Wait… Where? What’s Ha Giang? Ha Giang my friends, is another name for a secret paradise for adventure lovers with motorbikes. A province in Northern Vietnam along the Chinese border, it contains Lung Cu; Vietnam’s northern most point and ten diverse districts inhabited by 22 ethnic minorities and filled with culture. One of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, but for me, by far the most beautiful. Surrounded by mountains that resemble monster teeth and cut across by the Lô and Mien Rivers, it is stunningly green with rice paddies, dense forests, waterfalls and dramatic limestone cliffs. The best thing? Unlike Sapa, not many tourists know about it… Yet.
What Do I Pack?
So the above picture has you sold on Ha Giang. We can have a virtual fist bump right now! Awesome. OK, so first things first; what do you pack? Here’s a helpful list:
- Warm clothes. But Vietnam is a tropical country and so the mountains can’t be that cold, right? Wrong. I made the mistake of packing t-shirts and no jacket. This was a really bad move, because a.) It gets windy when you drive a motorbike and b.) It gets cold up there. Pack a nice warm hoody and take extra socks in case it rains to stop your feet freezing off. Again, something I didn’t do and regretted.
- Waterproofs. I am so glad I packed my rain poncho. I went to Ha Giang at the end of May and for two mornings I got caught in the rain. If you’ve ever gotten caught in the rain on a motorbike, you know it isn’t pleasant and you get drenched everywhere, so a raincoat that stops at your knees will never be enough. Rain ponchos are very easy to buy at any Vietnamese supermarket before heading up the mountains – I bought mine at Fivimart and it cost only 50,000 VND. Also make sure your bag(s) are of a suitable waterproof material – you don’t want your camera and stuff getting wet.
3. Sunscreen. Yup, expect everything. So it rained on my first two days of biking and the last two it was hot and sunny. So hot in fact, that my brown Indian skin got very badly scorched. Being Asian, I was arrogant before the trip and thinking myself to be invincible, didn’t pack any sunscreen (I’ve never been burned before on beaches or anywhere). Days later, my arms stung with what Google told me were second degree burns later complete with sun spots and reptilian discolouration (I would later have an allergic reaction to cheap sunscreen in Bali). Be safe kids.
4. Electrical stuff. My god, don’t forget your camera! If it’s a whopper if a DSLR though, I’ll give a word of warning; the roads are rough and bumpy and often dangerous and you’ll be travelling with everything strapped to you. Also make sure to keep adaptors, chargers, an extension lead and any other wires you’ll need – you will be out in remote mountains and it won’t be easy to get them there. I also kept my Kindle, which came in really handy on the sleeper bus.
Remember: pack light. Like I said, the roads are rough and not easy. When I went, I had an apartment in Hanoi and only had to pack for five days, but it worked out really well and not having that extra weight on the back of my bike was one less thing to worry about.
What’s The Route?
OK so now you’ve packed and you’re excited but stressing a little at the same time. “How will I get there?” “What roads do I take?” and a hundred and one more relevant questions. So let me tell you what I did.
- Sleeper bus from Hanoi
This was not as complicated as I thought. I got to My Dinh bus station in Hanoi at about 7am. Went to the counter and bought a one-way ticket to Ha Giang for 200,000 VND ($8.82). You can only buy tickets on the day of travelling, so I bought the return tickets in Ha Giang for the same price. After about 5 minutes a guy from a bus going to Ha Giang was called to escort me to the bus. If you check the bus station website, you’ll see that buses go to Ha Giang throughout the day at different times. The bus itself is very cosy. It has air conditioning, blankets and enough room to wriggle. I am 5’4” though and some of the taller guys had to cramp their legs a bit. Big bags need to be stored in the boot (trunk).
I was allowed to bring my rucksack with me and put it next to me and I thought I had a pretty sweet deal going, until about 30 minutes into the journey when a guy working the bus came and asked me to pay 200,000 VND for the ‘extra seat’ I was taking up. This is usual and other passengers also had to pay for extra stuff at this point. On the return journey however, I was smarter and put all my digital stuff and things I’d need on the trip into a smaller bag and stored the rest – I’d suggest doing the same. The journey lasts about 6 hours and they make stops every two hours for the toilet – they’re squats, but just deal with it and go low.
