Dong Van Karst Plateau AKA Ha Giang loop

I’ve been trying to get to Hanoi and do a ride for awhile. First I was foiled by airline bureaucracy, then by a typhoon. Third time I will be lucky I hope setting off.

I put a draft plan together back in February when I found some promo $100 airfares. VietJet are the airline that upset a bunch of snowflakes when they launched with bikini clad cabin attendants. Sadly nothing like that this cold morning leaving Tokyo so I opt for some instant Pho to warm me up instead.

In Hanoi I met a friend Richard possibly number one fan of my blog who will be riding with me on this trip.

My thoughts are if I do the traditional loop from Hanoi there is one shot at seeing the famous views, why not focus the ride up there and avoid the city ride altogether. So early next morning I’m on a bus for the 7 hour trip north to Ha Giang.

I rent from QT Motorbikes in Ha Giang. My choice is the Honda XR150, biggest bike in the fleet but perfect for here. The loop from Ha Giang is part of the backpacker circuit. There are dozens of younger guys and girls at the shop doing laps up and down the street ‘learning to ride’ on Honda Wave 4 speed clutchless bikes before they set off in shorts and singlets.

I stayed downtown but there is no Grab car or bike to get around and nothing of note in town so I would suggest stay at QT’s own accommodations or nearby where there are a number of eateries (contrary to the reports I read) and other bike rentals.

It begins

The sun disappeared and it was cold and gloomy departure. Richard was having hard time adjusting to local road conditions of riding on different side of road and often sharing that with oncoming cars. Alas not far into the ride he took a tumble off the bike and I was relieved he just suffered a little graze and the bike was undamaged.

Lunch stop
A little more to the right thanks Richard

Shame about the weather but I thought least it is not raining – those magic words that if spoken by a biker will ensure just that happens and sure enough over coffee in next town it starts in earnest.

Oh well lets just get to the hotel. Richard is finding it challenging and riding slow but I can’t as water has penetrated my jacket and its very cold. There is small window of time for me to get out of these wet things before hypothermia so I hook in behind some local riders and follow their pace into Dong Van. Behind and unknown to me Richard took another tumble then arriving the hotel a further fall but he is ok as wearing very good riding gear and bike has only minor damage.

Day one route

The next day is rain thus dashing plans to visit the pass or ‘North Pole’ border with China. This is exactly why I chose to do the ride with extra days here. I present you instead an artists rendition of the monument.

I need a haircut and I want a haircut. But not a lost in translation lucky dip haircut. Richard is tired and opts for a rest today. Mid afternoon it has stopped raining. I have to try ride the pass but don’t get far, the ascent is very slippery with red mud and then it starts raining again. Ok not happening today.

Day three. It’s still poor weather. About 1.30 pm my eye catches a patch of blue sky that quickly disappears but I see the wind is blowing the low rain clouds away. Time to give it another shot. Richard wants to go to the north pole monument so I say go for it but I have to try see the pass.

Its still rather patchy heading up the mountain but by the time I get to the top the wind is clearing the clouds and in what seems like a weather miracle I am given a crystal clear view of Ma Pi Leng.

This is what all the backpackers come here for. The famous Instagram shot. It’s a sheer drop other side of those rocks.

I message Richard that he is missing something special, then I ride down to the river. I originally had planned to explore the roads and views from other side but with limited daylight left today I manage just a quick visit. It is stunning.

I made my way to a number of vantage points. I could post many more photos but like these two best.

I decided I would try ride up the Sky Path. These narrow footpath like roads lead to small hamlets of mountain minorities. Yes they are made for riding, everyone in Vietnam gets around by two wheels.

It’s not for the faint hearted and sorry images are poor quality. I took a new to me on bike camera that let me down.

This is another Instagram hotspot – I put a red arrow showing the place people climb to (you can click to see anything full screen). I thought about it as perfect afternoon light for the shot then decided nope, man’s gotta know his limitations** as Harry Callahan said, so rode back down.

Nice little museum at the top of the pass dedicated to the party youth members that built route QL4C.

What an awesome afternoon. So wonderful to see this with almost no haze after the rain and in lovely afternoon light. I lingered enjoying the views until the sun dipped behind the mountains.

Day four. It’s like the song by Visage. Fade to Grey. I detoured via Ma Pi Leng for Richard but the viewing window for there was closed. It was a one time chance yesterday. Riding next on route DT182 (above) from Meo Vac would have been better on clear day but the riding itself wasn’t too bad, reminded me of back roads in Thailand.

At Mau Due Richard and I got separated. He was not enjoying these roads. Feeling tired he chose to go to hotel. I went south to Du Gia.

Route DT176 from Mau Due to Du Gia was the most enjoyable road of the loop for me. No trucks or buses plying this route as it is damaged badly further south. Constant change of direction in the mountains reminded me of roads in my old home region of northern NSW. But they never had scenery like this.

And again the sun broke through for me.

So happy
What a spot, what a view!

I stopped in a small village called Lung Ho and used Google translate to get lunch and coffee. This encounter with locals and eating mama’s fried chicken and rice listening to her but not understanding was a highlight of the trip. Other people want to eat at places mentioned on TripAdvisor where everyone is queued up paying lots of money but this is me. Perfect.

