Cross country hiking in Ha Giang: rice terraces, rice wine and leeches

Most of the people treat Ha Giang city just as a base, a starting point of the northern loop around Ha Giang region and do not spend time longer than absolutely necessary there. It’s a mistake: the city itself isn’t interesting but the surroundings hide some surprises. If you like hiking, nature and traditional architecture, don’t miss the visit to Lam Dong village of Tay people and the hikes to Khuoi My and Lung Vai – mountain villages of the Dao people.

A view from the mountaintop at the thatched roofs of the traditional north Vietnamese houses and paddy fields down below

Why to visit villages around Ha Giang?

Lam Dong is a beautiful village consisting almost entirely of picture-perfect traditional, wooden, thatched roof houses set among green paddies and flowering gardens. It’s just a short walk from Ha Giang town.

Lam Dong village near Ha Giang, consisting entirely of wooden, thatched houses, seen through papaya trees, yellow flowers and a small paddy field

Khuoi My (also spelt Khuoi Mi) village and lying further beyond Lung Vai village, known for the stupendous views at the rice terraces, require an easy but longish hike from the side road around 2 km away from Ha Giang bus station (see details below).

It is a great opportunity to experience the ethnic diversity of the region as each of this villages is inhabited by a different ethnic group, recognised by their specific headwear.

Getting lost in the mountains

Since we were staying near the Ha Giang bus station, we tried to find the shortest route to Khuoi My village from there. Google maps showed a green dotted trail leading from Lam Dong – a village located a short walk from the bus station- all the way to a white-marked road leading to Khuoi My. We assumed Google showed simply a hiking path and were happy we could use this shortcut. Untypically, Maps.me app was of no help: the entire area was blank.

Falling in love with Lam Dong village

We first took the turn from the main road leading to Ha Giang onto a very quiet tarmac road. From there, we turned left into Lam Dong road leading to a beautiful village of the same name. The village was full of old, wooden houses many of which were homestays. Once we reached the end of the village, the troubles started.

A bright green paddy field and thatched-roofed, wooden huts in Lam Dong village near Ha Giang

Through the palm plantation

We had a hard time spotting the green trail which was supposed to start somewhere there. What we assumed to be one quickly turned out to be a dead end. We tried again, from the other side of the stream only to hit another dead end at a pond. There was a palm plantation above the pond and we were really not sure if what we were looking at could be an overgrown, old trail.

The author walking on a narrow path through the jungle on the cross-country hike from Ha Giang to Khuoi My village

Through the rice fields

We didn’t want to give up too quickly, so we wondered a few meters here, a few meters there, always checking with google maps and consistently going up until we ended up on a clearing. Sayak thought that would be the end of our trip but I crossed the clearing and soon enough found a wider and very clear path leading straight up, with the steps cut in the soil. The path was leading parallel, but a bit further from what google was showing. Yet, I was convinced that this time we finally found the proper hiking trail. The path led us to the first terraced rice fields.

A terraced rice field in the foreground and a panoramic view at the mountains half-covered with clouds and Ha Giang city

A hamlet high in the mountains

After a quite chaotic 1 hour hike, we were already quite high up and we could see Ha Giang and the surrounding villages below. Sadly, the rice field was the end of the beautiful path. We just kept on going up cross-country until I spotted some houses in the distance. We headed there to ask for directions. There was a man singing traditional songs in one of the huts while loud Vietnamese pop music was blasting from the other one. The view from that higher vantage point was spectacular.

A few traditional huts among the terraced rice fields and the fringing forest on the way to Khuoi My village

The men fixing the roof confirmed in sign-language that a wide dirt road we just stumbled upon was indeed the road towards Khuoi My. They indicated the general direction: up and to the right but seemed to suggest it was still a long way.

A fenced corn field and a panoramic view at the high peaks during a hike in Ha Giang

Soon enough, the wide road disappeared completely and again we were left with a couple of narrow, overgrown paths in the bushes. We retreated a bit and found the second trail which proved more promising. After a while, we were on a wider path again.

