Our night spent in Lao Cai was a stressful one. The hotel was deserted (due to Tet) and the only staff on hand was a bumbling Vietnamese security guard with zero English. We were handed a key to the room, and left to fend for ourselves. We somehow managed to negotiate a bus ticket travelling from Lao Cai to Ha Giang (‘Ha Zang’), after much confusion about the timings (was it 6am or 6pm?). It was only after Lawrence trawled through the whole Internet to find some information about this fairly untrodden route that we made a stab in the dark for 6am. At 5:30am, we were handed a scrappy piece of paper with some unknown Vietnamese words and numbers scrawled on the front, which we were instructed to hand to a taxi driver. Our taxi driver accepted the piece of paper and proceeded to take us around the corner from the hotel in his car, to the darkest and most isolated underpass in Lao Cai where he pulled over. At this point, our alarm bells started ringing as we nervously scanned the surrounding area for a mob of murderers/thieves/degenerates. The taxi driver then had a very heated phone call with the number written on our ‘bus ticket’, unsettling us further. We had no idea what was being said and the lack of understanding from both sides was exasperating everyone involved. After what felt like an age, a minibus finally pulled up round the darkened corner. We were relieved to see the ‘Lao Cai – Ha Giang’ plate on the front of the bus and two other Western faces encouraging us on board. We were on our bumpy way!
The drive itself was a treat as the mountains became more dramatic the further we climbed. We immediately sensed that we were a bit of a novelty in the area, with only two other white faces on the bus with us. Some local men on board attempted a conversation with Lawrence, pointing at his beard and curly hair, naming him ‘horse-boy’ and giggling. Lonely Planet maintains that Ha Giang should be one of the most visited destinations in the region but the proximity to China keep visitor numbers at a low level. This was fine by us; the more open tarmac the better.
Ha Giang is a province in the northeast region of Vietnam. It is the final frontier in Vietnam and boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in Vietnam (our words, as well as the rest of the Internet’s/Lonely Planet’s). Limestone outcrops soar upwards out of the valleys with tarmac ribbons of road carving their way up and around the mountains wherever the landscape allows. The best way to tackle this environment is by motorbike and we couldn’t wait to hop on one to see more of the already jaw-dropping scenery.
We organised our trip via QT Motorbikes, number one on TripAdvisor (only open for 16 months and growing rapidly in popularity) and arrived at their garage to select a bike. After a quick whizz round the block to adjust to the difference between a moped and semi-automatic, Lawrence felt comfortable tackling the mountain passes on a 110cc Honda Blade. Our mopeds in Hanoi had no gears and front handle breaks, however the Blade had gears and a different breaking system, so demanded more concentration and multi-tasking. Naomi decided to put 100% faith in Lawrence and opted out of the driving seat. Lawrence prefers riding bikes and from the look of the landscape, we needed all the conviction we could muster. There was no room for nervous driving, just cautious confidence.
The route we organised with QT took us in a circular loop, totalling 420 kilometres over a 4-day period. We would begin in Ha Giang, travel to Du Gia, continue on through Meo Vac, Dong Van and Tam Son, before returning to Ha Giang.
After a night at QT’s hostel, we set off on the bike with our smaller bags strapped to the back, enjoying the warm breeze as we left Ha Giang city, and soared upwards. After half an hour the soaring abruptly ended as we pulled over to layer up. We wore every item of warm clothing we owned including two pairs of gloves each. Hats under the helmets were a must. It didn’t take long for the temperature to drop suddenly, but with this we were rewarded with incredible views very early on.
It’s incredibly difficult to describe the mountains in Ha Giang, as they’re so diverse and don’t follow any particular pattern. Some are rolling hills and others jut out in spikey peaks. The landscape reminded us of larger versions of the limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay, only embedded into the valleys on land. The knobble-topped limestone mountains sprouted out and on top of one another, creating layers of silhouetted summits. The further into the distance they grew, the more engulfed by cloud and mist they became. The fog created a moody atmosphere and reminded us of a variety of film locations. This included: Jame’s Bond: Skyfall (Scottish Highlands), Twilight, Jurassic Park.
Our first stop was Lung Khuy Cave, near Tam Son. The cave is 300 meters long, housing magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. Then, it was back onto the meandering roads.
We struggled to find any lunch spots along the way (again, Tet was causing a stir) so we were tided over with half a pack of crisps each. This meant we were ravenous by the time we arrived at the homestay in Du Gia (‘Zu Za’). Luckily, our host, Si, owned a backpacker hostel (which we had completely to ourselves) and cooked a delicious meal and supplied us with tea, coffee, beer and anything else a weary traveller could wish for. After munching through a mountain of spring rolls that could have fed a family of 6, we sat around a fire and Si chatted to us in her broken English (she had only been learning for 3 months) and via Google Translate, about her life and how QT began his business.
As well as hosting travellers, Si also teaches Vietnamese at the local primary school, just a couple of metres from her hostel. She shared some photos of her students, pointing out that some of the half dressed kids didn’t even have anything warm to wear to school. They were much smaller than the children we had taught in Hanoi, and the lack of opportunity life in Ha Giang offered to them was clear. It made the students in Hanoi seem so privileged in comparison. The chances of any native English-speaking teachers out here were zero, and Si was a novelty in that she could even speak Vietnamese. There are 22 ethnic minority groups in Ha Giang, but mainly the Hmong, Tay, Dao, Nung and Lo Lo. Each group speaks their own language. Many of the children who attend Si’s school have to walk for miles, and so a large number board during the week to avoid the harsh trek and early mornings each day. Si enthused about the importance of learning English for her; it’s humbling how motivated many of the Vietnamese people are to learn English that we’ve met. We really enjoy staying in homestays while travelling as we learn a little more about Vietnamese life each time we’re so warmly welcomed into someone’s home.
