Motorbike: Ha Giang Loop

The biggest draw of the Ha Giang Province in the north-east is the beautiful scenery. So rather sitting in one place most visitors head out to explore the area. And nothing beats sitting on a motorbike and riding along mountainous roads – over passes, through valleys, passing rice fields and minority villages. The landscape will make most visitors wanting to stop every 5 minutes to take in the sights.

While the northern provinces are still off-the-beaten Ha Giang town has a good tourist infrastructures with plenty of accommodations and places to rent a bike. Due to some ascends and descends a semi-automatic would be better than an automatic. The roads are in some bits very good, in others full with potholes and gravels. In addition animals (cattle etc) and locals will be on the road – so be aware of obstacles appearing suddenly in front of you. You do not want to injure a local – as it could result in prison time. Also, make sure you do not ride at night. Drink driving and animals on the road are just some of the risks and could lead to some serious accidents.

The most popular route is the Ha Giang Loop. Most start and finish this 320 km loop in Ha Giang town, though there are various alternative routes.

I have never been to Ha Giang town (I started and finished the loop from Meo Vac), but I met numerous travellers who had no issues getting semi- and full-automatic bikes there. Apparently you will also not having any issues finding a place to stay. There are bus connections from Hanoi and Lao Cai (near Sapa). So it is not a bad place to start the loop.

The loop could be done in 3 days, but I would recommend doing the loop in 4 or 5 days to avoid rushing. I split the loop into 5 sections. Each section can be easily done per day, but you could also incorporate section 3 & 4 or 4 & 5 into a day tour. It all depends how much time you have.
If you arrive from Cao Bang start the loop from section 4, followed by 2 and 3 if you do not want to cover Ha Giang town itself.

Please note that you still require a permit to travel through Ha Gaign province. Most guesthouses in Ha Gaing, Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac can get one for you, so there is no need to travel to the police station. They require your passport though – so best option is to get it on day of arrival.

 

Part 1: Ha Giang Town – Yen Minh (100 km)

This is the only section of the Loop I didn’t do. But according to people I met the road QL4C is in good condition. On this stretch of the loop you will pass one of the most famous site in Ha Giang – the Heaven’s Gate pass. Apparently it is something you should not miss (unfortunately I did).

Shortly before Yen Minh road leads down the last descend. There are quite a few serpentine. But on that stretch you get some nice view over Yen Minh, probably the best you can get of the town and the surrounding area.

Yen Minh is a little town surrounded by hills and lots of rice fields. You find plenty of guesthouses and food places along the main road. The town actually invites for a little stroll, and might a nice change to stretch your legs after a day on the bike. Here are more details about Yen Minh, including food places and accommodation.

 

Part 2: Yen Minh – Dong Van (45km, 85km for Lung Cu)

The second part of the loop is a very interesting journey, especially if you add the detour to the Vietnamese North Pole Lung Cu, the most northern point of Vietnam.

From Yen Minh follow the main road out-of-town, until you reach a main road. After passing some rice fields you come to a T-crossing. Turn left onto the QL4C and the road will lead you back up to the mountains. When you reach the top, stop briefly and enjoy the scenery. To the right you can see Yen Minh, to the left the road that leads to Meo Vac. It really is a nice view.

From here you ride through a gap between two hills and it is like riding into a different world. One minute you are overlooking the area from the top of the hill, and a minute later you are suddenly on a plateau with lots of rice fields in front of you. The scenery changes quite often in that area, but this is probably the most extreme one. The road now leads you through rice fields, where you can watch locals working on the fields. It felt more like being in the Mekong Delta than on a plateau in the mountains. The next stretch of the road initially passes some terraces for rice and fruits – and again you can see lots of locals working very hard there, but soon enough these terraces become less and a rather wild scenery appears. The contrast between rocks, forests and terraces is rather impressive.

But this scenery doesn’t last long, as you are soon 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 one big geological park. This is one of the few areas in the far north-east where you can find signs highlighting some interesting sites like rock formation – which is actually interesting (not just for geologists!!!). In addition the road led higher into the mountains, and soon you pass a sign announcing that you have reached the frontier area to China. From here the road winds up into the mountains again, with only hills and trees to be seen.

After some serpentine you are back on a plateau and reach a little village. When I passed the village on a Monday the market was just being cleaned – so if you leave Yen Minh on a Monday try to leave a bit early and you might be able to visit the little market. Following the road through the village you soon start with the next ascend into the mountains – and on the way you get some nice view over the valley and the village. So it might be worthwhile to stop on the way up for one or two pictures. Careful on that stretch – some corners are very tight and incoming traffic could be overseen.

