A weekend adventure motor biking around the mountainous province of Ha Giang in North Vietnam. 1000 metres above sea level Ha Giang boarders the southern Yunnan province of China. At last count over 60% of Vietnams hill tribe minorities call Ha Giang home, making it a culturally diverse and naturally beautiful destination to explore. There I met with local men and women on the markets and at their homes whom took great pleasure and pride in adorning me with their costumes and customs. Reading time 13 mins or scroll down to the bottom for my travel tips and advice on Ha Giang.
“HA GIANG”, “HA GIANG” I heard the guy yelling in my direction. I woke up to realise that there was only myself, the driver and bag boy left on the coach. I got down from my bunk bed, gathered my belongings and stepped out onto a flood lit derelict construction site. Wicked!! I sarcastically thought to myself, time to jump into action and figure out what to do next. It’s 4:30am. I hear sounds of chattering over the wall ahead and see an exit leading out onto a road. Looking like a rabbit in the headlights, I sense the local men sat outside the station are laughing at my expense. I hear a guy wolf whistle which instantly puts me on tenterhooks, Vietnamese men don’t normally do that, I thought. Another “wit whooo” comes my way and I’m feeling really uneasy. I look left and right for my friend Esteban, “Wit whooooo…..DONNA!” I breathe a sigh of relief, it was him all along.
Ha Giang City is No Sapa
I spend my first day in Ha Giang City just chilling out with some friends who are living there teaching English. They were working all weekend and I was hesitant to travel up into the mountains on my own. For one I don’t think I would get that far and I felt a bit paranoid about getting lost or in an accident. As a solo female traveller and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I read online and my friends confirm that there is a guy in town that offers motorbike tours, normally for 3 or 4 days. So I set off to convince Jonny Nam Tran to take a day out of his normal adventurous schedule to chaperone/babysit me for a day. As I wondered around I realize Ha Giang City is nothing like Sapa. In Sapa everyone is a “Del Boy“. You can’t go to the toilet without someone asking you if you want to do a homestay, go on a trek or buy a bracelet, bag or blanket. Elaborately dressed Hmong and Dao women with children strapped to their backs line the streets with handmade ethnic textiles, crafts and jewellery. Coaches, buses and motorbikes wizz through the busy streets as tourists sip on their lattes in the French cafes overlooking the chaos. It’s full on, but at least you know you’re in the right place. Ha Giang is not set up for tourism at all, I only saw a couple of very basic hotels, cafes and convenience stores. Getting around to see the sights would not to be that easy without Jonny. No one is trying to sell me anything, no one gives a crap that I am there, and from what I can tell there is nothing to do apart from make my plans to head for the hills.
It’s a reasonable 8am start. The weather is wet, cold, with low thick white cloud and poor visibility. The perfect conditions one dreams of when spending a whole day driving around outside on the peaks. I am dressed in nearly everything I own, completely terrified of the prospect of catching pneumonia in the next 10 hours, and being one of those annoying unprepared whiny foreigners. Jonny’s bike has a seat on the back which is utter luxury, I don’t even have to hold on. I can just sit back and enjoy the 10 meter view. Steep roads hairpin up and around the mountain, gradually climbing to over 1000m to meet the nearest village of Xa Quyet Tien, our first destination. The roads are in relatively good condition for motor biking, however travel sickness would over come the strongest stomachs if the journey was attempted by car. At least I have the fresh wind in my face and we can stop at any time.
As we drive through the crowds and into the hustle of the local market the weather has not improved. I was struggling to repress the disappointment of my previously unacknowledged expectations. Identifiable by their costumes, I looked around and all I could see were minor distinguishable details of hill tribe people. Some women were wearing a few matching head scarfs and aprons. Not the cultural diverse mixing pot that I had hoped for. Jonny later informs me of my ignorance, explaining that even at the top of Vietnam in Ha Giang province, it still takes another day and a half to drive to the famous Meo Vac and Dong Van towns. This is where most of the different minority people don their best dress every sunday at market.
