Last week I motorbiked the Ha Giang loop. What’s the Ha Giang loop, I hear you wondering disinterestedly? Well, it’s a 300 km (ish) drive through the north of Vietnam. The roads cut through mountains and remote towns and sort-of-tropical canyons. To say that it’s spectacular is an understatement. Like, it’s so good, it’s sort of impossible to take in. It’s also terrifying and horrendous in several ways, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
For someone that travels a lot (humble brag), I’m not a great planner. With normal holidays like city breaks and beach trips, that’s not really a problem. But when you’re attempting to drive a remote part of Northern Vietnam it turns out that you need a damn plan. There are loads of travel guides and itineraries on the www for Ha Giang, so this post isn’t that. Instead, it’s about the dos and don’ts of driving the loop so you don’t have a shit time.
Do Expect Ridiculous Things to Happen
If you’ve ever driven on a Vietnamese road you’ll know that they’re unpredictable. I mean, so much happens. Families of five on one moto? Yes. Trucks barrelling through junctions at record-breaking speeds? You betcha. Zero respect for the term one-way street. Oh hell yes. Driving here requires your A-game at all times.
Life on the Ha Giang loop is no different. But in addition to the usual hazards, there are a few extra unexpected ones in the mix. For example, on our first day, we were driving up the side of a mountain and suddenly a herd of cows rounded a corner and came running DIRECTLY AT US. It was a narrow mountain road and the only place to go was off the side of said mountain. So we had no choice but to stop, close our eyes, and hope for the best.
Another time, we came upon some construction. A digger thing had blocked the entire road so we couldn’t pass. I was hugely hungover (I’ll get to that shortly), this digger thing was jackhammering into some rocks, we were trapped, and one of the construction workers was wandering around with blood dripping from his hand. Can you imagine the hangxiety? There was also the time that the fog got so thick that we couldn’t see more than 5 metres in front of us. Not ideal when more often than not there’s a cliff edge in your immediate vicinity.
Don’t Get Carried Away on the Happy Water
Happy water is what they call rice wine or corn wine and it’s false advertising because it can actually make you very, very sad. On our first night in Ha Giang before we even started the loop we got on the booze in the form of some delicious homemade rice wine. We didn’t go fully wild but we had enough to feel ropey the next morning (aka the first day of our loop). It was the second night, though, that really caused a problem.
On our first day of the loop, we arrived in Yen Minh early enough for lunch and our restaurant of choice happened to make rice wine. So, we obviously bought half a liter for later. When later came, we got stuck in. It’s always hard to know how strong homemade booze is, but this one was clearly potent. After a few shots, we went to have dinner with the homestay owners and they brought out another bottle of rice wine. Long story short, me and my pal drank a litre of rice wine between us.
I don’t remember a lot from that night, but I do remember losing the use of my legs and being very, very sick. When I woke up the next morning, the sicking continued and I wasn’t ready to drive until lunchtime. As a result, we only managed about 20 km before giving up and staying the night in a little village in the middle of nowhere (in a 240-year-old attic with audible rat noise and a lot of dead moths in the bed). This was the day of the aforementioned construction and hangxiety and was hands down one of my worst travel days of all time (this is my actual worst travel day of all time).
Do Pick Your Travel Pal Wisely
I went on the loop with my pal Scott. We met a year ago during my first week in Vietnam, when got so drunk on mojitos that I smashed my phone. No wonder we hit it off, really. We’d never travelled as a pair, we did zero planning before the trip, and we’d never actually driven motorbikes together. So, in hindsight, it was a massive gamble that we’d be compatible moto pals. Luckily, we were well compatible and we had the most fun. We also recognised that the way we were doing the loop would have been infuriating to anyone other than us, which made me realise that we’d overlooked a couple of important considerations that other Ha Giangers might want to think about:
- How confident are you on a moto? Me and Scott were shitting ourselves equally throughout the trip and regularly went less than 20 kmph. If you’re good and brave, make sure your road buddy is, too. If one of us had been more experienced than the other it would have been boring AF for that person.
- Do you love waking up early? Much to the amusement of other people staying at our homestays, we slept in most mornings and took a long time to get going. We also factored in arrival times to ensure enough time for naps and we stopped for breaks A LOT. If you’re not lazy, make sure your amigo isn’t either.
- Are you into luxury or not? Roughing it isn’t something that either of us is good at anymore. That might be because we both live in actual hotels full-time. We’re so ridiculous that we paid for a private car for the 6-hour drive to the starting point of the loop because we couldn’t bear the idea of a bus with no bathroom on-board. We also insisted on private rooms in the nicest places we could find in each town and complained loudly when no luxury was available to us (I know, we’re awful). If you’re on a tight budget or love a dorm room (weirdo), make sure you’ve discussed that beforehand.
Don’t Pack For the Weather You Want…
…pack for the weather you’re getting, idiot. It was freezing most days and all nights, and between us we had four pairs of trousers for our six days in the mountains. The maths whizzes among us will have calculated that this isn’t enough. I also didn’t have any gloves and spent the majority of our time on the loop unable to feel my hands, which is problematic when trying to control a motorbike.
We also weren’t prepared for rain because we thought rainy season was over and did no further investigating. Obviously, it pissed down loads, so our hostel gave us waterproofs that were basically plastic bags fashioned into a kids’ size outfit. One of us is 6,5” and the other is a bit fat, so our plastic trousers ripped immediately, leading to two of the dampest crotches imaginable. This wetness combined with a lack of trousers to change into and I won’t go into detail, but yuck.
Do Learn Some Stuff
To finish, I’d like to stress the importance of learning some things that will help you with a motorbike trip through Vietnam. The key things (and this seems obvious in hindsight), are how to drive a motorbike and how to speak Vietnamese.
Now, we both do know how to ride a motorbike but only ones with small engines and only on flat, sea-level roads. The bikes we were given had larger engines and my pal lost control of his the second he set off on it (not the best start). We were also both quite scared of driving up/down the sloped entrance of our hostel which was a very real way of knowing that we wouldn’t be very good at actual wild mountains. We muddled through and by the end of the trip were v confident, but we definitely made life a lot harder for ourselves by doing zero practice beforehand.
As for Vietnamese? Well, I’ve written about my hatred of language learning before, and nothing has changed. As a result, I was unable to speak to anyone other than my driving buddy for the duration of our trip (poor lad). Luckily, Scott isn’t as shit as me and actually has a pretty decent grasp on Vietnamese. He put those skills to very good use and we definitely wouldn’t have sourced anywhere near as much rice wine if he didn’t know how to say rice wine in Vietnamese.
Ok that’s enough of this now. To summarise, if you plan to do the Ha Giang loop, at least do a little bit of planning before you head off. Ok? Great. Oh, and if you’re looking for actual practical advice, check out this blog (it’s much better than mine).
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