Below me, the world is split into two unmatched halves, the odd creation of a pretty undecided God. On the left flank of the valley, rocky grey crests soar high from deep gorges, running after each other like petrified waves on the surface of a craggy sea. But to the right, a stark contrast of rolling green mountains cast constellations of viridian paddies as far as the eye can see. It's as if Mother Nature had randomly picked two wrong jigsaw pieces, interlocking them at her odd will.
I'm observing this puzzle from a strip of high-altitude asphalt, while my rental Honda Wave sputters uphill. The road cuts through limestone walls like a dark gash in an ash-toned body. I feel like a tiny anchovy lost in the middle of this solid rock ocean, so awestruck I can just inch forward and look beyond the cliff to my left, gulping down at every hairpin bend.
This is all in a day's work for those who dare venture in the Ha Giang region. Vietnam's northernmost corner is a place of misty landscapes strewn with conical limestone crags, deep gorges and mountain tribes who have made these ancestral highlands their barren homeland. If I squint at the horizon hard enough, China's Guanxi province gazes back at me from behind a curtain of puffy clouds.
What I consider south-east Asia's most scenic road trip starts right beyond the small and frankly unattractive town of Ha Giang, an eight-hour bus ride north of Hanoi. It's a wild 320-kilometre motorbike loop along a series of divine mountain switchbacks, connecting the villages of Tam Son, Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Vac and Bao Lac. This route can be leisurely completed in three days, but the beauty of the scenery commands for longer stays – especially because Ha Giang's back roads are still under most travellers' radars.
Resting my wheels at the top of a ridge overlooking a bundle of saw-toothed limestone peaks, I can't say I'm not glad that Ha Giang remains a hushed secret. But I also wonder why. No doubt, it can't be for the special (but very rarely checked) permit required to visit – most of the region's hotels and guesthouses can get it for a mere $20. And with new accommodation options, a slew of refurbished local restaurants, and the crucial arrival of ATM circuits, travellers should be flocking in as in nearby Sapa. I reckon people don't come because to enjoy this stunning yet forlorn slice of North Vietnam, one must rent a motorbike and do the hard work: riding alone against the wind from Ha Giang to the villages of Meo Vac and Dong Van. To me, negotiating one hairpin bend after the other is certainly more rewarding than sharing a touristy mountain village with busloads of other tourists.
On my first day, I set off from Ha Giang's town limits, and the road immediately starts climbing through forested hills until the Dong Van Geo Park, inscribed by Unesco in 2011. After a couple hours rising along cliffs flanked by deep mountain gorges, I stop at a cluster of sharp pinnacles nicknamed "Moon Rocks". I meander around, stretching my legs from stone to stone, exploring the unnatural landscape. When I get on my bike once again, I end my ascent marvellously at Heaven's Gate Pass: once upon a time, this was the border of the H'mong kingdom, stretching all the way to Dong Van. To mark this boundary, the French colonisers built a huge, 150-centimetre-thick door on the top of this mountain. Today, there's only a battered sign in English and Vietnamese, shouting "Quan Ba Heaven Gate" to the ears of unforgiving mountain winds. But from this vantage point, the views over the Dong Van plateau are simply perfect.
Descending to the village of Tam Son, I find myself gaping at a series of mound-shaped hills. Two of them are almost identical, and rise very next to each other … very much like the uncovered breasts of a buried giantess. "You are right: locals call them the 'fairy bosoms'," explains another young Vietnamese motorist who stopped to snap a picture. I hope he's joking about the bosoms, but he's not. He's travelling for work, to check the radio towers that connect these highlands to the world. We share laughter and a table in Tam Son, ordering fried noodles and beer, a nice interlude before parting ways along the serpentine Mien River. I'm speeding to Yen Minh, my final destination for the day. As the road rises again from the valley, the horizon breaks into a forest of limestone peaks extending all the way to China.
Yen Minh is a one-horse town with no great nightlife, and it's a good thing, for I must rest well to tackle my next day's task: the 70 kilometres to Dong Van via Meo Vac. This is some of south-east Asia's most stunning mountain landscape, and is better savoured slowly, stopping at every curve to admire the surreal rock formations that dot every inch of the landscape. Cut by a series of switchbacks and viewpoints perched high above a fantasy-like backdrop of limestone peaks, the mountains here look as if they were petrified in a game of hide and seek. As I ride, the scenery reminds me of a classical Chinese painting, with all the stereotypical mist, cone-shaped rock pinnacles, green moss, and the odd lonely villager standing alone atop gravity-defying limestone corners.
As the French recognised, this treeless land is still the reign of the H'mong, who started migrating southward from China in the 18th century. Fifteen kilometres before Dong Van, I take a short diversion, stopping my wheels at the charming wooden palace of the H'mong king. Built with earnings from the opium trade, Ha Giang's former lifeline, this small but opulent castle is empty and welcoming, its three stone courtyards shaded by a patch of mountain forest. I spend time traipsing between each room, observing the everyday life objects, photographs and kitchenware that evoke the past life of one of the world's lesser known monarchs.
Back on the road, Dong Van is a relaxed village worth a coffee break. But it's the following 22 kilometres to Meo Vac where the Ha Giang loop really gives its very best, climbing slowly over viridian Ma Pi Leng Pass. Halfway there, I stop at a viewpoint towering above a vertical rock wall: the cliff plunges for a couple hundred metres to a deep river valley, the steepest I've seen along this ride. I take my time to marvel at the beauty of it all, because I already know that once in Meo Vac – a one-horse town of new, tall buildings at the side of a dusty road – this magnetic scenery will become just another fading memory of kilometres past.
On my third and last day, I wake up in Meo Vac to ride the 150 kilometres back to Ha Giang, completing the loop through a lower valley that re-connects at Yen Minh. Compared with the fairy-tale pinnacles soaring between Dong Van and Meo Vac, riding here is far from breathtaking. But again, I enjoy zooming past viridian countryside that hardly sees any travellers. Truth be told, one shouldn't complain too much if that doubtful God didn't leave his best creations for last.
From Hanoi, buses to Ha Giang depart from the My Dinh and Gia Lam bus stations at 8am and 8pm. The 300-kilometre trip takes around eight hours and costs $A11 one way. Train lovers may board the night train from Ha Noi to Lao Cai near famous Sapa, and take a bus from there to Ha Giang. See www.north-vietnam.com/ha-giang/
Many guesthouses and hotels in Ha Giang rent 90cc motorbikes, the most common in Vietnam, for about $9 a day, cheaper for longer periods. Rent a Bike Vietnam is reputable; see www.rentabikevn.com
Truong Xuan Ecolodge, in Ha Giang City, is a relaxed option overlooking the river (see hagiangresort.com); Xuan Thu guesthouse, bar and restaurant are in the centre of Dong Van (see www.mrhungtourism.com).
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