If you want to experience a beautiful, culturally fascinating, and remote area of Vietnam, I highly recommend taking a tour with Smiley of Custom Vietnam Travel to North Vietnam’s Lao Cai and Ha Giang Provinces, which my wife and I did in April, 2012.
Smiley is a wonderful guide with his great sense of humor. He speaks excellent English and has a good grasp of what interests tourists who wish to learn about Vietnamese life, culture and history. Smiley’s wife, Phuong, was also wonderful in making changes to our flights within Vietnam and to Cambodia. Smiley’s jeep driver did a great job cautiously negotiating the curves of the mountain roads.
The presence of bordering China is strong throughout this scenic and mountainous region but the H’mong, Tay, Thai, Dao and many other “Hill Tribe” ethnic groups who live in this predominantly agrarian area have their own distinctive cultures, dress and homes. Avoiding the best known Hill Tribe town of Sapa, we saw few tourists and during the four day stretch of our trip in Ha Giang Province, we saw a total of four other Westerners.
After Smiley showed us around Hanoi and arranged a wonderful junk boat overnight trip around a less tourist filled route in Halong Bay, my wife and I began our journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai, taking the noisy and bumpy nine hour overnight train with Smiley. When we arrived at 6 am, Smiley's driver was waiting with a jeep. After arriving, we glanced across the river to the China, and then traveled to the small mountain town of Can Cau for the colorful Saturday market full of food, tapestries and buffalo. We spent the night in Bac Ha and woke up to that town's famous Sunday market full of a wide array of food and wares. Go to the Bac Ha market early, before the Korean tourist buses arrive,
After the market, we took a hike through rice paddies observing the hard working, cone hated woman in the fields. We then a boat trip to a nearly village for lunch (as usual during our time in Vietnam, the food was extremely tasty, fresh and bountiful), where the jeep was waiting for a long drive the Panhou Lodge, located in a jungle area near Hoang Su Phi. The lodge is French owned and seemed to have mostly French tourists staying there. The following morning we left to Ha Giang province, again getting close to the Chinese border. After getting travel permits in the provincial capital of Ha Giang, we drove on mountain road switchbacks to the town of Yen Ming, where we stayed the night is the best hotel in town, which was passable but not particularly clean. Be aware that the beds in Ha Giang hotels have mattresses which are as hard as hardwood floors, a sign that the area has yet to change their accommodations to attract Western tourists. But why should they?
From Yen Ming, we traveled to the vibrant town of Dong Van, stopping first at the Saphin to see the H’mong King’s palace. Then, before reaching Dong Van, we came across a small village in the mountains where many children came running up to us, as their mothers were washing clothes in the creek. We had brought pens and clothes to hand out for just this situation, and they were well-received.
After spending a few hours in Dong Van we drove to Meo Vac, where we spent the night is a wonderful room in hotel overlooking the main town park, where boys where playing soccer and a competitive women’s volleyball game was taking place. The drive between Dong Van and Meo Vac is has a reputation of being the most stunning scenic drive in the country and we were not disappointed. We loved our hotel in Meo Vac, with it’s clean and spacious room overlooking the town park and market, I woke up the next morning early to take photos of the children walking to school, shopkeepers opening their businesses, and women pushing carts full of wares. After breakfast, we returned to the provincial capital, where we enjoyed walking around the town, eating dinner and coming across a Chinese ballet troupe performing in an amphitheater. The next day we returned to Hanoi.
You may wish to skip the Panhou Lodge and going straight to Ha Giang, unless you extend the stay there to two nights. It was too much extra driving for one night. I think an extra night or even two in Meo Vac would also be worthwhile, giving you a chance to relax, get a better feel for this pleasant town and spend a full day trekking in the mountains. Smiley will gladly work with you to accommodate your preferences.
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