From 3 to 8 May we toured the northernmost province Ha Giang to gaze on the stunning scenery of the Dong Van Karst Plateau. An amazing and unforgettable journey and time to finally fall in love with Vietnam, it’s beautiful landscapes and friendly people.
The day before our departure we buy a licence from the immigration bureau as required for foreigners who want to visit this border area. When the officer asks us for our mode of transportation she only believes us when she sees the bikes standing in front of the office. As from then she can’t stop giggling and laughing and telling all her colleagues about these two crazy guys. We pay 10 Dollars each and happily leave the office within 10 minutes and a ‘licence to tour’. A few supermarket stops later to buy some heavy-calories snacks for the coming days we are back at the hotel to re-pack our luggage. We will travel light this time with only two half-empty panniers each as we will cycle a big circle of approximately 320km.
When we wake up early next morning it is heavily raining and the weather forecast isn’t much better. Rain every day and all day long for the coming week. However, by the time we are ready to leave it is dry again and we head off to new adventures.
From the moment we leave the city the landscape is wonderful. For about 20km we are following the Lo River valley which makes cycling easy. On both sides of the valley the cone-shaped mountains raise high and the valley is covered with rice paddies. As the road climbs into the hills a Hollywood-type sign announces that we are entering the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark. Mid-way to the top a western couple on two motorbikes passes us without greeting, while their guide, on a third bike gives us his thumb up! When we pass them later as they stop for a photo the woman looks at me and says: “Das ist aber anstrengend” (That’s exhausting), with an intonation on every single word. No smile, no hello, no good luck, just ‘das ist aber anstrengend’. I reply: “but rewarding” and continue without stopping thinking to myself what a strange couple. After a climb of about an hour and an altitude of now 800m we reach a small village where we have lunch, looking forward to rolling down into the town of Tam Son. Failed! We are just on a small plateau and after about 2km the road continues to climb. At 1,125m the long and winding road crosses Quan Ba Pass – »heaven’s gate« and we get to a viewpoint overlooking the town of Tam Son, patchwork fields and dramatic hills around it. Two perfectly rounded karst hills dubbed Fairy Bosom stand out, a typical example of the fancyful names Vietnamese like to give to natural phenomena. The view is phenomenal and all the hard and sweaty work to get here is forgotten. We roll into town, check into a great guesthouse and relax for the rest of the day. At dinner some locals offer Johan rice wine to my disappointment, as I am the spirit drinker in ‘our family’. The second glass is offered to me as well and only under big protest we are allowed to leave without drinking more. Prost!
Day two starts easy as we descend into another valley. The road now follows for about 20km an ocre-coloured stream with steep mountain flanks on both sides. After a long climb over treeless, terraced hills we descend into the town of Yen Minh. Easier than the previous day, but with still tired legs from yesterday’s hard work we arrive tired at the guesthouse next to the market. Too tired to go out for dinner we buy ourselves instant soups and go to bed early.
We wake up at around 5.30am on day three from the cacophony of voices outside the hotel. Today is the day of the weekly Sunday market, where hill tribe people dressed in their Sunday best come to buy and sell vegetables, traditional clothes and farming implements. After breakfast we spend an hour on the market to watch and photograph minority people from different ethnic groups, distinguished by the color of their dresses, haggling, buying, selling, chatting and laughing. It is clearly their highlight of the week.
Later that day we learn that in a nearby village another highlight takes place as well: the love market. One local myth tells the story of a young couple from different tribes who fell in love with each other. The girl was so beautiful that her tribe did not want to let her get married with any man from another tribe. Consequently, violent conflict arose between the two tribes. To stop the blood shedding, the two lovers sorrowfully decided to part. However, they planned to meet once a year in Khau Vai, which thereafter became a meeting place for all those in love. Our travel guide describes it as a wife-swapping ceremony that attracts busloads of domestic tourists. And indeed, the roads are much busier than expected and that evening most men we pass are drunk and the waitress in the restaurant is full with love bites, she clearly enjoyed the market.