So I jump off the bike and head into the thick of it, adjusting myself to the minor anxiety that is often felt at every new destination. The exchange of inquisitive stares, the nervous giggles and the exciting sensation of not knowing what’s round the corner. I pass through the scent of freshly cooked popcorn, step over the stacks of rainbow coloured Tupperware and through rails of fake euro football t-shirts. Freshly caught river fish are flapping around in buckets and men are boisterously laughing out loud as they knock back the early morning rice wine. I see a few eclectically dressed women at the back of the market. They are kneeling down and rummaging through piles of hand-embroidered trimmings, Hmong tartan scarfs, sequin jackets and full circle skirts. Hhhmmmm I thought, scanning the parameter and absorbing the aesthetics of my surroundings. Sequins! I’ve not seen that before!
Because Ha Giang is on the boarder of China, many local hill tribe people in this area have incorporated modern materials and techniques into their traditional cultural costume. Metallic and neon ribbons, sparkly diamanté embellishments and sequinned fabrics have created a new kind of pop culture genre in costumes history. Some people see the old traditional ways as being more important or valuable to the cultures heritage, but I love witnessing the culture of change. It’s a great opportunity to see how this generation is adapting the style, thus creating a new pivotal moment in the costumes history. Nearly every western woman I know has a bit of razzmatazz in their wardrobe’s arsenal. I think sparkles just make women feel prettier, why should these women be any different?
So I canne believe my luck, I was in the middle of nowhere and the local getup is utterly blingtastic. I too fall to my knees and dive in like a magpie, pulling out different patterned floral sequin jackets, skirts and belts. It’s freezing cold, but no amount of common sense can prevent me from getting undressed to try everything on. The locals begin to gather and the lady on the stall beams with joy as she starts dressing me up. There were no mirrors so we did a cultural skills swap, she dressed me and I taught her how to use the camera on my iphone. I finally settle for buying a magnificent gold sequin jacket for the grand total of 200.000 VND, that’s £6 to you and me. Everyone was happy, including the small crowd of supportive onlookers proclaiming “Dep! Dep!” (meaning beautiful) in honour of my new purchase.
Mysterious Bottles of Home Brew
After the market I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch at Jonny’s friends family house. In my experience the Vietnamese are great hosts and there we sat down and shared a feast of fresh fish hot pot, fried spring rolls, pigs intestine (yes I tried it) and about 10 shots of homemade rice wine. It would be a shame not to mention the rice wine. 3 different bottles brewed for over 6 months containing various herbs, animal organs, and 1 bottle that actually had a whole dead bird stuffed into it! I can’t tell you what species it was. I thought it was best not to know, thus not potentially running the risk of grossing out and offending my hosts. If you don’t know it can’t hurt you, that’s what I reckon. Plus all Jonny’s friends friends had now come to join us and were taking great pleasure at getting me mildly inebriated.
Right on cue a miracle happens. The sun rocks up and the skies clear, it’s time to hit the road again. We set off and I can finally see what all the fuss is about. The road ahead opens up revealing vast valley views, lush green vegetation, steep cliff faces and the winding rivers far below. It’s at least another one hour drive downhill, but this time the sun is warm and bright drenching the mountains across the other side of the valley and exposing tiny villages and towns nestled between the rolling hills. We pass through Heavens Gate, a place affectionately known as “Booby Mountain”, this is due to the perfectly cheeky and curvaceous twin peaks jutting out of the valley’s plateau.
The Traditional Weaving Co-Operation Lung Tam was our final destination. Owned by a lovely White Hmong family, the small unsuspecting workshop resembles a farmers stable and barn. Housing basic manual weaving equipment, such as a foot peddled spindle, looms and mill stones, they make many traditional woven accessories and sell their products all over Vietnam. A young man called Luan works there and he can speak pretty good English. He explained some of the 41 steps it takes to produce traditional woven Hmong fabric from hemp fibre, a technique still used in most Hmong households all over Vietnam today (see my previous post on Traditional Hill Tribe Textiles with the Black Hmong in Sapa). I was encouraged to get hands on and try the equipment out for myself, which I was completely hopeless at because I was still a bit drunk from the rice wine at lunch time.
So how did I come to be dressed in full Hmong costume? Well I went to use the bathroom in the owners house, and stumbled upon a huge wardrobe and chest overflowing with clothes. The kind lady in question was there and when she saw how excited I was by all the garments there was no stopping her.
