Trekking on the Dong Van Karst Plateau

There are not many places in Vietnam that remain untouched by modern advancement but we found remote villages in Ha Giang Province that have. Hiking between these villages on our way through the Dong Van Karst Plateau was one of the most unique treks we’ve ever done.

The trip began with a harrowing drive from Hanoi to the mountain city of Ha Giang. Our driver sped recklessly on the busy, single-lane road, passing cars on blind corners with sharp drop offs. We drove through small villages with fruit markets set up beside the highway. It was orange season so most of the vendors were selling delicious, green oranges. We ate several.

Further on we saw several casket makers displaying their porcelain caskets along the side of the road. We learned how rural Vietnamese families manage their deceased. The bodies are washed and buried in the family rice field for three years. After three years all that remains are their bones. The bones are then placed in a small ceramic coffin and buried in the family’s burial plot. After hearing this, we didn’t want to eat rice grown in these small family-owned fields.

We stopped at one town for a break where we had authentic Vietnamese coffee. This strong coffee has a unique brewing method. Hot coffee drips through individual stainless steel filters into coffee mugs. The coffee was served to us while it was still filtering though the Phin filters. Some people love Vietnamese coffee. We did love seeing this different brewing technique, but the coffee was a little too thick and sweet for our taste.

After our coffee break we began driving again. The highway soon entered the mountains giving us our first glimpse of the scenery we would have for the next few days. Small jungles covered the steep karst mountains that make up the countryside. We stopped at a few lookouts, but Ferry Bosom was a favourite. The view is of two neighboring mountains that resemble a woman’s bosom.

On the edges of the winding mountain road were many farmers selling odd looking root vegetables that we’ve never seen before.

After spending most of the day holding our breath as our driver recklessly sped along the mountain roads, we were glad to finally arrive our stop for the night. The city of Ha Giang is set on the Lo River surrounded by karst mountains. It’s a gorgeous setting and a great place to rest before our trek.

The next day we drove for another couple of hair-raising hours until we reached the start of our trek. We met our porters; two lovely Hmong men wearing plastic sandals, wide legged pants, traditional hats and wicker baskets on their backs. Hmong is the most common ethnic group in this area. The first 4 days were spent trekking up and down the sides of these karst mountains making our way along narrow valleys. The scenery is spectacular with green, steep mountains in every direction. It was like hiking through Halong Bay without the water. In the first days, the hillsides were full of rice fields and vegetable gardens.The route took us through small Hmong villages where the locals rarely saw foreigners. They only had a passing interest in us though as they had too much work to do in their fields.

Over the next few days the landscape began to change. The soil wasn’t as rich so there were very few gardens.The mountainsides were covered in limestone rocks. Instead of farms, we walked by interesting rock pinnacles similar to what we have seen in Papua and Borneo.

Most of the villages are accessed only by foot, but the government is starting to change that. We saw work crews in different areas building new roads. It looked like a laborious job as most of the work was done by hand.

We did this trek in 2016 and at that time, the area saw very few tourists. There were no guest houses or hotels, so we stayed most nights in schools, sleeping on classroom floors. Our trekking guides said they’d provide sleeping mats, but in reality, they gave us very thin bamboo mats. We wished we had brought our comfortable Thermarests. The teachers at these schools were usually from large cities and were sent to these rural areas to teach. The teachers were happy to have a change in their routine so most joined us for dinner. Each night our guide bought a bottle of local rice wine, which is usually drank as a shot, not sipped. Mornings were a little difficult.

The trek took us close to the Chinese border, so local security had to check our permits at each stop. At one small town, the local Communist Party Secretary thought us to be celebrities so allowed us to sleep in his office which had a bed. We learned that Ha Giang is the poorest region in Vietnam and this village is the poorest village in that region. We had brought pencils and scribblers for kids in the villages and decided to give it all to the kids of this town. This party rep took our donations and we hope they made it to the children. The Secretary and a couple of his colleagues joined us for dinner where we shared several bottles of rice wine. We didn’t understand any of the conversation, but had a great night laughing and singing with the communists.

On this trip we ate our meals Vietnamese family style. The food is set on the table in large bowls and everyone serves themselves. This would be fine, except Vietnamese use their chopsticks to pick out a piece of meat or veg, one at a time, dip it in sauce and eat it, licking the chopstick. They then use those same chopsticks, that were just in their mouth, to pick the next piece of food. They would dig around in the bowls with these used chopsticks searching for the piece of meat they want. After the first meal, we would quickly fill our little bowls with as much food as we thought we’d eat before any of them could get their chopsticks into the food. Needless to say, we both got very sick on this trip.

It rained a little each day, but while we were walking through the town of Meo Vac, we were caught in a deluge. Our guide asked a local family if we could wait out the storm in their home. The house was a low roofed wooden shack with thin walls and a dirt floor. There was no electricity or windows, so light was by lanterns. They made us tea over an open fire which had no ventilation. It was a smoky visit, but very interesting to see how these farmers live. They have a tough life.

On the fifth day we arrived at the highlight of the trip, Ma Pi Leng Pass. This wide-open pass has amazing views of steep limestone rock walls above green, rolling slopes. with high mountain peaks in the distance. Below, the Nho Que River cuts though the deep valley. The highway between Ha Giang and Dong Van runs though this pass and it’s a favourite ride for motorbike tours. We were glad to have gone though this area on foot so we could meet the locals, experience some of their culture and see the incredible karst mountains up close.

On the other side of Ma Pi Leng Pass the ground is much more fertile. The mountainsides are full of gardens, rice fields and fruit trees like banana and papaya. The ethnic people in this area are Tay. They seemed to be much more friendly than the Hmongs on the other side of the pass. People would smile and wave to us as we passed through their villages and often ask our guide who we were and why we were there.

We spent the night in a home-stay. The Tay family were incredibly friendly and warm, hosting us to a wonderful dinner, inviting many of their relatives. Their house has two stories, but the lower level is a barn. The upper level includes a kitchen, dining/living room, bedrooms and an open loft for storage. We slept in their kids’ bedrooms, above the cows and pigs. Since the family didn’t know us, we had to sleep in separate rooms. They said this was just in case we weren’t married (which we were). Their kids slept at their cousin’s homes so that we could have their beds. It felt very inviting. Again, dinner was accompanied by many bottles of rice wine. Do you see a trend?

Our last day of trekking continued down the Nho Que River Valley to the city of Dong Van. It’s a working city without much to see, other than countless numbers of Karaoke bars. One of our guides invited us to his house for lunch where he taught us how to make spring rolls. His mom and sisters joined us, wanting to meet the foreigners. He had his own moonshine still, and we drank so much moonshine that by the end of lunch, we were drinking it warm, straight from the still!

After lunch we said goodbye to our porters and gave them a tip when a huge uproar ensued. They had never seen anything other than Vietnamese Dong notes. We didn’t bring enough dongs so we tipped in US dollars. They were outraged, thinking we’d only giving them 50 dong after 7 days work. In reality we gave them the equivalent of over 1 million dong. It took a long time for our guide to explain to them the currency rate and how to go to a bank to exchange it. In the end they were very happy with their tip.

Coming up Next: Vietnam’s Charming Hoi An and Hue

For more pictures go to Gallery at Monkey’s Tale.

For more stories from our other adventures, go to Destinations.

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