As a full-time traveler, I often find myself in situations that leave me breathless. Extraordinary landscapes, ancient textiles, a stranger’s kind smile–it doesn’t take much to leave a lasting impression on my heart. I found all of this more as I had the journey of a lifetime exploring the unique corners of Ha Giang. I rode the Dong Van Loop easy rider style with my local guide and expert motorbike driver, Mr. Thien who partners with Vietnamese responsible tour operator YESD which lists their sustainable tours on responsible travel marketplace I Like Lokal.
AN INTRODUCTION TO HA GIANG
The Ha Giang (Hà Giang) province is the northernmost part of Vietnam, the frontier skirts along the land border belt with the Yunnan province in China–which has been much disputed over the years. The massive province is mostly unspoiled and home to 16 ethnic groups.
The 215 mile Dong Van Loop ventures through numerous topography and landscapes. Stretches of highway cut between limestone cliffs, mountain peaks dense with cloud forests, black rock gorges, and of course the picturesque stacked rice terraces which make the region perfectly postcard-worthy.
I felt safe the entire ride and had the unique opportunity to stop and chat with locals and get a glimpse into their way of life along the loop. I will cherish this memory forever as one of the most memorable experiences over the 3 months I’ve spent in Vietnam.
The landscape is entirely otherworldly. I felt as if I’d been transported to another planet–one that had been untouched by pollution or human destruction. I couldn’t help but feel that there may be hope, after all, to return our planet to its once great green state.
MY VISIT TO HA GIANG WITH I LIKE LOCAL AND YESD
I ventured to Ha Giang in August, which is still the rainy season in northern Vietnam. This was a gift as I was treated to vibrant verdant around every corner. The colors in my photos are so neon green that they look edited, but they’re not! With the greenery came plenty of rain. We got soaked most of the trip, but it just added to the ambiance. How odd it was to be completely dry and see a wall of rain just a few stretches ahead on a mountain pass. Visiting Ha Giang is quite mysterious any time of year.
My route through Ha Giang went something like this:
Day 1: Thon Tha, Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Meo Vac, Dong Van town.
Day 2: Dong Van, Ma Pi Leng Pass, H’mong King Palace, Sung La, Lung Tam, Quan Ba
Day 3: Lung Khuy Cave, Thon Tha
I took the night bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang and arrived at to the picturesque Thon Tha village at dawn. The small town is only home to about 500 people who belong to the Tay ethnic group and are mostly related. Life is simple and quite a contrast from the bustling capital city of Hanoi. Greener pastures surround traditional Tay-style wood stilt homes with thatched roofs that reflect in the rice paddy pools that have collected an abundance of water during the monsoon season.
HOMESTAY IN THON THA VILLAGE
I was welcomed into the home of Mr. Thien, who operates a fantastic homestay with his lovely wife in Thon Tha and was my skilled drive and guide in Ha Giang. Mr. Thien is one of several families who’ve opened up their family homes to foreign guests who are keen to learn about their unique way of life and culture. YESD partners with the community to provide hospitality training and teach sustainable tourism practices. Mr. Thien has hosted over 300 guests in the last 2 years.
As it was still dark out I was beckoned to one of the private curtain-drawn rooms in the newly built stilt house to snooze for a few hours on a comfortable mattress placed on the ground. I immediately fell into a deep slumber as I was lured into dreamland by the soft sounds of the rain and the rice plants swaying in the wind. I was in search of authentic culture and getting off-the-beaten-path in Vietnam, and I’d certainly done exactly that.
After a few hours, I woke to the sounds of a rooster crowing as the sun rose. I managed to drag myself out of bed, despite wanting to stay there after an uncomfortable 8-hour bus ride in the top bed on a sleeper bus. Lesson learned, always snag a bottom bed unless you like roller coaster rides.
I strolled through the small town and was enchanted by my surroundings. The clouds had parted just enough to show me the razor-tooth mountains in the distance. Locals tended to their patchwork fields and rice terraces, where they mostly grew their own produce to sustain their families, not to sell. I was initially quite shocked to see the farmers wearing Vietnam-war era helmets, but I suppose this is the epitome of upcycling as they’ve repurposed them to protect their faces from the sun.
When the rain stopped Mr. Thien told me that it’s time to go. I strapped on my backpack and we’re off zipping down windy roads. Immediately, the views from the back of the motorbike were breathtaking. I asked Mr. Thien to stop so often that he chuckled and told me that I must really love nature. With eyes as misty as the environment, I told him that I really do and that I felt so fortunate to be here. My affection for the surroundings that he calls home seem to impact him greatly, as soon he’s also snapping pictures and gasping ‘wow’ right along with me.
VISITING THE QUAN BA DISTRICT
We drove through the Quan Ba district between towering mountains and landscapes that rapidly morphed. Moment by moment the scenery changed dramatically from never-ending stacks of rice terraces and the occasional waterfall to powerful rivers chugging downstream.