I didn’t know how far to go south only that the road was damaged at some point due to land slip so I turned back just where I thought I’d seen the best however I am sure I missed still more. However I’m lucky to have seen what I did as the weather already starts to close in on return (and proves always take a photo when given the opportunity as this was fine outbound).

Leaving Yen Minh hotel I set their broken clock to 8:15am – ‘that’s the time it’s always been’ ***.

I came back via the original QL4C route rather then over the shortcut that runs from Ngan Chai and Cho Kem. It’s being resurfaced in places and the crusher dust would be bit of fun on a dual sport with more power but the XR150 could not break traction ha-ha. I like this route much better than the shortcut.

I took lots of photos at stops letting Richard catch up but no amount of post processing can get around the fact the light was lifeless grey. Sure would be pretty in these parts on a fine day.

Took some more back roads this afternoon and enjoyed both the riding and sights of the small villages off the backpacker loop where all the children wave hello with glee when seeing a foreigner.

No hassle returning the bikes, QT offer insurance for damages and a pick up service of you and bike in case of accident. While there a girl was getting taken to hospital, broken collarbone from tumble on bike. I tried to cheer her up saying least she has a cool excuse, I broke mine falling down drunk. But yep not a good situation and since Vietnam does not recognise the main international drivers permit agreement you likely have no travel insurance in a bike accident.

But I smiled as I saw another group heading off. Go for it guys, you will only ever regret the things you did not try in life.

Back in Hanoi I stocked up on Australian cheese (worth a fortune in Japan) got that haircut then went looking at train stuff being the ex rail guy while Richard went on foodie safari having found the dining in the north lacking before flying south to continue his travels. Hope the weather improves for him.

Alas Train Street has been closed to foreigners. Cafe A99 is perhaps the last spot on the line still open and a mural all that remains of the former experience.

But I’d definitely recommend riding the northern area of Vietnam. Its very easy to visit, no need for a guide or any special navigation. Just get a sim for your phone. I had 3G everywhere in the north and 4G in Hanoi. I got a ‘Happy Sim’ from Amazon before flying, 10GB for $5. Everything in Vietnam except wine is very low price, meals as little as $3, beers as little as $1, makes Thailand seem very expensive these days. (all prices AUD$)

I booked in advance but you could just get your hotel in Hanoi to arrange a bus for you and walk around the shops in Ha Giang and pick a bike without booking. Bike shops supply the usual crap helmets, bring your own, but the colourful rain suits and shoe covers sold locally look pretty good.

Here is a handy map I got from QT for your reference should you go, and you should before it gets over developed like Sapa. Weather limited things this trip, maybe April would be better but on the other hand the views with zero haze of Ma Pi Leng I saw are rare, very few images like that published online so November with more spare days than I had still worth a try.

Ride gear this trip. Alpinestars WP-10 jacket, jeans with knee armour, Rs tachi gloves, Nolan N43 Air helmet, Colorado hiking boots. Bag Tantonka barrel S.

Photography gear on this trip. Main camera iPhone Xr. Onboard camera Olympus Air-A01 (review soon).

Navigation. Garmin Nuvi 760 (not needed).

* Bob McClane, Total Recall 1990 ** Magnum Force 1973 *** Enola Gay by OMD

6 Comments

  1. Richard Chantrill

    Was looking forward to seeing what you would do with the photos. Some absolute crackers here : especially like the ones with the new camera and especially those on the sky walk.

    • All the photos were taken with the iPhone Xr except the three on the skywalk.
      Those are blurry unfortunately. I discovered the Air A01 lacks any image stabilization so it’s not going to work as a onboard camera.

  2. Loved this trip report Warren as it’s something I’d like to do myself. Do you thinks it better to travel by your own means our would a guided tour be better, seeing as we don’t read/speak the language.

    • Thanks Steve. It’s very easy to do this solo, no need whatsoever for a guide or to join a tour or to speak the language.
      If you decided to go I can help you with lots of advice. Here and Northern Thailand very easy. Just travel right month.

  3. Hi Warren. That trip looked fantastic! As Steve says above, definitely something to put on the calendar for ourselves.
    I assume it gets smokey/hazy in the dry season? I could also handle a little rain if that meant clearer skies (especially after a month of smokey skies here in Brisbane from the bushfires- can’t wait to see the blue sky again!).
    On another note, it can be hard to find a ride partner that has the same abilities/skills/drive that you do and it can make a trip a bit awkward if there is a mismatch. I am lucky in that my bro and his mates all ride like me (or I ride like them) so there is never any waiting/disharmony in the group.

    • Hi Dave, there doesn’t seem to be much of a dry season but you are right that haze will be a issue. Lot’s of fires for cooking and rubbish burning – as in much of SE Asia. So going in November at end of rainy period is perhaps a good time, with few spare days up there. Every year the typhoons from Philippines get later, which affects there and onward north all the way to Japan.

      You will enjoy I am sure, also Northern Thailand, the road riders paradise.

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