ha giang trekking

Ha Giang: Trekking Mountainsides and Dining with the Dao People

If I were dropped on a mountainside in Ha Giang with no context to determine my location, I would swear I had been transported back to prehistoric times.  Or I had somehow wandered onto a Jurassic Park set.  Both are, of course, completely feasible.

IMG_4704Unlikely scenarios aside, I felt privileged to be trekking through the unkempt jungle of rural Ha Giang: dodging pond-size puddles, flicking off leeches and admiring the general splendor that enveloped me.

We began our hike at the base of the surrounding formations, following our guide Lim through villages’ many winding roads until we reached the off-roading portion of our journey.  It was still sprinkling and the earth was loosened by the same moisture that clung to the plants and filled the air.  Each step required precise foot placement, lest you lose your footing and land ass in the mud, feet in the air— a fate I did not desire.

IMG_4670An ominous fog screen hung in the distance, bestowing a Gothic atmosphere upon the valley below and the mountains above.  Visible were the overgrown hillsides and escalating rice terraces.

We plunged further into the dense jungle, swatting away errant branches and treading carefully around the slippery rocks and untrustworthy patches of clay.  Our near constant uphill trajectory had me huffing and puffing within the hour and grateful the trek was only ten kilometers.  I shifted my attention back to scenery surveillance continued on.

IMG_4661Boasting a lush forest canopy, hidden waterfalls and contrasting hues, Ha Giang is understated but dramatic.  So much so that I kept catching myself mid-stumble as I struggled to focus on both where I was walking and what I was passing.  I couldn’t help myself; I was bewitched by Ha Giang’s beauty.

Rounding the last incline, we arrived at our host’s home for lunch.  Like most dwellings in this region, they are built on stilts.  The bottom floor at ground level offers a small seating area in front of the TV (all homes have satellite— go figure), dry storage (drying rice, mostly), general storage (motorbikes, random paraphernalia) and a partially hidden kitchen that opens to the back of the house.  The enclosed top story is accessed by a set of steep wooden stairs that lead to an open second floor.  Bedrooms are sectioned off with sheets and occupy the corners of the space.  In this home, it was on the top floor and not in the living room, that we dined.

Though gracious as I was for the meal, I can attest that mountain food is indeed an acquired taste— one I apparently do not possess.  I did, however, love the small bamboo chutes.  A pain to peel (as I would learn in the coming days), they are typically fried to perfection and best enjoyed piping hot.  There’s also always steamed rice, the food that became the cornerstone of my diet during my time in the Ha Giang region.  Otherwise, I nibbled on the beef and tried a few other unknown items.

IMG_4658Having taken a couple hours to dine, lounge and generally relax after the first leg of the trek, we bid our farewell to the family that fed us and set off down the road.  We passed a few more village homes on our way.  The children popped out of open windows and danced along the road, greeting us at every turn.  Holding them back was often an older Dao woman, smiling with teeth that were shockingly black.  Asking Lim, I was told it was common to have elderly women dye their teeth black.  All too aware of my own country’s proclivities when it comes to age, I reserved judgment and pressed on.

IMG_4667Lacking the physical demands of uphill climbing, our return trip down the mountain met with its own challenges.  We blindly followed Lim’s suggestion for a “short cut” and soon found ourselves in leech territory.  Each step came with it a set or more of these little parasites, brushed off with experienced dexterity by Lim.  We stopped frequently for removal sessions and after an hour, all humor regarding the situation had dissipated.

Luckily, the “wet” portion of the odyssey had concluded.  I could go back to gazing at the beguiling landscape without the constant check for leeches nor the omnipresent threat of slipping.  Lim continued to crack jokes the rest of the way home and I couldn’t help but laugh— his English may not be great, but I’ll be damned if he can’t punctuate his diction with perfectly timed physical humor.

IMG_4674At 270,000 dong (200,000 for the hike and 70,000 for the lunch; roughly $12 USD total), the entire day was a steal.  I didn’t think it possible to find another trek as impressive as the one I did in Sapa.  I was wrong.  Each with their own merits, I feel privileged to have explored both regions firsthand.

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