For the first two weeks we did just that, but then the opportunity arose to be ‘offline’ for a week or more. We heard about the Ha Giang Loop, a 400km circular route through the remote mountains of North Vietnam. Back in 2015 during our previous visit to Vietnam almost no-one knew or spoke about this region (in terms of being a tourist destination). This journey is mostly done on scooters, either driving by yourself or by riding pillion with a Vietnamese driver.
To get to Ha Giang from Vinh Yen, we first had to go to Hanoi to catch the bus. We knew it was going to be an adventure when the very first step of our journey didn’t work out. The train was delayed by more than an hour and would potentially not come at all.
We then took a taxi to Hanoi at five times the cost. Arriving at the hotel, which we booked while sitting in the Taxi, we were refunded our money and told to look for a different place. The official reason was something about a broken aircon, but apparently, it’s a common story when they overbook rooms.
It was already dark, and we didn’t know where else to look for something at least half decent, without it costing a fortune. We finally found the Lucky Hotel, at double the price of the previous place. It did at least have a comfortable bed, aircon and even breakfast included.
The whole reason we came to Hanoi the night before was so that we wouldn’t be stressed to reach the bus station in time coming directly from Vinh Yen. Somehow though we still managed to leave the Hotel too late and stressed the whole way to the bus station. When we got to our bus it was already full – apart from our two seats. We barely lied down on our middle row sleeper seats when the bus pulled away.
The bus took 7 hours to cover the 300km. Only the first hour or so is on highways the rest of the road is winding and full of scooter and pedestrian traffic, resulting in a very bumpy ride with the driver constantly pressing the hooter.
We arrived at Ha Giang at 16:00 in the afternoon and walked to QT Guesthouse, where we got a similar room to the Lucky Hotel for less than half the price, the joys of being far from the city.
At QT Motorbikes and Tours, we decided on a Suzuki 125cc manual motorcycle. Most people do the loop on 110cc semi-automatic scooters which costs only 150 000 VND per day compared to the 380 000 VND that the manual motorcycles cost. Since I’m not only riding for the sake of seeing the scenery, but also for the thrill of the ride, the price increase was more than worth it.
The suggested duration of the trip is three to four days, but we booked the bike for seven days.
Day 1: Ha Giang to Quan Ba – 60km
After breakfast at the hotel we went to QT Motorbikes where they gave us a rainproof bag for our clothes and helped to fasten it at the back of the motorcycle. We left our big backpack at the hotel and put our clothes in a Big C shopping bag. We each also had a backpack on with all the camera gear: Go Pro, DJI Spark Drone and Canon EOS M6 mirrorless camera with all the accompanying accessories.
Ha Giang is already situated in a beautiful location with mountains and cliffs visible all around. Each passing kilometre the view, however, got more and more amazing. After 30km we got to the first of countless major passes with switchbacks and drop-offs. We haven’t even started yet and it was already too much to take in. I constantly had to stop for Caro to take pictures and even while driving the picture taking continued.
Just as we started to ascend the second big pass of the day to Heaven’s Gate, we noticed that the Suzuki got a flat tyre. I dropped Caro next to the road and drove down to the town we just passed, which turned out to be further away than I thought. It was already lunch time, the worst time to get anything done in Vietnam.
I finally found a place that looked like it had something to do with motorcycles. As can be expected there was no-one around. I pressed on the horn and then finally a sleepy guy came from the back of the house looking very unimpressed. At first, he said he can’t help me, but after a quick phone call to QT (the owner of QT Motorbikes), the guy proceeded to do a very professional job on patching the tube. He even had a hydraulic press and other power tools. I was prepared to pay upwards of R100, but in the end he only charged 20 000 VND (about R12.50).
After about 30 minutes I was back to where I left Caro. At the Heaven’s Gate viewpoint, we realised just how popular this ‘activity’ has become. There were foreigners on scooters everywhere we looked. And big guided groups with up to 20 scooters in a row came speeding past.
At the bottom of the pass is the first ‘big’ town after Ha Giang, for most just a lunch stop, but for us the end of Day 1. The main street was filled with hundreds of scooters all with little strapped packs on the back, a clear indication that it is fellow ‘loopers’.
After lunch we drove just 5km out of town to the Nam Dam village where QT suggested the Ly Quoc Thang Homestay. We found the Ly Quoc homestay and ‘checked-in’. I then realised that Ly Quoc Homestay is in fact different from the suggested Ly Quoc Thang Homestay, but we decided to stay in anyway.
