Hanoi was great to get a first taste of Vietnam. But after a few days in the city and touring its highlights, it was time for serious adventure again. Aris, a fellow traveler and photographer whom I met in Myanmar, recommended traveling all the way up North to tour the province of Ha Giang by motorbike. By many this remote and mysterious area is regarded as Vietnam’s final frontier. Bordering China’s Yunnan Province, the region boasts nature as you have probably never seen it. Massive limestone walls, granite outcrops everywhere, hanging valleys, rice terraces climbing to the clouds and winding roads carved into the mountains. This alone sounded like a great adventure but combined with the ubiquitous presence of the local hill tribes, mostly the proud Black Hmong, this tour quickly became a must do on our Vietnam itinerary.
“Why would you want to go there? Tourists don’t go there.” was a common reply from locals, accompanied with a look which was a mix of confusion and reverence, we received when explaining our plans. Before heading to Ha Giang City, the region’s capital, we got in touch with Ha Giang local Nguyên. The contact with Nguyên, a super welcoming and helpful guy working at Ha Giang Resort, was established by Aris and he was supposed to pre-arrange a decent motorbike for us. All of the conversation happened via Facebook and some short text messages, so we left Hanoi with a little bit of uncertainty since we heard motorbikes can sometimes be hard to arranged up there.
Transport to Ha Giang is surprisingly easy. A comfortable sleeper bus leaves several times daily (and at night) from My Dinh station. For a more than 8 hour ride the price of 200.000 VND is absolutely fair. We arrived in the sleepy town of Ha Giang City in the later afternoon and had the bus driver drop us off on the town’s main road. We quickly found a nice hotel for around 250.000 VND, settled in and I sent a final message to Nguyên. Things continued to fall into place as we met up with him the next morning at his resort where he showed us our ride – a sweet 125cc Honda, looking crisp and clean. After a small breakfast at the resorts restaurant we finally took off. First stop Dong Van.
Day 1: Ha Giang City to Dong Van (145 km)
The weather was perfect with the sun out shining bright, no clouds and a fresh breeze blowing in our faces as we started to drive into the Northern Vietnamese mountains. With the best still to come, the scenery was already amazing. As we were climbing up the narrow road, sheer limestone cliffs and surrounding mountains became our constant companions.
We stopped here and there but our first stop would be a small village not too far from Ha Giang. We just had a rough description of how to get there and where to turn but we eventually found it. Taking a hidden side road, crossing a rusty and suspiciously careening and creaking hanging bridge, we pulled into a small and very modest village. As usual the first ones to greet us were the local kids, screaming and shouting wondering what these strange visitors were up to. After wandering around the village for a while, I noticed a small and house with smoke rising out of its little chimney. I was attracted by loud laughter coming from the inside and I decided to give in to my curiosity and have a quick peek. As soon as the family inside spotted me, there was no turning back. I was happily welcomed and dragged inside. It was dim inside with only a couple of windows letting a bit of light in and the room was filled with thick smoke from the fireplace. It seemed to be one big family with several kids, their parents, grandparents and what seemed to be aunts and uncles.
The very vital grandmother instantly offered us some homemade rice wine. As guests you can’t refuse such an offer so we went along and had one and then a few more. This stuff is strong and hence it didn’t miss its purpose. A bit tipsy, communicating all of sudden got a little bit easier. With a loosened tongue, our basic Vietnamese and the help of a little phrasebook, it actually worked out quite well and we had a great time. Right when we were about to leave and continue our trip, the family insisted for us to stay for lunch which they had prepared in the meantime.With every one of them being pretty assertive, there was again no way to refuse their generous offer. We all sat down on the floor, smiled at each other and ate. It was an experience I will never forget. This family didn’t have much, not even running water, but they were happy to share their meal with two foreigners they had just met. The kindness and open-heartedness of the people in South East Asia once again left me in astonishment.
We said good bye to our friendly hosts and continued our journey to Dong Van. We still had quite a ways to go and time had flown by. As we crossed a beautiful mountain pass with the poetic name of Heaven’s Gate on the way up, we still took our time and stopped several times to take in the beautiful scenery or to get our picture taken with local kids we met by the road. After a while dawn set in and dipped the landscape in a yellow and purple hue. As the last sun rays made it over the mountain tops, we had our first encounters with some of the regions ethnic minorities. Most of them Hmong, with the men dressed in high-necked tunics and matching berets and the women wearing colorful headdresses, carrying heave bamboo baskets on their back. It was so impressive and so different from we had seen before, that we forgot about time. Riding along the serpentine like road in darkness was exhilarating and a bit intimidating at the same time but after a good hour we finally and safely pulled into Dong Van.
