We started out in Hanoi after renting 2 motorbikes for three of us. I don’t drive (yes, I know, it’s unusual for a Vietnamese person), and Mandy had just learned to drive a motorcycle (under Marco’s guidance), so Marco was somehow responsible for the safety of the whole group, haha. 😎
The first day was super tiring as we had to drive around 300km from Hanoi to Hà Giang City, but it was a lot less pressure from then on. We made a lot of stops on the way from one place to another, sometimes just parked by the roadside and wandered around the area, even ventured out for a short hike. After all, our purpose wasn’t to drive as far as possible, but to enjoy the scenery as much as we could.
Ask any Vietnamese motorcycle traveler, you’ll know Hà Giang gained an almost legendary status in their heart. It’s a year-round poetical beauty! During springtime in late February-early March, peach blossoms and plum blossoms are gorgeously blooming on the rocky plateau. In May-June, the “falling water” season, all the terraced rice fields become thousands of mirrors reflecting the summer sky when local farmers take in the water to prepare for a new crop. In late August-September, the terraced fields reach their glorious peak, with shades of yellow and green alternating during different periods of the rice harvest season. Buckwheat flowers adorn the valleys and mountainside with tiny purple, white, and pink petals in October-November. And in December, yellow mustard flowers take over and brighten the winter landscape.
As we drove further up north following the Happiness Road, mountains were our companions and the sight of local people and their lives also became more commonplace.
The story about Happiness Road (đường Hạnh Phúc) is a moving story of strong will, determination, solidarity, and sacrifice. A nearly-200-kilometer road, built 100% with human labor in 6 years from 1959 to 1965, has since vastly improved the lives of those living in the area. It was the hard-earned fruit of thousands of people who worked in hostile conditions so a road connecting Hà Giang Town (now City) and the four mountainous districts could be built.
The road from Quản Bạ to Yên Minh, then Đồng Văn was mostly smooth, except for some bumpy parts that were riddled with stone. The hairpin bends and stretches surely weren’t easy for our heart rates, especially when some vehicles appeared all of a sudden from the other direction, but the captivating mountain views could make up for all.
Life on the UNESCO-recognized Đồng Văn Karst Plateau Geopark (click on photos for caption)
Several times, on the back of the motorcycle, I couldn’t stop thinking about the locals I met on the way. Born and growing up on the mountains, where they climb up all the steep rocky slopes to find every bit of soil to cultivate, even have to plant crops in rock holes, their lives really aren’t easy. I’ve read about children walking for hours to go to class when their houses are clustered somewhere amid the mountainside, until they have to give up school to help their family with farmwork. I saw little children helping their parents plant corn among jagged rocks and old women carrying heavy stacks of plants and branches on their backs. I noticed they usually shyly smiled and sometimes waved at us, with curiosity in their eyes. I saw how kids’ faces lit up with happiness and excitement as they were given little “gifts” from travelers, mostly sweets. Seeing such a simple happiness almost brought tears to my eyes. If any changes happen in their lives, I can only hope those most beautiful smiles I’ve seen will never go away.
Generations after generations, Hmong people have lived among the rugged mountains, where the pointed horns of the rocks are referred to as “cat’s ears”. Đá tai mèo. They probably never bothered the scratches and cuts as they adapted to the harsh conditions, conquered the cliffs, held on to high mountains.
We stayed two nights at the very lovely 2A Homestay in Yên Minh town hoping to recover somewhat from the long ride that had already taken its toll on our back and butt. It was so cozy when guests gathered around the table for the home-cooked “family dinner” with freshly cooked food plus the locally fermented corn liquor. Ms. Hương – the homestay’s owner also took us to the local market that is held only once a week on Sunday morning.
Having the whole day to relax, we decided to head to Phố Cáo and Phó Bảng, located on the route to Đồng Văn, then… go back to the homestay, instead of driving straight to the bustling town like most people do.
People were already working on their “fields” when we arrived, so the village was so quiet and peaceful that you could hear the birds singing from somewhere.
Hmong people were under the rule of the Vương family, especially when Vương Chính Đức was recognized as the Hmong King in 1900. Having established his wealth from opium dealing, he built a palace for himself and the family on a low hill in Sà Phìn valley, which looks like a fortress surrounded by sa mộc (cunninghamia) trees. His son and successor Vương Chí Sình later supported Hồ Chí Minh’s fight for the nation’s independence and became a member of the first and second National Assembly after the 1945 August Revolution.
See the beautiful design and architecture and feel the history of the once most powerful family in the region.
We of course didn’t skip Mã Pí Lèng Pass, which is famed as one of the “Four Great Passes of the North” for its stunning views and extremely dangerous road. The 22-kilometer stretch of road snaking through limestone mountains marks the end of the Happiness Road, where you can see a monument to those who spent years digging and carving through the mountains for the road to be completed.
Mã Pí Lèng, in the locals’ language, literally means “nasal bridge of the horse”, referring to how dangerous the mountains are, when the horses lose their breath after reaching the peaks, or comparing the steep slopes with the horse’s bridge of nose.
Let the yogi pose! 😎
We felt so lucky that we were welcome with warm hospitality again at a homestay in Cao Bằng, after leaving Ha Giang. It’s in the middle of a valley with locals’ houses clustered nearby, where we woke up to the singing birds and the precious tranquil atmosphere.
More importantly, the homestay is only 60km from Bản Giốc Waterfall where we headed to the next morning.
Bản Giốc – Detian Falls, straddling the Vietnam-China border, is the 4th largest waterfall forming a national border. It’s currently the dry season, so the water flow isn’t very powerful, which was actually good for us as we could get closer to the falls. Swimming is prohibited though.
Ngườm Ngao Cave (Tiger’s Cave in the local Tày ethnic minority’s language) is only a few kilometers away from the waterfall, so we stopped by after spending a few hours in the fall area. Marco and Mandy tried to walk along the river to see if they could swim somewhere, eventually ended up in a little border market, while I spent my time talking to the villagers living right next to the border.
I didn’t have high expectations of the cave, but it wowed me through every step. The cave twists and turns for over 2km, but visitor access is only in an area of around 900m with a concrete path and lighting. It would be complete silence without the sound from a flowing river (which actually increases the mysterious feeling) and the stalactites of different shapes are spectacular. You have to see to believe!
Our luck with weather was running out as we left for Lạng Sơn before driving back to Hanoi. No more perfect weather with sun out shining and fresh breezes, a blanket of clouds rolled in, it was showering, and cold. But it didn’t matter, we had thoroughly enjoyed the trip and bad weather only meant we had to drive more carefully.
So, that’s it. This week-long journey through 3 Northern border provinces was a long-awaited trip for me, as I had always dreamt of coming back to the unspoiled beauty of the northern mountains since the trip to Ha Giang in late 2016. And WE DID IT! Marco was an awesome biker and kudos to you, Mandy, the amazing brave girl! It was a wonderful time together!!! 😘