My first glimpse of the place that some call Shangri-La came on a brisk spring afternoon as we were careening along a narrow road hemmed in by sheer limestone walls. Our driver made a hairpin turn and all at once the landscape erupted into a sweep of dazzling slopes, serrated ridges and hanging valleys. In the pocket of a mountain pass called Heavena��s Gate, Hoang Tuan Anh, who also served as our guide, stopped his pickup truck so we could gaze at the vista of radiant sky that had opened up before us. This was only the beginning, Mr. Anh said, as we resumed our upward drive. a�?We will go as high as the clouds!a�?
My husband, my daughter and I had been in Vietnam nearly a month before we visited Ha Giang province in the northern reaches of the country. It was a place I had never heard of, but Vietnamese acquaintances talked about the region as if it were the Land of Oz, their eyes widening as they incanted its name (pronounced Ha ZAHNG). Worldly young Hanoians said that one could not truly consider oneself Vietnamese until having been there. Expatriate friends implored us not to squander any opportunity to experience this holy grail, far from the countrya��s deeply trodden tourist track.
Such reverence, we soon learned, was warranted, and it wasna��t just because of the regiona��s spectacular landscape. In an ever-shrinking world, Ha Giang, with its uniquely preserved tribal culture (nearly 90 percent of the population is ethnic minorities), is one of those rare places that hasna��t been corralled by modernity or prepackaged for visitors. At least, not yet. During the past two decades, as Vietnama��s lowlands and urban centers have teetered on tracks of globalization and economic development, much of this distant 5,000-square-mile province has remained detached and frozen in the past.
That isolation has been reinforced by strained politics, but in recent years, border tensions stemming from a 1979 Chinese invasion have thawed, the government has poured money into improving the provincea��s roads and other infrastructure, and new, albeit modest, hotels have arrived. Middle-class Vietnamese already appear in throngs, and foreign visitors have begun trickling in as well a�� last year some 3,500 foreign tourists visited the region. That figure seems poised to grow since the Dong Van plateau, at the provincea��s northernmost edge, was named the countrya��s firstA�Unesco-designated Global Geopark earlier this month, a status that the organization bestows on places of significant geological and cultural heritage. The 900-square-mile plateau is studded with ethereal karst formations, evidence of tectonic events that started molding the area over 400 million years ago.
It was that plateau that beckoned to us, as it does to most travelers who venture to the region.
The overnight train from Hanoi deposited us at dawn in Lao Cai, a blustery northern city about 70 miles west of Ha Giang. There we boarded a crammed local bus that chugged for eight hours through misty hills. We spent part of the afternoon lodged in a mudslide, only to be rescued by a hydraulic backhoe doubling as a tow truck. Our 11-month-old daughter craned her head and stared quizzically through it all, as if we were toting her through some particularly mountainous corner of the Upper West Side.