North Vietnam and the Extreme Ha Giang Loop

North Vietnam and the Extreme Ha Giang Loop

Sunday 23rd June 2019 to Thursday 27th June 2019
Hanoi to Ban Gioc Waterfalls
Distance 359 km
Total 27858 km

Monday. I’m leaving Hanoi today and heading to the fabled northern hills of Vietnam. Here there be waterfalls, caves, huge hills, mountain passes and beautiful scenery. A little bit like the rest of Vietnam just more vertical!
Nick gets up with me at 3am and let’s me out of Fortress Ha (Nicks wife enjoys her security!) At this time in the morning Hanoi is still a little sleepy which is good as I mainly have the road to myself. I’ve got about 16km before I can leave Hanoi behind and cross the Red River, easily doable in the light traffic. I even get to race the ‘express’ train into the city centre… and win!

As I’m crossing the Red River in the early morning gloom a young man comes up beside me on a mountain bike. Its only Nguyễn Thuong Viet, or Jimmy to his mates. He’s out for an early morning training ride, 40km in preparation for a marathon he’s doing sometime soon. We chat as he rides beside me and swap social media contacts whilst he poses on my trike.

Absolutely great to meet him, just like every other smiling friendly person I see everyday in Vietnam.
Once daylight surfaces I can see it’s an overcast day. A brilliant day for riding.

The following day I’m now definitely in a more rural area with some distances between villages. There’s also a change for the worst in weather. It hoofs it down monsoon style for large parts of the day. I invariably spend these periods waiting under awnings or at one point in the only roadside restaurant for miles waiting out the deluge.  But as soon as it calms down to a spit I’m off and cycling again.

By Wednesday I’m starting to hit some hills, plus the heat and humidity kicks back in. Just in time!!  I visit a small waterfall to break up the day but in the main it’s climb,descend, climb again. Deep Joy.

I reach Cao Bang Province today and also the town by the same name.
Cao Bang is famous for Non Nuoc Cao Bang which received global geopark status from UNESCO. Non Nuoc Cao Bang is the eight of its kind in Southeast Asia to receive the status and is now the second UNESCO-recognized Global Geopark in Vietnam after the Dong Van Karst Plateau. .

Located in the northern and eastern districts of Cao Bang Province in Northeast Viet Nam, Non Nuoc Cao Bang UNESCO Global Geopark covers a total area of 3,000 km2. Mountainous landforms cover approximately 90% of the land area, with elevations ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 m in the west-northwest to 200 m in the east-southeast. With a highland tropical monsoon climate and two distinct wet and dry seasons, the Geopark exhibits a rich biodiversity, with widespread forests, endemic faunas and floras, herbs, specialty crops etc. The region has a complex drainage network that includes 5 major river systems and 47 lakes.

All I can say is there’s a great pizza restaurant in Cao Bang, the Geopark can wait!

On Thursday I finally arrive at Ban Gioc after a long day in the saddle. Since arriving in Vietnam on the 10th May I’ve been getting up at 3am and cycling early to beat the heat later on. I’ve also been averaging just shy of 90km per day. However there’s a new tactic in town now that I have to put up with constant climbs and heat. Not wanting to miss any of the fantastic scenery all around me (oh god it really is stunning!!) I’m now setting the alarm for 440am and hitting the road at 5am just as the first light of day is hitting. I’m also making a conscious effort to cut mileages to about 50 or 60 km per day. Today is unfortunate not one of those days as the mileage from Cao Bang to Ban Gioc is 82km with some big climbs… bugger, at least I’ll have a rest day in Ban Gioc as I sightsee.

Friday 28th June 2019
Ban Gioc sightseeing

The number one on the UNESCO Ban Gioc sights to see list is Ban Gioc Waterfall, the most magnificent and beautiful waterfall in Vietnam. The falls are 30 metres high and 300 metres across, making Ban Gioc the widest (but not the highest) waterfall in Vietnam. The large bodies of water flowing through many layers of limestone has built the majesty of Ban Gioc waterfall. What’s really cool is that it’s in such a remote place and there are hardly any tourists. Well, let me correct that. There are hardly any tourists on this side of the river. You see, on the other side of the Quay Son River is China. Yes and they have lots of tourists wearing bright orange flotation vests cruising on mini barges up to the falls!! The river however is a beautiful jade-blue body of water that flows from China. So despite improved road access and public transportation connections, and the popularity of several recent viral drone videos showcasing the majesty of the falls, Ban Gioc is still a relatively off-the-beaten-path sight. Mass tourism has yet to arrive and, outside of weekends and public holidays, there’s rarely more than a trickle of foreign and domestic visitors.