After the ascent you reach a larger car park. Here you can decide to continue the QL4C, or turn left towards a buckflower farm. The road leads to some nice little villages, and ends at the border to China. So if you arrive early there, a little detour might be worthwhile.

Following the main road though means riding down to a valley – and that stretch is steep. So ensure your brakes work. Down in the valley is a little village and an old building is signed out as tourist attraction. Along the main road you will also find some small food places selling pho and other simple dishes.

The road leads up again into the mountain, passing another village and soon you are back to the wild scenery – riding between hills, and no more terraces. On that stretch you come to single building at a crossing – it is actually a hotel. Here you have to make a decision.

Option A is to continue on the QL4C road, heading straight to Dong Van. On the way you will pass an old H’Mong palace. This is the fastest road to Dong Van.

Option B is a detour of around 40 km, bringing you to the most northern point of Vietnam. If you arrive not too late here, I would highly recommend to  turn left and follow the road up the mountains. It really is worth every single kilometre extra to ride.

After a few km further up the mountains you get the first reward of the detour. The view opens up to your right – you can see terraces all the way down to the valley, while in the back you can see limestone karst reaching out to the sky. It is a dramatic and absolute stunning view. The road continues to hug the valley to your right, and you will be treated for more beautiful views. You will see locals walking cattle and goats home on the road (be very careful when passing them – sometimes you have to ride through the herd, but don’t do it in corners). Rushing through this section would be a crime. You get some views others won’t see anywhere else in Vietnam. And the road is just perfect to ride a bike on it. So enjoy it. And appreciate it. No one wins riding fast – but you get more out of the trip if you find natural beauties and treasures as you in that area.

At the end of that road you will reach Lung  Cu – the Vietnamese North Pole. You can see the flag tower with the massive Vietnamese flag from some miles away. While you pay the entrance on the bottom of the hill, you can ride the bike all the way up to the restaurant. However, you still have to walk up a few stairs to the top.

The view from the first platform is not bad. However, the 360° view from the flag tower is amazing – seeing both Vietnam and China at the same time. Taking a picture with the Vietnamese flag is mandatory. Here are details about Lũng Cú.

For Dong Van you need to return part of the way you came up first. But thankfully not the whole section. When the serpentine starts have started, overlooking a massive valley, there is a road turning left down a hill – follow that one for Dong Van (there should be a sign). The road goes down forest into the valley, and then up again into the mountains. This road offers once again some stunning views, and you might be able to enjoy the sunset from here. The road will merge with the QL4C and after a short while you have reach Dong Van, coming down the road from the west.

Dong Van is maybe the most touristic set up place outside of Ha Giang – but still having a very non-touristy feel. Along the main road leading through the little town you can find plenty of accommodations here, lots of food places, travel agencies and even a square with souvenir stalls and cafes. The little old town is nicely set up and restored – so you could easily stay here for a day or two. Here are more details about lovely Dong Van.

 

Part 3: Dong Van – Meo Vac (20km)

This is actually only a short ride, and you could be tempted to say that you only an hour or two to get to Meo Vac. However, this section is probably the absolute highlight of the loop – for some it is the most beautiful ride in Vietnam. The road follows some of the most impressive valleys and hills you can find in Vietnam, and the last thing you want to do is rushing here. Make sure you have plenty of time stopping at various places to take in the sights.

From Dong Van follow the main road out-of-town – the same you used to arrive in Dong Van. After leaving town the road passes some rice fields and soon enough the road starts to ascend into the mountain area again. And from here on it will be difficult to beat the scenery. Even reading about it nothing could have prepared me for this stunning area.

Soon after reaching the highest point of the mountain you are overlooking the surrounding area consisting of limestone karst, 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. After this lush green you pass some harsh looking rock formation with houses standing between them  – looking slightly lost there. And the whole time the road is hugging the mountain on one side, while on the other side the slopes drop down a few hundred metres. The road is fun to ride – even though you still have to keep an eye on it to avoid potholes and some gravel sections. And make sure you keep an eye on traffic and the locals walking on the road carrying their heavy goods on their back – riding over the edge is not a good idea!!!

Between the stunning landscape you will pass 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. Here it might be a good idea to take a few stops, get off the bike, sit down, your feet hanging down off the road with drops of hundred metres or more – and just let the view sink in. These are places were you feel so small, and where you can appreciate the beauty of nature. Some might even become philosophical about it….
This is definitely not an area to rush through – it really would feel cheating.

