“mae hong son loop”

Photo Essay — North of Northern Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, last of the three part posts.

North Vietnam is mountainous forested eastbound extension of Himalayan ranges that protrude deep into Southeast Asia. For many years now it has fascinated me, and been prowling region in neighboring Thailand [1], [2], and Burma [1], [2], [3]. Region was for a long seen by foreigners as difficult and even dangerous backyard. French geographic surveys, colonial administrators and Christian missionaries gradually begun entering and recording the area at the turn of 20th century. Only after conflicts died down and road networks improve during the last decades of century, it gradually started to open up for wider world.

Found useful summary of hill tribes people living in Southeast Asia (source bellow):

long before there was a Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, there have been people of distinctly different cultures living in the mountainous areas that make up those borders today.

Each group has a separate culture and speaks mutually unintelligible languages. What the different people do share is a probable origin to both their language and their animistic/elder-worship religions.

Each of the peoples’ languages originate in the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group, so they share some phonology.

All of these aspects make the Hill Tribe languages similar to the roots of Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Laos, but the differences are much greater. Most importantly, none of the Hill Tribe peoples have an authentic alphabet (many of their languages have now been romanised). This oral tradition was an isolating factor during the important intermingling periods of the previous millennia that brought together the different peoples who make up the Southeast Asian Peninsula. While the lowlanders were homogenising, intermarrying and strengthening bonds through blending language and culture (perhaps most importantly the acceptance of Buddhism), the highlanders kept apart, not only from the mass of people, but from each other as well.

Source: link.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is popular for doing treks and visiting local villages. Scooters are plenty for rent in tourist agencies downtown. Weather in Sa Pa changes constantly and now in winter its been quite foggy for several days on row. Views in mountain sides down to valleys are great, rice terraces add their own flavor into mix. Its easy to go also to Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam at over 3000 meters with stunning views (first 3 photos in this post are all taken in Fansipan). There is modern funicular taking visitors all the way to the top, a trip that in earlier would have been exhausting endeavor can now be done in half a day.


Sa Pa youth in town square.


Hmong people. Both men and women wear black dress that can be recognized easily.

Sa Pa population census was done ten years ago, which recorded 52899 people living in the region. From this 52% were Hmong (including sub groups), 23% Dao, Kinh 18%, Tay 5%, Giay 1%, Phu La 1%. Due to their isolation, tribes managed to preserve their culture, language, arts and traditions, while modern times entered populous lower lands.


Dao women wearing red head scarf.


Selfie time while heading to Fansipan mountain.


Sa Pa in the mist. In winter time mist often covers the region for several days. Best time to visit Sa Pa is on spring when weather is clear, and rice fields are on fresh green. A lot has been done to improve infrastructure in region, but at my time of visit late 2018, roads were often still in poor condition.


Sa Pa town at night, seen from Fansipan mountain.


Rice terraces in Sa Pa.

Cao Bang. Roads on border town are dusty, heavy traffic keep it in air. Many people still do “honest manual work” and families have first babies in their twenties. Vietnam is a young nation, even compared to some neighbors like Thailand and China. Arriving for first time to remote town, at sunset just as light dims and stores close. Not knowing where to sleep, or indeed where exactly are the hotels and hostels. Just as bus nears, blue dot on a mobile map is moving painfully slow and at the same time too fast. It’s getting cold, smell of burning firewood is flowing low and traffic lights are peering through it. Then, after arriving and finding a place for the night, a sense humble gratitude. Opening the bed with thick blankets, getting ready for asleep and watching river Song behind the window. It is coming across the border from China. Tomorrow watching the scene the magic is gone, but least for a while it’s still there.


Cao Bang region: Ban Gioc waterfall is shared by Vietnam (left side of photo) and China (right bank).


Nguom Ngao cave is another natural wonder near Ban Giog waterfall, both can be visited easily in a same trip.

To the low lands: Cat Ba Island and Hua Long Bay. Cat Ba island is holiday island, only half an hour speed boat from Haiphong so its with easy reach from Hanoi as well. Island has large natural park isolated from traffic, but main attraction is close proximity Hua Long Bay, with its magnificent limestone rocks and isles, in various shapes and sizes. Most tourist visit Hua Long Bay using package tour and stay overnight in a boat cabin. Cat Ba is another good alternative, if feeling like visiting places on own pace and sleeping in hotel room. Island has good infrastructure and plentiful accommodation in different price ranges. Winter time is not warm, actually sea water felt warmer than air above it.


View from Hua Long Bay and Cat Ba island.


Monkey business, Hua Long Bay.

Ninh Binh is often called Hua Long Bay on land, with high steep karst formations, caves carved by the water, and fantastic natural scenery. There are some historic sights for instance Bai Dinh temple complex.


Low lands in Ninh Binh. It is sometimes called “Hua Long Bay on-land”.


Bai Dinh complex in Ninh Binh.

Temple has new large section with impressive architecture, but behind are the caves from where it all begun.

