Often called the last frontier of Vietnam, Hà Giang borders China and offers some of the most spectacular landscapes I have seen in over a year of traveling around Vietnam. It offers misty, green and brown hills in the background, and dusty, bumpy roads weaving through the countryside from lower valleys to high mountain passes and the paddies! So many lush, green paddies everywhere! The air is saturated with the scent of the leaves and wood burning on the mountain slopes, and it’s fresh! Coming from the traffic and pollution of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hà Giang is like a breath of fresh, cold air.
When I think of our trip riding the Northern Loop in Hà Giang, I immediately think of the growing anxiety of not making it to shelter before the night and the kind family who hosted my mom and I after we got lost. There are a few things that every single family in the North-East of Vietnam will always have, no matter how poor or how remote they are:
- a teapot and tiny cups, and more hot water in a thermos in case more tea is needed.
- a smartphone or more. Even the poorest people I’ve met in rural areas all had a smartphone and some credit on it.
- homemade corn alcohol stashed in a dirty plastic bottle in a corner. And if for some reason you manage to drink the whole bottle, fear not – they have more.
Riding on steep, rocky dirt roads in the mountains, far from any kind of concrete or civilization and by nightfall is the scariest thing. I think of the bamboo raft that took us with our bikes across the river and going up the mountain again in first gear, hoping not to stop at any point or we wouldn’t be able to start again. I remember the screaming pigs tied to the back of a bike screaming in fear and lack of comfort. I remember taking off layers at a time as the temperatures rose down in the valley, and the changing surroundings that became jungles, rain forests almost, or peaceful roads along the river. I can still see those untamed landscapes in the back of my mind, from grey rocky passes to yellow paddies by sunset, and from the turquoise waters of the Nho Quế River to the sand reed banks so close to China we thought we were going to need a visa. And everywhere the red, dusty earth.
I clearly remember the knot in my stomach as I wondered if we were going to make it to some sort of civilization, and where to spend the night going down the mountain at night on a low tank, all the while staying positive for my mom. I can still feel the hunger, the cold and the anguish of riding our bikes at night, in the rain, saying to myself “C’mon, another 20km and we’ll find a village”. I remember thinking that I’d never in my life been so happy to see a road after riding down a particularly steep and arduous trail all morning. Riding in first gear, my right hand sweaty and numb from holding the front brake lever tight for so long and my right foot firm on the foot brake, we welcomed any kind of break before starting again. I sometimes had to carefully make it down the slope, leave my bike where I could and hike back up the slope in the sun to ride my mom’s bike down for her.
We both fell off our bikes at some point, and how could we not while riding in such intense conditions? We left behind a side mirror and a piece of the mudguard and we almost lost my mom’s sunglasses, so I guess lucky would be one word for it. We gained, however, numerous bruises, scratches, sunburn, unforgettable memories and a taste for phở. When I think about all our adventures, the good, the bad and the scary, I’m still petrified today just to think about what would’ve happened if we’d gotten a flat tire at night or if we’d ran out of gas up in our hilly boondocks? But things always look more promising on a full tank and a full stomach, don’t they?
I picked up my mom at the airport in Hanoi and we spent the first day sleeping, recovering from jetlag for her, and then sightseeing. We visited the night market near Hoàn Kiếm Lake, went to the water puppet theater and supported an exasperating Dutch kid throughout the entire show. We drank some very strong green tea sitting in a tiny store on even tinier chairs, we got lost in some random alleys full of street food carts, restaurants and tables. We took a tuk-tuk for half an hour around the Old Quarter, we went on a hunt to find the most colorful hippie elephant pants and shopped for souvenirs, and we had a massage. We also had a couple of cocktails with Heather and Whitney at the Summit Lounge overlooking Hanoi and the lake, you know, the usual. And then we went to the bus station and the Hà Giang adventure began.
