The Ha Giang Loop

We left our hotel room in Hanoi at 6.30am and boarded a relatively luxurious bus for the 8 hour trip North. We had already come to realise that traffic rules in Vietnam are, at worse non existent, and at best open to interpretation. So we soon became accustomed to the constant blaring of the horn as we sped through red traffic lights with not the slightest intention of slowing down, and we winced as we carried out the multiple vehicle overtaking on blind corners where oncoming traffic was just an inconvenience and forced off the road.

If only it could have continued so slow.

A couple of comfort breaks en route gave us some respite from the death race and when we finally arrived in the city of Ha Giang we felt it was more by luck than judgement. However, the bus was the only way of getting back to Hanoi, so we were going to have to endure it all again in 4 days time.

Ha Giang is a smallish city by Vietnamese standards and is not really set up for tourism which, after our previous week, we were quite happy with. Steve made friends with some of the locals helping out with the road sweeping!

“Remember you don’t have a working visa”

Before we left town though we did want to get some calories in the bank as we were anticipating the food not to be that great. Sarah managed to find a hole in the wall pizza place down a side street. It was run by a Spanish guy and the pizzas were not half bad.

The following morning we made the walk across town to the meeting place for the tour and for a brief introduction on how it would all work.

There were twelve of us in total and we made up a real international bunch. Most did not actually live in the country in which they were born and the group as a whole possessed way more passports than there were people.

Our group on the loop.

If you were a competent motorcyclist (which we certainly aren’t) it was possible to ride your own bike and two chose this option. An English guy living in OZ who had his Filipino/Australian girlfriend on the back and a Russian girl living in California. The rest of us opted for what is known as an ‘Easy Rider’. This is a local Vietnamese guy who knows the roads and the bikes pretty well and you just sit on the back and enjoy the ride. This proved to be a great option as the ones riding themselves were concentrating more on staying on the roads than taking in the views.

So with our backpacks strapped to the bikes and our ‘Easy Riders’ ready to go we hit the road in convoy out of Ha Giang.

None of the ‘Easy Riders’ spoke a single word of English with the exception of Lee, the tour leader who spoke great English. It just happened that he was Sarah’s ‘Easy Rider’ and so she was always lead bike, flying ahead, blazing a trail with her bright red Vietnamese flag T-Shirt standing out as a good marker to follow!

Follow that flag!

It’s going to be hard to describe what the next three days were like. For us personally it saved Vietnam. We had been sitting on the fence undecided as to whether we gave it the thumbs up or thumbs down. Almost everywhere we had visited up to now had been undoubtedly incredibly scenic but some of the areas had been choked by over tourism coupled with over commercialism.

The Ha Giang Loop made the previous Vietnamese scenery seem almost bland. It was spectacular. They say there is no bad time to do the trip as the views change with the seasons. At certain times of year the rice fields are green and at other times vibrant yellow but it can also be very wet and cold at these times of year.

It was beautiful up here.

We did it in 30 degree heat with either blue skies or hazy high cloud. We didn’t get the vibrant colours but we had expansive views and great riding weather.

The road itself is a 350km long, twisting, winding route that weaves it way up and over mountain passes, then down into a valleys and then immediately back up again. It does this over and over and over again. You can often see the road for miles in the distance. Sometimes when it is below, it is difficult to work out and visually how you are going to get down there, as it doesn’t seem possible. Then you turn a corner and drop down a series of ridiculously steep hairpin bends and you are suddenly directly underneath where you were a couple of minutes before.

We were loving it.

Sometimes you can see the road run along the side of the mountain ahead and realise there are no safety barriers and you can see a 500 metre drop straight to the valley floor. A few minutes later you are on that section of road putting enormous faith in your ‘Easy Rider’.

The road conditions are also very varied. It’s never really wide, just different levels of narrow! The surface also changes and although the majority is asphalt, it is often uneven with endless potholes. There are sections of gravel where extra care is needed and sections of sand where extra extra care is needed.

At one particular section we pulled over and were told the next segment was particularly dusty and we were all given plastic ponchos, trousers and boots to protect our clothing. We put on our new outfits and set off again.

The things we do.

