Dong Van District in Ha Giang province. Photo by Jason Zullo
Just a few kilometers from the provincial capital is Tha Thon, home to a community of warm Tay minority people living as they have for hundreds of years. Trekking opportunities are plentiful with a small number of well-versed guides. The Quan Ba Pass holds a lookout that lives up to it’s name: Heaven’s Gate. Quan Ba is also the gateway to the UNESCO recognised Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a landscape characterised by lofty limestone peaks and rock strewn fields.
High up near the border with China stands a Hmong king palace in the village of Sa Phin. Built in 1902 during the French occupation, the wood-framed palace is done in the traditional Chinese style and oozes character. Descendents of the king who called this palace home are still living in the area and sometimes give an unofficial tour.
Make time in your Ha Giang trip to journey north to Lung Cu, where a gigantic Vietnamese flag blows proudly at the border with China. The best time to arrive is late afternoon as the heat subsides, making the climb of 200 steps a little kinder. The grand mountain view as the sun drops is worth the effort.
The roads that weave paths among this region serve up the ultimate in motorcycle adventure. The drive down into the town of Dong Van is impossibly beautiful, and the town holds a small but captivating old quarter with ancient buildings and a market that is a riot of colour every Sunday. The Ma Pi Leng Pass is the jewel in the crown of Ha Giang’s many stupefyingly stunning stretches of road. The highlight is a lookout point where the road snakes past a deep gorge carved by the Nho Que River at around 1,500m.
24 hours is not enough to experience Ha Giang, but those with very little time could drive out from the city and spend the morning at Tha Thon village and take a small, guided trek before lunch. In the afternoon, drive out to the lookout at Heaven’s Gate before returning to the city.
With two days it is possible to enjoy a full loop of Ha Giang province, travelling past Heaven’s Gate and the Hmong King’s Palace before spending the night in Dong Van. Enjoy a morning coffee in Dong Van’s old quarter before driving over the magnificent Ma Pi Leng Pass. After a stop in Meo Vac, drive back to Ha Giang city through more magnificent scenery with a brief foray into neighbouring Cao Bang province.
Ha Giang is hugely popular with Vietnamese tourists in November when there is now a festival based around the flowers that bloom at this time of year. September through to November is a good time to visit, while April to June is also pleasant. July and August can be very hot, but if the midday sun is avoided, this can still be a good time to visit.
Ha Giang city, the gateway to the province, lies almost 300km from Hanoi. Day and night buses run daily or tours can be arranged from Hanoi. Public transport around the province is limited, so either hire a motorcycle (available in Ha Giang), or do this trip with a car and driver.