Before I left I had asked a Vietnamese friend to translate 5 emergency sentences for me, like “Where can I buy gas? Where is the nearest gas station?” or “Do you have a room for 2? Can we see the room now?” etc. I made some emergency flash cards in Vietnamese and English that I then laminated and I think we used all of them. Another friend told me about Hà Giang and gave me some advice like “Honk a lot to announce yourself, especially if you can’t see what’s coming” and “I wouldn’t recommend riding a Honda Win if you’ve never ridden a manual bike”. A year later, said Honda Win is now my everyday companion and riding her is rad.
Granted, some roads are dangerous in the mountains. They’re rocky, bumpy, full of pot holes and very steep but in many places they’re in very decent condition too. My mom and I ended up getting lost on a rugged mountain terrain because of a mix of unfortunate factors, but the main one would be because of a poor GPS app that didn’t show any secondary roads. So here’s my first 2 pieces of advice to whoever is planning a trip up there:
TIP 1. Don’t rely on Apple’s Maps App. It’s shite. Get Google Maps at the very least and buy some data. Make sure you have 3G always, it is absolutely crucial! I can’t begin to imagine what I would’ve done without data when I had to call the rental company, figure out where we were or use a translator to interact with the locals. Buy a few top up cards in Hanoi, they’re super cheap and get set up before starting the trip.
TIP 2. My second advice goes hand in hand with the first one: get a power bank. You don’t want to run out of juice halfway through your trip or in the middle of nowhere.
DAY 1: Hanoi – Hà Giang
I booked two Yamaha Sirius from Danny and Thu at Rentabike.vn for 200.000VND/day each and we were told they’d be waiting for us at their partner’s shop in Hà Giang city when we got there. We took a sleeper bus from Hanoi in the evening, had a fair amount of sleep and reached Hà Giang city at 3am. After walking up and down the main road looking for the sign, I finally had to call Thu and someone came to get us on a bike. We were offered beds and warm blankets in a dorm and we could get a few hours of sleep before our first day on the road. You know you’re in Hà Giang when the nights are cold, a dog keeps barking for hours in the dead of night, the beds are hard and the air is clean. Yup, sounds like Hà Giang to me.
The next day we ate some fruit, drank tea and the couple went over the itinerary with us. Shower, backpacks, breakfast and time to saddle up. The bikes were very new, in perfect condition, and everything worked fine! They showed us how to tie the bags with bungee cords, and we each took them for a test ride before we were off. What a lovely couple and what a great way to start our trip!
The first thing we were told to do was to ride into town, find the Permits building near the stadium and go get our permits because you do need a permit to travel around Hà Giang. I’d read a few times that we could probably get away with not having one, but later we were asked the golden permit every time we checked into a hotel. After losing some time playing around with our new red toys we made it to the Town Hall. PS: they close between 12:00 and 2pm for lunch. A few personal details and 200.000VND later we had our Hà Giang Permits and were riding up to Yên Minh. The first 30 km just outside Hà Giang were an easy and lovely ride in a valley between lush green fields and sparse wooden houses.
DAY 2: Hà Giang – Quản Bạ
Before even flying to Hanoi, I had spent hours studying maps, trying to figure out how many kms we could ride per day on average, if 100km/day was too much, where we’d spend the night etc. That last question I chose not to answer and we played it by ear, stopping here and there along the road and sleeping in Nhà Nghỉ (local guesthouses). Also, if 100km/day is almost nothing on a motorbike in Europe or North America, in Vietnam it takes forever. And in Hà Giang, it takes even longer.
In the mountains, you can sometimes go as fast as 50km/h and as slow as 0km/h – for hours. That’s what happened to us on the very first day of our trip. The plan was to ride from Hà Giang to Yên Minh and spend the night there. “There’s 110km between Hà Giang and Yên Minh. We’ll get an early start and be there by nightfall” we told ourselves, but it didn’t exactly go as planned.
