As you may or may not know, Ha Giang city is the capital of Ha Giang province which is the northern most province of Vietnam and it borders with China. Having lived in Hanoi for almost 2 years now, I have heard whispers and great stories of this province. I finally got my chance to come explore this area by accepting a short teaching contract for some summer classes! What I didn’t know is what this city had to offer. Most only do a brief stop off before and after the “Ha Giang motorbike loop” which goes from HG city, to Quang Ba, Dong Van, Meo Vac and back to HG city.
This loop is for the adventurous and those looking for something more authentic than the over developed Sa Pa. The scenery here is arguably better too! However, almost no one speaks a word of English and any food similar to Western food is impossible to find here, although some of the Vietnamese dishes here are scrumptious. Taking this into consideration, the people of this province are exceedingly kind, shy and curious. I have had the pleasure of spending almost the entire month of July 2014 here in HG city teaching and exploring.
It’s a quiet town; everything is shut down by 10-11pm. There are no actual bars; plenty of small bia stands in the street though. The “night market” consists of some Vietnamese style and quality clothing too small to fit me either way, or some little trinkets like sunglasses. It’s surprising that with such amazing scenery around, no one in the city has done anything to take advantage of it. You’d think there’d be at least one café or restaurant with mountain views, lake views.. anything! But no… nada. I know most people arrive here and start counting the minutes til they can start their trip, but I urge you to spend a day or 2 here exploring the hidden wonders. There’s a multitude of ethnic tribe villages in a short distance, a water park, a lake, local watering hole, Cam Mountain hike, the best chocolate milk shake in ALL of Vietnam and some awesome driving/views.
One of my first explorations took me about 25 km away from the city and to Lake Noong (Ho Noong). Follow Minh Khai street (near Yen Bien Bridge 2) south and keep going straight. At the fork in the road on a hill, stay to the right and you’ll wind past an ethnic village and through a few other small villages on a broken road through the foot of mountains and gorgeous rice paddies. It’s a wonderful and leisurely ride. Once you reach Phu Linh village, there will be a sign that says some other village names. You can continue straight or turn right… JUST KEEP GOING STRAIGHT!! Eventually, the road comes to an end abruptly in what looks like someone’s back yard. It’s a large open grass area that opens up to the lake. You can see a few houses scattered around, see children playing, water buffalo grazing, ducks splashing and pigs waddling around. The water buffalo and I decided to cool off by taking a dip in the full lake- there was a heavy rain the night before. Simply sublime.
With paved walking paths, traditional wooden, stilt houses and farm animals roaming, Thon Tha Village is a nice experience. It’s just off Highway 2, on the way to the Chinese border, past the water park and it’ll be on your left. The entrance is clearly market with a sign and at the 17km marker. You can always ask a local to help direct you! (Just say Thon Tha-sounds like tone ta- and they should point you in the right direction.) There are also many small villages that are similar, albeit less geared to tourism, on the other side of town. Take a short drive up Highway 4. Just after crossing a small bridge, there is a SHARP left that you need to take (Xuan Thuy street). Follow this road straight, straight, straight. You’ll pass this guarded Pagoda thingy that has a small fee to enter but I’ve been to enough pagodas and I was losing light. Keep going straight until you reach (basically) a “T” in the road. I said basically because you can go straight but it’s a small dirt road to someone’s house, I think. At this point, TURN LEFT and see all the people working in the rice paddies, cultivating their land and enjoying each other’s company. There are a few marked villages but mostly just a bunch of fun roads to discover. Instead of the left, if you turn right, it leads directly back to town, which means if you want you don’t have to worry about turning on the right road on the way back.
