If you are travelling anywhere in South East Asia, you have probably heard of the majestic and awe-inspiring Ha Giang loop. If you are in a like-minded travel mode and this is your world for the time being you are probably familiar with the following questions amongst fellow hostel patrons: Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? What has been your favourite thing etc, etc.
In this relay of introductory questions something that consistently came up among people’s favourite things they’ve ever done and the most beautiful things they’ve seen throughout Asia was this ever mysterious mountain range and motorbike journey through the northern mountains of Vietnam, near the border with China.
This magical loop kept being brought up and as someone also going to Vietnam I was intrigued. Some of my favourite memories travelling have occurred on the back of a motorbike. – The emphasis here however is that I was always on the BACK of the motorbike and now that I can drive myself being a mere passenger will never be the same again and I feel a little silly that I relied so adamantly on cute boys to drive me around…
Never would I have ever imagined that one day I would be the one confidently driving around mountain ranges and through Vietnamese cities and now that it’s happened I feel so lucky to have had these experiences and the gall to overcome something I never thought I could do.
This is also coming from a very clumsy someone who sometimes doesn’t trust herself using a stapler and made her mother cry on several occasions when learning to drive a car.
And yes before I really became confident driving both a scooter and then a semi-automatic, while considering myself a pretty brave, capable person I was somewhat terrified- I think with the right people around you and starting slowly you can find your rhythm and have some of the best experiences of your life.
So dear readers, this article is to share with you that even if you have never ridden a motorbike in your life, it is possible to do the Ha Giang loop.
Things to keep in mind:
You are right to be cautious- If you have been travelling for a while you will have definitely seen some nasty grazes as a result of people falling off bikes, but! (and this is just an example…)
To anyone reading this who wants to see the Ha Giang loop but is maybe too afraid of driving keep a little anecdote in mind:
A glorious phrase coined by my cousin: “Boys drive with their dicks.”
Not to demonise this gender and generalise that every dude sitting on a bike will suddenly develop an inate, primal and ultimately stupid urge to show off and race each other, like testosterone jacked apes on wheels- in this case speeding around mountain corners and quite literally risking falling off a cliff, but I met way too many guys that fit this description.
And surprise surprise the fellows in this category made up to 90% of the people I met who were in accidents- not bad ones necessarily but bad enough to get a rude reminder that they are not as invincible as they think.
Moral of this story: If you don’t act like an idiot and take things slowly you will most likely be fine. (This is slightly hypocritical coming from someone with a strong reckless streak but good to keep in mind!)
Of course even people who aren’t being stupid or racing each other can be in accidents but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and your own driving.
Have a healthy level of fear- or awareness I should say, but also stay relaxed and focused. Try to be around people who are more confident if you are just starting out and take those corners and windy bits carefully.
How I learnt to drive:
If you’ve never driven a bike before my advice would be to start off with somewhere incredibly quiet with easy roads- in my case, it was on an island called Siquijor in the Philippines which was actually perfect since I’d never driven in my life.
Rather than going in blind or having a friend teach me, I actually rented an automatic off a local guy and then also paid him a bit extra to sit on the back and help me get comfortable with driving, give some instruction etc.
This went swimmingly except for the fact that I had nailed the ‘driving in a straight line technique,’ but then also nearly shat myself every time I approached a corner…
Eventually you get comfortable with the bike and everything is A OK- but having someone on the back really helped at first before I realised on my own that yes I was perfectly capable and that it’s actually easier driving when you don’t have the extra person.
Driving In Vietnam
Vietnam is famous for travelling by motorbike- the narrow geography lends itself well to buying a bike and driving the countries entire length, stopping as you please amongst local villages and jaw dropping landscapes. If you don’t want to buy a motorbike or are happy to take busses and then rent bikes when you are in certain places this is also very doable and the best way to get around.
I’ve met people who learnt to drive for the first time in Ho Chi Minh and then made their way north, which to me sounds like a recipe to an early death but power to those bold enough to try. (Even experienced drivers regretted doing this so I really would not recommend- In both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi even sitting on the back of a bike with your Grab driver felt like an extreme sport- Grab being the Asian equivalent of Uber.)
Although I have said that it is probably best to practice driving/ get used to a bike somewhere nice and quiet ie. not many locals, children, dogs, chickens to run over or cliffs to drive off, I also met plenty of people who started on the Ha Giang loop as their first time on a bike and they still loved it and were absolutely fine.
Getting to Ha Giang
Although the ‘Ha Giang loop,’ is a four day driving trail through mountains and small villages (that can be completed in less or more time as suits you.) The starting point and place you will drive/ get a bus to is unsurprisingly a city called ‘Ha Giang.’
Myself, my cousin and another gorgeous girl we were travelling with got an overnight bus from Ha Long and spent a day relaxing, recovering (and I’ll be honest panicking a bit) before wanting to head off on bikes the day after.
Where to stay
‘No Madders,’ hostel was one of the best places to stay in Ha Giang, complete with really nice dorms, included breakfast and a great pool and area for socialising in the hot Vietnamese climate- this place was recommended to us by a couple in Ninh Binh and I would pass on that recommendation highly.
The best thing about hostels in Vietnam for me was ‘family dinner,’ where the family that owns the hostel will cook amazing local food for all the guests on big serving plates and you help yourself while getting to know the people you are staying with.
