Four days of trekking in Northern Vietnam
For many experts, Northern Vietnam is that part of Vietnam that features the most beautiful landscapes. Impressive, considering the beautiful landscapes you can find all over Vietnam, but we got to know that it’s actually true. Whereas most tourists visit the region around Sa Pa, we, however, decided to explore the neighboring province of Ha Giang which was supposed to be equally beautiful, yet less travelled.
Good Morning, Vietnam!
The alarm goes off at the crack of dawn. I feel relieved that we had the wisdom to leave yesterday evening’s excessive party in the old town of Hanoi and the lobby of our hostel early enough to catch at least a bit of sleep, even though prices of 5,000 Dong (around 0.20 Euro) for a glass of beer were quite appealing… Luckily, we stopped after the fourth beer, so that we are at least somewhat “fresh”, as our guide arrives to pick us up from the hostel.
We leave the city of 12 million people and at least five million motorcycles shortly after 8am and cross the new bridge spanning the Red River that is being illuminated at night and constantly changing its colours. Slowly, but steadily we enter into more rural regions. However, even here there seems to be a restaurant every twenty meters. Food is being offered everywhere and the Bia Ha Noi crates pile up in front of them. After three hours of driving, we stop for a tasty Vietnamese lunch, before we continue northbound along rice fields, tea and coffee plantations.
Welcome to the backcountry
Eventually, after six hours of driving, we reach our homestay for the first night. It is a traditional, two-storeyed thatched-roof house amidst rice fields in a village 300 kilometers away from Hanoi. Located in Ha Giang, one of the poorest provinces of Vietnam directly at the border to Southern China, this village consists of 500 inhabitants who predominantly live from farming, owning buffalos as “investment” for their future.
We drop our stuff and as it is still one or two hours until sunset, we leave for a short stroll around the area. We walk to a tiny, but beautiful waterfall nearby. A group of local youths sits here half-hidden behind a rock, having a picnic and drinking “happy water”, as they call it. We have a short refreshment in the waters in front of the waterfall and as we get out of the water, they invite us for “happy water” and oranges. Before we know it, we find ourselves in the middle of a photo session, but we accept that short moment of fame and thank them for sharing their food and drinks with us, before we head back to our official dinner in the homestay. We are being served delicious food with different veggies, Vietnamese spring rolls, tofu, egg omelette, pork and lots of fresh herbs, together with a bottle of Ha Noi Beer. Tasty!
At 9pm, the lights are turned down, which is probably a good idea thinking of the strenuous hike ahead of us the next day!
Trekking the rice terraces of Ha Giang
The next morning, I awake early and enjoy the Vietnamese sunrise. For breakfast, our host treats us with pancakes filled with banana and honey. After this reinforcing meal we’re ready for our trip, so we say goodbye to our host and leave for our trekking daytrip.
We walk along rice terraces and learn a lot of fun facts about rice (e. g. how to differentiate between “normal” and “sticky” rice and that the period shortly before harvest is the most decisive in the whole process: bad weather in these few days can even destroy the whole harvest!).
We see papayas and bananas growing on trees along our way, walk past tea plantations and corn fields and we learn the difference between cows and buffalos: buffalos love to swim and bathe whereas cows avoid water like the plague.
We enjoy fabulous views over lush green rice paddies down into the valley and the far distance where a few mountain peaks soar to the sky. A mesmerizingly beautiful scenery, but have a look for yourself:
For the whole morning, we don’t see any other hiker, only the occasional farmer herding cattle along the way. At around half past ten, we reach another village. Here, the houses are built as massive construction works and covered with tiles. It seems as if the local minority living here was better off than the people around our homestay’s. We recognize a few school children on their way home, apparently school’s out early today. Our guide Linh tells us that there have been cases of child abduction in the past, when evil human trafficker had abducted especially young girls to bring them across the border into China in order to cure the lack of women there – a disgusting business!
Having crossed an old iron bridge, we enter a local building for today’s picnic lunch. Later, Linh tells us in another house how tea is being produced traditionally. After that, we start our descent. At first, we walk through rice terraces and paddies again, later we enter into jungle and walk along buffalo trails, completely “off the beaten track”. Down in the valley, we discover pineapple plants which I had never seen before in my whole life.