Now it must be pointed out that the temperature at this point was hovering around 33 degrees and pretty soon Steve started to melt inside his plastic bag. He and three others got stuck behind a lorry for a couple of minutes and got separated from the red Jersey of Sarah leading the tour. Steve’s suit was slowing filling with sweat and he decided enough was enough, “I don’t care how dusty I get, I need to stop sweating”.

So he ripped the front of his poncho open. Just as Janus, a guy from Germany living in Australia, appeared alongside also slowly disappearing into a pool of sweat. He saw Steve rip open his poncho, gave him the thumbs up and did the same. They were quickly followed by the other two in the detached group and they all spent the next 30 minutes slowly demolishing their plastic suits while riding along in the cooler air.

When they arrived at the next stop they were cool and fresh even if their protective attire was a little worse for wear. They found the rest of the group swimming in their own sweat, gasping for air and water. They soon de-kitted and we all set off again.

Steve and Janus compare whats left of their outfit!

The next section, however, was the real dusty part. We rode through clouds of dirt and dust kicked up by bikes and lorries coming in the opposite direction and for probably the only section of The Loop Sarah ended up not being at the front and was getting the kick back from the bikes ahead of her. By the time we stopped again we were all covered in dust from head to toe!! It was hilarious.

Along dusty roads.

We stopped on the first evening in the most Northern town in Vietnam, Dong Van. To get there we had passed only 2km from the Chinese border. Dong Van was a strange little town and we quite liked it. The main street was typical of most other non descript towns we had passed through in the last couple of weeks. But it did had a small old section around a town square which was different from the harshness and rubble strewn streets and uneven broken pavements of the main area.

In the evening we all went out as a group to a local family owned and run restaurant. If you eat in the local restaurants in Vietnam you almost always get the same food of rice, noodles, chicken, beef or seafood in a pretty bland soup or sauce depending on if it is breakfast or dinner. We have never found the food in Vietnam to be anywhere near as tasty as it is in other parts of Asia, especially Thailand.

But the evening was never going to be about food. It was about the two great passions in Vietnam, ‘Happy Water’ and Karaoke.

Our group together for dinner.

‘Happy Water’ is the local alcoholic spirit made from either rice or corn depending on the time of year and the location within the country, and more often than not brewed and fermented on site. Up in the North they are particularly mad about it and we soon learned the Vietnamese for “cheers” and “drink up”! It is served in tiny shot glasses and with most of the Easy Riders and hosts offering up some form of toast or another the volume soon started to add up. “Be careful not to spill any on your clothes”, said Steve, “It will burn straight through them!”

After the food and the ‘happy water’ it was off to the main square and the town karaoke bar. It is hard to explain the passion Vietnamese have for karaoke. It is almost the National sport. We have literally walked past bars, on more than one occasion, with just a single customer singing karaoke to an audience of zero. I, of course, use the term ‘singing’ very loosely.

This bar, however, was packed and a the effects of ‘Happy Water’ were too much and wore down Steve’s resistance as he was dragged up by Tirza, a Dutch girl living in New Zealand, for a duet. It was ugly to say the least!

Ouch!!

On the way back to the hotel we saw a crowd of locals gathering in the main square around what looked like a large fire about to be lit. So we wandered over to have a look. There was a lot of shouting and cheering in Vietnamese and the fire was lit. Sarah stepped back to take a photo and the crowd all started to circle the fire and Steve suddenly found himself the only non local dancing around the fire in what can only be described as a Vietnamese ‘Conga’!

The second day was even more scenic than the first. As Steve’s ‘Easy Rider’ spoke no English whatsoever and Steve’s two Vietnamese words for “Thank you” and “delicious” didn’t contribute much to extended conversations, he began listening to music as we rode along. He was in his element with great weather, amazing scenery, flying around the twisting mountain roads with music blaring in his ears. Life was pretty damn good. It might have been perfect if he had been on his road bike instead of the motorbike.

“I wish I had my road bike”

Every 45 minutes or so we would pull over at some great view point for a drink and some photos and this was probably the only downside to the tour. Although tourism is just in its infancy here there are still a fair few different tours on The Loop at any one time. It obviously looks busier than it actually is because for each person there is also a motorbike and an Easy Rider. But everyone wants to stop at the best of the best spots for photo’s and when two or three groups are there at the same time it can look pretty busy. Once you set off again though it doesn’t take long to re-establish distances and we were soon all alone in your little convoy of twelve.

