Layer upon layer of blue-green mountains reaching out as far as the eye can see; jagged black rocks jutting out of the hazy green landscape and sheer cliffs descending dramatically from the edge of narrow mountain roads… These are just some of the views you will encounter during the 320-kilometre Hà Giang motorbike loop, located in the extreme north of Vietnam.
The final frontier for adventurous travellers in Vietnam, Hà Giang is not for the faint-hearted. The narrow winding roads lead dangerously close to cliff edges and are frequented not only by motorbikes but also by large buses and trucks who speed around the sharp turns with little regard for safety or sanity.
Accidents are common, especially among backpackers with little experience and lots of unfounded confidence. However, persevere carefully, and you will be rewarded with some of the best landscapes that Vietnam has to offer! Best experienced in autumn or spring, the loop can take anywhere from two to five days; three days is a comfortable amount of time for a fairly experienced driver.
What’s the Best Way to Do the Ha Giang Loop?
For those not comfortable driving a motorbike, like with the legendary Hai Van Pass in Central Vietnam, it’s also possible to do the loop by car or jeep. However, in order to feel like part of the action, a much better option would be to hire and ride with an experienced local motorbike (xe-om) driver, or ‘Easy Riders’ as they are called in ‘Nam. Group tours run by local backpacker hostels are also becoming more and more popular. Check out the three most popular ways to experience the Ha Giang Loop below…
1. Easy Rider Tour of the Ha Giang Loop
If you’re not comfortable riding a motorbike yourself, or you’re just looking for a more local experience, then hiring an ‘Easy Rider’ is a great way to experience the amazing scenery and discover more about the local culture of this remote Northern region of Vietnam.
As a member of our Facebook Community, Erika, said: If you aren’t super confident on a motorbike, and you have the budget, I would HIGHLY recommend an Easy Rider tour! You’ll ride on the back of a local tour guide’s bike and get to enjoy practically 360 degree views the entire way instead of having your eyes glued to the road hoping you don’t crash! (There are crazy van drivers and some roads aren’t paved well yet – plus, don’t you want to be able to soak in the views and learn from a local ethnic minority?)
When I took an Easy Rider Tour earlier of the Ha Giang loop earlier this year, my jaw was dropped the entire time, completely in awe of the beauty around me and I loved that I could turn my head anywhere and take it all in to fully appreciate the experience.
Plus, our local guides took us to crazy places most people would not know about. We climbed a wild rock peak, went to a private waterfall, and met their parents! They also arranged great home stays with amazing, warm meals with the family. It was an amazing experience!
You can book Easy Rider Tours through most of the hostels in Ha Giang (which can be reached by overnight bus from Hanoi.)
If you’re looking for a recommendation and you want to book in advance, we would highly recommend this 4-day, 3-night Real Ha Giang Easy Rider Experience. Run by local travel agency in Hanoi, Friends Travel Vietnam, their guides are experienced and safe and you’ll stay in lovely family-run guesthouses and home stays along the way.
2. A Ha Giang Group Tour with Flipside Hostels
If you want to experience with a crew of travel buddies, you may also consider booking a Ha Giang group tour. One of the best Ha Giang tours is the 3-Day True North Ha Giang Tour offered by Flipside Backpacker Hostel.
Their tours run twice a week from their hostel in Hanoi and cost $259 US per person with everything included. (Includes the overnight bus to and from Hanoi, motorbike hire, fuel, accommodation for three days at guesthouses, as well as all meals, an English speaking guide and the Ha Giang Province entry permit.)
On the True North Tour, depending on your level of riding experience and personal preference, you can choose to ride one of three ways:
- Ride the motorbike yourself (if you choose this option, you will have to take a short motorbike test before leaving Hanoi to prove that you can handle the bike!).
- Ride the bike with a friend on the back (or vice versa).
- Ride pillion on the back of the bike with an experienced ‘Easy Rider’.
3. Riding the Ha Giang Loop Independently
If you choose to ride independently you will first need to take an overnight bus from Hanoi to the town of Hà Giang, which will be the starting point for your adventure. To meet to recent demand, Hà Giang now has many hostels, guesthouse options and bike rental services to offer potential riders.
Note on what type of motorbike to hire: It’s possible to do the loop with an automatic bike, but safer with a semi-automatic, to better handle sharp corners and steep hills. The hostel rental bikes are pretty high quality, and riders can purchase additional insurance to ensure against surprise costs.
International Driving Permits and Travel Insurance
If you’re thinking of doing the Ha Giang Loop by yourself, it goes without saying that you must be experienced and able to handle a motorbike. Unlike other Southeast Asian countries (where you are legal as long as you have an International Driving License and the appropriate motorbike license), in Vietnam, it is actually illegal to drive without a Vietnamese Driving License – which is impossible for a traveller to acquire! This means that every foreigner you see driving a motorbike in Vietnam is actually doing so illegally, and therefore not insured. However, some travel insurances will insure you, as long as you have the proper license back home. (Click the link about International Driving Permits above for more information.)
