It had taken two days of driving rough, chaotic roads—picking through rockfall and honking around hairpin, high-mountain turns—to penetrate Ha Giang, one of the most remote regions in Vietnam, so we were practically levitating with anticipation when we finally removed our bikes from the van to ride. Mist hung heavy in the cool air. In every direction, black peaks launched into the clouds like giant stalagmites. Ahead, where the road snaked past a toss of rudimentary houses, children scampered over sharp rocks punctuating the ground like upturned dragon’s scales.
As we prepared our gear, an elderly woman and young girl holding hands appeared in brilliant, varicolored clothing and scarves seemingly cut from rainbows. Passing us, the girl looked long and hard at the large white men with bicycles and funny clothes, humans from another world. She wouldn’t be the last.
Jumping on, we’d begun by rolling down a black ribbon across the skirts of mountains. Soon we wheeled into a village where women hand-washed clothes by the road; others stepped from homes in vibrant headdresses to look us over. These were the Hmong, one of numerous hill tribes comprising the country’s 50-plus ethnic minorities, and this high-mountain aerie was their stronghold.
On our drive into these mountains we’d passed a lone sign on a jungle-hemmed road that read: FRONTIER AREA. Though the border with China was only a few kilometres away, I realized we’d already crossed the real frontier. Our excitement was palpable; despite the cliché, we couldn’t help but feel we’d entered that mythical land long synonymous with paradise on earth—Shangri-La.
In February 2011, my friend Ron Gorayeb and I had gone to Vietnam with my father, who’d wanted to return to the country he fought a war in 40 years ago. After a week surveying the landscapes of his wartime past, we headed north to ride bikes and explore. Looking to get beyond the main tourist routes, we caught wind of Ha Giang, the country’s poorest and most isolated province.
Frommer’s guidebook labelled Northern Vietnam “where the rubber hits the road for adventure seekers” without even mentioning Ha Giang. My Lonely Planet guide, long the imprint for more adventurous travellers, described Ha Giang as “a mind blower” while only devoting a single page to it. Scattered reports on Internet message boards painted a landscape riddled with limestone spires, caves, and canyons populated by hill tribes almost entirely removed from the modern world. It sounded absurdly compelling—even if China’s unsuccessful 1979 invasion saw the area remain under military control with permits required for foreigners to enter. This, however, would prove no hurdle for our Vietnamese guide, Joe. Our plan was set.
Nights in Ha Giang were spent in the utilitarian town of Meo Vac, where we faced more than one cultural hurdle. After checking into the nicer of two recently built hotels, we’d found our toilet had no seat. Nominated to sort it out with the non-English-speakers staffing the front desk, I anticipated embarrassing pantomime. Fortunately, Joe was in the lobby to spare me the indignity.
We woke the next morning to rooster calls, but there was another sound, too—not unlike a massive flock of birds. It was market day and the footpaths webbing the surrounding mountains delivered a steady stream of Hmong and other minorities, like Lolo and Red Dao, to the town centre, which was now a sea of milling, chattering people. Towering over the kaleidoscopic milieu, we watched women resplendent in colourful textiles sell vegetables and handicrafts, talking, bartering, laughing. None stood higher than a metre-and-a-half. The men, slightly taller and garbed in black, gathered at long tables to drink extraordinary quantities of corn whiskey.
My attempts to photograph one of these without being noticed failed when a man holding a bamboo bong vigorously waved me over to try his whiskey. Though not in the habit of downing homemade liquor before breakfast, there was no way to politely refuse, meaning I was unusually “happy” when we finally sat down to eat in a small, cement-walled restaurant where a pretty woman cooked pho—Vietnam’s omnipresent noodle soup—on an open fire.
“We rode an otherworldly track cut into the rock of a nearly treeless valley where mountain fangs raked low clouds.”
