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Trip Report Five Days in Ha Giang - Unforgettable

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Four of us recently took a five day tour to Ha Giang area with Ethnic Travel and it was really a trip of a lifetime. My husband P. and I (both in our 60s) were traveling with my son A. and daughter in law T. (both in their 30s). P and I were in Vietnam in the fall of 2010 (I did a trip report for Fodors – click on my name). This was the first visit for A and T who have been traveling around the world for the last 6 months. P and I became interested in Ha Giang after reading a NYTimes article in October 2010, and when we decided to meet up with my son and his wife it was something that really interested all of us. I did a lot of research to decide on the travel agency and we were VERY happy with our choice of Ethnic Travel. All of our communication was very professional and prompt and the trip itself was so well run and organized. We were really blessed with our wonderful guide Zu, a Black Hmong woman from Sapa, and our very skilled driver Tuan. Zu was so lively, intelligent, good English speaker, gave us so much information and insight and at the same time fit in so well with our group and our travel style.

We chose to go to Ha Giang because of the unique and beautiful geography, the traditional cultures, and the opportunity to get off the beaten path. And it really exceeded our expectations. It was the kind of trip that changes one’s perspective, much like the trip we made to India some years ago. I find myself thinking of the people there so often, especially at night when I am softly cocooned in my comfortable bed. The scenery was amazingly beautiful and endlessly changing and fascinating. No matter how rugged and remote, there were always people in the scene. We had quite a bit of interaction with the people because we would stop and walk around villages as well as stopping at homes. I think Ethic Travel keeps a database of interesting places to stop but what we actually did was what worked out at the time. Zu was able to talk to the people in their language and she was so friendly and had such excellent rapport. The area did not feel at all “touristy”. In fact we only saw about 8 other westerners in our 5 days. In that way it is entirely unlike Sapa. There is also virtually nothing to buy and no one is selling anything to tourists (unlike Sapa). But that also means that tourist facilities are much more limited. Our hotels in Ha Giang, Dong Van, and Meo Vac were quite new and very clean, but ultimately somewhat basic with very hard beds and bathrooms with the shower in the wall and no electricity at times in Dong Van and Meo Vac. We ate all of our meals at simple local restaurants and Zu ordered for us and we ate from various dishes in the middle of the table. For lunch and dinner we usually had 2 vegetable dishes, 3 meat/fish dishes, then rice, then soup. It was all local and fresh food and very good. I think Zu did such an excellent job of choosing the dishes. Breakfast every day was pho in a local restaurant (and coffee) and we really liked eating locally – not sure if there was a choice anyway.

We spent a LOT of time driving. I knew this ahead of time, but I’m not sure I realized how much time it actually was and how difficult the roads would be. However, this was all endlessly interesting and we stopped every hour or two to take a walk, visit a home… Four days were very much on the road and one day with very little driving. I haven’t been carsick since I was a child, but these roads got the best of me. I did have some meclizine and it helped a lot but I still spent a number of hours pretty sick (but no one else did). The others had a fabulous hike and home visit outside of Dong Van and came back with stunning photos. I had a fairly recent knee replacement so wandered happily around Dong Van. Our trip was 5 days and it really didn’t leave much time for hiking. You would need to do a longer trip to get in a fair amount of hiking. In this way it is very different from Sapa. Because of the train you can get to the mountains and do a couple of days of hiking with only 2 days of your travel itinerary, while you would probably need 6 days of travel to get 2 good hiking days in Ha Giang. So in several ways it is very different from Sapa – the remoteness of the mountains, the amazing roads clinging to mountainsides for hours, the lack of other tourists plus tourist infrastructure, and the sense of the privilege of being a visitor in a very remote area.

A highlight of the trip was the Sunday market in Meo Vac which was crowded and colorful with many different ethnic minorities. Unlike the markets we visited around Sapa, there wasn't much for a tourist to buy although P found some tin cow/ox(?) bells and T found a man's cap.
I did keep something of a daily journal which I will post here if anyone is interested in more detail. Plus photos.

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