I decided to visit the northern part of Vietnam. Mind you I was ill prepared because I did not pack warm cloths. Nevertheless, this trip holds near and dear to my heart. I booked a 3 day 2 night tour with Positive Tours eastern loop in the northern part of Vietnam known as, the Ha Giang province. The trip included everything from a motorbike to food and sleeping at homestays (villagers house where they feed you and let you sleep in their home). To anyone considering going to northern Vietnam- take this tour and ask for Cuong, the owner. He gives tours on Mondays and is fantastic at his job (as is the rest of the staff!). I am incredibly happy with my experience through his tour company and will brag about it for quite some time.
The tour started off with a 5 hour van ride from Hanoi to Ha Giang. I met my two travel companions and we were off. Kayana is an adventurous young women who just finished a mini journey through parts of Australia. She’s traveled a bit and has a worldly view. It was blatantly clear she was no push over and she simply loves to travel. Her and I were caught gawking at the views of Ha Giang throughout the trip. From time to time, we were soaking in the views without a camera in front of our faces. It was nice to know someone else that was soaking the experience in as much as me. Anna, was the other companion. She is an energetic and witty young woman who has this infectious laugh. Her ability to connect with others and enjoy any moment, good or bad, made her an excellent travel companion. She also turned out to be a master photographer with her iPhone! The three of us bonded and enjoyed our long commute. It was a luxurious ride in a fancy conversion van with reclinable seats, water, and a blanket. The ride allowed everyone to begin the bonding process. In addition, this was the time when we started to understand that Cuong is the definition of a people person, as well as a social scientist. Overall, the entire group hit it off pretty strong. Everyone was engaging and asking meaningful questions about one another’s life. After talking with Cuong for a little bit you begin to figure him out as a person. He’s personable in every aspect and passionate about his work- both components needed for a successful entrepenuer. He deeply cares about connecting tourism to supporting the people in a meaningful and authentic way. He has a wonderful family and his life story is simply interesting. He’s quite the guy.
Once we arrived in the province we settled at a Coung’s home in order to debrief on our trip through the eastern loop of the Ha Giang. We went over safety, what to expect, and overall expectations from us as travelers. After a few go around on the motorbike- we were off.
The first day drive featured typical Asian countryside- rice fields, water buffalo, stone or wood houses, etc. The drive views were spectacular as we winded through the meandering roads on the mountainsides. The round top mountains without an industrial zone in sight and fresh greenery offered the group breaths of clean mountain air- a much better treat than the urbanized Hanoi air. Best of all, we passed villagers in their vibrant colorful attire while they carried various goods on their backpack baskets. The villager’s cloths are essentially a rainbow arrangement, but in a tasteful manner that you surprisingly warm up too. For the most part the journey was reasonably smooth sailing except a few muddy isolated spots. I felt comfortable given the fact that Myanmar can challenge the best of us at driving a motorbike so I felt reasonably prepared for whatever Ha Giang offered me. At one point, one of the crew members almost had a scary spill of a cliff, which would have put quite the damper on our trip. Fortunately, after a few hours of riding and some close calls with other riders (traversing mud and some people falling); we made it to the first homestay.
The homestay was an incredible experience. We met the family and they were adorable. It was a four generation family under one roof. They are Hmong villagers, which is a specific tribe with their own language. Cuong could communicate with them in Vietnamese, but the family also had their own language, Hmong. Ultimately, that means only certain villagers can communicate with one another if they speak the tribal tongue, which has no script and solely practiced orally. It was an extremely interesting cultural dynamic to be exposed too knowing that Cuong could not also fully understand the family like the rest of us.
The family fed us and gave everyone a place to sleep, but the overall experience was much more than that. We could tell they didn’t feel the need to entertain us, which made it feel like an authentic experience. The group communicated to the family through Cuong. We shared simple stories and merely had small talk. After a busy day of riding we were all extremely hunger, so you can imagine a group of foodies priorities are at that point. A delicious dinner was prepared and devoured. It was some of the best food I’ve eaten in Southeast Asia and everything made was from the farm. The family clearly appreciated out appetite and love for the finer things in life, such as good food and company. However, what is a Vietnamese dinner without rice wine? The family was overly generous with their home brew and none of us were going to deny their rice wine (it helped keep us warm). I spent some time admiring the family premises after dinner. The entire home was beautiful and well built. As I walked around I saw the entire group settled by the fire in the other room. I brought Uno cards with me and decided to see if the group would want to play. Incredibly, the father of the homestay joined and despite the language barrier- he played and won a few games. There is something to be said that despite not speaking the same language we were able to communicate through colors, hand-signs , and numbers. It also helps that Cuong intervened about halfway through to clear up any issues. We played for about two hours and the laughter never stopped (rice wine helps with additional laughter). The whole family watched and we shared some truly fun memories together- as total strangers. Quite remarkable.
A note about the villagers. They live in a pretty advanced set up compared to many Shan Myanmar homes that I’ve seen. Their farm provides everything that they need and mostly everything there was hand built by the family. Any amenity they want they had to build or learn how to built it. This is true for the Burmese villagers I have seen, but the quality of work done by the Hmong was simply higher quality. For example, solar panels can be bought, but knowing how to use them is a trade. The father and son wired their house for electricity with reasonably sophisticated panels whereas many Burmese homes don’t have the elaborate set-up as I saw at the homestay. The farming is a family practice passed down over generations. The grandmother appeared to feed the animals And cleans up the area. The son was responsible for the helping the father and the women seemed to fill in the gaps on the property. Overall, it’s a self run system and everyone has a job. It seems like the ideal place for the kind of people who want to “get off the grid”.
