The Ha Giang loop, or “extreme motorbike loop” as it’s commonly referred to, is an epic adventure through the mountains of North Vietnam, close to the border with China. The route covers around 350km of dangerous mountain road, through jaw-dropping scenery and remote, minority villages.
We spent 6 days on the loop and had a lot to contend with – sharp hairpin bends, rough non-existent roads, having to squeeze past trucks on a cliff edge in thick fog with no road barriers – not to mention that the Vietnamese love to overtake on blind corners. We stayed in small towns where no one spoke English, ate some extremely questionable food and visited a livestock market that would be enough to turn anyone vegetarian! But we completed it…and it was one of our best adventures yet.
The loop starts in the small town of Ha Giang, around a 6 hour bus from Hanoi costing 150,000 VND (£4.80). We took a 7am bus and were dropped outside our hostel around 3pm. There are several places to stay for the night before starting the loop. We stayed at 10am hostel which was run by a friendly lady and rented our bike from Bong hostel down the road. A semi-automatic or manual bike is best, as you have more control on the super steep mountain passes.
There are several routes you can take, depending how far you want to drive each day and which detours you want to make. Most people take around 4 days to complete it, although it can be done in 3 at a push. We chose 6 days as we wanted to stay a couple of nights in Dong Van and time our trip to visit the Sunday cattle market in Meo Vac.
The Ha Giang loop is certainly not for the faint-hearted and you should probably be pretty confident on a bike to attempt it, just take your time and stick to the main routes. Always keep right on corners, those trucks love to fly round them at speed!
Day 1: Ha Giang > Yen Minh: 102km
Armed with a map and supplies for the next few days, we set off from Ha Giang on the main road out of town. From here it’s around a 30 minute drive past paddy fields and beautiful countryside until you reach the first mountain pass. The roads are steep and there are some quite tricky hairpin bends, but you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the valley below. Our plan was to get to the town of Quan Ba for lunch, passing through the breathtaking Heaven’s Gate pass on the way down.
After fuelling up on banh mis and coffee in Quan Ba, we continued on to the town of Yen Minh. The route took us through more picturesque scenery and remote villages, navigating herds of cows and buffaloes on the winding mountain roads. Not far out of Quan Ba there’s an option to take a short cut to Yen Minh over a steep mountain pass, but we decided to take the longer route which passes the Yen Minh pine forest. We didn’t see any other tourists and it was one of the most peaceful parts of the entire journey.
Arriving in Yen Minh we immediately looked for a hotel for the night. We stumbled across Nha Nghi Can Nguyen and its really friendly owner – he didn’t speak any English but we figured it out with various miming and hand gestures. The room cost 200,000 VND (£6) for the night and was pretty basic but had hot water. We had a balcony at the front, and the back of the hotel had an incredible mountain view.
The town itself has a few local restaurants and shops, and a market that we got to explore just before it closed.
Day 2: Yen Minh > Dong Van > Meo Vac > Dong Van: 112 km
We were up early and set off on the drive to Dong Van. More stunning scenery and tricky roads awaited us, winding up and over the mountains and down into the valleys, passing villages and houses perched high in the hills.
Ma Pi Leng Pass
We arrived in Dong Van at lunchtime. The plan was to stay a couple of nights and head to Meo Vac in time for the Sunday cattle market. The road between Dong Van and Meo Vac is called the Ma Pi Leng pass and is one of the highlights of the entire Ha Giang loop. When we got to Dong Van it was a beautiful and sunny, so we decided to drive down the pass and back on the same day.
The weather in the mountains is so changeable that we wanted to make the most of the opportunity (and two days later when we drove it again, it was raining with thick fog – so we were glad we took the chance).
The Ma Pi Leng pass is only about 20km long, but it’s one of the most beautiful mountain passes in Vietnam. Sitting at around 1500m above sea level and built into the side of the cliff, with sharp dangerous bends and a steep drop to the valley below, the road winds its way down to the stunning emerald-coloured Nho Que River.
