Are you looking for a place to relax and experience the mountain-life? A place to experience memorable moments with a local family? Do you want to get completely drunk with locals drinking homemade Happy Water? Feel like getting lost in the largest tropical mountain ranges you have ever seen? Many of these experiences require visiting Vietnam off the beaten path, and as of 2016, Ha Giang is your best bet.
After traveling all across Vietnam, I can undoubtedly state that North Vietnam – And Ha Giang in particular – offers the most authentic Vietnamese experience. From drinking rice wine (referred to as ‘Happy Water’) with locals, to eat dinner with families, it is certain you will live real moments in Ha Giang. Moments you will cherish for the rest of your life.
Visiting Vietnam Off the Beaten Path – Ha Giang Travel Guide
If you are looking to visiting Vietnam off the beaten path, you came at the right place! Countless hours of exploration and discovery went into creating this guide to help you make the most of your time in Ha Giang Province.
Table of Contents
- History of Ha Giang Province
- Main ethnic minorities
- Cities and places to visit and sleep
- Foods not to miss
- Major festivals
- Best Travel itineraries
- Review of working as a digital nomad in Ha Giang
- 2017 price list
If there is anything missing that you think I should add don’t hesitate to ask in the comments.
Ha Giang Province
Ha Giang province is the most northern province in Vietnam. Over the past century, Vietnam has witnessed tremendous growth, but for the longest time Ha Giang was forgotten by the rest of the country. Today, it is beginning to have the attention it deserves.
Up Next : Ma Le – Ha Giang’s Town of Happiness
There are over 50 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Over time many of these minorities gave up their language and culture in exchange for the Vietnamese customs, yet in Ha Giang 90% of the minorities that have kept their language, culture, and traditions. This comes as no surprise, as many of the minorities in the rest of Vietnam let go of their heritage to join in the rapid growth of Vietnam. In Ha Giang, you can find many ‘communes’, which are the towns from which the minorities come from. Some of them include:
- The Hmong People– Although they only account for less than 1% of the population of Vietnam, they are the most populous minority group in Ha Giang. You can expect to meet Hmong people throughout the entire province. Often times they are the ones that live in the harshest conditions, living solely off the land they cultivate year-round. Surprisingly, most of the time you will only see women carrying the heavy loads, while most of the men sit at a table drinking Happy Water. You can recognize the women from these communities by the colour of their scarf. If it is black or white, coupled with vividly colourful and intricately designed clothes, you can be sure they are from this community!
You can learn more about Hmong textiles in this awesome article by Seamstress Erin.
- The Tay People– Largest ethnic minority constituting about 2% of the population of Vietnam. From traditional folklore to wedding songs, the Tay culture is one full of tradition and rich culture. When compared to other minority groups, their clothing is not as colorful, but offers weaving with original designs.
- The Thai People – As the second largest ethnic minority in Vietnam, you are bound to encounter people from this community on your trip to Northern Vietnam. You can recognize them by their distinctly colorful blouses, made out of green, blue, pink and purple designs.
- The Kinh People– AKA the Vietnamese People. 88% of the population of Vietnam belongs to these ethnic group. They are also known as the Viets community.
Top places to Visit
Contrary to popular belief, the most beautiful places in Ha Giang are often times the ones you least expect to wow you. For example, Ha Giang city was nothing special when compared to the beauty of small towns along the road. Same goes for Meo Vac, which seems to have lost its charm with the growing number of tourists over the past year.
Some of the great places to visit are:
Dong Van District
Dong Van district is the most northern part of Vietnam. Its land formations have often been referred to as the Himalayas of Vietnam.
Dong Van – This city offers a beautiful market every sunday, and the surrounding landscapes are out of this world. In the next few years a large 3KM-long cave will be opened to the public. In addition, you can find local minorities less than 5 KM in any direction.
Ma Le – If you would rather stay in a local village, I would suggest staying in Ma Le, which is about 15 KM northeast of Dong Van City. There is a great homestay in which you can stay, offering you an out-of-this-world view. Every night we stayed there we felt as if we were truly living with locals, eating and drinking with them into the later hours of the night.
Lung Cu – The most northern tip of Vietnam boasts a large flag pole which is an iconic monument for Vietnam. The road to Lung Cu is magnificent and is definitely worth the drive.
Yen Minh District
If you begin your trip in Ha Giang, then on the road to Dong Van you will pass through the Yen Minh District.
Yen Minh – This city is still a hidden gem. If you are a digital nomad, there is a great cafe you can work at, which offers a beautiful view, high speed internet, and awesome inexpensive Vietnamese coffee.
We planned to stay here for 1-2 nights and ending spending 5 days here! You can still enjoy local prices, and at night you can go walk in any direction off the main road and experience a serenity rarely found in towns of this size. Most people just wiz through this city, but we found that staying for a day or two was quite nice, and was a large part of visiting Vietnam off the beaten path.
Nested in a valley between many cliffs, Coc Pang offers the perfect getaway for those looking for a relaxing cultural getaway. Du Gia Backpacker Hostel is one of the most wonderful hostels I have stayed at during my stay in Northern Vietnam, and I would recommend it anyone who does the Ha Giang to Dong Van loop. If you are interested in staying in this beautiful village check out this review of Du Gia Backpacker Hostel.
The highlighted parts of this map show the most beautiful landscapes to see while motorbiking across Ha Giang province.
What to Eat
Miam miam miam! There are many awesome foods to try in Ha Giang.
