Dong Van Karst Plateau GeoPark – Ha Giang Province
We lived in Southeast Asia for almost three years and can say undoubtedly that our motorcycle adventure across Ha Giang Province in Vietnam had some of the most beautiful terrain we’ve seen anywhere. Ha Giang Province is a lush mountainous region in northern Vietnam that borders China. It is home to the Dong Van Karst Plateau GeoPark which contains absolutely stunning scenery, 17 ethnic minority groups, and far less tourists than Sapa! So, without further ado, here’s how to ride the most EPIC motorcycle loop in Vietnam!
Unfortunately, you still require a permit to travel beyond Ha Giang at this time. Your hotel or hostel will help you get this (Dong Van Geopark permit) pretty easily. It now costs 300k VND.
The province is good to visit throughout the year just keep in mind that the weather is generally cooler than the rest of the country. September to November and March to May are when the temperature is most pleasant overall, in the mid 20’s C (70’s F). The summer months tend to be rainy and more humid, expect 30-35°C (85-95°F). From December into February the temperature falls considerably up in the mountains and you can expect temps at or below 5°C (41°F).
Keep in mind that October and November is peak season for Vietnamese tourists, so expect things to be more busy.
You can reach Ha Giang from Hanoi in seven to nine hours by bus and it costs about 200k VND per person. Most buses leave from My Dinh bus station.
There are several two or three star hotels in the city of Ha Giang. There are also plenty of cheap hotels around the bus station for around 200-250k VND for a private double room.
We stayed at Mr. Cay’s homestay, run by a super friendly family in a peaceful village just outside of Ha Giang town. The hospitality is amazing and you’ll get a real look into the local life. They gave us shots of rice wine with every meal! You can hike up into the hills inside the village and even visit a waterfall and swimming hole nearby.
If you’d rather not do a homestay, we’d recommend staying at Bong Hostel. They do nightly communal dinners and the staff seems very friendly and helpful. They can also help you plan your trip!
Nguyen Thai Hoc Street has several eateries (quan com) where you can just point and order or try out your Vietnamese. These have sufficient food costing around 40k VND per person.
Read next: Best Pho in Hanoi and Where to Find it!
We rented our bike from Johnny Nam Tran in Ha Giang.
We decided to rent a manual motorcycle instead of a motorbike for the extra power to accelerate up the steep hills, and for the added safety it gives you on descents. Plus, I really just wanted to ride a motorcycle again.
We rented our bike from Johnny Nam Tran. He’s a helpful local guy who lived in California and speaks great English (+84 917 797 269). He offers suitable bikes that are well looked after. Our 175 cc bike was 386k VND ($17) per day.
Motorbikes are cheaper and available for rent in Ha Giang for around 170k-220k VND per day. I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle since I was probably nineteen, so I was a bit intimidated at first, but after giving it a test drive in town I felt confident enough, and we set off on our adventure. Yee haaa!
Itinerary for the Motorcycle Loop
Ha Giang – Tam Son (Quan Ba) – Yen Minh – Dong Van – Meo Vac – Bao Lam – Ha Giang
386 km (239 mi)
The scenery starts to unfold shortly after leaving Ha Giang on road QL4C. We were soon heading into rolling hills and giant limestone karsts. It’s only 60 km (37 mi) to the first village of Quan Ba and we were in no hurry. The switchback roads keep you from moving too fast, which is perfect for enjoying those marvelous misty morning views.
Ha Giang to Tam Son (Quan Ba)
60 km (37 mi)
As we continued on we couldn’t believe the scenery! It was already breathtaking…
At the fairy bosom lookout there are two hills in the distance that look like boobs, hence the name! There is also an information center and some delicious peanuts sold by an adorable local woman.
Most people continue on, into the mountains, and descend into Yen Minh on the first day, but we were fine with taking our time and were referred by Johnny to a homestay in Nam Dam village.
Nam Dam Village (Quan Ba)
It’s no secret that we love homestays. They always add a special touch to your travels. When you stay in one you know that your money is directly benefiting local people. Something we value no matter where we go!
Anh Thang and his wife Chi Un are the wonderful people who run Ly Quoc Thang homestay! They are very gracious and the food they make is fresh and tasty. Don’t expect luxury, but the rooms were simple, clean and comfy. We highly recommend staying here! We paid 220k VND per person including a bed, dinner, and breakfast.
If they’re full, no worries, go to the woman’s house next door. She also runs a friendly homestay and often invited us over, even though we didn’t stay there. The hospitality of people in the area was impressive, to say the least!
We really enjoyed our time in the village! We wandered around, hiked across cornfields, and met the local goats and horses. Our stay was short and sweet.
The next morning we reluctantly said our goodbyes and headed on to Yen Minh. We wish we could’ve stayed longer, but we had only come 60 km so far and the mountains were calling.
Quan Ba to Yen Minh
49 km (30 mi)
The previous day had been cloudy and rainy, but it was a beautiful sunny afternoon in the valleys on the way to Yen Minh. We crossed bridges over rivers and winded through lush terraces, passing watermelon stands and children waving.
