Ha Giang

Ha Giang

The northernmost province of Vietnam on the border with Southern China. It is a hilly mountainous region and, therefore, has all the features you would expect, hills, mountains, changeable weather, harsh farming conditions and high poverty rates.

It is the ‘Mecca’ for motorbike tourists in Vietnam as well as those that want to experience the ‘real’ rural Vietnam. There is a lot packed into a small space.

[Map from Wikipedia]

Ha Giang Province, Northern Vietnam

Capital: Hà Giang

Population: About 900.000

Ethnicities: Vietnamese, Tày, Dao, H’Mông, Sán Dìu, Lô Lô…22 in total

The Province

is quite large and spreads a great deal further to the West than many people realize. This is because most tourist activity takes place on the ‘loop’, which is defined by Highway 4C, to the North of the province.

The Eastern side

            of the province stretches up to China and once you are out of Ha Giang City you will move up on to a huge Karst Plateau, where conditions are quite harsh. Farming and living in this environment is tough but has improved over the last few years due to government intervention and tourism.

The Ministry of Agriculture has invested a great deal of time and effort helping local farmers with different varieties of crop which improve yield. The ministry of tourism has promoted the area, created the Dong Van Karst Plateau GeoPark and slowly allowed more and more tourists to visit the areas. In the past, it was quite difficult for foreigners to gain access to the region.

The Western side

of the province is equally beautiful but has less infrastructure for tourism and hence, less traffic. There has never been any government control restricting foreigners travelling through here, but the lack of facilities has made it hard. This is still an area for travelers that are a little more rugged and self-sufficient.

Tourist Permission

Strictly speaking you still need to obtain a permit to visit the are North of Ha Giang City. You can get this permit either in Ha Giang or in Meo Vac. It is quite cheap and only takes 15 mins to get. Some hotels will not allow you to stay unless you have this permit. Personally, I think the permit is a good souvenir and you can leave this as ID at any hotel, which means you do not need to leave a passport. However, many people do not do this and do not have any problems.

Travelling through the West of the province is not an issue and access is quite free.

[link to blog on how to get a permit]

Geography

Ha Giang City is set on the banks of the Lo River and has a population of around 80,000 people. There are actually 22 different ethnic groups in the city but just over 50% are from the Kinh and Tay groups. The Tay, Dao and Hmong make up the larger part of the remaining percentage.

Ha Giang was an important military outpost for the French as far back as 1886. From then on, the French supported the Hmong king as an attempt to maintain peace. However, there were constant troubles and several long lasting rebellions to French Rule.

Ha Giang became the provincial town in 1991 and it wasn’t until 2010 that it became a city. It was in the same year that the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark was set up and tourism to the area began to grow. This is a much-needed boost to the economy as Ha Giang is one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam.  

How to get to Ha Giang Province

It is likely that you will choose one of three main routes to get to Ha Giang Province. They are 1. Hanoi to Ha Giang City 2. Lao Cai / Sa Pa to Ha Giang City or Cao Bang to Meo Vac town. It is also possible to take 3. Na Hang – Bac Me route but that is a bit tricky and for the more experienced rider/adventurer.

[Insert Google Map with Routes]

You can see all four of these routes on our Routes page or search the blog to find them. In general, it needs to be said that you cannot use the CT / High Speed routes on a motorbike in Vietnam. You should adjust your Google Maps so that you are not routed on these roads. Here is a guide [link] on how to do that.

Also, you should bear in mind that Ha Giang City is 300km away from Hanoi, 200km away from Lao Cai, Meo Vac is 180km from Cao Bang and Bac Me is 140km from Ba Be but it is tricky road and you have to get to Ba Be first, which is 240km from Hanoi.  

The point is that you need a full day, maybe two, to get to either Ha Giang City or Meo Vac town. It is only from these points onwards that you will be in Ha Giang and experiencing the best that Vietnam has to offer. This isn’t to say that there is nowhere else in the North that is worth visiting, there is plenty, it is just that Ha Giang is THE place to get to.

Should you rent a bike in Ha Noi or Ha Giang?