“Take a look at this view Sarah”

Once word starts to really spread about this place and the roads are fully constructed and paved it is only going to ger busier. If it goes the way of some other places in Vietnam it will just become a litter strewn traffic jam which is a crying shame because it is so amazing.

Our last stop on day 2 was along a 3km track which no way qualifies for a road even in Asia but we bounced and bumped along it and arrived at a small waterfall and swimming hole. We were the first group there and were surprised to see a Tiki Bar in existence with music blaring out. Lee, the team leader, jumped in from the rocks above the waterfall and Steve being Steve followed suit!

In he goes.

It was great to cool down in the chilly water but it wasn’t long before it started to get busy. It was obviously the last stop of the day for all the tours and by the time we left there must have been well over a hundred people taking up every inch of space. “There will be a waterside, a ferris-wheel and a fairy light grotto here by next year”, was Steve’s comment.

We spent the night in a homestay and were lucky enough to get one of the rooms. It pays to be the oldest in the group sometimes! Those who didn’t get a room slept on mattresses on the floor separated by curtains. But after the next round of ‘Happy Water’ it didn’t really matter. The rooms were super basic with plyboard walls and windows that didn’t close but the view was to die for and we both had a fantastic nights sleep.

The view from our window.

Our final day continued where the other days had left off and it was a hard call to make as to which was the better. The incredible scenery or the motorbike ride through it. But when you add them together with a great bunch of like minded people it was turning into an unforgettable experience.

We eventually dropped down into a long valley riding alongside a wide river and passing through several villages which were home to the H’Mong people going about their daily business. They were dressed in their colourful, traditional dress and, as is common in a lot of Vietnam and other parts of Asia, the women seemed to be carrying out a lot of the hard work. They were carrying huge amounts of crops on their backs and working the fields with really primitive style tools.

Off to work.

As the children saw us coming they shouted and waved and sometimes lined up for a high five as we slowed down to pass them.

Gimmie 5

Late on the third afternoon we descended out of the Dong Van Karst Plateau, which is the official name for the area we had been touring, and back into the city of Ha Giang.

We were seriously hungry with our diet over the previuos 3 days made up primarily of steamed rice and soy sauce…. oh and the occasional Happy Water. We headed straight for the Spanish pizza maker for another calorie fest and a celebratory beer. A job well done and finished.

Or so we thought. We still had our 8 hour bus ride back to Hanoi the following morning. The crazy bus driver who had driven us up to Ha Giang turned out to be more towards the safer end of crazy. Our return driver seemed like he had a death wish and spent at least 25% of the trip on the wrong side of the road and 50% on his mobile phone. Plus, it started to rain heavily and he didn’t alter anything about his driving style. We considered getting off but our options were pretty much non existent, maybe pay a local to take us to Hanoi but how reckless might he be.

We did arrive back in Hanoi in one piece but the journey definitely became number one in our scary bus ride table. Knocking our 5 hour trip across Panama in a 22 seater with 50 passengers off top spot!

With about 10 days left before returning back to the UK, we had to decide what to do. Our initial plan had been to spend some time in Borneo seeing the Orang Utans and other wildlife, but the weather was seriously miserable over there. We toyed again with the idea of Ha Long Bay but it doesn’t really seem to be our thing.

We looked at each other and almost simultaneously said “You look knackered”. It’s been a fantastic 6 months in South East Asia and New Zealand but we have been on the go, moving around, hiking, doing Ironman races etc etc for most of the time and we just wanted to sit on a beach. So we got out the map, checked the weather around the nearby counties and ended up on a beach in Langkawi, an Island off Malaysia. Just enjoying being static and the sun.

Back on the beach……
…..and in the water.

So it’s now back to the UK. We’re finishing this blog sat with a coffee in King’s Cross Station and it’s bloody freezing. As Steve looks across at Sarah he sees she is on her phone, searching the Internet…….. planning our next trip!!!

“Pass me some earplugs!”

After our spell in Da Lat, it was time to hit the road again. We took a short fifty minute flight to the coastal city of Da Nang. This was in order to connect with the Reunification Line which is the main railway in Vietnam connecting Ho Chi Minh in the South and Hanoi in the North.

