To the back of beyond

In Ha Giang province in the northeast of Vietnam you can find truly awe inspiring views in one of the most remote parts of the country, writes Nguyen Duc

Ha Giang is in the northeast of Vietnam. It shares a border with China and is home to the country’s northernmost point. It has previously enticed only the intrepid traveller though in recent years improved road access has made it easier than ever before to explore this extraordinary mountainous realm.

Roads may be smooth, but it is still a hard slog from Hanoi. Ha Giang town is located in a beautiful valley urrounded by thick forest and grey, rocky mountains – seven hours by car or bus from the capital city. As soon as I arrive the long day of travel catches up with me. I find a guest house for the night and get a good night’s rest after a simple but delicious meal of cabbage, chicken and rice.

In the morning I rise at 6am, ready to head to Dong Van (Heaven’s Gate) in the highlands, 150km from Ha Giang. The town is still thick with mist as the sun starts to rise. I drive up through the clouds on the all-new road. It is a far cry from what was here before. It took eight years to open this stretch of road from Ha Giang town to Dong Van. Thousands of labourers broke the rock bit by bit and inched their way up into the highlands. When I stop for a rest I stand alone. I am surrounded by imposing mountains and thick clouds.

Most of this area is too mountainous for agriculture. Much of the land is covered by forest. Along the road I spot plum, peach and persimmon trees. Here and there I pass a thatched house lying silently in a valley down below the mountain pass. I stop and take in the view and breathe in the mystical air. On the road local kids carry piles of wood or baskets of vegetables. They walk slowly and quietly as if afraid to disturb the silence that is all around them. At times when you come around a sharp bend, the sudden magnificence of the views will take your breath away.

Endless hills roll towards the horizon under the autumn sun. It is easy to admire the panorama as I occasionally stop while driving around on a motorcycle, but I also can’t help thinking about how hard life must be for the locals, who must negotiate these mountains and precipitous slopes on a daily basis. I can see light yellow soil amongst the rugged rocks. In these tiny fields, Mong farmers walk behind buffalo-pulled ploughs.

The women walk behind spreading fertiliser or sowing the maize seeds. There is probably nowhere else in the country, where you can find such tiny corn fields in such extreme conditions. The food source is vital for the local families and ensuring that the crop has a chance to grow is hard work. “We have to gather good soil from all around and then we transport it in bamboo baskets on our backs to a field amongst the rocks,” says 28-year old Thao Thi Ngai. “Then after sowing seeds, we have to carry water on our backs to water the plants.

“We grow corn, raise chicken and pigs but we rarely eat pork or chicken. Mostly we just eat corn or cabbage. We use corn to brew alcohol for sale or for our husbands!” It is hard to describe the feeling you have when you are so far from what you know. Standing here with Ngai in the far northeast of Vietnam while listening to how hard her life is I can’t even picture the city anymore. Visions of my office and my desk seem out of reach.

I am left in awe at the spectacular mountains and left humbled by the simple lives and patience of the local people. They have somehow eked out a living in the most extreme conditions. Here amongst the rocky highlands, somehow, crops grow and flowers bloom.


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