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CaliNurse Jun 26th, 2015 08:35 PM

Ha Giang or SaPa
Dreaming/planning of first ever trip to VN in October--hoping for 18-19 days.
I'd like to go to at l eat one more rural area with spectacular scenery and little-visited villages, but find very little online about Ha Giang---and most of what i read is several years old. Has any one been to that region? If so, and especially if you have been to Sapa as well, which (for someone on limited time) is more worth visiting?
Thank you!!

crellston Jun 28th, 2015 03:51 PM

Hi CaliNurse,

We spent a couple of months in Vietnam last December and January. Our plan was to go to Ha Giang and did a lot of research but by the time we were ready to go it was the wrong time of year weather wise ( cold and foggy) so we ended up doing a trip from Mai Chau to Ninh Binh staying mostly at homestays in small remote villages. We loved it! I was a highlight of our time in the country. Definitely worth considering.

Ha Giang is difficult to get to and requires a very long drive from Hanoi ( although I have heard reports of a new road. We were advised against doing the trip by bus by some Vietnamses friends as it was too dangerous with accidents frequently reported. Better to hire a car and driver/ Guide to get there. Once there, it seems the best way to see the many sights is by motorbike, either as a pillion passenger or, if you are an experienced rider, riding yourself. I would not normally recommend motorbikes in Vietnam, but out in the country, away form the manic traffic, should be a lot safer! Most of the info I found was by asking on TA.

The other way to get to HG is via Sapa (by train) where you could pick up a guide and car and get to Sapa by train. We last visited Sapa in 2008 when it was relatively quiet but still a little too toursisty. Now, apparently it is very hard to get away from the crowds and touts. Again, a Vietnamese friend in Hanoi, whose family came from Sapa warned us not to go. She said she was ashamed of how the Sapa people were now behaving towards tourists. That said, if you try hard enough, I am sure it will be possible to get away to less visited places, just don't expect it to be easy! That said, the scenery is stunning and the hiking relatively easy.

We are still in Asia and debating where to go for some trekking when we return from visiting family in Australia in mid October. Shortlisted are Laos, Mynamar and Vietnam ( for a second attempt at Ha Giang!) if I find anymore info on the latter I will share it here. In the meantime, here is a link to the Vietnam section of our blog where you will find more detail and photos on our trek from Mai Chau and to Ninh Binh ( we used Ethnic Travel on Hanoi)

Our Sapa trip was along time ago but here is a link to some photos

yestravel Jun 28th, 2015 04:00 PM

We were in SaPa a few years ago and it was pretty touristed and the touts were very annoying. That said, the secenery when we sw it briefly was gorgeous. Shortly after arriving fog rolled in and that was it for any scenery. When we left as we descended we also saw beautiful scenery. Our TR to SEAsia is here Scroll thru it towards the end to find VN. I also mention the motorbike tour we did in Hue that I mentioned on your other post about bicycles. Hope you have a great trip.

CaliforniaLady Jun 28th, 2015 08:09 PM

Hi CaliNurse, what are your interests? If you like to take day hikes and meet local Hmong people, then I know you will enjoy Sapa as much as I did.

In October 2012, I took the overnight Sapalay train from Hanoi, and I stayed one night in Sapa, and then I took the overnight train back to Hanoi, thus giving me two full days in Sapa.

I hired a private guide from an organization call Sapa Sisters, and while it may sound phoney, a young European couple started a website a few years ago where they offer guide services from young Hmong women, and only keep a very small fee. My guide was quiet at first, but when she found that I had an interest in her culture, she became quite friendly and talkative. What a wonderful cultural exchange we had over the two days--it was the highlight of my Vietnam trip.

I had a bad experience however, when I arrived at the train station. I failed to make a van reservation into town, and some guy kept following me around, and kept intimidating the drivers from allowing me in their vans, unless I gave him $20. I finally outsmarted him by putting my suitcase in a van, and sitting on the suitcase.

The town itself it quite touristy--I stayed in my hotel on the hill the whole time, and had my meals there. All in all, a great experience because of the nice hiking scenery and the cultural exchange.

CaliNurse Jun 28th, 2015 10:45 PM

Thank you ALL!!! This is exactly the kind of information I need to help make an "informed decision" when time is, unfortunately, limited.

California Lady, what you describe is EXACTLY what I love, and what is for always the highlight of any trip,--walking along a little-touristed (though granted, I am a tourist! lane, or "soft hiking" (love that euphemism for "easy") on a trail, stopping in a cafe, and meeting local people and having the fun of attempted communication, anywhere I go. And the local VN agent who is helping me, suggested exactly your kind of trip, with round trip overnight train--until I expressed interest in Ha Giang. I will definitely look into "Sapa Sisters"hoping that being accompanied by a local person will save help avoid the pushy touts. Nothing like having someone who can say "Go away" in the local language!

