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The Northern Loop: an epic ride across unforgettable winding mountain roads

Vietnam’s Northern Loop is one of the country’s standout road trips

Stephanie Lilly

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Hanoi Northern Loop Ha Giang Pass

Vietnam’s Ha Giang Northern Loop is undoubtedly one of the nation’s great road trips. Few things can beat the feeling of escaping the tourist stands and chaos of Hanoi to explore the untarnished beauty of the Vietnamese countryside by motorbike. Drive through rolling mountains that expand for miles upon miles, and let a quainter side of the country gently reel you in. The bright flashes of color of the traditional clothing of the Hmong people, old ladies carrying baskets of fresh fruit on their backs, young kids with bundles of flowers slung over their shoulders and men leading livestock down open roads – this is the quintessential rustic Vietnam. Whether done in just three days or more slowly over six or seven, the trip will linger long in the memory.

Hanoi Northern Loop From Corrin 2
The early stages of the journey.

Day 1 Hanoi to Ha Giang

Bag packed with sweaters, jacket, gloves, poncho and a first aid kit, a bus from the Old Quarter in Hanoi took six hours to reach Ha Giang which, apart from a half hour break for breakfast, was a straight shot to the northern city. A couple of hours outside Hanoi, and the bumpy roads begin to wind around the mountains. This leg move may prove a challenge to those that easily get car sick.

Arriving at Creekside Homestay, the friendly owner sparkled with energy as he showed me a map of where to drive each day and the many things to do. As with most homestays in the city, he rented out all types of bikes: automatics, semi-automatics, Honda Wins, with the bike eventually chosen for the trip, a trusty Honda XR. Despite opting for the XR, the most popular choice for the trip seemed to be the much-loved Honda Win – a manual bike is certainly the best option for getting up and down the mountain roads. The Honda XR and my friend’s Honda Win never had a mechanical problem, though later we found we could have rented the bike for half the cost at a different homestay, so do take the time to shop around. Nonetheless, the well-priced, comfortable rooms and friendly staff make Creekside Homestay a solid bet.

Before starting, the owner recommended a café on the mountain top, explaining with a wink “if you can make it up there, you can make it around the entire loop no problem.” The steep curving road proved to be a good test drive before embarking on our journey and we managed to reach the top without fanfare to find a van converted into a café overlooking a majestic view of the city.

Hanoi Northern Loop Ha Giang Pass
Views on the Northen Loop are breathtaking.

Day 2 Ha Giang to Quan Ba

The next day was an hour and a half ride to the small town of Quan Ba. With cool air brushing across your face and billowing through your hair, the surrounding nature inspires a feeling of pure awe. About three-quarters of the way a restaurant overlooking the valley provided lunch and coffee to give sustenance for the journey to the first stop along the way: Heaven’s Gate, where reaching the top of the stairs bring a gorgeous view of mountains hiding in the clouds, disappearing into the distance.

The last leg of the journey took us into sleepy Quan Ba, which is enclosed by bright yellow fields of corn, a staple of the Northern Villages, sprawled across the land. The Mr. Ly Ta Don Homestay provided comfy lodgings, with an older couple dressed in Hmong clothing, speaking to us in gestures and broken English as they showed us to our room. At 7 p.m. they prepared a delicious meal of pork, spring rolls, fries, vegetables and rice for us and other weary travelers. The hosts joined us for dinner, enthusiastically sharing traditional corn wine, encouraging us all to chant “Mot, hai, ba, dzo!” the common Vietnamese cheer often heard echoing across the streets of Hanoi and now through the mountains of the Northern villages. Three Belgium girls giggled at the cheers and remarked, “Vietnam is so different from anywhere else we’ve traveled, and what a long cheers!” Delicious food and drink warmed all in the cool weather, the night ending in friendly conversation and the, perhaps, inevitable karaoke.

Later in the evening a traditional dance was performed, followed by a dance lesson for the drunk travelers who giggled as they tried to follow the steps.

Day 3 Quan Ba to Lung Cu

Hanoi Northern Loop Flower Children
Ethnic minority children carrying flowers at Quan Ba.

Curving around the winding roads further north, the wind got chillier, but each stop taken to add new layers of warm clothing gave a chance to take in and reflect on the magnificent beauty all around. The continuous drops in temperature surprised, as each new picturesque landscape unfolded. Just at the moment when the seemingly best possible view arose, a corner was turned and another yet more astonishing took its place. And so it kept happening, time and time again.

Day 3 was the longest day driving, taking about four hours to reach the small city of Lung Cu, which borders China. As you drive into the town you see the famous tower with the Vietnamese flag blowing in the cold wind. Here, Sister Homestay and Bar had a nice cabin feel but there was no roof to separate the private rooms from the dorms. This proved a constant re-occurrence throughout the trip – although it is as cheap to rent one private room for two as it is to rent a bed in the dorm, a lot of the homestays have mere curtain separators or roofless rooms, lessening privacy.

