Northern Vietnam is filled with towering mountains, deep valleys and winding rivers that support the lush jungle region and farmlands that are strewn throughout the region. Many travelers have heard of the beautiful Sapa region in northern Vietnam. The brilliant hiking trails and lush mountainous landscapes are among the most famous in all of southeast Asia.
However, in the northern mountains of Vietnam there is a province that few people know about, a place surrounded by cat ears mountains stretching for hundreds of kilometers.
Natural scenery in Dong Van Ha Giang district
The Ha Giang Province
Often hailed as the last frontier for true off-the-beaten-path travel in Vietnam, this mysterious, underdeveloped area of the country lining the Chinese border is blessed with some of the most exhilarating roads and views I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Hiking opportunities are bountiful, but the real allure for me was something a little more “extreme” — an infamous 350km road that rings around the outer edges of the region, dubbed by many as the Ha Giang Extreme North Motorbike Loop.
I previously wrote about a fantastic four-day motorbike loop through Northern Thailand, but this one was different.
My friend and me teamed up for our second motorbike trek in just over a month, and at 6:30am on a Sunday we hopped on the six-hour bus ride from Hanoi to the town of Ha Giang, where we would rent motorbikes and start the journey.
Ha Giang Hostel is one of the best motorbike rentals in Ha Giang
Getting to Ha Giang from Hanoi
If you are interested in conquering Ha Giang completely by motorbike, you can ride a motorbike from Hanoi, and the journey takes approximately 8 to 10 hours depending on the speed.
However, it can be really exhausting because you will need to drive more when you get to Ha Giang.
Therefore, I recommend taking a bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang to have an enjoyable trip.
After getting to Ha Giang from Hanoi, you can continue taking buses to highland districts of Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van, and Meo Vac.
Alternatively, you can rent a motorbike and explore Ha Giang on your own. If you travel alone or in a group of 2, you should take a guided tour or have a local show you around for your safety.
We did a bit of research beforehand, but booked everything the day of, which is the best way to go given where you decide to stop each day may not be what you originally plan. Our accommodations worked out great (more to come on them later) and we had no issues finding decent and surprisingly interesting places to stay.
We chose Ha Giang Hostel when we arrived in Ha Giang
Renting A Motorbike
You could of course rent a motorbike in Hanoi and make the 6+ hour drive to the start of the loop in Ha Giang, but we opted to take a $15 luxury bus for that part of the journey (unless you’re an avid biker, saving your energy from this long drive on both sides of the trip and is definitely the way to go).
We rented from Ha Giang Hostel in Ha Giang and I highly recommend you do too. Most of the rental places I checked out in Hanoi were small grungy shops with crappy bikes, whereas Ha Giang Hostel’s no nonsense approach with quality options and a helpful staff was much appreciated. The bikes are substantially more expensive than other places I have rented in Asia ($15-$50 USD/day), but they’re good bikes and honestly there aren’t many other options out in Ha Giang.
We opted for manual 125cc Yamaha YB125SPs, and paid VND 380,000 (~US $17) per day. With the many inclines you’ll be cruising up, I wouldn’t get less than a 125cc. I personally love the manual option, and if you can drive a stick car you can pick up a manual bike pretty quickly (I taught my friend how to drive manual in ten minutes right at Here).
Bike Insurance — I was originally a fan of bike insurance, but after getting a better understanding of how cheap it actually is to fix bikes out in Asia, I tend to avoid it. You have to do a considerable amount of damage to rack up a bill more than $50, so if you do buy bike insurance, only do so if there’s no deductible. You’d have to have a really bad crash to do more than $50 in damages, in which case you’d likely have bigger problems to worry about (i.e. your own health) than the bike.
We gassed up our bikes and prepared for the first leg of the journey — Ha Giang to Yen Minh through Tam Son.
We practiced driving a few laps before departing for Dong Van
Day 1 — Ha Giang to Yen Minh to Tam Son
The first part of the ride takes you through the small city of Ha Giang then shoots out into the countryside along a beautiful river winding towards the mountains. While murky and brown near the beginning, the river turns a brilliant blue as you get further out into the valleys. I’ll forever remember the view of cruising alongside the river as it cascades through the deep valley. Just incredible.
