The Ha Giang Loop: The most stunning motorbike ride in Vietnam

“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

Ha Giang, the northernmost province of Vietnam, is known for some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Southeast Asia. The “final frontier” of Vietnam is famous among travelers for its Ha Giang Loop, a several-hundred kilometer collection of winding, mountainous roads best explored by motorbike. The roads, carved high into the mountains with switchback curves and sheer drops, are both exceedingly dangerous and breathtakingly beautiful. When we heard about it, we knew we’d have to see it for ourselves.

We decided to do an extended trip that would include Ha Giang Province as well as Cao Bang, where Vietnam’s most famous waterfall is located. Here’s how we explored this area.

Getting to Ha Giang

Our first challenge was figuring out how to get to Ha Giang province. Tour guides in Hanoi had told us that some of the northeastern Vietnam is completely impassable due to the lack of paved roads and public transportation. To add to our challenges, we were staying in Bac Ha, a small market town on the way to Ha Giang, but without much infrastructure nor many long-distance bus options. We really didn’t want to have to backtrack and return to Sapa to retrace our steps through Bac Ha to reach Ha Giang.

After much discussion with various locals in Bac Ha, we worked out with our homestay host that a bus would take us to meet the bus coming from Sapa on its way to Ha Giang. This “bus” ended up being a small van with eggs, packages, and mail which it slowly dropped off along the way in addition to its human passengers. After about an hour traveling through tiny mountain roads, we finally rendezvoused with the Sapa bus in the middle of the highway.

Of course, if you’re traveling from Hanoi, Sapa, or another major tourist hub, you can find direct buses to Ha Giang. But it’s nice to know that even coming from somewhere a bit more remote, it’s possible to figure out a way to get to there.

Unlike other buses we had taken in Vietnam, all buses to Ha Giang town drop off at the bus station, slightly out of town, instead of bringing you to your hotel. There are plenty of taxis at the bus station who can take you into the town center for about 50-70 thousand dong.

Finding a Tour Company & Deciding on a Tour

Ha Giang town is rather charmless and dull, with bland food and mediocre hotels. It does, however, have an endless supply of tour companies providing Ha Giang Loop trips and guidance. We hopped on Trip Advisor to check reviews of the companies, and landed on one that seemed to be the highest-rated in the area: QT Motorbikes and Tours. We decided to head to their office in person, which is located slightly outside of the main area of Ha Giang (not far from the bus station), but easily accessible by taxi.

There we met a young Vietnamese man named Hieu who talked us through the different options. We’d heard that motorbike was the best way to explore this part of the country. But, being the lawyers that we are, we were worried about liability and insurance for driving a motorcycle ourselves. Neither of us had licenses (our international driver’s licenses only covered cars), neither of us had driver a motorcycle before, and neither of us would be covered by insurance if we got into an accident while driving. Most backpackers overlook these facts and rent motorbikes to drive anyway, but after some discussion we decided not to take the risk. (We felt good about our decision when nearly every westerner we met on the loop had some form of “Vietnam tattoo”—depending on who you ask, either road rash from falling off a moving bike, or a nasty burn from putting a leg too close to a hot exhaust pipe.) For what it’s worth, QT provided us with arm and leg “armor,” if you will, as you can see in the photos.

We ended up splurging, and hired two motorbike drivers who would drive us and our bags along the route. (This would be covered by our insurance: we checked.) Aside from our concerns about driving a motorcycle, another factor was the convenience of being able to carry our two big bags (40 & 50L) in addition to small daypacks on our backs. Upon arriving in Ha Giang we realized we could arrange a tour that would take us all the way to Ba Be National Park, the next stop on our itinerary, instead of looping back to Ha Giang town. To do that, though, we’d have to bring our big bags with us. Choosing to rent two bikes with skilled drivers ensured we’d be able to do that.

After talking to Hieu, we agreed on a five-day tour. We would do the Loop in the first two days, go to Cao Bang province to see the waterfall over the second two days, and take the last day to drive to Ba Be.