For starters, we were only getting used to our bikes, and had to stop a couple of times to check our bags, fill up the bikes, get some snacks and buy turtle neck sweaters. And then a scarf. And a woolen balaclava. And then gloves just before Quản Bạ. Because in Hà Giang Province in February, IT. IS. COLD. And the higher up you go towards Mèo Vạc and the Đồng Văn Karst Plateau, the colder it gets. And then, when we left the valley and started riding up in the mountains, the road became crappier, steeper and narrower. We had to slow down a lot and go back and forth between first and second gear for a while. 3km before Quản Bạ, near Heaven’s Gate – also called Sky Gate – we got stuck for a couple of hours because of a landslide that had buried alive a motorbike and its rider. An excavator was digging through the rubble to free the locals and a few foreigners who were stuck on both sides of the pass. For an hour live pigs remained chorizoed to the back of two motorbikes and a dozen piglets in a cage screamed to death on the back of another motorbike, while my mom and I were getting a lot of stares from the locals. We also bought 2 pairs of gloves and drank lukewarm tea with a couple of French girls. When we could finally ride through the rubble, I first took my bike across, and went back to help my mom but a nice Vietnamese guy was riding her bike through the mud for her. At that point, we barely made it to Quản Bạ before nightfall, and that’s how we only did 65km on the first day.
We spent the night in Quản Bạ in a nice enough mountain hotel called 567 where a room with two double beds cost us 200.000VND (8€) for 2 people. In the colder months, your bike might not start easily in the morning, so push it in the lobby for the night if the staff allow it, and ask for help to start it in the morning. Any local will probably be able to help you start it.
TIP 3. Bring warm clothes, and a lot of them. It can get bitterly cold at night, but also during the day, especially all the way up to Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc. Bring a fleece, gloves, scarves, all of that. You’ll need them.
TIP 4. Don’t underestimate the distances. You will very rarely go over 50km/h and your average will be more 35km/h than 50km/h. You will stop many times to take pictures, buy stuff, take more pictures, have a snack, and buy gas. You might get lost too. So at the end of the day, keep a generous margin for the unexpected.
DAY 3: Quan Ba – Yên Minh – Đồng Văn
The next day we had a bánh mì in Yên Minh then set off on QL4C to Đồng Văn. The famous red flag with the yellow star greeted us in every village and followed us at regular intervals outside most houses on the main road. Dusty, wooden houses, sometimes even made of packed earth and clay, seemed to stand irregularly along the road. There’s a funny sense of aesthetics in Hà Giang, not to say that it’s almost inexistent. It’s all in the pragmatic and the comfortable, not in the fashionable.
The terrain from Yên Minh to Đồng Văn is complicated, twisted and always changing. The landscape is ridged with uneven limestone pinnacles. Some villages reminded me of Africa; blurs of browns, rust reds, and greens, and a mix of dirt, dust, rocks and rockery shrubs. Some other landscapes reminded me of Bordeaux with many tall pine trees and warmer shades of green. Finally, some landscapes took me back to my native Ardennes forest in Belgium with dark, bushy fir as far as the eye could see. One moment we were cruising through a less sunny version of the spaghetti Western with wooden houses that looked like barns, and the next we came very close to a real life Middle-Age décor with chickens running free, sickles by the door, and oxen in the dry, rugged fields.
DAY 4: Đồng Văn – Mèo Vạc and the Van Karst Plateau
That particular bit, which is the most Northern part of the loop, is also one of the most breathtaking, remote and authentic areas I’ve seen in Vietnam. We rode our bikes through spectacular landscapes in the mountains, between passes and peaks that seemed just out of Tolkien’s imagination. As we stood there contemplating the winding road expertly cutting through the Ma Pi Leng Pass, we felt like two minuscule, insignificant humans about to be swallowed by the mighty mountain. And everywhere that misty white sky.
Sometimes we saw kids alone on the side of the road, on foot, on bicycles too big for them or on motorbikes. They could have been 5, 10 or 15 years old, playing in the dirt, giving us welcoming looks or, more often than not, throwing us hostile stares as we rode by. We also passed many locals bent forward by the heavy loads of crops they carried. The ethnic minorities that live up there, called H’Mông, Sà Phìn, Hoa or Tây, have somehow found a way to defy the harsh terrain, and the unwelcoming weather for centuries. They have made it their home.
