Five Days in Ha Giang - Unforgettable

Old Apr 27th, 2012, 09:50 AM
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Five Days in Ha Giang - Unforgettable

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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Old Apr 27th, 2012, 10:09 AM
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Thanks for your report! I would be interested in more daily detail, and, of course, we all want to see the photos.
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Old Apr 27th, 2012, 10:28 AM
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Great to hear of someone visiting somewhere different from the usual tourist traiL. More detail please! We may be following in your footsteps!
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Old Apr 27th, 2012, 08:07 PM
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Here is a link to my photos:
https://picasaweb.google.com/1057808...eat=directlink

And here are my daily notes:

Thursday, April 5 Hanoi to Ha Giang
We were picked up at 9:00 in the Ethnic Travel van by Zu and our driver Tuan – a young, quiet man and VERY good driver. It took us all day to drive to Ha Giang and really rough driving all the way – first stopping and starting in Hanoi traffic then winding, rough roads. Seriously nauseated for hours. The scenery was just gorgeous for the last few hours and we stopped a couple of times for beautiful walks – first to see tea growing in a lush, emerald valley, and then another walk down a road through a lovely Tay village with thatched stilt houses, green rice fields, all the farming activity. Dinner, like lunch, at an open restaurant. Zu ordered all the meals. Bowls of meat, greens, rice and then soup. We all helped ourselves from bowls in the middle of the table. Very good, but my stomach is so unsettled I am not eating much. Hotel Huy Hoan is comfortable although a hard bed – and unusual in that you drive right through the front door into the lobby.

Friday, April 6 Ha Giang to Dong Van
Breakfast of pho and coffee at a simple restaurant then the drive of a lifetime! We drove into a dream world of lush green valleys and the rockiest of mountain peaks. A constantly changing almost surreal landscape – sometimes lush and green with rice fields and later very rocky with corn planted in tiny terraces among the rocks. Soaring peaks straight up hundreds of feet from the valleys. We spent hours on one lane roads switchbacking up and down and around, clinging to the edges of mountainsides thousands of feet above the valleys. Always people working in the steep terraces, driving water buffalo, children on the road, children returning from school. Occasional villages from valley to mountain top.
Early in the day we had a lovely stroll around a lush village near Ha Giang. Stop at a weaving village and watched the work to spin and weave flax. I bought six very lovely little purses of superb quality. Occasional stops for photos and strolls and always people interested in us. We have only seen four other Westerners so far – this is a very remote area and just not an easy trip to do at all. In spite of 4 meclizine I was sick for hours in the afternoon, lost my lunch and missed some great scenery because I had to keep my head down and eyes closed. So glad to finally reach this outpost town of Dong Van which looks strangely a bit like a stage set Old West town with the colored, decorated 2 story buildings with balconies along the main road, with high limestone peaks all around covered with lush vegetation.
Dinner was at an open restaurant across the street from the hotel – same bowls of greens, meat, rice and soup. Then ended up at a karaoke place! A and T and Zu love karaoke. P and I didn’t last long because I was so tired and it was way too loud for us. Lightning and heavy rain and no electricity at Hoang Ngoc Hotel, but the bed is much softer than last night.
A word on toilets. Only the hotels have had western toilets. Otherwise an odd assortment – standard Turkish steps; hole only; little ditch behind a curtain in a chicken yard behind house; favorite – in a little thatched hut with wide apart floor boards and fish circling in the stream underneath.
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Old Apr 29th, 2012, 04:55 PM
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Saturday, April 7 Dong Van to Meo Vac

Woke to rain, but it is clearing now. Pho and coffee for breakfast in the open restaurant. Everyone went off with Zu for a hike – after buying ponchos. I’ve tried to catch up quickly but I want to go out now and explore the town. My camera battery is almost dead but still no electricity so I can’t recharge! Strolled the town – not very large but interesting back street area of little tiled Chinese style houses under the towering limestone peaks. The main street is lined with the colorful, narrow, multistory, balconied houses interspersed with older little tiled stucco buildings. I just got a call (through the hotel) from Zu on the trail as they will be “late”. They stopped in a village house and had “happy water” so I know the fellows are happy. Later they reported a fabulous hike and were so excited by the beauty of the landscape and by the unexpected visit they made to an Hmong family that fed them roasted pork fat and lots of “happy water” and showed so much hospitality. A and T who have traveled around the world in the last 6 months say this is a highlight of their whole journey.
Lunch in the café across the street – sautéed baby pumpkin, steamed pumpkin leaves, pork and bean sprouts and rice.

