Dong Van: old, adobe houses, rice harvest and exploring the mountain dirt roads on foot

Dong Van is a small town on the Ha Giang loop, near the border with China. What makes it different from other towns of the region is a historical centre with a stone- paved square and old, adobe buildings. Dong Van is located in a valley, surrounded with paddy fields and set among beautiful mountains, within the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark. The spectacular Ma Pi Leng pass and the Lung Cu peak with a flag post are only some of the nearby attractions.

A traditional adobe house with wooden columns and a stone fence located on the edges of Dong Van town in Ha Giang region

Dong Van on a budget

The hotels on the main street and the guesthouses in the historical buildings are expensive. However, walking a bit further away from the town centre it is possible to find something more affordable. We stayed at a very cheap hotel with a view at the mountains, usually catering only for the domestic tourists. Like in other towns of the Ha Giang loop, nobody registered our stay.

The restaurants in the old quarter are pricey but again, walking further away from the touristic centre would give you a chance to find slightly cheaper eateries. We were quite unlucky the first night: there was a power cut and the entire town was in deep darkness. Most of the restaurants were closed due to the blackout. Eventually we found a decent com binh dan where we ate by the torchlight.

Things to see in Dong Van

Dong Van Sunday market

We started a walk around the town by visiting Dong Van’s Sunday market, much smaller than the one in Meo Vac, yet equally colourful. There were many women from various ethnic minorities selling vegetable, snacks and also mass-produced, bright-coloured synthetic clothes.

Women wearing colourful skirts on top of equally colourful trousers and headscarves chat at a makeshift stall selling fruit at the Sunday Dong Van market

Old Quarter

We carried on to the small but really pretty Old Quarter. It was centered around a stone-paved square and lined with late 19th and early 20th century two-storied adobe houses with wooden terraces and columns. Most of those buildings were converted into homestays, souvenir shops and cafes.

The Old Quarter in Dong Van: an elevated, stone square, stone and adobe buildings around it and karst rocks rising from behind

Sayak decided to have his coffee in style, at one of the lovely old houses with a patio, decorated with red lanterns and converted into a fancy cafe.

Sayak entering a patio of an old, wooden, two-storied house turned into a cafe in Dong Van Old Quarter

Rice harvest

It was mid- September so the rice harvest was on its way. We could see tarpaulin spread on courtyards and even right in the middle of the street with rice grains drying in the sun.

Rice grain spread on a tarpaulin for drying in front of a house in Dong Van, Ha Giang region of Vietnam

The paddy fields were spreading just a short walk from the historical centre, so we had an opportunity to watch women harvesting and threshing the rice.

Women wearing colourful tops, skirts and headscarves tie into bunches harvested rice

Don Cao fortress

Finally, we went to Don Cao, the ruins of a French fortress. The view point at the very top of the fortress was just 15-20 minutes steep walk up a hill. The ruins were very scarce bu the walk itself was very pleasant and the climbing the viewpoint was well worth the effort.

Climbing the narrow, stone steps to the ruins of the French fortress in Dong Van

Once at the concrete round platform at the top, we could see the entire valley below our feet, with a mosaic of harvested and ripe rice fields and the mountains surrounding the valley.

View from Don Cao fortress in Dong Van at the wide valley filled with rice paddies and a string of houses and surrounded with the limestone mountains

Standing at the ruins of the fortress, we decided on an impromptu walk. We saw from above a path leading to a passage between the mountains, promising even more expansive views. We thought it would be just a short walk but it turned into a mini-hiking trip.

Impromptu hiking loop around Dong Van

Just as we predicted, by following the road we saw from the viewpoint, we reached the edge of a huge canyon with a river flowing below. On the other side of the river, it was already China. The views were comparable to those at Mi Pi Leng pass, minus the traffic and tourists.

The only people we met during the walk were the local ethnic minority people riding on motorbikes or walking. We walked along that road for around 40 minutes and were really impressed with the views. The only problem was, I didn’t fancy coming back the same way.