As we made our way back up into the clouds the climate became cooler and damp again and the views were jaw-dropping! It felt ancient and mystical knowing rural China was nearby, somewhere beyond the mountains, like a giant sleeping dragon.
We don’t have any recommendations on where to stay in Yen Minh as we didn’t sleep there, but there are several nha nghis (guest houses) on the main street if you feel like stopping to rest. In Yen Minh, we only stopped briefly for a delicious hot bowl of pho ga and some bitter cinchona tea.
Yen Minh to Dong Van
40 km (25 mi)
Many people, including flocks of Vietnamese tourists, head to the Lung Cu flag pole near the Chinese border on their way to Dong Van. We decided to skip it, but we did visit the old Hmong King Palace along the way.
It was built with French approval during colonial times in the early twentieth century. Ha Giang was the kingdom of opium way back when and Hmong people in the area made their living by growing it. The king would sell it to the Chinese across the border, so he chose the beautiful Sa Phin Valley as the location for his wooden mansion.
The ride to Dong Van from Yen Minh is littered with views of limestone karsts with bright orange erosion patterns, and fissures running through black rock-like colorful rivers. The cliffs are draped in vines and overgrowth. Prepare your camera because this leg of the adventure is full of quiet hazy hills, winding roads, lush mountains, and quaint villages.
We recommend staying at Lam Tung Hotel because it is conveniently located right next to the morning market. It was clean and the staff was helpful and welcoming. It cost us 300k VND per night and there were several food options within walking distance, with some cheaper food being a bit further away from the hotel.
Dong Van is home to seventeen ethnic minority groups and most of them attend the Dong Van market on Sundays. Locals wear their beautiful, characteristic garments indicating their tribe while shopping and enjoying the festivities. Warning: It can be a difficult place for animal lovers.
After a bit of wandering and having some tasty pho ga for breakfast, we sat with a group of locals, spending the next 3 hours taking shots of rice wine, doing tobacco bong rips, and chewing on sugar cane. Most communication was done through picture taking, hand holding, and laughing.
Our midday party at the market left us with no other choice but to laze around and stay another night. We passed out pretty hard back in our hotel room after watching the Vietnamese equivalent of MTV for a while.
It wasn’t exactly part of the plan, but our time spent at the market was an experience we’ll never forget. We woke up the following morning bright and early, feeling refreshed and excited for the best part of the journey.
Dong Van to Meo Vac via Ma Pi Leng Pass
55 km (13 mi)
After a short ride out of Dong Van up into the hills, we reached Ma Pi Leng pass, an absolutely INSANE road that clings to the edge of steep green treeless mountains. It’s the best stretch of the trip and likely the best road in Vietnam if not all of Southeast Asia!
The road through this section is in terrific shape! Keep an eye out for the people farming above you on the slopes as you weave through the landscape. Take your time to soak it all in, it doesn’t get better than this.
Enjoy the sound of the wind whistling in your ears, as the motorcycle echoes deep into the valley every time you pull back on the throttle! It’s difficult not to stop every minute or so, just to stare off into the distance or take pics.
Meo Vac to Ha Giang via Bao Lam
182 km (113 mi)
Parts of QL34 were under construction when we were there. Overall, the surroundings of the Meo Vac district are gorgeous. There were nice undulating hills and unique rocky areas with only minor construction and gravel sections to navigate.
We had no trouble coasting down into Bao Lam, where we crossed the Gam river and stopped for a snack. However, some sections of the road another hour down QL34 were a nightmare!
Between Bao Lam and Yen Phu there are several large industrial mining sites. It was sad to see these eyesores on the otherwise pristine landscape. The loose gravel near them was pretty unstable and the roads were really bumpy. There were also frequent stops due to heavy machinery.
Unfortunately, we were passing through the area near dusk and we found ourselves behind trucks in huge clouds of dust, only able to faintly see their taillights ahead. The only option was to pass them, which felt dangerous at times. We can’t say we’d recommend this route unless you love eating dirt!
We finally arrived back in Ha Giang completely exhausted and filthy, elated to still be in one piece, and completely sick of riding a bike! Our biggest mistake was riding about 190 km total in one day. You can learn from this mistake.
The Best Route Back
Our recommendation would be to NOT do what we did! Instead, head back to Ha Giang taking DT182 from Meo Vac cruising west (see map below). This road passes through a limestone valley, looping back to Yen Minh, and from there you can return the same way you came on your previous route, riding Road QL4C into Ha Giang. This is the shortest route back to Ha Giang totaling about 151 km (93 mi) with an option of staying in Yen Minh if you’d like to break it up.
You could do this loop in two days, but you’d be rushing it. We did it in four days, but you could easily spend a week or more in the region. We returned our bike to Johnny and he helped us catch the night bus back to Hanoi at 7 pm.
Overall, our Ha Giang motorcycle adventure was one of the best things we’ve ever done! The viewpoints, saw-blade mountain ridges, twisting roads, and friendly locals are nothing short of phenomenal.
Obviously wear a helmet, fill up your tank before you’re close to empty, and it’s also not a bad idea to honk your horn coming around the sharpest turns. Know your limits, stay safe, and relish the ride!
Have you ever been on a motorcycle trip? Where to?