It was due to take around 18 hours by train to Hanoi but we planned to break the journey a couple of times, firstly in Phong Nha.

Our connection from plane to train went smoothly and according to plan and gave us enough time to grab a drink and for Sarah to stock up on snacks from the station kiosk.

We won’t go hungry on this trip.

There are about five trains each day which run South to North and planning your arrival and departure times can be crucial, otherwise you could find yourself arriving in a city in the middle of the night and we didn’t really fancy that.

We had booked ourselves on a train departing mid afternoon, arriving late evening and Steve had managed to get us the last remaining two berth 1st class cabin.

This was a fantastic way to travel and although we didn’t need the beds for sleeping, it was great to have a quiet space to relax and watch the World pass by outside. The first couple of hours were the most scenic as the line was built about half way up a jungle clad mountain with fabulous views of the coastline.

OK. Just a little snooze!

We pulled into the small city of Dong Hoi which was about an hours drive from our final destination. We had arranged a car to pick us up through our homestay accommodation and the driver was there and waiting.

Phong Nha is just appearing on the travellers’ radar thanks to a relatively recent discovery of the World’s largest cave, Son Doong. This cave can be explored on a four day expedition! We are not that mad about caving so we visited two of the other caves in the area instead.

On the way to Phong Nha cave

The first was Phong Nha cave which involved a 40 minute boat ride along the river. You then enter the cave via the river before getting off for a 15 minute walk inside.

We are noticing many things about Vietnam which differ significantly from other countries in South East Asia. The first one is the noise, mainly from the locals. They never seem to stop talking and they talk over each other in an ever increasing volume until it becomes a shouting competition. Then, almost always, someone is on a video call where no earphones are used and so ultimately the volume is turned up as the conversations around increase to deafening levels.

Unfortunately, we ended up in boat with a Dutch girl and a family of nine Vietnamese. At one point Steve seriously considered jumping out of the boat and swimming back but the water didn’t look too inviting! But despite the incessant noise the cave was still pretty good to see and probably just about worth the trip.

The following day we decided to visit Paradise cave. This was touted by many as a must visit and so, in the hope that it would not be as noisy, we rented mopeds and set off on the hour ride to the cave.

The scenery was beautiful.

The ride there alone was enough to justify the trip. We rode through rice fields and between limestone karsts on narrow twisting roads in a fabulously scenic area. The women worked in the fields, and the men didn’t, and the water buffalo grazed in that slow lethargic way only water buffalo seem to do.

We arrived at the parking area for the cave to be faced with a 30 minute walk to the entrance. To be fair although the walk was mainly uphill and it was an interesting walk through the jungle with not too many people around.

We entered the very small hole in the rock face, down some steps and into a huge cavern. What we saw stopped us in our stride and it took a few seconds to comprehend what we were seeing. The cave was immense, it was pretty well lit and illuminated a vast array of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations on a scale of which we had never seen. We had previously visited a cave in Australia which we had found impressive but this was on a whole different level.

Just a small small section of an amazing cave

It is possible to do a few days expedition in the cave to explore the whole 31 kilometers or a 7 kilometer full day walk. We, however, just did the first kilometer and found that to be outstanding.

It went on into the distance.

The other thing we noticed was how quiet it was. Then we realised that there were very few Vietnamese there. We would come to realise over the next couple of weeks that unless the excursions run from the centre of town or there is a coach to take them to the entrance and they step off the coach onto some form of transport to whizz them around, they just aren’t interested. The thought of making their own way there and walking, just doesn’t seem an option.

We made our way back to town via an even more scenic route than the way out, having a great time riding on the quiet roads. It had been a throughly enjoyable day.

For the time being, Phong Nha is all about the caves. So after seeing two of the big ones, it was time for us to move on.

We made our way back to Dong Hoi to catch the midnight train. We gave ourselves a few hours to see the city, but that was probably a mistake. It was just an old run down seaside town with not too much to offer other than some take away pizza!!

Pizza from a box. Our highlight in Dong Hoi.

Our next train journey was almost 10 hours and with no two berths available we ended up in a four berth with a German couple who were already in bed and asleep when we boarded.

