How to Tackle the Ha Giang Loop (Without a Guide)

How to tackle the ha giang loop

When we first arrived in Ha Giang, the ‘Ha Giang Loop’ was completely unknown to us. As soon as we started exploring the city however, we realised that it was all people talked about; easily the main attraction of the province. We then took it upon ourselves to do a bit of research…

Everything we saw on the internet outlined an ‘extreme motorbike tour’ (honestly the word extreme is on every single blog) Ryan had only driven a scooter for two weeks in Bali so initially, we thought the Ha Giang loop was probably out of the question. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to join up with a tour, or sensibly avoid the whole thing.

Sure enough, within the week we were geared up and ready to go. Politely ignoring all advice and the rainy weather forecast, for some reason, we figured it’d probably be fine. I can fully disclose now that we neither fell off OR got arrested for not having the correct license! This seems to be a rarity for the loop, so we felt pretty smug after it all. However, at times the roads did get pretty rough and it’s always good to know what you’re getting yourself into. So, here’s a guide for the utterly clueless about how to tackle the Ha Giang Loop in four days.

Renting a motorbike in Ha Giang

Renting a Motorbike

As soon as you arrive in Ha Giang you will notice that the city is overrun with motorbike rentals. It’s easy to get all the equipment you could possibly need (make sure you have good gloves and layers because it gets pretty chilly right up north) but this bike is going to go through a lot with you so choose your rental wisely.

We rented a bike from Mr Bẩy Motor Bike Rental, a small shop right at the entrance of the city. The service was excellent: we were able to store all of our larger bags securely there while we were away, we were provided with a map and advice on how to break up our journey, we also stayed there for one night when we got back- a good shower and a comfy bed was very much needed!

Although we were initially dubious about going for an automatic bike, we decided that now was probably not the time to learn to ride manual. The bike we got was a 135cc Automatic Honda Nuovo, and it was such a trusty steed! It got us up even the steepest, most winding roads and fared well over the rough rocky bits. The Loop is definitely doable without needed to drive a manual. There was also two of us on one bike: completely fine.

We hopped on the bike naively and a bit nervously, and headed for the hills… 

Day one of Ha Giang Loop

Day One

The first day takes you through Ha Giang city then straight into the hills. We followed the river which somehow turns from a muddy grey to a bright turquoise as soon as you get away from the bustling town. Instantly thrust into nature, it is obvious instantly that there is some beautiful scenery in store.

The roads weren’t too bad on day one. Mostly fine other than a few building sites as you drive out of Ha Giang. For small stretches, the road is replaced with rocky patches. As long as you approach them slowly they won’t be a problem.

The scenic highlight of day one was the Quan Ba Pass; an amazing view of rice terraces and rolling hills as far as the eye can see.

We stopped in a town called Tam Son (about an hour and a half into our journey) for lunch which was a perfect place to pause and refuel (both us and the bike). The town is full of little eateries, so you’ll be spoilt for choice. After Tam Son, it took another hour and a half to get to Yen Minh which is where we spent our first night.

There is no need to book ahead at all for this journey. Each town is full of hostels and Homestays, so it’s very easy to just show up somewhere and get a bed for the night and a tasty dinner. In Yen Minh, we stayed at 2A Homestay and Coffee. This place was welcoming and comfortable and the evening meal was delicious. We enjoyed it with the family who lived there as well as fellow travellers conquering the Loop.

Ha Giang Loop Day Two

Day Two

After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we were on the road again. We had heard that day two is notoriously difficult; the day which you’re most likely to crash. I’m not sure if this is as much down to the roads as unfounded post-day-one-over-confidence. Either way, we approached day two with a ‘slow and steady’ mentality.

As soon as you get out of Yen Minh the twists and turns begin. Climbing straight up to the mountains, expect steep hairpin bends. The steepest incline degree I saw any sign for was 10%, so as long as your bike can handle that you should be fine.

On day two our aim was to reach Dong Van to spend the night. If you head straight there it can be quite a short and undemanding day. Most people however, choose to make a slight detour up to Lung Cu, a town in the very North where you can walk up to an unorthodox Chinese border crossing and see the iconic Lung Cu flag pole.

