Are you planning your trip to North Vietnam, and there’s just too much to do? You might be tempted to hurry and tick off everything as fast as you can. But before you do, let me share with you my 6 reasons to go slowly when discovering Ha Giang & Cao Bang.
Classic travelers’ mistake? Hoping to do and see it all! Before going to a new destination, we dive into travel magazines, travel blogs, tour guidebooks and listen to friends who have been there. Yes, sources and inspirations are immense. Pictures, stories and the number of places you “must” discover are tempting your imagination. No doubt you’ll easily conclude you want it all!
Sure, if money and time were not limiting factors all would be well and good. But for most, that’s not the case. The result for too many is creating a crammed itinerary where ticking off places seems to prevail over experiencing them.
Vietnam is a country that may look small on your map. But opening the guidebook and seeing the pictures, it seems to offer so much to do… And yes, it does! Vietnam truly has an amazing amount and variety of things to do and unearth. Therefore, as the exploring traveler you are, you quickly start adding places to the limited days you have available. However, you might be forgetting the time it takes to get from one place to the other. Result? Well, you can spend one-third of your holiday waiting for usually delayed budget flights and spending sleepless nights in crammed buses or trains.
Now, Ha Giang and Cao Bang may look even smaller on your map. What is more, you might easily ignore that this is a mountainous region with mountain roads. And these are often narrow, twisting and on some stretches in disrepair or under road construction. Even the most experienced motorbike rider may not average more than 40 km/h. In other words, traveling the Ha Giang Loop and/or the Cao Bang Loop naturally takes more time than you may first have imagined.
I’ve had the joy of travelling these roads many more times than most. And I’ve talked about and shared the experience with many travelers. That’s why I’d like to share with you my 6 reasons to go slowly when discovering Ha Giang & Cao Bang.
1. The Beauty
We have all heard about and experienced surround sound. However, have you ever experienced surround beauty? If not, then the motorbike loops you can do in Ha Giang and Cao Bang offer just that. It’s all around you. You travel through a landscape that you think is one of the most amazing you ever seen. Then the road makes a sharp bend, twist you over another rise and… a completely new view and landscape surrounds you! And it’s even more stunning than the one before! And so it goes on, and on, and on.
Cameras, drones and GoPros might be magical devices to capture your holiday. However, there’s no way they can really depict the magic beauty that surrounds you here. That said, having enough storage on your devices is a must. You’ll make so many stops to try to picture it! Just remember that the biggest storage bank is your brain, your eyes and, in this case, probably also your heart.
The number of travelers that have fallen head over heels in love with Ha Giang and Cao Bang are countless. If you don’t believe me, just see the reviews of QT on TripAdvisor or Google. The ever-climbing rice terraces, the deep valleys, the high karst peaks, the stunning waterfalls, the pine forests, the barren stone hills, the limestone caves, the emerald blue rivers, the lush corn fields are all picture-frames of a unique landscape that should be experienced and not just passed through.
2. The People
Ha Giang has 23 recognized ethnic minority groups, and Cao Band has at least 12. This makes these two provinces some of the most diverse in Vietnam. What is more, as both provinces often have been overlooked by visitors to Vietnam, their unique culture and traditions have been well preserved.
Each ethnic group will have its own language, lifestyle and cultural heritage. Particularly women wear traditional attire both at home and in the farm. The clothing is distinct and different for each group. As a temporary visitor, it may be hard to distinguish one from the other. Nonetheless, it certainly enhances the color of the social landscape.
But don’t treat and see the people as photo objects or interesting items in the landscape. Take the time to interact. And don’t give handouts of money or candy for anything. Language barriers aside, smiles and body language go a long way. In genuine homestays and over fantastic home-cooked dinners, interactions become likely. Still, stopping to join a table with locals for tea or chatting with children on their way back from school may be as rewarding.
When entering the colorful markets or local shop you are likely to get the same price as the local person. Cheating or having special tourist prices is very uncommon. So, please leave your recently acquired bargaining skills from elsewhere in Asia aside. This innocence or honesty will only remain if travelers offer mutual respect!
