Ha Giang

Itinerary Route Map

Ha Giang is the final frontier in Northern Vietnam, an amazing landscape of limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops. The far north of the province has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, and the trip between Dong Van and Meo Vac across the Mai Pi Leng Pass 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 are required to travel further north to Dong Van and Meo Vac, but these can now be arranged directly with accommodation in those towns, or ideally at your hotel in the gateway city of Ha Giang. Permits cost 300,000d and are for up to five people if you’re travelling in a group.

The province is best managed with a car and driver or by motorbike, but public transport quality is improving now that years of roadworks are largely completed. You’ll still need to arrange private transport to reach off-the-beaten-track attractions like Lung Cu and the Vuong Palace though.

It’s relatively simple to complete a journey by public transport from Ha Giang city to Dong Van, but at the time of writing private transport was needed to continue via Meo Vac to Bao Lac for onward public transport southeast to the bigger centre of Cao Bang.

Whichever way you tackle Ha Giang, you’ll be among only a handful of travellers to the area and experience some of Indochina’s most jaw-dropping scenery.

WORTH A TRIP

PAN HOU VILLAGE

Pan Hou Village ( 0219-383 3565; www.panhou-village.com; s/d US$45/55) is tucked away in a hidden river valley in the High Song Chau mountains, and its private bungalows are set in a riot of tropical gardens and rice paddies. This wonderfully isolated ecolodge is the base for trekking and ethnic-minority market visits. Rooms are smartly furnished with wooden furniture and tiled floors, and the restaurant pavilion (lunch US$10, dinner US$12) is spacious and social. Traditional spa treatments and baths are infused with medicinal healing herbs.

From Tan Quang village south of Ha Giang, Pan Hou is 36km west up a winding mountain road.

Ha Giang

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 P Nguyen Trai, 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.

Ha Giang is a mildly diverting town, but the spectacular limestone outcrops soaring skywards over the suburbs hint at the amazing scenery in the surrounding hinterland.

 Tours

Johnny Nam Tram MOTORBIKE TOUR

( 0917 797 269; www.rockyplateau.com) Highly experienced in the backroads and byways of northern Vietnam, Johnny Nam Tram is an excellent contact for motorbike rental or organised bike tours around Ha Giang province. Tours by car and including trekking can also be arranged.

 Sleeping & Eating

You’ll find several cheap restaurants scattered along P Nguyen Trai.

Cao Nguyen Hotel $

( 0219-386 6966; khachsannguyen@gmail.com; 297 P Nguyen Thai Hoc; r 350,000-400,000d; ) Just a couple of years old, this newish hotel near the river has 40 spotless and spacious rooms. Breakfast isn’t included but there are good pho stalls just a short walk away.

Huy Hoan Hotel $

( 0219-386 1288; P Nguyen Trai; r 200,000-500,000d) This tall, slim place offers large, clean, well-kept rooms with dark furniture and (very) firm beds. Newer rooms are overly chintzy, and the cheapest rooms don’t have windows.

Truong Xuan Resort BUNGALOW $$

( 0219-381 1102; www.hagiangresort.com; Km 5, P Nguyen Van Linh; d 400,000-520,000d; ) An absolute riverside location has 13 spacious bungalows. There’s a decent restaurant (mains 80,000d to 220,000d), and even kayaks for rent to explore the adjacent water way. Red Dzao massages (60,000d) and herbal baths (80,000d) are on offer. It’s 5km out of town, so from the bus station count on 40,000d for a xe om, or 100,000d in a taxi.

Bien Nho Thanh Thu Restaurant VIETNAMESE

( 0219-328 2558; 17 P Duong Huu Nghi; meals from 120,000d;  11am-10pm) For something exotic, this place has crocodile, seafood, goose and traditional food from the ethnic minorities of Ha Giang.

 Information

Agribank (P Nguyen Trai) Has an ATM; internet cafes nearby.

 Getting There & Away

Ha Giang’s most convenient bus station is centrally located just off P Nguyen Trai west of the Lo River. However, some buses from My Dinh bus station in Hanoi may arrive at a second bus station on the outskirts of the city. From Ha Giang, there is relatively frequent bus transport northeast to Dong Van or Meo Vac.

Note that no buses run directly to Bac Ha from Ha Giang. The route is very beautiful, but at the time of writing you needed to transit through Xin Man or Bac Ngam.

Buses from Ha Giang:

Destination

Cost (d)

Duration & Frequency

Dong Van

105,000

4½hr; around 3 daily

Hanoi

140,000

7hr; every 30 minutes to 9pm

Meo Vac

105,000

6hr; around 3 daily

Tam Son

35,000

1½hr; around 5 daily

Yen Minh

75,000

3hr; around 5 daily

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 a saddle and opens up on to an awesome vista of limestone towers.

At the top of Quan 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 in Southeast Asia, after Langkawi Geological Park in Malaysia.