The beds had plastic mattresses and a blanket but we carry our silk sleeping bag liners with us most of the time, so we were in them in a flash and slept pretty solid for almost eight hours. Before we knew it we were pulling into Ninh Binh, our next stop.

Waiting for the midnight train.

The area of Ninh Binh, or more specifically the villages of Tam Coc and Trang An, come with a big reputation of having some of the best scenery in Vietnam. We would say this reputation is probably deserved, but it comes with a huge caveat.

It really is a special area.

The area is popular and as such you can do many things from the town. There are coaches to take you everywhere and there is no necessity to walk anywhere. Consequently it is busy. No it is very busy. Well actually, it is completely and ridiculously mobbed. It was our first big introduction to the over-tourism that many would say is ruining Vietnam. The situation is made worse by the fact the huge city of Hanoi is only two hours drive away making Ninh Binh accessible from there on a day excursion.

Heading out on the quiet route!

It is a very difficult situation to understand. From ours and many western visitors’ perspective Vietnam knows how to ruin its own natural beauty. Flashing coloured lights, deafening music and ridiculous childish features and settings litter the most beautifully scenic locations. There appears to be no regulation or control as to who erects what and where and as such everybody wants a slice of the tourist dollar.

Mayhem at the Mua Cave

However, we are part of the masses and therefore part of the problem. Probably more importantly the Vietnamese absolutely love it. It certainly appears that what we would call ‘tacky’ they would call paradise.

Stonehenge might benefit from something like this?

So for three days we endured Ninh Binh. We jostled with the hundreds, if not thousands, of boats in the National Park, taking the least popular of three routes and doing our best to take decent photos. We queued with the hoards to reach the view point at Mua Caves and actually gave up on reaching the very top as another Vietnamese passion, that of taking the perfect selfie, was causing a complete blockage. We also endured the chest pummelling volume from the fleet of neon light covered ‘Karaoke’ buses stationed in the centre of town as we walked out to dinner each night.

I’ve got to get out of here!

We saw as much as we could and vowed never to return!

We jumped on an early morning bus to Hanoi and watched the endless stream of day tour coaches heading in the opposite direction full of deafening chatter and selfie sticks.

It is beautiful though.

We have been to Hanoi previously and roughly know the lay out of the city and how it works. Our favourite area is The Old Quarter. A real mix of old rickety buildings and various eateries mixed in with small modern boutique hotels all vying for space amongst the maze of narrow streets.

Sarah in search of our hotel in Hanoi.

It’s easy to become disorientated in The Old Quarter as it seems like every other shop is selling exactly the same thing, ‘fake’ clothing by The North Face. T-shirts, sweatshirts, trousers, jackets etc etc, all at absolutely ridiculously low prices. Some of it is not too bad but the majority of it is pretty low quality, so don’t expect it to last too long. We met someone whose jacket had started to disintegrate after a couple of days and I suspect more than one person has turned up at the airport to depart, only to have a trouser leg fall off. Steve is watching Sarah’s new purchase with interest!

Steve looking tall.

At one end of the Old Quarter is a lake. It’s about a mile around the outside and it is a popular activity for locals and tourists alike to wander around in the evening. On weekends the road is closed and all manner of activities take place with one of the most popular being groups of women participating in a cross between line dancing and aerobics.

Dancing by the lake.

There are also food stalls and exhibitions going on and we saw what looked like quite a big junior dance competition. The music, however, was soooooo loud we found it reminiscent of a heavy metal concert where you could feel the music physically vibrating your chest. It was impossible to stand and watch.

After Hanoi we had to make a decision as to what to do next. We were planning to head to Halong Bay. This is one of the most famous areas of Vietnam with its limestone karsts jutting out of the bay. However, we had heard and read about how busy and polluted it had become, how a theme park has been built there, and with over 900 vessels registered to tour the bay most of them advertising music cruises, it was all looking like a nightmare for us. So we decided to leave it alone and go somewhere else.

We had been hearing more and more of The Ha Giang Loop. This was a three day, 350km motorcycle trip around the mountains on The Vietnam/ Chinese border. When we discovered the most popular way was to do it as a pillion passenger, we decided to give it a go.

What happened next was elevated straight in to one of the top five things we have ever done!

A new exhibit for outside The Tower of London maybe?