The Ha Giang Loop: a 4-day adventure awaits (Vietnam)
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
One of the fondest memories from my journey through south-east Asia is that of the Ha Giang Loop. The first time I ever heard of it was in January, when I was diving in Koh Tao, Thailand. I mentioned I was planning to go to Vietnam in a few weeks and a friend of mine from Germany mentioned Ha Giang Loop as a "the thing" to do in northern Vietnam (thanks Carolin!:)) I've done some research and got super excited about what I saw and read, thus the Ha Giang Loop landed firmly on my itinerary for Vietnam.
What is the Ha Giang Loop? It is a 3-5 day motorbike trip through the valleys and mountain passes in the Ha Giang region in the northernmost area of Vietnam. Although it is slowly gaining popularity, the Ha Giang Loop is still largely unbeknownst to mass tourism. It offers jaw-dropping scenery, pristine nature, winding roads, meticulously maintained rice paddies, hidden mountain paths and a unique insight into the village life high in the mountains. In the villages perched high up the peaks, the indigenous H'mong population still lives largely without the modern commodities and grow their crops on the steep rocky slopes of the mountains, using animals to pull the plow and working the land by hand. As you cruise along winding roads suspended beneath the sky, you enjoy the fresh air and the warm sunshine and witness one eye-watering view after another opening up before you. The sense of freedom and adventure is incredible.
The starting point for the Loop is the town of Ha Giang, about a 6 hour bus ride from Hanoi. But before even getting on the bus, I had to do a bit of shopping. Remember, it was February and I had barely enough warm clothes to keep me warm in Hanoi, whereas I was about to go much further north, at higher altitudes, and I was gonna ride a motorbike. I needed something more.
Luckily, in the Old Quarter of Hanoi it is easy to find what you need. Stores selling "North Face" brand (or "north fake", as someone nicknamed it) are everywhere and offer decent stuff at very decent prices, especially after a healthy dose of bargaining. Equipped with a newly purchased goose-down warm winter jacket, I set off towards Ha Giang.
The weather prognosis was anything but good. Cloudy with rain showers, wind and cold, was predicted for the entire time I would be there. Whilst it was not promising, I decided to go anyway and to hell with it. Reports noted that the weather in the mountains of north Vietnam (as everywhere else in the mountains, I suppose) is notoriously changeable and could switch rapidly, so if the prognosis was bad, it might change for the better, who knows.
There are quite a few places in Ha Giang that offer motorbike rentals, and pretty much any hotel or hostel you stay in will offer some sort of rental service. After reading a few recommendations online, I rented the bike and gear from Bong Hostel (although I did not stay there). I was thoroughly satisfied and can recommend them. The guys at Bong Hostel are very friendly and their bikes are in excellent condition. You can also purchase a rain suit, gloves and a scarf (I bought all of it and I was extremely glad I did, especially the gloves). In addition, they offer a quick free of charge lesson for those who never drove a semi-automatic bike. Although the Loop can be done on a powerful automatic, it is more advisable to have a semi-automatic or a manual gearbox as it gives you more control over the bike on steep ascents and descents.
I opted for the four-day trip. In my opinion, it is doable in three days but you have a lot of driving on the last day and you cannot stop as much to enjoy the views and take photos. And trust me: you will not want to rush this. Four days is comfortable, easy-going and allows for a lot of stops and even some short detours onto roads less-traveled. If you want to make some longer detours and venture in the neighbouring region of Cao Bang, I would recommend five days - the distances might not seem long, but the roads range from excellent to downright terrible and do not allow for high speeds.
As for overnight stays in the villages along the road, I booked all of them through booking.com, usually on the same day a couple of hours in advance, when I decided where I will spend the night. I prefer to have something ready and reserved when arriving in the afternoon/evening. However, if you don't mind looking around a bit, it is also quite easy to find something on the spot upon arrival. I did not have any problems communicating, although the knowledge of English in the north is rudimentary at best. Translating apps help if needed. Connectivity (mobile data) was surprisingly good most of the time, although there are some areas where there is none (not even phone signal). Make sure you have downloaded the maps (for example in google maps) you will need so you can use them offline, or use an offline map application like maps.me. I used them both in combination and this worked very well, because maps.me showed some smaller paths and less known sights which google maps did not (for maps, see also the link at the bottom of the post).
Day 1: Ha Giang to Yen Minh
I will not venture into too many details regarding each leg of the trip. Instead, I will just outline the main sights. If you want, you can find detailed descriptions of individual legs in the links below, but I also think part of the experience is to explore a bit by yourself and not stick too much to a pre-defined itinerary. The freedom is best felt on the paths less traveled and the excitement of wandering into the unknown beats the safety of being on a well-trodden road.