Day 3: Dong Van
We took a day off today and hung around Dong Van. The town has a nice feel to it, with a range of hotels, restaurants, shops and coffee shops. Behind the main square you can hike up to the Don Cao Fortress for a panoramic view of the town and rice filled valley. It’s a pretty steep, narrow hike with no safety barriers, but the views are worth it and the remains of the former French colonial fortress are still there to explore.
Day 4: Dong Van > Meo Vac: 30km
Today we just had to make the short drive down the Ma Pi Leng pass again to Meo Vac where we were staying the night. This time the weather had taken a turn for the worse, so we put on our raincoats and took a very slow drive down the pass. Meo Vac is a small town and our accomodation for the night was Ong Vang, where we stayed in a tiny little hobbit hole room! It was cold and damp and we didn’t get the best nights sleep, but there are very few options in the town.
Meo Vac was a strange place. Walking around we noticed that there were quite a few aggressive dogs, tied up with chains but barking ferociously and desperate to be unleashed. At one point a local lady decided to start following us round and wouldn’t leave us alone. Even when we stepped into a cafe, she stood across the road whistling into a blade of grass to keep our attention.
Day 5: Meo Vac > Quan Ba: 114km
Meo Vac market
We were up at 5am to visit the Sunday cattle market in Meo Vac. This is the largest market in the region and attended by locals from various minority ethnic villages, most notably from the Black Dao and Hmong tribes.
The roads are filled with traders selling everything from textiles and clothing, to kitchenware and rice wine. Towards the north of the market is the livestock section, where live pigs, goats, chickens and even dogs are on offer. Watching the locals bartering for the animals was fascinating, but you may find it slightly disturbing to see piglets being shuffled into bags and puppies in cages.
Further back is the cattle section, where people eagerly crowd around trucks as they unload the cattle and show off their animals. The men inspect the cows thoroughly and negotiate for a good price.
Inside there is the food market, where locals dine on traditional soups and noodle dishes, before heading off to finish the day drinking rice wine. There is a meat market above the food hall that may seem pretty shocking to some, with full carcasses split open on tables and blood flooding the floors in places.
Meo Vac market was one of the most fascinating markets we have ever been to. A true assault on the senses with an array of colours, sights, sounds and smells. Unlike many places we visited, it was authentic and not just a set up for tourists.
You can see Seth’s amazing video from Meo Vac market on his YouTube channel here:
The weather seemed quite gloomy so we set straight off on the road back to Ha Giang. This drive was tough going, some of the roads were really rough and we were hampered by rain and freezing fog. At some points we could barely see a metre in front of us and we had to drive extra slowly with the poor road conditions.
We looped back round and joined up with the main road in Yen Minh, deciding to take the shortcut this time to get back as soon as possible. This was quite a terrifying drive – there were no road barriers and it was all downhill to Quan Ba, with thick fog in either direction. The right side of the road was the outside of the cliff, meaning we had to go extra carefully. We arrived to Quan Ba wet, freezing cold and exhausted, so we decided to find a bed for the night and tackle the last leg to Ha Giang in the morning.
Day 6: Quan Ba > Ha Giang: 60km
Happy to have called it quits the day before and after a good night’s sleep in a heated room, we set out on the final part of our journey. Luckily the weather had cleared and it was a nice smooth drive. We dropped off our bike in Ha Giang and booked into a nice hotel as a treat, before heading back to Hanoi the next day. An amazing and epic adventure through some of the most stunning and untouched landscapes we have seen in Asia.
There are lots of different itineraries and detours you can add to make the Ha Giang Loop perfect for you. Ha Giang and Dong Van have some tourist infrastructure, but other towns along the way none at all. There are several homestays that are quite popular in towns like Du Gia and Yen Minh, but research your route thoroughly as the road between Du Gia and Ha Giang is meant to be really tough going.
Have you completed the Ha Giang Loop or it is on your bucket list? Did you find any hidden gems? Or have any questions? Let us know in the comments below!