Problem is, my time is limited, and the travel agent's suggested route for Ha Giang area requires five days to really enjoy the place, including, as Crellston notes, very long, near-all-day drives . She also put Ninh Binh on the itinerary and suggested Mau Chai. So Crellston, thank you much for your recco of that area!!! I believe I saw some of your info on TA also?!!

I will now rethink Ha Giang, and ask about a trip to Nih Binh and Mau Chai and Sapa. I WISH i had longer, to really explore ALL these areas!!!

Yestravel, thanks for the realistic appraisal of the irritating touts...but the reward of stunning scenery! The big eternal question: what does one put up with for the sake of natural beauty?!! I can hardly wait to finish this, and hunker down for a good look at your and Crellson's links!!!

Again, heartfelt thanks to all for your time in replying, as I get more and more "into" planning mode!!!!

konniandmatt Jun 29th, 2015 07:08 AM

Hi CaliNurse,
I would recommend going to Bac Ha instead of Sapa. Unfortunately we have never been to Ha Giang Province (seems to be a very interesting place!). Years back we went to Sapa, it was already very touristy and the people quite pushy, still nice (here are our older travel notes):
Two years later we decided to go and visit Bac Ha, to meet the Hmong people. We passed thru Lao Cai, meeting many local people, dealing in tourism:

Arriving in Bac Ha we were rewarded with meeting open and friendly mountain people. The market in Bac Ha is still the meeting point of the folk of the area, a local affaire:

We wish you a great time in Vietnam,
enjoy and happy travelling!
Cheers, Konni,

CaliNurse Jun 29th, 2015 01:15 PM

Konni, thank you so much for adding your thoughts! Looking forward to your photos!! I will get on asap immediately to see Bac Ha's location.Decisions, decisions!!

Thanks for the photo links, from you, yestravel, and crellston!!! Sooo helpful.

Yestravel, I really appreciated your TR including political commentary about VN. Reactions to some of the propaganda have been something else Ive wondered about

Lisa58 Jul 1st, 2015 09:53 AM

We had a good trek with Sapa Sisters in April, but having a local guide will not help you avoid the sales pitches - the quote below is from the Sapa Sisters website (our guide used to sell things in the street herself). We did have 2 women walk with us for about 4 hours, but we didn't find them at all intrusive. We did feel obliged to buy something from each one, but it was not a big deal. You can ask for remoter trails and eventually leave most of the tourism and commerce behind.
"We would like to make you aware of an issue that you may encounter during your trek. The issue concerns the selling of goods by local villagers to travellers during their treks and what can be uncomfortable for some travellers. These women are often on the trails, following travellers, looking to sell their wares and can seem “pushy”. The best course of action in dealing with them is to politely but firmly decline to purchase goods – if you are not interested. It is quite difficult for our guides to ask them to leave as these women are often from the same villages or are directly related to them, and asking them to leave could (and has in the past) cause conflicts for them once they return to their village. This sellers are in no way affiliated with /employed or encouraged by Sapa Sisters.

CaliNurse Jul 1st, 2015 12:55 PM

Thanks for that, Lisa!!! It helps a l to to know what to expect! I looked up the Sapa Sisters after California Lady's recco, above. I also read some online reviews. Most are very positive, but the ones that aren't mention exactly the kid of thing that your quotation discusses.It is also very informative in making travelers aware why these guides cannot ask others to leave.

May I ask those who replies which hotels or homestays (if they recall) that they stayed in, and if they would recommend?

CaliforniaLady Jul 1st, 2015 11:00 PM

Hi again, Cali RN. I stayed at Baguette et Chocolat, which is an cute little hotel on a hill, with only four hotel rooms. Although the service is a bit disorganized, the food was fantastic. I had two breakfasts and two dinners there. The food is French-influenced, which is typical of finer Vietnamese food. For about $5 I had a gigantic piece of halibut that was cooked to perfection.

Regarding my hiking with Sapa Sisters, I didn't get hassled on the trails by any Hmong ladies. On the first day, the hike was hilly, so two ladies, besides my guide, offered to help me down the hill. I went along with it, and bought $2 coin purses from each of them. I actually found the big groups of young backpackers annoying--some of them were rude and impatient with the guides, who wanted to go slowly. I suggest asking your guide to take you in a direction where less people go, and all will be fine. Incidentally, I see nothing wrong with buying a few items from these ladies. The Vietnamese government has not treated them well--they built a huge dam on their land, and they built ugly schools in all the villages, where the children are taught in Vietnamese. They need all the support they can get.

Lastly, Cali RN, try to spend as much time as you can in the far north of Vietnam, even if it means visiting Sapa AND Ha Giang. The cultures in these areas will be gone in a couple of decades, and what a shame it would be not to have experienced it.

