Northern Vietnam: Ha Giang Loop
While it was not obvious for me for the beginning of our trip in Vietnam, now I understand all the hype around that country. The landscapes are of a rare beauty that makes me succumb to its charms as well. My words are not enough to explain how marvellous it is, but I will try to narrate the five days Samuel, Aurélie and I lived on our motorbikes.
My sole regret is that my dad with whom I was supposed to explore this area with couldn’t come at the last minute…Only to be postponed!
On the French radio
In the summer of 2020, I got the chance to get one of my story broadcasted on the National French radio ‘France inter‘, on “chacun sa route” by Elodie Font.
I chose a small event that happened while on the Ha Giang Loop, an event that I often remember. Here is a video I made of that story, with the audio from the radio mix.
This 400 km loop starts from Ha Giang (hence the name…) in the North of the country. If you’ve been travelling to Vietnam, chances are you heard about Sapa, which you could consider its sister as it is also a loop but much more famous (and from what I heard, not as pretty). Dante is the one who told me about this loop when we first met in Japan (articles to come later), which he heard from other travellers.
Homeland to many minorities, the most famous being the Hmongs, at the border with China, this area is so colourful and culturally rich.
That adventure remains one of my favourite souvenir of my travels . The feeling of complete freedom riding our motorbikes on these sinuous roads among the vivid paddy fields and the mysterious mountains, everyday is different alongside with deep and powerful feelings.
Some time ago, my sometimes-travelling-partner-cousin Marjolène mentioned that I usually am pretty negative about my trips, sometimes to the point of erasing all the positive. I agree, I apologise and I will try to balance a bit more. Yet, I still want to use my blog to raise awareness on some matters that are dear to me, especially the environment issues, and will still mention them even if it can sounds boring to some, too sad to others. Anyway, Marjo’, this article is for you as it can only be positive (mostly…).
So, how can one get ready to do such an adventure ?
Before doing so, it is time for my usual moral lesson: please take care of this marvel. It would be so sad to see it being destroyed like so many places around the country (that’s the reason why Aurélie and I didn’t go to Ha Long Bay) and we heard that Sapa was doing pretty bad…
One very important rule is not to give any money or candies nor goods to locals or kids. Prefer healthy food if you really want to give something, otherwise it is giving really bad habits and is very detrimental and actually on the antipode to what could be a viable economy.
How to get there?
About 300 km separate Ha Giang to Hanoi and to get there, it’s actually pretty easy, even if you rely on the public transportation (lucky you if you have your own motorbike!).
A bus departs straight from Hanoi either early in the morning or at night and lasts about 6 or 8 hours (and costs approximately 8€ to 18€ (or 9 to 20 USD or 14AUD to 30AUD). Depending on the company, the bus is more or less comfortable.
If you don’t want to bother with comparing, bargaining, fiding the stop etc. you can book easily on Bookaway : here (they are my partner, you’ll find all the disclaimers on the ‘who am I‘ if you want more information).
Otherwise, you can buy your tickets directly in Hanoi, but be aware of scams.
When to go?
You may want to avoid monsoon season (which is pretty much between June to September -so avoid end of June, let me tell you that-), to avoid very uncomfortable situations where you end up all soaked to the bone.
It would be also a good idea as it would be better to travel lightly, even though I would still recommend to bring a rain jacket anyway, but you don’t have to bring so many different clothes or shoes as it is only for few days. Again, only some more in case of finishing damped. We couldn’t dry anything even with the fan full speed on them overnight…
Our shoes got so soaked multiple times we had to wear the beautiful Aurélie-sized-plastic-slippers provided by the hotel. Okay, it is really stylish, especially when going out to eat in a restaurant. But it didn’t have the time to dry for the next day, thus you may want to avoid that, so yeah, avoid June to September.
Winter (northern hemisphere winter : December to February) is to avoid as well as you are sometimes high in the mountains and it can get really chilly.
opt for 2 periods:
- from March to May
- from September to November
- Since you are in a foreign country (most likely), you’ll need a international driving licence (you need to…okay! Don’t be like us, once again). In most cases, or at least for French people, you need to ask it before leaving your home country. Pay attention if “motorbike/scooter” appears on your licence.
Good to know: Police officers are somewhat very present on the loop, even though we crossed the traffic police only once, and they were arresting other people. Avoid this stress and make this international licence.