It was incredible to be able to look over at the Chinese mountains, however, this part of the journey was where it all got a bit ridiculous. There is only one road in and out of Lung Cu and if it so happens that the road is closed because of roadworks my best advice would be to turn around… We didn’t have this advice of course so (naturally) ended up following a local around a ‘shortcut’ to get to the town. This was easily the most insane road we tackled (‘road’ is a stretch). Full of rocks, we were pretty much just driving straight through a forest which also, wonderfully, happened to be on the edge of a steep drop. The worst part? Once we got to Lung Cu we realised there was only one way out again…

Although it was a stressful moment at the time, we can look back and laugh at how crazy the road was. On our return journey we also somehow got in the middle of a stranded biker crew so at least we had some company for the madness (even if we were completely out of place on our little scooter).

Drama over, we finally arrived at Dong Van where we checked into a little homestay (one of many in the centre of town).

 Ma Pi Leng Pass

Day Three

Day three of the Han Giang Loop is particularly breath-taking. Soon after leaving Dong Van we drove through the Ma Pi Leng Pass which was simply incredible. The views over the valley feature the turquoise Nho Que river: an essential stop for an obligatory photo shoot.

After the pass, we stopped at Meo Vac for lunch and coffee, then got back on the road heading for Du Gia. The roads on this stretch of the journey were full of potholes, especially when approaching a small town, but the journey went pretty smoothly otherwise.

After getting settled in our Du Gia homestay (BB homestay) we headed out on a walk to see the Du Gia waterfall. The walk took us around one hour, but the view of the waterfall made it all worth it.

Du Gia was my favourite stop overall. The village was tiny and made you feel like you’d truly reached the middle of nowhere. The people at the homestay were so welcoming and the overall atmosphere of the place was so friendly. As an added bonus, we were also there for a Saturday market, so the streets were lively and bustling.

 Roads on the Ha Giang Loop

Day Four

Up to this point in the journey, we had been so lucky with the weather. Of course, our luck had to run out at some point. We left Du Gia in the rain and as soon as we climbed higher into the mountains we were fully engulfed by clouds. As if the loop hadn’t been enough of a challenge we now couldn’t see much more than a metre in front of the bike. I was very thankful that we’d seen such amazing views during the other days, or else day four would have been disappointing!

The extra challenge kept us well entertained though and, thankfully, didn’t throw us off. We took the road back up north back towards Tam Son. This part of the road was probably in the worst condition. Whole patches between Du Gia and Tam Son just turned completely into rocky trails which were quite a challenge.

Between rain, fog and poor road conditions, the last day really tested us. But when we reached Tam Son, all we had to do was to get back to Ha Giang, a road which we’d already tackled on day one.

We arrived back at Mr. Bẩy’s soaking and cold but exhilarated and SO happy we’d decided to take on The Loop. The journey definitely had its difficult moments, but the views easily made it all worth it. I am also glad we decided to do it solo, as the roads in the North were so quiet; the moments when it was just the two of us, looking out over the colossal mountains felt surreal and the landscape was honestly breath-taking.

So, the takeaway message: It is doable! Even for those who don’t have loads of motorbike experience. As long as you drive slowly, stop regularly, take in the views and be careful, it is possible to complete the loop without a tour. It was probably the most amazing experience we’ve had in Vietnam so far so if you are debating whether or not to take it on, I say give it a go! 

The Ultimate Port Barton Travel Guide

Port Barton Beach

We arrived into Port Barton with little knowledge and few expectations. After many laborious internet searches via sluggish hostel WIFI systems, we had gathered that El Nido was the ‘place to be’ when visiting Palawan. Considering we’d flown all the way to this remote-feeling island and the long bus journey between Puerto Princessa and El Nido felt daunting, we decided to break up our journey by visiting the quieter town of Port Barton.

The town was easy to reach- we booked via Recaro transport and the minibus picked us up directly from our hostel in Puerto Princessa. Contrary to what we’d heard, the bus left on time and actually only took about 3 hrs 30 mins. It was not a comfortable journey though; be ready to get snuggled up way too close with the stranger next to you. When you arrive, you have to pay an environmental fee (50 pesos pp) and then it’s just a short wander into the town.

