Sharing a common border with China, mountainous Hà Giang province is well known for its spectacular scenery and remoteness. It is home to over 20 different groups of minority ethnic people, who happen to be among the country’s poorest inhabitants. These subsistence farmers follow a way of life that has changed little in hundreds of years. Cultivating crops on steep rock-covered hillsides is backbreaking work which produces little in the way of reward.
Mass tourism has not reached Hà Giang province, perhaps because of the lack of tourism infrastructure and poor roads. In most parts of the province very few local people speak English; hotels and restaurants cater to Vietnamese and souvenir stands are few and far between. The majority of Westerns who come here are adventure seekers who tour the area on motorcycle completing a route known as the Hà Giang loop.
Getting to Hà Giang City, the provincial capital is easy as busses depart Hà Nội’s My Dinh bus station every morning and afternoon. Tickets can be purchased just before departure at counter number 16 for 200,000 VND. The bus I took was a sleeper-style bus, which I detest and had sworn to never travel on again, but I was informed that all busses traveling to Hà Giang are sleeper buses. In Vietnam, perhaps other countries as well, these particular types of busses do not have regular seats. Passengers lie, or try to lie, in a very small kayak-like pod, which is about two feet too short for the average Westerner. The key to surviving the journey, especially if you are tall, is to take a pod-free seat in the bottom row at the very back of the bus.
Six and a half hours later we arrived safe and sound at a bus station two kilometers south of Hà Giang City, the gateway to Vietnam’s northern frontier. Most travelers only spend one night here, just enough time to organize the rental of a motorcycle and to purchase the mandatory travel permit required to visit the frontier area near the Chinese border.
Ninety three miles (150 km) from Hà Giang City is Đồng Văn which is without a doubt the tourism capital of the province. It is considered to have the best trekking in the region and makes a terrific base for exploring the most northern reaches of Vietnam. Many travelers will head directly to Đồng Văn, which makes sense, particularly if you are short on time. Here you will find some English-speaking locals working in hotels and restaurants which provide menus in English, having become accustomed to serving foreign travelers.
Since I was in no particular hurry, I slowly worked my way north by bus, stopping overnight in several small cities; breaking the six-hour trip to Đồng Văn in three segments. The narrow roads here are essentially carved from mountainsides. They are not too steep but are winding with many sharp blind curves. Traveling here is slow. It does not matter whether it’s by motorcycle, car or bus, you can count on doing about 15 MPH.