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The Other Sapa: Trekking in Ha Giang | Vietnam

Ha Giang has something in common with most truly great places; it is just hard enough to get to that it has withstood the ravages of time. Adventurers go trekking in Sapa in pursuit of indigenous culture and cascading rice fields, but they instead might find a once charming French hill-station town that has made a disappointing backslide into a disorderly tourist hub.

Of course, trekking in Sapa is popular for a reason – the region is nothing short of stunning.  But what if you could experience an alternative to Sapa with similarly spectacular views and fewer tourists? Let me show you Ha Giang.

Trekking in Sapa vs. Ha Giang

Trekking in Sapa

I skipped out on trekking in Sapa, so I asked the guys at Television of Nomads for their opinion: “A trek in Sapa can take you to a secluded hill-tribe village atop magnificent verdant stacks of rice terraces with stunning mountain vistas—if you’re lucky, that is. You can also be hustled to a nearby, less-stunning town on tours operated by greedy companies that rip off the tribe guides if you’re not lucky. Either way, you’ll probably have to deal with the influx of Sapa guides trying to get you to join them, and groups of children following you for periods of time trying to sell you things. Still, we certainly found a night with this remarkable Sapa view to be more than worth it!”

Trekking in Ha Giang

With pine forests, granite mountains, quiet farming villages, and heavenly views in every direction, Ha Giang is an illustration of how nature can flourish when unsullied. The trekking routes in Ha Giang fall far enough from the tourist circuit, so you can wander its mountainsides uninterrupted for days at a time, and local interactions are based on mutual curiosity rather than commerce. I’d say that is enough to make it the perfect alternative to trekking in Sapa.

Make no mistake that Ha Giang makes for a rugged trip. Sharing a border with China, Ha Giang is the northernmost point in Vietnam, and often referred to as the country’s final frontier. To put it simply, it’s way the hell out there. There are a few ways that your plans can fall through the cracks along the way. You won’t have nearly as many options for accommodation, dining, tour guides, etc. in Ha Giang as you would in Sapa, and it’s very possible that your trekking guide won’t speak much English.

Ha Giang - An Alternative to Trekking in Sapa

A Guide to Trekking in Ha Giang

I chose Ha Giang over trekking in Sapa because I wanted to avoid the crowds and the hassle. It was a little rough around the edges but in all the best ways.  If you’re seeking something further off-the-grid than trekking in Sapa, here’s everything you need to know about trekking in Ha Giang.Looking out in Ha Giang

How to Get There 

You can get from Hanoi to Ha Giang by bus, motorbike, or by private transfer.

  • By Bus: You can catch a bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang at My Dinh station. The trip will take about 7 hours and should cost no more than $10. I hilariously ended up on a daytime bus with beds instead of seats, so the journey was bumpy but comfortable enough.
  • By Motorbike: It’s not uncommon for travelers to explore Northern Vietnam by motorbike. If you’re the adventurous type, perhaps there’s no better way to get to Ha Giang. You’ll get some of the world’s most spectacular views along the way, and enjoy more freedom than you would on a bus or an organized tour.
  • By Private Transfer: If you book a Ha Giang tour that begins in Hanoi, it will usually include minibus transfer. While this is the most expensive option, it is no doubt the easiest.

Riding a Motorbike in Ha Giang

Trekking in Ha Giang:

I arranged for a 2-day trek with an included homestay. My trekking guide had learned basic English in an immersion program for local farmers, but he knew the route better than I know the corners of my own backyard. I meandered upwards for several hours, past villages, rice fields, and more buffalos than I could count. Mid-day, I stopped for a homemade lunch and more rượu (rice wine) than one should really imbibe before a downhill trek. After about 9 hours of trekking, I got back to a Tay ethnic village for a meal and a homestay.

If you’re interested in trekking in Ha Giang, you can either arrange a trek in Hanoi, or you can arrange a trek locally.

  • Independent Travel: The extent of my planning was catching the bus Hanoi to Ha Giang, booking a night at the Turong Xuan Resort, and speaking with the front desk upon arrival. They set us up with a trek through Ha Giang – Responsible Tourism. While the local guides spoke very limited English, they were from the area and had reliable knowledge of the route. ** At the time of writing this post,  their site is down, but you can reach them at hagiang.community@gmail.com. My 4 day trip (including transit) cost us $105/person.
  • Tours from Hanoi: Perhaps the easiest way to go trekking in Ha Giang is to book with an operator based in Hanoi. These tours will include round-trip transport from Hanoi to Ha Giang, accommodation, meals, and an English speaking guide. I used Ethnic Travel for my trip to Halong Bay + Bai Tu Long Bay, and are sure they would offer a pretty great trekking experience in Ha Giang as well. 5-day tour packages (including transit) start at $500/person.

Ha Giang - An Alternative to Trekking in Sapa

Sleeping in Ha Giang:

Accommodation in Ha Giang is simple at best, but there are a few hotels that you might consider.

Truong Xuan Resort | With gardens and a collection of bizarre birds, the Truong Xuan Resort was certainly an experience. The rooms themselves are comfortable yet ordinary, but I’d gladly go again for the spectacular view of the river and the mountain beyond! Doubles start from $26.

Ban Tuy Homestay | Homestays in Ha Giang offer basic facilities (floor mats and mosquito nets in an open-air house) but this experience is excellent if you’re looking for a genuine cultural exchange. Doubles from $8.50.

Royal Hotel Ha Giang | Royal Hotel Ha Giang is a three-star hotel right in the middle of town. The building is brand new and air-conditioning and WiFi make this the most comfortable spot in town. Doubles from $19.

Vietnam-Ha-Giang-Vietnamese-Food

When to Go

I got to Ha Giang just after rice harvest, which meant a lot more mud and half-grown fields than I would have hoped! The best time to go trekking in Northern Vietnam is between October – December. You’ll experience limited fog, moderate rainfall, and perfectly comfy temperatures.

Trekking in Ha GiangVietnam-Ha-Giang-Trekking-6

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Far out of the way, Ha Giang is an adventurous alternative to trekking in Sapa. How to get there, trekking routes, and where to stay in Ha Giang.

Have you ever been trekking in Northern Vietnam? What out-of-the-way treks would you recommend?

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5 Comments

  • Reply
    Jitaditya Narzary
    September 22, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Great tral… teh food looks good too…
    and the rustic landscapes remind me of my ancestral lands… nostalgic!

  • Reply
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    December 18, 2016 at 9:57 pm

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  • Reply
    Evan
    October 19, 2017 at 5:48 am

    We found good trekking in Bắc Hà, about 2-3 hrs from Sapa. Similar situation…our guide didn’t speak that much English, but he sure knew where he was going! Your thought about “mutual curiosity rather than commerce” is a really accurate way to describe the difference between Sapa and other more rural trekking locations. Thanks for helping get us off the beaten track!

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      October 23, 2017 at 7:44 am

      I was also really interested in Bắc Hà! You can truly feel the difference of an interaction driven by money. Kinda strange, huh? Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Reply
    Tonkin-Travel
    January 13, 2018 at 3:48 am

    Oh, you give an insightful view of the off beaten track places in Vietnam. If you want to discover some really local and authentic, let’s go to Coc Ly in Lao Cai or Hoang Su Phi in Ha Giang. Anyway, thanks for your post!

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