In April 2014 I spent eight days riding a motorbike in Ha Giang in the north of Vietnam. This was with my partner Sonya Waters. Neither of us were experienced riders. I got hold of a Vespa at home in New Zealand to practice on. Three seconds after take off I had crashed head on into a rock wall. This was before I'd even gotten down the driveway. Sonya didn't crash during the warm ups, but she said she used to ride a motorbike when she was a teenager. Later she told me it was actually a 50cc scooter.
Despite the inauspicious start we weren't going to let it put us off. I looked at some maps and read a bunch of blogs. Most of these said Ha Giang was difficult motorbiking terrain. It required permits, was remote, rough, isolated and not recommended for inexperienced motorbike riders. I read a blog which made it sound like serious business. I spent some time fretting about travel insurance.
As it happened we did the trip anyway. We made it unscathed. We rode for eight days on high switchback mountain roads. Sometimes it rained, sometimes it was hot, dusty and dry. We didn't crash. Instead, we saw small remote villages, misty rugged peaks, huge deep valleys, crazy karst limestone outcrops and met friendly Hmong mountain people. Ha Giang plateau is described as the last undiscovered corner of Vietnam. I can see why. We did see a small handful of intrepid foreigners up there, but not many at all. Almost all of them were like us, making the long journey there on a motorbike.
Although there was some information online about motorbiking through Ha Giang, most of it was from people who know what they are doing with motorbikes. That isn't us. That said, I don't recommend you do it without research, knowing what you are doing and getting some practice before you go.
Below I have compiled some practical information on the trip for anyone heading that way.
We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, with our motorbikes stored in the luggage carriage. We picked them up at the other end. The train was very comfortable and we slept in a sleeper. We then travelled the following route
Lao Cai > Bac Ha (63km)
After packing up our luggage, finding some stretchy cords at the market to strap on our luggage and generally getting familiar with the bikes, we hit the road. However, because the motorbike petrol tanks had been emptied before putting them on the train, we ran out of gas about 50 meters after starting. Luckily, there was a petrol station not to far along the road.
Lao Cai was a dusty sort of place - traffic was fairly heavy along the first 3-4km which border with China, but once we left town we were on a highway that was fairly wide and empty. About half way you turn off the main highway and head up to Bac Ha. We stayed in the Ngan Nga Hotel. It was a huge Soviet style place, which made it appealing. There are actually two Ngan Nga hotels in Bac Ha...we stayed at the older one further up the hill. I had booked a room in the hotel in advance, but it was so massive I can't imagine you really need to book.
The next day we stayed around town for the Bac Ha market. Sonya bought two large hand woven blankets which doubled the luggage she was carrying on her bike. The market is definitely worth seeing. However there were many van loads of tourists show up from Sapa around 9am, so it is better to go before then. In the afternoon we took the bikes for a spin in the surrounding countryside.
Bac Ha > Coc Pai > Vinh Quang. (approx. 70km)
On this part of the trip we got very lost. About 15km north of Bac Ha there is a turn off on the right which takes you on a dirt road/track to Coc Pai. Unfortunately, on the map it looked like a rather more substantial road than it turned out to be. There were also many unsignposted intersections. After several wrong turns we found the road became more and more of a track. Then after descending deep into a valley we found ourselves in a village that was a dead end and the only way was back the way we came.
We climbed back out of the valley with the petrol tank on empty, found some friendly villagers who supplied petrol out of beer bottles and eventually re-connected with the road we were supposed to be on. The last part of the trip was after dark - definitely not recommended. In Vinh Quang we found a hotel which was the dirtiest and shabbiest of the trip - The Nga Nihi Thuan An. It was the longest and most tiring day of the trip, though it wouldn't have been if we hadn't got lost.
Vinh Quang > Pan Hou Village. (approx. 30km)
The previous day we had planned on getting all the way to Pan Hou Village lodge. But because we got lost we were a day behind schedule. So this day was a short ride. The valley that Pan Hou nestles in is a lush humid micro climate, remote and off the main road. The Pan Hou lodge was an isolated jungle garden, thick with insects, birds and dripping with rainforest. It was the nicest place we stayed on the trip.
Pan Hou Village > Ha Giang - (approx. 80km)
The first half of this trip wound out of the Pan Hou valley over a pass that no doubt would have been spectacular if it wasn't misty and raining. Then along the main road to Ha Giang. This was probably the busiest road of the trip - though straight and wide so not a problem. In Ha Giang we stayed at Truong Xuan resort - also very nice and Mr Tung who ran the show was very helpful with planning the next few days of our trip.
Ha Giang > Yen Minh (93km)
From Ha Giang north the scenery gets increasingly spectacular as you climb into the mountains. The road goes through Quan Ba which has a cool viewing spot overlooking the town.