The next morning we were woken up by roosters, which quite frankly didn’t bother me because I was able to witness an incredible sunrise. I did however wake up freezing cold and proceeded to walk around the premises like a human burrito in my blanket. The group ate breakfast and we parted our ways from the family. Once again, The family was truly hospitable and quite remarkable. I was grateful for their company and the ability to share some laughs.
The second day offered us views of round top mountains that you would see in King Kong. The mountains always gave me a sigh of relaxation. I could see rice terraces as far as the horizon. The higher elevations offered less foliage (evergreens ever so often) and grey scaled craggily looking mountains. The cold currents were bone chilling at times and the sun was a beacon of warmth for us. We stopped multiple times to take pictures and even took part in a small hike up a mountain side. As we hiked up the mountain we saw a woman making her own fabric on a spinning wheel. In addition, we saw the village women hiking up the mountain with a basket full of wood. They were hardly breaking a sweat whereas the rest of us hiking were gasping for breath. The goat paths in the distance are quite shocking as they carve through the mountain landscape and the goats effortless climb up and down the steep inclines. You see village women in their colorful attire trekking the mountains to harvest crops and cut trees. At the top of the mountain, you see an entrance to a cave. It was worth the hike and was truly spectacular.
After some more driving we were greeted with lunch was a saving grace to get warm and then we even were given a cupping massage. The massage was different for sure and at times I questioned it’s practical use. I’m use to Myanmar or Thai massages, which are quite pleasant and soothing. However, my Vietnamese masseuse did make me laugh because she was constantly comparing my thigh diameter to the size of her waist and the fact that my arms are the size of her legs. All jokes aside she could literally cripple me to the ground with her hand strength (at one point she did). It also helps that I was tickled the entire time and she found that amusing. If that wasn’t bad enough then both of my companions Anna and Kayanna were laughing at me during the whole process of size comparison and hearing me giggle like a little boy when I felt tickled. My pain was their pleasure. Best of all the group of us were all asked to take off our cloths (except underwear) for the massage. Keep in mind, we met 24 hours ago. Each of us started at one another and said “uh what?” There was a thin curtain, but the initial demand made us all laugh a bit. We jumped up multiple levels of comfort after this experience, which we all laughed about during the massage. The masseuses couldn’t quite figure out what to do with us except laugh along (or at us).
Although the massage was an experience to say the least, the end of the day featured great views and stunning scenery. There were little girls walking around with farm tools and cutting up potatoes to eat like an apple. They were giggling as we drove by and questioning who we were. I felt the need to talk to them, but the language barrier makes that incredible difficult. Instead, I am forced to wave and smile. Fortunately, that elicits a giggly laugh. Their smiles were infectious and you can’t help but smile back at their innocence. Making eye contact with the little girls caused my heart to skip a few beats primarily because their pure innocence and livelihood made me question my own life choices. I am reasonably sure that those girls know more about life than I do in many ways. Between the kids playing and the scenery I felt like I was looking at a NatGeo picture every time I turned my head in this part of the region. After we saw the little girls, we made it to the second homestay (which isn’t quite as nice as the other homestay, but still cozy) and bundled down for the night for a long day of driving on our final day.
We ate breakfast with the family and set off. We thanked the family for their hospitality, but before leaving we had to play with the dog more and take some quick photos. Both homestay families were excellent people and they merely wanted us to be happy. Their homes are not filled with “stuff”, but instead warm hearts.
The drive away was pleasant and we were greeted with immediate views of livestock, impressive high terrain rice terraces, and a valley-like gorge that reminded me of Denali National Park in AK. You’re staring at this beautiful landscape wondering how millions of years of erosion could have resulted in this beautiful natural sculpture. To be truthful, I looked out for a good 60 seconds before wanting to drive off. Try to stare at something for 60 Seconds… it’s quite a long time of silence that many of us are not accustomed to in this fast paced modern society. The pure smell of fresh mountain air, the sound of nothing, but your own thoughts, and the sensation of being so small on this massive geologic setting was a moment of euphoria. The middle-earth like scenery was truly fantastic and I knew that no photo I took could capture the moment in its entirety. I couldn’t help but feel beyond small; almost immeasurable. It was the raw nature moment of Vietnam I was looking for.
In closing, the journey was incredible. I would recommend visiting Ha Giang to anyone and more specifically- with Positive Tours. My travel companions, Kayana and Anna were charismatic, adventurous, charming, and pleasant people. They made the trip fun. Each enjoyed to laugh, drink homemade rice wine, eat as much as me, and roll around in blankets at 10pm like burritos as if we were 11 years old. Cuong, our guide, is the epitome of what every tour group desires a guide to be as well as what People seek in a good quality human-being. He radiates compassion, empathy, business intelligence, and is passionate about his work connecting his business to supporting local causes. Cuong even goes above and beyond by recommending other activities within Vietnam and any potential advice he has- he offers.
Although Cuong brought the group to incredible places, the visual sights alone do not make for a great trip. For me the experience is made not by the place, but by the people I have met in each place to share the same memory with. Those moments are captured in photographs, but the sensations and feelings are memories withheld between each individual. Each of my travel companions all made the trip memorable for me not by taking photographs, but for sharing unforgettable moments together and for that- I thank each of you.
Thank you for everything Cuong and the Positive Tour Group,