Ha Giang is the final frontier in northern Vietnam, a northern-most beauty, an amazing landscape of limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops. The far north of province has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, and the trip between Yen Minh and Dang Van, and then across the Mai Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac is quite mind-blowing. Ha Giang should be one of the most popular destinations in this region, but its proximity to the Chinese border still keeps visitor numbers at a low level.
Travel permits (US$10) are required to travel on the road north from Tam Son to Dong Van and Meo Vac, but these are simply paid directly to whichever hotel you choose to overnight in along way.
The province is the best managed with a car and driver or by motorbike. If you’re going to splurge on private transport once during your trip, this is the time to do it.
Public transport is improving and it’s relatively simple to journey by bus from Ha Giang city to Dong Van. But at the time of writing there was still no public transport from Dong Van onward to Meo Vac. However, there are buses, along the low road, between Meo Vac and Ha Giang city, so by hiring a xe om or taxi in Dong Van for the stretch to Meo Vac, it is entirely possible to do a loop back to Ha Giang city. Heading east from Mao Vac to Cao Bang continues to be a headache as there is no public transport from Meo Vac to Bao Lac.
Whichever way you tackle Ha Giang, you’ll be among only a handful of travellers. To the area and will experience some of Indochina’s most jaw-dropping scenery.
Ha Giang is somewhere to recharge the batteries on the long road north. This town, bisected by the broad river Lo, is a provincial capital with clean streets and an understated ambience. The main drag is Nguyen Trai ward, which runs north-south paralleling the west bank of the Lo for 3km or so. You’ll find hotels, banks and restaurants on this road.
There is little to keep you in the town itself, but the spectacular limestone outcrops that are soaring skywards over the suburbs hint at the amazing scenery in the surrounding hinterland.
Johny Nam Tran (Group 15, Nguyen ward)
Highly experienced in the back roads and byways of northern Vietnam, Johny Nam Tran is an excellent contact for motorbike rental or organised bike tours around Ha Giang province. Tours by car and trekking trips can also be arranged.
Getting There & Away
Ha Giang’s main bus station (19-5 st.) is centerally located just off Nguyen Trai ward, west of the Lo River. Buses to Hanoi and Xin man to Bac Ha leave from here
A second bus station, 2.5km from the town centre, operates provincial sevices to Dong Van; and to Meo Vac. Buses to Dong Van leave at 5am, 6.30am, 10am, 10.30am, 11h30am and noon. To Meo Vac, there are services at 5am, 5.30am, 6am, 10am,10.30am, 11.30am, noon and 1pm.
Quan Ba Pass
Leaving Ha Giang, the road climbs over the Quan Ba Pass (Heaven’s gate) around 40km from the city. Poetic licence is a national pastime in Vietnam, but this time the romantics have it right. The road winds over the saddle and opens up on to an awesome vista of knobbly topped limestone mountains.
At the top of Qua Ba Pass is an information centre and lookout with amazing views down into Tam Son. An English-language information board details the 2011 initiative to declare the Dong Van Karst Plateau part of the Unesco Global Network of National Geoparks. It’s the first Unesco-recognised geopark in Vietnam and the second one is Southeast Asia, after Langkawi Geological Park in Malaysia.
The small town of Tam son lies ina valley at the end of the Quan Ba Pass. On Sundays there’s a good market with ethnic minorities, including White Hmong, Red Dzao, Tay and Giay.
From Tam Son to Dong Van
From Tam Som, Ha Giang Province province’s main mountain pass road connects to Dong Van, first trundling onto the sleepy town of Yen Minh.
Around 5km east of Yen Minh a road meanders southeast to Meo Vac, but the recommended route is the northern fork to Dong Van with the mountain road rubbing shoulders with the Chinese border and vast panoramic vistas of green valleys rolling on below.
If you’re travelling by public transport, you can flag down buses to Dong Van (via teh northern fork) and Meo Vac (low road) as they pass through.
The northern fork heads past the astounding Vuong Palace (8am-5pm), a grandiose two-storey mansion built for a local Hmong king by the French. Set in a hidden valley near a quiet village, the building was renovated in 2006 and is a fascinating sight in such a remote region of the country. The Vuong Palace is at Sa Phin, around 15km west of Dong Van, and the scenery of countless peaks through to Dong Van is quite incradible.
Dong Van is the Ha Giang religion’s most popular overnight stop. The main road through town isn’t particularly inspriring, but in the old quarter a clutch of traditional Hmong houses still clings on and timing you visit to be here for a chaotic Sunday market is highly recommended. The town is also a good base for day treks around nearby minority villages and nearby sights such as Lung Cu.
Dong Van Market (Vao Cho st., 6am-2pm Sun)
Once a week, local villagers from the surrounding hills, including the Hmong, Tay, Nung and Hoa ethnic minorities, flood into Dong Van for Sunday market. It’s an entirely local affair full of noise, colour, and the hustle and bustle of commerce..
At the northern end of P Co, just past the old market plaza, and narrow lane, backed by a limestone cliff, meanders into the compact old quarter of Dong Van. The traditional terracotta-coloured adobe houses here, with timber details and slouchy tiled roofs, date from French colonial period.
Lung Cu ( 8am-5pm)
Around 25km north of Dong Van and right on the Chinese border, Lung Cu is a massive flag tower erected in 2010 to mark the northernmost point of Vietnam. The summit is reached by almost 300 steps from a midlevel car park, and the views across rural villages are stunning. You’ll need to show your passport and Ha Giang permit twice - at the local tourist police and army checkpoint near the base of the tower - before ascending to the top.
Meo Vac is a district capital hemmed in by mountains and, like many towns in the northwest, it is steadily being settled by Vietnamese from elsewhere. The journey here along the spectacular Mai Pi Leng Pass, which winds for 22km from Dong Van, is the main attraction. The road has been cut into the side of a cliff with a view of rippling hills tumbling down to the distant waters of the Nho Que River far below. Right at the top of the pass is a look out point where you can stop to take in the scenery.
Don’t be surprised if you’re offered a slug of a local speciality, ‘bee wine’, while you’re in town. We’re still trying to work out if it’s made from bees and honey, or just 100% bees. Either way, it’s a bracing drink on chilly Meo Vac night.
Meo Vac has a good Sunday Market. It’s proximity and timing with Dong Van’s Sun market means that t’s easy enough to combinse the two by xe om.
South to Bao Lac & Cao Bang
Foreigners are now permitted to travel from Meo Vac to Bao Lac in Cao Bang province. You must have your Ha Giang permit to do this spectacular trip. The road is now paved, though it’s still best on trail bikes or by 4WD.
Heading to Meo Vac you’ll pass through the town of Khau Vai after about 20km,, which is famous for it’s annual love market, where the tribal minorities swap wives and husbands. Though it’s undoubtedly a fascinating tradition, many busloads of Vietnamese tourists now gatecrash the dating scene, and this unique event has become something of a circus. It takes place on the 27th day of the third lunar month in the Vietnamese calendar, usually from late Aril to mid-May.
After Khau Vai, a new bridge crosses the Nho Que River, and the road continues south to Bao Lac. In Bao Lac, the Song Gam guesthouse has a riverside location and is popular with motorbike tours. A daily bus service leaves at 6am for Cao Bang, from where there is transport to Ha Noi and Ba Be National Park.