Half way through this section you will arrive at maybe the highlight of the trip. On the left you will see a larger house with a car park and a few vendors selling food and drinks. Inside the house is even a little 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 is full of 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. A stop here is for me mandatory. And take the effort to walk through the hours and down the stairs for the lower platform, you can get a very nice view from there as well.

After such a view it would be easy to feel disappointed what you see afterwards. But no, not here. The road continues winding along the mountains still offering fantastic views, some impressive rock formation hanging above you, while locals still waving at you when passing them.

The following 5km the road is hugging the mountain before it starts to head down to the valley again. The descend looks steeper that it is, but make sure you use your brakes accordingly. Reaching the valley the road now passes little houses and lots of rice fields, and you will soon arrive Meo Vac on the main road.

Meo Vac itself  is a lovely place to stop. It is located in a valley and surrounded by hills on all sides. It offers less accommodation than Dong Van, but it still has a wider choice of hotels and guesthouses. Food places, cafes and karaoke bars are also available. Here are more details about Meo Vac.

On a Sunday the biggest market of the region takes place in Meo Vac – and it really is a good enough reason to make an attempt to be there for that day. It is not a market for tourists, but for the locals buying and selling cattle, water buffalos, rice, corn wine nd other day-to-day good. It is surely fascinating to visit it. Here are more details about the market.

 

Part 4: Meo Vac – Yen Minh (50 km)

From Meo Vac you have two options. You can either follow the loop to get to Yen Minh, or you could take the road south towards Bao Lac. In theory could use that road to get to Ha Giang via one of the more southern road, though you follow one of the main roads in the area. Taking the southern road you could also head to Cao Bang if you are interested incorporating the Cao Bang Loop.

For Yen Minh follow the road to the east. If you are on the road that brought you into Meo Vac turn right after the big roundabout and passing the sport ground. This road wil lead you out of Meo Vac into the mountains again. From the road you get a last chance for a nice view over Meo Vac.

After Meo Vac has disappeared it felt like being in another world again. The road is 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. Once again the road itself is 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 opens up to some valleys filled with terraces, a huge 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 have to drive around, hugging the slope of the mountain. When  seeing 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. Still it does not stop children shouting “Xin Chao”, waving at you or even following you with their bikes when you pass them. It really shows the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people in this region.

Not for the last time the scenery changed again. The harsh looking environment gives way 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 follows a river down in the valley, the valley become larger, and providing some great views. In this area you will see a few dirt roads getting off the main road to head to a bridge to cross the river and heading into the mountains. With enough time in hands it might offer some nice detours.

If you stay on the main road you ride down to the valley towards Yen Minh. Here you come close to some rice fields, and if you are there May or onwards, you will see bright green rice fields, with farmers and cattle working. It is one of the images that comes to your mind when thinking about Vietnam.

When you reach a T-crossing go straight ahead along the Ql4C for Yen Minh. If you turn right you head towards Dong Van again. Follow the road and you are back in Yen Minh.
Either stay here for a night – or if you arrive early enough you can continue to Ha Giang town.

 

Part 5: Yen Minh – Ha Giang (100 km)

For the last part of the loop just follow the road you took to Yen Minh at the start of the loop (part 1). Take another chance to enjoy the stunning scenery before the loop is complete.

 

Recommendation

  • If you have the time do a four or five-day trip for the loop. This way you can do the loop without rushing and enjoying the beautiful scenery the area has to offer.
  • While the distances do not look long, try not to leave too late, otherwise some of the parts feel rushed
  • Most of the time the road is in a good condition, however sections have deep potholes that could damage your tyre or lead to a fall. Keep an eye on the road
  • Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac all offer a variety of accommodation, fitting for backpackers and flashpacker
  • All places offer quite a few food places. Rice and grilled meat (chicken, goat, prok) can be found here. Some places even offered dog meat
  • Locals often take a break around lunch, so food places might be closed. You could either buy a Banh Mi and stop on the road or stop a bit earlier for lunch. Cafes were also not wide-spread, not like the central highlands here you could find one around every corner
  • If you arrive from Cao Bang just start the loop at Meo Vac
  • If you want to head from Ha Giang province to Cao bang, take the road south from Meo Vac.
  • Finally – take your time. Some sections of the journey were so beautiful, you have to sit down and really appreciate it in my opinion. So do not try to rush the journey.
  • For my personal experience of the loop visit my blog entry from May 2016
  • If you want to incorporate the Cao Bang Loop follow the road from Meo vac or Ha Giang south

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