‘Town’. Ok, that’s already misleading…

Port Barton itself is more of a village. It consists just of two main streets and the seafront. Although the village is quaint, there are a few cafés and bars peppered among locals’ homes, as well as plenty of options for a cheap place to stay (we had pre-booked, but many pensions were advertising free rooms for the same night, so you might not need to plan ahead)

It’s what lays outside the perimeters of the village however, that makes Port Barton a ‘must’ on your Palawan itinerary…

Port Barton Jungle

The Jungle

We stayed in the aptly named Jungle Bar which was about an hour’s (risky) walk from Port Barton. Although we enjoyed our first trek via Port Baron Beach, the mangrove forest, and the outskirts of the jungle (bugs and rather large lizards galore!) there are other ways of getting there. The bar itself organises a truck that runs between Port Barton and the jungle. Alternatively, you can catch a boat from Port Barton Beach to White Beach. This option will cost between 100 and 150 pesos per person and takes around 10 minutes- totally worth it for the scenery.

From White Beach, you can walk (about 15 minutes) up to Jungle bar. Even if you don’t stay there, it’s definitely worth the journey just for a meal or an ice-cold beer. The views from up there are simply incredible; with the rich green jungle in one direction and the island filled lagoon in the other, you’ll be mesmerised. Call by in the evening and witness a stunning sunset followed by a night sky full of stars and you’ll never want to leave.

We didn’t find many organised trails through the jungle, but some locals offer tours of their village which will take you up into the hills for a day if you’re craving more jungle-y goodness.

Paradise Beach Palawan

Island Hopping

Perhaps my favourite experience in Port Barton was the island-hopping tour. At 800 pesos we found it crazy good value for money; you get a whole day’s tour of some breath-taking places and just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, a tasty picnic lunch is included.

From White Beach (which is stunning in itself: a turquoise water and palm tree paradise) the tour took us to some great snorkelling spots, to a turtle watching point (and yes, spotting a majestic sea turtle is pretty much guaranteed), Paradise Beach (the clue’s in the name) and the beach bar (a tiny patch of sand in the middle of the lagoon where you can find some huge starfish)

The tour was definitely the best way to see these stunning places and they truly did all take my breath away. We just booked the tour through our accommodation, but any boatman will be able to give you advice on how to book.

Pamuayan Waterfall

Waterfalls

The final highlight of our stay in Port Barton was hiking to Pamuayan Waterfall. From Port Barton village the journey up to the falls took us about an hour and a half on foot, although you can get most of the way by scooter if you prefer. The majority of the journey was a simple path, but the last bit was a bit more of a scramble- you’ll have to cross some streams so waterproof shoes are a good shout (sadly we didn’t get this memo) There is a small donation point near the falls as well, so be sure to bring some change. You can also grab a refreshment there.

When we reached the falls we were super happy that we had bothered with the trek. With a perfect jungle canopy above and greenness surrounding you, it’s as if you’ve found the inspiration for the original infinity pool. The pool at the foot of the waterfall gets deep enough to swim in so make sure you bring swimming stuff (yet another thing that slipped our mind- underwear it is!)

So, whether you’re a fan of vast green jungles, epic views, or fantastic snorkelling spots you’ll find what you’re looking for around this quiet and lesser-trodden place. Definitely worth a stop-off if you’re planning on visiting El Nido, its more touristic neighbour. 

The Journey Through Java: Yogyakarta

Prambanan Temple

One of my favourite parts of travelling is turning up to a new city that you know next to nothing about. Sometimes these unknown cities prove to be underwhelming, a brief pitstop in your journey that comes and goes with little impact. Some however, turn out to be perfect surprises. These places are perhaps quieter than big tourist destinations, with a more ‘untouched’ quality. Yogyakarta was our first pleasant surprise.

