Incredible Ha Giang province in Northern Vietnam. Very few individuals that I know of have travelled through this region and most, that do, come to visit the weekend ethnic markets that the area is so famous for, only to zip right back to Hanoi afterwards. Let me start this blog by saying that, in all my 20 odd years experience of living, breathing and exploring Vietnam, I have to say that Ha Giang, as a province, is unlike any other. No where in the country can a visitor find such jaw dropping dramatic mountain scenery and a lifestyle so entrenched in tradition and custom that is far, far away from the race to modernisation found in the urban cities and townships along Vietnam’s densely inhabited low lands
The far northernmost province of Ha Giang originally developed with the migration of the H’mong people who arrived from south China about 300 years ago. Ha Giang’s natural environment bears the same characteristics as other mountainous areas; that is, an unfavorable all year round dry climate with little rainfall, constant fog in the winter, and rocky unfertile soils cut across by countless streams. Due to transportation difficulties, the province has long been an isolated border area with little contact between the local ethnic minorities and the provincial governments. That is changing slightly as road access improves greatly and more and more Vietnamese populate the once remote townships, however, it will certainly be quite some time before Ha Giang goes the way of nearby Sapa – the most commercial tourist town in the mountainous north.
The scenery throughout is magnificent, the craggy mountain ranges covered in mystic clouds make travellers feel like wandering in a fairyland, valleys between the mountains are enhanced by spectacles of coloured villages each with distinctive architectural features and fascinating spots for watching the sunset. If World Heritage had a cultural hotspot for diversity, this would be it. There are an estimated 20 ethnic minorities in the area. If lucky, or planned well, the weekly markets in the towns Meo Vac, Dong Van, Sa Phin and Ma Le will provide an opportunity to see this wonderful mix of cultures and people.
Be aware that visiting these remarkable markets does take some planning. Besides Dong Van and Meo Vac the more remote (and often more enchanting) markets, take place according to the animal sign from the lunar calendar. For example Lung Phin market, near Meo Vac, is held every six days on the particular lunar days of the Monkey and the Tiger. Sa Phin market which was originally home to the last Hmong King of Vietnam, follows the days of the pig. With careful planning it is possible to spend time seeing most of these markets if time allows.
Although visitors are rare, remarkably the local ethnic groups of predominately H’mong and Tay (in the low valley areas), pay little attention to the inquisitive foreigner. They are quite happy to go about their business and let the foreign visitor do the same. It was pure bliss for this photographer!
Dong Van is the largest town in the area and sits atop the World Heritage listed plateau. Recognized by the UNESCO as one of the 77 geological parks in the world and the second in Southeast Asia, the park covers four districts of Meo Vac, Dong Van, Yen Minh and Quan Ba, totaling over 2,300sq.km, with nearly 250,000 residents. Up to 80 percent of the plateau is covered by limestone. Although Vietnamisation has seen the town modernise to a degree, the greatest change in its recent history came about last year when the ancient market in the old quarter was moved to a large, open space some 300 metres away. The market still thrives, but for those that remember the old market with its terracotta roofs and charming merchant homes, the ambience of a time past has certainly been lost forever. Whilst the authorities plan for rejuvenation the Old Quarter remains another Vietnamese heritage site that will, sadly, either be completely lost to development or will fade from obscurity, only the tales of former traders keeping the past alive.
Because of the harsh and somewhat diverse climate it is imperative that ones journey to Ha Giang is timed for certain periods of they year. Generally speaking the late spring months of April and May and into early summer (June) are fine periods to travel. It will still be hot but lesser threat of rain. It is also the time to see the next rice crop being planted in some areas with harvesting about to take place in June so the region is ablaze of colour and activity. October is also another prime time to visit but in recent years the north has been lashed with constant rains in October/November period so there are no guarantees. My person recommendation would be to avoid winter (Dec – March) as mountain visibility will be poor and the whole region is covered in a perpetual mist that never seems to dissipate.
It is partly due to the climate and the time it takes to travel to and around the province that Ha Giang may never experience mass tourism. For now this is definitely a blessing in disguise as I would wish to see and experience it no other way.
Full scale images of Ha Giang, entitled Portrait of Ha Giang and Journey through Ha Giang can be seen in our portfolio site