This totally depends on you and your plans. If you are planning a longer trip that it makes sense to start and end in Hanoi. This way you can cut down on hassle and perhaps some cost.

A Large Loop

If you are taking 10 days to make a loop then it would probably make sense to start and end in Hanoi. Our example is: Hanoi – Cao Bang – Ha Giang – Hanoi. As you can see in the map above, If you take a large loop of ten days or more Ha Giang will just make up a part of your trip. Therefore, it is better to rent and return in Ha Noi.

Ha Giang only

If you only plan to visit Ha Noi and Ha Giang, then you would probably be better off to rent and return in Ha Giang. The example above could be a 4 day loop of Eastern Ha Giang. Bear in mind that there is currently no rental firm that has offices in two of these towns so one way rental is impossible.

You cannot rent in Ha Giang and drop off in Sa Pa or Cao Bang or anywhere other than Ha Giang. It is not like the North-South Route where you can book a one way rental.

Main towns / stopovers

Ha Giang City

This will be your first port of call if you are coming from the South (Hanoi) or maybe your second after Hoang Su Phu in the West ( Lao Cai / Sa Pa) It is the provincial capital and is quite large. There are a range of hotels and restaurants here but nothing is high end. The focus nowadays has shifted away from government run guesthouses to small hostels and homestays.

[link to accommodation]

This is probably going to be the place that you rent a motorbike from. There are scores of rental shops and hostels willing to rent to you and prices will be pretty much fixed all across town. You won’t be able to barter but also will not be overcharged.

[link to bike rental]

In peak seasons, Sep/Oct and Mar/Apr, you might find it hard, not impossible, to get a bike due to the high demand. In that case, you might want to contact the rental firm first and book a bike. You can do so by paying in advance.

Nam Dam

This is a little village that now has several homestays run by Lo Lo people. This place is all about the people and the hospitality. It is past Quan Ba and Tam Son and a little way off the road. It is a very quiet place with good accommodation and food. However, it is not a budget option.

Tam Son

This is a small town on the main 4C highway. Blink and you will miss it. There are a few small mini hotels and restaurants in the centre and others spread a little further off the main road. It is nothing to write home about so don’t expect much.

Yen Minh

[link to review about hotels]

This is a larger town also on the main 4C and it has a bit more going for it than Tam Son, but not much. You can find a range of accommodation and food options here. There is not much going on in and around the town and it is more a place to stopover on the way up country. 

Lung Cu

[link to review about hotels]

This is the northernmost point of Vietnam and is quite a way off the main 4C. It is very small and there are only one or two small homestays here. You really need to either get here early or call ahead to make sure there is a bed and dinner for you. Logistics are a problem in this area.

Dong Van

[link to review about hotels]

This is probably the largest town on the loop, aside from Ha Giang City, and it has numerous options for food and accommodation both in and out of town. You may also notice that there is an old town, centered around the market and a new town that has been built across the valley.

Meo Vac

[link to review about hotels]

A very old settlement on the loop that has increased in size in recent years somewhat in connection with the popularity of the Khau Vai Love Market and the loop itself.

You can find a lot of accommodation and food options here. Accommodation will range from budget to luxury, but food options will be pretty average.

Du Gia

[link to review about hotels]

This is a small hamlet that has built up in recent years due to the influx of tourists. There are a few homestays that cater more to the backpacker crowd and it can be lively at night. The roads in and out are fun to drive on and it is well worth a visit. There are some waterfalls nearby.

Bao Lam

[link to review about hotels]

A small place that you are unlikely to stay at unless you are caught on the way to Bao Lac. There are a couple of homestays and hotels but not much else. Don’t expect much and you will be fine.

Bac Me

[link to review about hotels]

Not a very popular spot on the loop and it is more a case of being a stopover if you have mechanical trouble or misjudge distances. There are several homestays here all clustered in one general area.