The hard ship of tending and farming in these landscapes keeps people among the poorest in Vietnam. It’s tough work and a hard life. If you have the courage, please ask to join for an hour of rice planting or harvest and you’ll know what I mean. There might be some giggle about your skills, but you’d be welcomed to try.
3. Your Motorbike Skills
Let me be honest. To me, there’s only one way to discover Ha Giang and Cao Bang. It’s on a motorbike. More honesty? Not all that attempt it are skilled enough. Your scooter experience in Cat Ba Island, Hoi An or in the Greek archipelago has not necessarily prepared you for these mountains.
If you’re not super skilled, you can save up some money and go safely behind one of QT guides. But if you still want to attempt to do it by yourself, well, just give yourself the time. Don’t try to do it in the minimum of days. Acknowledge your skill level and don’t attempt too long daily legs of your loop. While you may think you’re a master of mountain roads on your third day, you’re not! Maintain that slow speed, both for safety and enjoyment of the surround beauty. If travelling in a group, then adapt the speed to the least skilled and not vice versa.
4. The Weather
I have had the opportunity to travel through the grandiose Ma Pi Leng mountain pass in both picture-perfect clear sunny weather and through thick fog. Both are thrilling and a life-time experience. Like elsewhere, mountains have their own micro-climate. And it means weather changes quickly and unpredictably. The ‘promised’ weather on your favorite weather site may have told you sun. The mountains may still offer you rain or the other way around.
“Bad” weather does not prevent a motorbike adventure. With adopted speed, it might not even make it more dangerous. It might just not be as pleasant. In mountains, the statistically most likely time for fog or rain is mornings and late afternoons. Again, budget for extra days. If the weather is perfect, you will never regret it. And if it isn’t as good, you can adjust your trip and not necessarily be forced to drive through the heaviest rainstorm.
5. The Things To Do
This blog is not about things to do. I just wish to point out there is plenty. As travelers just recently caught their eyes on Ha Giang and Cao Bang, even the most famous spots are not as touristic as elsewhere. Only a few years ago, resources like Lonely Planet hardly mentioned these areas. That is quickly changing. However, these two provinces cover a vast area. There are many beautiful spots that are still ‘undiscovered’. They can be your gem to come across.
You don’t have to climb the Lung Cu flag tower to get a good view. Climb your own mountain or slope for a purely individual best view in the world. Organized trekking is not much developed in this region, but it doesn’t prevent you from parking your bike and head out on any random mountain path and see where it leads.
Sleeping in a genuine homestay is also great. But if you arrive late and leave early in the morning, you’ll see and share very little in the home and the village. Spending the following full day by just relaxing, walking the village or even partake in some daily task with your host family can give you a completely different experience.
The point is, besides the sites mentioned in guidebooks and blogs, this region offers unique and individual experiences if you give yourself the time and courage to do so.
6. The Hazards
Roads are by good reasons hazardous places. Vietnam’s mountain roads may present a few more than you bargained for. While staying on the main roads, you can expect them to be tarmacked. However, you’ll encounter other roads, with much less traffic, that were never built for the number of vehicles that now travels them. So, expect potholes of different sizes.
What’s more? The small gravel. Constant repair work along the way and rain that comes down the mountains side both leave small pebbled stones on the sides. This gravel probably takes down most riders of all hazards. Be careful in corners. Reduce speed and avoid any heavy use of breaks on this surface.
And there’s also animals! Domestic animals, such as dogs, often use the road as a great warm sleeping place. Mountain chickens are delicious (although the meat is a bit tough) when served for dinner, but an annoyance on the road. They tend to decide to cross it at their own convenience. At any time. Small black mountain pigs are not much unlike chicken. Then, we have water buffaloes. They might look scary, but they’re pretty harmless. Unless you run into it, or rather it’s running over you! I am still to hear someone admitting going down by sliding into their mighty heaps of shit as well. That’s maybe so that even I’d rather blame the small gravel than such incident!
Stay safe, respect your environment and its people and you’ll have a great time!
If you’re still uncertain about how long to stay in Ha Giang, you can read our article Is The 3 Day Ha Giang Loop Tour Long Enough? Hopefully, we’ll have another one for Cao Bang soon!