I also visit a beautiful hill pagoda that gives me some outstanding views over the valley and waterfalls.

I’m staying in a Homestay a couple of km from the falls, and although very rustic the food is utterly amazing. In fact it’s one of the best places I’ve eaten in Vietnam. There’s plenty of food and lots of different dishes including on the second night roast pork and crackling. There’s rolled pumpkin with pork stuffing and crispy tofu to accompany all the rice you can eat and more veg dishes. After dinner one of the local girls plays a native stringed instrument and gives us a singsong. On the first night I’m joined by a young Dutch couple and on the second night a couple from Nepal who are now living in San Francisco. There’s also a number of Vietnamese staying. Its currently school holiday time so I’m seeing a fair few Vietnamese tourist in most locations. But when I say it’s rustic what I mean is there’s no aircon… am I going soft!!??

Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th June 2019
Ban Gioc to Hung Quoc to Xuân Hoa
Distance 52 km & 37 km
Total 27942 km

I have to retrace my route for 25km before I deviate off and follow a road that sort of parallels the Chinese border. But even as I’m heading out through the town the road has turned into a muddy quagmire of potholes full of water and sludge. Deep joy. At one point a group of dogs chase me, one of them pulling its chain behind, obviously an escapee!!

Fortunately they seem more intent on the newly realised freedom and scoot off down a side road. As the road leads off into the countryside the scenery gets better but the road doesn’t. In fact for the next two days it’s mainly wet, muddy, gravel roads with a few steep hills thrown in, the Rocky Road from Hell!

But I finally arrive in Pac Bo. Or the town just before! The area is renowned for Pac Bo Cave, a seat of revolutionary resistance during the countries wars with France and America. The Cave is where Ho Chi Minh established his residence and worked on Vietnam’s revolutionary course. There’s also a beautiful clear blue stream, where apparently Uncle Ho used to work and fish. The water is so clear I can see the fish he didn’t manage to catch and pebbles on its bed and the green watercress in the water.

Beyond a small bridge is the place where Uncle Ho often cooked soup with vegetable and bamboo shoots. By the side is a rugged rocky mountain and Pac Bo Cave. Looking down into the cave from its mouth, you can see the words “February 8th, 1941” written by Uncle Ho on the wall. That was the day he came to live in this small cave, a wet and cold place lying deep in a mountain gorge that nobody paid much attention to.

Inside the cave there is a wooden board as a bed for Uncle Ho and a teapot! In this place, Uncle Ho, in the simple dress of the Nung ethnic group, often sat by the fire at night to talk with his aides about the situations at home and abroad. Here, Uncle Ho predicted: “In four or five years, the Vietnamese revolution will be successful.” His words became true. On September 2nd, 1945 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the first State of workers and peasants in Asia, came into being. This area is also the site of a zero kilometer memorial for the Ho Chi Minh trail.

There’s quite a few Vietnamese here, picnicing, roasting duck on open fires and dancing along the stream. Also cattle wallowing in mud holes and workers in the rice fields. Life goes on all around.

Monday 1st to 3rd July 2019
Xuân Hoà to Bao Lac to Mèo Vac
Distance 73 km and 73 km! Coincidence
Total 28088 km

I know today is going to be tough, I’ve got 3 big climbs plus a number of smaller ones. Fortunately the road surface has improved and I’m back on tarmac again for the most part. The first 8km are lovely and flat and I cycle north towards China.

Its a busy period for the farmers as everyone is out planting a new rice crop from all the seedlings they’ve been growing. Now they are plowing all the other waterlogged paddies and thinning out the rice into these prepared fields. Vietnam is one of the world’s richest agricultural regions and is the second-largest (after Thailand) exporter worldwide and the world’s seventh-largest consumer of rice.