Leeches attack!

That’s when it started raining. We spotted a huge umbrella like leaf and hid underneath. Alas! It was a grave mistake. Suddenly, Sayak looked down at his feet, shouted: ‘Leeches!’ and darted out of the bush, disappearing somewhere in a distance. I looked at my hiking boots and cringed: dozens of leeches of all sizes were crawling all over the boots and socks.

Two leeches attached to a bare foot and a few bleeding wounds from the removed leeches

I got back onto the path, took out my boots and started pulling the leeches off my socks, pulling them out of my boots and off the lace hooks. All of that screaming and swearing on the top of my voice. Since it takes leeches some time to bite through the socks, I managed to remove all of them before they got to my skin.

Bare feet covered with tiny, bleeding wounds made by removing the leeches

Once I finally finished, I found Sayak in much worse condition. He was wearing just sandals so nearly all of the leeches actually started sucking his blood. He was pulling them out systematically and calmly but each one was leaving a bleeding wound. Yes, I know he shouldn’t really do that but it’s hard to resist, you know? I took the first aid kit with me so at least I could pour some disinfectant over the wounds. Luckily, the leeches usually attack the feet. I found only one on my poncho. The fear there might be more of them all over our bodies was unfounded.

Finally on the right path

We walked a bit further all the time checking with the Google.maps until finally the road met the mythical white market road. It turned out to be a narrow, concrete road which led us towards the ‘civilisation’. We entered a village surrounded with beautiful terraced fields and saw stunning peaks in the distance, reminding me of teeth of some monster.

A narrow, tarmac path leading from Ha Giang to Lung Vai village set among the slopes half covered with forest, half covered with rice terraces

Although already amazing, it wasn’t yet our goal, so we decided to speed up a bit and carry on. Our concern was time and the fact we were running out of water. When I saw two Western tourists going down the road with a local guide, I immediately approached them. I confirmed the road we were walking would lead us back to Ha Giang and that it would be possible to buy water in a shop which we were supposed to recognise by the sounds of… karaoke. Those two people were the only tourists we saw during the whole day.

The entire mountain covered with rice terraces with some houses scattered here and there

At the Khuoy My village

We kept on climbing up gradually, enjoying the views at the slopes filled with the rice terraces in the distance. We didn’t know how much time would it take us to go down so decided to get just to Khuoy My and then turn back. We knew though, that if we continued further up the same road, we would end up in another lovely village: Lung Vai.

Bright green rice terrace in the foreground and the forest-covered mountain in the background on the way to Khuoi My village

Karaoke bar

Once at the Khuoy My village, we passed by a house with a karakoke blasting full on but there was no sign which would indicate it was a shop. After walking through the whole village, with old, wooded, thatched roof huts covered with moss, we realised the karaoke place must have been a shop, after all.

We entered the dark interior and saw a woman in a traditional head-wear of the Dao Ao Dai ethnic minority. There was also one man sitting at the table, drinking tea and singing karakoke to a microphone (a very popular pastime in Vietnam). We bought water and left. It started raining literally a moment we stepped out. Why not to hide there, I thought?

Moss-covered thatched roof houses standing on a steep slope in Khuoi My village near Ha Giang, forest-clad mountains behind

Time for tea and whisky

We were welcomed to sit at a table, given tea and encouraged to sing in Vietnamese. It didn’t go particularly well, to put it mildly. Another woman joined in shortly. They didn’t ask us any questions so there wasn’t any conversation going on.

Two women from  Dao Ao Dai ethnic minority in their traditonal red-and-green headwear posing to the photo with the author

As the rain continued, our hostess went upstairs and brought a plastic bottle with rice wine. I sipped a bit of the rice wine, which luckily had roughly the wine strength, unlike laotian rice whisky. I indicated I’d like to take a photo with the ladies. The hostess put on a colourful shirt to look more presentable and wrapped a head-dress on my head.