Day-By-Day: Independent Bikers’ Guide to the Ha Giang Loop
Traveller, Anna Stringer (a novice biker), rode the loop independently by motorbike last year. Below she gives her blow-by-blow experience of where to stay, what to watch out for during the three day ride.
Day 1 – Hà Giang – Yên Minh
If you’re going to spend a night in Hà Giang before setting off, Ha Giang 1 Hostel and Ruby Hostel are both great budget options at only $3 USD for a dorm bed. If you fancy a private room, Ruby Hostel and Chopai Hostel offer them for $11 USD. Check out more accommodation along the Ha Giang Loop here.
The first day of the loop is a great introduction to driving on mountain roads, as you have a moderate 100 kilometres to traverse on fairly straightforward paths. From Hà Giang, the path leads gently up into the mountains toward the town of Tam Son. After lunch in Tam Son, you can veer from the main road along a 5-kilometre path to Lung Khuy cave.
This path leads you through small mountain villages, across streams and through picturesque valleys towards a car park, where you can then walk one kilometre uphill to the cave. There is a circular path running through the cave that offers great views of the immense structure, albeit with poor lighting.
When you enter to the left, there is a more adventurous path with plenty of low hanging rocks; you can duck underneath and descend steeply down into the mountain toward a still, dark pool of water.
After Tam Som, it’s about 50 kilometres further to Yên Minh where you can sleep for the night. This picturesque route is particularly beautiful during the last hour, as it guides you through dense pine forests with yellow, early sunset light peeking through the trees. (Tom Homestay and Holtell Thiên Ân are the top accommodation picks in Yên Minh.)
Day 2: Yên Minh – Mèo Vạc
Day two of the loop is the most spectacular, offering jaw-dropping views from start to finish. You can drive a gentle 70 kilometres through Đồng Văn to your bed for the night in Mèo Vạc (check out Kiki’s House or Giac Xua) or continue on an additional 50-kilometre loop to the far North of Vietnam, right next to the Chinese border.
Head north from Yên Minh towards the town of Lũng Táo. This path offers spectacular views of rolling hills that stretch far into the distance, becoming bluer and hazier with their remoteness.
After about two hours driving, just before the H’mong King’s Palace, you must veer from the path and head North towards the iconic Lung Cu Flag Tower, an impressively-tall structure flying the red and yellow Vietnamese flag proudly ahead of the Chinese border.
Follow the red t-shirts and patriotic locals, and you will find your way up to the flag tower. Through gaps in the mountains, you can see China in the distance, although there is nothing of note to mark the change of nations on the Chinese side.
Far more interesting than the unfinished flag tower is an illegal border crossing, located about 10 minutes back on the path from Lung Cu, and signalled only by a ripped barbed wire fence and stones bearing Chinese inscriptions. You can easily duck under the fence—there are no buildings or people around—and faithfully claim that you have been to China.
Important Update: We received a comment from one of our readers clarifying the situation referred to in the above statement. Might be a good idea to read what he said and ignore the suggestion of ducking under the fence. He wrote:
“That stone bearing Chinese inscriptions has a skull and crossbones on it. In Chinese, it is written: Minefield. Entry forbidden. Malipo county.” You have been warned…
The road leads around in a loop towards Đồng Văn, another pleasant small town with an impressive mountainous backdrop. From there, you will quickly find yourself on the Mã Pí Lèng pass, one of the most impressive stretches of roads along the whole loop.
At an altitude of 1500 metres, the road meanders along a steep cliff edge, with impressive views that captivate your attention and tight turns that remind you of the task at hand.
The landscape is green and lush with jaggedly grey-black rocks standing triumphantly independent from their surroundings. It’s difficult to resist breaking every few minutes for a photo opportunity, even though stopping can be a slightly difficult affair on these busy narrow mountain paths.
The Mã Pí Lèng pass is what the Hà Giang loop is all about: dangerous roads, breathtaking views and adrenaline-fueled adventure. It ends with a gentle decline into the town of Mèo Vạc, which offers basic comforts that are nice enough for a night’s rest.
Day 3: Mèo Vạc – Hà Giang
The third day of the loop is a long one — 150 kilometres west from Mèo Vạc, back to Yên Minh where day two began and, from there, retracing the route back to Hà Giang.
This drive is particularly nice with hours of gentle meandering declines that are relaxing and fun to cruise. The views are still beautiful, though nothing quite compares to the jaw-dropping turns on day two.
Because the path back to Hà Giang takes about seven hours of constant driving, you’ll have to set off at a reasonable hour. If you do this, you’ll have time to stop for a mid-morning coffee in Yên Minh and lunch in Tam Son before you head on the final descent. It’s possible to make it back to Hà Giang before sunset, with plenty of time to catch a night bus to Hanoi.
Driving this whole loop not only boasts some of the best landscapes and most impressive viewpoints in Vietnam but is also a great way to escape the well-trodden tourist path in Southeast Asia. You’ll meet locals who are still surprised and excited to see foreigners in their villages while challenging yourself on this extreme motorbike adventure!