By Hugo Minnaar | Published on 2020-04-18
Last year my wife and I travelled to South East Asia for five months until Covid-19 struck. We found ourselves in Vietnam in September and decided to do the Ha Giang loop, which was not a ‘thing’ back in 2015 when we visited Vietnam for the first time.
The Ha Giang loop is now an almost infamous stretch of road in the Ha Giang province in the North of Vietnam. Backpackers from all over the world swarm to the town of Ha Giang and then embark on a three to five-day loop through the scenic mountains of northern Vietnam. The most popular motorcycle to do the loop on is the cheap, but reliable 110cc Honda Wave semi-automatic scooter.
Officially foreigners aren’t allowed to drive in Vietnam at all, but here a blind eye is turned, and backpackers set off without any licence at all and in a lot of cases with no previous experience. This invariable results in a lot of blood and tears. Luckily, we didn’t encounter such idiots during our ride, but did see a lot of people in bandages afterwards.
Despite the above we had an amazing time doing our own thing. We rented a Suzuki 125cc manual motorcycle from QT Motorbikes and Tours. It cost almost double that of the Honda Wave, but 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.
We also decided to take it slow and do the trip in six days instead of only three, this meant we missed the crowds as everyone was riding ahead of us trying to reach their destination in time. We also did the road anti-clockwise, whereas most people do it clockwise.
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.
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 too 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 showed 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 things 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.
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 rear 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 he fitted. By the time he got the wheel back on the bike it was raining hard again, we thus waited a while longer under his 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.
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.
For breakfast we just had a Bahn Mi next to the road before setting of towards Lung Cu the most northern town in Vietnam.
After driving on a potholed road for a while we got to the 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 viewpoint 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.
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 the 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.
I would highly recommend this or any other motorbike trip in Vietnam. The scenery is unlike anywhere else in the world, the people are friendly and everything is super cheap.
For more breathtaking photos from this trip click here: Photo Album
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