Easy way down

Mercifully, the rain stopped before we got drunk. We said we had to go back if we wanted to return to Ha Giang before dark, which was essentially true. I normally don’t drink alcohol so I felt the effects of the wine for a while but since we were walking, I came back to normal pretty soon.

The next time a short shower passed, we hid in a shed near the entrance to the village. The dusk was approaching quickly and it was getting more chilly with every minute. We were walking fast but it still took us a while to get to the bottom of the mountains through a series of serpentines. We were actually quite glad we didn’t take this way to climb up as it would be very tedious but even more happy we could use it now. It’d be close to impossible to retrace the steep, muddy, constantly disappearing trails we took in the morning.

From above, we could see where the road was leading: we would end up on the same tarmac road we started our trip from, but much further, some 2 km away from the Ha Giang station. We walked down until we ended up in another beautiful, old village. The road we just left was so inconspicuous that without knowing when to turn, it would be impossible to find it. Google maps didn’t show it at all. However, it is clearly visible if you switch to the satellite mode!

Although the highway was quite empty, we preferred to avoid walking on the tarmac and went through the villages instead. Eventually, the parallel road finished and we had to choice but to make that last kilometer along the tarmac. We reached Ha Giang at 6pm, when it was almost dark. It was an 8 hour trip and we were exhausted but really happy with the adventure.

Larger loop

Judging by the satellite view on Google maps and the existing paid, guided tours advertised online, it is definitely possible to make a loop from the beautiful Thon Tha village to Lung Vai and then down from Lung Vai, via Khuoy My to Ha Giang. This loop would almost certainly require staying for a night in one of the homestays in the mountains, though.

The visit of Thon Tha village is worth to make in its own right as there is also a small waterfall nearby, off the Lung Va- Ha Thanh road. The access to the fall is by the Phuong Du homestay – a walking path is clearly marked in the Maps.me app and visible at the satellite view at Google maps.

PRACTICALITIES

How to find the path up Khuoy Mi and Lung Vai?

VERSION 1: HARDCORE
We don’t recommend the way we took unless you like going off-piste and don’t mind getting lost a bit. In this case, your best bet would be orientation and using satellite view in Google.maps. We followed roughly the green mark on Google map called Ban Me- Na Thac starting from Lam Dong village and eventually joining the proper tarmac Ban Me- Na Thac Road to Khoi Mi village. The same road, later called Khoi Mi- Lung Vai, leads to Lung Vai village further up the mountains.

VERSION 2: EASY
If you want to stick to a clear path with no risk of leeches, we recommend that you take the tarmac path (the one we used to walk down). In order to find it, first look for the white-marked road where QT Motorbike and Tours are located. It starts very near to the Ha Giang bus station (turning left from the main QL 2 road).

Once on that road, it is worth to take a detour to a very scenic Lam Dong village to the left and follow the parallel village roads for as long as possible. Then return to the the wide tarmac road, passing by a few hostels. The last one of them would be Ali hostel.

That’s when it’s worth to switch to the satellite view and to search the way to enter the village to your left as it is also quite pretty. Follow the Ha Than -Ban Lup road.

This road will have on the normal google map view a tiny dead end. That’s roughly where the path up starts. If you switch to the satellite view, you will see a path climbing in serpentines until it finally reaches Ban Me- Na Thac road which is again marked in white in the map view. If you struggle to find that road, search for Nha San Dan Toc Homestay in Google maps. That homestay is on the road you want to get to. If you look at the regular map, you will see that the white-marked Ban Me- Na Thac road ends in the middle of nowhere. Only if you switch to the satellite view, you’ll be able to follow the whole path clearly.

If you have more time (which you’d no doubt have when taking a tarmac road), you could go beyond Khoi Mi to another village, Lung Vai, all the time enjoying spectacular views of the rice terraces.

You really don’t need a guide for that walk. It’s one, narrow tarmac road and with the Google map at hand it’s impossible to get lost. The beauty of the satellite view is that it also shows you the rice terraces. And they are a lot of them on that path.

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