I feel honored to have been shown the ultimate cool down spot that is ONLY known to a few locals. It’s this watering hole where a small dam has created a pool in the fresh, mountain water. You can see the community come out after the heat of the day, around 4pm. (I’m sure in the middle of the day it’s deserted.) Some come to wash their hair/bathe while the kids jump from low rocks and frolic in the water that’s not quite deep enough that you need to swim. Now finding this place can be a bit tricky, it’s not located off a main road in the slightest, but totally worth it! It’s about 5-6km out of the center of HG city. Easy enough for a bicycle, but the road near the end is a bit rocky and bumpy. Direction: Follow Nguyen Trai street towards Hanoi. It’ll turn into Highway 2. 2-3km down the road, you will come to a small bridge. Just on the other side of this bridge is a sign pointing right to Cao Bo. Veer right and go straight on this road for approximately 1.3km. At this point you will see another clearly marked sign for Cao Bo. Turn right. Follow this beautiful path for another 1.2km. This is where you will find the small house. To the immediate right of this old couple’s house, is a small path. The last 100m of the trip, you will have to walk on this path, which means finding a spot to put your bike/motorbike on the side of the road, so MAKE SURE YOU BRING A LOCK. It leads along their house and an irrigation ditch. Follow it straight back and it’ll open up after about 25-50m and you’ll be able to see the little concrete dam. The little pool is above the dam and there is even a small sandy area! Enjoy J
Speaking of swimming… you HAVE to try out the water park (Công viên nước Hà Phong)!Located about 4km up the road to China (Highway 2.) Its entrance is fashioned like a castle although I can’t sell this as a water park as you might think. Rather, it’s a 3 pool area (next to a lake). The 2 biggest pools are anywhere from waist to lower chest deep and combined it’s HUGE!! Probably 50m by 20m.. but don’t quote me on that! My ability to tell distance is pretty bad. In the middle of there is a playground with slides and tubes hooked up to pumps to make water guns. There’s also a basketball hoop. The deep pool (1.5m-5m) is a bit out of place in the fact that it’s surrounded by Greek style naked women statues and then 2 matching dragons. It’s big enough for 5-6 lanes wide for laps. The atmosphere of this place is awesome, surrounded by beautiful green mountains, blue sky and a lake to one side. There are giant speakers pumpin out tunes, a little convenience counter to buy crisps, beer (15k can bia Hanoi), water, soda and a small grill if you fancy small sticks of bbq pork. Lockers are free. Entrance is 40k ($2 USD). Open from late afternoon til sunset. In typical Vietnamese fashion there are NO loungers, but a few benches spotted around the pool. Be prepared because the locals definitely are not used to seeing foreigners around, let alone in their swim suits. All in all, a great find!
If you’re interested in a bit of a sweat, find your way up Cam Mountain. If you are around town, it’s the mountain on the north side of the city with a radio/tv tower. From the main road (Nguyen Trai street), heading towards Hanoi, JUST past Yen Bien Bridge 2, on the right is a small residential road (Le Thanh Tong). If you follow this a short distance, you will see the beginning of the switch backs that go up the mountain. At this point you can walk or drive. The locals frequently walk this in the mornings and late afternoons. If you drive up, there is a parking lot half way up the mountain. From there, it’s stairs. Once you reach the radio/tv tower, the path actually continues to the right! Follow it to a small pagoda. GO FOR THE GOLD and continue on, turn left at the pagoda and only a short distance is the best view in town! From the top you can see the whole city as well as the village where the water hole is! It’s definitely worth it. In total, from the parking lot to the top might take 20 minutes depending on how humid it is, and of course your level of fitness.
After all the exploring, cool down with the best chocolate milk shake ever! There are 2 cafes I can recommend to you as well as one tasty meal, everything else is average tasting. The first place is a small café at 162A Tran Phu street called Kaffe 1990. This is the home of some VERY good smoothies and shakes. You can also leave your professions of love on a post-it note board. The owner Hieu even speaks fairly decent English. It’s a great place, but beware, hours aren’t always reliable! The other café is called Queen Bee Coffee House at 24 Nguyen Thai Hoc street. If you have a chocolate craving like I do, try the yogurt with coco powder (sua chua ca cao). They take a plain vanilla- but sweet- yogurt, put in a cup with ice and sprinkle coco powder on top. Heaven! Or I can recommend you to try at least once in Vietnam, this same yogurt drink but instead of coco powder it’s a shot of coffee. (Sua chua café) If you’re feeling hungry, it’s really hit or miss here, and not as cheap as one may think. I guess, even though this province is among the poorest of the country, this city particularly has an extremely high standard of living; maybe because it’s the epicenter of all the trading? I paid 35k for pho ga, 30k bun cha, 15k-20k banh my trung pate, 35k com binh dan consisting of tofu, spring rolls and morning glory. As common of most the smaller towns, the variety of food is very limited. Ha Giang in particular seems to love pho noodles. Anything with pho you can find! Pho cuon, banh cuon, pho chien phong, pho ga/bo…But I want to tell you about a dish called Pho Chua. Head to 12 Bach Dang street for lunch or dinner. It’s 35k and served quickly. It’s a base of pho noodles topped with minty greens, cucumbers, bean sprouts, fried pork slices, half a boiled egg, peanuts, crunchy rice cracker strips, a few piece of Chinese sausage (red and a bit sweet) all covered in a watery but delicious sauce. Mix it all up to get the sauce everywhere and enjoy. I might not be the best at making the dish sound mouth watering, but trust me, it’s good. If you know what bun thit nuong is, it’s very similar, but the meat is cooked different and instead of bun noodle its pho noodles.
I hope you enjoy Ha Giang city as much as I have. There’s nothing out there in tourist books or blogs about stuff to do here, so I hope I’ve shed some light. Safe travels everyone!