We also hear many stories from people mentioning corrupted officers (which is not something so rare around the world, right?). So whenever you get arrested by a policeman, take the vehicle key in your hand, so that they cannot take it as a hostage to make you pay whatever they want you to pay that day. And trust me, they’ll find something.
- A permit is required to travel around Ha Giang area, which costs about 8€, whether you’re driving a motorbike or anything. Head to the immigration office in Ha Giang, you will be able to do it there directly.
That licence allows you to go in most remote areas, as far East as Meo Vac.
- Don’t arrive there light-heartedly, not aware of anything. We probably got scammed by the guesthouse owner who was claiming that we need to let him do everything for us. We were not very awake when we arrived and while we are thinking that we could plan during the day, he said that we should leave now, while the police officer are having lunch. He also makes us pay even more, saying that his brother was an important person, whom we could contact if we had any trouble with justice since we do not have international licence (we had left France one year before that and it is (was?) impossible to ask for one once you’re already abroad).
Very shamefully, we used corruption, but pretty much despite our will, because, again, we were pretty much still asleep. I’m not proud of this and that’s why I am warning you.
I will never forget my amazed smile, looking everywhere around me, disappearing when I saw the traffic officer, forced to drive in front of them, not being able to look somewhere else to pretend I did not see them (a technique in Bali or Philippines…).
Even though you don’t get arrested, you’ll have to cross many, many ‘checkpoints’ or province borders and you’ll see many military or police officers… Well you get the idea: get the freaking licence! He he he
What to bring?
I’d like to mention the clothing part, which is obviously important (isn’t ‘what should I bring?’ the question we asked ourselves first?).
The loop is pretty short (between 3 and 5 days, but if you can spend more time I’d advise it!), few clothes are necessary but you’ll need to bring some warm clothes as mentioned earlier. To be more precise, sometimes you’ll be as high as 1,961m high, in Dong Van karstic plateau (UNESCO) for example and especially while driving, the wind might get chilly.
You will need a rain jacket, as I said earlier.
Also the sun is so damn strong, especially as we spend pretty much all day long on the bike. Therefore, I strongly encourage you to prepare a long-sleeve yet thin jacket. We sweat so much in our rain jacket that I wished I read this info beforehand.
Obviously, bring me some sunscreen and sunglasses. →
About the vehicle now. Samuel and I happened not to have too much choice actually, especially Samuel aha.
- For Samuel and I, it’s gonna be a semi-automatic (150,000 VND a day or about 6€, ~6.52USD or ~10AUD). First, the rental guy, who’s also the owner of the guesthouse, tells Samuel (not me as I am a woman…) that it’d be better to use a semi one instead of a full automatic since he’s gonna have someone behind and that driving one will be easier and also that it has a better adhesion.
I had to fight my way so that he lets me use a semi-automatic bike, but it worked out very well! None of us ever drove a motorbike before that, but we learnt in about 3 minutes, right after the bus hence extremely exhausted on a more or less straight road.
- However, if you don’t trust yourself or don’t feel confident, and don’t care much about speed, choose an automatic one, for 200 000 VND (~8€, so now I understand why the owner was so insistent).
- A manuel one is about 250 000 VND, about 10€.
I don’t have any shop to recommend as we tried only one. We didn’t have any sort of problem with our bikes, we even had clothes for the rain in the boot.
Driving is chaotic, even though a bit better than Hanoi for example as we are not going through any big city. Yet, the main scary part of driving in Vietnam is people overtaking and lorries are plentiful. I’d like to remind everyone this golden rule: a lorry always wins, and won’t care to send you in the ditch.
Moreover, I mentioned earlier the roadholding of the bikes because you’ll be driving in mountains, which obviously implies driving on very pinheadly sinuous and not well-maintened roads. We came across a lot of people who’ve got scratches on their knees (and I know that Dante & Agustin both fell…)… But again, nothing happened to us! We were extra careful, especially on wet roads.
Anyway, you’ll be slow as you will want to take pictures every 10 metres. However, you’ll sometimes drive up to 6 hours a day if you don’t have much time, hence be wary on how often you stop.
- If you are still willing to do this trip but don’t feel like driving motorbikes, local buses exist. I cannot give any advice about them as we didn’t use any.
Where to sleep?
That’s a very simple question! No need to book anything in advance. There are numerous hotel or homestay in each place you’ll go through. Bonus time: because you’re in South Asia, you can even bargain the price of the room! Which is sad for me as I am very bad at this… 🥲
The bedroom is always comfortable and clean. Even though the beds are sometimes extremely hard, which is fine by me. Most of the time, there is also a bathroom attached.
