There is no better feeling in the world than to be on a motorbike in a foreign land with your hair blowing in the wind as your eyes widen in amazement around each bend.
Driving Vietnams tourist-trail from Hanoi to Saigon is a beautiful mix of landscapes and cultures but nothing in Southeast Asia will surpass the grandeur of the relatively unexplored Ha Giang Loop in Northern Vietnam also referred to as “The Happiness Road.”
Before your arrival in Vietnam, you are required to have a visa approval letter upon entering the country. (Unless you are of UK descent).
The process is simple and will cost $17 US all of which is completed online and emailed to you within a few days.
Note: There is an additional $25 US visa fee for 1month entry and it is advised you print/fill out all of your documents and forms prior to arriving in Hanoi to beat a long que.
When you arrive in Hanoi airport, head straight to immigration and go to the visa application desk on the left hand side to hand in your acceptance letter and filled out form.
Take a seat and wait for your name to be called by a voice reminiscent of Stephen Hawking. There will be a photograph of your passport on the screen above the “visa fee and passport return” desk as well in case you can’t make out the muffled attempt at your name.
When your name is called, head to the payment desk to pay your $25US fee and off you go; ready to hit the ground running to Ha Giang.
Best Months: March-May
Second Best Months: September-October
– Waterproof bag
– Phone: Download mefor an offline map; buy a SIM card at the airport.
– Power Bank
– Emergency money
– Swim suit
– Flip flops/ Closed toed shoes
– T-shirt, Tank Top, windbreaker, jacket, comfortable pants/shorts
– Bug repellant
Best Company: Baolau
Cost of one-way ticket: 242,000 Dong
The most reputable and reliable company to travel with from Hanoi to Ha Giang and back is Baolau. The process is done online and you will be emailed an e-ticket within minutes.
Book a night bus, show up to Phuog Thien station 30 minutes before your departure to find the correct bus, present your ticket and you will be directed to your sleeper seat equipped with a much needed blanket for the 8hour journey ahead.
Note: There are no food stops along the way so prepare to bring snacks and drinks beforehand.
Half awake yet half asleep, you’ll arrive in the town of Ha Giang at 5am. Walk for 10 minutes to QT hostel (down the road from the bus terminal), ring the bell and a staff member will let you in to sleep for free upon renting a motorcycle with them for your trip.
Wake up by 7:30am, walk over to QT bike rental down the road and take your pick of badass bikes for all budget types.
There is no need to book ahead as they have a multitude of bikes on hand. You have your choice of manual or semi-automatic bikes ranging from various quality Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki motorbikes & dirt bikes.
All bikes have been properly serviced, include a helmet, are good on gas and the friendly staff will map out an easy to follow route for the duration of your road trip.
Note: We highly recommend to take a 125CC bike or higher as the road conditions vary. Secondly; take insurance as it covers all maintenance, possible breakdowns, damages and emergency return to Ha Giang. (Our friends’ motorbike had fallen over twice along the first stretch of the route over uneven rocks slightly damaging the bike while mine got a flat tire. Moral of the story: don’t cheap out.)
Cost of 125CC semi-automatic: 250k/day
The Ha Giang Loop can be driven between 3-5 days; however if time on your side do yourself a favor and take your time exploring all that Northern Vietnam has to offer. Below is the ultimate route for those of you who want quality and quantity compressed into a short amount of time:
Distance: 122 km
Road conditions: Difficult. A portion of the drive includes large potholes, partially unpaved, rocky roads with many twists and bends; however the majority of the drive is paved.
After a few hours of sleep and your badass motorcycle from QT Motorbike Rental, drive down to eat a delicious Pho (A Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs & a choice of beef or chicken)at Restaurant Phở Lâm My (358 Lý Tự Trọng). Before heading out of town, you’ll want to try your first Vietnamese coffee (also known as cà phê đá) at Cadillac Coffee (367 Nguyễn Trãi) that will send your taste buds to new heights.
On full stomach and powered by the best coffee in Asia, take the QL4C towards Tam Son and the jaw dropping landscape of limestone cliffs, forested paths and winding roads will begin within a few kilometers of leaving the town known as the beginning of the Dong Van Karst Plateau.
There’s a 660m mountain viewpoint half way between Bac Som and Tam Sòn you’ll want to stop here to take in the flora and fauna and cheers with a brought along beer to celebrate the start of your journey!
Alternative Route: For an off-road stretch of scenery; before entering Tam Sòn, veer off to the left from the QL4C for a 30km side-trip to “Heavens Gate”. Climb the few hundred steps to the top of the tower to be rewarded with a mountainside view of China.
In the town of Tam Sòn, take a lunch break to eat an incredible Bahn Mi Sandwich, large spring rolls and Bia Saigon (beer) at Yén Ngoc Cafe which was our favorite meal along the loop.
From Tam Son: It’s a 54km drive to the small town of Du Gia with an array of limestone cliffs, fluorescent cornfields, quaint villages where friendly locals will high-five you as you drive by and you will learn what the term “off-roading” really means.
Equipped with large, clean private rooms with a pool table or a shared dormitory; Du Gia Backpacker is the perfect spot to rest for the night.
It has a cozy family atmosphere, free water refill and apples, a family dinner perfect for meeting other travelers and hot showers with rooms overlooking the surrounding valley.
Family dinner is 80k and comprised of an ongoing supply of delicious homemade pumpkin curry, fried fish, sweet pork stir fry, fried garlic water mimosa, fries, a tangy cucumber salad, rice and an unlimited supply of a drink called “happy water” made of corn wine cheersing you into the night with newfound friends.
Alternative Side Trip: Chasing Waterfalls
If you have time to spare in the quiet town of Du Gia, we recommended visiting the famous waterfall perfect for swimming and cliff jumping. (A tour can be organized through Du Gia Backpacker)
Distance: 92 km
Road conditions: moderate/Paved with many winding roads
By 7am, eat a hardy breakfast omelet, pancakes or soup with a Vietnamese coffee at Du Gia Backpacker Hostel for 50k and you’re ready for the second journey through the Happiness Road ending in Dong Van!
Fuel up on gas, head along the TL 176 and be prepared to make various pit-stops along the way for stunning photo-ops of the highlands reminiscent of Jurassic Park! You will then drive along the TL 182 towards the village of Lung Phin and continue onwards until you have reached the quiet village of Meo Vac.
Take a lunch break if needed in Meo Vac to eat Pho (although we’ll warn you; it’s not worth stopping for unless you’re starving.) However; if you’re in Meo Vac on a Saturday or Sunday, wake up early to enjoy their famous weekend market.
When you’re ready to hit the road again, take the QL4C through captivating winding roads and you will enter the Ma Pi Leng Pass with an altitude of 1,500m known as “The Happiness Road”!
Although a short 20km stretch; The Happiness Road will remain in your memory for a lifetime as you drive along what literally feels like the top of the world driving through cloud level.
Your stomach will tighten as the inevitable vertigo kicks in rounding each steep corner while equally grinning from ear to ear in wonderment, shrieking with joy or crying out of pure astonishment for its immeasurable beauty as Izzy, Caroline and I did.
Along the turquoise colored Nho Que River valley; on a clear day you can see the divide between Vietnam and China’s Yunnan Province while local farmers and water buffalo work deep within the valley.
The view itself is beyond words, beyond a single photograph or video. You simply need to see it for your own eyes to grasp and relish its greatness. From a panoramic view of mountains, a valley that appears to never end to the turquoise river and the pure adrenaline of driving a motorbike along the Ma Pi Leng Pass, it’s no wonder why it’s called The Happiness Road.
The happiness road may end but it also leads to the most popular town in the Ha Giang Province known as Dong Van. From it’s old quarter reminiscent of a cobble stoned street in the countryside of France to it’s renowned weekend market where local woman dress in sparkling and bright colored attire worthy of attention; this second-most northern town is worth staying a night or two in.
Dong Van is the most “touristic” village along the Ha Giang loop and without a doubt our favorite place to rest for a day or two. Dong Van’s quaint old quarter is filled with an array of wonderful cafes, restaurants and a night market in the old quarter each evening.
Where To Stay: Ly Hoàn Guesthouse
Address: Tổ 3 QL4C, Đồng Văn, Hà Giang 310000, Vietnam
Phone: 0974 598 241
Ly Hoàn Guesthouse is run by the kindest family, next to the local market perfect for exploring and a beautiful view of the surrounding town.
Furthermore, nothing beats a good nights sleep and at Ly Hoàn Guesthouse, you can rest well in their spacious rooms equipped with air-con, flat screen TV, hot water shower and a large cozy beds.
When you arrive in the town of Dong Van, grab a coffee shake and their sweet, cinnamon infused fried rice at Nguyen Coffee in the beautiful old quarters.
The local bar is conveniently located two doors down from your guesthouse so get your drink on with a wide selection of cocktails, beer, wine and local eats while playing a game of pool and mingling with locals.
The Lung Cu Flag Pole is a 98ft monument in Lung Cu commune towering over 1,400 meters of Lung Cu Peak with the largest Vietnamese flag you’ve ever seen. Put on your walking shoes and hike up the hundreds of stairs. From the base of the tower you can see a remarkable view of the rugged hills of Vietnams northern border but the best is saved for last – ascending the final staircase to the top of the tower. The view is a magnificent sight of the surrounding area as well as into Northern China.
Distance: 146 km
Road conditions: The road conditions are mainly good consisting of paved roads. Many twists and bends – go slowly.
Today you’ll want to wake up early, put on a bathing suit, get your fix of Vietnamese coffee and a quick stroll through the morning market for breakfast. Fuel up on gas and get ready for the long journey back to Ha Giang!
Take the QL4C in the direction of Yen Minh town. 24km from Dong Van, make a pit stop to “The Opium Palace” – a mansion built in 1914 on a turtle shaped hill which is beautifully engraved with poppy flowers, fruit, dragons and phoenix’s. It’s known as the Opium Palace due to the empire Vuong Chinh Ducbeing the richest man in the province for his production and cross-border trade of opium. (Admission: FREE!)
Hop back on your bike, drive through a maze of twists and turns reducing you speed to 40km/hour. Although slow, the scenery of glistening rice terraces followed by layers upon layers of pine forests, the transformation of scenery still leaves you in astonishment the whole drive through.
Past Yen Minh town, the turquoise Song Mein River Valley shimmers in the sunlight and on a hot day, there is no better stop than to swim in it’s cool waters before arriving back in Tam Son town to eat another Banh Mi and crispy spring rolls before arriving back in Ha Giang Town to relax and reminisce about your incredible journey.
If theres one thing we realized on our motorcycle journey, it’s this: Not all roads may lead to home but they most definitely lead to happiness.