7. The Ha Giang Loop without Ha Giang

15.05. – 18.05.2016

After my lovely stay in Meo Vac it was time to get back on the road, and start doing a loop I was hoping to do for a while – the Ha Giang Loop. Except of not starting it in Ha Giang town, but in Meo Vac.

From Ha Giang town you could do the loop in 3 days, so from Meo Vac it was doable to do it in 2. But why rush it? So instead the plan was getting from Meo Vac to Yen Minh, on day to from Yen Minh to Don Van, maybe staying there for two nights, and then straight to Bao Lac. Well – I followed the plan in my usual manner!!!

But first I had to leave Meo Vac. And it was more difficult to do than I thought. Why? It was raining!!!

So after getting my bags on the back of the bike into plastic bags I packed myself into my little blue poncho, gloves on, and ready to face the rain. Taking the road to the west I left Meo Vac and instantly had the pleasure taking the road into the mountains, offering me a last view of Meo Vac. But soon I was over the edge, the town behind me, and it felt like being in another world. The road was winding up and down through the mountains, offering a view of the wild scenery, dark rocky formation of the hills with the green of trees, grass and some fields, and dotted around the area little villages. The light rain actually added a slight mystical atmosphere to the whole area. On the road I passed locals from the surrounding areas heading back from the markets to their homes, waving at me. The road itself was just amazing. They are made to ride there on a motorbike, hugging the side of the mountains on one side, drops into valleys on the other side, and some nice up and downhill section. And the road was in good condition.

At some point the road opened up to some valleys filled with terraces, being such a contrast to the earlier view. And just when you think it cannot get better you suddenly arrive at a spot where you are on a rather higher part of the mountain, giving you a view of the area, mountains reaching the sky in a far distance. And then there are no more terraces, just another little valley you had to drive around, hugging the slope of the mountain. Again, seeing the small villages and hamlets, passing locals carrying their belonging in small baskets you can’t help but think how hard life in this region must be. Nonetheless, whenever I passed a group of kids they shouted Xin Chao, waving and in some instances following me with their bikes. It was rather entertaining. During one stop a group of kids approached me slowly, the mother working on the slope above the road encouraging them to say hello. They were unsure about the camera, but after showing some of the pictures I took earlier on the screen, they started to giggle and wanted a picture – well, most of them. The tallest one tried to hide behind the smaller ones – with limited success. It was just one of these moments you remember when thinking about the journey. Just the laughter of the kids, the mother and myself. In this beautiful surrounding with terraces using rocks to separate the various levels, providing a great contrast to the green.

Shortly after the encounter the scenery suddenly changed – again. Instead of a rather harsh looking environment the road opened up to wide valleys with rice terraces and fruit plantation, offering a much warmer feel to the scenery. It was still beautiful, just different. The villages were a little bit bigger, and the various rivers in the area added an additional contrast to the green and brown and grey. At one point the road up the mountain followed a river down in the valley, the valley becoming larger, and providing some great views. At a few points I was tempted to get off the good road on a dirt road to explore the area. But I didn’t. If I ever return to that area, I would love taking time to explore these little roads going into even more remote areas up here in the far north.

The road then headed down the hills, heading towards Yen Minh down in the valley. The added bonus was to be closer to some of the rice fields, seeing farmers and cattle working on the bright green fields. Talk about a relaxing and peaceful surrounding. Another great chance to get of the bike, take a seat and enjoying the view.

In the end the 50km between Meo Vac and Yen Minh took me around 3 1/2 hours – including a lot of breaks. I clearly do not like to rush. I nearly took the road back into the mountains towards Dong Van, but I realised that I had to stay in the valley and follow the flat road into Yen Minh. As soon you enter Yen Minh you will see quite a few guesthouses along the road. For some reason I stopped at a guesthouse opposite the petrol station of the village. And the Kim Tinh Nha Nghi offers great value for money. Here is my review of the guesthouse. And for a change I was told that a permit was needed for this province. The hotel will arrange it for you for  a fee of around 230.000 Dong.

