Ha Giang Province, Vietnam, often said to be the mystical ‘Shangri-La’, is home to majestic valleys, pristinly-terraced farm fields and steep limestone walls. The province is so renowned for natural beauty and has such allure that many Vietnamese consider it to be somewhat of a ‘Mecca’ for all countrymen. Located in the northeastern corner of the country and sharing a 270 kilometer long border with China, traditionally the mountainous region was very difficult to access. But in the past decade, a decent standard of winding mountain roads have been paved and allow a relative ease of access for the more adventurous travelers, and especially for motorbike enthusiasts. So when my girlfriend and I received an invite to volunteer with the Highland Centre for Foreign Language in Ha Giang City we jumped at the opportunity.
The provincial capital, Ha Giang City, is only a short 8-hour bus ride from Hanoi, and is a scenic, albeit stomach-churning, journey winding up the mountain. The fast-paced view from the bus window is quite exhilarating. That is, if your bus’ windows aren’t tinted dark black and covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt. I was lucky enough to have had a previous bus passenger tear a face-sized hole in the window-tint, allowing me to sneak peeks at the dynamic scenery, provided I was willing to sit at the awkward angle required for me to properly view through the port hole. I recommend taking a daytime bus trip from Hanoi to Ha Giang City, that way you can enjoy the passing scenery, and also so the driver can sufficiently see the road and get you to your destination safely.
The Highland Centre for Foreign Language is conveniently located near the center of the small city, tucked away with mountains on all sides. Borrow a bike and ride north on Nguyen Thai Hoc road for 5 minutes and you will arrive at the city market, stocked full of fresh and local fruits and vegetables, butchered meats and cheap clothing galore. Further on up the road you will find the city’s football stadium, dilapidated and run down, yet still open for a wander-through. Not quite up to professional standards, but still available to book for a match, and complete with an epic view on the northwestern side of the pitch. Ride back south along the Lo River that winds its way through the city. The river has a beautiful and healthy green color and adds to the majestic charm of the mountain town.
Interested in taking to foot and hiking the mountain trails? Several nice hikes are easily accessible near the center by foot, or a short motorbike ride away. Just to the west of the center and across the river is a nice and easy, half-paved, half-staired hike to the top of one of the city’s hills. It offers beautiful views of the city, river and surrounding mountains. At the precipice sits a Buddhist temple where lives a very kind lady monk. Although we didn’t share a common language, she offered for us to sit and pray with her, and even had some prayers in English for us to read aloud while she listened attentively. She showed us around the temple and her prayer area, and even gave us an apple apiece to enjoy at the peak just above the temple. Kind and gentle, this woman really appreciated the pictures that we brought to her from some other volunteers who had visited her previously. If you visit her, bring her a small gift or maybe offer a donation to the temple, and she will be much appreciative.
In the hills east of the center, walk south along the mountain until you see a small, steep path leading up into the trees. These old steps lead up a very narrow pathway that I have yet to fully explore. The day we found this trail was quite rainy and cold, and wasn’t ideal conditions to be climbing up vertical steel ladders and slippery, moss-covered rocks. But it is sure to lead to more excellent views of the surrounding area, providing yet another perspective of the lush, green region.
If you would like to leave the Ha Giang City area and explore more that the province has to offer, I would highly recommend it. Motorbikes are cheap to rent (~200,000VND/day) and efficient to get you out and about in the region. We did a short trip to neighboring farming village, Kim Thach, only about 10km away, and to Quan Ba (~50km away). The views were stunning the entire way of the mountains, valleys, river, fields and villages. If you can muster the courage to brave the windy roads, rent a motorbike and venture out on your own. If you’re not comfortable riding the motorbike yourself, hire a guide to drive you via motorbike or taxi. Well worth the experience and it won’t break your bank!
Looking for more advice about the provincial area? Visit Bong Café, just southeast of the center at 63 Minh Khai Street. The owner, Dung Vu, is very knowledgable about the area and is an enthused adventurist. And she just so happens to be very kind and willing to help tourists plan their route of attack on the area. Catch her on her off day, and she will likely join you on your adventure!
Ha Giang City is a relatively quiet city, but in excellent proximity to some on Vietnam’s most beautiful scenic roadways and mountains. For hikers, adventurists and motorbike riders, this is the ideal place to begin your journey through Shangri-La, Vietnam’s final frontier. Hold on tight, and enjoy the ride!
Eric & Barbora