Ha Giang Province, Northern Vietnam
Thinking about all the tours I have done during my Southeast Asia trip, this has to be my favorite. It has been my last bigger trip and I was afraid that, after all I had seen, this tour wouldn’t really do it anymore. But boy was I wrong. It was an amazing adventure with so many highlights. Regarded as Vietnam’s final frontier, the remote and mysterious region of Ha Giang boasts nature as you have probably never seen it. Massive limestone walls, granite outcrops everywhere, hanging valleys, rice terraces climbing to the clouds and winding roads carved into the mountains. If this doesn’t sound like a great adventure already, add the ubiquitous presence of the local hill tribes, wearing their colorful traditional dresses and a pleasant absence of mass tourism.
Distance: 325 kilometers
Max. per day: 180 kilometers
Highlights: Scenery, Dong Van Sunday market, the riding itself
Recommended Bike: 125cc semi-automatic
Accommodation: Guesthouses and Hotels. About 250.000 VND p. night (double room)
Ha Giang City, the capital of Ha Giang Province, is definitely out of the way for most travelers. But getting there is actually surprisingly easy. You can take a direct and very comfortable bus from Hanoi (several times daily and overnight) from My Dinh station. The ride takes about 8 hours and will cost you about 200.000 VND. I would recommend leaving as early as possible so that you will have enough time for arranging bikes in Ha Giang.
The next thing will be arranging accommodation in Ha Giang which didn’t pose a big problem. There are a few hotels along the main road, just ask around for prices and availabilities. But no need to be too picky since you will be leaving the next day anyhow.
Bike rental was an issue when I was there but things seem to change rapidly up there. Last I heard was that it isn’t much of a big deal anymore. We arranged it beforehand through a contact a fellow traveler had given me. We only communicated via Facebook but it all worked out perfectly. I rented a crisp and clean Honda 125cc and paid 200.000 VND per day. For Vietnam I found this rather pricey so you might be able to find cheaper deals. If you want, send me a message and I can put you in touch with the guy who arranged our bikes. Our guy also provided a hand drawn map which actually worked very well.
The tour starts off with amazing scenery right away and will just continue to leave you in amazement and awe as you make your way across the Northern Vietnamese mountains and along the Chinese border. As you climb up the narrow and winding roads, sheer limestone cliffs and the surrounding mountains will become your constant companions. It’s really hard to keep track of time as you will find yourself stopping way too often to take in the scenery or snap pictures, either of the landscape or together with local children in one of the small villages you will pass by.
You will climb up a pass with the poetic name of “Heaven’s Gate Pass” which will reward you with amazing vistas of the plains and villages below. By the end of that first day, you will enter the land of the Hmong and other minorities of the North Vietnamese Highlands. You will see men dressed in high-necked tunics and matching berets and the women wearing colorful headdresses and skirts, carrying bamboo baskets on their backs. And the good thing is, you will most probably not encounter any other tourists, unlike for example in Sapa, not even too far away.
If you can, schedule your trip so you can be there for the weekly market in Dong Van, which will also be your first overnight stop. The market, taking place every Sunday, is a very important event for the local hilltribes as it represents the regions hub for trading and socializing. For this event, members of the different tribes, mostly wearing vivid, traditional dresses, file down from their hilltop abodes carrying all sorts of produce to the town market. Traders offer everything from traditional clothing, tobacco, incents, and tea. Farmers steer water buffaloes and hogs around the market’s edge. It is busy, lively, colorful and authentic with only very few foreigners around.
As the market closes around noon, you can take the rest of the day for exploring the surroundings of Dong Van. There are minority villages you can visit or you can go to Lung Cu, where the Vietnamese built a huge tower with an oversized Vietnamese flag in order to remind neighboring China of their presence. And once again, just riding across the mountains is a highlight on its own here.
The last day took us back to Ha Giang. The 20 km stretch from Dong Van to the town of Meo Vac is said to be the most splendid of the country. With my other motorbike tours in mind, I can say that at least in terms of scenery, that ride was the best I have ever done. Carved into the side of the mountains, the slender road clings to the side of a massive gorge and winds itself up the Ma Pi Leng Pass just like a snake. At the top you will be rewarded with some of the most impressive views. After Meo Vac it will be quite a bit of driving to make it back to Ha Giang on time. There are more villages and one or two waterfalls along the way.
| Tips and Advice
If you are there for the weekend market, it can’t actually hurt to make a reservation as the few hotels tend to be fully booked. A lot Vietnamese actually travel there over the weekend. We had no reservations and since we arrived late in the evening, it was quite a hassle to get a room.
Your hotel then will arrange the Ha Giang permit for you. This permit is mandatory if you want to travel the area. Make sure to have it on you at all times and don’t forget it in your room as we did.
Three days in my opinion is not enough for this tour. The last day of riding was quite long and could have better been split. You can also extend the tour and include places like Cao Bang or Ba Be. I traveled Vietnam for a whole month and this tour was my absolute highlight. Looking back, I really wish I could have spent more time in the area. So if you go, allocate a couple of more days for it.