The provinces of northeast Vietnam, looping eastwards from Ha Giang to Lang Son, lack the grandeur of their counterparts west of the Red River Valley, with the notable exception of the area round Dong Van and Meo Vac. In general the peaks here are lower and the views smaller-scale and of an altogether softer quality; there are also less minority folk wearing traditional dress. Getting to see everything is not as straightforward as in the northwest either, though the upgrading of the road between Meo Vac and Cao Bang means it’s now possible to visit the fabulous landscapes of Ha Giang Province, as well as Ba Be Lake and the region around Cao Bang, without backtracking.
Highlights of the northeast are its rural landscapes, from traditional scenes of villages engulfed in forest to dramatic limestone country, typified by pockets of cultivation squeezed among rugged outcrops whose lower slopes are wrinkled with terraces. However, population densities are still low, leaving huge forest reserves and high areas of wild, open land inhabited by ethnic minorities practising swidden farming. While many have adopted a Vietnamese way of life, in remoter parts the minorities remain culturally distinct – particularly evident when local markets, their dates traditionally set by the lunar calendar, are in full swing.Read More
HA GIANG is the capital of the north’s most remote and least-visited province, where Vietnam’s border juts into China and almost reaches the Tropic of Cancer. Until the early 1990s, this region was the scene of fierce fighting between Vietnam and China, and it is still considered a “sensitive area”, though its inhabitants nowadays are peaceful and welcoming. It is a sizeable town, and though its buildings are of no great architectural merit, its setting is very impressive, hemmed in by the imposing Mo Neo and Cam mountains. The ochre waters of the Lo River carve southward through the centre of town, and traffic is thick on the bridges that connect the west and east districts.
The town itself has a few attractions, but the main reason for coming is to head on to Meo Vac and Dong Van, both set in valleys surrounded by forbidding peaks and connected by a hair-raising road with spectacular views. The trip from Ha Giang to Dong Van, then on to Cao Bang via Bao Loc, is about 300km and takes at least two (more often three) full days of driving along narrow, bumpy roads, which may become impassable during the rainy season. This border area is home to several minority groups, including the White Hmong and the Lo Lo, the latter having only a few thousand members; most towns along the route, including Dong Van and Meo Vac, have a Sunday market attended by villagers from the surrounding valleys, where you might just be the only foreigner.
The town of Ha Giang straddles the Lo River, with two bridges connecting the older part on the east bank and the newer part on the west bank.
Located in a purpose-built hall just northeast of the northern bridge, Ha Giang’s market is a frenzy of activity in the early morning when members of minority groups can often be seen. If you plan to go to Dong Van, however, you’re likely to see more authentic markets along the way.
The town museum
The Ha Giang museum, located just west of the northern bridge, is well worth a visit to get a preview of the outfits of the many different minority groups who inhabit the region, as well as to see artefacts such as bronze drums and ancient axe-heads that have been unearthed by digs in the region. Archeological evidence shows that there has been a settlement here for tens of thousands of years, and the region seemingly flourished during the Bronze Age judging by the number of beautifully designed drums that have been found.
- Ba Be National Park
Cao Bang lies approximately halfway along the route from Ha Giang to Lang Son, and has enough appeal to merit a stopover. The journey from Ha Giang along Highway 34, via Bao Lac, takes the better part of a day, passing through small villages and excellent scenery. Few travellers venture this far north, but those who do usually make the pilgrimage out to Pac Bo Cave, where Ho Chi Minh lived on his return to Vietnam in 1941, and to Ban Gioc Falls, Vietnam’s highest waterfall, right on the border with China. The province is home to several ethnic minorities, notably the Dao, Nung and Tay who still maintain their traditional way of life in the more remote uplands.
The town itself is a likeable place: its centre may be dusty and noisy, but its riverside setting, with dense clumps of bamboo backed by sugar-loaf mountains helps to blur the edges. The town is built on the southwestern bank of the Bang Giang River, on a spur of land formed by the confluence with the Hien River. Highway 3 drops steeply down from the hills and enters town from the west, crossing a bridge onto a tree-lined avenue of self-important edifices, including the People’s Committee, theatre, bank and post office, before turning right along the river. The narrow, shady park on top of the low hill in the centre of town is worth a wander, and the statue of Uncle Ho is a reminder of the fact that this region was vital to the thrust for independence that he led.