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Riding High in Ha Giang, Northern Vietnam

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A less known loop in Northern Vietnam that skirts the Chinese border gives adventurous riders the thrill of a lifetime.

By Marco Ferrarese//Photos by Kit Yeng Chan.

The stark opposites of this scenery have a touch of supernatural: to the left, rocky crests that look like petrified waves emerge from a deep gorge while rolling green mountains constellated by paddies extend to the right. We are in the middle; awestruck on the strip of asphalt we are riding. Squinting at the horizon hard enough, one can see the profile of the southern border of China’s Guanxi province behind a wall of clouds, a mystic landscape of conical limestone crags, rigid valleys, and mountain peoples who have rarely left these barren highlands.

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To taste a glimpse of this idyllic scenery, we have brought our wheels to Ha Giang, Vietnam’s northernmost province that rubs shoulders with south China. Just about eight hours ride from Hanoi, Ha Giang is the ultimate adventure playground, a place that, to the contrary of its celebrated neighbors Sapa and Lao Cai, sees very few travelers. As I observe the tips of saw-toothed mountains scratch the clouds overhead, I can’t say I’m not glad that Ha Giang still stays well under the mainstream radar. The unlikely reason seems to be the special permit needed to visit — it can in fact be easily obtained in most of the region’s hotels and guesthouses for only 300,000 dong (about US$15).

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The best way to travel and enjoy the views of this slice of North Vietnam is by renting a motorbike and venturing out of Ha Giang’s center toward the villages of Meo Vac and Dong Van to the northwest. It’s here that the well-paved road loops back, completing a 320-km circle back to Ha Giang. Those who are not confident with Vietnamese roads may decide to travel on the cramped local buses. But be forewarned: the real joy of the Ha Giang loop is to ride it against the wind, loving every minute of its stunning views by negotiating one hairpin bend after the other. As such, renting a set of wheels in Ha Giang is highly recommended.

dscf1807It’s only a few minutes beyond Ha Giang’s city limits that the road starts climbing into the forested hills flanked by blue rivers that slowly lead to the Dong Van Geo-Park. This area was inscribed by UNESCO in 2011, the second in Southeast Asia.

After a couple hours drive, the ascent breaks marvelously at Heaven’s Gate Pass, right after a series of bare rock formations nicknamed “Moon Rocks.” The road then starts descending to the village of Tam Son, built in-between and around a series of mound-shaped hills. Two of them rise very next to each other, and have been cheekily nicknamed “fairy bosoms” by the locals. Tam Son makes for a good lunch stop before continuing into the Yen Minh district, along the course of the Mien River. As the road rises again from the valley, the horizon breaks into a forest of limestone peaks that extend in the distance all the way to China.

Keep the next 70km to Dong Van, via Meo Vac, for the next day: easily some of Southeast Asia’s most stunning mountain landscapes, they are better savored slowly. Cut by a surreal collection of switchbacks and viewpoints along an almost fantasy-like backdrop of limestone peaks, the mountains here seem to have been petrified as they were chasing each other. At times, the scenery reminds of a Chinese painting, with all the stereotypical mist, cone-shaped rock pinnacles, and bemused villagers.

This mostly treeless land is under the reign of the H’mong, and it’s about midway on this stretch of loop that a short diversion leads to the charming wooden palace of their king. Built with the provents from the opium trade, this small but opulent castle has three stone courtyards and a number of rooms that should be explored before driving the last 15km to Dong Van.

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One can linger and soak the village’s relaxed atmosphere, but it’s in the following 22km to Meo Vac that climb over the Ma Pi Leng Pass that the Ha Giang loop really gives its best. The midway highlight is a viewpoint towering over a river valley down below. Take your time to marvel on the beauty of it all, because once you have reached Meo Vac — a small town of new, tall buildings flanking the sides of a long, anonymous road — the magic’s finished.

The next day, a last 150km-stretch back to Ha Giang completes the loop through a lower valley, connecting at Yen Minh. Compared to the scenery between Dong Van and Meo Vac, the ride is far from spectacular. But again, with the joy of cruising past viridian countryside that hardly sees any travelers, one shouldn’t worry too much if nature has not kept her very best for last.

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Travel Tips

The first international travelers to Ha Giang’s were motorcycle adventurers and even now that the roads have improved, it remains popular among them. You can bike on your own from Hanoi or join escorted motorcycle tours. But an increasing number of travelers are now arriving by car or bus. From Hanoi to Ha Giang, allow 7-8 hours with stops. Full distance is 282km.
From Bangkok, there are many flights to Vietnam, and you can first fly to Hanoi and plan your trip to Hia Gang from there.