Travelling to Ha Giang Province in North Vietnam
The Ha Giang plateau, in the very far north-west of Vietnam, is considered one of the last undiscovered corners of the country. It is a sparsely populated region and only visited by a handful of intrepid travellers. Most of them make the journey there on a motorbike or scooter - although there are also some buses the squeeze up the narrow mountain roads.
But Ha Giang region is unlikely to remain hidden away for long, because it is truly a stunning region. There you will find small remote villages, misty rugged peaks, huge deep valleys, crazy karst limestone outcrops and friendly Hmong mountain people. Some areas are wet and subtropical, others are hot, rocky, dusty and dry.
The often ridden longer biker route is to take the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, travel to the established backpacker town of Bac Ha then head north and east toward lesser visited small towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac. On the way travellers will pass through the main town of Ha Giang and most people return to Hanoi via Ba Be Lake. Alternately you can bus direct to Ha Giang and pick up further travel from there. It is even possible to rent motorcycles in that town.
FIVE VIDEOS ON TRAVEL IN THE HA GIANG REGION
As usual some of the best and most informative videos on the region come from Rusty Compass. Mark Bowyer, who is Rusty Compass, lives in Hanoi and speaks fluent Vietnamese. This is helpful for getting a deeper knowledge of the region - which comes through in the videos. For this journey Mark and friends travel via a minivan.
In Part I of this two part video series on the region Rusty Compass heads north out of Hanoi. They stop at the town on Vu Linh and Tach Ba Lake - the largest lake in Vietnam. This is an artificial lake created in the 1980s by a dam. After overnighting here, they continue to the town of Ha Giang. The group celebrate arriving with a goat meal and rice wine party....including some dubious looking delicacies such as goat's blood desert.
In the more interesting Part II, Rusty Compass and the gang drive north from Ha Giang to Dong Van. It is November - coming into winter - meaning the weather is cool and misty. The road winds through jagged and shrouded karst outcrops, along the way they visit old haphazard wood and stone villages. One stop is at an ornate historic Hmong palace, which shows both French and Chinese architectural influences.
From Dong Van they take a 12km trek through more mist and unexpectedly crash a family wedding. More rice wine is consumed.
The most spectacular part of this journey is the road along the edge of a deep canyon - between Dong Van and Meo Vac - called the Ma Pi Leng Pass. Unfortunately, for this journey, it is a bit misty and the impressive views are partially obscured. Finally the trip ends at the large Meo Vac Sunday market - one of the most colourful and interesting in the region. Here minority tribes trek down from the mountains to barter for interesting produce. The livestock section is not recommended for vegetarians or those with delicate constitutions.
Rusty Compass always throws in some interesting observations on the region, such as demographic changes. For example, Vietnamese are being encouraged to move north to populate the towns, meaning the ethnic Hmong tend to remain or be pushed out into in the rural areas.
The below guide 'How to Do the Ha Giang Loop' by The New Travel is useful in that it talks you through the route using a map, recommending interesting stops and showing distances and so on. It isn't that visually enticing, but for those already committed to the trip it has some useful information. The New Travel also has some raw footage of riding the spectacular Meo Vac-Dong Van road.
If you want to just whet your appetite then the next two videos do the trick. They don't contain much in the way of practical information, but give a sense of the place. The first video by Travel Outlandish is an appealing montage of various walks in the Ha Giang region. As it is already quite off the neaten to track to get far north in the first place, not many travellers explore the surronding hills, but it looks like they would have a lot to offer.
Finally, the below The Ha Giang Loop video, by Kelly McCracken, follows a group of bikers winding along the steep valleys around Dong Van and Meo Vac. Looks fun.
MOTORCYCLE TRIP ROUTE - LAO CAI TO MEO VAC - VIA DONG VAN & HA GIANG
There is an overnight train you can take an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai - which is also the jump off point for the more touristy Sapa. if you are bringing motorbikes they can be stored in the luggage carriage. The train is quite comfortable and you can get a sleeper.
Here are some distances and a route description:
Lao Cai > Bac Ha (63km)
Because the motorbike petrol tanks will have been emptied before putting them on the train, make sure you fill up before hitting the road. There is a petrol station a few hundred meters along far along the main road on the left.
Lao Cai is a dusty sort of place - traffic is fairly heavy along the first 3-4km which border China, but once you leave town there is a highway which is fairly wide and empty. About half way you turn off the main highway and head up to Bac Ha. In Bac Ha there is plenty of accommodation.
The Sunday Bac Ha market is definitely worth seeing. However there are many van loads of tourists show up from Sapa around 9am, so it is better to go early before then.
Bac Ha > Coc Pai > Vinh Quang. (approx. 70km)
On this part of the trip it is easy to get very lost. About 15km north of Bac Ha there is a turn off on the right which takes you on a dirt road/track to Coc Pai. Unfortunately, on the map it looks like a rather more substantial road than it actually is. There are also many unsignposted intersections. Eventually you join a sealed road again which heads towards Vinh Quang. Ask every person you see (probably not many) if you are going the right way, try to use GPS and if you can find a good map then use that.
Vinh Quang > Pan Hou Village. (approx. 30km)
The valley that Pan Hou nestles in is a lush humid micro climate, remote and off the main road. The Pan Hou lodge was an isolated jungle garden, thick with insects, birds and dripping with rainforest. This is one of the nicest places to stay on the trip and has lush tropical gardens.