Today’s cycling is tough again. We climb all day with small plateaus in between to rest our legs. We start our ascent at about 400m and finally cross the pass at 1,450m in the early afternoon just before we descend on a road lined with pine trees into Dong Van, the northernmost town in Vietnam. The ever changing scenery is superb with a road passing through rugged limestone landscapes and the scenery gradually getting wilder and more dramatic. The terrain is packed with nuggets of black rock and small fields of corn planted in between as well as on the steep hills which must make for extremely difficult farming. We pass a lot of locals stooped low under heavy burdens of wood and leaves and it is all too evident that life here is tough. When we check for a hotel we see the ‘nice’ German-speaking couple from day one again and Johan says “Hey, we know you!”. They just pass without even saying hello. Definitely weirdos!
The next morning while looking for a place to have some decent breakfast we meet Canadian Antony who helps us finding a great place to eat and discover our now favorite Vietnamese breakfast: a clear soup with pork sausages served with minced meat wrapped in freshly prepared rice noodle pancakes. Very yummy. Antony has lived in Vietnam for five years and we had a nice chat with him during breakfast.
This day is described as the most spectacular part of the trip by our travel guide but also by a few other cyclists. And it is true. The road clings to the side of a massive canyon and crosses the Ma Phi Leng pass at around 1,500m. The views down to the turquoise river are dizzying and we stop every few hundred meters to take photos or to just take in the beauty of the landscape. The distance we cycle is only 22km and we arrive early and rest in the afternoon as the following day would become tough again.
On the fifth day we start at 7am as we know we have to cover a long distance in the mountains. As most days we start climbing and cross a pass at around 1,205m before the road descends from the karst plateau to about 200m. We’re back in the valley and are now passing many Tay villages and cycle through bamboo forests on a road snaking its way south. The landscape is once more superb and I don’t know if my heart is beating so hard because of the cycling or my excitement. This trip is mind and body exhausting and I sometimes wish it would be less scenic to just relax a bit. My wish comes true after about 65km when we pass the town of Beo Lam and pedal along a river. The scenery becomes just normal, with trees and bushes along a winding river, for about 3km. Before I can really relax, we climb again for about 30 minutes and enjoy more dramatic views down to the river and steep gorges with a narrow road clinging to it. Four passes and 95km later, with undulating roads in between we arrive tired but happy at Bac Me.
As the road to our final destination of Ha Giang, about 50 km west, mostly joins a stream on this last day of our round trip we assumed it would become an easy ride. We were so wrong. Shortly after Bac Me we start climbing once again, for about 50 minutes. The grades are very moderate and the climbing doesn’t feel too bad even though our legs are very tired from the previous days. We can tell we worked hard the last five days even though we didn’t always cover long distances. A few hours rest during an afternoon didn’t seem to be enough to fully recover. We again cycle through beautiful villages with thatched stilt houses and children playing on the streets. We share the empty roads with pigs, chickens, ducks, cows and buffalos and locals going on with their businesses. Despite getting closer to the city of Ha Giang, most people are still dressed in their beautiful traditional clothes, we are still cycling through a rural area with a lot of ethnic minorities.
Heavy thunderstorms during the night let the river rise and become a muddy stream and despite us cycling with the river we once again ascend and descend. Over time climbing becomes tougher with extremely steep grades of over 15 percent and it is now that I am fighting my own battle and try to overcome my inner temptation of getting off the bike and push. It feels like a never-ending ride today and we make hardly any progress. In a small village we stop to buy a pineapple and eat some cookies and we still think we’ll make it to Ha Giang before lunch. But we don’t, there are too many and too steep climbs to increase our average speed and in the next village we buy a bunch of bananas to complete our lunch. A few kilometers later we master our final and steepest pass ever – with me standing more often on the bike than sitting – and enjoy another fantastic view into the valley of Ha Giang. We have a drink to recover before we roll down for about 6km and pedal another 4km into town and to our hotel.
It’s been an extremely rewarding trip from the very first to the very last moment. Despite it’s been the toughest part of our journey so far even with only little luggage the picturesque and ever-changing scenery and friendly people made it more than up for it. The weather was great as well, we had little rain and were lucky that the weather forecast proved to be wrong as always in this country. Still little traveled this region is a jewel and should be high on each Vietnam traveler’s agenda. A motorbike is the best mode of transportation as the roads become really steep and narrow and less enjoyable if travelled by car (we saw people vomiting out of their cars!). For those cyclists who love the mountains, this is your place to go!