Ha Giang loop (part one): the wild, wild north of Vietnam

Ha Giang is the mountainous region in the north of Vietnam and also the name of that region’s capital. The stunning karst landscapes, iconic rice terraces and a very ethnically diverse make-up all make it well worth a longer visit. Despite its undeniable beauty, Ha Giang remains relatively unknown among foreign visitors (especially if compared with Sa Pa in the north-west). Apart from the landscapes, the main attraction of the regions are weekly markets – check the dates to be sure you don’t miss one.

Ha Giang versus Sa Pa

We didn’t have enough time to go both to Ha Giang and Sa Pa so we followed the advice of our Vietnamese Couch Surfer hosts who encouraged us to skip Sa Pa in favour of Ha Giang.

Sa Pa is a top-tourist destination in Vietnam. It means, as usual, that you can experience hoards of tourists, the food and accommodation prices tend to be higher and the probability of getting cheated increases. The ethnic minorities living in the area have learned how to make the money out of their unique apparels. The traditional way of life is, at least to some extend, just for a show.

Women at the Meo Vac market in Vietnam wearing brightly coloured head scarves and skirts, some carrying woven baskets.

On the contrary, Ha Giang is only slowly getting more popular so travelling there on a low budget won’t be an issue. When we visited a huge Meo Vac market, there were in fact just 2-3 other Westerners present. The people from various ethnic backgrounds descended on the market to buy, sell and socialise. They all wore their traditional clothes – just that they were synthetic, not hand-woven.

Moss covered thatched roofed huts in the mountain landscape of Ha Giang region

Instead of paying for a hike through the well-trodden villages (the typical activity in Sa Pa area), we just explored the mountain paths on our own with a bit of help from Google maps and Maps.me. And got invited for tea and alcohol by the villagers high in the mountains.

How to make a Ha Giang loop?

Most of the backpackers visiting Ha Giang would rent a motorbike for a couple of days to complete the northern loop around the Ha Giang region. The classic loop includes Ha Giang- Yen Minh- Dong Van- Lung Cu- Ma Pi Leng Pass- Meo Vac- Ha Giang. Completing the loop would take 4 days and would involve driving sometimes more than 100 km in a single day on the mountain roads. Expect some sharp turns and rough surfaces at times. If you’d like to choose this option, you should definitely be a confident and experienced driver, used to a proper motorcycle with gears. You could also hire an easy rider (a driver behind whom you’d be sitting) but that’s definitely not a budget option.

A road full of steep ascents and sharp turns leading among mountain scenery from Ha Giang to Meo Vac.

We found the motorcycle option too tiring and stressful. Luckily, the loop is totally doable (though in a slightly limited version) using the public transportation as local buses connect most of the towns in the region.

Permit

Venturing anywhere beyond Ha Giang city in the Ha Giang region requires obtaining a special permit costing $10. It is available at the immigration centre in Ha Giang or even at the police station at Meo Vac. Check for the new immigration office address on Google maps.

Mind you, the probability you’ll be ask to show your permit, especially when you don’t travel in a rented vehicle is very low. Moreover, many budget accommodations (especially those who normally serve only the Vietnamese customers) in Meo Vac and Dong Van – unlike anywhere else in Vietnam- do not ask for your passport, neither for the permit.

Ninh Binh to Ha Giang: the most traumatic journey in Vietnam

One and only time we got cheated during our trip through Vietnam was when we traveled from Ninh Binh to Ha Giang city (we skipped Hanoi as we have been there already). We were originally planning to take a bus to Hanoi and change at My Dinh station for Ha Giang. Instead, the lady at the bus station told us we could get one ticket all the way to Ha Giang.

Our bus was departing at 5 am, too early for us to get a breakfast. We spent many hours on the bus without a proper toilet/meal break until we reached Tuyen Quang city. There, the bus stopped in the middle of the street and we were rushed to another bus, already waiting for us. No time to eat, no time to pee. Worst of all, the driver demanded that we buy a ticket claiming the one we had was not valid. By the time I could actually use the toilet and eat, I was in tears. At least the co-passengers were very friendly, forcing the driver to stop at the petrol station and offering us their food.

Till this day, we’re not sure whether we were cheated by the woman working at the bus station in Ninh Binh, the driver of the first, or the second bus we entered. Either way, we didn’t lose much money compared to our original plan so the damage was mostly psychological.

Ha Giang town on a budget

Accommodation

The Ha Giang bus station is located some 3km from the town’s centre. As we wanted to leave early morning by bus, we decided to stay close to the station.

We found a homestay in Booking.com which was located short walk from the station but already in the countryside. It was a beautiful stilted house facing the paddy field and the mountains. The place turned out to be far from idyllic, though. It was taken care of by a drunk grandpa with whom communication was simply impossible. The whole upper floor of the house was divided in square cubicles with mattresses on the ground, mosquito net and a window with a lovely view. Sadly, the linen had definitely been used (very unusual in Vietnam) and the common bathroom was dirty. At least we got a free breakfast from a lady who eventually turned up in the morning. Not the best introduction to Vietnamese homestays.

A mattress spread on the floor and the view at the paddy through the window in a homestay in Ha Giang

On our second visit to Ha Giang, we chose a slightly more expensive hotel located very near to the bus station. The room had no window which always feels depressing for me but it was new, modern and sparkling clean.

Food

There aren’t many places to eat near the bus station. There are a couple of com bin dans (cheap buffet eateries) further down the busy road leading to the town but they are overpriced. The com bin dans in the Ha Giang proper are far more numerous and very affordable. Maps.me has even a few vegetarian places marked. There is no market near the station either and the shops have rather limited choice but there is a large market place in town.

Ha Giang station displays the prices of all the bus connections on the electric board so for once there is no chance of overpricing. Unlike at the My Dinh station in Hanoi, you’d be always asked for the price displayed.

Motorbike rental and tours

Last but not least there are plenty of places to hire the motorbikes in Ha Giang, one of the most popular ones, doubling up as a hostel, located within walking distance from Ha Giang bus station. Due to high inclines, semi-automatic motorbike is absolute minimum- the scooters wouldn’t cope.

Most of those companies give an option of buying a tour with or without an easy rider (a driver behind whom you can sit on the motorbike) which includes accommodation and English speaking local guide. It is definitely not a budget option, though: it would set you back some $200!

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Ha Giang?
Your only option is a bus. If you travel from Hanoi (6-7h), buses depart from My Dinh station.
You can also get to Ha Giang from Hai Phong (9-11h) or Cat Ba (12h). Note the buses directly from Cat Ba are roughly double the price of those from Hai Phong but it’s also rather complicated to get from Cat Ba to Hai Phong.
Travelling from Sa Pa, change at Lao Cai (5h in total). There are also some pricier options getting you from Sa Pa to Ha Giang directly.
If travelling from Cao Bang, you’d need to take 2 local buses, changing at Bao Lac (10h in total).
Try using vexere.com whenever possible to avoid getting cheated at the station/on the bus.

Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]
200 000 night sleeper bus Hanoi- Ha Giang
150 000 daily rental of a semi-automatic motorbike
150 000 en-suite double room with A/C but no window
130 000 basic home-stay with a shared bathroom, breakfast included
100 000 local bus Ha Giang- Meo Vac
100 000 local bus Dong Van- Ha Giang
40 000 meal at one of the places nearer the station
30 000 meal at com bin danh in the town itself

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