After a short break I decided to explore the area a bit, and headed back to the road. I passed a park on my left and several cafes, food places and more guesthouses, so there are plenty of options. But after a few minutes I was out of Yen Minh and climbing up the road once again. Through some serpentine I got some nice views over Yen Minh and the surrounding area. If you do come from ha Giang, it is worth to ride the bike on the road for the lovely view.

Back in town I stopped at a little cafe on a corner half way through of the park and the entrance coming from Ha Giang. Three backpackers just left the place (yes, I saw more backpackers in that area than before). In addition of a nice ca fe sua da the owner also serves a lovely freshly made Banh Mi – and it was delicious. It turned out that the owner is the teacher of the local school, and it was nice to have a little chat with her, leaning a bit of the place. She is also taking a picture of any foreign customer, and tells her class about them. So she was interested about my nationality, which places I have visited in Vietnam etc. It was a nice place to sit down. The view of the trees with the bright red leaves helped as well.

After the break I continued to explore the place, heading back towards the hotel and turned left after passing a park on m right hand side (with a restaurant at the corner). It was actually kind of dead-end, as at the end of the street was a little stream – which didn’t stop locals to ride their bike through. Here I also found an interesting looking wooden homestay, with a veranda to the front, and a garden in the back. This could be an interesting place to stay. I walked along the river for a bit, enjoying the view of rice fields, the stream and some nice houses.

From here I returned and crossed the main street following the road that was heading out of the town a different way. it was another nice area with some nice houses and rice paddies right and left. Some houses were built along the slop behind the fields, on the other side of the road the houses where within the fields. It was strange to see the town and rural area next to each other. It was just lovely.

After parking my bike at the guesthouse I walked back to the park and sat down at the cafe at the corner, opposite the restaurant. It was nice to sit down, having another ca fe sua da and a fresh sugar cane juice, and reading a book. Sometimes it is nice just to switch off and read.

Before the sunset I walked towards the park, and soon realised it was actually not a park, but more a stadium. Inside I watched locals playing football, while women playing volleyball on the other side. Though it seems I distracted some of the players as they were watching the foreigner watching the football and volleyball. Well – at least it kept me entertained. When the sun disappeared the section near the park was suddenly lid up by small lanterns in the trees, which actually made the place look just lovely.

For dinner I was considering the restaurant at the corner, opposite the park / sport place, but it was empty. Never a good sign, so instead I went to a busier place a few doors to the right of the empty restaurant. It was busy in there, and I spotted something  that wa really really interesting. Well, firstly it was interesting that I got an English menu despite being the only foreigner. Secondly, they offered a dish that sounded a bit like my favourite dish in Laos, duck laap. Laap is a mince dish with herbs, spices, fish sauce served with sticky rice. Well – here you get it with boiled rice. The whole thing just tasted amazing. It was nice to see something different on a menu in this part of Vietnam, and I am glad I had my Laap Vietnamese style.

After the lovely meal I just wanted to leave when I was stopped as usual by a group of young Vietnamese, dragged to their table and got beer, food and of course corn wine. Once again it turned out to be a good laugh, enjoying the company and the drinks. Thankfully it didn’t turn out to be too late, though as I returned to my guesthouse after 10pm, I realised I had nothing to drink. But at that time the pavement of the town was already put up, the roads being dark and empty, and the only living creatures out were the dogs, and me not finding a shop open to get my beloved ice tea.The owner of the guesthouse suggested going to the cafe next door, where they also have karaoke for the locals. The cafe was actually very nice, with tables next to pond – I already decided that this is the place for breakfast. getting my ice-cold ice tea I was heading back to the room when the door of one of the two karaoke rooms opened, and one of the guys I met in the food place earlier, stepped out. Well – it was bad timing for me. Instead going to my room I was now in the room drinking beer with two of the guys I met earlier and their girl friends (I assumed), listening their karaoke attempt – which was not bad. The choice of English song was less than limited, so no singing for me, just drinking beer and laughing. I never know how these things happen, but it seems most nights I am in Vietnam I end up drinking beer and corn wine with the locals. At least none of the evening turned out to be boring!!!

 

Thankfully I didn’t suffer the next morning, and I got up easily after 9am, and able to get a Banh Mi from a little street cart and sit down at the cafe next door (no more karaoke playing) and enjoying a nice ca fe sua da. And my judgement of the night before was right – it is a great place to sit down for a drink. A very relaxing place.