Our first official stop greeted me with one of the most spectacular scenes I’d ever seen. The viewpoint is appropriately called Heaven’s Gate (Google Maps). Here we took a quick break to enjoy steaming hot Vietnamese coffee and a birds-eye view of the lush Quan Ba valley below.
I could barely pull myself away but Mr. Thien promised even more incredible scenery to come so I hopped back onto the back of his motorbike and we went on our way. Not too long after beginning our journey we stopped again to gawk at Quan Ba’s famous twin peak mountains which are known as the ‘Fairy Breast Mountains’. The two lumps sit in the viridescent valley and reminded me of what I expect the chocolate hills to look like in Bohol, Philippines, somewhere I aspire to visit in 2019.
NUMEROUS STOPS ON THE DONG VAN LOOP
We entered the rural Yen Minh district and were instantly transported to the middle of village life. Everywhere we went we passed by tiny mud and thatch or stilt homes that had been etched into the mountainside. Everyone we met was hard at work, even children, doned traditional clothes and helped their parents climb up steep mountains to collect corn that miraculously has grown from the rocky terrain.
The next area we passed through was Meo Vac which is home to one of the most impressive windy roads I’d ever seen. Even Mr. Thien was excited to stop here and snap photos of motorbikes carry bundles of corn fly past us at ill-advised speeds.
Our scenic moments continued as we approached the vantage point that overlooks the Song Nho Que River. The water serves as a natural border between Vietnam and China. The landscape here was some of the most beautiful I’d ever seen, thank goodness the weather had cleared up at just the right moment. The overgrown greenery has covered up traces of a dark past laced with tragedy and bloodshed. The Chinese trekked across these mountains to attack the northern Vietnamese after the unification of Vietnam and wreaked havoc from 1984 to 1988. Mr. Thien remembers the war well and seems overcome with sadness when he speaks to me about it, I don’t ask questions or press for more information. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have lived in a war zone.
Some of my most cherished moments from the Dong Van Loop were conversing with local mountain-dwellers from various ethnic groups who were frocked in their brightly colored traditional garb. This wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been traveling with a local. Mr. Thien is well loved in Ha Giang and people were happy to stop and chat with us and proudly pose for me, which was a true honor.
HOMESTAY IN DONG VAN TOWN
After over 10 hours on the road, we finally reached the Dong Van town at dusk. We stayed at the Old House Homestay, which is a traditional H’mong house. I quickly fall in love with the atmosphere here. The homestay is a living museum with ancient pots, straw hats, and string instruments strung around not for decoration, but for actual use. The beauty of Ha Giang is that everything is stunning and it’s not just to show off for tourists, it’s simply how the people live.
The guest house can be booked on Airbnb. Save US$40 off your first booking of US$75 (or €32 towards your first trip of €61) on Airbnb and by using my referral link.
After sharing dinner with a few of Mr. Thien’s friends in one of the coin-roof houses in the town center square that have been converted to restaurants I fell into a deep sleep due to complete exhaustion and my fair share of rice wine.
I spent the early morning hours relaxing on the balcony watching the village come to life has buffalo jogged by making their bells ring into an intoxicating song. After a breakfast of veggie noodles, we got back on the motorbike, despite the rain, and tried to traverse the back roads that cuts behind Dong Van town. We came across many villagers who tend to their fields rain or shine. I’m amazed by the strength of the women, who trek up and down the mountain with baskets full of corn strapped to their backs.
The rugged roads were completely wrecked with flood water that made the muddy path dangerous so I walked the majority of the way as Mr. Thien expertly dodged pools of water and waited for me ahead. We’re both hard-headed and were determined to keep going as apparently this is a route that not many foreigners get to see. I’m eager to take in as much as I can of this gorgeous region of Vietnam. But, no such luck, landslides have closed the Ma Pi Leng Pass with boulders and we have no choice but to head back to Dong Van town and then onwards on the Dong Van Loop.
My body felt like it’d been through a landslide after 10 hours in the rain on the back of a bike. My attitude lifts as we enter the pine UNESCO-protected Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark. How could those views not bring me back to life? Apparently, this is the only place in the world to see Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys, but the primates were staying out of the rain that day.
We pull off of the highway to a small Sa Phin market where women are weaving at a cooperative while young girls frolic around trying to sell apples from their orchards or darling delicate floral crowns they’ve made by hand.
We aren’t there to shop, we’re there to visit the H’mong King Palace . The massive home belonged to Vuong Chinh Duc, who once ruled this land and fought alongside Ho Chi Minh for independence from France.