Pan Hou Village > Ha Giang - (approx. 80km)
The first half of this trip winds out of the Pan Hou valley over a pass that is spectacular on a clear day. Then along the main road to Ha Giang. This is probably the busiest road of the trip - though straight and wide so not a problem. In Ha Giang Truong Xuan resort is the best place in town with helpful staff. Ha Giang is the largest town on the trip.
Ha Giang > Yen Minh (93km)
From Ha Giang north the scenery gets increasingly spectacular as you climb into the mountains. The road goes through Quan Ba which has a cool viewing spot overlooking the town. There are several average but functional hotels in Yen Minh if you need them.
Yenh Minh > Dong Van (43km)
North of Yen Minh the road keeps climbing and weaves through increasingly surreal misty limestone moonscapes. Dong Van town is nothing too special although there are some cool slightly dilapidated buildings in the old part of town, and it is worth exploring these. Probably the best place to stay is the Hoang Ngoc hotel - which is a bit shabby but adequate. Unusually the beds are quite soft. There are good walks in this region.
Dong Van > Meo Vac (21km)
This short trip is scenically the most spectacular of the whole trip. Kind of like a green Vietnamese version of the Grand Canyon. The road winds along the edge of a very deep and steep gorge with the river far below. Villages cling to the valley edges and jagged peaks tower overhead. It is worth taking this section slow and making lots of stops.
Meo Vac > Ha Giang (143km)
If you can make the Sunday Meo Vac market it is highly recommended and much less touristy than Bac Ha. You can then loop back down to Yen Minh via a different route and then back to Ha Giang or travel down to Ba Be Lake - then back to Hanoi.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR THE TRIP - GUIDES, BIKES, ROADS, TRAFFIC & WEATHER taken from sendapostcardetc.com
Guide or No Guide?
A lot of websites tell you you need a guide. However, you can manage without one if you want to be flexible with itinerary and go where we wanted. Plus, the scenery is great and you might want to ride slow. While providing local employment is a good thing, you don't really need a guide. If language is an issue then get a guide because not many people speak english up there.
You can hire 125cc Honda Futura's from Flamingo Travel in Hanoi. They are pretty much an updated version of the ubiquitous (in Vietnam) Honda Wave. It's a scooter with big wheels disguised as a motorbike. It is recommended to take a small bike as it handles the corners, hills, potholes better than a big one. You can put the bikes on the train to Lao Cai and ride from there.
The most trouble we had with the bikes was one flat tire. This was easily fixed in a nearby cafe. We did meet a few people who had bought bikes (older ones) and they seemed to be having endless breakdowns and trouble. We hired from Flamingo as research indicated they had the best and most reliable bikes, and good backup in the event of trouble. they were definitely helpful and the bikes worked well - so recommended. When we got back to Hanoi with the bikes on the bus they came and picked them up from the station - which was good because the city traffic there is a bit nuts.
We were in Ha Giang in April and the weather was generally warm but hazy/cloudy. There was a bit of mist and rain but not enough to be a major issue.
The roads are mostly sealed. They are rarely straight, but always narrow and have some potholes/rough patches. Most of the time you are either going up a mountain, down a mountain or along the side of a mountain - with a big drop down the side. We travelled at an average of about 20km-25km an hour which is pretty slow, but in the hills also pretty normal. Probably the biggest mistake in our planning was failing to account for how long it takes to get anywhere and thinking we could travel further in a day than we actually did.
Traffic was generally light save the odd bus or truck that took up the entire road. Generally they were slow moving but go easy on the corners because there could be anything coming at you the other way. Don't be afraid to use your horn.
Because you aren't going very fast and traffic is light it is generally pretty safe, though we did meet one English girl who had lost it on a corner (though she just got some grazes). It is quite hard to find any travel insurance that will cover you for a motorbike accident - especially if you don't have a local license (which isn't really possible in Vietnam). I wasted a lot of time reading the small print of various policies. In the end NZ company Southern Cross who seemed to cover under 150cc motorbikes - though only available to NZ citizens.
In theory you aren't allowed to ride a motorbike in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license - but it also seems very difficult to get one. Various reports online say that Flamingo Travel can organise one in advance for you, but when I asked about this they said they couldn't do that anymore. Anyway, aside from the travel insurance issue it doesn't appear to be a problem riding without one (at least on Ha Giang)
Food & Accommodation
Accommodation (aside from Pan Hou Village & Truong Xan Resort) is pretty basic. Most small towns have a hotel, but don't expect anything too flash. Beds are generally hard. They often let you park your motorbikes in the lobby. Most towns have basic cafe's that are adequate, and sometimes quite good.
You are supposed to get a permit which costs $10 to go to Ha Giang. Our hotel in Yen Minh organised ours and it was pretty easy. They can also do it in Dong Van and other places. Hotels generally won't let you stay without it as I assume they get in trouble with the authorities otherwise.
That's it. My general recommendation is if you are thinking of going to just go ahead and do it. It really is an amazing and remote place. Although we really loved the other parts of Vietnam, they were much more touristy and felt less exciting. Ha Giang is a pretty cool place so won't stay off the beaten track for long.