With a few possible variations, according to Google these are the steps required to grow rice (assuming the paddy has already been constructed).

1. Flood the paddy.
2. Pull out all the floating paddy weeds and dump them on the dike to dry
3. Empty the paddy with an engine or scoop
4. Gather together the remaining fish and other creepy-crawlies and eat them
5. Dig small channels in the mud to help dry the field
6. Clean the paddy walls of old growth
7. Plow the paddy twice with a pair of water buffalo
8. Smooth out the paddy so that its absolutely flat and therefore evenly moist
9. Dig and fertilize rice seedling beds along one side of the field
10. Germinate the rice for 48 hours.
11. Plant rice in seedling beds
12. After rice is 4-6 inches tall, pull it up, bundle it, and carry it out into the main fields.
13. Replant 3-5 seedlings at a time approximately 6 inches apart in every available inch of flooded field
14. Fertilize regularly with cow manure or night waste (WTF Google! Never eat rice again… unless I’m hungry!!)
15. Weed around each cluster of seedlings several times as they grow taller.
16. Add water regularly to paddy, using a scoop if necessary
17. When rice is ripe, harvest with a sharp, curved knife and bundle into sheaves
18. Thrash rice to remove it from the plant.
19. Dry rice in the sun
20. Thresh rice to separate it from the husks
21. Winnow rice to remove the husks
22. Store in a dry place.
23. Enjoy your dinner!

Woe, no wonder everyone seems prematurely aged with all that to do every year!

Anyway back to the trail. I’ve got a ‘lodge’ marked on my map at about the 50km mark. Unfortunately it’s obviously not a lodge when I arrive there and that means only 1 thing as I haven’t got my camping gear… cycling on. I’m really feeling it in the heat and hills and by the time I arrive in Bao Lac 20km later and 1 big hill I know I’m going to need a rest day tomorrow.

On Wednesday I set out again with 50km in mind. There’s only 1 large hill of note and for the most part I’m following a river, but even then it’s undulating and on gravel at times. I’m really hoping the Homestay is where its supposed to be. If not the only other option is to carry on to Mèo Vac, which is up a very big hill indeed. 1000m of climb in 25km!! Fingers crossed.

There are a number of dams along this river producing electricity. The steep valley sides allowing a large reservoir of water to build up. More climbing for me to get up above it all!

After 50km I coast down into a tiny village and there’s the Homestay, yes! I park my weary arse on an outdoor settee and wait for someone to come along. I can see some tables inside all prepped ready for lunch. Quite a lot in fact. Then seemingly from nowhere about 50 men wander in from the street. I’m still sat on the sofa, and notice a few of them examining the trike. It’s not long before they are emboldened enough to sit on it, (this normally means by climbing on and over it as is the case here). In my tired state my tilt switch is flicked and I get up, walk over and start berating them loudly about personal property, destruction, the brakes are on stop trying to pedal and finally get the *<“( off my trike!!
They laugh and joke and wander off to their dinner party.  I can see that they are going to be here for a while and in my tilting mood I get back on my trike and cycle on. Yes I know there’s a big hill!! Leave me alone.
OK, so I calm down after a while and really it’s no wonder because as I climb the views out over the valleys and mountains is at once beautiful and rejuvenating. Wow, I say again, it’s stunning here!

Sometime further up the hill I’m pulled over by a local on a motorbike. He uses Google translate to ask me where I’m staying tonight, I shrug and tell him Mèo Vac (if I ever make it!). He grins and invites me to stay at his Homestay, “good price and aircon” says Google translate. I grin back and give him the thumbs up.
Finally I reach the top and descend down into Mèo Vac. The hills are covered in rocky outcroppings and huge karst mountains rise all around.

Did I say this is the UNESCO Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark?
It features a vast area of limestone which covers most of the four provinces of Ha Giang. Located on the height of 1400 – 1600 meters above sea level, the geographical characteristics of Dong Van Plateau are just as dramatic as it can get with sheer mountain cliffs running to the horizon. The 2,356sqkm of Dong Van Karst Plateau is one of Vietnam’s special limestone features and boasts striking scenery, a high biodiversity and a cultural spectrum of local ethnic groups.

