“We would like to invite you to join us,” says a red-faced man to me and my friend.
He gestures to a plastic bottle filled with an opaque substance.
Next to us, a group of men are throwing back beers and chain-smoking cigarettes, and behind them, two men are rounding off a drinking session with Red Bull.
I sit down and wave my hand over the shot glass, to indicate that I am game. The man gleefully splashes two measures, one for the table and one for me. His buddy laughs. We raise our glasses and drink.
I wince and reach for my water, to take away the sting. The minute my glass has touched the table, my new friend is preparing a second round.
There is nothing wrong with this display of friendliness, you might think – except that it is 7am and we came into the cafe in search of a morning cup of coffee.
But nothing is ever really normal in Ha Giang, Vietnam’s final frontier.
Ha Giang (pronounced “hazhang”) province, the nation’s poorest, lies at the northern tip of Vietnam, just below the Chinese border. This wild, rugged area is still very much off the beaten tourist path.
Here, fluttering bright pink or orange scarves denote different tribal ethnicities; loudspeakers hail the merits of communism around the clock; and the sight of three pigs and four chickens balanced on a motorbike behind its rider is a common one.
The best way to take in Ha Giang’s high rocky mountain passes, black stone forests and the meandering Lo River, which snakes through the province’s endless valleys, is from the seat of your own motorbike.
WE START OUR TRIP in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, taking a seven-hour night bus to the transit town of Lao Cai.
The bus has fully reclinable seats made for dwarfs, flashing disco lights and a television blasting Vietnamese music videos on a constant loop, none of which make for a good night’s sleep. From nondescript Lao Cai we take a minibus for the five-hour journey to Ha Giang town, where we arrive on a cold, crisp morning.
Laid out along a two-lane street, the town consists mostly of hair salons, mobile-phone shops and the occasional “cafeteria”. It’s not pretty but it does have a Wild West feel, something we will become used to in these parts; heads turn as you enter a market or cafe and dust kicks up at your heels as you leave.
With a hand-drawn map embellished with asterixes marking the areas of interest and towns in which we can stay the night serving as a route planner, we leave Ha Giang bright and early the next morning, on motorbikes hired in town for 300,000 dong (HK$110) a day.
As we make our way up mountain passes, I breathe in fresh country air, happy to be out of polluted Hanoi. The road climbs steadily to reveal mosscoloured valleys below. We pass colourfully dressed women marching up hills with bundles of wood and grass balanced precariously on their heads and men working in the fields, their mudstained black Hmong trousers pulled high and pointed conical hats shielding them from the sun.
In each village we ride through, dirtsmudged children stream out of doorways to greet us with a flurry of “heroooo”s, soon followed by “byeeee”s.
Motorbikes whizz past carrying all kinds of livestock and agricultural goods. On one bike perches a family of four with a full set of farmyard animals while another putters past, its driver giving a lift to a giant potted orange tree, his wife and a child.
Our accommodation options are limited; each village has one hotel and one hotel only. Their entrances tend to be dusty and empty, and a good five minutes of yelling is needed before someone emerges, surprised to find a paying guest.
The rooms, which are set at the price of 200,000 dong per night, are surprisingly big and comfy, if a bit dated in decoration.
Technically, all foreigners need to register and receive a permit to travel through the area. This dates back to the conflict that arose in the early 1990s between the Hmong population of Vietnam and China. We have been informed that the hotels can provide the permit at a cost of US$20, but no such document is requested from any of the hotels we check into.
Food options are limited, too. We soon discover that breakfast, lunch and dinner are consumed in very short bursts.
Dinner is served – in cafeterias that are effectively people’s living rooms opened up to house a number of tables and chairs – strictly between 5.30pm and 7pm. Go on the hunt any later and you’ll find very slim pickings.
Given that we share no common language with our hosts, a lot of gesticulating goes into ordering food. On one occasion, our mooing noises are returned with frantic head nodding so we assume beef is on the menu, only to find it is dog. Luckily, we spot the evidence – a lonely looking cooked paw sitting on top of a pile of meat – before eating.
The villages and towns snap to life at dawn. In Yen Minh, I wake with the sunrise to a town in full swing. Crowds of Hmong women, wearing vivid pink and green headdresses, and men, carrying bamboo baskets of corn and vegetables, are making their way to the market.
Inside, traders hustle chickens, bamboo rods, herbs and plastic slippers.
On the last of our three days in the province, as we chase the sun back towards Ha Giang town, we stop to join a group of boys playing football in a rice field. Their deflated ball doesn’t offer much to kick at but their enthusiasm is contagious. Women wrapped in ethnic gear cheer us on from the roadside.
We reluctantly leave the happy scene and, with a chorus of “byeeee”s ringing in our ears and the wild northern landscape ribboning behind us, make our way back towards the haze of Hanoi.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) and Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) fly from Hong Kong to Hanoi. Direct overnight buses from Hanoi to Ha Giang are available or you can take a bus going in the direction of Sapa, stop at Lao Cai and catch a bus from there to Ha Giang (five hours). Motorbikes can be rented in town from Rocky Plateau ([email protected]). Tours with an English-speaking guide are also available from Hanoi, from companies such as Exotissimo Travel (exotissimo.com) and Free Wheelin’ Tours (freewheelin-tours.com).