Flying High on our Motorbikes on the Ha Giang Loop
A journey through the clouds in Northern Vietnam
My oh my what a time! A rain-soaked, butterfly-kissed, 5-star view-filled trip. Just me, Franklin, 2 motorbikes, countless tiny farming communities, stunning vistas, and a whole lot of pavement. We started every day with a gratitude circle, giving thanks for our lives, our ability to remain mindful of all the challenges the long road presented, and the beauty beholden to us in every minute during that journey.
Ha Giang to Dong Van
We set off on our journey nice and early. We left most of our stuff at the QT Motorbike rental shop, just bringing two small bags each for the trip. It’s amazing what little you need to get by. We had a delicious breakfast of these fluffy pancake things, which are most likely not vegan but I wasn’t in the mood to pester the lady, and the leftovers from our vegan feast at the Buddhist restaurant, Am Thue Chay.
It was a warm and sunny departure from Ha Giang. The road followed the river north out of town, and almost immediately started climbing into the rich green hills. This first day of riding absolutely thrusted us into the resplendence we were about to encounter over the next 7 days. On the first day, we drove up and up, to then descend into a quaint valley blooming with fields of flowers, corn, and rice. We followed this pattern over and over again, until we drove up to the greatest climb of all - Quan BA, the Heaven's Gate Pass - where we felt like we entered into another world completely.
We reached this high point, drinking our congratulatory smoothie and making friends with the other Western bike-gangs before hopping back on the bikes and heading further, at which point we crossed into a different dimension!
The wilderness suddenly seemed wilder. The rice paddies brighter. The cliffs taller and more jagged. The villages became more traditional - colorful pleated skirts the norm instead of modern attire. We now had the added danger of dogs, chickens, and children jumping onto the road at any time.
The weather too shifted, once we descended into this land before time. Rain clouds rolled in. Our warm sunshine was replaced by crisp air, which was eventually replaced by spitting, wind-blown rain. But luckily that was a slow progression, and we did manage to enjoy hours of peacefully overcast riding, or rain so light that it felt like a cooling mist.
After we encircled a mountaintop forest of the most beautiful pines, we descended into a fantastic valley encased by enormous peaks on both sides. By this time the pleasant mist had saturated the plants of the valley, giving the greenery a royal hue.
Just as the rain was picking up we reached our lunch spot, Yen Minh, and we got to spend the entirety of a torrential shower in a cozy restaurant, tucking into a steaming plate of rice, tofu in tomato sauce, and sauteed morning glories.
When the rains ended and our tummies were satiated, we set off on the last 46 km to our destination for the night, Dong Van. The drive out of Yen Minh was just as glorious as the ride in. Torrents of jagged cliffs shooting hundreds of feet into the sky, expansive vistas, quaint traditional villages, and huge volcanic rocks and boulders highlighting steep, helter-skelter fields of corn. The rain did manage to find us again, but it started off gentle, like before.
I remember at one moment - when the ‘gentle’ part of the deluge was evolving to a more fanatic stage - motorbike purring beneath me as we climbed steadily up a grassy mountainside, the wind whipping my sleeves and hair, the rain soaking the exposed skin of my face, and just feeling the asture Power of Mother Nature. I haven’t felt this in months, since the rain-soaked gales that threatened to knock down our doors at our hill-top hotel in Rishikesh, India.
But this was to be truly in it. And the only way out was through. So that is what we did, for 30 more km. By the time we reached Dong Van, we were soaked to the bone. Teeth chattering, hands sore from gripping the handlebars so tight. The downside of packing so light was that we didn’t have many warm layers, and we had zero rain gear to speak of.
So we were extremely grateful when a cute Vietnamese young woman pulled up next to us and told us about her parent's hotel, which she assured us was fabulous. We took her word for it, and we weren’t disappointed. It was a lovely place run by the nicest people. And it was right next door to a spectacular bar, complete with tasty wine (from the perspective of someone who hasn’t had wine in 4 months) and hip decor. We ended the night there, playing music with the super cool staff, connecting, and having a grand old time.
At that point we didn’t know if the rain would let up by the morning so we were accepting the fact that we might have to stick around town for an extra day. But we took an early night, just in case.
Dong Van to Bao Lac
We awoke to thick and numerous rain which mercifully tapered off by the time I managed to get out of bed. I took a stroll while Franklin meditated, enjoying the strangeness of this back-country town, as well as the beauty of the enormous cliffs shooting up not inches away from the edge of its buildings. On the way back to the room I picked up an enormous mango, which we enjoyed together, back in bed.
Still not knowing if the weather would be cooperating with us for the day, we decided to wander about the market right outside our door, and enjoy a tasty breakfast somewhere.
In the market we picked up some rain ponchos - fancy things designed to fit over the front of our motorbikes, bought for $2 each. And Franklin drooled over the giant bags of superfoods, as always.
