This marks great progress in the Asian attitude towards geological heritage sites and further to revelation that tourists want to visit such location. Now locals are beginning to realize the importance of preserving the incredible landscape.
The formations within the Van Dong plateau are over 80% limestone and contain fossil that date back between 400 and 600 million years. The vast limestone mountains have revealed secrets about the formation of the earth’s crust and provided a home for some of the first indigenous people. Scientists are continuing to research the land and have already found 33 tectonic heritages and 45 geomorphology heritages. Dong Van will certainly ‘rock’ your world – excuse the pun!
Tourists are not only drawn by the amazing geological discoveries but also by the hardworking and innovative ethnic groups that live there. In a bid to forge an existence in the unforgiving rocky terrain the locals have carved out places to grow corn and plant vast paddy fields. There are even historic structures and relics that the local people managed to build in this otherwise sparse and unforgiving landscape. Visit the local market in the morning and see the locals in their bright clothing trading good and going about their daily life, always with a smile and an energetic vibe. It’s a hard, but inspirational way of life in the Dong Van area.
There is now an ongoing attempt to teach the 17 ethnics groups of the Dong Van about the importance of maintaining the environment around them. The magnificent area needs to be preserved for both tourism and future generations.
Khau Vai Love Market
Tge legend of the love Market is that a boy and girl from two opposing tribes in the Khau Vai Commune fell in love but were forbidden to marry. They accepted the decision of their tribe elders and knew they could never be together however they promised to meet up at the market every year on the 26th of the third lunar month each year.
The tradition has continued, located in the village of Nung and is rather adorably named “The Love Festival “. This annual gathering is highly anticipated throughout the year, as life in this region can be hard and tedious at time. The love market is intended as a place for ex-lovers, those were never able to marry, to meet and reminisce. Nowadays it is also a great opportunity for younger people to meet new partners; it’s like the Vietnamese equivalent of speed dating!
The activity begins the day before the festival begins, tents are erected and plenty of wine and food is brought to the area. Families and couples dress in their finest, brightest clothes and make their way across mountains to make sure they arrive on time.
The day is filled with eating, drinking and general merriment. Amazingly many married couples also attend and meet up with previous partners without any jealously from their current husband or wife. For the younger generation this is a rare opportunity to meet people from different villages, in fact it’s usually the only chance they get to meet people outside of their own extended families. There is an air of excitement and joy accompanied by the excited chatter or hundreds of voice.
As the sun-sets and evening descends across the love market the only sounds that you will hear are that of gentle music and the whispers of voices as people catch up with those they used to.
It certainly is an incredible experience and a novel idea. For most of the year this region is very quiet so aim to visit during the love festival. It will certainty get you thinking about those that you love and those that you have loved and lost.
- Ha Giang dried buffalo (smoked)
- An Tau Porridge
- Shan Tuyet Tea