In Ha Gianga��s sleepy provincial capital, the city of Ha Giang, we were met by Mr. Anh, our guide ofA�Tay ethnicity with whom we had arranged a three-day tour a�� first to Dong Van, a town that was less than two miles from the Chinese border, and then along a mountain road to the town of Meo Vac. Mr. Anh escorted us to the concrete headquarters of the immigration police to procure $10 permits from an unsmiling official. Although the requirement was abolished in most of the country in 1993, foreigners are still expected to obtain permits to tour Ha Giang, a Communist rite of the rubber-stamping variety so seldom experienced by travelers in modern Vietnam as to seem almost quaint.
Later, as we barreled past the limits of Ha Giang city into the areaa��s remarkable landscape, Mr. Anh, a garrulous man in his late 30s who had studied in England and lived in Hanoi before returning to his native Ha Giang, recounted how his parents would spend days during their youth walking the winding route to Dong Van before there were paved roads. Our trip, he said, would take a mere six hours.
The story of Ha Giang is in many ways the story of the proud and independentA�HmongA�who, following the Tay and other ethnic groups, began migrating there in the late 18th century, fleeing unrest in southern China. In Ha Giang, they found the high altitudes they were accustomed to, and alkaline soil in which theirA�opiumA�poppy crops would flourish.
Buffeted by the political winds that blew through Vietnam in the past century, the Hmong and other minorities occasionally rebelled but mostly cooperated with the French colonists and, subsequently, with the ruling Viet Minh, who promised them a degree of autonomy in exchange for their support. (They ultimately reneged on that promise.) The overriding desire to remain free and secure was challenged during the 1979 Chinese invasion; border flare-ups persisted for years, but by 1991, relations were normalized between the two countries, and negotiations led to a final decision last year about where the 800-mile border would be. Although one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, with little industry besides mining and agriculture, Ha Giang was once again safe for the Hmong and others, and visitors began to show up.
Mr. Anh expounded on this history as we huddled around a table in the blue-walled dining room of the RockyA�PlateauA�Hotel, a former government guesthouse on Dong Vana��s main thoroughfare that he had recently acquired and renovated as a 16-room hotel with creature comforts (hot water, satellite television) and a degree of modern flair (airy white lobby, faux Pop Art paintings). Our room, oddly appointed with three queen-size beds, was comfortable, fitted with wooden furniture and a window looking out at a breathtaking wall of dappled rock. This would be our base for the next three days, under the affable care of Mr. Anh and his staff of polite local teenagers.A�travel to vietnam