The weekly market, a very important event for the local hill tribes, was scheduled for the next day. Good timing for us but since we arrived late, most of the hotels and guesthouses were already fully booked. After asking around, we finally found a hotel which had a room. It was actually a nice place and the owners even had arranged our permits at the local police station, which are still needed to tour the Ha Giang region. We finished the day at a local BBQ place where we were once again invited for rice wine. And yet again, we had a great time with the locals and this time it ended not only tipsy but pretty much drunk.
Day 2: Dong Van market and around
It was market day and the town was already hustling and bustling in the early hours of the day. Hmong women wearing vivid, traditional dresses filed down from their hilltop abodes carrying all sorts of produce to the town market. Traders were offering everything from traditional clothing, tobacco, incents, and tea. Farmers steered water buffalo and hogs around the market’s edge. The people were busy haggling and looking for bargains but also happy to meet friends and relatives from other villages. It was busy, colorful and authentic with only very few foreigners around. We wanted to get a local breakfast and took a seat at one of the stalls set up on the market ground. Freshly cooked Pho, the traditional noodle soup, was on offer, steaming hot and smelling all so tasty.
We walked around the market a bit longer and then decided to check out some of Dong Van’s other highlights. We first tried to make our way up to a small hilltop village. The road was really bad and some would actually not even call it road. Just a path carved into the mountain covered with rocks. We passed villagers returning to their villages and we realized how far away some of these people live. To make it to the market, they must have left their villages in the middle of the night. The path became more and more rugged and steeper and we started to worry about our precious bike. We finally decided to turn around not knowing if the village was still far or just around the next bend.
The sky cleared up and we decided to drive up to Lung Cu where the Vietnamese set up a huge flagpole on top of a hill overlooking China. The outlook of actually seeing China from up there was intriguing, but unfortunately we never made it. Once we pulled into town, we were escorted by a police officer on a motorbike to the local station. Apparently we had to register with them first. To our dismay we realized that our permits were inside our passports which we had left at our hotels reception. There we were, in a Vietnamese police station confronted by a grumpy official, in the middle of nowhere. Not a good feeling and when he let us know that we would have to instantly go back to Dong Van, we were actually relieved that we didn’t have to face more serious consequences. So if you think you can easily go without a permit, don’t do it. At least if you plan on venturing a bit out of Dong Van and Ha Giang.
It was already late afternoon when we headed back and a beautiful sunset compensated for the hassle before. Everything was glowing in yellow and orange tones with the surrounding mountains casting dramatic shadows over the valleys below. Here and there we spotted some lonely Hmong women carrying wood and other things home. It was late, and we were ready to make it back to our hotel, this time before dark.
Day 3: Dong Van, Meo Vac back to Ha Giang (180km)
The next morning we set out early on the last leg of our exploration of Ha Giang: the 20 km journey from Dong Van to the town of Meo Vac, a drive that some say is the most splendid in the country. Having done a few extraordinary motorbike tours in South East Asia (The Mae Hong Song Loop in Thailand or the Thakhek Loop in Laos), I have to say that this was probably the best I have done. Built beginning in 1959, the slender road linking the two towns clings to the side of a massive gorge and is not for the weak of stomach. The road rose up and dipped, twisted and soared. Up at the Ma Pi Leng Pass the Nho Que river down at the bottom of the gorge looked like an ochre thread. Unfortunately the view wasn’t the best due to a rather misty sky. It was still impressive. The road carved into the side of the mountain took us down again and every bit of this 20 km ride was fantastic.
After short coffee stop in Meo Vac we gazed back at the road behind us and embarked on the long way back to Ha Giang. Along the way we passed many small villages and along with the scenery the architecture of the houses changed. It seemed like down here other tribes than Hmong had settled. We would have liked to find out more but time was precious that day. We still took our time to stop every now and then and had lunch with a bunch of locals in a roadside eatery. And once again we were invited for a few shots of rice wine. By this point it had already become a well-known custom for us. Tipsy again we took off and once again in the dark, we made it back to Ha Giang.
The Ha Giang Loop as I call it was without a doubt the best motorbike tour I have done in Asia. In terms of scenery combined with all the encounters with the local people, the trip is very hard to beat. After having already seen so much of Asia until that point, I was afraid that this trip wouldn’t fascinate me so much anymore. I had high expectations but they were even topped. Ha Giang is really a land like no other and the fact that it is still not so frequented by tourists makes it even more worthwhile. With all the reports about Sapa, a neighboring city, being spoilt by the massive influx of tourists, it was the best decision to explore Ha Giang instead. In my opinion this region can only be properly explored on a motorbike. It would not have been the same experience in a car, that is for sure. And you need sufficient time. The three days we took is the absolute minimum. I even wish we would have had more time to go further East and South to places like Cao Bang or Ba Be. But I am happy I did it and even though the ride from Hanoi is long, it was totally worth it. For me personally, this was the highlight of my month in Vietnam.