2. Ha Giang City. OK, this heading is a lie, because I stayed in a little village 6km outside Ha Giang City and so didn’t really see the city when I first arrived at 2pm. But this was a great move, because I was immediately thrown into rural life much more than I would have been in a hostel or hotel. I stayed in Ha Giang Homestay with Mr and Mrs Thien and their son. It was a traditional stilt house with a floor upstairs with mattresses and mosquito nets and electrical sockets. Everything was clean and the windows behind my mattress opened to fresh air and rolling green hills. Food was fantastic and they booked a walking tour with a guide just for me, as there were no other guests that day.
Linh (the tour guide) and I walked up the hills and he pointed out the different plants and animals and we went through streams and saw a waterfall. We saw different ethnic Tay people farming the land and grazing buffaloes. We also saw a guy playing the flute at the top of the hill, which was very serene.
The tour lasted 3 hours and well worth the 150,000 VND ($6.61) extra I paid. For the Homestay, I paid 300,000 VND for one night with three meals (excluding the tour), which is $13.22.
3. Yen Minh Early the next day, Mr Thien arranged for QT Motorbikes to get me a semi-automatic bike. If you are renting a bike in Ha Giang, go to QT Motorbikes – Here’s their Website and here’s their Facebook. This is not sponsored in any way; I just had a great experience and thoroughly recommend them. Everyone in the province knows QT, the bike I had was very reliable with no issues and QT himself was always happy to answer Whatsapps and calls I made to him about my trip and called me “sister” which was cool.
Prior to the trip, I could drive an automatic bike however, I was nervous at this step up – I mean, gears? But it was OK. I am generally a slow learner with things which involve balance(!) but after half an hour of practicing, I felt confident. The guy from QT also helped me plan my route.
With my bike, I made sure to fill up on petrol at every major Pitt-stop – I would recommend filling up at least once a day, though I probably did twice, just to make sure (petrol is very cheap), because being stranded on a mountain cliff with a heavy bike is not something that appeals to me.
Renting out the bike for four days cost me 1.2 million VND (52.90 USD) with insurance included, which is a great bargain.
I rode onto the QL4C road and into clouds which later turned into rain – I was eternally grateful for my rain poncho. Even through clouds, the dramatic cliffs rising and falling were enough to take my breath away.
I eventually made it to Tam Son town for lunch but some roads were rough and hard to handle in the rain. Tip: Make sure your phone is secure and not just in a trouser pocket. Here’s a horror story:
I was climbing up a mountain and the road got really rocky at a bend. There were so many bumps that my phone fell out of my pocket into the rain and on the road. One truck was coming from in front of me and one from behind. I could foresee them crushing my phone and only lifeline in slow motion so I jumped off my bike and grabbed it, mission impossible-style. Don’t let that be you. (I later found my bra to be a useful and accessible place to store my mobile).
After lunch, the rain cleared and I could once again appreciate the amazing scenery through the clouds as I made my way to Yen Minh. Throughout the journey, there were ethnic minority people wearing traditional dress calmly walking along the roads and kids playing, smiling and waving “Ello!”
Riding past the famous Twin Mountains was a highlight – Find out about the legendary tales surrounding them HERE.
When I got there, I was surprised to see a little town with lots of shops and a busting community. As soon as I entered there was a sign for 2A Coffee and Homestay. After Ha Giang, there’s no need to book anything in advance; it’s fine to just rock up – this is another great benefit of the Ha Giang province not yet being saturated by tourists. The homestay was great, nice showers, clean. I made friends with the family and 3 other backpackers from Ireland and the Netherlands.
I also explored the market and gawped at all the different foods and concoctions being sold before a generous dinner at the homestay. There’s a Vietnamese tradition that if you refill someone’s bowl, then you cannot just put one more spoonful of rice in – you need at least three – one for your ancestors, one for your family and one for yourself. So we ate a lot. One mattress in a big room plus two meals cost me 200,000 VND ($8.82).
