The traditional backpacking route in Vietnam leads travellers from North to South or South to North, following the coast from one major city to another. Along the way, planned adventures are swayed by the tales of other travellers’ favourite destinations.
In Vietnam, the holy grail of these suggestions is the Ha Giang Loop. The expedition takes explorers to the Northern most reaches of this beautiful country, and it’s become a rite of passage for backpackers.
The main loop spans 350 kilometres, winding through mountains and valleys in a wide circle starting and ending Ha Giang city. It’s a singular experience unmatched by anything else I have done in Vietnam.
I drove through surreal scenery, slept in hostels and homestays, ate the freshest fruit and nuts ever to touch my tongue, and screamed out my sorrows into valleys nestled amid the highest mountains of the loop.
To start, I met up with my travelling companion in Hanoi and caught an overnight bus from the bus depot. We splurged on a VIP bus for the six-hour journey and arrived at our hostel at 4am. We were led to a dorm room to sleep—for free—and crashed for a few hours. Rising shortly after, we went downstairs to discuss our options with the hostel owner.
Many travellers on the loop opt for guided tours, which are led by experienced drivers, and some pay extra to ride pillion. My companion and I wanted to avoid a trip dictated by a tour guide or anyone else’s whims, so we decided to ride the loop as a duo.
Once we paid for insurance—a worthwhile investment, as it would turn out—and left our passports in the hands of the hostel owner as collateral for the bikes, we set off armed only with a paper map with handdrawn notes signposting where to sleep and eat.
Leaving the city of Ha Giang behind, we drove three hours to the peak of the nearest mountain range, stopping for a cup of piping hot tea at a remote cafe overlooking the valleys below. The mist hung around our feet as we shivered with excitement and chill, ready for the adventure ahead.
Although terror had my hands hovering over the brakes during the first hour of the trip, I quickly settled into driving. Being surrounded by others taking on the same terrifying responsibility was infinitely comforting.
My easy confidence was short-lived, however, because we had to complete the last leg of day one in the dark. We left Ha Giang much later than most people do, requiring us to navigate winding roads with only a small light.
We arrived at our first hostel unscathed, yet a little shaken from the experience. It’s advised to book your accommodation ahead of time on the loop, because the best spots fill up quickly, but we got lucky on our first night. The hostel had two beds left in a cavernous room, without a door.
We stuffed our faces with a buffet style dinner before crashing out to the sound of other travellers performing karoake until curfew at 11pm, which many hostels enforce to ensure drivers are well-rested and not too hungover.
Our second day started peacefully as we set off for another relaxing ride through the mountains. Though the fear of being overtaken by giant lorries on tight bends overlooking seemingly bottomless valleys remained, I grew cocky as the morning turned into afternoon, speeding up as I seamlessly navigated bend after bend. But my arrogance was swiftly punished.
Coming around a tight bend, I found myself dangerously close to the other side of the road with another driver coming towards me. My only options were to hit them or take the fall myself—I hit the ground knee-first.
I escaped with just an injured knee and scratched palms. The bike only suffered a couple of bent wind mirrors. After disinfecting my road rash and apologising profusely, we set off for the next town to find lunch and a mechanic.
I contacted my hostel owner and she replied within minutes with a Google map link to a trustworthy mechanic. Once I’d tucked into a basic lunch of rice and spring rolls, the mechanic fixed both mirrors and refused to accept payment, simply waving me off with a smile.
For our second night, we booked our room in advance because we had discovered a hidden spa tucked away in the mountains and were in desperate need of some pampering. We washed off the day’s dust and grime and headed to the spa. Luxuriating in a sauna and enjoying a lengthy massage was the perfect reward for the most stressful segment of the trip.
After sleepily eating some piping hot noodle soup, we crashed out in bed for a much-needed rest, only to be woken up at 6am by the local school’s morning exercises. As the cries wormed their way into our ears, we gave up on sleep.
To leave the town, we drove up what felt like vertical roads out of the valley before beginning our descent through a lengthy quarry. The roads were littered with large rocks and my hands quickly developed cramps as my grip on the handlebars tightened with every near-slip into the valley below.
Having collected some fresh fruits and nuts on the way out of town, we searched for a spot to take a break from the stressful driving and rest, yet we only found more rocks around every bend. Eventually, we got lucky.
After pulling over to admire a beautiful view, we spotted a ledge to sit on and enjoy the panoramic landscape, but it was too dangerous to climb down to. Then I found a storm drain tunnel that led directly to the outcrop. Jumping down five feet, we crawled through the pipe, finding ourselves faced with a jaw-dropping view and the perfect spot to nourish ourselves.
With a breakfast of fruits, nuts and meditation behind us, we set off for what we thought would be our last day of driving. Day three brought the most spectacular views yet as we climbed even further up into the mountains. Every time I thought we had reached the peak, we’d crest another mountaintop.
Stopping every thirty minutes or so, we soaked up every viewpoint, desperate to imprint these memories on our brains forever. At one point, we found an idyllic spot in the centre of four mountains that offered ethereal views of the valleys below.
Without a word, we looked at one another and started screaming into the abyss. The cathartic release allowed both of us to unravel trapped frustration over past relationships. As I listened to our pain echo in between the mountains and into nothingness, I felt free.
On the way to our goal for the day—a hidden waterfall—we came across a shack cafe nestled on the side of the road overlooking the Nho Quế River in the valley below. With a hot chocolate in hand, I settled down on the most dangerous outdoor seating I’ve ever seen. The platform was made of large bamboo sticks and hung, without any additional support, over the steep valley below.
With our bellies warmed, we drove to the waterfall, getting briefly lost on the winding roads leading to it. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, we had the spot all to ourselves for a glorious thirty minutes before other travellers arrived. Soaked and sated, we headed out to find some food before the final leg of the journey.
However, within a few minutes of sitting down and resting our weary bodies, we knew that we would be spending one more night on the loop. We snagged the last two beds available in the shared room: a cavernous upper floor with a dozen mattresses strewn across the floor, with only mosquito nets for privacy.
Despite having the most uncomfortable accommodation, our last night was my favourite. We ate and drank buffet style with other travellers, swapping travel stories until exhaustion sent us to bed one by one. The cacophony of snores serenaded me to sleep within minutes.
Awaking after our bunkmates had departed, I spent a few extra minutes in bed soaking up the last time I would wake up on the loop. Descending the stairs for breakfast, we loaded up on carbs before hitting the road for the last four hour stretch back to Ha Giang city.
The last stretch flew by too quickly and I tried to absorb every blissful second, every panoramic view and every adrenalin rush as I sped around another bend. Arriving back in the city after driving 350 kilometres through the remote regions felt bizarre; there were so many people and the traffic felt overwhelming in comparison to our days on isolated roads.
Returning my banged up bike to the hostel owner, we frantically collected our stuff and dashed off to catch our return bas to Hanoi. Once I was ensconsced in my tiny seat, I said a silent farewell to the best four days of my life.
About the Author
Hannah Shewan Stevens is a writer, editor and campaigner. As a disabled, chronically ill queer woman, she specialises in covering the intersection of health, travel, sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues. She is also training to be a sex educator and hopes to use her work to help people confront difficult topics openly and with compassion.
All images courtesy of the author.