The Ha Giang Loop (pronounced Ha Zang) is a very popular motorbike loop in Vietnam’s extreme north, bordering China. It’s considered to have some of the most scenic and breathtaking scenery in the whole of Vietnam, packed with striking kasts, epic switchbacks, crazy steep gradients and rice paddies that seem to float on the side of vertical valleys.
This infamous loop has been on my (Sam’s) radar as a ‘must cycle’ ever since I got into touring. I’d heard so many mixed opinions on it’s difficulty. Some horror stories included pushing for hours, closed roads due to landslides and “impossible climbing”. But, the theme that was consistent with everyone I spoke to? – Ha Giang’s magnificent beauty!
NOTE: As such a popular route there’s already so much great advice already written about the Ha Giang Loop. So, instead of retreading old ground, we strongly advise that you check out the awesome blog over at Vietnamcoracle for a blow by blow rundown of the route.
You can find the blog we looked at and like – here
- The semi-loop we did was 233 kilometers
- 5,340 meters of climbing
- 5,460 meters of descending
- We averaged 38km per day
- 5-10 days depending on riding style if fully loaded
- 3-5 days if you’re going fast & light
- We took 6 days with a day off in Yen Minh
- We suggest taking it slow and really enjoying the scenery, people & energy.
- Limestone valleys
- Rice paddies
- Corn fields
- Ethic villages
- Crystal clear blue rivers
- Mountain passes
- Light – moderate traffic
- More rain
- Mostly paved with some rough gravel sections
- Roadworks can cause road closures, depending on time of year
- Some wet muddy sections but only for 3-5 km
- Slippery and wet in places, especially when rice farmers splash wet, muddy water across the road. I (Sam) slipped and fell off due to this, which was good fun.
- Unlike the majority of SE Asia, it can get a bit chilly high up on the loop. I wouldn’t say it was ‘cold’ but if you’re camping, I’d suggest bringing some warm clothes.
- It’s pretty wet all year round, so wet weather gear is a MUST
- Accommodation is plentiful and cheap. We camped 2 nights and stayed in home stays’ the rest of the time.
- Yeah, some of the loop is hilly & challenging but we did the whole loop fully loaded (Sam 35kg/Bec 25kg) and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
To hell with tradition
As it’s a motorbike loop, most people will follow QL4C & QL34 the whole time to complete the full loop. However, we were en route to Laos and so opted for a semi-loop with extra riding before & after. We believe we saw the very best of the loop, including the technical riding and super crazy steep gradients.
From Hanoi, we took a night bus to Cao Bang in the North East. Cao Bang is a sleepy little city framed by stunning mountains and a very special natural wonder. The world’s 4th widest waterfall – Ban Gioc. After the waterfall, the next day we headed towards the Chinese border and on towards the Ha Giang Loop.
Below, you’ll see our route for the semi-loop we did. If you’d like to see the extra section from Bao Lac to Cao Bang, which in truth, we actually preferred to the loop itself due to its remoteness and lack of people, you can find it here
Our thoughts & reflections
To be honest, it’s hard to split the Ha Giang Loop into succinct highlights as it’s all just so beautiful. But, below we’ve written a few words on what we absolutely loved and what we hope you will too…
The Ma Pi Leng Pass
The Ma Pi Leng Pass is an approximately 20 kilometer long mountain pass, on the Ha Giang Loop, connecting the towns of Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc. It is at an altitude of 1,500 m and has some of the most breathtaking scenery of the entire loop.
As you make your way up the potholed winding roads, the mountains’ thick mist blankets the air. Keep pushing through the mist, up the mountain and you will be rewarded with the Nho Que river. This turquoise, serpentine river snakes through the valley separating Vietnam’s extreme north and China’s Yunnan province.
Rice paddy architecture
There’s something truly special and different about the rice paddy architecture in this area of Vietnam. We saw a lot of beautiful paddies throughout SE Asia, but right across Ha Giang the rice paddies look like nothing else.
Due to how sheer the mountains are in this area, the farmers have designed their paddies in a way that makes them feel as though they’re floating. These modular rice paddies sit in harmony with the mountain, curving around its belly and covering the landscape in its beauty.
Switchback heaven…or hell
Again, not specific to any one part of the loop, but the amount of wonderful switchbacks that you’ll both climb (and swear at) and descend (and whoop) is just awesome!
The switchback cut through the mountains and while some are steep in sections, they tend to average at the 7-10% mark, which means you’ll spend 4-5 days in your granny gear – but that’s all part of it.
Our favourite switchback was on the last day (just after Quyet Tien). We were descending for about 40km towards the city of Ha Giang (we started from the east remember) and it was fantastic. Magical scenery, towering mountains, rice and corn paddies everywhere, ethic villages and of course, the dichotomy of feelings knowing that the loop was coming to an end.
An opportunity to fill our bellies with as much food as possible was on the horizon, but we were leaving behind the mountains, the stillness and the captivating beauty of The Ha Giang Loop.
We don’t really have a huge amount of lowlights as such. But, we’ve tried to think of things that we found a bit frustrating or things that we *think* some people might.
High season tourism
We cycled the loop in October which is considered just before the “high season” for tourism (November – January), but we both felt that it was still pretty tourist focused. It’s not as bad as some areas (like Hoi An or Ha Long Bay) but still, not super remote.
We found that the food choices in this part of Vietnam were pretty poor. Our choices in most towns were either western food (burgers, awful pizza & fries) or very inauthentic Vietnamese food like fried rice & pho.
Cook our own food
Due to the fact that heavy touring bikes and 30% hills don’t mix that well, we thought we’d only pack a little food and eat at restaurants. Which was a good idea, but we found the food options (for vegetarians) very limited. We ended up eating garlic fried rice and morning glory for almost every meal. Then, when we did venture out and tried something different… we ended up with food posioning. Maybe just our luck and the chances of it happening to you is very slim, but it was our experience none the less.
Is it difficult?
This is the question we’ve kind of been avoiding, because difficulty is all relative. But, what we will say is this…
…Bec completed the loop with only 8 weeks total cycling experience in her life. She’s about 55kg, her bike is 12kg and her panniers weigh 25kg. She only pushed when the road was muddy & wet, and comfortably climbed in the granny gear, grinding away all day.
I (Sam) have been on the road for 6 months, I weigh 75kg, my bike 15kg and my panniers 30kg. I was looking forward to doing the loop as a physical & cycling challenge. I didn’t find it tough personally and was able to cycle the whole thing without pushing. There were sections that I needed some cheeky hip hop to help me out a little, but generally it was a really amazing six days riding!
Please note: We cycled west, starting the loop from Na Phong, ending on Ha Giang city. please bear this in mind when planning your route. Use the Komoot map provided to check gradients further.
We already had some kms in the bank
We started from Cao Bang and had already spent two days cycling towards the loop, experiencing similar climbing and elevation… a kind of baby Ha Giang Loop if you like…
This meant that we knew what to expect and could plan the following 6 days with more accuracy. Mentally, this had a massive effect on Bec as she felt like she was already super capable going into the loop.