4. Dong Van. Dong Van was the highest town in the loop that I did. Here, the views of the mountains looking down at you are at their most impressive. It’s definitely my favourite place in the whole of Ha Giang! I loved it so much that I went through the staggering Ma Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac town and then came back to help Tan, my new friend from the Green Karst Restaurant and Bar. Why did I love Dong Van so much and how did I make friends? Find out in my interview with Tan… 😉
The Ma Pi Leng Pass clung to the sides of the mountains dramatically and every time I turned, I had to take a photo. Despite the clouds, it was stunning beyond words and I felt lucky to just be there. There’s a café perched precariously on the edge of a cliff halfway to Meo Vac for refreshments. Little kids walked around, drinking from mountain waterfalls, but otherwise it was quiet. In the evening, I stayed at Minh Chi Homestay, 81 Dong Van. I got a room with a bed to myself and the family were again nice and everything was clean. 1 bed cost me 100,000 VND ($4.41).
5. Du Gia. In the morning, I woke up, stared for a while at the amazing morning views from my window and had breakfast before saying goodbye to the local people who I had befriended the day before. It was perfect. If you can, head to Du Gia from Dong Van taking the DT 176 and DT 181 roads.
I would say that if possible, the views are even better than the Ma Pi Leng Pass. It’s so surreal, because you’re above the mossy green peaks of the mountains and can look down on them all like giant’s heads beneath you. The drive to Du Gia was my favourite.
I stayed at the Du Gia Homestay, managed by See and Tay, who are siblings (I may not have spelled their names correctly here). It’s a stilt house, because Du Gia is more rural than Yen Minh and Dong Van and the room upstairs with mattresses is pretty. When I got there, Tay took me on a walk around and we came to a lake where children were swimming. If it’s a hot day, definitely go for a swim in your clothes! The water was clean and refreshing and I made lots of new friends. After dinner we had a karaoke party with lots of happy water (rice wine shots)!
6. Back to Ha Giang. After a delicious breakfast of pancakes provided by Tay (who decided to drink some more happy water and sing karaoke at 7am) we went to see the Du Gia market, which felt different from Yen Minh; I noticed a lot more people in traditional tribal dress. It was great to see and walk around.
I then trekked back to Tam Son following the DT 176 and DT 181. The DT 181 is very rocky and you really need to slow down and almost walk your bike over rough patches to stop it falling when the road first begins. At first, I was considering taking another route when my bike fell, but this horrible bit only lasts a kilometer or so before the road is back to normal.
After lunch in Tam Son, I got back on the QL4C for the final leg of my journey! When I finally reached Ha Giang, I chilled with some friends I had met on the way and saw that Ha Giang city is small, but fairly modern, not too crowded and pleasant. QT then arranged for a group of us to get the 9 pm sleeper bus from his Ha Giang hostel back to Hanoi. And that was the end of that adventure! QT’s map is really useful at tracking the different stops on my route:
People do the loop differently – you can stop in Meo Vac. You could even drive down to Bao Lac and back to Ha Giang from there, but beware: when I did the loop, the roads were way too rough to drive through (May 2017) so I avoided that. It’s also possible to rent a car with a driver – if you have no biking experience, then this is a sensible option. However, nothing compares to the mountain roads on a bike with the wind in your hair!
A Word On Safety.
I cannot stress this enough: This is by no means a luxury holiday and the route is NOT guaranteed to be safe. It’s hard and I found myself travelling by motorbike around 50-100 km a day – this is average, some people clock up a lot more miles by doing the loop in 3 days. It’s also necessary to go slowly to avoid injury. Anyway, it’s tough. Prepare for the worst; rain, very rough roads and for your bike to tip at some point (mine did 3 times due to overly steep slopes).
I was not injured but I know of a French couple and American guy who were and my good friend hurt her foot on her trip. My number one tip is to drive slow. Go slow enough to handle it if someone is speeding from the other side of a curve and can’t see and ALWAYS honk at sharp turns. When you see something amazing and need to turn your head around, just stop the bike. You might not be the coolest looking driver, but by following this advice your risk of falling off the edge of a mountain will radically decrease.
Don’t be like that guy I saw on the Ma Pi Leng Pass who was standing on his moving bike with his go pro strapped to his head – it’s just not worth it.
So now that I’ve scared you sufficiently, I just want to conclude by saying GO. This is the right time to visit the province – all the infrastructure and logistics (ATMs etc.) are in place but it hasn’t been overrun by tourists. I hope that as travelers, you treat Ha Giang with the respect it deserves and have the same out of this world experience as I did.
Would you like to have a biking adventure in Ha Giang? Is there anything else you’d like to know? Leave a comment, I’d love to chat :). Keep up to date with my other adventures HERE 🙂