Soon enough I was back on my bike, heading out of Yen Minh, following the road north-east back into the mountains. The first stretch of the road was rather steep – at least offering a nice last view of the town and its surrounding area. Next I had to drive through a kind of gap of the mountain where the road was heading through,m and suddenly i was in front of a wide plateau full of rice fields. It was once again like someone changed the programme on TV – the view changed from harsh to warm environment. For a little way the road was passing rice fields and terraces, where locals were working hard.

But obvious this didn’t last long, as soon I was back in the mountains where the green grass offered a great contrast to the grey rocks. This area north of Yen Minh is actually part of a Unesco heritage area, being a one big geopark. This was one of the few areas in the far north-east where you could find signs highlighting some interesting sites like rock formation. And it really was interesting. In addition the road led higher into the mountains, offering some great views, and some signs reminded me that I was back at the frontier area. I felt like an explorer!!!

But here you get some reminders of road safety in Vietnam. At one of the serpentine leading up the mountains I passed a car being up-side down, the airbags used – the car came off the road, crashing the barrier and felling down a few metres. I didn’t see any ambulance, just quite a few locals staying around. I didn’t stop  – I dislike people taking pleasure of watching accident sites.Still, it shows that road safety in Vietnam is a big problem.

After getting over another mountain I was back in a valley and passed a little village where I cursed myself leaving Yen Minh not earlier – there was clearly a market on that day and I just missed it. Great!!! Following the road up onto another mountain at least I saw some locals heading back home. It was just lovely to see them in their colourful outfits.

Soon I arrived at some mind of larger car park with where I needed to make a decision – just following the main road QL4C or turning left towards a buckflower farm signed out. As it was just after noon I decided I could afford a detour – so I followed the road towards the Chinese border. Unfortunately I didn’t see any more signs about the farm, instead I passed a little village, and followed a road near th Chinese border offering some nice views with locals working on the fields, before realising I won’t find the farm and returning to the main road again.

Back on the main road I was able to enjoy one of the steepest road so far on that stretch – down though. It was a good test for my breaks and my bike didn’t let me down. Down in the valley I passed an apparent tourist attraction in form of an old H’Mong Building,  but instead of stopping there I followed the road through the valley until I saw a little food place. And it got even better – they still served food. So I took the chance for a little late lunch and had a lovely pho. The owner and her family enjoyed watching me eating the lovely food, and I was asked to take a few pictures of them and their pet. And of course I oblige. As an additional service one of the family escorted me out of the village to make sure I do not get lost on this big road that was leading back onto the mountain. It seems they thing tourists get easily lost here.

So up it went again, and I started to worry that I missed the turn off towards one site I really wanted to visit –  Lung Cu, the Vietnamese north pole. In other words, the most northern point of Vietnam. So every 5 minutes I stopped and asked, and everyone pointed towards the main road. And just when I thought I was wrong, I saw a sign for Lung Cu next to a place that seemed to serve food to buses following the road, overlooking an interesting valley. So just keep your eye open for the sing, and turn left off the main road. You will miss an old H’Mong palace that is located along the QL4C, but the north pole sounded more appealing.

It is a 40km detour to Don Van, but the road alone is worth that detour alone. It really is a spectacular road (sorry for using that word so often here….but any other word would not give that area enough justice). You followed a road that was hugging the slope of the mountain on one side, and a deep fall into the valley on the other, offering some amazing views of limestone karst, rice terraces, and rock formations. It was just a c constant wow factor, forcing me to do a few stops. And of course, you still had to watch the road as not only bikes, cars and locals were using it – I had to carefully manoeuvre the bike between cattle and goats.

Just being amazed what I saw unfortunately I realised at some point that I left my sun glasses during one of my stops. I was hoping I would still find them on my way back.

In the end I made it to the ticket booth of Lung Cu. It is a flag tower on top of a hill, a monument indicating the most northern point of Vietnam. You could see the massive flag on top of the tower from a long distance.