Day One: Ha Giang Town to Dong Van

Overlooking Heaven Gate with our bikes, by JD Travel

The beauty of the Ha Giang Loop is that you can take as much time as you want to explore it–from three days to several weeks. There are homestays all along the route, as well as hiking and trekking opportunities and other sites. Most people traverse the Ha Giang loop in three or four days, which is essentially what we did. On our first day, we rode towards Dong Van, the northernmost district of Vietnam.

The first few moments on the bikes, driving away from our hostel, felt a little precarious. I was nervous about our huge bags on the back and worried they might fall off. To his credit, a few minutes after we set off, Hieu made sure to check that both of us were comfortable on the bikes.

Once we made it out of Ha Giang town, the scenery immediately changed. We started climbing up into the mountains and stopped briefly for our first viewpoint photos.

We continued to Heaven Gate, essentially the gateway to the national park at the beginning of the Ha Giang loop. There is a well-built lookout area with a nice little cafe overlooking the valley.

Heaven Gate, by JD Travel

The second major stop on the route was the H’Mong Castle, which I found fascinating. It’s not really a “castle,” but more of a very large house built at the turn of the 20th century.

The H’Mong tribes dominated much of Ha Giang Province at that time, gaining most of their wealth from the opium trade. In fact, as our guide pointed out, much of the architecture in Ha Giang is influenced by the opium industry: pillars and other decorative parts of structures (including random rest stops along the road) often feature poppy flowers or opium bulbs. The castle was no exception.

In the castle there are three courtyards and two towers, where weapons and money were stored. Hieu explained some of the background as we walked through the complex. He told me about the H’Mong king’s three wives, and pointed out that in all the photos hanging on the wall, only the first and third wife were present. The second wife couldn’t be photographed because she bore him no children. But, Hieu told me, she was his favorite wife.

Towards the end of the day, as we kept driving north, we stopped at an impressive-looking flagpole tower a little over a mile from the Chinese border. The flagpole, perched on a mountain hundreds of feet high, is a national symbol of Vietnam. We climbed up the tower and discovered some pretty incredible views of the surrounding valleys and mountains.

A traveler we met in Sapa had advised us to stay in Lo Lo, a small ethnic village north of Dong Van town. With the memory of mediocre Ha Giang town still on our minds, I asked our guide if we could stay in a homestay in Lo Lo instead of Dong Van, and he arranged one for us.

When we drove up the driveway and into the homestay, we were not disappointed. It had hammocks and a beautiful view of sunset over the fields.

Sunset in Lo Lo, by JD Travel

Day Two: Ma Pi Leng Pass

This pass, featuring some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Vietnam, is one of, if not the, biggest highlights of the Loop. The road through the pass was essentially blasted out of the mountainsides, about a mile high, with a sheer drop on the side. Hieu told us several times that the road, which was built in the 60s, is not only dangerous to drive on but was also very dangerous to build. Many Vietnamese died while building it.

A memorial to the Vietnamese who built the road, by JD Travel

The pass is only 20km long, but with the challenging roads and jaw-dropping scenery, it’s a slow drive. Hundreds of meters below the road, the Nho Que river cuts through the mountains in a brilliant blue slash. We stopped often to take pictures.

Ma Pi Leng Pass, by JD Travel

When we weren’t taking pictures, we absorbed the passing scenery from the bikes. The thrill of riding a motorcycle on a narrow, winding road, at almost 5,000 feet of elevation, with not much more than sporadic concrete bolsters as a barrier to the cliffs below, just heightened all of the sensations and excitement.

We had lunch in Meo Vac, the largest town after the Pass, and then headed further east. This is where we deviated from the route that most people take, which is to loop back to Ha Giang from Meo Vac. Instead, we drove east into Cao Bang Province, because we wanted to see the famous Ban Gioc falls. We stayed the night in Bao Lac, a midpoint between Meo Vac and Cao Bang Town.