Some smiled and even waved at us, especially the kids and the young people, shouting “Helloooo” as we passed them. Many just stared blankly as if we were a pair of weird animals from another planet – which we are — and some showed a less forthcoming attitude, especially on the Đồng Văn Karst Plateau, and didn’t return our smiles. We tried to behave in a non-offensive way and we never took pictures without asking first! But I suppose sometimes, even and especially in the most remote areas of the world, tourism can reach a peak and the locals can get tired of being photographed and stared at like weird animals.
That night we slept in the city center of Đồng Văn, in a hotel near the market that cost us around 200.000 or 300.000 VND per night (again for 2 people). We wandered around the streets of Đồng Văn and found a restaurant that looked as welcoming as it gets up there. Wooden, gaping window frames and no heating system, we swallowed our rice in the cold and went straight to bed. The next day we explored the market place in Đồng Văn Old Town before we hit the road, and spent some time buying gifts. Most bags, wallets, scarves and jackets are handmade by the locals, and they’re very pretty.
TIP 5. You don’t need to book a hotel in advance. You will easily find guesthouses, hostels, decent hotels and even a couple of more fancy resorts along the road as the Northern Loop is becoming a more touristy destination.
DAY 5: Mèo Vạc – in the sticks
This leg of our trip was probably the most chaotic part in a shitjustgotreal way. From Đồng Văn, we went West on QL4C. Ma Pi Leng one more time, Mèo Vạc and then we followed QL4C for a few hours, up and down the mountains, passing more landscapes of green bushes and red dirt, stopping for the usual picture and riding again. We also started getting more surprised stares, and seeing fewer tourists on the road. When we ended up riding along a stream, I realized something was wrong and that we were dangerously close to the Chinese border. We hadn’t taken a wrong turn, we’d stayed on the main road all along, and I couldn’t quite figure out how we’d ended up so far off. We doubled back, went back to the mountain and tried asking for directions. Looking at the map today, I think we were on DT217 near China and the river we crossed later was the Nho Quế River marking the end of Hà Giang Province and the beginning of Cao Bằng Province.
TIP 6: Many people in Hà Giang don’t speak Vietnamese. They speak various forms of dialects with very strong accents that Google Translate doesn’t recognize. Also, a lot of them can’t read and will just shake their hands at you. My little flash cards ENG/VN were of no use to me there. If I were to go to Hà Giang again, I’d make sure to have some Vietnamese friends (preferably from the North) record a few voice messages on my phone for me to play when I saw some locals, like “I’m lost, how can I get to …” etc. That might help a bit.
We followed the direction indicated by the local boys as it was the only thing to do, but we grew more and more worried. The road had turned into a rocky dirt path and was going downhill at a very sharp angle. My mom became paralyzed with fear after she crashed in the side of the mountain and wouldn’t move anymore. It was 4pm and getting dark, we had no idea where we were, we were hungry and bruised, and above all we were scared. I rode my bike down the steep path carefully, left it at the bottom and hiked back to ride my mom’s bike down. When we finally made it down we found a river and had no choice but to cross it on a bamboo raft. Now here’s something you won’t find in the Lonely Planet. We paid 20.000VND each to get our bikes on the bamboo raft and a young boy pulled us across the river. Things didn’t look any better on the other side. We then had to go up the mountain following the same very steep trail between the red dirt fields, and it was really dark by then. I told my mom to ride up in first gear without stopping if possible and she did. That makes you wonder – is it easier to go down a very steep path or up a very steep path on a motorbike? Mmh? We ended up near a wooden cabin where we saw lights, people and motorbikes and I made the executive decision to stop there. It would’ve been suicidal to keep riding at night in the mountains with no idea of our location. I called Thu from Rentabike.vn and she spoke to the family who offered to host us for the night.
Things were looking up. We had a place to spend the night, the family was preparing dinner, and above all we were about the experience a truly unique evening with a local family which clearly hadn’t seen many tourists in a long time – if ever. That evening, we tried to make conversation using a mixture of hand gestures, Google translate and basic Vietnamese words, while eating some meat and vegetables and drinking rice alcohol. Lots of rice alcohol. Zzzzzzzzz.