A little further along we made our way to the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geo-Park, the 2nd place in all of Southeast Asia to receive UNESCO designation as a Global Geo-Park. The local community has made sure you are aware of this distinction by planting a big Hollywood-style sign high up on the hillside for all to see.
While amazing throughout the countryside, the views continue to get better and better the higher up you get.
When we finally reached Tam Son, we were running out of daylight and decided to spend the night there rather than continue on through dusk into dark to Yen Minh, which was still another 49km away. William booked a homestay in the valley below Tam Son for the us for the night, and we set off down a dirt road into the village below.
In pitch black darkness we navigated down into the valley, passing through a village, around a lake, and past some huge fields. I didn’t think we were going to find this place. Luckily, 5km, 20 minutes and some seriously chilly weather later, we arrived at our homestay and raced into the “warmth”.
Just kidding — the small space heater in our room hadn’t been turned on and the front door to the lobby had been left wide open to the elements. High up in the mountains in December, night time lows can sink into the upper 30s (Fahrenheit). When we got to our room, I put on every single piece of clothing I had brought with me and huddled under the comforter to warm up.
A few minutes later the nice lady from the front desk knocked on our door. Dinner was ready! We hadn’t ordered anything yet, so this was a nice surprise. A full home-cooked meal next to the fireplace in the lobby helped warm us up and and start the recovery process to get ready for the next day.
Quan Ba double mountain, one of the locations with beautiful views
As I lay in my bed falling asleep, I browsed through the footage from the day and could feel my excitement building. I knew the best was yet to come — and we would not be disappointed.
Day 2 — Tam Son to Meo Vac to Dong Van
With some ground to catch up on, we got an early start out of Tam Son Monday morning. We waved to all the little children on their way to school as we made our way back up the dirt road through the village to the main road.
Only a few minutes after getting back on the main road, the views opened up, revealing a landscape of fields that seemed to span as far as the eye could see. Wild rock formations jutted out from the ground in seemingly random places, providing some incredible eye candy. Almost immediately, I had to pull over and throw the drone up for some aerials.
I continued on (William was a few kilometers ahead) and after a series of winding turns found myself coming down the side of a mountain pass towards a small village in the next valley. That’s where the trouble started.
One thing about this loop is that the word “extreme” was included for a reason. The roads are nothing like the true two-lane, perfectly paved cruising strips that extend for miles on end in northern Thailand. Things are much more rugged in Vietnam.
I was coming down the mountain pass and was nearing a soft left turn around a somewhat blind corner on the ridge. To be safe, I hung out wide as I entered the turn in case a car or truck was coming the other way (there wasn’t). Unfortunately, one of the only gravel patches I saw the whole trip was out wide on this bend, and when I tapped the brake and turned around the corner, let’s just say things didn’t work out as planned…
Needless to say, I needed to take the bike to a mechanic. I coasted down the rest of the mountain pass into the village and rolled into the first garage I saw, and Will met back up with me there. This delay was definitely going to put a damper on our plans to head all the way north to the Chinese border that day. The mechanic said he thought he might be able to fix the bike, but that he’d have to go up to Tam Son to get spare parts, and…err, bend back the front axel (sorry Mom!).
With some time to kill, we strolled through the town and ended up at a coffee shop a couple hundred meters down the street from the mechanic, where we got lunch and some very powerful traditional Vietnamese coffee. We met two locals and had a pretty extensive conversation with them through the Google Translate app. If you’ve never used it before, it’s incredible. You speak into the mic, the app will translate what you said and speak the translated content to the person in their language. Enables full conversations between people who don’t speak a word of the same languages. Crazy cool.
William continued to chat with the locals while I moseyed next door to the local barber shop for a long overdue haircut. This guy was good. Full cut, shampoo, and beard trim — the works. At the end, I asked how much I owed him, which to my shock he replied “20,000”. 20,000 Vietnamese dong is, I kid you not, a little less than $0.88 USD.
Freshly trimmed, I walked back to the mechanic to check on the status of my bike. There the mechanic was, hammering in the final bolt to reattach the front wheel, and the bike was completely fixed! Good as new!
I was kind of in shock. Hardly two hours had passed and this guy had completely repaired the bike — and the best part? The bill was 880,000 dong (~$38.50 USD) — parts and labor included! Wild. I thanked him profusely, handed him 1,000,000 dong and we scooted back out on our way.