The main reason we visited was for the famous temples. The city is surrounded by breath-taking religious relics. The to the North you have Prambanan (9th-century Hindu temple) and Borobudur (9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple) We spent a day exploring Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia and the whole place was truly amazing. You know the setting from the Jungle Book, where King Louie lives, ruling over his monkey empire from the relics of an ancient temple? Singing that iconic tune? Well that’s the closest reference point I have for this impressive site. And I challenge anyone to visit Pranbanan temple and not come out humming ‘ooby doo, I wanna be like you-oo-oooo…”

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As well as the main temple, it’s definitely worth having a wander around the rest of the historic site. Other, smaller, temples such as Sewu will also take your breath away and be far less rammed with tourists and selfie sticks.

After taking in these historic wonders, we decided to spend an unplanned day exploring the city centre. One of the wonderful things about Yogyakarta was how friendly all the locals were. Many seemed eager to share a bit of the city’s culture with us: what shows were going on, where the best places to visit were and when to go, and a bit about the local art forms, particularly Batik.

At one point we found ourselves in a small Batik gallery above a shop on Malioboro street (the bright and bustling shopping district  of the city). The owner of the gallery was lovely, offering us a free cup of tea and talking us through the fascinating process of Batik printing. Tourist trap or not, it was interesting to learn about this custom and see the creation of some beautiful batik prints first hand. Also, the general push to promote local artists was so nice to see.

After our batik lesson we continued with our sightseeing mission, exploring Yogyakarta’s other attractions such as the Taman Sari Water Palace and the bright bohemian neighbourhood surrounding it. The street art, murals and brightly painted houses that characterised this area turned it into an Instagram-able gem- definitely worth a wander!

After a days’ worth of city sightseeing we were desperately in need of nourishment (nourishment… coffee… whatever you want to call it) and Yogyakarta did not let us down on this front. After visiting the Water Palace we called in at a small, almost hidden café which specialised in the famous Luwak coffee.

If you haven’t heard of it before here’s a bit about the odorous origin of luwak coffee: Once the coffee beans have grown in a plantation, small furry creatures called civet cats come along, gobble them up, and right on cue, poop them back out. The poop is then harvested and processed to make the infamous brew. Pretty gross right? But people spend a LOT of money on this shit (pun completely intended). A cup of Luwak coffee can fetch up to $50 and you could even fork out $100 for a bag. Something about the fermentation process going on in these coffee cats makes the coffee highly desirable and, to be fair, pretty tasty. We got to try this rare treat and even had the pleasure of meeting one of the plantation’s civet cats in person. She was called Louise and was very friendly.

Other than luwak coffee, there are loads of lovely little places to grab a refreshment on Yogyakarta. If you’re on a strict budget there is also no need to worry; we had a delicious meal at a quaint veggie café called Fortunate Coffee and it cost about a fiver in all for both of us. The food was just what we needed, and the staff were friendly, I would strongly recommend for anyone after some budget veggie grub!

Yogyakarta is a small city, and it doesn’t take too long to explore. Saying this, the region is surrounded by natural beauty and plenty of opportunities for day trips: caving, mountain climbing, and sand boarding to name a few. If you’re ever in Java, it is not an area to be missed!

The Five Travellers You Become in Singapore

1. The Culture Vulture


One of the things you’d be blind not to notice while wandering the streets of Singapore is the crazy mix of cultures; East meets west; big business meets small village-like streets; Chinatown meets Little India. The city is the O.G melting pot- belonging to no one and therefore everyone.

The transport system is fantastic in the city, so during our time there we took to metro everywhere. This meant that every time we wandered back up from the air-conditioned underground we were hit in the face with the sudden humidity and a completely new cultural backdrop to wherever we were last.

Chinatown is a fantastic example of this- if you’re there definitely check it out. The town sprawls out in every direction, centred around the spectacularly ornate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The architectural style of the traditional shop fronts spans hundreds of years and this gives you an instant insight into the history of the Chinese community in Singapore. Be sure to check out this area as the sun goes down; the hanging lanterns that flood the streets into a warm light every evening give Chinatown a wonderful glow. The markets and the food here (more on that later) are worth the trip alone.

Little India and Arab Street showcase yet more cultural diversity. The brightly coloured houses and street art that brings Little India to life make wandering these streets a cultural experience in itself. The diverse places of worship, often side by side, seem to compete with their bright decoration but stand in harmony otherwise. For food, art, and architecture from all over the world, within walking distance, definitely choose Singapore.

