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-kilometer 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. For those not comfortable driving a motorbike, it’s also possible to do the loop by car. However, in order to feel like part of the action, a better option would be to hire and ride with an experienced motorbike driver.
The first day of the loop begins in Hà Giang, which offers many hostels, guesthouse options and bike rental services. 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 high quality, and riders can purchase additional insurance to ensure against surprise costs.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
About the Author: Anna is an experienced backpacker from the UK. Through English Teaching, she has spent the past 18 months living and travelling in Asia.