Ma Pi Leng Pass - A legend carved



One of the most popular destinations for travelers over recent years has been Ha Giang, for its magnificent beauty of terraced fields, forests, mountains, and Dong Van’s stunning karst plateau, with its highest peak, Ma Pi Leng, standing at 1200 metres above sea level.


Standing on Ma Pi Leng peak, it’s as through you could reach up and touch the white clouds. From here an exotic panorama presents itself before your eyes, with imposing rocky mountains and deep valleys cut by the charming Nho Que River. Like a silk scarf, Con Duong Hanh Phuc ( The Road Of Happiness) winds its way around mountains and is regarded as the Silk Road of the region, because without it the area would be all but closed off.



Dong Van karst plateau was a hidden, unknown gem before the road was built. Giant rocky mountain ranges blocked entry to outsiders and kept local people largely hemmed in. More than 80,000 ethnic minority people in the highlands never knew a real road. For generations they climbed oer mountain paths, on foot and sometimes on horseback. A trip to nearest town could take a month. Life was difficult, short of food and clean water and separated from the modern world.


After relative peace came to north, in 1959 the government decided to build a 200-kilometre road to connect the centre of Ha Giang and Dong Van plateau, including the four districts of Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac, helping the area eliminate its dire poverty.


It was no easy task. In its 80 years of dominion over Vietnam the French had tried to construct a similar road but only managed 17 kilometres. Lacking modern machinery and equipment, the Vietnamese people nonetheless believed they could succeed whre the French had failed. But Ha Giang need help from elsewhere. Responding to the call, tens of thousands of young people, including volunteers from 16 ethnic minority groups in eight northern provinces, gathered together to break through the rocky ranges and pave a new way and a new life for their poor brothers and sisters.


With basic tools like hammers, crowbars, hoes, and shovels, and some explosives, the people carved out the road centimeter by centimeter until it stretched 200 kilometres in length at a width of 4.5 metres.

To encourage a working spirit, the youngsters started a compettion, as one of them, Nguyen Manh Thuy, told to local media. Whoever could bore into the mountain at the largest depth was the champion of the day. The best effort was a 4.7-metre dig in just eight hours.


The geography of mountains, valleys and streams often meant a hundred metres of road took several months to build. But the greatest difficulty came after 1,000 days of construction, when they faced Ma Pi Leng. In the local H’mong language, Ma Pi Leng means “the bridge of a horse’s nose”, implying the shape of the peak and perhaps the fact that horses found breathing difficult when ridden to the peak in days gone by. Continuing the road required carving out a mountain pass, but how could this be done with just basic tools ? It was here that the real legend of The Road of Happiness came to be.



A “suicide” squad of 17 of the most courageous members of the crew was assembled. They climbed the cliffs of Ma Pi Leng and ties themselves by rope to a big old tree. The they hung on a cliff some 56 metres from the peak, as they worked on the pass. Together with tents went coffins, as many made the ultimate sacrifice.” Every morning we held a commemoration to ourselves to the rope and descending from the peak, “Nguyen Viet Cho, a member of the squad, told to local media.


Hanging on the cliff face in the middle of clouds and wind, these brave souls bored small holes into the cliff with crowbars and hammers and placed explosives inside. As each explosion broke a block of rock the size of a football, their happiness also broke out, said Cho.


The squad then received a drill to quicken the pace and finish their work on the cliff face. Eleven months had yielded a 22-kilometre mountain pass, connecting Dong Van and Meo Vac. With nine sections zigzagging around vertical cliffs and deep into the valley. Ma Pi Leng Pass, regarded as “Vietnam’s Great Wall” became one of the most perilous passes in the north and, later, an alluring challenge for adventure travelers.



During the long battle to overcome the rocky “enemy” and complete the road, the brave souls had to also fight other battles.

After completing the first nine kilometers of the road they were harassed constantly by bandits from region’s drug industry, according to Thuy. Only after the bandit leaders were captured could they continue the task. A vigilant team was assigned to guard the workers every day.


For thousand of days, with post-war hardships very much the reality, their meals consisted of only rice, vegetables and salt, and their accommodation were shacks. But the lack of water was the greatest difficulty. Thuy recalled. “In the middle of the rocky highlands, water was gold” he said “We were given a bucket of water a day. Thus, with each mug of water, to save the golden resource, we creatively “recycle” it, when brushing our teeth, washing our faces, and washing our gloves or sharpening our tools”. Bathing was luxury they could scarcely afford, even thought their bodies were caked with dust. “Having a bath required a day off” Thuy smile. “We had to walk for the whole afternoon to return. When we got back we were then “bathed” in sweat.”


Besides the harsh living conditions they also faced mosquitoes and malaria, not to mention the ever-present threat of death from falling rocks or other accidents. Fourteen members of the squad rest here forever.

After six years and more than 2.2 million workdays carving out nearly 3 million cubic metres of rock, The Road of Happiness was completed in 1965, testament to the blood, sweat and tears of innumerable brave hearts of strong minds.


Their sacrifice lives on. Vehicles take on the mountains of Ha Giang with relative ease. After thousands of years of living in poverty and remote from modern life, ethnic minority people on the plateau now easily and quickly access the outside world. More and more investors have come and kick-started the local economy. And millions of travelers unknowingly express their gratitude through photos and stories about the incredible beauty of the country’s most exotic rock plateau, the road, and Ma Pi Leng pass.

The Guide

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