Cycling in Ha Giang is not for the faint hearted; riders there will face really tough climbs, with gradients often going over 10% and long stretches of road in which you will not see a single village or hamlet. But, hey, if you go there, that’s what you actually wants. And the rewards that such a trip offer are difficult to match: breathtaking views from some of the highest and most remote roads in Vietnam, discovering a land that has been almost unscathed by development and mass tourism, meeting ethnic minorities who are not used to show off for foreigners and might not be as interested in talking to you as you would expect.
The trip can start in Hanoi, the three or four days ride to Ha Giang through an easy road are a good warm up and give the opportunity to see an interesting city like Thai Nguyen, with a surprising historic background. But it’s in Ha Giang where the fun really starts. Ha Giang town is facing the mountains that have formed through the centuries a natural border with China. This one is the most obvious border, and many signs will remind you that you are not allowed to enter the restricted areas. But there is a more subtle border that you will notice as you pedal through those rice fields surrounded by vertical mountains which seem to spring out of nowhere: it’s the separation between the world that we call “civilized” and the one of people who have been living the same way in the last centuries. Ha Giang mountains are populated by 17 different ethnic groups such as the Hmong, the Dao or the Tai who have little in common with most of Vietnamese people. Unlike in more touristy places like Sapa or the Central Highlands, many of them won’t dare to go near a foreigner riding a bicycle. It’s an opportunity to observe a way of life that is vanishing everywhere in the world.
It’s not the only attraction. The landscapes as you climb Quan Ba (Heaven’s door) are impressive, the downhill from there to the charming Tam Som town (with stunning views of the town midway) is one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. It’s all up and down through the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, the first geopark in Vietnam, and cyclists shouldn’t try to cover a very long distance per day unless they are very fit. Dozens of miles pass without any proper village on sight, Tam Som and Yen Minh, for instance, are 50 kilometers away from each other. The toughest part of the trip is probably pushing the pedals during the first 25 kilometers from Yen Minh to Dong Van, but the reward is a wonderful and long downhill across a majestic rocky landscape. It’s worth to spend a night in Dong Van and take a full day to savor the 23 kilometers to Meo Vac through Ma Pi Leng pass, pedaling in a road that winds above a magnificent canyon. If the weather is sunny, the views will be mind-blowing, if it’s cloudy or hazy (very likely) you will have the chance to see a unique landscape, with some huge blocks of limestone emerging from the clouds and making you feel you are the king of the world.
*Photos by Eric San Juan