Walking a dirt road just outside Dong Van which is leading along the edge of a deep canyon with expansive views at the valley and the mountains.

I checked on Google maps whether it’d be possible to make a loop. Indeed, Google maps was showing an option of a 1.5h or 2h long walk back to the city centre. Clearly, it would require going up. We took a very narrow dirt path which took us up and parallel to the road we just came from. We passed by a tiny hamlet with huts made of mud where people looked genuinely shocked to see us.

A large traditional adobe house behind a high stone wall, a group of children staring at a camera and a person carrying large bunch of crops on her back in a mountain village outside Dong Van

After getting to the other side of the mountain we walked for some time through a pine forest. We were amazed to see that the narrow, rough and steep paths we walked along were used by motorcycles. We passed by another ethnic minority village and then had a look at Google maps to work out how to go back to Dong Van.

The author walking down the narrow path among the rocks with a panoramic view at the mountains and the valley where Dong Van is located opening in front of her

According to Google, we were supposed to walk straight down through a barely visible, half-foot wide path. It seemed highly improbable that google would show such a tiny path and we were quite skeptical but had no choice but to try. The path, although really narrow, was clearly visible and led straight down.

Dong Van from above: houses lines along the road and the terraced paddies stretching out to the edges of the valley

Soon enough, we could see Dong Van far below. It must have been used as a shortcut to the city by the people in the village. Incredibly, half an hour later we ended up in an alley leading to the French fortress. It was a great walk and we thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

The loop from Dong Van, along a mountain pass and up through the mountain villages marked on Google maps.

Other places near Ha Giang to visit

Most of the tourists come to Dong Van only to leave immediately with a xe om (a motorcycle taxi) to a village of Lung Cu, lying on the border with China at the northernmost tip of Vietnam. Its main attraction is a flagpole and a small museum on the top of the mountain. Since xe om would be quite expensive and we had already paid a lot for a taxi to Mi Pi Leng Pass, we decided to skip it.

Since we were getting back to Ha Giang by bus, we also missed on a few attractions just outside Dong Van, such as Hmong’s King mansion. We probably could have done it if we chose to hitch hike but we might have struggled to get to Ha Giang in one day.

Back to Ha Giang

The next day it was raining so we left at around 11am. We boarded a bus in front of the old square. After a while sitting inside on our own, we were told to wait in a restaurant instead. We sat there for quite some time and boarded again only to be driven around Dong Van in circles, picking up goods and a few people. We left Dong Van one hour after boarding the bus.

A winding road cut in the conical, steep, deep green mountains filling up the landscape till the horizon at the Dong Van Karst Plateau

Just as during the previous trip, we were taking the photos all the time. The bus was half-empty, we could have taken it from both sides. Part of the route was the same as the one to Meo Vac so we stopped at the same canteen as before.

The view at the deep valley and surrounding sharp-ended, green mountains taking from a bus on the road from Dong Van to Ha Giang


How to get to Dong Van?
You can approach Dong Van by road from two directions: via Ma Pi Leng pass from Meo Vac and from Quan Ba. The Ma Pi Leng Pass way doesn’t have public transport option: you have to rely on an expensive taxi. There is a local bus connecting Ha Giang with Dong Van, though. The journey takes around 5-5.5 hours.

How to do the hiking loop around Dong Van?
Follow Google maps. Walking from the Dong Van ancient street towards the fortress, keep on going straight along the Nguyen Traii and then Ly Thurong Kiet road. It’ll take you out of Dong Van and to the deep canyon.

Walk along the canyon towards Ma Pang village. Then turn sharply into a tiny path leading up and parallel to the road which you just have taken.

It will lead you to Po Lo village. There, take an unlikely, very narrow path (one-two feet wide) leading straight down. After a while, you will see Dong Van below you. The path ends on a road which leads to the fortress.

Prices in Dong Van [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]
400 000 taxi Meo Vac to Dong Van
150 000 cheapest double room (shared bathroom)
100 000 bus from Dong Van to Ha Giang
45 000 meal at com bin dan
1 000 deep fried sweet from the market

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