2. The Foodie

Singapore serves up a crazy array of snacks. From the traditional dishes to the millennial oddities you’re pretty much guaranteed to try something that you’ve never sampled anywhere else.

The best place to start is at one of Singapore’s many Hawkers. The Hawker centres are collections of small food vendors and cafes based around a large seating area. The idea is that you sample a little bit from a few places and make your own mix-and match banquet. We went to the Newton Hawker and tried some great dishes accompanied by soursop juice- super refreshing!

Chilli crab is the top traditional dish- we saw it served all over the city. A full crab served up with a hot sauce, I wouldn’t even know where to start with that dish. Ryan and I are both vegetarians, however, and although we were tempted by Singapore’s wide array of seafood specialities, we had to look a bit further for veggie grub.

Chinatown came to our rescue. Amongst the collection of authentic street food trucks which pepper the narrow streets, there was a vegan stall (‘Hello Baby’) which served delicious alternatives to the classic dishes. We tried the vegan chilli crab which was made up from pulled mushrooms and the ionic chilli sauce.

Perhaps my favourite food venture in Singapore was, admittedly, a little less traditional. Two words: Selfie coffee. It literally is just that, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Tucked away down one of the tiny lanes near Arab Street, lit up by eclectic street art, we found Selfie Coffee. When you order, you take your selfie and wait as it is seemingly magically transferred on to the top of your latte. Super heavy on the cream front and an odd experience all round, but I would definitely snap up (ey…) this rare opportunity to drink your own face.

3. The History Buff

There are many things that give Singapore a uniqueness today, but its singularity throughout history is also really fascinating. As I’ve mentioned, you can see ongoing overlapping of cultures as you walk around the city and the reason for this lies in Singapore’s dynamic history.

As we discovered at the National History Museum, there is little known of the ‘original’ residents of Singapore. Located at the tip of the Malay peninsula, the city has always been a vital point for trade in Southeast Asia. After this trade route was monopolised by the Dutch (up until 1819), the British made their mark. Endeavours such as the East India company relied on Singapore’s strategic position and it was, therefore, a strong part of the British colony.

Even before these colonial days, Singapore was primarily used as a trade port. This led to Chinese merchants settling in particular areas and a specific cultural history known as ‘Peranakan’ has evolved from there. There is a Peranakan museum for anyone who wants to get a bit more niche after getting an overall insight at the National History museum.

If you’re interested in this aspect of Singaporean history, it is also worth taking a stroll down Telok Ayer Street. Tucked away right next to the business district this street seems to take you back in time. It was where the first Chinese merchants settled, and it has retained its charm and character ever since. It is also a great place to stop for a coffee and marvel at the mad cultural diversity of the whole district.

4. The Eco Warrior

We’ve seen planet Earth II, so we all know that Singapore is making a HUGE push to become a greener city. From a mass clean of the rivers (which started in 1977 under the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) to Gardens by the Bay, Singapore has gradually been encouraging wildlife to return to the city and doing its part to build a more sustainable future.

Within the crazy complex which is Gardens by the Bay, the Supertree Grove is the real show stopper. You’ll have seen these before; insane towering structures reaching up to 50 metres tall, flowers and greenery crawling up their sides, illuminated by mesmerising pink and purple lights. The trees and their surrounding greenery have become a haven for insects and birds that may otherwise not prosper in the city environment.

If we needed any proof of the insect activity in the Supertree Grove we certainly got it. As dusk fell and the scent of the flowers grew more pungent the insects met with their nemesis: SO MANY BATS. The bats were not afraid of humans either, weaving and winding their ways through the crowd (some less successfully than others, one poor girl took a bat straight to the face), trying to catch as many insects as possible. It was pretty crazy to see natures food chain in action on such a concentrated scale. I can appreciate this phenomenon now, but of course at the time I was shitting myself.

At the other side of Gardens by the Bay you can explore the Flower Dome and the Cloud Dome. Within these fascinating structures (massive greenhouses in the shape of, well, domes) you’ll catch glimpses of plants that you’d struggle to come across anywhere else in the world. Housing many endangered botanical species, they play such an important part for conservation, a massively important cause.