Day Three: Bao Lac to Ban Gioc Waterfall

On day three we planned to spend the day driving east through Cao Bang town and beyond to a homestay a handful of kilometers away from the waterfall. This would be one of our longest drives—almost 150 miles, which on the back of a motorcycle over poor roads is quite a haul! Unfortunately I wound up with a 24-hour stomach bug that had me feeling nauseous and weak for the entire drive. Needless to say, I didn’t pay much attention to what we saw along the way, and promptly went to bed when we got to our homestay in the afternoon. I was thankful that we stayed close to the waterfall instead of in Cao Bang town, an 85km drive away from the waterfall. However, lots of people stay in Cao Bang instead, and do the drive there and back in one day.

Day Four: Ban Gioc Waterfall to Cao Bang

Ban Gioc Waterfall, by JD Travel

The next day I felt better. With not much driving to do for the day, we rested a bit in the morning to make sure I was feeling ok to get back on the bikes. We finally headed to the waterfall at about 12pm.

Ban Gioc waterfall is the closest we had been tangibly been to the Chinese border yet (although we’d been essentially skirting the border through the entire bike trip). The waterfall and river actually form the border in this part of the country between Vietnam and China, as evidenced by the huge amount of Chinese tourist boats on the other side of the river.

The best way I can describe the waterfall is that it’s the Niagra Falls of Vietnam. I mean that in several ways. For one, it’s the largest waterfall in the country, spanning about 300 meters. It also lies on a border, so each side of the waterfall has a slightly different feel. Interestingly, there were very few westerners there, but LOTS of local Vietnamese tour groups. It felt cool to do something that so many locals were doing, even though we were all tourists. Somehow, it felt so very Vietnamese to be coming here (I imagine it’s sort of like how an American might feel at Niagara Falls).

Finally, both famous waterfalls have boats that can take you out to the falls to get sprayed by the water and ogle at the natural beauty. I should note that while Niagara Falls is of course bigger at a height of about 50m, Ban Gioc is not too far behind at 30m.

We paid a few hundred dong to take the boat out, and we could see that across the water Chinese tourists were doing the same thing. (You can tell the boats apart because the Chinese boats, well, have Chinese characters on them.)

It felt nice to sit back and relax while watching the falls after several days of riding and feeling ill.

Watching Ban Gioc Falls, by JD Travel

There are a few more things to see around the falls, like a swimming area, caves, and another waterfall, but I still wasn’t feeling great so we headed back on the road. Since it’s somewhat of a haul to get out there anyway, it’s worth checking out a few of the additional sites around the waterfall if you have the time.

As we drove back to Cao Bang on the same road we had taken the day before, I felt well enough to take in some of the beauty of the countryside, including the impressive karst formations and mountains.

The road to Cao Bang, by JD Travel

We arrived in Cao Bang that afternoon. Strangely enough, all of the top-rated restaurants in the town are pizza places, so I had to try one. It wasn’t that great, but I was happy to eat my first real meal in about a day. We turned in early so we could wake up 6am for our long drive to Ba Be.

Day Five: Cao Bang to Ba Be

In order for our drivers to be able to return to Ha Giang, we had to leave very early from Cao Bang to get us to Ba Be. The drive to Ba Be National Park is about 150km from Cao Bang, and took us about four and a half hours. It’s much less beautiful than any other drive we had done, so we sat back and let the road take us from point A to point B.

Conclusion: If you’re visiting Vietnam, this is a can’t miss experience

When I asked our guide to tell us his favorite part of the Ha Giang Loop, he shot back in perfect English: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” I thought about this comment a lot during our rides. This area of the country is remote, rugged, wild, and difficult to traverse. Yes, there is stunning scenery, amazing viewpoints, interesting culture, friendly locals, and minimal tourists. But one of the most unforgettable parts of our experience was simply the exhilaration of feeling the wind in our faces, barreling down winding mountain roads with sheer cliffs on either side, breathing in the fresh mountain air, going wherever the road might take us.

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