At 2:15pm we reach the end point of our walking tour and shortly after our driver picks us up in order to bring us in 2.5 hours to our next homestay. On the way, we stop at Quan Ba Pass, a UNESCO Global Geopark heritage site. Here, we climb the steps up to a lookout, from where we marvel at the beauty of the valley below and the interestingly shaped rock formation “fairy bosom” which is said to resemble a female breast.
Today’s homestay reminds us of a hotel, around 20 beds are offered in several rooms. For the first time today, we meet other tourists here and make friends with a group of seven Australian motorbikers who are travelling Vietnam for two weeks. With them, we have a few cans of beer already before dinner. After eating, all hotel guests make their way to a traditional dance performance by the Dao people living here which is taking place a few hundred meters further down the road.
Following this interesting cultural experience, a big group mingles on the benches in front of our homestay. Us, the Aussies, a couple from UK, an Irish flute player and a few curious villagers form a bizarre group. Fuelled by further cans of beer and shots of “Happy water” it becomes even stranger and ends up in the whole group singing to the Beatles evergreen “Yellow Submarine” while the Irish gay is playing the flute. Decide for yourself how much alcohol had been consumed up to this point…
Visiting the villagers in the Global Geopark of Ha Giang
On our trek the next morning, we walk through a valley in which rice had recently been harvested. After a strenuous ascend (even more strenuous after those beers from the night before!) we arrive in a mountain village that had suffered from a horrible fire 50 years ago. The whole village had to be rebuilt. We visit the only remaining house from before the fire, which is owned by the 83-year old grandmother of the local guide accompanying us. It differs clearly from our homestay from the night before last: featuring only one floor, one shrine for the ancestors (naturally including a poster of Ho-Chi Minh as well) and a fireplace in the middle of the house, on which also some food is being smoke-dried in order to conserve it and make it longer lasting.
We wander through jungle which is muddy from nocturnal rain and therefore quite challenging. Further down the path, we have to use larger stones to build a bridge across a small path. Everything is very pristine, thus exactly what we wanted!
After another hour, we reach the next village. Here live the H’mong people, another one of in total 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam, which comprise of around 40% of Vietnam’s total population, our guide tells us. An elderly woman asks us to come inside her house and offers us a kind of fruit which we have never seen before. Inside, the television broadcasts videos of traditional Vietnamese music and the air smells of incense sticks. We bow ourselves off, as we don’t feel comfortable here in looking at their simple living conditions, even though we had been invited to come in. We don’t like this “watching the poor”-attitude, yet the insights were quite interesting.
On our way back to the homestay, we come across a small museum in the village of Nam Dam. Upon the appointment of Ha Giang and its Dong Van Karst Plateau as “UNESCO Global Geopark”, such places have been subsidized a lot. Therefore, this museum today displays local clothes, tools and traditions of the ethnic people living here. Shortly after, our morning walk comes to an end as we reach our homestay for lunch.
“Happy” Ha Giang endings
In the afternoon we visit to a cave on top of a mountain that has only recently (2015) been discovered. In order to get there, we have to accomplish another steep ascent, but the Lung Khuy cave with its impressive stalagmites and stalactites is totally worth it. As it seems to be too demanding for others, we have the whole cave for ourselves, very nice!
Later that evening, we are allowed to help with the production of Vietnamese Spring Rolls. Luckily, we produce plenty of them, since during dinner the lady of the house urges us to drink “Happy water” with her. Loads of happy water. In a challenging frequency. The 0.5-liter bottle is emptied soon and we exhale relievedly as she doesn’t go to get a new one. Otherwise, that roller coaster ride back to Hanoi on the next day wouldn’t have been much fun…
Résumé of our trip to Ha Giang
On the morning of our last day, the car leaves already at 07:30am for Hanoi with almost ten agonizingly long hours of driving ahead of us. Luckily, a well-performing powerbank and offline accessible streamed movies and TV series help to make time go by. At Hanoi International Airport, a lovely and eventful weekend comes to an end which kept what it had promised earlier:
Nowhere did we encounter annoying souvenir sellers like Sa Pa is supposed to have in masses, nowhere (outside of our homestays) did we even see any other tourist face, yet we encountered and trekked through magnificent nature – recommendable for passionate hikers and everyone feeling the #wanderlust !
Have you already been to Northern Vietnam? What was your experience? And where did you encounter the most beautiful nature you’ve seen so far? Share your experience with me as well as other travelers and write a comment below. Thank you!
(travel period: October 2017)