After familiarizing myself with my "Blackie" (as I nicknamed my bike: a black Honda blade, who would be my loyal companion for the next four days) and fueling her up, we set off. There is a police checkpoint a few kilometers outside Ha Giang, checking for international drivers' licenses and fining those without it. To avoid this, we set off as a group with a few other riders from Bong Hostel in the time slot when the police control is on lunch break (from 11-12h).
The winding road alongside the valley soon started creeping up and then suddenly firmly bit into the slope, going steeply upwards through winding ravines and sharp turns. After a substantial and super fun climb, we reached the first pass: the Bac Sum pass and the "Heaven's Gate", which offers beautiful views of the valley beyond. Unfortunately, the mist and clouds were swirling around the pass, so the view was not the best. After a short stop, we descended into the town of Quan Ba, passing the picturesque Nui Doi hills (there is a very nice photo-spot from the view tower located on the top of a hill, left from the road - it is only accessible by foot, but it is worth the short climb). The last part of the first day was a scenic ride past Lung Khuy cave and gradual descent following the ridge of a series of rolling hills, into the village of Yen Minh.
Day 2: Yen Minh to Dong Van
Departing from Yen Minh, I soon commenced a long climb up to the Sung La plateau high in the mountains. The weather was getting worse with each kilometer and was at its worst up on the plateau, drizzly and foggy, cold and windy. With my goose down jacket and a windstopper over it, the cold could not get to me, although I missed a pair of thermal underwear. This was the point where I congratulated myself on the wise decision to buy the gloves - I reckon I would have been fairly miserable without them. Regardless of the lack of sunshine, the ride was actually fascinating - one after another, the mountains were mysteriously appearing out of the clouds, as if trying to hide their faces until th possible moment. The road was stretching out in front of me, disappearing into the whirling eddies of mist. I thought of the "misty mountains" scene from LOTR and despite the soggy weather, I enjoyed the enchanting scenery.
The Sung La plateau offers many possibilities for short detours. You pass through small villages and see local village life up close in person. The children waving, smiling and yelling "hello" to passing riders are pretty much a constant, and I had to get used to driving my bike with one hand pretty quickly, so I could wave and greet back without losing balance.
After a few short stops, including the King's Palace (where the King of the Hmong tribe used to live), the weather started improving. Descending from the plateau, a fabulous asphalt road led me through undulating hills and valleys more and more towards the north, to the Lung Cu flag point. The impressive 30m tower with an enormous Vietnamese flag (54 sq meters in size, symbolizing 54 ethnic groups which reside in Vietnam) on top, offers splendid views of the surroundings. Since it is deemed a major tourist attraction, I was surprised that the flagpoint was completely devoid of visitors. I was standing on the observation deck at the top of the tower, alone. Nonetheless, this just added to the magic of the moment - complete silence, apart from the wind and the rustling of the waving flag above my head. To make it even better, the sky cleared and I was basking in the warm sunshine, indeed for the first time since coming to Vietnam almost 10 days ago. I spent an hour sprawled like a gecko on the marble stairs at the base of the tower, just soaking in the sun rays and the warmth.
A 20-minute ride from the flagpole takes you to the northernmost point of Vietnam, which is accessed by a long narrow concrete road leading downward on the side of an impressive slope, with no guard rails or anyhting. At the end of the road is a small gazebo, where once again I could enjoy n complete solitude the view of the valley below, at the bottom of which was the river representing the border with China. Just a short detour on the way back, following a tricky gravel road, leads you to a mountain ridge where the road ends. A short climb on foot takes you to the Vietnam-China border which follows the ridge line. After an obligatory selfie t**********g into Chinese territory, I set off towards Dong Van, the final destination of day 2.
Day 3: Dong Van to Du Gia
I awoke into a fabulous sunny morning in Dong Van. After breakfast, I set off towards the most anticipated part of the Loop - the Ma Pi Leng pass. Expectations were high, and Ma Pi Leng delivered on a grand scale. As you take one after another exciting turn, your surroundings become more and more breathtaking. I made a lot of stops to enjoy the view and take photos. The road is ridden with occasional potholes and demands your full attention - you cannot really admire the scenery (much less take photos) whilst driving. The climax of the Ma Pi Leng Pass is the viewpoint which you encounter when, all of a sudden, the road suspended high up on the mountain slopes, makes a sharp turn and a deep canyon-like valley opens up before you. At the bottom, there is a grandiose emerald lake, its surface glittering in the sun like a thousand little diamonds. The valley was stretching away into the distance and the mountaintops on all sides were enveloped in clouds. I was so enthralled by the look of lake that I took a detour and descended via a long twisting road all the way to the bottom of the valley, to the lake shore. The lake is closed off at one point by a small hydro power plant, but it does not deprive it of its charm, nor does it spoil the fabulous vistas from the top.