Family dinner and corn wine were necessary staples of every cold evening, but the afternoons saw the sun come out to warm the small villages. Ascending the flag tower at Lung Cu on foot, a local lady shouted, “you can take a motorbike up,” but I huffed up the stairs determinedly. After sitting on a bike for four hours the previous day, a little exercise proved welcome. The view from the top of the tower was exquisite, with mountains stretching out in every direction. It is not surprising that trekking is big here.

Northern Loop Hanoi From Corrin 4
A rainbow seen in Quan Ba.

Day 4 Quan Ba to Meo Vac

The drive from the tops of the mountains into the valley for the town of Meo Vac was one and a half hours away, turning down the street towards our homestay led to the strangest site: a gentrified homestay neighborhood. The stark difference between the little homestay community and the rest of the town was a little unnerving. Funds from the tourism industry had been clearly funneled into this strange gated community, but despite the eeriness, the family at the homestay was lovely, the lodgings nice and the community was surrounded by towering mountains.

It is the journey not the destination that is important.

This was A San Homestay, which was empty apart from the two of us. Across the way a homestay packed with travelers played loud catchy pop songs. Later in the evening a traditional dance was performed, followed by a dance lesson for the drunk travelers who giggled as they tried to follow the steps. A traditional game of the northern region was played out, which involved the rhythmic jumping over bamboo sticks, with each guest trying their best to keep to the beat. Although a small local village, it felt inauthentic somehow, a fancy homestay community with staged traditional dances – yet none of this took away from the inherent beauty of the valley and fun of the experience.

Northern Loop Travelers And Local Hmong
Stephanie with fellow travelers and her homestay host in Quan Ba.

Day 5 Meo Vac to Khau Vai to (accidentally) Yen Minh

After Meo Vac it was onward to the smallest town yet: Khau Vai. Though a lively town during its famous spring event, the Love market, in the winter you can hear a pin drop in this ghostly place. Groups of young boys ran around the eerily quiet streets, stopping and peering at the strange travelers intruding on their home. A few motorbike repair shops with men leaned back in plastic chairs, hats pulled over their eyes as they slept, were gently scattered throughout this quaintest of towns. There was not cafe or restaurant in sight. A single convenience store poked out onto the street, but the locals seemed confused at my presence. Purchasing items turned into an ordeal, despite my knowledge of a little Vietnamese. However, with such things it is the journey not the destination that is important, and the drive was gorgeous: almost no traffic, surrounded by trees and mountains; it was peaceful and, as my friend said, a drive filled with “contemplation and gratitude.”

From Khau Vai it is necessary to drive the 40 minutes back to Meo Vac and from there it is a drive of about two hours to Yen Minh. The plan was to head to Meu Du, but sometimes the maps do not quite work out, and entirely by mistake we followed the signs to the bigger city, near where most begin the loop. Mr. Tom’s Homestay provided comfy beds and yet another tasty family dinner with corn wine (again) and a welcome chance to chat with other travelers.

A short walk down the road, and there was a small dam; the alluring scenery skirted around it and the running water calmed with its soothing sound.

Hanoi Northern Loop Banh Quan
A lady making Banh Cuon in Du Gia.

Day 6 Yen Minh to Du Gia

Early next morning, we awoke to find Banh Quan, a much-famed and delectable noodle-based breakfast food. The local cuisine continued to impress and after this satisfying meal it was time to set off for Du Gia, the final stop before returning to Ha Giang. This part of the journey was a highlight, the two and a half hours biking to the small town was filled with majestic views of crystal blue water flowing through the valley below and monumental mountains touching the clouds above.

Mountain View Homestay proved idyllic surroundings, with three rambunctious puppies, and a young boy playing soft melodies on the flute. Ducks swam to the side of the homestay and later, yet again, we were rustled up a simple yet excellent family meal. A short walk down the road, and there was a small dam; the alluring scenery skirted around it and the running water calmed with its soothing sound.

Day 7 Du Gia to Ha Giang

The next morning we got lost trying to use Google Maps to find a local waterfall, ending up on an empty road with no water in sight. Luckily, two little girls brought us to the right place, about a 10 minute hike downhill. In these parts, it is probably better asking the locals for directions than online maps. Failing that, you will be left to the guidance of the local children. The waterfall was bewitching and despite the cool weather I jumped in – a refreshing dip at the end of a long trip.

Refreshed it was time to head back to Ha Giang, which is about three and a half hours from Du Gia. The drive was beautiful, but the roads awful – rocky terrain and potholes scattered the road for most of the way. By the time we returned to Ha Giang I was exhausted, but immediately felt warmer.

Northern Loop Boy Playing Flute Mountain View Homestay
A boy plays a flute at a homestay in Du Gia.

The Ha Giang Loop is a wonderful experience for any traveler – whether a local, seasoned expat or tourist — the stunning scenery going up and down the winding roads is breathtaking, with the many moments of beautiful solitude giving a time to reflect and wonder what it is all about. Do not miss out on this unforgettable motorbike road trip around the north of Vietnam.

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