Riding on the Happiness Road that connects Ha Giang and the four mountainous districts is becoming more popular with adventurous backpackers who rent motorbikes specifically to do this and a few crazy cyclists.

I blame you Stacy Bellestri if you’re reading this.

There’re huge mountains and deep canyons to be found here of which the highest peak is Mount Mieu Vac (1971m) and deepest canyon is Tu San (800m). The landscape at Tu San Canyon has become something people look forward when climbing up Ma Pi Leng Pass. We’ll I’m sure it’ll be there somewhere in my brain, but mainly I think I’ll be wondering why it’s uphill so much and why am I sweating copiously.

Friday 5th July 2019
Meo Vac to Dong Van via Ma Pi Leng Pass
Distance 23 km
Total 28111 km

Well it rained all day yesterday so I took the day off and did a very small amount of sightseeing and then spent a few hours catching up with the blog!!

Today it’s raining, overcast and misty when I get up at 6am so I don’t leave until 9am when the rain stops. However I’ve only got about 20 odd kilometers to do today although that includes climbing up to the Ma Pi Leng Pass. As soon as I’m out of town the steep kaarst mountains start to close in on either side of me then the road ascends up along the left side of the valley walls. Steeply!

But “Oiy Za Oiy” as they say in Vietnam (“oh my god” and spelt “Ôi chúa ơi”) it is breathtaking. Not the climb but the views. The vista of deep green hills with the road sweeping up is amazing.

Then it gets even better as I reach the head of this valley and turn left along the road with the Song Nho Que river far below me just before it disappears into the Tu San Abyss, a huge vertical walled canyon.

To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement. I sit on the roadside gazing out, trying to take it all in. Green rice terraces sparkle as they sit precariously on the steep slopes alongside sheer cliffs, forest and dirt tracks winding about.  Many a time I round a corner to see another group of Western tourists stood at the roadside with their motorbikes (a lot of the younger, less bike experienced travellers also have local drivers and sit as a pillion passenger rather than ride these dangerous roads themselves) taking pictures and obligatory Instagram selfies. They look at me like I’m crazy. Cycling! But I get lots of encouragement from them and locals alike as I slowly crawl up the precarious road!

Finally I reach the top, there’s a beautiful sky walk here, on the narrowest of footpaths slash motorbike path, it goes even further up into the hills, but I decide to give it a miss as the mist and cloud will not give me the best experience. I can come back from Dong Van on a better day to check it out. Speaking of which it’s only 9 more km to my stop for the day, unfortunately it’s not all downhill, but the majority is and I enjoy some beautiful sweeping hairpin descents on the trike before finally arriving in town. I’m going to stay here 3 or 4 days to explore the area.

Saturday 6th July 2019.
Dong Van Sightseeing

Today the weather is dryer and so I decide to take a motorbike ride up to the northernmost point in Vietnam. Lung Cu is situated about 25km North of Dong Van nestled up against the Chinese border. In fact at one point on the road there’s a section of the border only 70m away.  On the map there’s also an illegal path to China marked, well I need to check that out. Sure enough I spot the overgrown path sneaking off into the forest and follow it on foot a short ways. I soon hit a barb wire fence, it’s only about 1 meter high but there’s a second one about 3 meters further and the middle ground is full of more barbed wire and who knows what other anti personnel objects, I decide not to risk crossing but get a quick picture and scoot.

Back on the road and just around the next mountain bend are 2 border guards with rifles sat at the side of the road next to a more substantial farmers track. It looks like they are there to dissuade tourists from following the track over the border. Someone should tell them about the illegal one marked on the map maybe!!

Lung Cu might be the northernmost settlement in Vietnam but its also famous for its huge flag tower. 705 steps take you up to this hilltop beast and you can look out over Vietnam and China once you’ve caught your breathe!! It really is impressive.

Sunday 7th July and Monday 8th July 2019
Dong Van Sightseeing

I spend the next couple of days enjoying sightseeing around the Dong Van Karst Plateau. On Sunday I go and check out the ‘Skypath’, a very narrow path that clings to the side of the mountains above the Ma Pi Leng Pass. At one point an old man steps out onto the path as I’m going by and I fear for my life as the view over the edge gets even closer. Fortunately I slam on the brakes and live to tell the tale. The descent at the far end is a nerve racking, brakes on full, switchback session. Once again the views are to die for, and that old man nearly  made it true!