Bao Lac

[link to review about hotels]

This town has grown in recent years but is still quite small. There are a few guesthouses and small restaurants in the centre of town but not much choice. People often have to stay here on the way from Cao Bang or Ba Be. In the opposite direction, you might stay here if you wanted to get a head start on your trip to Meo Vac to Ba Be. [link to review about hotels]

Ethnic groups

There are 22 ethnic groups represented in Ha Giang. The Kinh and Tay people make up 55% and the Hmong make up another 32%. The other 19 are few and far between and therefore much less is known about them and their cultures.

There are many similarities and differences between the groups and, interestingly, the same is true within each of the groups. The range of languages spoken and the differences in cultural rites can be quite stark. See below.

Languages Spoken

Hmong Languages – Hmong / Kim Mun / Pa Hng

Tai Languages – Nung / Tay / Giay

Kra Languages – Red Gelao / White Gelao / Qabiao (Pupeo) / Lachi

Tibeto Burman Languages – Red Lolo / Flower Lolo / White Lolo

Weather

This is a pretty complex topic because, in general, the climate is temperate, but the mountainous region means that weather is quite unpredictable. Also, as well as there being two main regions there are also two seasons.

The lower region along to Lo river, around Ha Giang City and Cao Bo district has dry season from September to May. The upper region in Du Gia and Dong Van sees the rain come in a month earlier around April.

Temperature/Rainfall/Humidity

Ha Giang City see an average temperature of around 23C and the monthly averages are from 15C in January to around 28 in July. The annual rainfall there is 24mm, the lowest is in December, at 31mm, and the highest in July, at 52mm. Humidity is always high with a yearly average of 84%.

[Link to weather blog]

The best time to visit

For travelling and touring, most people prefer to tour between late September and May. At this time, the weather is cooler and drier and the cold winds from the North are generally clearer. The added benefit is that there several festivals at these times that revolve around the blooming and harvesting of crops and the changes of the seasons.

The Summer months are too hot and too wet and, therefore, create too many difficulties.

[Link to weather blog]

Trekking

There are some excellent treks in the province of Ha Giang. The Hoang Su Phi areas is noted for its natural beauty and the Dong Van area has a very rugged character. Generally, it is wise to take a guide because the routes are tricky to find and there is very little English spoken by the locals.

There are many tour companies that will offer tours at all levels of ability. The Winter months are best for trekking as June, July, August will be too hot and too humid to bear.

[link to review blog about trekking]

Motorbike Rental Shops

                                    [Insert map of shops]

There is a huge number of rental shops in Ha Giang now due to the massive increase in tourists wishing to ‘do the loop’. You can find semi auto and manual bikes for rent in varying degrees of repair. It is unlikely that you will find an automatic option as these are not efficient and dangerous in the mountains. If you can only drive an automatic bike we strongly recommend AGAINST you touring and feel you should opt for taking an ‘Easy Rider’ tour.

An Easy Rider tour is one where you are the passenger / pillion on a bike and you have a driver. This means you only need to sit back, relax and tell the driver where you want to go and what you want to see. Meanwhile, you get to view the countryside and maybe also take photos.

            [link to blogs about rental firms ]

You are unlikely to need or even be able to find motorbike rental in the other towns listed. This is because once you have travelled North of Ha Giang you will have transport and therefore will not need to rent.

Driving Conditions

The weather will greatly affect the driving conditions. You could experience blinding sunshine, heavy rain and flooding, fog and cold. All of these conditions can change from valley to valley and you can find yourself driving through mist and fog one minute only to turn a corner onto a sunbathed mountain road. You must be prepared for all eventualities.

                                    [link to driving conditions blogs]

Road conditions – map

[Main roads / dirt roads]

Google Map – labelled with photos

Police / Permission

                        There is an increasing police presence it the area nowadays due to the number of accidents and deaths of tourists. Many people with little or no experience of driving motorbikes are renting bikes and going on self-guided tours. Some of them do not finish the tour; many get hurt.

Police Checks

                        The police have set up some roadblocks and they will stop all vehicles to check their paperwork. You need to have either a home license and and IDP, or a Vietnamese motorbike license in order to be driving legally in Vietnam. If you are caught without this, you will be fined and the bike will be impounded.

Permission to enter Ha Giang

                        In theory you need to apply for a license to enter Ha Giang and to travel North of either Ha Giang city or Meo Vac town. This is easy to get, fast and cheap. However, many people do not get this permission and do not have any problems at all.

                        Some hotels will ask for this and tell you that you cannot stay without it. If that happens and you don’t have one, just move to the next hotel. It shouldn’t be hard to find another.

                        You can also leave this document with reception instead of your passport, so it is quite useful.

Border Area

                        Ha Giang is very much a border area with China directly North. This means that you are required to have ID on you at all times. In practice, for foreigners, this means having your passport. All of this depends very much on the situation and you can find that not having ID or the Ha Giang permission is not a problem and the police waive this request. Or, you may find that they insist on seeing these things and won’t let you travel on without them.

BE NICE WHEN YOU MEET ANY POLICE. This will increase the likelihood that any problems are not problems. Just remember: the police can turn a blind eye to anything they like.

Border Guards

                        Like pretty much any country, border guards are quite hostile and just want you to go away as quickly as possible. If you venture off the main roads in the direction of China, you will quickly get into border areas. There will be signs, whether you notice them is a different matter, saying that it is a border area and that you are not allowed to be there.

                        In such a situation, on meeting a guard/soldier you should just smile, be friendly and do as they ask. They will have guns but are very unlikely to use them. They usually just tell you to go back the way you came and that is that. In some cases, they will be friendly and find you to be a novelty. If so, get a quick photo with them and run.

Daily break down of costs

Assumptions:

          Budget means a frugal backpacker who takes a Honda Blade, eats a little on the street or in cheaper restaurants and stays in a dorm room.

          Mid Range is the more upmarket backpacker that wants a bigger bike, say xr150, and to eat less street food or have a little more comfort and who might opt for a private room or a more party hostel.

Luxury is more like the older, wealthier traveller who might want a bigger bike, CRF 250, and likes to stay in quiet rooms and eat and drink a higher quantity of quality food.

Please Note: I have left out homestay here because it gets too confusing. Usually in a homestay the bed will be really cheap (50 – 80k) BUT the meals are more expensive. They are big, but a bit expensive (say 150k / pax.)

                                         Budget                 Mid Range                     Luxury

Motorbike                     150,000                400,000                           1,000,000

Fuel                                 60,000                  100,000                           150,000

Breakfast                       20,000                  40,000                             60,000

Lunch                              30,000                  50,000                             70,000

Dinner                            50,000                  150,000                           250,000

Hostel                             100,000                150,000                           N/A

Hotel                               200,000                400,000                           600,000

All in all, Per Person

2 x Budget Bike, fuel, food, hostel might cost you 15-20usd / day

2 x Mid Range Bike, fuel, food, hotel might cost you 25 – 30usd / day

2 x Luxury Bike, fuel, food, hotel might cost you 60 80usd / day

Work out what it costs YOU

Exchange Rates:      GBP    30,000       EUR 27,000            USD           23,000

Routes

Most people will take loop of Ha Giang in around 3 to 4 days. This will involve heading North of Ha Giang City up to Dong Van or Meo Vac and then back by way of Du Gia. If they have time, they will head up to Lung Cu Flagpole

A relaxed loop might be something like this:

Day 1. Ha Giang City – Tam Son / Nam Dam  50km – 2hrs

Day 2. Tam Son – Dong Van                                100km – 4hrs

Day 3. Dong Van – Lung Cu – Meo Vac             80km – 3hrs

Day 4. Meo Vac – Du Gia                                     70km – 3hrs

Day 5. Du Gia – Ha Giang City                             70km – 3hrs

The times given are travelling times only so you will need to factor in food and drink stops and any time you want to spend visiting any sites on route. You can also see that there is not that much travelling each day and so you could shorten this by a day, if you wished.

The above itinerary is all on main roads which are fairly good quality and easy to drive, apart from the traffic and weather conditions. There are other routes which are more off road and the times taken will then obviously increase.

[link to more route suggestions]

It is highly likely that Ha Giang will be the place that you remember most from your Vietnam tour. Therefore, we suggest you spend as much time there as you can.

Accommodation

            There are lots of places to stay all along the loop and these range from mini hotels catering for locals to homestays / resorts catering for tourists (both local and foreign). The price will also vary accordingly and could be as low as 5$ per night or as high as 100$ per night.

            Mini hotel

                        These are plentiful and are really cheap and usually clean. You can easily find a twin room, with aircon and hot water shower for around 200,000vnd per night (split between 2 people)

[link to example]

            Hostel

                        There are lots of hostels in the larger towns such as Ha Giang, Dong Van… They are cheap places with a lot of facilities, and they tend to attract a younger crowd.

[link to example]

            Homestay

                        These are also quite easy to find but tend to be a little way out of town, due to the fact that they are run by local ethnic people as a supplementary income.

[link to example]

            Resort

                        These are few and far between and are quite expensive even though they have quite limited facilities. Staying in these places means being around the came kind of people and enjoying a bit more peace and quiet.

[link to example]

Food

It is quite easy nowadays to find food in all the towns along the loop. That is unless it is Tet, when it can be quite difficult to find a place that is open or that has any variety.

Ha Giang is slightly different to other parts of the country. Because of the terrain, you will find that there are longer stretches of road that are uninhabited and this means that there aren’t small eateries dotted along the way. You will find most places clustered together in the small towns and hamlets that you pass through.

Breakfast[link to example]

You may get a breakfast included in the cost of your hotel, particularly if you stay in a homestay. For small hotels it is unlikely, and you will need to venture out on to the street.

You can find:

Pho                                      Thick flat white rice noodles

Bun                                      Thin round white rice noodles

Mien                                   Glass noodles

My                                       Wheat noodles

Banh My Trung                Egg sandwich

Banh My Xuc Xich           Sausage sandwich

Banh My Pa Te                 Pate sandwich

Banh Cuon                        White rice pancakes with pork filling

Xoi                                       Sticky rice

Lunch[link to example]

            You can choose to stop at a small noodle shop, much like you may have done for breakfast or at a ‘com binh dan’, which is just a small restaurant where you can find a mix of meat and veg ready cooked or ready to be cooked.

            You will get all the standard dishes, such as fried rice, fried meat, fried vegetables. It is very much a matter of what happens to be on the menu that day and what you can see and point at.

Dining Choices

            Really, you have two main questions to ask yourself and your group. These are:

  1. Do I want to eat at a street stall, Com Binh Dan or a restaurant?
    1. A street stall is pretty obvious and there is no need to explain.
    1. A Com Binh Dan is a small restaurant where food has been precooked and displayed. You then order a portion of rice and choose what you would like to put on top.
    1. A small restaurant would be slightly more formal (not much) and would have server at your table asking what you would like to order, usually from a menu.  
  • Do I want to order 1 dish for myself or several dishes for us all to share?

Generally, you will only have this choice in the small restaurant. It is usual to order a few dishes and then share them between the group. You can order separately but it is likely to confuse the staff unless they have had experience of this.

Standard Dishes

            There are certain dishes that you will commonly find at small eateries and restaurants. For both Lunch and Dinner, you may want to choose something simple for one person, rather than to share dishes with a group.

Com Rang Bo, Ga, Rau – Fried rice with beef, chicken, vegetable

My Xao Bo, Ga, Rau – Fried noodles with beef chicken vegetable

Nem ran – Spring rolls

Pho – noodle soup

Dinner[link to example]

            Many of the hotels that you stay in nowadays will have a restaurant and you can eat there. This is often an easy choice as the host is likely to have a menu in English and be able to speak a little.

            If you decide to ‘eat out’ then there are usually the same types of place that you will have found at lunch time. These places will now be serving dinner and are likely to have guests drinking beer and rice wine. Things can get quite rowdy so be careful that you don’t get invited to drink too much.

[link to blog on Ruou]

There is no doubt that Ha Giang will amaze you and have you wishing to return. There is plenty to see and do so it warrants more than just a few days.

Hopefully, the information above and the blogs that are linked are useful to you and help you get the most out of your trip.