The traditional costume consisted of 1 full circle skirt, 1 jacket, 3 aprons, 2 sashes, 4 head wraps and 2 silver necklaces. The jacket alone was hand woven from hemp, batiked with locally produced bees wax and naturally dyed by the leaves of the indigo plant. This was before constructing and finally embellishing with local White Hmong tribal patterns, in hand embroidery and applique. No shit, this jacket was a master piece. I asked her how much it cost to buy, in which she first replied “invaluable”, before quickly conjuring up a modest $600 price tag. She then explained how it had taken over 3 months worth of work to get from hemp harvest to coat hanger. She was very proud to see me wearing it and I felt like a honorary guest donned head to toe in her very own equivalent of haute couture. She then taught me how to use the loom and let me weave some fabric, which i can only describe as being “super cool”.
The journey back was breathtaking and in some ways my favourite part of the day. I relaxed back against the seat and enjoyed the ride. Reflecting on the great day I’d had, the people I met, the clothes I wore and how the weather had turned out great after all. From the top of the mountain I saw the sun set between the conical peaks. Warm pockets of air engulfed the bike before becoming cold and crisp again. The smell of bonfires and pine trees, and seeing the evenings mist creep over the mountains moonlit silhouettes, all created a mystical experience. Jonny drove faster the darker it became, but I trusted that he was an experienced rider and I could tell that he knew the roads well. The speed felt exhilarating as we swayed from left to right cascading down the mountains edge. I spent this time planning the return trip to Ha Giang in my mind. Next time I plan to make it Meo Vac and Dong Van.
My top tips for Ha Giang
1. The area is known for having four seasons in one day, so stay protected, also although the roads are fairly well used there are not may places to stop in between villages. I’m stating the obvious here when i say you will need a waterproof jacket, sunscreen, thick gloves/socks, scarf, water, snacks etc.
2. Book a tour guide, either in a group or solo. Ha Giang is brimming with lots of secret places to explore. Jonny is Vietnamese but has spent 25 years living in San Francisco so speaks both languages, he was really knowledgeable and practical without being over bearing. Tell him what you want and he will tell you if it is possible. I would definitely use him again. To hire Jonny and his bike costs around 1.000.000 vnd per day, plus fuel, food and accommodation. Jonny Nam Tran from Ha Giang Rocky Plateau contact (+84) 978159123, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Travel sickness pills or ginger. The roads show no mercy and zig zag every 30 – 100 meters.
4. Plan to go for at least 6-7 days, travelling is tiring when you’re on the road a lot. I was there for 3 days and only got to see about 10% of what is on offer.
5. The best time of year to visit for best visibility and weather is April – May and October- November.
6. You need a permit to travel around the province, this is available from the local police station or hotels/guest houses in Ha Giang City, and should cost around 300.000 vnd ($14)
What to see
Xa Quyet Tien, Saturday market
Traditional Weaving Co-operation Lung Tam, Quan Ba, Ha Giang. (+84) 1255147665, email email@example.com, Facebook; DetLanhthocamlungtam
Where to stay
My friends recommend Huy Hoan Guesthouse in Ha Giang City, however i did not stay there, i stayed at my friends house.
How to get there
You can arrange a night time sleeper bus from My Dinh Bus Station to Ha Giang that departs at 8pm and arrives at 4:30am, costing around 250.000 vnd one way. Other times are available but the quality of the coach operator varies greatly. This one came recommended from various people on the popular FB Group Hanoi Massive. From Hanoi you can call this number +84 988738082, the lady speaks some English and will send you a text to confirm and pick you up at the entrance to the station. Bus number 29LD-4028. Alternatively you can book through a travel agent in the old quarter, or go to the bus station yourself and stressfully haggle your way through hoards of travel touts.
Ethnic Minority Costume: Remote Lands
Ethnic Minority Costume: Global Wanderings
Traditional Textiles: Lung Tam Brocade
Motorbiking: Exploring Vietnams Final Frontier
Motorbiking: Ha Giang Extreme North Vietnam Loop
General: Lonely Planet