Originally we had planned to touch the Chinese border and head through the famous Ma Pi Leng pass as the sun set, but with the three hour setback we wouldn’t have a chance to do either before dark. Even reaching the town of Dong Van, which sits just outside of Ma Pi Leng, would be a stretch, but we decided to go for it.
Even though we were tight on time, the landscapes we were passing by were just too breathtaking to pass up the drone opportunities. I had to stop. William continued on, not wanting to drive in the dark two days in a row. My decision was well worth it — I got some beautiful videos and images of the area outside of Yen Minh.
I got back on the road with about 45 kilometers to go until the hotel and 50 minutes until dark. Insistent on not spending a second straight day cruising the final kilometer in the frigid-cold darkness, I laid into the throttle. Empty roads in decent condition and simple navigation allowed me to push my 125cc puppy to its limits.
Despite my aggressive race through the mountains, I simply had no chance to beat the darkness. Pitch black darkness hit with around 15 km to go. Driving in the dark isn’t terrible, but you really want to avoid doing so in this area. The temperature drops significantly and seeing pot holes and turns isn’t easy, so you end up driving pretty slow.
When I was about 1km from the hotel we booked for the night, I pulled over by a local bar to check on William’s live location on WhatsApp. With how fast I was going, there should have been no way I hadn’t caught up to him. When the live location updated, my jaw dropped. William was 25km behind me, and his location beacon didn’t seem to be moving. This couldn’t be good.
I called him repeatedly, but no answer. Shit. It was dark and I was hungry, tired and freezing, but I didn’t know what the hell had happened to William. I sat there for a couple minutes, contemplating if I should go back or not, but my phone started ringing before I could make a decision.
GPS navigation has never been William’s strong suit, and this one hurt. I knew the exact spot he went wrong, too. Four-way intersection at the crest of a small mountain. He must have misinterpreted the “continue straight” instruction from the GPS in his ear to mean take the slight left turn. Big whoops.
An hour and a half later, he rolled up to the hotel, jacket and pants tattered and torn, but spirit intact! What. A. Day. But you know what I say… it’s not an adventure without a little adversity.
Day 3 — Dong Van to Ha Giang (through the Ma Pi Leng Pass)
After a rough day 2, we woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed — awesome considering yesterday’s hiccups had left before us by far the longest trek of the trip. Since we still had the Ma Pi Leng Pass to cross, we were over 170km of windy mountain roads from the town of Ha Giang, where we had to drop off the motorcycles that evening.
Vietnamese drip coffee packs the punch you need to kick off an adventure day right
After a quick breakfast with some famous Vietnamese extra strong drip coffee for a little extra boost, we took off from Dong Van towards the famous Ma Pi Leng Pass.
The road to the summit is an array of sharp and blind curves winding up the mountain, leading adventurous travelers up towards the start of the pass. Hairpin turns challenge your abilities on a motorcycle and stunning panoramic views of the valley behind had us stopping fairly frequently before we even arrived at the summit.
Near the top of the Ma Pi Leng Pass
At the crest a sign marks the start of the pass and commemorate the locals who spent 11 years building the road back in the 1960s.
As we rounded the top of the mountain…my jaw hit the floor. Before us lay the most majestic setting — a narrow, “mostly” paved road winding delicately along the upper ridge of the mountains, nearly 2,000 feet above the valley below.
I sat there in disbelief… could something so beautiful even be real? How was this possible? How was I actually here?
Budget at least two nights for this trek, more if you have time. I could have stayed here for a week or more if I had the time, exploring side roads and small villages and embracing the local culture and cuisine. I wouldn’t bother booking anything in advance. Just wait until the middle of the day and see where you think you’ll end up. Plus, sometimes it’s more fun not having a set destination.
As I look back on this trek, I can say without hesitation that this loop was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done in my life, period.
When I mentioned that my jaw hit the ground, I wasn’t kidding. The amount of jaw-dropping scenery you’ll see will blow your mind.
If you‘re ever planning a trip to Vietnam, do whatever you can to fit this loop into your itinerary. I wholeheartedly promise you’ll be more than happy you did.
Useful Resource: I learned about much of what we did from this fantastic guide to the loop