From the Ma Pi Leng pass, the road slowly descends into the lush green valley of Meo Vac. As I descended, the temperature increased substantially, so I could pack the goose down and gloves and continue riding in my hoodie. I stopped in Meo Vac for lunch at a local "restaurant", which looked more like a garage with a couple tables and chairs. There was a large stove where the owner of the adjacent house was preparing the meals. The place did not look like much, but the atmosphere was pleasant and homey, and the food was tasty. After lunch, I had quite a bit more of meandering road and scenic riding through plush green rice paddies, forests, glades, and charming villages set amidst loaf-like hills. I reached Du Gia shortly after sunset.
On the third day, I also had two interesting encounters with the locals: at one point, I was riding down a small concrete road and stopped at the outskirts of a small settlement to check the map. A small child of around 3-5 years old, was standing in the middle of the freshly plowed field nearby. Noticing me, he set off towards me as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. He ran as if something chased him, his tiny statute slowly making his way over the rough terrain, stumbling and tripping as he ran. Stopping about 1 meter away, as if afraid to come any closer, he gazed at me with his big shiny eyes, dirt on his face and an expression of sadness and wonder. He was dressed only in a dirty t-shirt, and had no shoes. For 10 long seconds, we silently stared into each other's eyes. Two very different worlds, face to face, contemplating one another, trying to see, and to understand. He didn't say anything, he didn't put out his hand or made any gesture. He was just looking at me me. When I finally said "hello" and waved, he turned and ran away, not looking back. I still remember the indecipherable expression on his face and wonder what (if anything) he wanted.
The second memorable meeting was in the afternoon. I was cruising leisurely past some fields near a village, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery. When I passed a house, I noticed a young slender girl standing just below the road on the side of a small vegetable garden. She raised her head at the sound of my bike and looked my way. I was used to youngsters waving and greeting when I rode by, so when our eyes met, I smiled and waved as a matter of custom. At this moment, she sprang up and a radiating smile lit up her face in what seemed like an expression of utter happiness. She pressed her hands against her chest in a heart shape and beamed at me, then flung her arms up and waved as I was passing by, cheering something in her language. I could not reciprocate since this would mean letting go of my handlebar and risking serious injury, so I just smiled even more broadly and blew a quick one-handed kiss her way as I was riding past her. Her expression of affection seemed so genuine and beuatiful, warm and lovely, I could not stop smiling for the next hour. Although fleeting, I remember it as one of the most pristine encounters with the locals.
Day 4: Du Gia do Ha Giang
On the last day of the Loop, I backtracked a bit to get to road DT181 which goes throught the scenic Du'ong Thuong valley and over two smaller passes. I also took a few short detours, following some narrow, unnamed and uncharted, but surprisingly decent concrete roads among the hills, usually leading to smaller villages. Nothing special to see, just for the fun of discovery and the smiles of the villagers, surprised to see you there.
Another option from Du Gia is to go continue on DT176 further south and then follow QL34 to Ha Giang, but supposedly, this road is in a very bad condition. The northern route meant I had to repeat part of the route from Day 1 (in the opposite direction), since DT181 eventually joins the road from Quan Ba to Yen Minh. I didn't mind, because it meant going over the Bac Sum pass and the Heaven's Gate again, but this time in full sunshine. I could enjoy the full splendour of the views I missed on day 1 due to foggy weather. Another winding descent from the pass into the valley below and in the early afternoon, I was back in Ha Giang - just in time to return the bike, sort out the formalities and catch the 4 pm lux bus back to Hanoi.
Overview and useful links
The Ha Giang Loop remains one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had in SE Asia so far. I never rode a motorbike at such distances before, but after the Loop, I've come to love it. Now, I understand the addiction of bikers to the roads and their motorbikes. Leaning into the turns, accelerating and speeding on open roads, with the wind on your face and the amazing scenery around you, it gives you a sensation of freedom, and of flying. And this feeling is very, very seductive.
Can you do the loop if you've never rode a motorbike before?
I think yes. Some parts of the road are tricky and difficult, but you do not have to be a very experienced rider to tackle it. Just take it easy, go slow and be careful, and you'll be fine. Look where you are going, watch for gravel on the road and do not drive faster than your abilities are. The biggest threat in my opinion are not the potholes but the occasional local car or truck drivers, which are blasting around corners at high speeds. If you hear honking from around the corner, be extra careful, move to the side of the road and don't panic!
Nonetheless, if you are not confident enough in your abilities, there is an option to hire a driver ("easy rider", as they are called), so you can relax in the back, enjoy the scenery and take photos, while he handles the bike and the road.
- A very useful site with a lot of information about each section of the Loop, suggested detours and sights. Best of all, it has a map which shows details about road condition on particular sections, gas stations, villages, etc., which you can view with your Google Maps app (click on "view larger map" and it should open in your google maps app).
- A nice page, containing a detailed itinerary, plus more details about the costs of rent and sleeping, useful things to pack, etc.
As I mentioned, it is useful to have some guidance and suggestions, but a large part of the fun is discovering by yourself, so be sure to do some of it. Have fun and ride safe!