Homestay prices are basically fixed all over the Ha Giang province. 80k VND for the matrass, 100k VND for dinner and 40k VND for breakfast. We ended up being the only guests at this Ly Quoc family, which turned out to be an awesome experience. We had dinner with the mother and father and their three children. The oldest daughter is in her final school year and could speak some English. The mother still wears traditional Dao clothing and made all the food mostly using things from the garden. Spring rolls, tofu, rice, french fries, meat and different beans. The father also kept filling our shot glasses with corn wine. We just managed to crawl up the stairs to our rock-hard mattress on the floor and fell asleep after a beautiful first day.
Day 2: Quan Ba to Du Gia – 60km
The next morning, we had a nice shower in their proper tiled bathroom with hot water and flush toilet, outside the wooden stilt house. This is something that homestays in Vietnam didn’t have four years ago.
We drove back to Tam Son for breakfast before setting of to Du Gia. The map from QT did show something about a shortcut, but it wasn’t clear whether it was a good or bad kind of shortcut. We thus took the long route which included a very bumpy section where large trucks made deep ruts in what used to be a tarmac road.
After two or more hours of driving without seeing any other tourist traffic we got to a fork in the road. While checking the map a tour group came zipping past taking the other road, presumably the shortcut. The road however didn’t show on google yet, so we probably would have had a very confusing morning if we wanted to take the shortcut and follow google maps.
The rest of the road was in better condition with more amazing passes with tight hairpin turns and dolomite karsts as far as the eye can see.
We got to Du Gia (pronounced Zu Za) at 13:00 and stopped in the main street for lunch. Afterwards we went looking for the QT Homestay. We stopped at the potential place but learning from our mistakes we asked if they are indeed the QT Homestay. They were not. We proceeded to the next house and the next until someone said QT Homestay is the place next-door where there was no-one around. The neighbour should us the upper level where there were about 10 double bed mattresses in one open floor and another mattress in a separate ‘room’. We put our stuff down in the room and sat on the porch. Looking at Google Reviews of QT Homestay I saw that it looked completely different from the place we were currently in. We thus thought we someone ended up in the wrong place again, but after completing the loop we found out from QT that the homestay just moved to a new location, so we were in fact still in the ‘affiliated’ one.
In the afternoon we drove to the Du Gia waterfall which also took a few u-turns to find. The last stretch of the road is more like a hiking trail down a steep eroded hill. We parked the bike where we saw other parked bikes and continued the walking trail over steep rocks. Imagine our surprise when we not only found scooters at the waterfall but locals driving through the river with massive loads and up on the even steeper opposite side. It is a small waterfall, but in a picturesque valley. The water was the perfect temperature. Cold enough to be refreshing, but not too cold to handle.
Back in town we had dinner at a restaurant. The power went off and then it started raining cats and dogs. We waited out the rain before going back to the Homestay. This time there were some other guests who were having dinner at the Homestay, with much less of a family feel than what we had last night.
While the power was of it was very peaceful and tranquil with the homestay away from the village centre out in the rice paddies. Unfortunately, the power came on and immediately music could be heard from the village.
Later it started raining super hard again and I woke up from water splashing on my face. Even though the rain continued the splashing was just occasional and didn’t get worse, so we just continued to sleep.
Day 3: Du Gia to Meo Vac – 72km
By morning it was still drizzling a bit. We had pancakes for breakfast at the homestay. By the time we drove off it stopped raining.
It was another beautiful day of driving and we stopped a lot for taking photos. 10km before Meo Vac we noticed the rare tyre was flat again. Luckily, we were just 200m from a repair shop. This guy was immediately helpful and even had a new tube that it could fit. By the time he got the wheel back on the bike it was raining hard again, we thus waited a while longer under is roof.
When the rain softened a bit we took out our two-headed poncho and drove in the rain to Meo Vac. The poncho seemed to work, but luckily it didn’t rain that hard while we were on the road.
We checked into Little Yen’s Homestay which is more of a normal brick hotel. We got a ‘private’ room again, but still with a shared bathroom. Meo Vac is a bigger town like Ha Giang. We walked around town in the afternoon and had dinner at a restaurant.
