For the last few weeks Hanoi has been a cold, wet, foggy place. With some friends I had planned a Tet motorbike ride away to Ha Giang, the beautiful mountainous northern highlands that border China, but as the trip neared we began to wonder if we’d make the right decision. After all, if it was this cold and miserable down in the city, what on earth would it be like thousands of feet up in the mountians?
Thus we stocked up on thermal underwear, base layers, waterproofs and, in my case, a large pair of rubber boots, and proceeded with the foreboding sense that what lay ahead may very well be less than pleasant.
…What can I say? How wrong we were. From absolutely nowhere, for the 7 days of our trip we were blessed with clear blue skies, sunshine, and at times even hot, beautiful weather. I and my co-bikers still can’t quite grasp how this happened, but happen it did. We didn’t see a single drop of rain. My wellies remain unused.
I’ll write a few more posts, with a few more specifics, in the days to come. But lets just say, motorbiking around Ha Giang is a really very straight forward thing to do. The roads are mostly good, as long as you’re always alive to pot holes. The towns you pass through on the way almost all have good hotels and places to stay. Gas stations are regularly found.
The things you see along the way are little short of breathtaking. When you go to Ha Giang, you’ll spend hour after astonishing hour biking through mountain passes, peering down into valleys thousands of metres deep, looking up at folds of mountains falling away into the distance. It was one of those trips where, after a while, you sort of forget to take in the amazing things you can see around you just because you’ve been seeing them for hours anyway. When you start to take sights like these for granted, you really are onto a good thing.
As for our route. On day one we went from Hanoi to Be Be national park, where we stayed for two nights at the ever hospitable Mr Linh’s homestay. I can’t recommend Mr Linh highly enough – he and his family will cook you delicious food, take you on boat trips to waterfalls and caves, and retrieve lost frisbees from seemingly impossible to reach ledges.
From Ba Be we went to Ha Giang city. This was potentially the longest trip of the journey, and a few of our groups had to endure several hours of driving. We actually found a short cut, as advised by a guy we stopped to buy some petrol from. It doesn’t show up on Google maps, but trust me – its there, its good, flat, concrete road, and it easily cut a few hours off our journey!
Ha Giang itself is a pleasant enough place, the largest town in the region, and great for finding mechanics if your bike needs a quick bit of TLC. There is a proper Honda garage in town, as well as a whole range of smaller places. Hotels are easy to find, but the town itself isn’t worth spending more than a night in. You very much come here to go elsewhere.
After Ha Giang, we drove to Dong Van in the far north of the country. This was probably some of the best driving of the trip, an endless series of mountain passes and roads ribboning up and down the side of hills. Again the roads were fantastic quality, only a few bumpy patches.
We spent two nights in Dong Van, partly to give us a chance to have a rest after two straight days of driving, and partly to give us the chance to explore the area. Its well worth it – in one place its possible to actually walk across the border into China completely unchallenged, which is kind of cool. I’ll tell you exactly where to do this in another blog to come shortly…
A quick tip about Dong Van – stay in the Lam Tung hotel. The beds are quite bewilderingly comfortable, and its all brand new! The hotel also helped us sort out our permits, which you need to stay locally and enter the border areas. Its easy to do, all you do is give them your passports along with $10, and they’ll do the rest.
After Dong Van, we made our way to Bao Lac for the night, and here split down into a few groups. Some of us, me included, decided to head back to Hanoi, and it is possible to do the full 350km journey in a single day of pretty fierce driving. Others chose to go back to Ba Be. And a few others got lost on the way and ended up in Cao Bang instead, which I guess is no bad thing.
The total trip we did was 7 days. We could have done it quicker, or we could have done it slower, but a week felt about right to really be able to take in what we saw along the way.
Now, this post obviously contains a great deal of information! I guess I’m leaving it here as a starting point for anyone in the future who wants to do a similar journey. I’ll write more detailed stuff in the next few days about different places we stayed. This blog really only serves as an introduction.
And finally, it would be remiss of me not to finish by saying: fuck me, what a beautiful, astonishing, mind blowing journey this was! If you’ve got a week spare and a decent motorbike (or simply one that works), then go for it! North of Hanoi has the best motorbiking Vietnam has to offer. I’m already looking at maps again, and asking that wonderful question: