The Hà Giang Motorbike Loop
Deep in the mountains of North Vietnam exists a grand motorbike adventure known as the Hà Giang Loop. With remote villages and wildly diverse landscapes; it is one of the best experiences you can have in the land of dragons.
Far removed from the busy streets of Hanoi and crowded waters of Halong Bay; the province of Hà Giang /’ha-zang:/ has long been held as the last off-the-beaten-path location left in Vietnam. With the tourism hotspot of Sa Pả only being a short bus ride away, it’s puzzling how this place has remained a secret for so long.
That, however, is quickly changing. Daily tours now run throughout the province, and I predict that one day soon there will be so many cars on these small winding roads that it will make riding a motorbike impractical.
The Hà Giang Loop
The Hà Giang Loop is a two to five-day motorbike adventure that runs 350 km or 218 mi around the outer edge of the Hà Giang province, with the northern sections passing alongside China’s southern border.
The loop can be taken either clockwise or counterclockwise with the former being the most popular. Weather will determine the difficulty of the ride as the roads in the region are mostly underdeveloped.
This post covers a 5-day journey through high mountain passes, rich valley forests, untainted villages, illegal border crossings, unstable cliffs, and oh so much more. And it all begins in the provincial capital of Hà Giang.
Interactive Loop Map
Arrive And Stay In Hà Giang
Located at the southernmost point of the loop; the provincial capital is a bustling city split in two by the Sông Lô River. You can find schedules and prices on 12go.asia for the bumpy six or four-hour ride from Hanoi and Sa Pả respectively.
There are plenty of accommodation options in the city; however, one stands head and shoulders above the rest; Jasmine Hostel. The owners Tuân and his wife Thùy are hands-down the most genuinely kind hosts I’ve ever met. They opened their doors in 2017 and keep the place looking immaculate. They even rent motorbikes.
Jasmine Hostel In Hà Giang
Renting a Motorbike
The main rental shop in town and the one with the best reviews is QT Motorbikes. Jasmine Hostel happens to be located directly across the street, so I was able to do some comparison shopping.
While QT is a quality shop, their popularity has; in my opinion; hindered their success. While they do have a larger selection of bikes, those bikes have been heavily used; often by inexperienced riders (lots of rattling parts). Jasmine’s bikes have less wear and tear, but only because they are newer.
I received a brand new semi-automatic for ₫200,000 or $8.65 per day. QT was similar, but the quality just wasn’t the same.
Let The Fun Begin
Now you’re all set. You’ve had a good night’s sleep and figured out where to rent your motorbike. The only thing left to do is hit the road and enjoy some of the best views in all of Southeast Asia.
For the ease of planning; below is a table of contents. A link directing back to this point will be at the end of every section.
Day 1 – Hà Giang To Yên Minh – 100km
Day 2 – Yên Minh To Đồng Văn – 100km
Day 3 – Đồng Văn To Mèo Vạc – 23km
Day 4 – Mèo Vạc To Du Già – 70km
Day 5 – Du Già To Hà Giang – 70km
Extra – My Southbound Adventure – 37km
Day 1 – Hà Giang To Yên Minh
The first day of the Hà Giang Loop adventure starts mid-morning after a hearty breakfast and signing the final paperwork for your motorbike rental.
Unlike most adventures that begin with a few dull hours of busy city streets or unspectacular countryside before finally reaching the stunning landscapes, seen in photos posted online; the Hà Giang loop is something entirely unique.
You will immediately find yourself driving through a lush valley along the Sông Lô River as you make your way up into the highlands via the first notable landmark on the loop; Bắc Sum Pass.
Bắc Sum Pass
Once beyond the pass, the road will begin to narrow as the land around you becomes denser and far less populated. A viewpoint over an area known as Fairy Bosom will be your next place to park the bike and catch a quick snack looking out over the unique landscapes of northern Vietnam.
The road leading on from Fairy Bosom carries down through a few valleys and the dusty riverside town of Tom Son aka. Quản Bạ. Many people choose to make this home for the night, but being only a few hours from Hà Giang, I don’t know why.
Instead, I would recommend heading back up into the highlands; through the vastly diverse landscape of rice paddies and pines, en route to the next noteworthy town on the map; Yên Minh.
Riding Through The Pines
Located approximately four hours North of Hà Giang by motorbike is the town of Yên Minh. Surrounded by mountains and lush rice paddies this sleepy little town is a great place to stop for the night.
There are a few places to stay that can be found on booking.com; however, I would recommend Tom Homestay. It’s where most travelers wind up, and it’s a great place to relax with a cold drink in your hand making some new friends.
Sleepy Yên Minh
Day 2 – Yên Minh To Đồng Văn
The second day begins with your choice of eggs and toast or pancakes with some hot tea or coffee; all for ₫30,000 or $1.30.
Most of the Hà Giang loop is well marked and easy to navigate; however, there are a few points; like the random left turn leaving Yên Minh; that are easy to miss if you aren’t paying enough attention.
Travel Tip: Make sure to download an offline map app before you begin your journey, so you never have to worry about driving in the wrong direction for over an hour (like I did).
Rich Farmland Outside Yên Minh
Once you’ve navigated your way out of town, you’ll be treated to some beautiful remote farmland lying beneath the steep green mountain ranges. The route will start to gain elevations quickly as you make your way up the switchbacks of Thấm Mã Pass; which can be quite slippery when it’s raining.
Slippery Thấm Mã Pass
Side Note: The photo at the beginning of this post is also of Thấm Mã Pass.
About halfway between Yên Minh and Đồng Văn, you will have the opportunity to add a little extra adventure into your Hà Giang Loop experience. One that takes you on a half hour detour to the North Pole.
The North Pole Detour
You’re reading that right. One of the things that; in my opinion; shouldn’t be missed on the Hà Giang Loop, is a place known as Vietnam’s North Pole. Officially named Lũng Cú, it is the furthest point North in Vietnam as well as Southeast Asia.
Marked by a massive flagpole and accompanying Vietnamese banner, this monument sits near the Chinese and Vietnamese border. While you’re there be sure to make your way to the top of the tower and check out the amazing views.
Lũng Cú Monument
Views From The Top
Another fun thing to do while you drive through the beautiful remote countryside is to stop off at one of the many illegal border crossings. I won’t go as far as to suggest that you cross into to China illegally; however, I will mention that there will most likely be no guards anywhere nearby. 😜
A Sneak Peak Into China
Heading back towards QL4C make sure to take the road that forks East. It will carry you past some beautiful rice terraces and out of the highlands down into the place you’ll stop for the night; Đồng Văn.
The Road To Đồng Văn
More of a city than a town; Đồng Văn is my least favorite place on the loop. With bustling, dirty streets and smells, that would make your dog think he’s died and gone to heaven; Đồng Văn’s only saving grace is the mountains that surround it.
The Streets Of Đồng Văn
However, it is a necessary stop if you’ve decided to make the detour to Lũng Cú. There are plenty of options for accommodations, but I would recommend Binh Minh Hostel. The staff is very friendly, and the rooms are clean and spacious.
The owner of the joint even helped me fix a few dings on my motorbike free of charge. If you’ve been to Vietnam, then you know how rare that is.
Day 3 – Đồng Văn To Mèo Vạc
Day three and the road between Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc is often hailed as the most stunning stretch of road on the Hà Giang Loop. Although I have no doubts why; my most memorable moment would come on day four, but for different reasons.
Misty Road To Mèo Vạc
Views From Mã Pí Lèng Pass
This 20 kilometer stretch of road has some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes I’ve ever seen. Each hairpin turn revealing entirely different views of the Nho Quế River snaking its way along the valley floor, overshadowed by massive gorges and farmland that seems to be planted near vertical.
If you have the time, I highly recommend taking a detour around some of the old horse trails that are now paved, to the bottom of the canyon. Even from below the views just never seem to stop.
The Road To The River
Just beyond the pass is the town of Mèo Vạc. This ended up being my favorite town on the entire loop despite my initial plan to just pass through on my way to Du Già. Thankfully an all-day rainstorm prevented me from doing so.
There are tons of sights to see in town as well as the surrounding area. If you’re lucky and arrive on a Sunday, you will get the opportunity to witness the weekend market where locals from far and wide traverse the steep mountains of North Vietnam on foot to trade their livestock and wares.
The Town Of Mèo Vạc
Day 4 – Mèo Vạc To Du Già
The journey to Du Già on day four isn’t quite as stunning as the one before, but it’s still nothing short of amazing. And similar to day two; the road leaving Mèo Vạc can be a bit tricky depending on what map you use.
The route will either lead you further South on QL4C or West on DT182. If you go into it overconfident; as I did, then you will just head South, and that is no bueno.
My southbound misadventure would end up leaving me, muddied and bloodied, holding onto the back of my bike for dear life as it dangled from a cliff face, but I’ll dive into that story later in the post.
Rice Terraces South Of Mèo Vạc
I don’t have any experience or pictures of the route leaving Mèo Vạc on road DT182; which eventually turns into DT176; until it converges with the backroads in the hamlet of Mậu Duệ.
However, the road from that point on was still breathtaking. Especially once I finally reached the top of Là Si Pass.
Là Si Pass
A place that resembles a farming commune rather than a town; Du Già lies in a lush valley full of rice paddies, cool running rivers, and grass grinding buffalo, surrounded by bright green mountains.
The countryside around Du Già is gorgeous, especially in the late afternoon when the sun shines its final light on the peaks.
The Du Già Countryside
Although small and remote, there are still plenty of places to stay. I recommend Du Già Backpacker Hostel. They are the most popular in town and offer guided treks around the area as well as a free breakfast.
If you have the time and the energy to go riding, then I would recommend stopping off at the Du Già Waterfall.
Enjoying Du Già Waterfall
Only a few minutes from the main road; this little oasis is a great place to escape the heat relaxing in the cool, clear water.
The local boys get their kicks by getting travelers drunk on rice wine and watching them jump from the top with horrified looks on their faces. They can’t get enough.
Day 5 – Du Già To Hà Giang
Day five begins with a choice of two routes. The first continuing South on DT176 until it reaches QL34, then heading West towards Hà Giang. The second heading North on DT176; the same road to Du Già; until meeting up with DT181, then heading West again until it converges with QL4C just North of Tam Son.
My local advisors had assured me that this was the more “enjoyable” route with better views and far less traffic. While they were right about the views and traffic; they missed the mark on the enjoyable part.
Road Conditions on DT181
During the rainy season, certain areas in North Vietnam are plagued with landslides, one of which happened a week before I arrived in late July. So there was no way that the locals who’d recommended route DT181 could have known.
The entire journey was littered with massive potholes, and in quite a few places the road was just gone; reduced to rubble. This stretch of road also happens to pass through the poorest part of the Hà Giang region, so there is no telling how long it will take for them to recover.
My Southbound Adventure
Referring back to the moment that I decided to head Southbound from Mèo Vạc on QL4C is when my Hà Giang Loop adventure took a very unexpected turn.
I live and breathe by my offline maps and although they save my ass the majority of the time; sometimes they’re wrong. That just so happened to be the case as I turned off of QL4C onto QL4B. A road that by all appearances seemed reliable.
It wasn’t but half a mile in that the double lane paved road turned into mush and eventually narrowed down to a deer trail running through fields of corn.
Well This Isn’t Good
The sun had finally come out, and I was baking like a toasted cheeser as I slowly made my way through the Vietnamese countryside; riding with my legs nearly over the handlebars to avoid the muddy swamps and sharp barbed grass.
I couldn’t believe how pristine some of the farms where. I had been in Southeast Asia for nearly six months, and that was; without a doubt; the most untainted place I’d seen. It was like stepping back in time.
A Plastic-less Time Capsule
What should have been a smooth sailing two-hour ride down DT176, turned into a six and a half hour slow crawl that became exponentially worse when, about halfway in, a narrow clifftop path made of loose rock decided it wasn’t going to hold the weight of me or my bike any longer.
With what I can only describe as pure adrenaline, I somehow managed to jump off the back and grab the luggage rack before it could go tumbling down the ravine.
Man In A Silk Suit
I stood there with sweat rolling in my eyes hanging on to the 250-pound bike with all my strength. The adrenaline quickly turned to anger as I weighed my options. Either I let go and pay for a new bike; which I didn’t have the money for, and walk for hours to the next sign of civilization. Or; and just as the bike began to slip my grasp; a man in a silk suit came whistling around the corner.
Help! I shouted; as loud as I could.
The man saw my distress and came running. He grabbed the rear wheel, and we both managed to pull it back from the brink.
After a few minutes of bowing and thanking him profusely, I managed to get the bike started again and headed down to the river at the bottom of the pass.
No Time To Rest
At first glance, I thought the river was going to be my resting point far removed from the terror of high cliffside trails; however, after looking at my map, I realized that it was standing between me and freedom.
So without hesitation, and a weary grin; I hopped back on the bike, carefully maneuvered the fast flowing water and set off on the remaining three hours of muddy, dusty, and hot trail to Mậu Duệ.
If you are still on the fence about whether the Hà Giang Motorcycle Loop is worth it, I’ll tell you this. After months spent in Southeast Asia and many other motorbike loops; like the one in Southern Laos: I can firmly say that this was the grandest adventure that I experienced in all that time.
While I did get a little sidetracked and almost lost it all, I would do it again in a heartbeat. What I’ve learned these past few years is that the adventures and moments that stick with you; the ones you need no pictures to remember vividly; are the ones where everything goes wrong; where suffering is inherent, and where limits that where once thought impossible are broken.