We had to stay focused on the road. Keep both eyes straight ahead – and both wheels, balanced. But the mountainous landscape of northern Vietnam, which kept revealing itself, wanted otherwise. Each of the many hairpin bends that we had to negotiate on a motorcycle rewarded us with a new point of view, a new panorama to admire… by stopping at the side of the road.
The loop of Ha Giang (or “Ha Giang loop”, in English), a town located about thirty minutes from the border with China, has become for ten years a popular activity for travelers who have a taste for nature. ‘adventure. It offers tours of three days and two nights (or four days and three nights), during which we cross the valleys, rice fields and winding roads of this picturesque setting. We ride a semi-automatic motorcycle, the vehicle most used by the Vietnamese. Or let yourself be guided by easy riders, these local pilots who take you on their two-wheeled cars, from the beginning to the end of the course.
But some of them were particularly memorable. There was the “M-pass”, where we saw the zigzag road we were about to take. There was the view from above of Tu San Canyon – no picture can do justice to its true charm. There was the Tham Ma pass, which gives the impression of riding in a Mario Kart circuit. Or this visit to the very pretty village of Meo Vac, where a community of the H’Mong ethnic group resides.
But it’s not just the endless mountains that will stick in your mind as you return from the Ha Giang loop. This is also the experience that the easy riders will give you. In the evening, when the engines are off, your group is seated in a rustic guest house and the generous Vietnamese meal is served, the friendly pilots will come to you to share their famous “happy water”. You will then taste (or put on, it depends) several glasses of this artisanal rice wine, which lives up to its nickname.
“WORD, HAI, BA, YO!” “, they will launch, encouraging you to repeat these words at the top of your lungs before raising the small glass to your lips. A rallying cry that we could translate as: “One, two, three, cheers!” “.
Once the plates have been emptied of their tasty contents, prepare your vocal cords: karaoke, that great Vietnamese passion, is coming.
The next morning, we eat breakfast, and we leave. On the menu: even more views revealing themselves around the bends of the mountainsides, but perhaps also a few kilometers of road under construction.
Because while the Ha Giang loop is quite accessible to motorbikes and cars – you even come across a few bikes! –, it still requires a certain mastery of its vehicle.
My spouse and I opted for an in-between, i.e. autonomous driving within a group of five other people transported by their faithful companions.
That said, we strongly suggest checking how many other travelers will be in your group. We were happy to end up with only five other participants; there were groups of about thirty people on the road, and therefore as many vehicles one after the other. Jasmine Tours, in particular, organizes these large-scale expeditions. As much as the evenings should be fun in such large numbers, the peloton of two-wheelers in the winding alleys can lead to safety issues, especially for less experienced autonomous drivers. We saw people with scraped legs and arms from falls, and even a traffic jam related to a more serious accident on our last day. Caution is advised at all times.
Have you ever visited the Alberta Rockies, dear readers? You know that feeling of nostalgia that hits you when you leave the mountains and find the flat terrain of the Canadian plains? We experienced the same thing when leaving the valleys of the Ha Giang loop, and turning off the engine of our car for the final stop.
We did business with the Hanoi Old Quarter Travel agency, established in the capital of the country. She took care of organizing our transport to Ha Giang, the activity itself, as well as the return. For about $185 CAD per person, we had the bus to and from Ha Giang, rental of the semi-automatic motorcycle, gasoline, guides, and all meals and overnight stays included. We were offered to add to this price about $20 CAD per person, per day, if we decided to ride with an easy rider. With Jasmine Tours, the same combo costs $230 CAD per person. There are countless tourist agencies in Hanoi, all of which offer pretty much the same thing. You could therefore try your luck to negotiate a price that satisfies you.
North Vietnam has a lot to offer. Already, Hanoi has an unparalleled charm: beautiful little cafes, streets crowded with motorbikes, ladies transporting their heavy loads of flowers on bicycles, this modern that mixes with the traditional. A few hours east of the capital, there is also the very popular Ha Long Bay (or its little sister, Cat Ba) and its tens of thousands of small islands around which to cruise. In the northwest of the country, a visit to Sa Pa and its mountains is a must. On a sunny day, Mount Fansipan, or “the peak of Indochina”, offers one of the most beautiful views in Vietnam. Ninh Binh, and its small picturesque neighbor Tam Coc, nicknamed the “land Ha Long Bay”, are also not to be missed.