HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Way Back

There's no point in me doing a play-by-play of our final two days in Ha Giang since we were covering the same ground on the return to the starting point. Here are a few highlights.

We left Dong Van on a beautiful morning, with the sun shining and light, fluffy clouds skidding across the blue sky. We had roughly 100 km to cover, our longest single-day ride of the trip, on our way to Quan Ba. As we climbed up the switchbacks leading out of town the chain on my bike suddenly popped off the rear wheel, leaving me dead in the water. I coasted back into town and found a mechanic who propped the bike up on an empty beer crate. The chain was soon back on, and then he took the bike into the shop and welded something onto the brake system. I wasn't sure why, but I wasn't going to ask any questions, mostly because I don't know the Vietnamese words for moto parts.
After paying the man $2.50 we left town for the second time, and a few klicks in I noticed my brakes weren't really working. Thinking they may have just needed time to warm up, I decided to carry on. We reached a series of downhill hairpins, and there happened to be a truck right in front of me. As the first curve approached I pressed down on the foot brake...and nothing happened. I clenched down on the right hand brake as hard as possible...and nothing happened. The truck was taking its time getting around the curve, and I was heading right for its tail end. I put one foot down on the road to create friction, and finally came to an unsteady stop in the weeds that covered an overhang at the edge of the turn. Without that overhang I would've had no choice but to let the bike go over the edge into a corn field while I dove off. Shaken up, I inspected the brake system and realized the mechanic in Dong Van hadn't re-tightened the screw that connects the brake line to the rear brakes. I couldn't do it without a tool, so we turned around once more to head back to town.

Fortunately I found a shop before the descent all the way back into Dong Van, as that would've been impossible to do with no brakes. I showed the new mechanic what the problem was, and at first he said he couldn't do anything. Once he realized I wasn't going away that easily he procured the proper tool and had the brakes good as new in 30 seconds. He said it was free, and we were finally good to go. I couldn't help but think that this was one of those 'only in Vietnam' moments you encounter so often: I paid a guy to break part of my bike, and then had a guy fix it for free.

The subsequent driving was fantastic, though as we neared the turnoff for Pho Bang dark clouds appeared - Anthony and I were convinced that China didn't want us coming anywhere near it, as it had rained both times we were on the border. We also met a few local kids, who happily accepted a few of the chocolate cupcakes we had been carrying around for just such an occasion.

On the descent into Yen Minh some time later a completely naked boy, probably around the age of 12, came galloping out to the road from behind a house screaming 'HELLO!' and waving shamelessly. We laughed the rest of the way into town, where we ate lunch at the same restaurant we had discovered there a few days prior, home to quite possibly the best mi xao bo I've ever had.
More astonishing driving under blue skies along ridges and through valleys. We were getting sunburned for the first time since day one, and I couldn't have been happier as we blasted into Quan Ba for one final night in the province.

Along the river cutting through the last valley before Quan Ba.
The rain returned the following morning, so we decided to wait it out since Ha Giang town was only about 25 km away, and we were in no rush. After taking over a table at a cafe decorated with furniture out of a cheap version of Mad Men we watched a series of Vietnamese music videos playing on the TV. Every single one of them involved depression, tears, a jealous girl, and an unrelated interlude in the middle of the song. The only one that had an enjoyable outcome was one where a rich city-dweller decided to dump his city bitch of a girlfriend for the cute country girl who helped him after a motorbike accident.

The weather cleared and we were on our way, for the last time. Clouds hovered in valleys below the ridges we were cruising along.
By this point every kilometer stone was an unwelcome sight. 'Ha Giang - 18 km'. I didn't want the trip to end. 'Ha Giang - 15 km'. Anthony and I had agreed that this was the best traveling we had ever done. There is no tourism infrastructure in Ha Giang, and as a result you have the freedom to do whatever you want. Once we had the keys to our bikes and our travel permit we could drive where we wanted, eat when we wanted, stop when wanted, etc. Vietnam's usual tourism spots are full of awful guided tours where you have no say in the itinerary, but this was not an issue here. No one had bothered us either; the people were friendly and largely helpful. Go to Hoi An, Nha Trang, Saigon, Hanoi etc. and you will be relentlessly harassed by people trying to sell you useless shit, take you somewhere you don't want to go, tell you something you don't want to know. We had gone a week without being ripped off, scammed, screwed or cheated, and we also hadn't seen more than 10 other white people. Situations like this make me wonder how beneficial tourism really is. Yes, Ha Long Bay is a stunning example of natural beauty, but now that hordes of tourists descend on it every day it has been completely ruined. Or is it just something Vietnam is getting wrong? I haven't been anywhere else where the people who regularly interact with visitors are so aggressive and scheming. We ran into several travelers in Myanmar who had been to Vietnam and had horrible experiences. I love this country, so I hate hearing that, but sadly it's true. I started telling people to forget about the usual stops, stick to the interior and the undeveloped areas. Of course, what happens when those places become heavily visited? Does mass tourism go hand-in-hand with terrible experiences?