Monday arrives and I climb up a very steep path to an old French Hill Fort overlooking Dong Van. Not only does it give amazing panoramic view around Dong Van, but taught me some history too. The fortress was named Don Cao ( high fortress) because it is located on the top point of a high mountain in Dong Van Town. After the complete occupation of Ha Giang in 1887,the French built up this fortress with two storeys as an observation tower for the surrounding region and as a strong fortress to defend attacks by local forces under the leadership of Hmongese ethnics.

Tuesday 9th July
Dong Van to Yên Minh
Distance 45km
Total 28156 km

Well today it rained… and rained, and rained. But still I cycled, wet and bedraggled maybe but I definitely cycled. In fact today was weird, even though it was raining cats, dogs and small horses I was stopped numerous times by locals driving by for pictures, selfies and “can I have a go on your bike please? “ requests. No, don’t mind me sat here in the rain, please, have at it. Actually it breaks up my day and the smiles and laughter are great to hear.

I also visited the Hmong Kings Palace set in the beautiful hillside, but it still rained!

Thursday 11th July 2019
Yen Minh to Tam Son
Distance 50km
Total 28206 km

Oh my god a hill! Really? Yes, a huge one immediately out of town and it takes me 2 and a half hours to climb it. Mind you I did get stopped for 10 minutes by a TV crew wanting to interview me, you might catch me on Ha Giang TV if you get it in your area! Cameraman chasing me up the hill, well, walking very slowly!

At the top of the hill I still have 40km to go but whilst sitting having a rest and a drink I notice lots of traffic coming out of a side road that’s not on my map. I walk back to the road sign and it mentions a town I haven’t heard of, but when I look at the map it’s right next to where I’m going. According to the sign it’s only 25km away. We’ll it looks like it’s an unmarked shortcut, bonus, its going to save me 15 kilometers! And although the start is uphill (again!) it turns downhill after a couple of km and then I’m carving down another mountain. Well in the thick mist that has materialised I can’t see anything for about 4 km, but then I get underneath it and I’m sitting above a beautiful river valley. Can anyone say swoooooop!!

Okay, so all that swooping involved a lot of braking. My brakes are looking very tired and I’ve already had to disassemble one of the calipers previously to get it working. Once I reach my hotel for the day I immediately get down to stripping both left and right brake. Yep, the pads are all worn to within a gnats whisker of bare metal. What’s worse is that both pistons have loose circlips and are no longer sitting correctly. I spend about 2 hours dismantling, getting the pistons back in, fitting new pads and refitting and aligning the calipers. By the end my back is killing from all the bending over. But now both brakes are running smooth and dialed in. No squeaks, squeals or slack braking. Sweet!

Friday 12th July 2019
Tam Son to Ha Giang
Distance 48 km
Total 28254 km

With my newly refurbed brakes I enjoy climbing up out of Tam Son for the first hour and not using them once! At the top of the first and final climb of the day I stop at a coffee shack and enjoy the views. It’s a little misty but worth the effort.

The rest of the day I spend descending to Ha Giang, 40km and 1000m of descent. Most of the descent is in the first 17km but then I’m following a beautiful river valley downstream for the remainder before I finally arrive in the large town of Ha Giang. On route I cross paths with scores of motorbike tourists heading in the opposite direction.  This area really is picking up as a tourist backpacker destination.

Well that’s that done. The amazing Ha Giang Extreme North Motorbike Loop, done on a trike! It’s been an unbelievable scenic wonderland. I’ve probably bored you with the amount of times I’ve gone on about how great it is. But I’ve definitely understated it! If you’re interested in doing it yourself one day then definitely check out

So the plan now is to have a day off and then head west towards Sa Pa maybe 4 days away. Once there do some Trekking and hopefully climb the highest peak in Vietnam. Then after head to Hanoi by bus to see Nick and hopefully enjoy a cruise at Halong Bay before coming back and cycling to Laos via Dien Bien Phu, site of the famous French Army defeat. But first, a well deserved beer.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed and continue to follow me on my travels.

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