And to my amazement I had a choice – walking all the way up to the tower – or riding my bike to the shop near the tower and only walk a few stairs to the top. Easy choice of course, though the road is a bit steep  as well. Still better than walking I guess.

The road ends at a store selling drinks, offering toilet facilities and space for your bike. From here only a few a stairs separates you and the tower. You will reach first the platform on the bottom of the tower. From here you already have a nice view of the surrounding areas. But climbing up the stairs inside the tower will bring you to the highest point – the top of the tower with the flagpole of the massive Vietnamese flag. From up there you have a wonderful 360 degree view of Vietnam and China.

And if you are brave, you can try to grab the Vietnamese flag for some pictures. As Vietnamese are not famous for te skills with a camera I was glad that two American girls arrived on top the tower shortly after  – and both Stephanie and Courtney surely took some wonderful picture. It helped I was wearing a special T-shirt for that specific day. I can only highly recommend to take a side trip to Lung Cu – it is a beautiful spot.

Now being part of a 3 person bike gang the two girls and I made our way back south again – being able to see the landscape now with the sun set for the day, providing a different atmosphere of this area. An additional bonus was that my sunglasses were really still there where I forgotten them.

Thankfully you don’t have to follow the road back to the QL4C, instead you turn left – a sign clearly highlighting the way to Dong Van. The road led all the way down to the valley and heading back onto another hill, offering some nice views of the area. At some point I just realise how spectacular the road itself to Lung Co is – seeing it from the distance crawling around the mountain. You cannot help yourself to be amazed.

Once again we passed a few interesting looking roads, tempting me to head off there to see where they lead to. Instead we stayed on the main one, until we found a little place overlooking the route we just took – and seeing the sun slowly disappearing behind the mountain. A perfect spot to stop, sitting down and enjoying the sun set – and having a little chat. I am sure many more tourists were already in Don Van, but it was so nice to enjoy the view here instead of sitting in a place drinking beer (yes – I really believe what I say!!!).

With the sun disappeared and night started to crawl in we followed the road for the last kilometres until we finally went for the last descent and heading into Dong Van. And seeing the amount of guesthouses and hotels along the main road it became clear that this is really the main tourist place outside of Ha Giang. After the girls checked the prices of some guesthouses we settled for the Binh An Motel on the main road near the main square.

After a brief refreshment (a shower after a long day on the bike is just perfect) we headed out to see a bit of Dong Van. The main square of the “Old Town” looked lovely with quite a few lights around the main square, and you could see immediately that they try to keep this old part of this town in shape for the tourists. For dinner we settled at a food place opposite the main square. They put together a few dishes for us, including tofu, rips and some vegetable and rice. All for 200.000 Dong for the three of us. It was very tasty, and the beer went down as well. However, when more locals arrived taking the seat around us, and also people from a little celebration upstairs came down again I realised something strange – no one offered us any corn wine. I was now so used to the fact that I couldn’t leave any premise without an invite, it felt strange to sit there and locals not approaching. I started to feel that if you are travelling on your own locals are much more likely to invite you. Maybe I am wrong, but comparing it to my previous night it felt that way.

So instead of corn wine we headed back to the main square to sit down at one of the cafes / bars, enjoying the cool weather, having a drink and the three of us took the chance to get to know each other. It was actually a nice way to spend the evening before getting the well-deserved night.

The next morning Courtney and Stephanie got ready to leave Dong Van later one, while my plan was to stay one additional night here to relax and explore the area. Before though the three of us headed out to visit a bit the Old Town again. THe Old Town is actually the area around the main square, consisting mainly of some old wooden and stone houses. It looked absolute lovely with the hills in the background and the bright colour of some of the houses. It is not large, but you can easily spend an hour just here. At the main road you can also find maybe the most northern post office of Vietnam – so if you want to send out postcards this would be a nice place to do so. In the centre of the “Old Town” is the main square with several cafes and a few shops selling some nice souvenirs. Sitting down at one of the cafes is the perfect place to eat our freshly made Banh Mi we got from a little vendor opposite the square. Here I also was able to provide some information to another motorbike tourists who was very interested heading to Cao Bang and Ban Gioc. I hoped he listened to my warning about the southern road of Ban Gioc!!