Drive to Meo Vac!! Most incredible 22 km. drive across the “roof of Vietnam” – pictures couldn’t describe it either. A unique landscape that has been designated a “geopark”. A river valley thousands of feet below and rocky spires and mountains above and below us, some with unbelievable terraces, people in every view, tiny houses perched amazingly high up perpendicular mountainsides. Single land roads carved into the mountainside – in and out with the contours. Totally breathtaking and unreal. Just before Meo Vac we passed a woman grinding corn with a stone grinder and hand carved wooden trough and handle. Zu stopped and brought us over to show us how she ground corn as a child. A large extended family gathered round. Zu took pictures and showed them to the women and about a dozen children. There was so much delight and screams and dances of pleasure. The kids were so excited they were in a frenzy with a couple of tiny ones dancing around with little machetes. Zu got prints made in Meo Vac (which I paid for) and took them back to the family on a motorcycle taxi. I know that encounter will be an unforgettable highlight of the trip – the sheer pleasure this simple thing gave them and us, too. One shy teenager was railroaded into position by her mother. There was a beautiful young Green Hmong woman holding such a darling baby in red knit cap. A tiny little girl with no pants was seriously chopping some kind of root with a little machete.
The hotel is really nice! The bed however is even harder than the Ha Giang hotel and my little piece of foam is hardly a match. We will try folding over the comforter like a sleeping bag. We’ve lost electricity here too.
Dinner: baby pumpkin, kohlrabi leaves, ginger beef, whole baked fish, rice… really nice.
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Old Apr 30th, 2012, 12:17 AM
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Great photos reminds me a little of some of the places we passed through around Ba Be.
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Old May 6th, 2012, 04:34 AM
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Wonderful photos, thanks for sharing
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Old May 6th, 2012, 08:33 AM
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Thank you so much for posting. I would love to see this area but am afraid I couldn't deal with those roads. I'll have to travel there through posts and photos like yours!
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Old Jul 15th, 2015, 04:50 AM
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Just found this 3 yr old post of an area I hope to visit in two months!! Linwood, your words and especially your beautiful scenery and people photos, inspire me!! I admit to some carsickness just looking at the road and mountain pix--no wonder you had it!
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Old Jul 15th, 2015, 04:56 AM
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Sorry for typo Linawood . Just looked again at you pix. Wow! Thank you! Yeah, I've been pretty concerned about the hours and hours of driving, but it seems it is worth it, as well as the the norm. One itinerary described the day trip back to Hanoi as something like "Today we leave early in the morning and embark on a 900 km drive." I'm choosing a different route
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Old Aug 18th, 2015, 08:33 PM
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I hope you enjoy your trip around Ha Giang, CaliNurse. I still think of it often - it was very special even though there were difficult moments. I recommend taking something for possible motion sickness though.
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Old Aug 19th, 2015, 11:08 AM
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Thanks, Lina. Will try scopolamine patch for this trip.
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Old Aug 19th, 2015, 12:21 PM
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Omg - missed this report and stunning pictures the first time around. So glad calinurse pulled it up. Calinurse - see...I told you not to be envious that you weren't returning to India. Now I'm jealous and want to hitch a ride in your suitcase.
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Old Aug 19th, 2015, 05:10 PM
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Me, too! I want to come as well!
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Old Aug 19th, 2015, 10:36 PM
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Well, ladies, I'm allowed two "free" carry-ons....Would LOVE your company. I'm determined to do a proper trip report this time!
4.5 weeks to go...
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Old Aug 20th, 2015, 02:34 PM
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Alas, the trip report will have to do ---- this time!
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Old Aug 26th, 2015, 04:30 PM
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We're up in the air yet about our itinerary for our our pending trip but Ha Giang still remains high on our list. Many thanks for the trip report linawood and I'm looking forward to yours, Calinurse.
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Old Aug 27th, 2015, 10:18 PM
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Linawood--where did you go after Meo Vac? My stay in MV is on a Saturday night, to coincide with the Sunday morning market there.
Karaokke!!? FUN!! As long as the words on the screen are in English
I must have read your report five times, in preparation for the upcoming trip.
Thanks gain.
Re the hard mattresses--my travel agent's company packs soft mattresses in the van for clients to use in the hotels if necessary!! Sounds like a good idea!! Between that and newly RXed scopolamine patches, I hope I'm "good to go."
Clifton, when are you thinking of doing the trip?
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Old Aug 28th, 2015, 12:49 AM
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CaliNurse, we've got air booked into Hanoi, out of Danang 3 weeks later in early April. Just filling in the in-between bits now without getting too precise about it.
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Old Aug 29th, 2015, 08:42 PM
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Here are a couple more entries from my trip diary that didn't get posted. I am really happy that there is interest in this unique area. CaliNurse, it sounds like your tour company is really well prepared - with the soft mattresses - and probably everything else. Don't be too worried about my carsick experience. As I mention later in my report, I think it was because I was still jet lagged when we started this tour and my stomach is always unsettled with jetlag. I'm already looking forward to reading your report! The world is changing so fast and it is such a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of a very traditional culture in an amazing landscape.

Sunday, April 8 Meo Vac to Ha Giang
Meo Vac market in the morning. Very intense. Many different minorities in colorful clothing and very different from one another. No tourist stuff – ethnic clothing, meat, fruits, beg, etc., household items, handmade knives, livestock… P. bought 2 tin bells; T. a black cap. There is a dining area inside with great smoky fires and tables set up. We disappointed Zu because none of us felt up to eating there. Meo Vac is a small town surrounded by mountains and the market very interesting. Leaving town and climbing into the mountains we passed people for miles who were walking home. It was about six hours drive back to Ha Giang with incredible mountain vistas all the way and a roller coaster, tilt-a-whirl carnival ride almost every minute with the terrible roads and curves and ups and downs. Unpaved part of the way and narrow cliff-hanging almost all the way. The last corkscrew drop had me finally collapsed in nausea but on the whole I did fairly well. Near Ha Giang we had a stroll through a very rural, peaceful village in a gorgeous brilliant green rice valley with the mountains all around.

Monday, April 9 Ha Giang to Hanoi
Breakfast of pho as usual, then a stroll around a quiet village. It was so green and beautiful, although not as dramatic as the one yesterday. We continued to drive to Hanoi with only a lunch stop. Really a pretty drive through lush, verdant countryside and small villages and towns. Lots of life to observe. Mountain vistas for a few hours then lots of traffic approaching Hanoi. I had no problem with the roads or motion sickness. I think part of my problem the first day or two is that I was still jet lagged having been in Vietnam less than 2 days before our
tour.
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