The rugged roads of Ha Giang

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Life in Vietnam's northernmost province is simple, tough and beautiful


Ha Giang, known as Vietnam's "˜Final Frontier', has been listed by UNESCO as an official Global Geopark thanks to its 400 million year-old landscape

When people ask me what the most beautiful spot in Vietnam is, I say without hesitation: Ha Giang.

Tourists in China's Yunan Province may be mesmerized by the beauty of the Shilin Rock Forest, but Shilin is less than 100 square kilometers while the towering limestone karsts of Ha Giang, Vietnam's northernmost province, seem to go on forever.

The area - which borders China and is known as Vietnam's "Final Frontier - has been listed by UNESCO as an official Global Geopark, thanks to its 400 million year-old landscape.

The stones and rocks of Ha Giang are converted into many things, most commonly into stoves, fences and stables. The simple structures are foreign to Vietnam's delta dwellers.

The kids here are simple, hospitable and as beautiful as a picture. They always wave to greet strangers. They rush out of their homes to say hello when they hear the sound of an engine coming down the road.

The best way to see the area is on two wheels. But if you take a motorcycle, make sure you stop frequently to take in the incredible scenery. You can't take too many pictures in Ha Giang.

The ethnic minority people in Ha Giang are beautiful and hard-working. Each community is different and they all wear unique and brightly colored clothes that change with the seasons.

The best thing about Ha Giang is just simply driving it's wondrous roads through the other-worldly landscape. Many of the area's most marvelous images have been etched into my mind, and I'll die having never forgotten them. The main roads cut through mesmerizing valleys of staircase rice terraces and steep mountainsides. In some places the road dips down into a valley of rice paddies with the giant karsts looming above on all sides. Cliffs of colorful rocks drop off into lush riverbeds and everywhere is a mix of stone and greenery.

HOW TO GET THERE

From Hanoi, take National Road No. 2 past Vinh Phuc and Tuyen Quang provinces to the town of Ha Giang, capital of Ha Giang Province.

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.

From a distance, the main road looks like a silk thread stretched across a valley or woven through a mountain top. The roads can be narrow and treacherous, and some smaller roads running through the forest or through mud on the mountainside are just for dare-devils.

Ha Giang's cultural specialty is its markets. There are weekend market sessions at Meo Vac, Dong Van, Hoang Su Phi, Xin Man and Quan Ba. The famous Phong Luu Khau Vai is a "love market" that meets only once a year. The event is a chance for people to find love or their "other halves." It runs only from the evening of the 26th to the afternoon of the 27th of the third lunar month every year.

People go to the market to look, listen, and meet friends. It's a simple but entertaining outing for many, and the people of Ha Giang don't ask for much more. The markets are also an interesting socio-economic mix where some shoppers dress in the height of local ethnic fashion while others come in taters.

I met a family of five in ragged clothes at Meo Vac Market and I bought them five pairs of shoes. It cost little more than VND100,000. They were so happy and wrapped up their old shoes to take home to wear in the house.

At Hoang Su Phi Market, I tried carrying a basket of firewood carried by a H'mong girl. It must have been over 40 kilos of firewood but it cost only VND25,000.

I realized that she and her husband work for two days to earn just enough for a cup of coffee in Ho Chi Minh City. We in the so-called "modern" world are spoiled and could learn a lot from the beautiful people of Ha Giang.

By Nguyen Van My

Nguyen Van My is the director of Lua Viet Tours based in Ho Chi Minh City

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