It's a pain in your calf, your thighs and what not, but boy, is it worth it!
Rocky terrain: High up among the mountains, a unique garden
Driving through rugged, rock-strewn mountain slopes is hard work, and made more difficult when the narrow path ahead is hidden among clouds.
We had been climbing all morning, up the rocky slopes that seemed to stretch into eternity.
A bumpy two-hour motorbike ride later, we finally reached the top. Spread out beneath us was a breathtaking view of the Ngoc Hue River snaking through the valleys below.
It was a clear day in early October, and we were in the Dong Van Stone Plateau, recognized as part of the Global Network of National Geoparks (GGN).
That it has stunning natural scenery and a rich culture is well known, but the stone plateau geopark must be one of the most difficult destinations to reach in Vietnam.
This only adds to its allure though, at least for those with a thirst for adventure.
Dong Van Highland, which spans four districts: Dong Van, Meo Vac, Yen Minh and Quan Ba, is known as the Sa Pa of Ha Giang because of its cool climate. Indeed, it has to be one of the few places in Vietnam where one can enjoy the midday sun without getting burned!
But we were experiencing winter here, although it was autumn in Hanoi. I was reminded of the terrible winter four years ago when thousands of cows and buffalos in the region died because of the cold snap.
HOW TO GET THERE
Book a trip through some travel agents in Hanoi like Dulichvietnam Open Tour (43 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, tel: (04) 3 717 1444, email: firstname.lastname@example.org); Green Trail Tours (Suite #1016 - B4 Building - Tran Dang Ninh Street, tel: (04) 3 754 5268, email: email@example.com.
By motorbike: a big motorbike (Minsk, Win, Bonus, etc) would be more suitable. From Hanoi, follow National Road No. 2, passing Vinh Phuc and Tuyen Quang provinces. You need at least two days in Ha Giang to explore the area. Information on hotels for your stay can be found at www.hotels84.com/hagiang.htm.
Daughters of the soil: Brightly clad mother and daughter prepare soil for the next crop
A local guide advised us to return in spring or summer to see a different Ha Giang. "Spring is really a joy, with tricolored peach blossoms everywhere," he gushed. "And in summer, the highlands are a rainbow of different colors, with green cabbages and golden terraced rice fields nestling in the mountains".
The colors of nature are well complimented by the local people of Dong Van, who play a huge part in the popularity of this area.
We were lucky to chance upon a Sunday market, a perfect place for people watching, in Dong Van.
Carrying heavy vegetable baskets on their backs, dozens of young girls and old women in their best and brightest dresses milled around selling their wares and socializing. In sharp contrast, all the men wore black or dark colored tunics.
To get to the market on time, many sellers have to start their journey at midnight. However, there was no sign of tiredness on the cheerful faces.
"I rarely miss any market gathering because it is a chance for me to meet my friends," said a young Mong girl who sells wine made from corn. She comes with her father who likes eating thang co (a kind of soup cooked with horse meat). Life looked easy for Mong men, many of who lay inebriated on the roadside, while their wives tended to them.
Leaving the market, we drove to the Lung Cu Flag Tower, the northern-most point in Vietnam. Set in the midst of a gorgeous landscape, the tower was the perfect spot to take in the beauty of Dong Van and breathe in the crisp mountain air. The treacherous journey was a small price to pay for the expansive views and much-needed escape from our city lives.
* Dong Van Highland lies over 100km north-east of Ha Giang Town in Ha Giang Province, north of Vietnam, which is more than 300 km from Hanoi. The area is located at an average height of 1,000-1,600m above sea level and features limestone structures in various sizes and shapes and with different characteristics. Local and foreign specialists from Russia, Japan, Germany, Poland, and Belgium have found fossils of thousands of species that lived some 400-600 million years ago. New valleys, rocks and caves have been discovered here.
* In addition to the breathtaking scenic attractions, Dong Van is said to be home to around 250,000 people belonging to nearly 20 ethnic groups including the Tay, Nung and Mong who are preserving their centuries-old rich culture.
* Places to visit: Vuong's House in Sa Phin Commune, Dong Van District a national architectural heritage, Lung Cu Flag Tower, Dong Van Ancient Street (in Dong Van District), Ma Pi Leng Historical Relic, Khau Vai Love Market (in Meo Vac District) and Nui Doi (in Quan Ba District).