Two hours later we rode an otherworldly track cut into the rock of a nearly treeless valley where mountain fangs raked low clouds. Although the entire Ha Giang region comprises classic karst topography—an eroded landscape of water-tortured limestone—here it was at its most extreme and visually arresting.
We stopped at a pass, where the road continued on into more mist-shrouded moonscape. Below, a family tended an emerald vegetable plot amid fields of spiking black rock, their young children waving when they saw us. Wondering aloud what it would be like if this was all you knew of the world soon segued to a discussion of how the average North American might cope in such an environment, where people worked themselves to the bone just to survive while we who have so much tended to find ever more reason to be dissatisfied. No doubt life here was as hard as stone, yet nearly everyone we met smiled as readily as they breathed—smiles that radiated like a flame.
The Hmong occupied similar mountains in southern China for thousands of years until the 18th century, when government persecution forced them south into Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Fiercely self-determining, mute promises of future autonomy saw them fight alongside first French, then American colonial powers against Vietnamese communists during the last century. Though the latter prevailed, the Hmong—a word some scholars say means “free people”—still don’t consider themselves Vietnamese.
They subsist, always in the highest and most remote regions, independent of any notion of borders or country. As a result, their relationship to the rest of Vietnam remains fraught: naturally suspicious of the loyalties of many hill tribes, the Viet majority also don’t understand why the Hmong won’t descend to the more prosperous valleys.
The Hmong may remain disinterested in the nation that surrounds, but the Vietnamese military still controlled Ha Giang’s roadways. Though we hit a police checkpoint that afternoon in the region’s highest reaches, it wasn’t long before curious officers were riding our bikes and insisting on photos with us. Later, we found ourselves on a dirt road carving a serpentine, high-wire path along a mountainside.
Though the sky remained murky, it was clear we’d moved from an area of tightly packed pyramids into a higher, more spacious land—last gasp of the Himalaya. Beside us, a precipitous canyon fell away, reaching into a distance where mist spilled from between mountains. A patchwork of rice paddies stepped down the russet and green slopes below.
As usual, pedestrians and the occasional scooter were the only traffic—a good thing when you’re having a hard time keeping your eyes on the road. Then, after a final long climb, we were literally stopped in our tracks by the vista that opened before us. At Ma Pi Leng—“Heaven’s Gate”—Pass, the deepest canyon in Southeast Asia plunged 800 startling metres to the Nho Que River. Above, unseen summits atop sheer limestone walls disappeared into the clouds, a scattering of homes hewn to their lower flanks. It all seemed head-spinningly improbable.
The government-funded road built in the early 1960s by the muscle and sweat of the Hmong and other tribes was, until recently, rough, rocky, and too narrow for cars (in other words, perfect for mountain biking). But fueled by the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has poured money into modernization here—building schools, bringing in electricity, and paving what one American newspaper described as a road “not for the weak of stomach.”
“Sa Pa, once a lightly visited region where travellers found vibrant experiences, has been turned into a Hmong theme park where every interaction is a transaction, culture itself the commodity.”
While that’s perfect for cyclists who like having their minds blown, for others it’s simply home. Like the kid we met on his classic developing-world bicycle: single-speed, rod brakes, battered-yet-functional rear rack and fenders.
Proud of his bike, he nevertheless eyed our gears, suspension forks and disc brakes with curiosity. In response, I lowered the seat and handed over my wheels. Cautious at first, he was soon streaking down the road with a grin as wide as the canyon.
Before returning to Meo Vac, we spotted a pair of fires flashing through the fog on a slope above sheer, 300-metre walls. The Hmong were burning. By delivering roads and electricity, the government also hoped to stop these environmentally destructive slash-and-burn agricultural practices. But the Hmong have lived this way for centuries and weren’t much interested in changing. At least not here, last bastion of the old ways.