Vietnam’s culture, traditions and fortunes through the history are heavily influenced by one direction: China in the north. For a full millennia, Annam (Vietnam’s earlier name) was a Chinese province. Even during the independence, rulers often chose to show respect and nominal vassalage to Chinese emperor, just not to give him funny ideas such as sending new occupying army south. Mongols tried to conquer Vietnam on three occasions (AD 1258, 1285, and 1287–88), but jungle warfare in tropics was too much for even Mongol warriors and campaigns ended badly for them. Champa culture in southern side of the tall country differs ethnically from north, and was more connected to Khmer’s in Cambodia as well as Javanese and seaborne cultures of Southeast Asia.


Viet youth.


St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi downtown around Christmas time.


Famous Turtle Tower, in Hoan Kiem lake. Hanoi downtown.


Young students often circle the Hoan Kiem lake next to Hanoi old quarters. They approach foreigners to practice their English skills.


Rainy day in Hanoi downtown.

Hanoi. Old town of Hanoi still has its charm, with its bustling markets, street vendors and side streets, small shops, old French colonial buildings. Vietnamese have quick eyes, paying a shop or cafe they somehow always manage to gauge notes in my wallet in a second and telling me which notes to use. Living costs in Vietnam is still bellow Thailand for instance. I visited Hanoi 2012, and while city obviously has developed fast during this time, street scenes do not differ much to 2019. Most rapid pace of change occurred 1986 and afterwards (Doi Moi reforms).


Scenes from Hanoi downtown.

Downtown is photogenic spot, with always something new to observe.


Sa Pa valley view from Fansipan at sunset.

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Ha Giang Loop — Scenic Ride in North Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, second of the three part posts.

Ha Giang is famous for its “loop”, which actually consists of several different loop’ish routes, some shorter some longer. Route is best explored on two wheels by riding yourself, although local traffic police require international driving license for Vietnam. If this is a problem, consult travel agencies (often working as part of guest house) in Ha Giang town for options. Shorter route (described bellow) can be done in 3 days, in longer loops one can spend around a week. In many ways, Ha Giang loop, its idea (ride motorbike to mountainous border region), stunning vistas, and hill tribes people living the region. It all reminded me the Mae Hong Son loop in northern Thailand.


3-4 day Ha Giang loop and northern border of the country. Trip is usually begins from and ends to Ha Giang town (south-west in picture). Town that has good selection of rental vehicles and tour agencies. Route can be made clockwise or counter, but best views are on northern portion. If I would do it again, I’d go counter clockwise. A on map is Yen Minh, which can be used as first night stopover although it takes only half a day reach it from Ha Giang. Rest of day can be used for exploring the surrounding region. B is Lung Cu, most northern place in the whole country right next to China. It also can be reached in half day (from A), and book to a guesthouse around mid day. C is Dong Van, after Ha Giang, largest town in the loop. From B to C, it takes only 2-3 hours, so either can be used as a base for night. There are plenty of guest houses and some scooter rentals in Dong Van. D is Ma Pi Leng pass, that has the best views in the loop. Narrow emerald green river snakes deep in the valley bellow! Because road zigzags in mountain sides at this part, there are not much infrastructure like guest houses here. D best explored when leaving or arriving to Dong Van (C). E is Na Phong, one of many smaller villages along the way. Scenes are still nice, but best part of trip is now behind. Its not too much of a stretch to drive from Dong Van all the way back to Ha Giang, if in a rush and starting early.

Map of the wider region, town of Ha Giang marked center.

Preparations. During winter time around December-January, wind proof jacket, long sleeve, jeans, good shoes and preferably glows and helmet with a wind mask help keeping warm. T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops are definitely not enough, and obviously not safe either. For someone not used to riding motorbikes on mountains, its best to practice first on somewhere with less traffic. On the loop, getting used to ways of local traffic needs special attention. Always riding on side of road and especially in curves. You never know if there is overtaking bus arriving head on your lane. Learning how to engine breaking, when going down hill is also good to know. Before starting the trip, make sure tires are OK, breaks grip well, and lights work! There are gas stations all along the way, but some are far apart. If knowing ride ahead can be long, its better fill up just for peace of mind. Oh, and remember to buy a rain poncho, riding around on wet clothes gets old very fast. These don’t take much space and good place to keep them is under your seat (not bottom of your backpack).


My trusty Honda road warrior and locals walking by. Somewhere by the loop.


Ma Pi Leng pass views at dusk.


Typical small town in the valley in Ha Giang region.


While driving around Ha Giang and elsewhere in north, locals were often traveling on foot. Oftentimes they were carrying heavy loads such as firewood or hay for cattle. Could not avoid thinking of how long that will it last? Will younger generation be willing to endure such hardships, while watching scooters and cars buzzing by?


Early morning. Old lady working by the road side.


Viet youth in Ha Giang region.


Morning in Dong Van. Family preparing to head out for the day.


Vistas in the loop.


Hmong “Royal Palace” is nice brief visit along the way, approx. 15km from Dong Van. Without a guide, museum is pretty empty experience though.

Hmong Royals can be considered as their tribes head headmen, local warlords with small militia under their command, and opium traffickers to nearby China. This link provides some insights to two men who were the royals of this palace.


Ha Giang downtown. Town is split into two by small river. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and guest houses, but not major attractions with center itself.