On the Ha Giang loop: the great Meo Vac market and dramatic Ma Pi Leng Pass

Meo Vac is a small town in the northern Ha Giang region famous for an enormous market taking place every Sunday. Representatives of numerous ethnic minorities inhabiting the surrounding mountain villages come down to the town to sell livestock, vegetables and much more. If you want to see an authentic market, this is the place as still very few tourists reach here.

The road from Ha Giang via Quan Ba to Meo Vac and further via Ma Pi Leng pass to Dong Van leads through the Dong Van Karst Plateu Geological Park, the limestone landscape of outstanding beauty, featuring deep canyons and sharp- ended mountains.

Two women from an ethnic minority in the colourful clothes stand in front of the baskets with their merchandise at the fringes of Meo Vac market, while a man dressed in black sits nearby

Ha Giang to Meo Vac by bus: through Dong Van Geopark

We took a bus to Meo Vac from Ha Giang bus station. I was relieved to see it was a simple, old vehicles. Since there was no AC, we could open the windows wide, enjoy the views and take the photos. The bus stopped mid-way at a small restaurant so there was a chance to have a meal and use a toilet. The only slight inconvenience was a bare foot of a fellow passenger sticking from behind our seats.

A bare foot sticking out from behind the authors' seats on the bus from Ha Giang to Meo Vac

Throughout the journey, we were enjoying breathtaking views at the karst (limestone) landscape of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark: mountains, valleys and various rock formations. One of them was the famous Quan Ba Heaven’s Gate: two equally sized conical hills resembling woman’s breasts rising from the paddy fields.

The Heaven's Gate on Ha Giang loop: two equally sized hills resembling female breasts and other conical hills springing up from the  green paddies with a comb-shaped higher mountains filling up the background

Meo Vac on a budget

We got off at Meo Vac and I went in search of cheap homestay (since the booking.com prices were very high). After a while of walking around and getting to the streets further away from the market I found a very cheap but decent room with a lovely terrace. It was normally a three-bed dormitory but since it was empty, two of us could take it all. The bathroom was located in the courtyard downstairs. Just like in Ha Giang, we become unregistered guests- the owner was interested only in our money, not the passports.

The author sitting at the terrace of a guesthouse in Meo Vac, a sharp-ended mountains in the background

Finding decent food was more tricky as the food scene was very limited. We ended up having rather unimpressive fried rice in a cheap eatery near the market.

Sunday market in Meo Vac

Next day we woke up before 6am to see Meo Vac Sunday market- the largest market in Ha Giang region. The streets were full of people. Almost all women wore synthetic, factory made but very colourful and definitely traditional in design, ethnic clothes. Most of the men wore navy blue or black ‘uniforms’ consisting of trousers, a buttoned jacket and a beret. Most of the women carried vegetables in the baskets on their backs.

A busy Meo Vac market: female sellers and buyers in traditional, colourful clothes fill up the street

The market was huge. It spilled onto all the streets around the actual market hall. Pretty much everything was on sale: vegetables, canisters of home-brewed rice wine, ready food.

A row of women in colourful headscarves squatting on the street behind the canisters of corn wine for sale on Meo Vac Sunday market

But the most visible merchandise was livestock. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant sight, though. Pigs were squeaking, pulled on a cord leash, chickens were clucking tied together and held in hands. The rest of the animals were more silent but surely not less stressed: ducks, pigeons, goats and cows were all around.

A man in a blue jacket and black hat pulls a squeeking pig on a string through the streets of Meo Vac, along  the stalls with vegetables

The cattle market had its own walled but open-air compound. That’s where the most lucrative transactions were taking place. Unlike the rest of the market, almost only men were present. They were looking each animal up and down, checking their teeth and then entering lengthy negotiations with lots of bargaining and dramatic gestures involved.

A crowd of uniformly dressed in navy blue men examine cows for sale on Meo Vac market

Once the deal was struck, the sellers could call it a day and celebrate the successful sale with corn wine. Yes, there were plenty of men drinking corn wine at 6 am in the morning and the entire canisters of it were on sale.

A table on the street in Meo Vac filled with bottles and glasses where men who just sold their cattle celebrate the transaction

After all the trading was done, most of the villagers were heading to the food court to have a traditional soup. We tried some local food, too, most memorably a light, fluffy and slightly sour pancake reminding me of Ethiopian injera flatbread.

A view at the huge food court at the Meo Vac market where the hot meals are sold

Meo Vac to Dong Van via Ma Pi Leng Pass

Straight after the market, we had to carry on to Dong Van. This short stretch of the road leading through the spectacular Ma Pi Leng pass is widely considered the most beautiful road in Vietnam.

A deep canyon between steep, sharp-ended and grass covered mountains and a narrow road cut in the side of the mountain at the start of Ma Pi Leng pass in Ha Giang

In my opinion, this is a slightly exaggerated statement. Although the road was undoubtedly beautiful, I wouldn’t say it was massively more attractive than any other stretch of the uniformly stunning northern loop.

Taxi vs. hitchhiking vs. hiking

Sadly, there aren’t any buses connecting Meo Vac to Dong Van. Unless you’re already driving, the only way to get from Meo Vac to Dong Van is to take a motorbike or car taxi or to hitch hike.

The viewpoint at Ma Pi Leng pass: a river on the bottom of a deep canyon between high, green mountains

We wanted to get 2 xe om (motorbike taxis) but failing to find any, we eventually settled for an astronomically expensive car taxi (as compared to public transport). As it later turned out, the taxis moving in the opposite direction (Dong Van to Meo Vac) have a fixed, lower price.

I was mistaken to believe that the taxi would give us more freedom to stop for the photos and leisurely enjoy the views. In fact, the driver, despite our agreement, was driving fast and stopped only at the official viewpoint, half way through the pass.

A view at the road through the Ma Pi Leng pass: a narrow string  of a road cut in the middle of a steep, sharp-ended, grass covered mountain

We had read on the forums about people who walked along the pass. I wouldn’t recommend that since pass consists of a very narrow and rather busy road. It simply wouldn’t be pleasant. Besides, it is 20 km distance and far from flat!

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Meo Vac?
You can get there by a hired motorcycle or by taking a frequent bus from Ha Giang bus station (timing and prices displayed on electric board). The journey takes around 7 hours.

How to get from Meo Vac to Dong Van?
There is no public transport between the two. You can hire a motorbike or a car taxi or hitch-hike. Starting from Meo Vac, you have to bargain. Going from Dong Van, the taxi fares are fixed.

Prices in Meo Vac [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]
400 000 car taxi from Meo Vac to Dong Van
140 000 a triple room with a shared bathroom in a cheap guesthouse
100 000 a simple, non-AC bus
50 000 T-shirt with a Vietnamese flag
35-40 000 a simple meal
5 000 a local pancake at the market

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