I regret not getting to Sapa when I was in Vietnam many years ago, and I’m increasingly asked about the trekking opportunities in this ever developing country in order to get a little off the beaten track. As a contributor to the Travel Indochina blog I was able to find out from my fellow passionate Southeast Asia ambassadors about a tucked away area I can’t wait to get to.
While Vietnam’s gracious capital, Hanoi, lies in the north, with the increasingly visited area of Sapa beyond, there is a mysterious expanse of northerly land that remains undiscovered to most travellers.
To find Vietnam’s ‘true north,’ where scenery and customs have been preserved, set your compass and venture to the wilds of Ha Giang. Nestled against the Chinese border, the country’s least-known mountainous region is dubbed the as ‘the final frontier’ for visitors, its lunar landscape all the more atmospheric thanks to the lack of tourists.
The full day’s drive from Hanoi to reach the very north flies by – the mountain scenery is breath-taking. But it won’t prepare you for what awaits in Ha Giang, which easily boasts some of the most spectacular views in all of Asia. Limestone pinnacles tower above granite outcrops that pepper the terraced rice paddies. The rice terraces are impressive feats of construction that have endured the test of time themselves.
Ancestors of the local hill-tribes created the terraces 300 years ago, and their ingenious irrigation system and farming methods are little-changed. The traditions and colourful clothes of the ethnic minorities in Ha Giang today remain untouched, too, enhancing the feeling that you really have stepped back in time.
Explore the lovely villages of Sung La and Sa Phin, meeting shy but friendly locals. Centuries ago, the province was ruled by the Hmong, a Chinese tribe who settled in the area. Then, as now, this border area had strategic significance.
From 1902, the Hmong kings ruled from the Hmong Palace, known as the ‘Forbidden Citadel,’ with the consent of the French colonial rulers. It is an impressive traditional Chinese wooden stronghold, and if luck is on your side when you visit, one of the last king’s descendants will be there for a casual chat about his royal ancestors’ way of life.
A spectacular drive to Meo Vac takes you over the Ma Pi Leng pass. At 1,500m in the midst of jaw-dropping scenery, this is one of the most impressive viewpoints in the entire continent. Meo Vac’s bustling Sunday market is also incredibly photogenic, where colourfully clothed minority tribes people descend on the town to trade their wares and animals.
The rugged beauty and well-preserved tribal culture of Vietnam’s ‘true north’ gives a true impression of the country, sure to live on in the mind of every traveller. While I won’t be bypassing Sapa on my next visit, I will be sure to venture out further to an area of Vietnam that’s still timeless in its beauty and tradition, while I still can.
At altitude and far from the warming coastal winds of the South China Sea, Hi Giang and the very northern reaches of Vietnam experience cooler temperatures than the rest of this otherwise balmy country. Between the months of October and March be sure to take additional layers and comfortable footwear to make the most of the regions exceptional walking trails. Indeed, as recently as December 2013 the region experienced intermittent snow showers.