Sleepy Bac Ha wakes up for the riot of colour and commerce that is its Sunday market, when the lanes fill to choking point and villagers flock in from the hills and valleys. Once the barter, buy and sell is done and the day-tripper tourist buses from Sapa have left, the town rolls over and goes back to bed for the rest of the week.
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu (DBP) plays a star role in Vietnam's modern history. It was in the surrounding countryside here, on 7 May 1954, that the French colonial forces were defeated by the Viet Minh in a decisive battle, and the days of their Indochina empire became numbered. The town sits in the heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley, surrounded by heavily forested hills.
Ha Giang Province
Ha Giang is the final frontier in northern Vietnam, an amazing landscape of limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops. The far north of the province has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, and the trip between Yen Minh and Dong Van, and then across the Mai Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac is quite mind-blowing.
Ha Giang is somewhere to recharge the batteries on the long road north. This town, bisected by the broad river Lo, is a provincial capital with clean streets and an understated ambience. The main drag is P Nguyen Trai, which runs north–south paralleling the west bank of the Lo for 3km or so. You’ll find hotels, banks and restaurants on this road.
Lao Cai is squeezed right next to the Vietnam–China border. Razed in the Chinese invasion of 1979, most of the buildings here are modern. The border crossing slammed shut during the 1979 war and only reopened in 1993. Now it’s a bustling spot fuelled by growing cross-border trade.
Son La has prospered as a logical transit point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. It’s not a must-see destination, but the surrounding scenery is impressive, and there are a few interesting diversions. The region is one of Vietnam’s most ethnically diverse and home to more than 30 different minorities, including Black Thai, Meo, Muong and White Thai.
Dong Van is the Ha Giang region's most popular overnight stop. The main road through town isn't particularly inspiring, but in the old quarter a clutch of traditional Hmong houses still clings on and timing your visit to be here for the chaotic Sunday market is highly recommended.
After passing through one of Vietnam’s remotest regions, the new eight-lane boulevards and monumental government buildings of Lai Chau appear like some kind of bizarre mirage. Formerly known as Tam Duong, this isolated town was renamed Lai Chau when the decision was made to flood ‘old’ Lai Chau (now Muong Lay).
From Tam Son to Dong Van
From Tam Son, Ha Giang province's main mountain pass road connects to Dong Van, first trundling onto the sleepy town of Yen Minh. The Thao Nguyen Hotel, on the main street through town, opposite the Agribank ATM, has well-kept, colourful rooms, but it's worth pushing on to overnight in Dong Van.
The small town of Tam Son lies in a valley at the end of the Quan Ba Pass. On Sundays there's a good market with ethnic minorities, including White Hmong, Red Dzao, Tay and Giay. There's also good accommodation at the guesthouse Nha Nghi Nui Doi with seven light-filled, simple rooms.
Quan Ba Pass
Leaving Ha Giang, the road climbs over the Quan Ba Pass (Heaven’s Gate) around 40km from the city. Poetic licence is a national pastime in Vietnam, but this time the romantics have it right. The road winds over a saddle and opens up on to an awesome vista of knobbly topped limestone mountains.