After finishing our Banh Mi (the girls decided to get a second one – they were really that tasty) it was time to go back to the hotel, so they could get their bags onto the bike. And before I said goodbye I realised that it is actually nice to travel with others for a little while. So within a minute my plan was changed again. When asked both Stephanie and Courtney looked happy that I would join them for the trip to Meo Vac – or maybe I just imagined that), and after a short wait my bike was packed as well and we headed south to Meo Vac.

This particular route between Dong Van and Meo Vac has been referred to as the most beautiful ride of the Ha Giang Loop, and by some as the most beautiful ride in the whole of Vietnam. So expectations were high. We left Dong Van at 11:30am for the 20km ride. Surely this shouldn’t take long – right?

Wrong!!!

Soon after climbing up the road into the mountains we realised very soon that it would be very difficult to ride longer sections at all. THe reason for that is very simple – the scenery is out of this world. I thought I have seen some of the best what Vietnam has to offer. But nothing could have prepared me to this route.

Soon after reaching the highest point of the mountain you were overlooking the surrounding consisting of limestone karst, with valleys full of rice terraces and rivers hundreds of metre below you, offering a stark contrast between the green of rice and grass and the dark colour rocks. Then you passed some harsh looking rock formation with houses standing between them, and constantly you meet locals carrying their heavy goods on their back. Around every single corner we stopped to enjoy another magnificent view – better than the previous one. At some points we just stopped, sitting down , feet hanging down off the road, with drops of hundred metres or more, just letting the view sink in. I have no idea how people could rush through this section, and I was happy that I decided not to do that trip as part of a longer journey where I might had to rush.

Between the stunning landscape we also passed some lovely looking villages where houses are built amongst rocks and next to rivers, offering a nice contrast to rice fields and the otherwise harsh looking environment. Such contrast really makes this area so interesting.

And half way through there is maybe the highlight. THere is a building on your left overlooking a large valley, with some vendors selling food and drinks, and inside the building a food place. But the most important sections are the two viewing platforms. One next to the road, one below that platform. The view here on offer can be hardly described – except that it is stunning. On one side you can look down into a valley where a lovely blue coloured river flows, while on the slopes of the mountains above the river was full of rice terraces, fields, houses or just forests providing a bright colourful contrast. On the other side there are just mountains with little gaps between so the river could get through. If you would see such view on a painting you might call it cheesy and not realistic. But if you see it in reality with your own eyes you cannot help to be stunned. I am not sure you could beat that view – for me it is one, if not the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. Forget Sapa, forget Halong Bay or the Mekong Delta. This is the most beautiful and most impressive part of Vietnam – at least it is for me.

It was actually nice to see that locals appreciate the view as well. A family arrived shortly after us to take a few pictures of their daughter in her traditional cloth. The girl looked a bit annoyed at the start, but when she saw us she couldn’t stopt smiling and grinning. The smile of her when taking pictures (obviously with permission of the parents) was really contagious.

After such a view it would be easy to feel disappointed what you see afterwards. But no, not here. The road winding along the mountains still offered fantastic views, locals still waving at us, and you could be entertained by a herd of goats trying to get higher up the hills.

Some impressive rock formation were hanging above our heads following the road, and after a while the road descended back into the valley, where the first colourful houses indicated that we arrived in Meo Vac just after 3pm. So 3 1/2 hours for 20km – sounds very little, but it really is worthwhile to take your time for these 20km

.

Preferring a guesthouse this time we found a nice one on the road towards Yen Minh, the Linh Anh hotel. Here is my view of the hotel.

Tired of the bikes we decided to go for a little walk. We headed towards the indoor market and stopped at one of the food places opposite the main entrance for a chicken pho – unfortunately both Courtney and Stephanie were not happy with the food and their stomach didn’t agree with it too much either.

After the mediocre late lunch we followed the road back to Dong Van to enjoy the nice buildings, the fresh air and tried to find a shop that might sell a memory card for Courtney’s camera. And I was also interested to see if there is a shop developing pictures I would liked to give the minority village who helped me with my puncture a few days ago. Unfortunately – both of us were unsuccessful. Instead we headed back towards the guesthouse via a little road passing some fields that brought us back to the cattle market. Seeing the sun to set soon it was agreed to head to the viewing point – equipped with beer we got from my little coffee stall (the owner and some guests recognising me) we got there with our bikes.

