It was probably one of the most spontaneous big decisions I’ve ever made, but when Hannah floated the idea of traveling to northern Vietnam for a motorbike tour, it took me one day before I started booking flights. She had wanted to base herself in Singapore for other reasons and it would be an easy flight over to Hanoi for the short 3-day trip with plenty of time to travel elsewhere. I ended up filling my time split between Thailand and Singapore.
Day 0: Hanoi
While I regret not spending enough time in each country, we still had a solid time and it was so nice not having to plan for a few days, just showing up and letting the tour guides take us around. As a planner I love having the control of what I do when and where and taking the time to research places, so this was a pleasantly nice change of pace for myself. We landed at the Noi Bai International Airport in the morning and took a bus into old town Hanoi. Hannah had done some extensive travel in SE Asia so I trusted her guidance. She has a knack for finding great places so seamlessly whereas I’d get quite indecisive and stuck.
Once we checked into Cheers Hostel where the tour operates out of, we went back out to find lunch. We wandered into one of Hannah’s tick list of restaurants, a local one close to the hostel. Mỳ Phố was literally the best food ever and so shockingly cheap to me. I got the hủ tiếu trộn (dry vermicelli noodle) with the most flavorful sauce, 40k VND. I think between that and the shallots, it really made the dish. Hannah appropriately got pho even though it was hot out. And me on the other hand, opted for an iced tea for only 5k VND, which is just two dimes. I think they could’ve accepted card perhaps but it seemed much easier paying in cash. The currency also makes you feel like a wealthy aristocrat when you pay in thousands.
After lunch, we walked around to find the famous Train Street just to find out it’s closed to foot traffic. So we only got a glimpse into the narrow tracks. We wandered further till we found ourselves at the Hoa Lo Prison Relic and spent a few hours learning about the history of the prison from French colonialism to the Vietnam War. We took a walk in the green space next to the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake until we were hungry for dinner again. We landed on Phố Gà 26 and again, I ordered another dried vermicelli. It was just as flavorful and I got a soy milk on the side. This one came with a nice chicken broth to drink on the side. Again this was just 40k VND for the bowl and 10k VND for the drink. It’s wild that under 4 USD we got a meal for two.
We quickly made our way back to Cheers Hostel where our orientation began for our motorbike tour. We met up with several other tourists from around the world, ranging from the UK and Ireland to Canada to Australia. We got on one bus just to be taken to a sleeper bus for the rest of the way to Ha Giang, several hours away. The bus was surprisingly comfortable for me and I was able to sleep a little bit, but I think overall most people didn’t sleep all too much. There’s 3 rows to sleep, center and window. We got to the Ha Giang Cozy Hostel (sister hostel to Cheers) early morning and got a couple more hours of sleep in a non-moving bed this time.
Day 1: Ha Giang
In the morning, we groggily took showers and ate breakfast, which was probably the best we had all trip. There was fried rice and fried noodles, and even crepes. After breakfast, we got assigned to our drivers. It was raining in the morning so we all got jacket and pant ponchos that worked very well if you were gentle with them. All our bags were also covered in plastic. They also outfitted us in elbow and knee pads but most of them seemed more for our comfort. My driver was insistent that I really didn’t need them after our first stop and honestly he was probably right. The drivers are quite safe and really the pads would have done little in preventing bone damage, more like road burn if the pads even stayed on. Helmets definitely were helpful and quite durable with a nice face shield to protect from both rain and other elements on the road.
Every hour or so, we got a brief stop to give our butts a break and usually it was also a coffee stop. Sometimes I’d get something to drink for fun and other times I opted just for pictures. Coconut coffee and egg coffee were common novelties for us, so we’d try them. It was fun to also see other tours stopping at our same stop but with everyone on different itineraries from 2-4 days and other loops, we eventually spread out. For lunch, we stopped by a little restaurant that served us both local dishes and western food like french fries and chicken nuggets. And before we knew it, that was going to be the same throughout the rest of our lunches and dinners with some variation. It was great eating family style. In the afternoon, we went through the Heavenly Gates, visited the Hmong King’s Palace, plenty of other view points until we reached Dong Van in the evening.
