Ha Giang is one of the secret adventures in Vietnam. It’s a tough one, surely “off the beaten path”, but the trip will take you through some of the best (non-beach / ocean) sights in Vietnam as you make your way through the northern most points in the country, near the China border. It also gives you a great look of true third-world Vietnam. People there are unlikely to make $100 USD a month, and yet still get reminded constantly by government billboards over the roads to pay their taxes. These are not people who are checking their Facebook updates – in fact, I wonder what hopes they have of a life other than having kids at age 16 and struggling to survive.
Needless to say, while you can still get Pho in these areas, don’t expect much of anything else in terms of luxuries.
While you can make the trip through the various mountain passes by bus, it’s much better by motorbike (well, moped) as you can go at your own pace, take a look at things that interest you. It’s about the voyage through the province, not getting to the individual towns (the towns suck). Ha and I went through Ha Giang during late January, when it was quite cold (wind chill + 10 degree Celsius temperature) and one of the days was blanketed by a thick fog, which created tremendous issues with visibility.
If you can read Vietnamese, try out these forums to learn and discuss more: http://www.phuot.vn/forums/161-T%E1%BB%95-ch%E1%BB%A9c-c%C3%A1c-chuy%E1%BA%BFn-%C4%91i-TRONG-N%C6%AF%E1%BB%9AC. Otherwise, check out my advice (and more photos) below (these also have more English information: http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/vietnam/2012/04/10/motorcycling-around-ha-giang/, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/travel/31vietnam-ha-giang.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, and http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/five-days-in-ha-giang-unforgettable.cfm).
Over a 2 Day Trip: (our friend drew us the very useful map below)
In Day 1, you are essentially going to Dong Van.
First, make your way to Ha Giang by bus (or motorbike). While we went to Ha Giang from Sapa / Lao Cao (8 hour bus), you can also take an overnight bus from Hanoi. In Ha Giang, you can rent a motorbike from this guy (below) at To 7 Phuong Tran Phu (next to his shop is a solid place for Pho and breakfast) for about $8 USD per day – you will want to start in the morning, before 8AM if possible. I am not sure the owner speaks English but he told us he has rented to many foreigners. Rent a motorbike that has gears, not an automatic. You don’t need a super powerful bike, but it’s better to get a lighter, more maneuverable one. We got an automatic, heavier bike, which we really regretted as we had trouble feeling confident on the mountain roads.
From Ha Giang, you are trying to make your way north to Dong Van, which is about 170KM away (100 miles). This does not sound far, but depending on how fearless you are on the road and the weather, it may take you all day to get there. With heavy fog, some rain and tremendous fear in our hearts, Ha and I did not get to Dong Van until 4PM (after leaving around 830AM). This is not a place you want to go driving around when it’s dark.
Do not go faster than a speed with which you are comfortable (as in experience, not daring). Ha and I are fairly comfortable on motorbikes but we both were constantly frightened – the roads are generally OK, but expect blind turns on mountain roads in which you may or may not know if cars / buses are about to run into you. The road is about 1.5 or barely 2 lanes wide; I consider it a one lane road because when you go off the road, you’re falling down thousands of meters. These aren’t gradual declines either – you fall, you die. Most of the way, the road won’t even have a protective barrier.
As you drive and see a turn, honk your horn to warn others that you are coming. Hopefully, the other drivers do the same for you.
During the first 1/3 of the trip you will be seeing a lot of the Mieng river, which produces sights like those at the beginning of this post and below.
After this, it’s a daunting stretch through the mountains. Again, be safe. The roads are fairly simple to follow as there will be continued signs pointing you to Dong Van, but do bring a map – do not expect 3G to work everywhere in the mountains if you are lost. If you know Vietnamese, this is much less of an issue.
Ha and I encountered rain and heavy fog as we made our way through. We fell on this patch of road below (I was driving).
On the way to Dong Van, drop by Lung Cu, the northern-most point in Vietnam. You will see the signs for it once you are about an hour away from Dong Van (30-40 km, 18-25 miles). Make sure that you are at this point before 2PM, or have been comfortable driving faster than 50 km/h (30 mph) – you want to make sure you can get to Dong Van while visibility is still good.
When leaving Lung Cu, there are actually two ways back. You do not want to take the way you took all the way back, but instead take another road to go to Dong Van – it appears half way on the return trip. Worst case, if you cannot find the road, go all the way back to where you started going to Lung Cu, and there will be another sign for Dong Van.
Stay the night in Dong Van. Hotel rates will be around $15 a night. This is a bare bones town, so I would eat dinner early, grab some snacks in case you get hungry, and stay in the hotel.
In Day 2, you will want to go though Meo Vac, a mountain pass which will let you view China and the Nho Que river, and then head back to Ha Giang. From Meo Vac, there is a road back to Ha Giang that’s slightly closer than taking the road you traveled on in Day 1. (If this is confusing, see the map above) However, Ha and I decided to go back on the original road. We actually didn’t go to Lung Cu on Day 1 as we arrived so late, so we did it on Day 2 on the return.
On the road to Meo Vat (look how close this child is to falling off the edge, 2000 meters down – he plays with no hesitation). Below, photos from the way back to Ha Giang.
It really is a very straightforward trip, with a lot of great natural sights. While Ha and I valued the experience, we were so frightened by the actual motorbike riding, it’s unlikely we would ever do it again. That’s not to say that we are particularly brave. Local natives traveled the roads at much greater speeds, often carrying tremendous cargo on their motorbikes as well, but for us, it was our first time and the glancing at the steep drops nearby constantly sapped our confidence.
In case you are curious about any aspect of the trip, please send a comment below!
For more photos and even a few videos, see: http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Ha-Giang-Motorbiking-Adventure
To see more Tourist Guides from my travel, see: http://www.ispithotfire.com/tag/tourist-guide/