Touring Ha Giang Province with my long standing friend Paul is one of the highlights of my entire life. We travelled hundreds of kilometres through seemingly endless Karst mountains made of limestone and dolomite, ate great local food and experienced rural Vietnamese nights out. The views of this staggeringly beautiful landscape and the amazing rural Vietnamese people will stay with me forever, simply unforgettable.
Hanoi – Ha Giang
The trip started with an overnight bus taking us north from Hanoi. Despite being pretty cramped it wasn’t as awful an experience as some make out. The worst thing for the two of us was the leg room, or rather the lack of it as we’re both over 6ft tall and Vietnamese buses don’t seem to be designed for long legs! The bus stopped at various roadside refreshment spots, often in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by karst mountains, making it somewhat surreal. Arriving late and hungry in Ha Giang town, we found a decent hotel with vacant rooms for the night, chucked the bags in and headed straight into the town. With it being so late we were just starting to wonder if anywhere was still open when we stumbled across what can only be described as a car repair garage that doubles as a bar & restaurant in the evening.
Full of smiling local faces, we grabbed a table and within minutes had a group of local lads join us. The favourite drink here is a kind of homebrew lager, pretty lethal stuff, and after having to neck a glass with each member of the group me and Paul were smashed. Conversation was a combination of Paul’s Vietnamese and Google Translate being passed around on 2 iPhones to overcome the language barriers and we had a hilarious night. The guys even gave us a lift back to the hotel, how they were able to drive in such a state was pretty miraculous.
Rough as toast, we sourced some fresh fruit and water and went searching for motorbike rental. We didn’t have to walk far, luckily the hotel we chose by chance was a couple of doors away. Paul sorted out the monies, we took photos of two maps of the region they had on the wall and we headed out to do a few hundred km without even showing our passports or driving licenses.
Ha Giang to Yên Minh
This first section of the trip was breathtaking at every stage and Paul got quickly tired of me stopping to take photos and stare at the insane landscapes. The first photo is my favourite from the whole Vietnam experience, the Yen Minh Pass in the most beautiful light.
Yên Minh to Lûng Cú
I loved how happy the people were the more north we went in Vietnam. Whether working or in leisure time we experienced nothing but smiles and warm welcomes everywhere. Their lives may appear “simple” to modern western standards but this certainly appears to provide an overall happier quality of life here. The winding mountain roads are another thing that stick in the memory, I love how the light fell in patches over the town in this shot.
Lûng Cú – Cannabis City
Lûng Cú is the most northern township in Vietnam, right on the Chinese border, and it’s known somewhat for having a huge National Flagpole that was constructed in 2010 to signify the geographical position.
What the guide books and online traveller websites like Lonely Planet don’t seem to ever mention is that Lûng Cú is producing cannabis on a grand scale. The town is set in a valley bowl surrounded by mountains, and everywhere we looked the lush deep green colour of the cannabis leaves shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. There’s a panoramic photo of the town from above in the gallery below, the entire valley floor is cannabis crops in various stages of growth.
The main dusty road in and out of Lûng Cú is lined with fields and fields of the distinctively shaped leaves, attached to small holding style small farms. The smell is noticeably less offensive than intensively grown high grade so prevalent on the streets of the UK, a soft welcoming fragrance that hung nicely in the breeze as we drove the bikes through the winding dirt tracks.
The video shows the 360 degree view from the top of the National Flagpole tower.
Lûng Cú – Dông Vàn
If the Yen Minh Pass was the single most beautiful place on this trip, the mountain roads from Lung Cu to Dong Van and on to Meo Vac took the crown for the most incredible extended terrain of the whole journey. The Vietnamese mountains are truly in their most beautiful state here, with large sections untouched by agriculture (the slopes are generally terraced heavily by the local farming activities).
Ma Pi Leng Pass
Simply staggering, this 4,921ft mountain pass is said to be both one of the most dangerous and most impressive roads in all Vietnam. The most popular “tourist” attraction, if this rural region has such, is the Ma Pi Leng Viewpoint, approximately halfway along the 20km pass.
Meo Vac – Ha Giang
This long section back to the start featured some incredible mountain scenery and slope after slope of rural agricultural land. Cannabis cultivation is again prevelant in this area, the super vibrant green leaves dotted through most farms we passed. I took my favourite photograph from the entire Vietnam trip here, two ladies working on their crops. The smile reminds me of how warm and welcoming everyone was who we met on our trip.
The mountain roads continued to impress at every turn of this journey, with some corners gifting our eyes with breath taking landscapes. We got time to enjoy the Karst mountains here, this strange rock feels similar to the Welsh slate back home. One of the small moments that sticks in the memory is stopping roadside to buy and share a huge fresh watermelon, it felt like heaven after miles on the dusty tracks.
We passed once again back through the Yen Minh Pass, which looked a little moodier without the bright sunlight of the first time. I noticed a large number of houses sporting Mercedes Benz badges on either the doors, windows or balconies. Paul explained to me that the rural Vietnamese view the logos of western household name brands as symbols of wealth so they like to display them on their houses.
As far as accidents and danger go, these Vietnamese mountain roads are pretty terrifying in parts. I fell off the motorbike in Cuc Phuong rainforest, suffering minor scrapes and bruises luckily. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it made me a bit anxious on the tight mountain roads, particularly when buses or big wagons passed us. However we took plenty of time, didn’t rush anywhere, pulled over when huge articulated lorries sped past and enjoyed the Ha Giang loop injury free. Well, that’s not quite true. No one told me that when you’re not used to a motorbike, doing 500km over bumpy unkept roads gives one incredibly sore arse cheeks!!! My friend’s experience in Vietnam helped us here, and we headed to a pharmacy where a tub of Johnson & Johnson baby cream soothed my worries.
After dropping the bikes off in Ha Giang, I found time to reflect on the adventure on the night bus back to Hanoi. Ha Giang Province is an unforgettable location, and touring it in this way gave me such a real sense of the people and culture in real rural Vietnam.
My favourite photograph from the whole trip to finish the post: