Le Thao
Photos: Hai Piano Nguyen

Travelers eager to get off the beaten track will love Vietnam’s Ha Giang province

Vietnam’s Ha Giang province is known for its wild places and rugged natural beauty. From Hanoi, there are many routes to reach Ha Giang. Visitors can travel through Bac Ha, Lao Cai, follow the Chay River through Xin Man to Hoang Su Phi to enjoy stunning views of terraced rice fields, or ride the legendary Highway 4 along the border of Cao Bang to Meo Vac. Perhaps the most exciting route follows the Du Gia Route to Dong Van and back to the mountain pass of Ma Pi Leng.

While Ha Giang is beautiful year round, the spring and autumn are my favorite seasons, highlighting both the natural landscapes and cultural identity of Ha Giang. In the spring, the marketplaces are crowded. Young ethnic minority locals don their best and most flamboyant outfits and show off their skills in festivals. Beside stilt houses, peach and plum blossoms seem to glow in the morning mist. On April afternoons, the mountainsides fade away behind layers of smoke. New soil lies exposed under the sun. In May, when the water rises, streams are channeled into terraces using overlapping layers of chopped bamboo that span hundreds of meters in mountain creeks. Water-soaked rice terraces glint like silver mirrors paving the mountains. Farmers’ cries to plowing buffalos and hearty laughter echo through the valleys. On the paths, teams of photographers handle state-of-the-art cameras. In the far mountains, Hmong families form lines to plant maize seeds.

Come autumn, the green mountains change color as the rice terraces turn to gold. Photographers scurry all over the place eagerly seeking the remaining green patches as a focus of their photos of the golden harvest. Rice starts to stack up in the warehouses and corn is spread in courtyards or on the hearth. When the chilly winds blow, the rocky highlands turn grey and desolate, as if nature is holding its breath and waiting for the spring breezes to wake up the thousands of buckwheat flowers. Tiny blossoms fade from green to white, purple, pink or dark violet. A floral carpet unfurls, spreading far and wide against the emerald mountains.

Seen from afar, the highlands resemble a giant hedgehog with rough fur. Climbing further, those spiky hedgehogs seem to surround us. Spiky rocks measuring two or three meters high crisscross long stretches. Sometimes the rocks rise so close together that we must sneak through a narrow lane between them. With no trail, you would definitely get lost in this rocky maze. Choose a cliff and sit down to observe the rocks below. Over the course of millions of years, winds and water have carved these mountains into countless shapes. Far beneath your feet a spring feeds a stream that sneaks swiftly through the rocks towards a river. Paths fashioned by hard work look like tangled threads around the mountainsides. It’s impossible not to feel small and lost in this imposing landscape.

Amidst this endless sea of rocks lie earthen-walled houses under the shelter of rocky walls. They resemble manmade oases. In the past, they were indeed solid fortresses that intruders could not enter. The locals followed traditions dating back centuries. The shortest paths to these oases lead to the rice terraces. The locals will explain how much corn they can harvest and which grains can be used to grow the next crop. You can try to lift their heavy corn baskets.

While the houses look small from afar, they are large, sometimes housing a whole clan  within their earthen walls. The dirt walls are meters thick, serving to keep the heat in during the cold winters and out in the hot summers. Eating steamed corn cakes by the fire, you can listen to stories of survival in the rocky highlands.

A destination not to be missed in Ha Giang is Lung Cu Flag Staff – the northernmost tip of the country. During the Ly Dynasty a flag staff stood on Dragon Mountain as a symbol of national sovereignty. Standing at this site, my pride in Vietnam is high.