Was it a bit hazy when I was there 3 days ago now the sky was clear and the view so much nicer. Or maybe having a cold 333 bia made everything look better. Still, it was a nice way to relax and enjoying the view. It maybe helped to let everything we saw early sink in, and really appreciating what we saw. Overall, watching the sun set here was lovely.

For dinner I suggested checking out a restaurant above the indoor market as they apparently serve goat – but it seemed it was closed for a private function, so we headed back to my usual food place – Ngoc Lan Quan. Entering I got a very warm welcome by the owner. The mother immediately showed everyone the key ring I gave her daughter as a present. I think both Stephanie and Courtney found it funny that so many people seem to recognise me in Meo Va – and I only stayed here two nights so far!!!. For dinner we got pork ribs, vegetables, spring rolls and fried rice. And the food was great again  especially the ribs were to die for. They really know how to barbecue here.

After anther lovely dinner here (I would not visit any other food place in Meo Vac every again) the three of us went for a little walk and I showed the two “newbies” the Uncle Ho statue. And here we got one of these special moments. At the monument we met a woman who was there with her two children, and we had a little conversation with her. ANd then she suddenly decided that she wanted a picture of us with her two children, and the child of her friend who joined us. Getting all ready the two boys decided it would be boring to just stand around, and without any warning I was used as a tree – and suddenly had two boys climbing one me for the picture. It was difficult to keep a straight face, and everyone was laughing at this picture. I am so glad Stephanie took a picture of it – as it is such a nice reminder of this encounter. The mother was also very happy to got a picture of her children with some strange foreigner. As I said – it really was one of these little moments that can make a trip very very special.

The next morning my two travel companions had to leave very early as they had a long way back to Ha Giang – around 150km. And both wanted to catch a night bus to Hanoi and Sapa. And I had to start my return trip to Cao Bang. So we had an early breakfast eating a Banh Mi next to the market. As well all wanted a ca fe sua da the owner of the stall left everything behind just to get some ice for us. Sometimes the desire of the Vietnamese to serve a customer is amazing. Many large Western organisation could really learn from that. But it was nice to just sit outside, and having a final chance to have a little chat before heading into different directions. I really enjoy travelling on my own, but meeting new people and travelling with them is part of the fun. And I am glad I changed my plan and joined them to the trip to Meo Vac. Both were great girls, and I had a good laugh with them. But unfortunately it was time to say goodbye, as they headed off towards Yen Minh.

I on the other hand-made a little shopping trip at the local shop to buy some toys as presents, and was soon enough on my way towards Bao Lac. My Ha Giang Loop adventure was over.

I read so much about the Ha Giang Loop – how amazing, how beautiful, how spectacular it is. And it is all true. I loved the Cao Bang loop. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip between Cao Bang and Meo Vac. But both do not compare to the Ha Giang province. For me it is the best Vietnam has to offer. It is not easy to get to this province. There is no train or airport that gets here, so the only way is taking a bus from Hanoi. Or a private driver. But the effort is really worth it. It offers so much but still is not overrun of toursists or being affected by the negative side of tourism.

Recommendation

  • If you do the trip from Ha Giang do not try to do the loop in 3 days only – it is too rushed
  • Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac are the most popular stops with plenty of options for accommodation and food places
  • Your hotel might offer to arrange the required permit for the Ha Giang province
  • Between Yen Minh and Dong Van a detour via Lung Cu is highly recommended
  • The section between Dong Van and Meo Vac is the absolute highlight scenery wise – do not try to rush this section.
  • Petrol stations are available throughout the province. To avoid removing your bag try to get petrol at places of your overnight stays

7 thoughts on “7. The Ha Giang Loop without Ha Giang

  1. Woa, so amazing, I haven’t had a chance to travel to Ha Giang. But it’s the most beautiful place in Vietnam with many rice field. I think you travel in a good time, grain season. Have a safe trip 😀 and Welcome to Vietnam

    Like

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