Day 4: Meo Vac to Dong Van – 36km
Today was the shortest day of driving. The two towns are only 20km apart from each other, but we drove down to the Song Nho Que river adding 16 km to the day.
This day is described by many as the most picturesque day. It is indeed awe-inspiring, but perhaps given the cloud cover and the looming potential rain that we didn’t want to be caught up in it wasn’t our best day of the loop.
In Dong Van we checked into the Green Karst hotel. We got a proper private room with aircon and private bathroom. Dong Van is a quaint little town with most of the town just being next to the main through road. After lunch we climbed up the Don Cao Karst in the middle of the town. At the top there is the ruins of an old French fort from where you can get amazing 360-degree views over the town and surrounding rice paddies.
We spent an hour or more up there just soaking everything in and video calling people to show them the ‘live’ view.
Back down it started getting dark and the old quarter came to life. The old quarter has cobbled streets with plenty of coffee shops and restaurants in old wooden shophouses. We had honey pork for dinner.
Day 5: Dong Van to Yen Minh – 90 km
For breakfast we just had a Bahn Mi next to the road before setting of to Lung Cu the most northern town in Vietnam.
After driving on a potholed road for a while we got to main route going north which was a smooth new almost highway like road (compared to the narrow roads of the past few days). Big development is clearly happening. In Lung Cu we went to the large flagpole (concrete tower with stairs inside). Once there we realised there is another point even more North.
The road to The Most Northern Point is indicated as a walking trail on Google Maps, but it is in fact a single lane cement road. From the viewpoint we could look over the deep valley and border river into China. We could see roads, farms and houses in China. It basically looked the same as on the Vietnam side.
Back on the main circuit road we stopped at the Hmong Royal Palace. It is a hundred-year-old stone and wood building with terracotta tiles built with a lot of Chinese style influence. It is a two-storey building with 64 rooms. It is now a museum with some of the furniture still in the rooms, like kitchen utensil and dining tables, etc.
Just before Yen Minh we drove through a rice paddy with the sun low on the horizon, making everything glow.
Yen Minh itself is in uninspiring town. We booked into Linh Homestay which again was more of a hotel, but with shared bathrooms. As usual they asked for our passports and just then I realised I had given Caro’s passport at the Green Karst Hotel in Dong Van, but never got it back. I called QT to ask for advice and he said they will arrange for it to go to his shop in Ha Giang tomorrow.
We did manage to find a nice coffee shop with good coconut coffee.
Day 6: Yen Mihn to Ha Giang – 90km
Today we did use the indicated shortcut which again is not shown on Google as the proper road that it is. The scenery was some of the best yet with more amazing passes.
We initially planned on sleeping at Quan Ba again to use our full seven days, but after arriving there before lunch we realised, we might as well drive all the way to Ha Giang today.
But first we went to visit the Lung Khuy (Dragon) Cave. The walk to the cave from the parking lot took a while. It was hot and there were lots of steps involved. We haven’t seen any photos of the cave, so imagine our surprise when we found a 300m long cave with built walkways past some of the most spectacular stalactites that we have ever seen. There is even a very narrow path down to a cave pond. On top of everything else this was another highlight.
We had lunch in Tam Son again before setting off to Ha Giang on the same road from five days ago. We made it back to QT’s shop at half past three in the afternoon. They refunded us for the 7th day rent that we didn’t use.
We checked into the QT Hotel again and waited for Caro’s passport. Later the evening we were informed that the passport is in fact still in Dong Van, but they promised to have it here by tomorrow.
The next day the passport somehow made it to Ha Giang by 11:00 in the morning. We checked out and booked a spot on the 21:00 night bus to Hanoi.
We can’t recommend QT Motorbikes and Tours enough. Not only were or bike in perfect condition, but their commitment to customer satisfaction is evident in how they helped us with the passport without even charging anything extra for it.
For the rest of the day we just chatted to some more people either just returning from or just starting the loop.
We got to Hanoi at 04:00 in the morning and decided to take the 06:00 train back to Hanoi. We waited at the train station and watch all the people starting their day already at 04:30 in the morning. Opening their shops or coming past with their food carts. We couldn’t keep our eyes open on the train, but somehow managed to get off at the right station.
Marleen left their front gate open, so we just went inside and slept for a few hours.
It felt like coming home after an epic adventure. We didn’t know much about the Ha Giang Loop going in, but afterwards we both agreed that had we known about it, it would’ve definitely been on our bucket list.