A rugged motorbike trip through picturesque Vietnamese valleys and mysterious mountain ranges. How to get there and what to do once you’ve arrived.
Imagine a rugged motorbike trip through unmarred Vietnamese territory with picturesque valleys and mysterious mountain ranges. You’ve probably been told that the terraced mountains of Sapa are Vietnam’s most glorious sights. As impressive as they may be, their famed name has overrun the region with fast trains in full of tourism and cable cars. That’s why I’ve sought ought a far more rugged and less traveled area of Vietnam that is considered to be the ‘original’ Sapa. Here’s how to get to Ha Giang and what to do once you’ve arrived.
Ha Giang Province
Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northernmost province hugging the Chinese border. Fun fact: it’s an extension of the Himalayas. It’s lack of development and awe-inspiring scenery has earned it the nickname, Vietnam’s last frontier. Hiking trails are plentiful and guided tours are available. But I was allured by the 350 km motorbike loop that rings around the outer edges of the region. Try to plan your trip to get to the town in the province, Dong Va, by the weekend. There is a great Sunday market where all surrounding ethnic minorities come in to sell their beautiful textile goods.
The journey begins with a 6-hour bus ride from Hanoi. The distance from Hanoi is what keeps the areas’ tourism level low. That’s also why it is incredibly worth the trek. Tour and travel agencies will try to get a cut by upping your ticket price a whopping 100,000 VND. Instead, do it yourself and it should only cost you about 200,000 VND or $12 USD. I used Vexere to book my bus ticket the day before and there were plenty of options for departure times. I chose to take the overnight bus that arrived at 4 am.
I found that most hostels in Ha Giang City allow you to stay for free if you arrive past 1 am, so long as you notify them before. I personally recommend staying with QT Hostel. They offer motorcycle rentals and guide services.
The bikes are up-to-date and there are plenty to choose from. I went with the 120CC Honda Win (250,000 VND/day), knowing I would go off the guided track, but there are automatic scooter options as well. Talk to Tiger. He will help you map out your route based upon how many days you have for the holiday.
Insurance is optional, if you trust your driving skills. Bike repairs being so cheap in Vietnam. We spent 1 million VND for insurance, had a popped tire along the way, and only had to pay 80,000 VND to fix it. You do the math.
It’s also recommended that you take a guided tour. The locals are familiar with the terrain and secret springs, waterfalls, and trails, making your trip easier.
QT Hostel also helps you with your future travels. The hostel staff provides you with the names and locations of the best homestays along the way. Vacancies are customary, so there’s no need to book in advance, just show up. Don’t expect anything “luxury.” Expect stilted wooden homes and sleeping under a mosquito net. They’re the types of places where you wouldn’t want to bother with the man-made WC’s because they’re horrendous in comparison to utilizing the peaceful outdoors. Most mornings I woke up and found a natural spring nearby or a gentle flowing area in the river, to bathe, relax, and stretch out my legs for the next part of the motor journey.
Once you hop on your motorbike and depart from Ha Giang City, you’re greeted by a rushing mountain stream and low country fauna. The moisture and smell of agriculture and boiled corn hit you like a brick wall as you glance ahead to find the first of many mountain faces, this one reading DONG VAN KARST PLATEAU UNESCO GLOBAL GEOPARK, like the Hollywood sign, making you feel like you’re on set of Jurassic Park. The region is home to over 22 ethnic minorities, two of which are extremely rare with populations under 400. Apparently it’s the only place left in the world where we can find the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey.
Valley after valley the amazement doesn’t cease. As you climb and fall in altitude, you’re faced with different climate zones altogether. In the pious height of the rocky mountains, you’re surrounded by slated limestone cliffs and corn growing on vertical slopes. You can look down into the valleys and at the emerald river below feeling light years away.
Zigzagging between mountain passes, you’ll eventually find yourself at the bottom of the valley where the heat and air is similar to Saigon, but you actually want to breathe it in. Mini bridges pass over streams with buffalo. Children swimming as their parents are hard at work harvesting corn husks and hemp for weaving fabric. You’re genuinely detached from modern society.
As I look back on this journey, I can confidently say that the Ha Giang Loop was one of the most incredible things I’ve done in my life thus far.
Go, enjoy the smiling faces and delightful cuisine of the locals and communicate brokenly using what Vietnamese you may know. Ha Giang is still Vietnam, but with the ethnic minorities, it’s not standard Vietnamese they are speaking. If you’re a collector like me, plan your trip to get to the town in the province called Dong Va by the weekend. The town holds a Sunday market where all surrounding ethnic minorities haul in to sell their beautiful textile goods. It’s relatively cheap, and it’s easy enough, so if you have five days to spare — don’t hesitate to make the pilgrimage to the far north.