DAY 6: Sticks – Bao Lac
I will forever remember the next day as possibly one of my worst and trickiest hangovers ever. That day was a nightmare of rocks, rolling stones, bumps and crags on a very rough terrain. We rode for hours in the sun up and down the mountain, and through deserted villages that very few tourists had seen before. The local schoolboys and girls walking along the dirt path in their white and blue uniforms stared at us in surprise, probably stunned to see two disheveled women on bikes in such a remote area. All day we rode along the Chinese border belt until we reached a road – a real road in asphalt! Exit the rocks and stones, exit Hà Giang Province! We could finally hit second gear and ride a little faster to Bảo Lạc in Cao Bằng Province.
As our hangovers wore off and the ride became more pleasant, we took one last turn to the South, saw our last peak and then we started going down, down, down until DT217 met QL34 by the Gâm River in a lush valley. It was QL4C, that winding road following the curves of the river and the reeds that we should have followed the day before, but for some reason the locals indicated that we should get lost in the sticks instead. We stopped in Bảo Lạc for the night and had the most wonderful sleep on yet another very hard bed.
DAY 7: Bao Lac – Ba Be Lake
The next day we hit the road towards Ba Be Lake following the river through beautiful valleys. The weather was warmer there than in Hà Giang Province, and the landscapes were greener with spectacular views. We were greeted by more “helloooos” from kids and young people, and we were surrounded by the various smells of plants, flowers, fruit trees, the vegetation, the warm weather and the wilderness.
As we started going down on the other side of the mountain, we began seeing more and more paddies until we were completely immersed in paddy landscapes by sunset. Finally we were exactly where we wanted to be. The colors there were all shades of green, earthy brown and rust red. We passed shabby, wooden cabins, black buffalos and brown cows, and bought some rice cakes from the locals. By the end of the day I had my money shot – a faded sunset reflecting in the paddies surrounded by banana trees against the backdrop of the misty mountains of Cao Bằng and later, Bắc Kạn Province. Priceless.
TIP 7: Make sure you stock up on water, snacks and gas in the valley on QL34 because once you hit DT212, you’ll be riding deep in the mountains with nothing but nature for miles. And the road trhough Da Vi and Cho Ra before you get to Ba Be Lake is veeeery long.
TIP 8: If you’re up in the mountains running low on gas, turn off your automatic bike or set your semi-automatic (or manual) bike on Neutral and let gravity do its thing.
On DT212 we started going up the mountains again, very high up on a lacy peak bordered by lush trees. For a few hours we saw no one, stopped nowhere and just rode on to the other side of the mountain. We stopped for phở, but they were out and luckily, we had enough gas to make it to the other side. We saw a lot of typical Vietnamese things such as cock fights, rice drying out in the sun to be made into rice cakes later, water buffalos, cows and other oxen walking by the road, with or without shepherd, and cackling chicks and geese roaming freely outside each house.
In the valley we turned right on QL279 toward Ba Bể Lake and that last bit of road remains in my memory as one of the longest bits riding at night until we found a place to sleep. We enjoyed every second of our sunset in the paddies, riding faster and faster to beat the sun and everywhere we looked we saw the misty mountain tops in a faded shade of red. We rode the last 50km in the dark, under an inconsistent rain, wondering if we would make it tonight or tomorrow. We stopped at the first hotel we saw – Ba Be Ecolodge and had a delicious rest. Hot shower, lovely setting in the woods, simple but tasty food at the restaurant, and I think we paid 400.000VND for both of us.
Day 8: Babe Lake – Viet Quang (Nhà Nghỉ)
Our day in Ba Be was a true holiday moment. More paddies, more beautiful rice terraces, and the majestic lake in the background. Around Ba Be lake the road goes through a canope that looks like a jungle. We were almost completely sheltered and breathed in a incredible mix of humidity, plants, trees and vegetation. And rain — the smell was everywhere surrounding us. Green and blue were the dominant colors here. Green for the lush vegetation, the bamboo trees growing wild around the lake. Blue for the mountains, the calm waters of the lake and the halo hovering around the sugarloaf mountains. It reminded me of Guanxi and the Li River near Yangshuo.