You can often find the regular Phos, Bun Cha, and rice meals, but if you are interested in trying new things, the opportunity to do so is readily available!
Bahn Cuon is a dish made from – you’ll never guess what – RICE! Surprising eh? Imagine a crepe made of rice and stuffed with meat and/or very crunchy ingredients that taste amazing. This is usually eaten for breakfast, with a nice coffee.
Sea snails are a delicacy across the North of Vietnam. Pronounced ‘Oc’, you often find them in street food parlors all across the province.
While visiting Vietnam off the beaten path, the locals introduced us to a bunch of new meats I never thought I would try in my life. Please don’t judge! To name a few, I tried horse meat, dog meat, pork tripes and goat blood. Never in my life did I think I would try any of these, but when living with local families it is difficult to say no to what they are eating, and often times I didn’t know what it was until after I trying it. As one Vietnamese local put it, “In Vietnam, we eat anything that can be eaten!” I don’t think I will be eating any of those back home, but I am happy to know what they taste like!
What to do in Ha Giang province
While you make your way through the mountainous landscapes of Ha Giang, you are bound to come across massive caves. Take a few flashlights and a few packs of batteries, and go explore caves that have barely been explored to this day.
Motorbike Around the Province – Personal Favorite
Visiting Vietnam off the beaten path would be difficult without renting/buying a motorbike. Before buying a motorbike I would recommend having a look at the costs involved with owning a motorbike.
As for traveling through Ha Giang Province, check out the travel itinerary for more info on the best places to motorbike. Watch out as the roads are windy and can be very dangerous if you are not paying attention. Always remember the larger vehicles always have priority over you and will hit you without second guessing if you are on their side of the road. This is so important so please don’t forget!!
Live with locals
Go to a local village anywhere and chances are someone will offer you food, drinks, and maybe even a place to stay for the night!
Barter in Local Markets
Depending on the village or city, you can expect to find a local market every Saturday or Sunday.
Find the love of your life
Go to the love market, where local communities come to find a new life partner! If you want to experience this unique market then check out this article outlining everything you need to know to get there.
Festivals in Ha Giang
While there are some pretty cool up and coming festivals in Ha Giang, I will mention that even if you visit Ha Giang during a time when there is no festival, the natural beauty of the place is more than enough of a reason to visit. So, if you happen to be in Ha Giang during one of these festivals, you should definitely check it out, but if you aren’t, then no big deal!!
Buckwheat Flower Festival – From mid-October to mid-November, the buckwheat flowers blossom in bright pink, giving a new long to the mountains all around Dong Van. SInce its launch in 2015, this Annual festival attracts thousands of locals from Hanoi, so if you want to go to this festival make sure to reserve your hostel ahead of time.
Alternative Ways Tip – I went to this festival and have to say that it was a bit disappointing. Instead of staying in the city, I would recommend staying in Ma Le, which is about 15KM away. This would be the best way to visiting Vietnam off the beaten path if you ask me 🙂
Ha Giang Fire Dancing Festival – From mid-October to New Year, the Pa Then ethnic group performs traditional fire dancing. The event is very impressive and full of mystery. If you want to participate, go to Pa Then around the new year!
You can find more festivals on Tourism Vietnam’s festivals list!
Price List November 2016 – Listed in Dong
Prices change very quickly, especially in rapidly developing areas such as North Vietnam. Nevertheless, this gives you a general guideline of prices to expect or negotiate.
Motorbike Rental in Ha Giang City – 150,000 per day. I tried to negotiate the price down further by renting for longer but learned that the priced is usually 200,000.
Average Accommodation per night – 120,000 (dorm) – 150,000 (low end) – 250,000 (higher end or during festival season). The prices can really fluctuate if you negotiate! For example I paid 40,000 per night in one homestay in a small village in the mountains.
ALTERNATIVE WAYS TIP – Look for “Nha Nghi” or “Nghi Tro”. These both mean something equivalent to homestay or hotel. Often times the places that have no english writing will be more affordable and look just as nice!
Average Price per meal – 30,000 per person. Often times you will get treated to dinner by the homestay you are in.
Permit to ride in Dong Van – 10$ US. To avoid any trouble make sure to get it at the immigration office in Ha Giang.
Ha Giang – Vietnam’s Cultural Frontier
Let’s face it. With the ever-growing number of international tourists, I feel that many places in Vietnam have become a performance, rather than the real-deal. And while this is true for many of the tourist hubs of Vietnam, there are still countless hidden gems that offer you the authentic experience. As the emblem of these hidden gems, Ha Giang offers you a truly memorable place that is sure to leave you in awe as you discover its unique culture, traditions, and landscapes. And so I leave you with this burning question, do you have what it takes to go out and explore uncharted territories?
Until Next time,
The Alternative Ways
Great post. You’ve written your experience and the local culture very deep and detail. Btw, I am planning to go to Vietnam next year, in early March. The problem is, friends told me to go to some famous places. Well, it’s very interesting. But I prefer something more genuine. I don’t mind if there are tourists in the city or village, but if it’s too crowded and full of them, I don’t really like it. So, I ditched Halong Bay. My friend told me about Sapa, as it’s not a city and more comfy for travelers. But then another friend Germany said Sapa is now full of tourists. One of blogger suggested me to go Ninh Binh instead. In this post, I think I am interested in Ma Le and Ha Giang. Thank you for sharing! Sorry I asked too much 😛