A 7 Day Northern Loop Through Vietnam
From the urban metropolis to the Ha Giang moonscapes of the Vietnamese border region.
Trip length: 7-8 Days
Recommended transportation: manual transmission, 150cc motorbike, (Honda XR-150)
Vietnam is a wildly diverse country in the middle of a technological revolution. It's a country where you'll find thriving metropolises with millions of people, blending ancient culture with modern sensibilities, and at the same time you can find villages of sustenance farming living off the land. This route through the northernmost reaches of Vietnam touches on both of those things while traveling from the national capitol of Hanoi in the Red River Delta, to the remote border region of Ha Giang.
Throughout history, Ha Giang region has acted as the natural border between Vietnam and its Northern neighbors. A land of green karst outcrops and sheer mountain cliffs, it has been nearly impassable for thousands of years. Today, modern roads are beginning to bring the modern world to this remote area as its popularity grows among backpackers and motorcycle enthusiasts alike. Each year, the region gets a little more commercial as more and more businesses pop up catering to tourists. I suprisingly found the region well traveled by Israelis when I was last there. Shop owners spoke broken Hebrew better than most tourists in the Holy Land. Nonetheless, the region is full of magical views and fascinating history like that of the Opium King, and the battle of Colonial Route 4. It's a place where you can still find people living off the land in the shadow of towering mountains, and rare animals like freshwater mountain shrimp.
While some travelers prefer to take a bus to Ha Giang city to and rent a bike there, I highly recommend leaving from Hanoi. Every bike is different and it never hurts to get some practice riding a rented motorcycle on flat land to learn how it will respond to different inputs before you hit the mountains.
Safety: This is a trip that will not appeal to, or work for all travelers. It's longer than an average ride, and if you're used to comfortable long-distance motorcycles then something like an XR-150 may feel a little rough. For those who are familiar with other world famous routes, I would liken a drive through Ha Giang to that of The Tail of the Dragon in the South Eastern United Staes, full of twists and hair-point turns. While this is far from one of the most difficult journeys in the world, I would not recommend it for beginners. The roads are paved and well kept in most places, but the slightest mistake could send you off the edge. In the short time I was there, I actually watched as one man almost drove off a cliff only to be stopped by a new metal barrier that had only recently been put there. At nearly every stop I saw novice riders tending to fresh road rash. I would also recommend that you do not ride anything less than a manual bike as the the automatic transmissions only have a rear break that fail to provide adequate stopping power. Remember that the Vietnamese take to the motorbike like the ancient Mongols took to horseback riding, just because they can do it doesn't mean we can.
Day 1: Hanoi to Ha Giang, Ha Giang.
A relatively simple drive starting in the national capitol that passes through rice flats and eventually puts you in the mountains.
Day 2: Ha Giang City to Dong Van.
Difficulty: Beginner - Intermediate
A relatively short drive, it's full of breath-taking views that will make you want to take your camera out. It's super easy to spend a good portion of the day just taking in the view as you truly start to climb into the remote region. Honestly the only reason I say this route may classify as Intermediate is because I saw a lot of new riders get hurt sliding through curves, driving off the road into a fence.
Day 3: Dong Van to Lung Cu and back.
I personally took this time to double back and check out the H'Mong King's palace. Once a major hub of opium trafficking into China on behalf of Imperial France, it's now a husk of its formal glory. This is also a chance to make a take a trip up the "North Pole" of Vietnam and look into China. The route there is full of skull and crossbones warnings telling people not to wander across the border and risk spending a night in a Chinese prison. The day I took this road, I saw a local with a handmade air rifle. Unfortunately he refused to let me photograph it as guns are illegal in Vietnam.
Day 4: Dong Van to Bao Loc.
Another short ride, but full of splendid views and some of Vietnam's most iconic lookout points like Ma Pi Leng Pass. After Bao Loc there aren't many places to stop till Cao Bang, which is realistically 2-3 hours away. This region is also full of ethnic Thai which have played a major role in the history and foundation of the Vietnamese Empire.
Day 5: Bao Loc to Cao Bang.
The majority of this drive is pretty simple and can easily be accomplished in just a couple of hours. After lunch I made my way to the Ban Gioc Waterfall which literally serves as the border with China. One side of the river you'll see Chinese tourists photographing the falls from a view point, and on the other you'll see Viet tourists. During my trip, the region experienced a monsoon and the waterfalls raged covering the entire area in a heavy mist and washing out all that was downstream. As an added bonus all along the way to the waterfalls there are countless blacksmiths that make all sorts of tools for locals farmers and it's an interesting place to pick of a unique souvenir.
Day 6: Cao Bang to Lang Son.
Lang Son sits in one of four main invasion routes of Vietnam. Throughout history, the people of Long Son have a stand against Imperial Chinese, Kublai Khan's Mongolian hordes, and even the People's Republic of China's failed invasion of 1979. It's unique geographic location has also made it a crossroads of culture leading Lang Son to have it's own distinct cuisine. I highly recommend the trying the local duck sausage, as well as the spit roasted pork cooked of coals and stuffed with local herbs and spices.
Day 7: Lang Son to Hanoi.
This is not a particularly exciting drive but it does offer some interesting views as you descend into the Red River Delta. If you're a fan of history, you can explore Bac Ninh and the citadel where Imperial Vietnam gave one of its last stand against the invasion of Imperial France. You can also visit the country's oldest buddhist sight of Chua Phat Tich. It's there that the first Buddhist monk decided to build a temple and spread the teaching of Buddhism in what is now Vietnam.
I hope you found this helpful on your journey's and if you have any recommended deviations, I'd love to hear them as I'm always planning another adventure. For more pictures of Ha Giang check out my album here. Safe travels.
* all distances are according to Google Maps, which in Vietnam are notoriously wrong, sometimes by 100km.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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