The next morning, our last in Ha Giang, we headed back to Ma Pi Leng just to see it one last time. As we stood on the empty roadside, happy voices reached our ears. Talk and laughter, it seemed, issued constantly from these singing mountains, where people were forever at work coaxing life from stone. I traced the sound to a vibrant line of women walking towards a leafy plot far below, and, with mist rising from the chasm to swirl overhead, it occurred to me that this might be the most visually striking combination of people and landscape on the planet. What didn’t occur to me was how lucky we were to be there, not realizing just how endangered the Hmong way of life was until, that afternoon, we rode into the mountains to the south.
Touring on little-used roadways was great, but I couldn’t help salivate over the region’s potential for mountain biking. As we traced a dirt road through a deep-cut valley of wooden homes and terraced hillsides, I repeatedly proposed dropping down one of the innumerable footpaths crosshatching the slopes. Fortunately, Dad and Ron resisted, as we eventually saw how most of these trails would leave us on a dead-end mountainside, the wrong side of a river, or another corner of Vietnamese nowhere where white folk on bicycles never trod.
Although the beauty of the landscape continued—all mountains and rivers and rice paddies and hamlets—it suddenly hit us like sad news: we’d left Shangri-La and returned to Vietnam. It was still hill-tribe country, but lower, more developed, and dominated by the Tay, the country’s largest ethnic minority and the one most readily adopting modern clothing and architecture. A few piloted small tractors and even flew Vietnam’s flag outside their homes, a rarity in the wild mountains of the Hmong. As if to punctuate the change, sunlight, absent the better part of a week, momentarily shafted through the clouds.
Our final two days saw us pedal across mountains, past villages of one tribe after another, and through markets where all eyes turned to the aliens on exotic steeds. The air warmed. Forest appeared. Arcing bamboo shaded the road. People of all ages stooped under massive bundles of wood, palm fronds and other harvests.
Preternaturally cheerful, their never-ending calls of Hello! rang out from fields, houses, streamsides, and even trees. Rafts of schoolchildren on bicycles often pedalled furiously alongside us before fading back in a chorus of giggles.
Vietnam’s exploding population meant kids were everywhere. There were 75 million Vietnamese in 1997; today there are 90 million, an unfathomable 20 per cent increase in 20 years. Though the Hmong and other tribes are keeping pace—too frequently with mothers who are still children themselves—it remains to be seen what this hedge against assimilation will mean for their self-reliant culture. How many people can Vietnam’s high mountains support?
“It occurred to me that this might be the most visually striking combination of people and landscape on the planet.”
As we leaned into a turn later that afternoon, I saw a family sitting together on their front porch. What seemed remarkable was that they weren’t doing anything else—just sitting with relaxed expressions, watching the forest and whatever came down the road. I waved, but when they lit up and waved back I felt the urge to say—Hey, don’t be in a rush to get high-tech and wealthy, just keep enjoying the world from your porch.
Of course, it’s hard to project such sentiments onto people who lack adequate health care and clean water. Things aren’t as simple as we might like them to be. Even letting that kid ride my bike may have had a downside. He’d been so proud of his beat-down ride, but would his dreams now be filled with shimmering mountain bikes? Were we contributing, by our mere presence, to the slow unravelling of his culture?
Perhaps, but change was coming to these mountains whether we rode here or not. In more accessible regions of northern Vietnam like Sa Pa, tourists flood in to see the Hmong, who have learned English to better sell trinkets, to act as guides, and to advance the craft of charging for photographs. What was once a lightly visited region where a few travellers found culturally vibrant experiences has been turned into a Hmong theme park. Gone are genuine interactions between people from different worlds. Today visitors find fake Hmong water wheels and get mobbed by “authentically dressed” locals hawking cheap tchotchkes. In modern Sa Pa, every interaction is a transaction, culture itself the commodity.
Since our visit to Ha Giang, the region’s popularity has boomed. Hotels are springing up like mushrooms after rain. We saw one tour van our entire trip; today they clutter the roads and village markets. Travellers want to see the Hmong and other hill tribes as they really are, but does the growing presence of wealthy outsiders render this impossible? Is it only a matter of time before Ha Giang is another place you should have been 20 years ago?
