by aengelson | May 30th, 2013
About a month ago, I had the opportunity for one last epic motorbike ride in Vietnam before moving to Geneva this June. I set out to explore Ha Giang province, one of the more remote and gorgeous corners of Vietnam.
To see a gallery of photos from this trip, click on any of the pictures in this post or this link.
One year ago, I’d attempted a trip to Vietnam’s far north, only to be hampered by motorcycle break downs. This time I did the trip solo. There’s something to be said for the freedom of traveling by yourself with just your motorcycle and a small pack strapped to the seat and the wind in your hair. (Well, not exactly. I did invest in a quality helmet with a wind-screen, after a previous trip left my eyes feeling like they’d been bathed in grit).
The ride from Hanoi to Ha Giang town is a long slog–about eight hours on my little Honda Win. There are few nice stretches of road near Tam Dao mountain, and as you approach Ha Giang, you get tantalizing hints of what’s to come. But there’s also a rutted, dusty, ugly stretch packed with overloaded logging trucks that look likely to topple over on top of you at any moment.
Ha Giang is a pleasant river town, but the real attraction is the 300-km loop beyond, Vietnam’s final frontier. After picking up my permit (about 200K VND or $10 US) it was out on the big empty roads. They were in great shape.
The first day on the loop took me up winding roads higher and higher and eventually to the town of Dong Van. This is a surprisingly arid part of Vietnam. The red-dirt cliffs give way to bare gray rocky peaks. Pine and firs dot the hills, and then give way to lone trees and barren rocks. You start to see people in traditional ethnic dress, and it’s clear the towns here are poorer, although not grim. Corn stalks grow in precarious terraces and in every tiny patch of ground that’s not stone. Men dressed black jackets, pants and caps sit outside stone buildings drinking Chinese beer. You know you’re far from Hanoi when no one speaks either English or Vietnamese. Women wear colorful headresses and embroidered clothing. Something like 90 percent of the people here are ethnic minorities.
Dong Van has a smattering of historic buildings, including an old cafe, and a beautiful red-brick market. After arriving, I took a quick shower and then as the sun set, I hiked up an unmarked trail just outside of town. It wound steeply to an old fort with an astonishing view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. I was definitely a world away from the bustle of Hanoi.
The next day I set out to explore the winding countryside roads, including a hair-raising, tortuous 2,000-foot descent to the bottom of a gorge. The air was dry and hot, and clearly the villages propped up on the terraced hillsides have a tough time eking out a living. As I wound along a road that came quite close the Chinese border, I was met with curious stares from women working tiny plots of land. Occasionally I would get a smile from a woman collecting firewood or a group of men playing Chinese chess.
The Honda performed splendidly, and the riding was incredibly fun–the best I’ve found in Vietnam. Switchbacks hacked out of the mountainsides twist and turn through steep karst formations. Children walk home for lunch in a landscape that’s spare and stark.
The road from Dong Van to the town of Meo Vac is rightly renowned–it’s an impressive work of engineering completed in 1959. The views are incredible–the steep peaks recede into the haze like something out of ancient Zen painting.
Meo Vac is rather characterless town, but the surrounding mountains are worth exploring. Breakfast was the northern-style pho, laced with beef, scallions, mint, and generous heaps of ginger. Elsewhere in Ha Giang, the ubiquitous fried rice is served with delicious little white eggplant-like pickles, and you always finish your meal at the tea-and-toothpicks table, and have a smoke of the tuoc-Lao (the strong tobacco water pipe) if you’re so inclined (I’m not).
Beyond Meo Vac pass, the ecosystem changes dramatically–you enter a cloudy forest where mist clings to the firs. Women in traditional Hmong, Dao, and other tribal clothing harvest crops or walk to the local markets. At one roadside market, the traditional blended with the modern as women in brightly colored clothes sold vegetables, chatted on their mobile phones and ate ice cream bars. A couple men sitting at a cafe offered me a glass of what looked like a potent fermented honey–complete with honeycomb and dead bees. I smiled and politely declined.
As the road descends toward Bac Me, the flora and fauna become tropical once again. Rice fields appear, and the road curves and weaves its way through lush forests full of birdsong. Then it was back to Ha Giang town, for another shower and a beer beside the river. At dinner time, I returned to a great little restaurant selling scrumptious bamboo shoots sauteed in garlic, spring rolls filled with field crab, and salty-sweet short ribs.
I was reluctant to leave, and the ride home to Hanoi was long, but it was a little easier knowing I had stashed away memories of Ha Giang before I leave Vietnam after four years living here.