It was off to bed for an early night after day 1 on the road, as we had another big day ahead of us. All was well until Naomi awoke at 1am. She rolled around in bed for a while, unsure if the churning in her stomach would pass. It didn’t. The once pleasant memory of our home cooked dinner was now creeping its way back into Naomi’s nighttime trip to the toilet, quite literally. The nausea finally subsided after about an hour of Naomi being curled round the toilet, willing herself to throw up whatever it was that had made her sick. Both Lawrence and Si were feeling just fine, yet the two of us had eaten exactly the same since the trip began. From the hours of 2am – 6am, Naomi emptied her insides. Si burst in at about 4am after hearing the commotion, obviously distressed and concerned that she’d caused the sickness with her cooking. She proceeded to brew some ginger and honey tea, offering 3 pints of the hot drink to Naomi (which was flushed down the toilet). We were lucky that the 12-man dorm was completely empty (for everyone else’s sakes) and the toilet a few feet from our bed. It was a grim 12 hours and the prospect of sitting on the back of a motorbike the next day wasn’t easing any feelings of ‘I want to go home and be looked after by my mum’ by Naomi.
Luckily, there was no vomiting from 6am onwards, just a very tender tummy and a husk of a human being wrapped up as tightly as possible in warm clothing. Naomi made the call to plough on as normal on day 2 rather than shorten the trip or postpone it for a day (we had a flight to catch after the tour and we didn’t want to miss any of the scenery). But before this, we were treated to a village gathering courtesy of Tet. All of the local people had congregated in a rice field where a bamboo pole had been erected with a target and balloons fastened on top. The village men proceeded to catapult a bundled up sack of dirt on the end of a rope at the target with the aim of popping all the balloons. It was a similar atmosphere/concept to the Highland Games back in Scotland. Every time one of the men hit the target, they were offered a shot of rice wine and 5,000 VND. There were a lot of merry faced men stumbling around at 10am. We were warmly welcomed by the villagers who seemed thrilled at the sight of a couple of westerners. Naomi was in no position to drink the wine or have a throw of the swinging bag of soil (which almost knocked out spectators and rogue children on a handful of occasions), however Lawrence had some decent attempts. We couldn’t stay long enough to see if/when the bamboo pole fell to the ground, but the smashed locals would have probably timbered sooner.
We were very grateful that we made the decision to share a motorbike otherwise Naomi would have been stuck at Si’s homestay. Lawrence saved the day and didn’t complain once in spite of Naomi using his torso as a pillow as we navigated the twisting roads. We still managed to enjoy the vast panoramic views and green valleys below us. We travelled through four incredible mountain passes, with Ma Pi Leng being the most famous in Vietnam. From the town of Meo Vac to Dong Van, the roads became more treacherous. However, the risk of riding along the mountainside was greatly outweighed by the reward of soaking up some of the most breathtaking views.
Meo Vac, much like other villages in Northern Vietnam, hosts the infamous Khay Vai, or ‘Love Market’. It happens just once a year, during Tet, in which ethnic clans congregate in search of life partners. Mainly young people assemble in colourful regale, which we saw a lot of as we passed through the villages. People also celebrate Tet with festive singing and drinking (emphasis on the drinking) and we had heard some horror stories of other travellers witnessing accidents on the roads, due to rice-wine filled drivers. Luckily we didn’t see any carnage ourselves.
Dong Van, our pit stop on the second night, is the regions most popular destination. It’s a market town on the Chinese border and experiences freezing temperatures in the winter (0 degrees) but we were lucky that the sun was just about shining through the thick clouds to warm our numb bodies. It was only in Dong Van that we caught a glimpse other tourists. Flocks of Vietnamese tourists visit Ha Giang as well, particularly September when the iconic buckwheat flower is in bloom. QT informed us that 50% of his customer base is Vietnamese and they often carve up the mountainside in groups as big as 20. It was much quieter during this time of the year and it was rare we passed many other bikers.
However we did see a lot of ethnic minority people along the way, rambling over the hills on foot. We wondered where they’d come from and where they were going, as they appeared out of nowhere, taking in the astonishing mountain views much like us. Many of them were groups of children playing nail-bitingly close to the cliff edges (possibly free to roam due to their Tet school holidays) or farmers shepherding their cows and goats along. We passed through lots of small villages with beautiful wooden, pillar houses on stilts and neatly maintained vegetable patches and farmland. Much of the region is too mountainous for agriculture, with a lot of the land covered by forest, but tea, oranges and soyabeans are cultivated. The local people, and particularly the kids, were very excited upon seeing a bearded white face on a bike approaching. They waved and smiled in delight, dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing, making the trip even livelier for us.
Day 3 was our longest and began with a climb up Lung Cu, a massive flag tower erected on the Chinese border. We had reached the most Northern point of Vietnam and at the top, we could peek into China itself. The tower was only built in 2010, allowing stunning views across the rural villages. After Lung Cu, it was onwards to Tam Son where we spent our final night at another homestay. Naomi was feeling much perkier by this point and was able to eat more than the half an orange she’d nibbled on the previous day.
Our fourth and final day on the bike was a leisurely 50km back to the town of Ha Giang. We were back by lunchtime where QT greeted us and treated us to dinner with his family before we hopped on the night bus back to Hanoi. The Ha Giang loop certainly lived up to our high expectations. The liberation of riding a motorbike around the magnificent mountains made the trip one of our highlights so far. It meant we left the north of Vietnam on a real high, and excited to move on to central Vietnam where the warm weather awaits!