Day 2: Dong Van
We stayed at a little hotel and in the morning, we explored town a little bit. There was a volleyball tournament happening which was pretty cool to see because I wasn’t too sure if the villages were still operated like traditional times or if they had modernized a bit. After breakfast, we made our way to Mèo Vạc and my driver was always so kind to stop extra so that I could get a proper photo with my camera without moving 35mph. But he was a quick driver so even though we’d be at the tail, we’d soon catch up to the front of the group. They were all super excited to tell us that the road passed just 3 miles from the border to China, which was pretty cool to see.
My favorite section of the Ha Giang loop was this second day. We had two stops along the river, Sông Nho Quế which looked just as blue as any glacial lake I’ve seen, especially with the haze and the red dirt to contrast. All throughout our ride, we kept seeing these tall plants which I had assumed to be like rice paddies, except with much less water until we were informed that actually due to the government subsidies and water shortages, rice was no longer a financially good crop to grow. Instead, they grow corn. What’s cool is that it can even grow in between rocks, a method that seems unique to the region and it’s quite amazing to see how intricate the farming gets in the rocky alpine region. And what’s even more interesting is that we were never really served corn, so I wondered how integral is corn to their local cuisine or if it gets exported elsewhere.
The Hmong people live so close to the Chinese border so there’s a lot of similar influences and a different dialect than the Vietnamese language. Some of our drivers come from the area, but many are elsewhere and can’t speak the Hmong dialect. Other common crops we saw in the Ha Giang area were rye, squash, and marijuana. We saw very little rice but I definitely got excited whenever we did pass some rice patties.
This middle day was also the only section we passed that had an unpaved road. This is what had me scared when I first registered for it because people made it seem like it was treacherous and dangerous. I had imagined extremely rocky terrain and narrow roads with cliffs on the edge the whole loop, but it was maybe just 20 miles or so of unpaved, sandy, quite wide roads. Overall, sometimes the road would be in an area where there were cliffs, but nothing unusual or dangerous about them in my opinion, compared to the forest roads we have in Washington. But I would definitely not ride a motorbike myself since that’s a different skill than driving a car.
Our evening landed us near a waterfall where we all took a dip and our drivers just hung out and watched. It seemed like it was much less a novelty to them. On our way to the waterfall, wesaw how they paved the roads. I always thought it would be more complicated and needed more machinery but actually,it can be simple if you’re okay with tiny bumps. We stayed at Du Già for the night at a Cheers Hostel but it was a homestay style building. I enjoyed this night the most because of the rye fields nearby. Our drivers were very insistent on us drinking their happy water, a local alcoholic drink and made everyone cheers between all our tables and the drivers each. If you accepted, you probably had 15+ little drinks that added up overall. It could only be what I would assume was like a light vodka.
Day 3: Du Gia
The next day was pretty cloudy but I took a short walk around before breakfast was served just to soak in the views by myself. Along the route back, we stopped by a little shop in the town of Lùng Tám and watched the women of many generations show us how their textile products were made. I couldn’t tell how much was for show and tourism but it was still awesome to see them weave the fabric. The last day was much shorter and after lunch we quickly got back to the big town of Ha Giang. We waited for our last bus back to Hanoi as we said goodbye to our drivers and had a quick pit stop for food and bathroom break before reaching Hanoi. I barely had enough cash left after paying for all my coffees that I only got a small snack for the road. By late evening we got back to the city and we found some food again before sleeping in our private room at Cheers Hostel.
If you don’t have local cash, it is cheapest to exchange in the country where you want to get money. i.e. we had Singapore Dollars and exchanged them for Vietnamese Dong in the Hanoi Airport for a cheaper rate than in the Singapore airport. Prior to traveling, I requested a withdrawal from my personal bank for foreign currency, but you can also withdraw from ATMs locally in a foreign country.
100k VND = 4.2 USD
We took the motorbike tour through Cheers Hostel, which is highly rated and we all enjoyed it very much. There may be other similarly great companies. We opted for easy rider drivers to minimize the potential accidents for driving a motorbike yourself but I also loved it for being able to enjoy the scenery and take photos while riding.
You can store big bags with the hostel but try to bring only a 20-30L bag for the bike tour.
The bus ride to and from Ha Giang and Hanoi both had a quick stop for snacks – but bring cash.