The home was built and occupied during the 1920s and is seemingly endless with dozens of rooms. I appreciate the detailed wood carvings here but am otherwise unmoved by the super touristic site which lacks any signage with information. What I do find interesting is that from a distance, the house can’t be seen. The location was entirely strategic to keep Vuong Chinh Duc and his family safe from enemy attacks. He had many enemies indeed as he was infamous for his role in the opium trading market.
As we drove into the Sung La area the landscape again became to shift as we entered the endless terrain of tea fields and rice paddies. This was one of my favorite views. As I stood there, alone with Mr. Thien and surrounded by endless nature, all I could hear was the pitter-patter of light rain and the jingle of buffalo bells in the distance. It was a perfect moment.
ARTISAN CRAFTS IN HA GIANG
At last, we made it to the point of the trip I was most excited for, the Lung Tam Commune. Lung Tam is located in the Quan Ba valley, which is even greener up close. The commune here is a female-run cooperative that works with hemp to create luxurious natural textiles. All of those involved are from the H’mong tribe, who have long been using hemp as a material for their clothing. Many of the social enterprises in Hanoi sell products handmade by the artisan group.
Everything is hand touched and natural, from picking the crop to the packaging. The dyes are completely natural and created using plants and wood such as turmeric. The results are earthy colors that I could live in for the rest of my days, especially considering how soft and breathable the fabric is. The styles are enhanced with handknit embroidery and block print batik patterns.
QUAN BA COMMUNITY-BASED EXPERIENCE
We ended our day with a lovely family style meal at a Dao Ly Quoc Thang Homestay in Quan Ba. We spent the night here in another traditional house, this time belonging to a family from the Red Dao ethnic group.
Corn was hung everywhere to dry, making a beautiful decoration for now, but it would soon become the area’s famous corn hooch. I was invited to drink the alcohol with the family and was told it’s stored in the ground for many years before it reaches perfection. It was actually quite delicious–I much prefer it to rice wine.
The next day the rain stopped long enough for us to trek up the side of a mountain to reach the Lung Khuy Cave (Google Maps). The cave is one of the most well-kept I’ve ever visited. I’d actually been feeling quite caved-out but truly enjoyed the hike an visit to this cave. Sadly, the cave is so easy to photograph as it’s well-lit which means that the natural cave dwellers such as bats and centipedes have long fled for darker passages.
LEARNING AT THE CHINESE-VIETNAMESE BORDER
Our ride on the Dong Van Loop ends right where it started, back at Mr. Thien’s home in the Thon Tha village close to the city of Ha Giang. We were meant to trek to a nearby waterfall but the rainy weather made this impossible. Instead, we drove over to the nearby Chinese border in this district as it’s a less sensitive area and easy to just literally walk across–even without a passport.
It was odd to see China, but sad to see the mountains that had been destroyed by bombs that tormented the area in the ‘80s during the war between the Chinese and Vietnamese. The grass can grow to cover up areas where bombs dropped and people perished, but the mountains will never grow back to their original majestic forms. It’s a haunting reminder of just how terrible mankind can be to one another.
HOW TO DO THE DONG VAN LOOP IN HA GIANG RESPONSIBILITY
Traveling through Ha Giang on the back of a motorbike with a local from the YESD social enterprise is an ideal option for those travelers, who like me, do not have a motorbike license. The epic road trip is quite rough. If that bothers you then you can drive the loop in a car if you don’t feel very safe on the back of a motorbike.
I truly recommend going on the back of a motorbike, being one with nature and exposed to the elements is a completely transformational experience that can’t be recreated from the comfort of a car. No matter which way you decide to ride, make sure you have insurance from World Nomads to protect yourself in case of any emergencies or accidents.
Ha Giang is still relatively new to international visitors, but the secret is out. More and more people are flocking to the area to take in the rice terraces of the conical limestone mountainous province. Traveling to the area with a social enterprise such as YESD is critical to ensure that the area won’t be destroyed by over-tourism which would put the local culture and delicate environment at risk.
YESD is the Youth Empowerment and Society Development–a social enterprise concentrating on education and sustainable tourism that was founded by Vietnamese women, Hong Tuoi Vu, Trang Thu Mai, and Tuyet Han. They’ve been leaders in ensuring that Ha Giang is prepared for tourism that will benefit the local communities while giving travelers authentic experiences. The YESD Ha Giang tour with I Like Local is all-inclusive with transportation, meals, and accommodation being accounted for in the price of the trip.
By traveling with a social enterprise you can feel confident that all of your tourism dollars are being channeled directly back into local hands funding cultural conservation and environmental preservation efforts. By traveling with a local guide I felt as if I was in safe hands. Mr. Thien is well versed with the route and chatted with friends along the way who warned him of mudslides and boulder falls. There’s no better way to witness the spectacular nature of Ha Giang on the Dong Van Loop than to support local villagers along the way.
Have you been on any epic road trips? Tell me about them in the comments!
I was a hosted on this tour courtesy of YESD and I Like Local. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.