It isn’t just tourism, however, that could change the lives of these mountain people, and that was made clear when we paused on a high pass to survey the true extent of the region’s habitation. The mountains in our view had all been cleared of forest, with thatched-roof homes studding the ridgelines and farm plots checkerboarding the peaks. Hmong had moved onto the highest slopes here, smoke from their land-clearing fires everywhere, curling into the air. One look at these denuded mountainsides suggested that alluring as traditional lifestyles might be, along with a burgeoning population they could soon spoil the very land that supports them.
Our last night was spent with a Tay family in Ba Be National Park, home of Vietnam’s largest lake and a scattering of tribal villages tucked away in mountainous jungle. Despite otherwise rabid development, Vietnam was doing an admirable job of establishing parks in their more spectacular and ecologically vital locations. At Ba Be, they’d developed a home-stay program to boost tourism and encourage conservation by locals.
Forests engulfed the surrounding hills and the narrow, smoothly paved road we’d ridden into Ba Be felt more like a bike path. Following a gentle river where ducks and white egrets mingled, it led us between mountains that dropped from the sky as walls of giant ferns. It was so verdant, so peaceful, I barely pedalled, lest the butterfly-filled beauty pass too quickly.
The traditional Tay stilt house we stayed in was equally idyllic. Built entirely of polished, handplaned wood, its occupants reflected the meeting of worlds occurring everywhere: the grandmother wore traditional hand-dyed clothes with brightly coloured head scarf, while the father sported a polo shirt and leather belt. Though a small television periodically entertained two young children, it was quiet and peaceful and they cooked a delicious spread of water buffalo, spring rolls, bamboo shoots, and rice on an open fire. Our beds for the night sat by open windows overlooking rice paddies and flowering trees bursting with birdsong— the kind of place we’d longed for all trip.
Ba Be offers hope. Development is minimal, tour buses few. Its model presents a possible solution to the environmental and economic challenges facing these people. With its previous isolation fading, Ha Giang could follow this lead in developing a rustic tourist economy based on trekking, cycling, limited development, and cultural authenticity in order to preserve what made it special. If it becomes another Sa Pa, the unique beauty of its mountains and people will be lost forever.
Next morning, Joe led us on a ride he assured us we’d like. He didn’t lie. Rolling onto a smooth dirt path that tucked into tropical forest, we paralleled a small river as it unspooled into limestone gorges pocked with aquamarine pools. We followed narrow wooden bridges over creeks, dodged water buffalo, and passed thatched homes in the middle of nowhere. An old mining railway route built long ago by the French, the trail was now a rip-roaring ride through the Vietnamese hinterlands.
Finally enjoying a real mountain bike ride, I babbled like a caffeinated second-grader. Then, after 10 blissful kilometres, the earthen thread entered a small village and dumped us onto gravel road. To my grave disappointment the trail had ended, with only road ahead. Salting the wound, when Joe had ridden here only two months before it had still been trail.
Again the adventurer’s dilemma: Progress sucks I’d voiced, while Dad reminded us that the families sitting in the shade of bamboo and the wrinkled women working the fields probably thought it was great. The trail, like their lives, was changing. Roads, electricity, tourists—all were descending as both invading force and connective tissue to the health and prosperity of the larger world. In a country hell-bent on modernization, change we can neither begrudge nor steer, sensitivity and restraint are sadly in short supply, but Vietnam will need to find both to keep its far north special.
At day’s end, as we piled into the van for the long drive back to Hanoi, my mind drifted back to Ha Giang, where mountains thrust skyward like spears, people dressed like bouquets, and the old ways of the Hmong lived on in hard, captivating beauty. No matter what happens, we’d always know that we pedalled through its villages, drank corn whiskey in its markets, raced with its children, and sailed down those mountainsides when it still felt like Shangri-La.