Lisa58 Jul 2nd, 2015 04:00 PM

Not to derail the thread, but wondering what the problem is with the schools in the villages around Sapa. We saw a few that were pretty nice-looking - and apart from that, the people need them. Our very intelligent 29-yr-old guide, who speaks 3 languages (Hmong, Vietnamese, and English that she learned from tourists) can't read or write because there was no school near enough for her to go to when she was a kid. Her husband and 3 kids are literate. She and a few friends are now trying to study with someone, but if she's booked for a trek she often misses the class. If the kids were taught only in Hmong, they would hardly be able to function outside their villages.

crellston Jul 2nd, 2015 04:52 PM

Re CaliforniaLady's comment.

"try to spend as much time as you can in the far north of Vietnam, even if it means visiting Sapa AND Ha Giang. The cultures in these areas will be gone in a couple of decades, and what a shame it would be not to have experienced it."

So true! When we returned to Mai Chau this year we were amazed at how the place had changed. From a small village with a couple of homestays to many, many more, loads of souvenir shops and hordes of tourists. Hardly recognised the place!

It is perfectly feasible to combine Sapa with Ha Giang. Another thought would be Ba Be Lakes . We were there in 2008, a long drive from Hanoi but very beautiful and we stayed in a great little homestay. Some photos here

a good resource for planning the more out of the way stuff in Vietnam is . You may have to drill down a bit to find what you want but there is some great info there.

Finally, you asked about names of homestays. I don't think any of ours had names and you won't find them on TA but they we great. Basic accommodation, a mattress on the floor and often just a curtain separating you from the rest of the family. Communal meals with the family, copious amounts of rice wine - I have to go back!

Don't know if you are planning on spending any time in Saigon but if you are and you aren't looking for anywhere luxurious, check out Ms Yangs Homestay. A great location in D3 on the edge of D1. No breakfast but plenty of local places nearby. Comfortable rooms and the two sisters that run it are the friendliest, most helpful people we have encountered on this trip. We return next week for the third time!

CaliforniaLady Jul 2nd, 2015 05:12 PM

Lisa58, The whole point of communism is to homogenize everyone, and that is exactly what the Vietnamese government is doing. The children are not given any instruction at all in Hmong. The next generation of Hmong children will be speaking Vietnamese, not their native language. You are wrongly concluding that learning to read the Hmong language is not a possibility for the children.

Re, your quote:
"If the kids were taught only in Hmong, they would hardly be able to function outside their villages." My question to you, Lisa58, is why would they necessarily want to?

I know lots of Vietnamese-Americans in Southern California here, and they all hate what the communists have done to their country.

But you're right, back the topic at hand, and Cali RN's intruiging trip.

CaliNurse Jul 3rd, 2015 04:44 PM

CaliforniaLady, very true also in my experience with Vietnamese friends and in-laws here. i did mention it briefly in another thread, where yestravel
(I think--hope im not misquoting ) mentioned getting tired of the political talk at the tourist museums/sites. I personally fear I'm going to have a hard time with that, as I really don't want to hear about the evil Americans (had plenty of that back in "my day" in the 1960s) However...I digress, and into what i suspect could become a heated thread!!

"Fodies" (a opposed to foodies!) are so intuitive! i was just wracking my brain trying to figure out how to combine trip to Sapa and Ha Giang--time allowing--for reasons given by Crellston and CalifLady!! thanks too for the words of encouragement about the hiking, and that it is not a given that the entire trip will involve having "in our face" interactions to buy buy buy. I am happy to buy, but not to be seen primarily as a big open wallet rather than a fellow human being, no matter where I go local time share sales in other parts of the world ...another digression!)

The hotel that "caught my eye" in Sapa also has only four rooms, and a restaurant. it is called Botanic Hotel and Restaurant and I believe is new.

re the rural homestays, i will post another question.

CaliNurse Jul 3rd, 2015 05:10 PM

p.s. Crellson, thanks for recco re Saigon. Not sure if going there,, or waiting for another trip. One of the big personal dilemmas now ,a a first time visitor to VN,is whether i should stay just in North, or go South too, with limited time (lucky if 18 days). Leaning toward the former. Will post another thread with tentative itin soon for everyone's thoughts.

Lisa58 Jul 4th, 2015 07:33 AM

CaliNurse, I don't think you'll hear much about evil Americans. We're from NY, born in the 50's, grew up with the Vietnam war always in the background (and had draft-age brothers). We were amazed at the positive interest, and even love, expressed towards "your country", especially by young people. I still don't get it...
I posted trip reports on TA, though I've never done anything like that before, and that topic came up, as did Sapa - here's the link, in case you find it helpful (warning - it's way too long).

