It sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s like you take a happy little wander along Happiness Road and then where will you end up? Happy Town, right? Nope, sorry. You’ll end up in Meo Vac which isn’t as bad as all that but isn’t quite Heaven.
As you drive along it, you will likely feel very happy as it is an absolute joy to drive. However, spare a thought for the poor souls who broke their backs building it, especially those that, unfortunately, lost their lives.
Why was it built?
This strip of road (185Km) connects then Ha Giang Town (now city) to the remote districts of Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac. It is said that the road was built with the aim of helping the highlanders gain access to the plains. However, the cynic in me suggests that it was all about getting the rich mineral deposits from the highlands for the benefit of the lowlanders.
It would be without doubt that better communication links brought prosperity and a slow rise in living conditions to the highlanders. Interestingly, it wasn’t really until 2010 when the Ministry of Tourism really began to promote the Province that conditions really began to improve at any pace.
Before the road was built, there was obviously a route but it took many days on foot or by cart to get from Meo Vac to Ha Giang. The road improved this immensely. Happiness road certainly has enabled the highlanders to improve their lives at a much faster rate than if it wasn’t there.
The road was built between 1959 and 1965 by over 1,000 local ethnic workers in from 16 ethnic groups in Ha Giang Province. These highland workers had assistance from 1,300 volounteers from 6 mountain provinces (Cao Bang, Bac Kan, Lang Son, Thai Nguyen, Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang) and 2 delta provinces (Nam Dinh, Hai Duong).
Over the 7 years that it took, an estimated 2 million working days were poured into the construction and a recorded 14 lives were lost. There is a memorial cemetery in Yen Minh to commemorate those that died in the construction of the road.
In these times, there wasn’t any modern construction equipment. Even nowadays, you will see gangs of workers on the road using very antiquated tools. It was even worse back then, if you can imagine. Tools available were hoes, shovels crowbars, hammers and wheelbarrows and the only force, other than very dangerous mini mines, was manpower.
These workers had to suffer extreme heat in the sweltering Summer and icy cold in the Winter. On top of this, they frequently ran out of salt, fresh vegetables and clean water. The icing on the cake was that the work they were required to carry out was often extremely dangerous and there was no safety equipment.
The workers would joke that their path to ‘Happiness’ would be straight down into the Tu San Gorge and only when they were lying at the bottom would they achieve it.
From its beginning in Ha Giang, Happiness road starts out with around 20Km of flat easy terrain. Then, it ascends and descends high mountain passes and winds along narrow mountain slopes. It creeps through thick pine forests in Yen Minh and up onto exposed karst Plateau through Dong Van before plunging down the Nho Que Valley into Meo Vac.
The old hazards have now been removed somewhat but there are new ones to contend with. Increased motorization and traffic on the road mean that you nee to pay close attention to other road users.
There is the occasionally landslide and the elements are as temperamental as ever. Watch out for mist, fog and heavy rain which will reduce visibility and most importantly: stopping distance.
When to Visit?
Happiness Road is a wonderful road to drive no matter what season you visit. The Summer is hot and makes the waterfalls and streams inviting. The Winter is cold but dry and clear so offer excellent views. The Spring and Autumn can be changeable but generally offer the best of both worlds.
Allow yourself between 3 to 6 days to really explore the area and you will have an excellent time that will take a long time to forget.