Our breakfast was a scrumptious one. We had originally stopped in this suffocating hostel restaurant, and I couldn't stand being inside and not enjoying the view, so I used my powers of will to find a better one. Following the call of the mountains, we found a sweet little courtyard filled with tables and chairs. We picked one with an awake-looking staff and were soon treated to two heaping plates of sauteed vegetables and vegetable rice noodles. Both were seasoned brilliantly. Sad to say, this meal set the bar rather high for veg food to come, and much disappointment was in our future, as a consequence.
Since the rains hadn’t returned, we decided to carry on with our motor journey. We swaddled our two small bags each in their protective plastic covering and strapped them onto the back of our bikes. This was aided by the hotelier’s daughter, as the whole family had guffawed at our pack tying skills when we had un-tied last night, and had promised assistance with the morning re-tie.
We set off through Dong Van, and began the ascent out of the illustrious valley it was nestled in. This day was absolutely breathtaking. The river valley next to the one Dong Van is situated in is quintessential Ha Giang Loop - lush green slopes rising thousands of feet into the sky, quaint farmers tending fields of corn hugging said slopes, a smokey-blue river winding its way through the valley below and reflecting the speckled sunlight from above.
Some features of the day included a communist statue and a coffee stop overlooking the entire world, from our perspective.
The second day’s ride started off better than we could imagine, but became more difficult as the day wore on. The smooth road gave way to patches with rough gravel. But the rainless sky held out all day, and the river valleys we were driving through were spectacular. There was one stretch that was perfect for driving fast, so we got to experience that exhilaration for the first time.
Still, our behinds were quite sore by the end of the 106 km, and at a certain point, the brain is too tired to concentrate on keeping rubber on pavement much longer. We were at that stage, and quite excited when the km-markers to our rest-stop for the night started displaying single-digits.
The town, Bao Lac, wasn’t anything special, from a tourist’s perspective. Farmers selling items on the side of the road, chickens running and clucking hither-tither, closed restaurants, signs for restaurants and then you look and it’s just someone's unwelcoming-looking house. The town’s redeeming quality was that it was nicely perched by the side of a brown, rain-swollen river. We found a hotel with a great view of the river and the valley wall on the other side of it. The nice proprietors provided us with beer and a simple but delicious dinner of rice, French fries, peanuts, and vegetables. We didn’t end up leaving the hotel the entire time we were there.
We had entertained thoughts of finding a good karaoke bar for a while, but we got quite comfy in our spacious room, listening to the soothing sound of the rushing river, playing music, and enjoying the darkened silence that a town-wide power-outage provided.
Bao Lac to Cao Bang
We had heard rain throughout the night, but the morning was bright and crisp. Overcast sky but dry air. But it was a teaser, and we were soon stopping on the side of the road to don our ponchos. Though the scenery was starting to blend together a bit, each view was still breathtaking. The lava-rock strewn, steep corn fields of the first day and a half were now replaced by less dramatic valleys of flat, lime-green rice paddies. Still stunning to see. Whimsical farmhouses dotted the hillsides.
About 2 hours into the ride the rain got to a point that was unbearable. It was finding its way to our bodies through the sides of the ponchos. So we stopped at a very small town, at a market that had a nice seating area off to the side. We binged on junk food and canned coffee, and spent the hours waiting out the rain writing a remake of Johnny Cash's “I've Been Everywhere” to include all the cities and towns we have visited in the last 9 months. That was a great task and made the time fly by, and when we looked up an hour later, the rain had stopped.
The rest of the ride was beautiful. We started climbing high again, and it actually became rather cold at certain points, though the sun was out and warming us. This is where I got to see my first ‘rice paddy at the top of the world’, looking like an infinity pool. And looking so quintessentially Vietnamese, as it was being tended by a stooped figure in a pointed bamboo hat.
The descent into the mid-size town preceding the bustling city of Cao Bang was another spine-tingling one. By this point I was cold for lack of food, as my breakfast at Cao Lac hadn’t been substantial, and I had long since burned through it trying to keep warm. We stopped at a joint advertising rice and pho, and used our phones to translate that we were vegetarians and to please bring us vegetarian food. They surprised us with a delicious plate of fried rice and pickled cucumbers. It was the perfect mid-way meal, especially as it was my first serving of fried rice (I became quite sick of this go-to veg meal by the end of the loop).
The rest of the ride to Cao Bang was lovely in that the road now had a dividing line, stayed relatively flat, and the turns relatively gentle - perfect conditions for driving fast. So we got to enjoy the lush corn fields, and the steep slopes of the hills and cliffs at thrill-seeking speed.
We used Booking.com to find a good hotel, and once there we used our power of communication (google translate) to secure a room on a high floor with a view of the beautiful mountains surrounding Cao Bang, as well as the fat brown river that ran adjacent to the hotel.
This town was somewhat of a challenge for us, since it rained practically nonstop for 2 days straight, vegetarian food wasn’t much of a concept to the restaurateurs who were open/willing to cook for us, and I experienced a food sickness that severely brought my energy down.
Over the course of our time there we ate lots of fruit, and very sweet [very likely non vegan] croissants. We did manage to have a nice vegan pizza the first night at a Westernized business, and a nice walk to a war memorial on the second day.
