Ha Giang is a mountain paradise that sits on the Dong Van Karst Plateau in Northern Vietnam. It is known globally in the adventure and travel community as a pilgrimage-worthy destination packed full of breathtaking views and awe-inspiring moments. Our guide to the 11 best things to do in Ha Giang will cover:
- Driving the Ha Giang loop for breathtaking scenery
- Where to stop in Ha Giang for the best views
- Where to visit the best markets to engage with ethnic minorities and their culture
- Sites of cultural importance in Ha Giang Province.
- Famous trekking routes and loops on the Dong Van Karst Plateau
What is Ha Giang exactly?
Ha Giang is a province of Northern Vietnam, which is only around 300km from the capital city, Hanoi. However daily life and culture could not be more different. People from 43 different ethnic groups have inhabited this rocky land since before Vietnam was Vietnam. The rocks themselves were formed around 550 million years ago. Eons of weathering and two mass-extinctions have left Ha Giang with rugged and jaw-dropping scenery that's stacked with ancient geological and cultural history.
While sitting on the border of China, Ha Giang has been a strategic trading post. This is evident in the broad spectrum of languages and customs used by the ethnic minorities in the area. With mountain passes reaching 2000 meters above sea level, the people of Ha Giang are hardy warriors compared to ordinary city folk. Most people in the province live in a traditional fashion, meaning that traversing razor thin mountain trails on a motorbike, or hiking terraced rice fields for a pint of milk is part of daily life for them.
There are thousands of things to do in Ha Giang, but here are the top 11:
1. Visit Ha Giang city
What to do: Settle-in to mountain life in the center of Highland culture
Where: 300km from Hanoi in North Vietnam. At the beginning of the Ha Giang loop.
Ha Giang City is the capital of the province, and marks the entrance way to all manner of landscapes and experiences. It serves as the base station for a small but savvy tourism industry that delivers motorbike tours, hiking adventures, and authentic interactions with the local community and their traditions.
Nestled on the Lo River, the city of Ha Giang is also a beautiful place to spend a few days acclimatizing to the sights, smells, and altitude before delving into not-stop adventure.
Make sure you use your time here to stock up on necessities such as hiking gear, warm clothes, and your favourite snacks as services are a little thin further away on the loop. However, with a population of nearly 60,000 inhabitants, and 22 different ethnicities, the city of Ha Giang hosts a unique culture that will easily swallow up a few days of exploring.
2. Drive the Ha Giang loop
What to do: hire a motorbike and drive (safe) to discover the epic terrain for yourself.
Where: Key locations on the loop are the Ma Pi Leng Pass, Quan Ba Pass and Dong Van Geopark.
The holy grail of any trip to the north of Vietnam is to complete the Ha Giang loop. Stretching through mountain passes for more than 350kms and skimming the Chinese border, the Ha Giang loop is a monster of a trail that splinters off into deep valleys to serve sparse communities of the local people.
Full-guided tours are available through travel agents that offer 3-4 day packages in the comfort of a private mini bus. The other more independent option is to use an Easy Rider service that supplies you with a tanked up motorbike, a professional driver, and accommodation along the way.
3. Witness Heaven Gate & the Quan Ba twin mountains
What to do: Take a rest in Ha Giang's most angelic locations.
Where: Around 43kms from Ha Giang.
Heaven Gate is simply a stretch of winding roads with views that are immensely beautiful. It also marks the start of the Quan Ba Pass where the highway peaks at a dizzy 1500 km in altitude. A visitors station offers accommodation and viewing platforms of the majestic mountainscapes.
From various viewpoints along this stretch of road, the majestic twin mountains of Quan Ba can be seen sitting together in perfect unison. Shrouded in folk law, they are said to milk the valley and fertilize the fields. They are particularly beautiful.
4. Explore the Lung Cam cultural village
What to do: Take a rest, then visit a house of great national pride in Vietnam.
Where: On the top end of the Ha Giang loop.
The village of Lung Cam sits around 25 km from Dong Van. It's a good spot for a coffee break after driving through the epic Heaven Gate. It also has a house of special interest that featured in an award-winning Vietnamese movie called the 'Story of Pao'. A tour allows visitors to explore in detail the craftsmanship that goes into these wonderful houses.
5. Wander through the H'Mong King Palace
What to do: Check out the ancient crib of the H'Mong Kings.
Where: Very close to the Chinese border in Sà Phìn commune.
The H'Mong King Palace once served and protected lord Vuong Chinh Duc and the influential Vuong Family in the 19th Century. A tour of the villa demonstrates the unique design that originated from both Chinese and French Baroque influences. It's a great opportunity to delve into the ancestral history of the people in this region.
6. Witness the Lung Cu flagpole
What to do: Reach the top of Vietnam and peek into China.
Where: In Dong Van district. 1 hour north of Dong Van town.
The Lung Cu flag tower sits on the 1,400 meter high Dragon Mountain, also known as Long Son. It marks the northernmost point of Vietnam with a grand monument made out of stone. The Lung Cu flagpole, which brandishes a whopping 53 square meter flag, is a tribute to the 53 different ethnic groups that inhabit Vietnam. A visit to Lung Cu tower challenges tourists to a 300-step climb to the top before being rewarded with sweeping vistas of the entire region including China.
A trip to this landmark location means you must first leave the Ha Giang loop and travel North on the small winding roads that interconnect remote villages. Usually multi-day package tours will include Lung Cu in their itinerary.