In the morning we rode around the lake to Mr Linh’s Homestay in the tiny village of Ba Be. We had a simple lunch of spring rolls and mì xào (stir-fried egg noodles) with quite a view of the lake – which made us regret not staying there the night before. Ba Be Lake and National Park is a wonderful playground for photography, water activities and hiking. My mom and I took a small boat for a 4h cruise around the lake. This included at stop at a very small local market and a hike through the woods to a very nice waterfall. But sadly, everywhere we went, plastic followed.
Ba Be Lake came as the perfect opportunity for a bit of R&R. We glided on the boat between the limestone mountains, capturing the moment and taking in the spectacular scenery. So many shades of blue and green as far as the eye could see, the misty cliffs and peaks reflecting in the lake. And then it was time to saddle up again.
TIP 9: Do keep a full day for Ba Be Lake if you can and stay at Mr Linh’s Homestay.
We left Ba Be Lake in mid-afternoon knowing full well that we would have to finish riding at night but leaving the serene lake proved more difficult than we’d thought. The last part of that day went on with a succession of paddies, wooden houses on the side of the road, red flags in the wind and very little rain. We left Ba Be Lake on DT254 and turned right on DT255 into Tuyên Quang Province. At that point I’m not exactly sure where we ended up as I remember the App on my phone couldn’t pinpoint exactly where we were, and we had to rely on the locals once more – the last time we relied on the locals for directions, we almost ended up in China. This time we made it back on to QL279 and, after a few very long and exhausting hours of riding in the dark, we stopped in Việt Quang for the night.
In Vietnam, most Nhà Nghỉ usually offer rooms with en-suite bathrooms, towels, sometimes soap and shampoo, or even a toothbrush. This one was no different, even in the middle of Tuyên Quang Province. The manager of our family-run hotel picked at random a bit outside of the city center asked to see our Hà Giang Permit, and we asked to see the rooms. I think that besides the obvious Spartan comfort, we were won over by the kindness of our hosts.
We rolled our bikes in the lobby and went looking for phở. That evening my mom and I had the warmest, best-prepared and yet the most simple phở in the world. Or so it seemed.
TIP 10: Most hotels in Northern Vietnam are simple, cheap and the beds are hard, but that’s what you get for 10USD for 2 people. If you suffer from back problems, my advice would be to ask to see the room and check the beds before you agree to anything.
DAY 9: Viet Quang – Hà Giang
With only 60 km back to Hà Giang, our last day on the road probably was the easiest, but also the saddest day of the whole trip. As most last days of vacation go, ours was spent between riding back to Hà Giang, returning the motorbikes, going to the bus station and traveling back to Hanoi by bus.
We saw the last day of our odyssey as the end of a truly inspirational adventure in a remote and fascinating part of Vietnam that is still little known. That “last frontier” is, in my opinion, well worth the time and effort before mainstream tourism and over development alter its unspoiled nature. In 9 days we did between 700 and 800 km through 4 provinces (Hà Giang, Cao bang, Bắc Kạn and Tuyên Quang), stopped hundreds of times for “one more picture”, bought 2 turtle necks, 2 pairs of gloves, and 1 balaclava, ate an impressive number of phở, and collected an even more impressive number of bruises.
In retrospect, I’m glad we chose Hà Giang as an alternative to Sapa in the next-door province for the landscapes we saw, the villages we passed and the people we met had not yet been hit by mass tourism. Some parts of the trip were rough, not to say downright dangerous at times, and some days were tougher than others but I’m glad we took on that challenge. For my first motorbike road-trip in Vietnam, I think things could have gone much worse … and much better. But one thing is for sure, the sunset over the paddies in Hà Giang will forever hold a special place in my memory.