Yenh Minh > Dong Van (43km)
North of Yen Minh the road keeps climbing and weaves through increasingly surreal misty limestone moonscapes. Dong Van town is nothing too special although there are some cool buildings in the old part of town, and it is worth exploring these. We stayed at Hoang Ngoc hotel - which was a bit shabby but adequate. Unusually the bed was quite soft.
Dong Van > Meo Vac (21km)
This short trip is scenically the most spectacular of the whole trip. Kind of like a green Vietnamese version of the Grand Canyon. The road winds along the edge of a very deep and steep gorge with the river far below. Villages cling to the valley edges and jagged peaks tower overhead. It is worth taking this section slow and making lots of stops.
Meo Vac > Ha Giang (143km)
In the morning we stayed around for the Meo Vac market, which is highly recommended and much less touristy than Bac Ha (in fact there was really just us and a couple of others we'd met). We then looped back down to Yen Minh via a different route and then back to Ha Giang. We had actually originally planned to travel down to Ba Be Lake from here - then back to Hanoi - but we had run out of time and so decided to try and take a faster route back.
Ha Giang > Hanoi
We took the bus back to hanoi with the bikes stored under the bus. The bikes cost more than our tickets and the bus driver didn't seem very pleased to take them, but as we'd called in advance they had to load them up.
Check the slideshow below or click here to see FULL SIZED photos
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR THE TRIP
Guide or No Guide?
A lot of websites tell you you need a guide and initially we thought we would get one. However, in the end we decided not to because we wanted to be flexible with itinerary and go where we wanted. Plus, we ride slow. While I'm all in favour of providing local employment, I don't think you really need a guide. Even though we got lost and don't speak any Vietnamese we managed fine without. If language is an issue then get a guide because no-one speaks english up there. Personally I'm good with sign language.
We hired 125cc Honda Futura's from Flamingo Travel in Hanoi. They are pretty much an updated version of the ubiquitous (in Vietnam) Honda Wave. It's a scooter with big wheels disguised as a motorbike. It is recommended to take a small bike as it handles the corners, hills, potholes better than a big one. We put the bikes on the train to Lao Cai and rode from there. The most trouble we had with the bikes was one flat tire. This was easily fixed in a nearby cafe. We did meet a few people who had bought bikes (older ones) and they seemed to be having endless breakdowns and trouble. We hired from Flamingo as research indicated they had the best and most reliable bikes, and good backup in the event of trouble. they were definitely helpful and the bikes worked well - so recommended. When we got back to Hanoi with the bikes on the bus they came and picked them up from the station - which was good because the city traffic there is a bit nuts.
We were in Ha Giang in April and the weather was generally warm but hazy/cloudy. There was a bit of mist and rain but not enough to be a major issue.
The roads were mostly sealed. They were rarely straight, narrow and had some potholes/rough patches. Most of the time you were either going up a mountain, down a mountain or along the side of a mountain - with a big drop down the side. We travelled at an average of about 20km-25km an hour which is pretty slow, but in the hills also pretty normal. Probably the biggest mistake in our planning was failing to account for how long it takes to get anywhere and thinking we could travel further in a day than we actually did.
Traffic was generally light save the odd bus or truck that took up the entire road. Generally they were slow moving but go easy on the corners because there could be anything coming at you the other way. Don't be afraid to use your horn.
Because you aren't going very fast and traffic is light it is generally pretty safe, though we did meet one English girl who had lost it on a corner (though she just got some grazes). It is quite hard to find any travel insurance that will cover you for a motorbike accident - especially if you don't have a local license (which isn't really possible in Vietnam). I wasted a lot of time reading the small print of various policies. In the end NZ company Southern Cross who seemed to cover under 150cc motorbikes - though only available to NZ citizens.
In theory you aren't allowed to ride a motorbike in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license - but it also seems very difficult to get one. Various reports online say that Flamingo Travel can organise one in advance for you, but when I asked about this they said they couldn't do that anymore. Anyway, aside from the travel insurance issue it doesn't appear to be a problem riding without one (at least on Ha Giang)
Food & Accommodation
Accommodation (aside from Pan Hou Village & Truong Xan Resort) is pretty basic. Most small towns have a hotel, but don't expect anything too flash. Beds are generally hard. They often let you park your motorbikes in the lobby. Most towns have basic cafe's that are adequate, and sometimes quite good.
You are supposed to get a permit which costs $10 to go to Ha Giang. Our hotel in Yen Minh organised ours and it was pretty easy. They can also do it in Dong Van and other places. Hotels generally won't let you stay without it as I assume they get in trouble with the authorities otherwise.
That's it. My general recommendation is if you are thinking of going to just go ahead and do it. It really is an amazing and remote place. Although we really loved the other parts of Vietnam, they were much more touristy and felt less exciting. Ha Giang is a pretty cool place so won't stay off the beaten track for long.