7. Conquer the Ma Pi Leng Pass
What to do: Drive one of the most scenic roads in the world with views of the Nho Que River.
Where: Between the towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac.
The Ma Pi Leng Pass is one of the world's most spectacular mountain roads. It extends for more than 20 km of the 4C highway giving users wide-eyed vistas of deep canyons, the Nho Que River, and towering grey mountains. Drive through Ma Pi Leng and see plumes of mist envelop the winding roads and provide an experience of biblical proportions. At an altitude of 2000 m above sea level, make sure you have enough clothing for temperatures close to zero, especially in the winter.
8. Try a steaming bowl of thang co
What to do: Share in cultural cuisine.
Where: Thang co is available in almost every restaurant and local community in the region.
'Thắng cố' is a signature dish of the Northern highlands. This dish originated over 200 years ago when the H'Mong, Tay, and Nung people brought it back with them from modern day Mongolia. Original Thang co recipes see horse meat stewed for hours over a charcoal fire. Seasoning such as cinnamon, grilled lemon leaves, and cardamom is added for a deep flavor. In many a market, you will see large cauldrons of steaming broth being ladled into the bowls of Tay and tourists alike, signifying the community of shared culture that these markets were built on.
9. Capture huge rice fields in Hoang Su Phi
What to do: Hiking, photography, and staying in cute villages in a remote mountain wilderness.
Where: West of Ha Giang City. The most beautiful sights are found on the DT177 and DT178 highways.
Set aside from the popular Ha Giang loop, a tour of Hoang Su Phi District is the road less trodden. Still in its tourism infancy, this region boasts epic rice fields on impossibly steep mountainsides.
A trip to Hoang Su Phi during harvest time (September) will grant photographers with snaps of golden rice terraces carved out of the foothills of the Tay Con Linh Mountain. This mountain range is ideal for hiking and off-road motorbike tours. For accommodation and to book tours, look to the township of Vinh Quang for authentic homestays and hotels.
10. Trek through valleys and villages
What to do: Stretch your legs in the vast mountain countryside
Where: Several key locations in Ha Giang Province
Ha Giang province is known for trekking due to it's location on the Dong Van karst plateau, a UNESCO Global Geopark. Multi-day and single-day tours of the entire region, including Hoang Su Phi, are available through tour companies.
A short day trek goes from Ha Giang City to Khuoi My village. An abundance of homestays in this area allow for days of trekking through the valleys and rolling hills.
A popular trek from Heaven Gate is to trek east and pass through the villages of Nam Dam too meet the Dao ethnic people and witness their traditional ways of life.
Another famous trek starts in Dong Van and heads south towards the mountain village of Ta Lung. Meet H’mong, Hoa, and Tay people while hiking along small goat tracks with Tay Con Linh Peak as a backdrop.
11. Discover markets
What to do: Try sticky rice and thang co in the local and vibrant market culture.
With a broad level of ethnic diversity, Ha Giang markets are full of fascinating fabrics, fresh produce, and other weird and wonderful things.
Meo Vac Sunday market
Where: In the township of Meo Vac, on the QL4C highway.
By far the largest market in the region, the Meo Vac Sunday market is a melting pot of ethnic diversity and their wares. Bombastic displays of local life are everywhere, from the young men who herd livestock, to the women in brightly colored and handmade traditional costumes. It's common to see older men drinking tiny cups of rice wine and smoke a bong of the immensely intoxicating 'Thuốc lào', which is nine times more powerful than ordinary nicotine.
Dong Van Sunday market
Where: In Dong Van town. On the northern end of the QL4C highway loop.
On the opposite side of the Ma Pi Leng pass is the town of Dong Van where the Dong Van market is held. From 5am to 10am, people from the Hmong, Tay, Nung and Hoa ethnic minorities come together around the old quarter to create a dazzling display of traditional commerce, each ethnic faction wearing clothes that easily identifies their cultural diversity. Dong Van market is wonderful place to pick up some authentic souvenirs, or even to grab steaming bowl of Thang co. With an impressive old quarter, and the backdrop of jaw-dropping mountains, a visit to Dong Van Village is worth it.
Khau Vai love market
Where: In the Khau Vai commune. 20kms east of Meo Vac.
The annual Khau Vai Love Market is an extremely important social event that sees love-curious individuals inspect one another for a possible match. Many successful relationships have been forged since its inception in the 1920's. Each event happens on March the 26th of the lunar calendar. Usually it lands at the beginning of May.
When is the best time to visit Ha Giang Province?
To catch the fields turning golden in the harvest season, the best time is from September to October. After this the weather can get quite cold, as low as 5 degrees Celsius.
Between October and November is when Ha Giang witnesses the Buckwheat flowers blossom in dazzling pink and purple colors. This is a ideal time for photographers!
Like most of the country, June to August is very hot and rainy with thunderstorms and 30 degree heat. The terrain is a bit more difficult to navigate during this season with potential flooding and slippery roads.
For fair weather, the best time is from February to April when temperatures are around 20 degrees Celsius and there is very little rain. Perfect for trekking!
That concludes our 11 best things to do in Ha Giang, but this is just the start of your adventure. Every year, tourists from all around the world fall in love with Ha Giang and North Vietnam, and for good reason. When will you conquer it too? To give you a steady foothold for your adventures, make sure to learn more about the attractions of Ha Giang Province!