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.

The market

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.