Tam Son

From Quan Ba Pass you drop through pine forests into Tam Son, where it’s worth stopping for a drink before the final leg into the incredibly surreal scenery near China. On Sundays there’s a good market with ethnic minorities including White H’mong, Red Dzao, Tay and Giay. There’s also good accommodation at the guesthouse Nha Nghi Anh Hoat ( 0219-651 0789; r 250,000d), with eight spotless rooms, wi-fi and air-con. Around five buses per day trundle through Tam Son en route to Dong Van (100,000d).

From Tam Son to Dong Van

From Tam Son, the road – and the astounding scenery – continues through to the sleepy town of Yen Minh. There’s decent accommodation here at the Thao Nguyen Hotel ( 0219-385 2297; khachsanthaonguyen2011@gmail.com; r 300,000-400,000d), but it’s worth pushing on to overnight in Dong Van. Around 5km east of Yen Minh a road meanders southeast to Meo Vac, but the recommended route is the northern fork to Dong Van taking in the astounding Vuong Palace (admission 10,000d;  8am-5pm), a grandiose two-storey mansion built for a local H’mong 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 conical peaks through to Dong Van is quite incredible.

Dong Van

Dong Van is mainly a dusty outpost, but the town has a great Sunday market, and makes a good base for day treks around nearby minority villages. It also features an interesting old quarter with traditional H’mong houses dating from French colonial times.

 Sights

Lung Cu MONUMENT

(admission 10,000d;  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 carpark, 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.

 Tours

CND Travel TOUR

( 0219-388 8769; www.cndtravel.com; 124 Ɖ 3/2; 1-day tours per person around 800,000d) Minimal English is spoken here, but CND Travel is a good option if you’ve arrived by public transport and wish to organise a day trip to see the Vuong Palace and Lung Cu.

 Sleeping & Eating

Nha Nghi Binh An GUEST HOUSE $

( 0219-385 6177; Ɖ 3/2; r 250,000-300,000d) Located on the right as you enter Dong Van from Yen Minh, this easygoing guesthouse has three recently completed rooms and a warm welcome from the friendly family owners who always seem to be hanging out downstairs.

Hoang Ngoc Hotel $$

( 0219-385 6857; www.hoangngochotel2.blogspot.com; Ɖ 3/2; r 300,000-400,000d) Popular with Western tour groups, the Hoang Ngoc features spacious rooms, some with balconies. There’s a handy map in reception showing trekking trails around the area. Staff can arrange tours to the Vuong Palace, Lung Cu and Meo Vac, and can also usually rustle up motorbikes to rent to independent travellers.

Au Viet VIETNAMESE $

(26 Ɖ 3/2; mains from 60,000d; 7am-8pm) Opposite the Hoang Ngoc Hotel, the Au Viet is the only place in town with an English menu, and does a good line in robust hotpots and cold beer. Breakfast is also available.

 Information

Dong Van’s only ATM is across the road from the market at the eastern end of town en route to Meo Vac.

 Getting There & Away

At the time of writing there were no buses linking Dong Van to Meo Vac. A xe om to Meo Vac should cost around 250,000d and a taxi around 400,000d. Note a private taxi is often hard to find in Dong Van, so a xe om journey may well be your only option.

Meo Vac

Beyond Dong Van the spectacular Mai Pi Leng Pass continues for 22km to Meo Vac. The road has been cut into the side of a cliff: far below are the distant waters of the Nho Que River.

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.

Don’t be surprised if you’re offered a slug of a local speciality, ‘bee wine’. 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 a chilly Meo Vac night.

Like Dong Van, Meo Vac has a good Sunday market, and it’s easy enough to combine the two by xe om.

 Sleeping

Hoa Cuong Hotel  $

( 0219-387 2888; r US$15-20) In an impressive spot opposite the market, this hotel has spacious rooms and flat-screen TVs. A couple of karaoke places nearby are more active on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Meo Vac Mountain Lodge HOMESTAY $$

(aubergemeovac@gmail.com; dm/d US$15/60) Located in a semi-rural neighbourhood around 500m from the town market, the Mountain Lodge is in a lovingly restored ethnic minority house dating from the 19th century. Look forward to clay walls, lots of natural timber and a spacious inner courtyard. Bathroom facilities are shared, and breakfast (US$5) and lunch (US$12) are available. Trekking to nearby villages can also be arranged.

 Getting There & Away

At the time of research there was no public transport southeast to the transport hub of Cao Bang. Instead, travellers can catch a xe om (800,000d) or taxi (1,500,000d) to Bao Lac where there is accommodation and a daily bus to Cao Bang.

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 mostly paved, though it’s still best on trail bikes or by 4WD.

Heading south from Meo Vac you’ll pass through the town of Khau Vai after about 20km, which is famous for its 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 April 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 ( 026-387 0269; Bao Lac; s/d from 200,000/250,000d) guesthouse has a riverside location and is popular with motor bike tours. A daily bus (100,000d) leaves at 12.30pm for Cao Bang from where there is transport to Hanoi and Ba Be National Park.

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