Sequins, Motorbikes and Mountains: The Best of Ha Giang in a Weekend

Heaven's Gate, Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province

Heaven’s Gate, Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.

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.

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Shopping and Sleep Overs: Homestays with the Red Dao in Sapa, Vietnam

Rice paddy fields, Ta Phin, Sapa, North Vietnam

Rice paddy fields, Ta Phin, Sapa, North Vietnam

Referred to as the “Tonkinese Alps” Sa Pa is located near the boarder of China and is known as one of the hidden jewels of North Vietnam. It is the kind of place you see in those addictive brain twinkie internet viral posts, “30 places to see before you die!!” But this is justifiable for two very good reasons. The first being the gobsmackingly beautiful scenery; lush green rice paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. They overlap in surreal tier formations, covering the mountainous peaks that reach high towards the sky. Secondly, you get the rare opportunity to meet the culturally rich hill tribe population; the Black Hmong and Red Dao people have a strong visual presence in the area. Wearing and sewing their much admired handicrafts, they live in nearby family villages and can be seen everywhere from selling in Sapa Square to collecting fire wood in the forests. I went to Sa Pa on two separate occasions in the Spring of 2014. I spent one the night at a Red Dao homestay enjoying their cheery and welcoming hospitality, and the rest of my time learning all I could about the textiles, jewellery and costume that makes them so famously recognisable. Reading time 12 mins or scroll to the bottom of the post for my travel tips and advice on Sapa and homestays.


“Where you staaay?” “Where you staaay?” “What’ss your naaame?” “You buy from meee?”, “What’ss your naaame?” “Why you noo buy from meee???”

This is the intense greeting you can expect to receive as you step off the mini bus and onto Sapa’s P Chau May road, the main thoroughfare in town. Hmong women line the streets waiting to bombard the next delivery of unsuspecting wealthy tourists. Being touted before you even step onto solid ground can be very overwhelming and often give you the wrong impression about a place, but bare with it. My tactic for dealing with this anywhere is always; smile, don’t make direct eye contact, collect my bag and head to the nearest café with Wi-Fi (which there are plenty of in Sapa). After you dodge the crowds and check into a hotel you can take some time to potter around and make plans for the next few days. Over 3 nights and 4 days my friends and I normally decide to shop, spa, hike and hire a motorbike.

Sapa town is the first place I have ever been that brought my interest in cultural costume to life. From any point in the town you can look out in all directions and see a moving montage of red, black and green uniforms. It’s a bit like being in a real life Where’s Waldo picture. Images of people wearing glorious, vivid, and elaborate costumes are no longer fictional faces flat behind a screen, they are now stood in front of me shoving their wears under my nose for closer inspection. These people are extremely saavy at selling their souvenirs and I am extremely happy to go along with it.

It quickly becomes apparent that many of the hill tribe people have an adequate command of multiple languages; French and English are widely spoken. Surprisingly Vietnamese is only spoke by local business owners, and the minority people themselves have their own language with different tribal dialects to communicate in. Unlike most visitors who are there to buy a bed spread, bag and the compulsory traveller bracelet, I knew straight away I wanted to experience wearing a whole outfit and in the process spend more time talking to the women who made them. So with that in mind I skipped the retail shops and headed straight for the street stalls and market.

Sapa market is full on
With a cornucopia of options and low prices, stallholder’s competitive emotions can range from exotically charming to desperately forceful. It’s hard to know where to look when every direction you turn comes with the Sapa mantra “you, buy from meeee?? iiiiii giiive yooou dissscount!!” I finally settle down to talk to a couple of Red Dao women making jackets and bags on their foot peddled sewing machines. They try and sell me another bag. I politely decline and I explain that I am more interested in what they are wearing instead of selling. Intrigued by my request, one of the ladies pulls out 2 big bags from under the table filled with the traditional clothes they sell to each other. With a embroidered jacket in one hand and tassles in the other she smiles and say’s “you tryyy??” Cha-Ching! There’s a unanimous feeling we both hit the jack pot. Continue reading

Leaves, Bees and Hemp: Traditional Hill Tribe Textiles with the Black Hmong in Sapa

black hmong village sapa vietnam

Black Hmong Village, Sapa, Lao Cai, Vietnam

Sa Pa in the North West province of Lao Cai is one of the most un-missable destinations on the Vietnamese map. Boasting a spectacular picture perfect mountainous terrain and home to some of Vietnams 53 living ethnic minority groups, it’s hardly difficult to see why I have been there 3 times already. In January 2014 I took a day trip from Sapa city to visit a secluded Black Hmong village where there was an 90 year old lady and her family still handcrafting traditional costumes. Made almost entirely from the natural landscape they live amongst, here I was able to participate in workshops learning about traditional bees wax batik, natural dying from the indigo plant and how to cultivate hemp fibre for fashion. Reading time 10 mins or scroll to the bottom of the post for my travel tips and advice on Sapa.


So I’m in a weird juxtaposition between trying to keep as still as possible, and wanting to ricochet off the minibus interior. I’ve spent over an hour swaying from left and right, bouncing up and down, and jolting back forth, whilst forcing down half a bag of  crystallised ginger for breakfast.  OMG. Kill me now. “Are we there yet?” We arrive in just enough time to keep my dignity and put my stomach back in it’s rightful place. Our guide greets us and we commence on the walk to the destined village  which is only a 1 hour hike away.

Along my pilgrimage to the epicenter of natural fashion, we encountered many of the regional wildlife and domestic livestock living remotely in the area. Luminous green ducks, muddy buffalo, horny potbelly piglets (yep), chickens, butterflies and little birdies, all had free to range to roam around their landscape. Local villagers were living out their daily routines, working in the rice fields, collecting fire wood and cooking. Children could be seen playing in the streams, climbing rocks and trees, and curiously peering at me out of wonder. There was a small celebratory gathering hosted by a local charity who were distributing much needed resources such as stationary and toys for the children traveling to a school nearby.  Sapa is famous for it’s landscape and although I didn’t take many photos on this particular trip, it is near impossible for me not to mention the monumental views of the jungle covered mountains that surrounded our path. Touching the heavens and topped with ethereal white cloud it was impossible to gage their true scale, giving them the impression of an infinite reach.

Hmong Homes
As we drew closer to the village, tale telling signs of textile production reveal themselves embellishing the vicinity. Freshly dyed indigo fabrics drip dry on a bamboo washing line. By use of a foot peddled sewing machine or practicing their hand embroidery skills, creative young women can be seen sat outside their homes constructing the very garments that form the fashionable part of their cultural identity. The village it’s self is a makeshift yet firmly established combination of homes, huts and out houses, made from a collaboration of wood, stone, bamboo, corrugated steel sheets and concrete.

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