Re the education system and the Hmong culture, the whole topic of traditional/indigenous/isolated cultures and what happens to them is huge and complicated. Undoubtedly, a lot of very precious things are lost or diluted when the "outside world" encroaches - as well as some awful and brutal things, though I'm not talking about the Hmong or other minority groups in VN here. But I think that horse is out of the barn already in the villages around Sapa. Women go into town and meet lots of travellers (and those women are sometimes the family breadwinners, which they could not be if they spoke only a minority language). People have TV. The kids may or may not want to stay in their villages but those who don't shouldn't be effectively incarcerated there by inability to speak or read Vietnamese. Should Inuit kids in Alaska not be educated in English? The ideal would be formal education in the first language (though I don't think all the kids share a first language either; there are a few different tribes living in the area, in the same villages) as well as in Vietnamese. It seems unlikely that any national government, communist or not, would provide that.

CaliforniaLady Jul 4th, 2015 08:28 AM

Lisa58, I see that you are a new Fodor's poster. People here are laid back and friendly, and typically refrain from political discussions. There are heated discussions about whether to take a bus or train from point A to point B, but that's about as "bad" as it gets. Please note that the children Hmong children are not "incarcerated" in their villages, the people have lived there for centuries quite productively. Please read the following article to see how government intervention is ruining the Hmong way of life:

Please take your "expert" advice to other forums, and allow the thread to focus on helping Cali RN.

Anyway, Cali RN, your trip is shaping up nicely. Between Crellston's advice, and your own research, I am sure you can put together a lovely and fascinating trip focusing on the North. If you do just that, and then spend a few days in Hanoi, you will have fabulous trip.

CaliNurse Jul 4th, 2015 01:14 PM

Thank you for the encouragement, California Lady! Yes, it is slowly coming together!! There are a few updates on my "TMI" hometay thread. I am heeding the advice of you VN experienced Fodors folks and staying several days in Hanoi (vs the original one-day plan!). AndI i intend to get a meal at Baguette and Chocolat. What delightful looking building--and a great "cause" training the local kids!
LOL --so true the "heated discussions" about how to get to a place, what is worth seeing, etc!!!
Lisa, thank you for the links. I will definitely read them. The "Anti American" propaganda I was referring to comes NOT from local people, but as part of the more official govt party line at some tourist sites. And yes, in this day of mobile phones and internet, the world--at lest, the "virtual one" --is no longer limited.
Other than that, as I said above, it could be a heated topic, and is a digression from the topic at hand.
There's an area called "Fodorite Lounge" for non-travel, more general discussions of al sorts of things. That might be a good place to post a new and interesting thread on the political topic, should you wish to continue the discussion away from the Asia travel forum.

Happy American Independence Day!!

seemaskt Jul 9th, 2015 05:28 PM

CaliNurse - We hiked to and stayed in Kho Muong village near Mai Chau and it was the highlight of our trip to Northern Vietnam. Details and pictures are on our blog

Beautiful landscape, lovely people, fresh delicious food. I think you'll love it.

CaliNurse Jul 10th, 2015 01:41 AM

Seemaskt, thanks so much for your blog /photos!! Yet another beautiful and interesting area and idea. There seem to be so many...decisions, decisions!!

progol Jul 11th, 2015 03:15 AM

Thank you for posting your blog! Beautiful photos, amazing travel experience - very off-the-beaten path.

I am really enjoying this and you've added yet another "someday" option to my long list of places to visit!

yestravel Jul 11th, 2015 07:31 AM

Beautiful photos. We loved the Mai Chau area.

CaliNurse Jul 11th, 2015 04:07 PM

Seemaskt, how strenuous were the hikes? I enjoy long walks with (interruptions for photos, of course!) but hikes with lots of uphill/downhill huffing and puffing climbs--not my strong point! From your photos, it looks like it was fairly level hike, with gentle hills. Correct?

CaliforniaLady Jul 11th, 2015 05:07 PM

Seemaskt, amazing pics, amazing trip. Thanks for showing another side of Vietnam besides the usual.

So, tell us about your accommodations and how you made the arrangements for your trip.

seemaskt Jul 11th, 2015 06:48 PM

Thanks everyone!

CaliNurse, The hikes were long (14 kms each way) but easy with plenty of photo opportunities so definitely along the lines of what you like. The hikes in Sapa were much more strenuous.

CaliforniaLady - I organized the Kho Muong and Bac Ha portion of the trip through Vietnam Stay (also called Aurora Travel). I was very specific about what we were looking for and they recommended Kho Muong. We were very happy with their arrangements.

The accomodations were very basic. We slept in the upper level of a stilt house, on the floor on mattresses above the pig sty. We were given sheets, a pillow and blankets. There was a western style toilet and shower outside that we shared with the group of English cyclists. The food was as fresh as it can get and delicious and we all had rice wine shots afterwards.

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