Ha GiangAfter landing in Hanoi from Da Nang we were met at the airport for our tour around Ha Giang Province. With it’s uniquely preserved tribal culture (nearly 90 percent of the population is ethnic minorities) much of this distant 5,000-square-mile province has remained detached and frozen in the past, only opened to outside tourists after border tensions stemming from a 1979 Chinese invasion have thawed, the government has poured money into improving the province’s roads and other infrastructure.

Our first major stop was Pac Ngoi and Ba Bể Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Vietnam. Formed approximately 200 million years ago, the lake is actually three lakes joined together - The lake comprises three zones named Pé Lầm, Pé Lù, and Pé Lèng and is surrounded by limestone cliffs, which in turn are covered by forests. The area was established as a national preserved forest and tourist centre in 1978, before being established as Vietnam's eighth national park in 1992. It was recently recognised by UNESCO as an important wetland. Located 145m above sea level, the lake has an average depth of 20-25m and its deepest part is 35m.

We took a pleasurable boat ride on the lake and from there we would continue on Meo Vac and Mai Pi Leng Pass. There is a scenic lookout at the top of the pass but unfortunately, it was extremely foggy and there was not much that we could see.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

Ha GiangWe hoped to visit several markets during our tour, of which the Dong Van Sunday Market was the first. The market is located in the community of Dong Van Old Quarter and is a major center of economic commodity trade and exchange for the upland ethnic groups.

They’ll start as soon as 3:00 am traveling from their mountain homes, many on foot. Members of the Dao, Mong, Tay, Nuong, Giay, Lo Lo tribes, most in their colorful costumes. In addition to trading and exchanging goods, people come to Dong Van market to exchange relations, meet people, gather friends, and especially mingle as a dating place of boys and girls.

The number of textiles on offer was simply amazing. Add to this farming equipment, baskets, and shoes. There were lineups of girls holding chickens and one with pigs in tightly woven baskets. Next to one market was a market for buffaloes. With buyers and sellers looking over the animals.

Plentiful food was on offer with nothing to waste. We sat at tables and had some Phở. The weather in the morning was cold but the sun would bring warmth to the activities. It was a feast for the eyes as well as the senses, better than anything I saw in China. After lunch, the vendors would begin to pack up their wares. What I had witnessed exceeded my expectations and I thanked my guides for bringing me to these markets.

Ha Giang province gave us a great window into the country and the people there were as interested in us as we were in them. Most tourists do not travel further than Hanoi or Sapa and we were glad that we explored the countryside further afield.

Water Buffalo

Ha GiangThe water buffalo plays an important role in Vietnam's agrarian economy and history and has become a powerful symbol in Vietnamese culture.

In the larger markets, dealers from China’s Yunnan Province will also attend where they buy buffalos mainly for meat to sell to their local Muslim community.

Experienced dealers don’t use scales to weigh buffalos, instead, they go around the animal to check the length and width of their body, and clap the bottom of the animal to check its muscle. From there they can estimate the animal's weight with remarkable accuracy.

In the wild, they are about seven feet tall on average and weigh about 2,500 pounds (1,100 kilograms). However, domesticated buffaloes are smaller in size.