What’s On travels to Vietnam
Prepare for the ride of your life…
Hit the open road and leave your troubles behind for a breath-taking journey across Vietnam.
This month, as part of What’s On travels to… we’re donning our leathers and hitting the highway like a battering ram on a silver black phantom bike. Translation: We’re clambering onto a semi-automatic motorcycle, clinging on for dear life and hoping for the best as we tackle the Ha Giang Loop in northern Vietnam.
Four days, three nights, 400 kilometres, and a serious risk of saddle sores, this is not for the faint-hearted. But fortune favours the bold, and an otherworldly expanse of looming mountains, mystical rolling fog, plunging valleys and ancient rural villages await.
Once reserved for hardy bikers, the steep and winding cliffside roads are now being tracked by an ever-growing number of adventurous tourists keen to get off the beaten path and onto one that winds, slopes and cuts its way through soaring limestone karsts instead.
Your journey will start in Ha Giang town, a pleasant and bustling market town not yet spoiled by mass tourism. Pick up your bike and ask for a quick test drive to get used to the gears (and those all-important brakes).
Most guest houses will provide you with a map and a filling breakfast. From there the road calls, and day one will see you cover 149km of beautiful rural territory as you set your compass north to Quan Ba.
As you leave the bustle behind, the roads become narrower and the air cleaner as you’re encompassed by flourishing rice paddies and looming limestone cliffs.
Fight the temptation to stop for pictures – until you get to the almighty Quan Ba Pass, that is.
At around 50km in, you’ll be itching to get the camera in selfie mode, and the backdrop at Heaven’s Gate, as it is known, will put your usual Friday brunch shots to shame, and there’s no filter needed.
At 1,500m above sea level, overlooking the plunging valleys of Quan Ba, the views are unbelievable, and may just leave you a little choked.
Lung Khuy cave
Just 8km from the Quan Ba Pass lies one of the province’s most magnificent natural wonders.
The Lung Khuy cave was only discovered in 2015, meaning you’ll be one of a small number of explorers to witness its beauty.
At 300m in length, the long-hidden cave is a sight to behold, with stalactites, columns and flowstones formed from thousands of years of dripping mineralised water.
Park up your bike, follow the signs to the entrance, pay the 50,000vnd fee (Dhs8) and enter the darkened wonder.
Lung Cu Flag Tower
After a good night’s sleep, you’ll be ready to embark on day two of your ride, towards Lung Cu Flag Tower, and Vietnam’s most northern point. The tower proudly flies Vietnam’s flag ahead of the Chinese border, and through gaps in the mountains you’ll be able to spy China itself.
At 115km from Quan Ba Province, it’s a bit of a shlep, through arguably the most beautiful part of the loop, with rolling hills stretching far into the distance, and mist beneath your wheels as you rise steadily into the mountains.
Entry costs 25,000vnd (Dhs4) but be warned – it gets crowded and the drive outshines the final destination.
Mã Pí Lèng Pass
The Mã Pí Lèng Pass is what the Ha Giang Loop is all about: dangerous roads, those breath-taking views and adrenaline-fuelled adventure.
Day three’s stretch of road starts at an altitude of 1,500m meandering along a steep cliff edge. This is the part of the loop that you will remember most vividly, and the part that will make you question your sanity.
The 20km pass is surrounded by tremendous limestone cliffs with the Nho Que River glimmering emerald in the valleys beneath.
The twists and turns of the road are exhilarating, and the urge to rev your engine and scream out AC/DC is one we encourage you to indulge.
The fourth and final day will see you making your way back to Ha Giang with filthy clothes and a bedraggled mane, but you’ll never have felt more alive.
Where to hire a bike
Most riders take a semi-automatic bike rental, which is easy to get the hang of for total novices, and you’ll need a permit, which is a small matter of simple paperwork to sort in Ha Giang town. Visit Ngan Ha Homestay for bikes in good condition plus free lessons. A semi-automatic here costs 150,000vnd (Dhs24) a day, plus 100,000 (Dhs16) per day for insurance.
What to eat: Three must-try dishes
If you eat anything during your trip to Vietnam make sure it’s a steaming hot bowl of fragrant pho. A clear broth swimming with thick noodles and chunks of flavoursome meat or veg is certain to blow the cobwebs away and fill you up for about three days. These are best from the roadside street vendors and will cost you around Dhs5. Bargain.
Another street food staple, banh mi are basically soft baguettes stuffed full with your choice of meat, egg or tofu topped with lemongrass, coriander and chillies. Try an egg variety for a breakfast that will put some wind in your sails and set you back a mere Dhs1.50.
To get your hands on a blackened corn from the fire you’ll need to bed down for the night at a homestay. At Hong Thu the whole family will show up around dinner time and treat you to a spread like you’ve never imagined. If you’re lucky, someone might even break into song. It’s more about the experience than the food, but the scran is pretty special in itself. Crispy fried chicken feet, anyone?
Where to stay?
Ha Giang Province is home to the greatest number of indigenous Vietnamese people, and instead of glitzy resorts it’s likely that you’ll rest your head at the small wooden homes of these locals at the end of a long day’s ride – after eating at their table, of course.
The homestay experience allows you to learn about the lives and culture in this remote and beautiful part of the world – evenings are spent sat around a campfire sharing corn plucked from the flames as curious children practise their English.
As well as being a great place to hire your bikes, Ngan Ha Homestay in Ha Giang town is an excellent place to start your trip, with clean rooms and a friendly host, Mr Thanh.
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For a more rural stay, Hong Thu in Quan Ba promises a roaring camp fire, futon beds in a wooden hut and a family meal.
How to fly to Vietnam from the UAE
Emirates and Etihad Airways fly from Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports direct to Hanoi from Dhs2,700. From there, take a bus from one of the many guest houses or travel agents to Ha Giang town, which will take you about six hours and cost around Dhs50.
Images: provided and Getty