Our rental owner lends us a map with all the stops worth doing as follow:
– Ha Giang – Quan Ba
– Quan Ba – Dong Van
– Dong Van – Lung Cu – Meo Vac via Ma Pi Leng Pass
– Meo Vac – Du Gia
– Du Gia – Ha Giang
Map made with my ennemy, Google…
Hey ho, Let's go!
Except that I make a major mistake on our itinerary (I am, as always, the decided guide…). So our loop has a tail:
Indeed, thanks to me we go to Nha Phong, we can say that we are off the beaten tracks! (But don’t go there)
I tried to follow the map and my phone, while doing so, I may have confused two crossroads that looked really similar on my map (forgive me, senpais!).
Unfortunately, because of this mistake, we kinda “wasted” energy and gas. Thus, instead of going to Du Gia, we went to Nha Phong. As soon as we arrived, we were wondering why that stop was part of the trip. The other strange thing about the place was the lack of accomodation, which was not usual at all. There is but one hotel and one restaurant, restaurant half-closed. The owners were still willing to cook some instant noodles with salt though.
Now that I mentioned noodles, far far away from the galaxy of the shitty (oops) salty noodles of the wrong stop, we got magical ones. We were starving and decided to stop to the next plac, no matter what it was. And well… We arrived in a tiny ghost town with almost all the buildings destroyed. We do find one place, a big warehouse filled with plastic tables and chairs. The lovely woman shows us an instant noodle packet with an egg.
As we were starving, we agreed on this unimpressive meal.
Lo and behold! She brought the most amazing instant noodles I ever ate, and a delicious poached egg. They could enter the realm of ramen.
The interesting thing about these places, almost each of them has got free Wi-Fi (which is not even the case through Europe…) and the TV is always on. Most likely on a horribly played romatic soap opera.
Very often, the kids are just left alone in front of the TV, along with a phone playing games…
The itinerary stresses Ma Pi Leng Pass which is famous for being the most beautiful of the loop. To be honest, in my opinion, it’s pretty hard to decide where it’s the prettiest, as they all are!
Alone on my bike, I realise how the inhabitants live with very few things but also seem happy. I know it might sound cliché, but I suppose you need to see with your own eyes.
So yeah, here comes the lecture. But because I think it’s important to stop a little while to realise that we overconsume and still never feel fulfilled. We always want more things, don’t we? Maybe we should ask ourselves first if what we are about to buy is truly necessary.
I stopped buying new stuff compulsively after this trip actually. I saw this kid sitting in front of the mountains among sheeps, petting a hen he had on his laps. He was smiling doing so. Well, of course I have no way to know he was not dreaming about the new PlayStation or something… But whatever he was thnking about, I thought that genuine happiness was that.
That’s pretty much what I am talking about in the radio podcast. I mentioned earlier that kids in South Asia (as far as I saw) were too often in front of the TV with phones in the hands while the parents pretty much ignored them. Yet, on the Ha Giang Loop, we witnessed a lot of kids playing with nothing outside.
Remember your grandparents telling you you can play with a stick and your imagination; or that for Christmas all they had was an orange and they were really happy? Well, that’s the idea.
I would also like to mention the little old woman and her flowers we met in Meo Vac. One morning, a dressed with traditional clothes old Hmong woman was also wearing flowers around the waist. The owner of the hotel told us that she loved walking around the town, stealing flowers she liked from the gardens. According to her, flowers make her happy, so she wants new flowers everday. Her songs and her happiness made us very joyful as well. I often remember this old woman people were calling crazy but who seemed not to care about what others were thinking.
We did saw some pretty dark things (yes, Marjolène, I gotta do it), like women (a lot of men as well but mainly women on the fields) working at any age, whether it be from 5 to 80 years old. They were carrying very heavy loads of sugar canes, much longer than them.We saw some really young kids working, which was pretty strange to see.
The most annoying point was that many people wanted to scam us, as usual in South East Asia.
However, despite these two things, landscapes are stunning. To conclude, my favourite mental image from this trip is this village locked between those two big mountains where a river was running slowly. We were arriving late at this place, since we came from Nha Phong, ya know? The light was so soft, dawn settling. As we were driving through, dragonflies and other insects were flying everywhere. Children were running all over, shouting ‘hello’ to our direction and wanted to high five us. The village was so peaceful, everyone was smiling there!