Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Heaven’s Gate in the rain (day 1 in Ha Giang)


I finally made it up to Ha Giang. I’ve been wanting to go to this part of northern Vietnam for years, but always found a reason, or made an excuse, not to. Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northernmost province, on the border with China, and is home to twisting mountain passes, otherworldly limestone cliffs (or karsts), barren rocky plateaus and lush green rice terraces. The best way to travel through this province is by motorbike and, while I am happy driving my Honda Wave through the chaotic traffic of Hanoi, I’d always been wary about taking on the mountain roads of Ha Giang. But, finally, I spent a few days there at the beginning of last month,  driving through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. I spent half of my time thinking, “I should have done this years ago.”

Early November isn’t the best time to visit the province. The rice harvest is pretty much over and the weather, as I soon found out, is especially unpredictable. On the first day, we drove from Ha Giang City to Quan Ba. Unfortunately, the weather was very much against us. Persistent, heavy rain made driving difficult and the views, not to mention the road ahead, almost invisible. Most of my attention was focused on keeping my motorbike upright, avoiding the numerous potholes in the road and negotiating slippery hairpin bends. My impractical, lightweight trainers were soaked through within minutes of leaving Ha Giang City, so my feet were frozen. Rain had been forecast, but I was expecting drizzle, the occasional shower, not this relentless downpour. I’d like to say that I kept my spirits up and remained optimistic about the rest of the trip, but in reality, I got very grumpy and felt like going home.

As we approached Tam Son town, the sky cleared very slightly, and I was able to take this one half-decent photograph. This mountain pass is known as Heaven’s Gate; the view is undoubtedly impressive, and is one of the iconic images of the region. But the light, on this day, was flat and uninspiring. It’s not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it does provide an accurate record of the day. Fortunately, the weather, my mood and the photographs improved over the next few days, as I hope you’ll see over my next couple of posts.


You are cordially invited to join me on Instagram, where I’m re-posting my favourite pictures from the last five years, one per day, in no particular order.


2 Responses to “Heaven’s Gate in the rain (day 1 in Ha Giang)”

  1. Alison and Don

    The landscape looks ethereal. I look forward to your next posts. I think I would love to travel in such a place. Can you recommend a better time of year?

    • Jon Sanwell

      Yes, ethereal is definitely the word for it. I think the weather is always unpredictable up in Ha Giang, but it seems like September / October is a good time to go. There’s a better chance of warm, dry weather, and great colours in the rice fields.


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