Christmas in Vietnam – exploring Ha Giang on a motorcycle

Because neither of us is a big fan of dirty big cities, we spent only one day in Hanoi and at 9PM hopped on a night bus in the direction of Ha Giang. We skipped Sapa because everyone told me that Sapa is ruined by tourism and it wasn’t authentic anymore, meanwhile we would see similar things in Ha Giang and there are not so many tourists in this area. I could literally write a full article about the bus ride itself because it was an incredible experience. Not in a good way though. So I’ll try to shorten it.

Before entering the bus we had to take off our shoes under surveillance of the driver. There are three rows & two levels of “beds” in the bus. They were more like tiny coffins than beds, into which I didn’t even fit. My mom was searching for bedbugs with her flashlight for twenty minutes before she even entered one of these coffins.

The bus started moving and we were looking forward to taking a nap finally. But the driver hit the road with an insane pace, whipping the turns in a way that I had to hold on to the bed construction tightly in order not to fall out into the aisle. At one junction he almost knocked off one scooter rider, in the end he only lost his helmet. Our driver was laughing out loud to this masterpiece for the next twenty minutes. In addition to his craziness he was honking five hours straight or someone else was honking at him instead. You can only imagine how well we slept in a SLEEPING bus. Not for a minute. 

It’s unbelievable but we survived this journey and got off the bus in Ha Giang in the morning. We went straight to a recommended hotel to rent motorcycles. Our first idea was that we would hit the road on off-road motorcycles but the reality was way different. They got us two old shitty scooters, which didn’t look like they would survive 350 km on mountain roads. By the way, I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in my life but my mom trusted me so much that she literally pushed me into the traffic saying, “you can do this”. So that’s how I learned it. We stopped at a gas station first to get a full tank but it took us 20 minutes to figure out how to open the gas tank. Then we finally started moving towards the mountains but after 10 km my mom got a flat tire. Luckily they’re well prepared for this in every shithole, so everyone can fix it in their garage. The guy who helped us pulled out a 10-cm nail from our tire, and after 15 minutes we were on the road again.

Our first checkpoint was Yen Minh, where we had lunch. In this little town we first realized that English is absolutely useless here and the official language are your arms & legs. However you will never know what you ordered for lunch. I’m still hoping that what we had wasn’t a dog or a rat.

We were slowly moving towards the north and the more kilometres we rode, the more sure we were on the motorcycles. I even learned how to honk like locals, so in the end I was honking more than them. Well, but my mom didn’t, so when a huge truck honked right next to her, it scared her and she ended up in a ditch, breaking her right mirror.

We didn’t stop often on the first day because we knew that most of the beauty could be found in the very north of Ha Giang. We managed to make it all the way to Pho Bang, where we searched for some accommodation. Because we didn’t know how many kilometres we would make, we didn’t book anything in advance. There is a great hostel in the downtown of Pho Bang. Unfortunately I forgot the name of it but it’s a huge white building, which doesn’t seem to fit among the other “houses”.

We set off for Pho La the next day, however the road was so bad that 2 kilometres took us half an hour, so we turned back to Pho Bang, from where we continued all the way to the northernmost place in Vietnam called Lung Cu. As soon as we got off the main road QL4C, everything changed a lot. We were passing through villages, where if felt like the time had stopped. The locals live in clay houses, built on piles. There are several ethnical groups in these villages, while every group wears very different dresses. We were also passing amazing hills and tons of rice fields (there is no rice in December – if you want to see those green terraces like on Pinterest, you have to go at the end of summer, like August or beginning of September, when the rice is usually harvested).

There is a huge memorial/tower in Lung Cu, standing on one of the highest hills around. You can actually get all the way to the top with your motorcycle. Since Lung Cu is located about one kilometer from the Chinese border, some websites say that you need permission for exploring this area. We didn’t have any permission and no one asked for it.

After Lung Cu, we returned to the main road QL4C and continued to a city called Dong Van. On the way we stopped like a hundred times for a picture because the landscapes were absolutely breathtaking. 

Dong Van is probably the second largest city in the province of Ha Giang and is greatly furnished for tourists, unlike other towns, so here you will find plenty of hotels and homestays. Because it was Christmas Eve, we didn’t want to sleep in a dirty town, so we continued to the east and almost in the dark reached Ma Pi Leng Pass, where I found a great little homestay lying right on the pass. For about 160 CZK (7 USD), we stayed here and celebrated with some corn wine, which I couldn’t even finish how gross it was. Due to a snoring Chinese tourist we didn’t sleep well at all but this place was really cool. In the morning, we left our backpacks in the homestay and set off on one motorbike to explore Ma Pi Leng Pass. This was definitely my favourite part of Ha Giang so far. We saw magnificent hills with narrow and winding roads, which people have to use to get to their homes – sometimes it means several hours of walking.

We also explored Sky Path, which led directly from the monument on the top of Ma Pi Leng Pass. It’s about 70 cm wide pedestrian path, but we bravely set off on a motorbike and after an hour appeared in front of our hotel. It was such a wonderful thing that I pulled out my drone again. We came back, got spaghetti with tomato sauce for breakfast and continued to Meo Vac. Even though it is only a few miles away, it took us several hours. 

If I had to choose one place/area from Ha Giang province, it is the route between Ma Pi Leng and Meo Vac. We felt like we were in Narnia. In Meo Vac, we stopped for late lunch and got off the road QL4C. We got to road no. 176 that goes straight down passing Lung Phin and Lung Ho,all the way to Du Gia. The second most beautiful part of Ha Giang is definitely the part between Meo Vac and Lung Ho, so reserve a lot of time to cross this area. There is a lot of rice fields around Du Gia. We slept in a hostel in Du Gia where all the tourists were gathering, so we felt like we were in Europe for a while.

The last day, we went from Du Gia back to Ha Giang, from where we took a bus back to Hanoi at 16:00. This section is already very inhabited and dirty, so we didn’t almost stop. We were a little afraid of the whole road 176 because we didn’t know in what condition it would be, and whether it would be paved or rocky. In the end it was a nice road except for the last 10 km, which took us about 3 hours, because it was full of rocks & huge holes.

Our comeback to Hanoi was a bit stressy because my mom left her cell phone in the sleeping bus and found out when we got to the hotelroom. Fortunately, thanks to the incredible staff of the Domov Hotel, we managed to get her cellphone back even though it was midnight.

Now, handy tips!

We didn’t have any guide and I think it’s not necessary if you know what you want to see.
If you decide to go, be prepared for the roads being in poor condition and full of dust. 150 km per day is the maximum you can do on a motorcycle, however I recommend about 70-80 km per day if you want to see places, otherwise it’s a race.

You don’t have to make reservation in any hotel/homestay, there is usually plenty of them and it works like first come first serve.

The chance you will get a flat tire is about 100%. If that happens, just stop someone on the road when you’re in the middle of nowhere and they will help you. If you’re in a city, just knock on someone’s door (even though their door is literally always open haha) and they will change it for about 100 VDN.

If anyone was interested, all the pictures were taken with a Nikon Z6 + 35 mm f1.4 or 24-70 mm f4.0, selfies were taken with Canon 80D + 10-22 mm and drone pictures with Dji Mavic Air (yes, I was carrying all this on my back for the whole time). 

I’m enclosing a map of our journey, so I hope it’s all clear now:) 

Alright pals, that’s all from me, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!