Time machine: Northern Vietnam

Our path through the frontier.
The road through Ha Giang province.

There are few places in this world that still hold vestiges of the distant past, where you can imagine yourself transported, transmuted, transfigured by the landscape and people around you. The far northern region of Vietnam is one such place.

Ha Giang province borders China in the northernmost reaches of Vietnamese territory and is often referred to as “Vietnam’s final frontier” — rugged, remote, and scenic. This region is also home to the recently designated Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2010.

The landscape is surreal: towering karst formations create a labyrinth of near-vertical cliffs and ravines, gaping caverns, and a few very sinuous roads. The steep hillsides are cultivated by colorfully-clad hill tribes such as the Tay and the H’mong people. While you might occasionally see the indigenous folk riding a motorbike to the market or making a call on an old cellphone, you will see no farming machinery here; water buffalo still pull plows, and tribespeople still tend every plant by hand.

We spent three days meandering 350 kilometers through these hills via rented motorbike, and it was amazing.

We began with a homestay in a Tay ethnic village near Ha Giang city, sleeping in the loft of a stilt house, lulled to sleep (and awakened) by a cacophony of livestock. (A fact little known by urbanites: roosters start crowing WAY before dawn.) With an early start, we began along the only road north, stopping to take photos or eat roadside snacks.

The road was quite treacherous, with trucks and buses careening around blind corners with no more than a horn honk for warning, and steep cliffs falling off to one side often without guard rails. I’d never ridden an actual motorcycle before, and even though these were little semi-manual Honda 110s, they were still a great deal more powerful than our old 49cc scooter. So the first day we took our time, allowing me to get used to the bike. Number one priority: don’t wreck.

Over the course of three days we traversed most of the park: Dong Van city, Meo Vac, Yen Minh, and the hilariously huge flagpole near the Chinese border at Lung Cu. We were blessed with cool temperatures and stormy skies for most of the trip, which made riding much more pleasant and the scenery more striking.

I could write a very lengthy ode to the beauty and mystique of this place, but I will spare you the tedium. Instead, I will post some photos from the trip, and let them convey my sentiments for me.

I will say, however, that despite being saddle sore and very tired after our northern journey, this was by far the most memorable part of our time in Vietnam. A trip I will not soon forget.

Enjoy the photos!

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