On the second day we also made it to the one vegan restaurant in town. The cook was sleeping, so we waited for about 20 minutes before her boss came along and woke her up. This was a Vietnamese restaurant, not a westernized one, and the menu was in Vietnamese. We spent a good 10 minutes going back and forth over the menu. In the end, they brought out a heaping portion of instant noodles with vegetables, grilled cabbage and carrots, and a plate of tofu in tomato sauce. We were thoroughly unimpressed.
On the third day in Cao Bang, my stomach was really hurting, so I stayed home while Franklin set off for a day-trip to a knife-making village and the waterfall. 5 minutes after he left he called me, telling me to start packing up, because, although we had told the hotel clerk that we wanted to stay another night, and he had heartily nodded his head and said okay, he hadn’t actually understood. And now the hotel was fully booked.
So Franklin went next door and got us a room at the adjacent hotel. The room didn’t have a giant wall of windows looking out on the mountains, in fact it had a very tiny window, looking out on a dark alleyway. But it had a TV with the same channels we had been binging on the day before, and the bed was actually softer. So I was fine to wait out my sickness here, watching ‘The Woman Channel’ with shows such as ‘Real Housewives’ and 'Ty Pennington’s Outside the Box’. Later, when Franklin came home with his tail between his legs (it had rained torrents non-stop on him, the knives were too big to backpack with, and he had given up on the waterfall) we watched Mathilda and Oh Brother Where Art Thou together.
Cao Bang to Ho Ba Be
The day greeted us with fluffy white clouds and sunshine. We were so thrilled to finally get to high-tail it out of this po-dunk town. And the ride was gloriously sunny the whole day, and not too hot. It was very similar as the ride into Cao Bang - quaint farming villages nestled in valleys of gently sloping mountains and medium sized peaks.
This region is known for its giant national park, which became more evident as we descended on patches of the thickest jungle we had ever seen. These patches became bigger and bigger, until we found ourselves at the entrance of the park. Paying a small fee, we were admitted, and set off to find the giant green lake of Ba Be, with its section of homestays clustered around its shallow, rice-paddy and cornfield laden eastern tip.
We found a homestay which featured a huge open-air room on the second floor looking out on the water-logged fields and the rest of the lake beyond. The fuzzy, jungle-packed hills and multiple layers of mountains shooting up out of the lake created the perfect canvas for the sunset from our second floor perch.
Our homestay was home to a lovely family, bigger than normal since it’s 3 grown kids were home from their respective cities to join their dad on his 50th birthday celebration. It was a nice surprise for us when we got an invite later that night. We accepted, and joined them in their open-air living room downstairs. Sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat around what must have been at least 15 different plates of food, we feasted with the family, enjoyed their rice-wine, cake, and good company. Though their English skills were pretty much non-existent, we still managed to create a human connection that transcended language.
The rest of our time in Ho Ba Be was spent cruising around on a boat, exploring caves, swimming, and lounging. It was gloriously hot and sunny the whole time, but after the end of the second day, we were itching to get out there on the road once more.
Ho Ba Be to Ha Giang
This was the most challenging day of riding, as it was the longest ride as well as the hottest weather we had so far experienced. We had to take many breaks for cold beverages and shade.
The ride itself was beautiful, of course! Ascents up to mist-laden mountain-tops, several large waterfalls cascading down just off the road, traditionally crafted wooden farm-houses, more infinity-pool style rice paddies which seemed to end at the edge of the universe, and breath-taking views into the valleys below. This was our world for most of the day.
Then slowly, the ascents became smaller and less severe. The valleys became broader. The roads became wider, and a central dividing line became the norm. Traffic grew heavier, and suddenly, we found ourselves back in the 'real world', in the bustling town of Viet Quang. And from there we rode the scariest section of the entire journey, the highway to Ha Giang during rush-hour.
Narrowly avoiding giant semi-trucks swerving around slower traffic in the opposite lane, lunatics merging onto the road without even looking to see who was coming, and dogs with a death-wish, we finally pulled into the QT parking lot, along with the setting sun.
It was bitter-sweet saying goodbye to our trusty steeds and once again becoming mere pedestrians, but Vietnam is a huge, adventure-laden country, and it was time for our Ha Giang chapter to come to a close.
Some final thoughts on the loop before likewise bringing this summary to a close:
Landslides: Huge amounts of rain + steep cliffs = land slides. Even if you are the most amazing motorcycle driver in the world, death can still come from above, without warning. We crossed over this monstrosity on the 3rd day, small rocks and fragment of cliff still raining down. We learned later that this landslide had severely injured a Western tourist and his Vietnamese driver and guide just hours before.
Chickens, dogs, children, and automobiles pulling out in front of you: Dangerous, horrifying, and most of the reasons we held our gratitude circles every morning. Death is a real possibility when riding a motorbike, and staying vigilant is the only way to lessen its odds of becoming a reality.
Sleeping cafe-workers: although somewhat hilarious, it’s also quite disappointing when a coffee stop with the most beautiful view can’t serve you because its worker is asleep in back. This happened to us at least 3 times, and we just didn’t have the nerve to step into their space and wake them. Oh well.