Renting a motorbike
Basically everywhere you could stay will have motorbikes available for rent however being new to driving and very nervous about heading off with just the three of us not really knowing what we were doing, we were glad to be offered an alternative to going on our own- and to somewhere known to have really good quality bikes.
We were pointed in the direction of the Jasmine Hostel- Not as nice to stay (we just rented from there) as No Madders but with a reputation for having the best bike service.
What set this hostel apart was the fact that if you were a complete beginner (or solo traveller or just felt more comfortable with more people, wanted to make friends etc.) you could go there and begin the loop with a huge group of other people and also a staff member to help out in case anything went wrong in terms of injuries, bike issues, getting lost etc.
This was the best option for us and I’m really glad we discovered it because it was the best possible intro to the loop.
Obviously if you feel like diverging from the group that is always a possibility once you are more comfortable but the great thing is that you don’t pay any more than your normal bike rental to have the comfort of being with other people and experienced locals.
We did eventually end up leaving the group and feeling confident enough to do so, the 2 days we did go off on our own felt more exciting and far more relaxing but it was also fun to meet up with everyone at the end of the day in the same hostels for family dinner and corn wine…
Note: You will be recommended to hire a semi- automatic which may be off-putting if you have only ever ridden scooters- but really they are so much easier to drive, more and you will also be able to actually make it up the many steep hills and bumpy roads (very good!). The rental guys have no issue with showing the basics to first timers and you don’t even need to prove you have a licence- car, bike, international or otherwise (spoiler: this would never happen in Australia)
They will show you how to drive the semi automatics and I promise that even if you feel uncomfortable at first after a few hours you will be whizzing around corners and not regret for a second starting this insane journey.
If you want to see the loop without having to drive…
If you really don’t see yourself driving a motorbike any time soon, the hostel actually has another service called hiring an “easy rider.” This however is much more expensive but a good option if you want to see the mountains from the back without having to worry about your own skill level.
I did however speak to a girl who did one day of driving for the experience and then the other three days with an easy rider and she said that she was just as afraid on the back of the bike… Another girl said that she was glad she took that option but that it was also frustrating constantly having to wait for other people in the group because her driver felt responsible for them.
In the end I’m glad we went with Jasmine Hostel’s group offer at first while we were still getting comfortable on the bikes however once we did feel confident it was a lot more rewarding on our own.
The mountains made up some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery I have ever seen and they took my breath away on several occasions. Because everything you see for four whole days is out of this world beautiful you have to actually pinch yourself and not get complacent about what surrounds you.
Concentrate on driving but also don’t forget to stop and take in the incredible views. You will see tiny local villages juxtaposed with towering mountains in an intense pulsating green and people going about their day, picking corn in their woven baskets and delivering goods.
You’ll also definitely come across kids playing on the side of the road trying to get high fives from you as you drive past.
Things to see:
One of my personal highlights was the ‘sky walk,’ you will park your bike and then walk part of the way along one of the most narrow and dangerous roads of the loop and then try not to have a heart attack as families of 4 drive past you with no fear in the world.
Then you will come across a mountain/ cliff thing where you can climb and literally sit on top to view the 360 landscape around you.
What to Wear
The benefit of renting from Jasmine is that you also have the option of getting shin and elbow pads (and of course a helmet.) for a small extra cost. I got these and in the end felt comfortable enough to not wear them but they made others feel a lot safer.
Some days it felt like it was a thousand degrees and others it was rainy and freezing- we ended up buying some hilarious rain outfits (not just a jacket you get pants too!) for when the rain wasn’t torrential. Other times you have to just find the nearest village, have some Pho and wait it out.
If you are renting from Jasmine you can prepare a small bag to take with you for the four days and tie to the back of the bike, leaving your big bag at the hostel.
I would recommend bringing a light shirt but with long sleeves to protect your skin a little bit both from the sun and in case you do fall- I also wore a denim jacket because it was light enough to not give me heat stroke but also mentally I felt more covered.
I felt ok in denim shorts when I was more comfortable driving but also preferred to wear long leggings. When it’s hot it is HOT but you don’t feel it as much when driving- however there were several times I wished I had something warmer to put on so I do recommend that you bring something for if it’s raining a bit or a little chilly.
You should also make sure you have your bikini because day 3 there is a waterfall and it’s an amazing way to cool off after getting all grimy and sweaty driving.
You can also do a spot of cliff jumping which is always a hoot.
We stayed at Bono Bang hostel on the first night and would definitely recommend it!
Stopping for lunch.
- Bring enough cash for your four days on the road to pay for accommodation, food and family dinners and be prepared to not have any ATM’s (prepare to drink lots of local corn wine and cheers many times- more a song than a single expression.)
- Keep an eye on the map and ask questions before heading out- during our Jasmine briefing we were told that one particular wrong turn could lead you to accidentally crossing the border into a Chinese army base illegally- not ideal.
- No matter where you rent your bike, have a bit of a plan for the next few days before heading off- the guys in your accommodation will be more than happy to help and everyone in Ha Giang is there for the loop so don’t be shy to ask others for advice.
Whether you’re an experienced rider or not, I definitely recommend exploring this part of the world and I’m so glad I managed to face this fear- it turned out to be one of my favourite experiences from 6 months in South East Asia.
Please let me know of similar experiences in the comments or if you have other tips.