5. The Art Critic

The final character you will find yourself slipping into while roaming this vibrant city is the art critic. With so many places to view so many kinds of art, Singapore is any art lovers dream.

The art venues around the city are arguably as enticing as the art itself. The National Gallery is located in what used to be Singapore’s court house and is surrounded by impressive stately buildings.

You can find a great trove of modern art within the Gillman barracks complex, with each small building showcasing a different artist. I personally loved this set up, jumping from place to place rather than spending all day traipsing around one huge building.

For something a little different, check out the ArtScience Museum. When we went there was a ‘When Science Meets Art’ exhibition on which served up some incredible interactive visuals. Again, the building itself is fascinating; located at Marina Bay Sands you can take in a breath-taking view of the cityscape after playing around with the glowing digital waterfalls that the Science Museum exhibits.

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So whatever kind of traveller you are, whatever tickles your fancy, Singapore is pretty much guaranteed to take your breath away. With so much to learn, see, taste and try, I’m sure that you’ll become obsessed with this diverse city!

A City Guide to Surreal Singapore

Utopian is the first impression I had of Singapore, or at least one version of utopia (which is probably reserved for the rich and famous). The city is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Jungle like parks and hike trails break up the towering metropolis. I think it is this juxtaposition between nature and man-made dominance that makes this place feel so unique. Every snap we take on the camera looks peculiar and collage-like, as if someone has just plastered a cut-out forest in front of some avant-garde skyscrapers- weird. Despite its strangeness, it is quite spectacular, clean and clinical yet still rich in life and culture (when you know where to look).

Gillman Barracks was today’s gem. After a short search in the sweltering heat, we stumbled across the first of many small buildings (former army barracks), all of which housed a small showcase of modern art. There was something brilliantly “middle finger up to the man” about the very concept of these liberal art pieces being celebrated in an ex-military complex. We learnt a lot about the history of conceptual art in Singapore, which was heavily criticised for its liberalism, leading to many artists’ incarceration during the 1990s.

The photography festival that is currently taking place was another highlight. Nguan’s pastel depictions of the Singaporean everyday made me all the more excited to go and explore each obscure city corner for myself.

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After the barracks, we began to wander up the forest trail, up to Henderson Waves and mount Faber. When I talk about how the city interacts with nature, THIS is what I mean. The elevated paths lift you to tree level and if it wasn’t for the disconcerting glimpses of tower blocks between the leaves you might believe you really are in a jungle. The trail was manageable and paid off with the stunning cityscape views, but I would be hesitant to attempt it in the humid midday heat; an evening stroll taking in the sunset and finishing looking over the twinkling lights of the harbour suited us perfectly.

Ok, even I’m surprised I’ve got this far without talking about one of Singapore’s most iconic attractions: Gardens by the Bay. We visited these insane gardens on our first full day here. Weighed down with the confusion of jet-lag and not yet adjusted to the intense heat (apparently actually drinking water helps this…pro tip) we followed the path of escalators through a fancy mall (The Shoppes) with anticipation at an all-time high. Ryan described the journey into the gardens as “what it would probably be like to enter Jurassic Park” and that’s about as accurately as I could describe it.

When we finally saw them, we realised that not even David Attenborough in planet Earth 2 had done these towering beauties justice. I can easily say that the Supertree Grove is unlike anything I have ever seen before; absolutely mental. After a walk around the flower dome and the cloud dome (I challenge anyone not to be enticed by that title), we took to the treetops to experience the Skywalk. Seeing the colossal man-made trees up close was incredible, and the view of the city was second to none. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder we found ourselves relaxing on the grass and watching the epic light show. On the night we went the theme was “a night at the musicals”. Honestly, if “seeing 22 meter high supertrees light up majestically in tune to The Phantom of the Opera“ isn’t already on your bucket list then it should be.

We both watched the show in awe. Completely cheesy and simply ridiculous, we still fell for the theatrics and we fell hard. Both Ryan and I watched in stoic silence, afterwards humbly confessing that we MAY OR MAY NOT have shed a single tear at the crescendo of “I dreamed a dream”. Neither of us have even watched Les Mis… Those trees had got us good.

Stay tuned for more Singapore travel tips coming your way soon…