To be honest I almost feel guilty sharing how incredible this trip to Ha Giang was. Almost nobody has heard of the place, largely because it isn't advertised and it's so far away from any major cities. Hell, even Lonely Planet only has a couple of pages on the entire province. Now, all of my friends want to check it out. Obviously I'm not influential enough to single-handedly bring tourism to Ha Giang, but as word slowly spreads what will the future bring? If I go back to Yen Minh in a few years will I still be able to stroll from one end of town to another without being accosted by someone selling postcards, coconuts, lighters or gum? Will there be some god-awful theme park about the province's minority groups? Or a fucking casino? I really hope not.

People have asked if this trip was easy, and the truth is this: yes, it was. As long as you have the gear to deal with rain, it's a piece of cake. The roads are narrow but largely in decent condition, and once you get past Yen Minh there is little traffic. The towns are small, the food and guesthouses cheap, and the people warm. I would've gladly spent another week or two motoring through the mind-blowing scenery and epic geology of the region, but we had a flight to Myanmar to catch.
Farewell, Ha Gaing, I love you.


  1. Northern Vietnam is the reason why I fell in love with Vietnam. The scenery is amazing.

  2. Amazing photos. I've just descended into Saigon this month and, now that I am starting to get my bearings, I am hoping to save some money and get traveling soon.

    As for your comments on tourism and crooks, I am happy to say that Japan, with amazing amounts of foreign tourists, is incredibly honest in its dealings. In Mexico also, I found that people were pretty helpful and honest, although that may well be because I am Mexican myself and speak Spanish.

    Love the "Don't ruin this place" tag btw.

    1. Well you should definitely check out Ha Giang if you get the chance. I believe it about Japan, would love to visit/possibly live there at some point.

  3. Wow....
    I've just read your whole motorbike journey. I am so excited right now.
    I really loved the video clip where you captured the majestic scenery. Absolutely breathtaking.

    I have done some motorbiking too, but not in the north...not yet that is. After seeing some clips on youtube I knew it was beautiful, but after reading your blog it just made it clear to me. This is something I will have to do... and soon.
    Let's hope the roads will still be as deserted as in your photos.

    Very well written. Thank you.

    1. Thanks a lot, I'm glad you liked the posts. I can't recommend motorbiking up there enough!

  4. Really really nice trip.. Me and my girlfriend will be doing the same trip this july-August. I was just wondering why you took the same road back to ha giang and not the road between Meo Vac and Ha Giang? Are the views not as good or is the road in worse conditions? I'm glad I've found your website and seen these pictures. I was a bit afraid that we would have to cancel this trip because of the bad weather in july and august I'm Always reading about but actually the weather seems OK apart from some rainy moments. Just another question, I was thinking of doing the 150 kms between : Ha Giang-Dong Van and Meo Vac - Ha Giang in one day but you dit it in 2 days. Would you recommend that or would it be possible to do it in 1 day?

    Kind regards and thanks for this blog, really useful!

    1. Hey there, glad you liked the blog! We considered taking the road from Meo Vac to Ha Giang but decided against it because there seemed to be fewer places to stop along the way, and we didn't mind seeing the scenery a second time. There is a small road from Meo Vac to Yen Minh that would cut some distance off but we had heard it was in terrible condition. You could definitely do those distances in one day, but I'd recommend splitting it up like we did. That way you don't have to rush and can stop for pictures or talking to locals, etc. Obviously any bad weather would make it much harder to cover that much ground, especially since there are so many curvy sections that are a bit slow. If you have any other questions feel free to email me, I can't recommend checking out this area enough.

    2. Thanks! Do you perhaps know how good or bad the road from Meo Vac to Ha Giang is? And do you have any idea how long the drive from Ha Giang to Dong Van would take? it's about 140 kms and we can start really early in the morning because we're arriving in Ha Giang by nightbus so it seems doable but I don't have any idea how many hours we would really be spending on the motorbike. Also we would like to leave most of our Luggage behind somewhere in Ha Giang (we're 2 people on 1 motorbike so impossible with our 2 backpacks) but I don't know if we can leave it at the place where we will rent the motorbikes or maybe at an hotel where we will spend a night after the trip.. Do you think it would be safe? How much did you pay for the motorbikes? :) I have only driven a motorbike type honda 125cc wave, I was hoping they would have motorbikes like that in Ha Giang :)

    3. Not really sure about the road from Meo Vac to Ha Giang, but I assume it would be in similar condition to Highway 4C. Ha Giang to Dong Van straight through would probably take most of the day - there aren't many stretches where you can go that fast so it takes a while. Not sure you'll be in the mood to drive all day after arriving on a bus the night before, it's a long ride. We brought all of our stuff on the bikes but I would imagine the hotel could look after your belongings. The guy we rented the bikes from, who goes by Johnny, seemed trustworthy as well, although he doesn't have an office, it's just his house. I want to see we paid around $50 per bike for 5 days, but I could be wrong. Whatever it was, it was very reasonable. They have pretty rugged bikes, most of which are fully manual but they do have a couple of semi-automatics that shift like a Wave.