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: Jakarta

Jakarta Buildings

If you ever want to experience culture shock, without travelling particularly far, fly from Singapore to Jakarta. At a first impression, the two cities seem to be complete opposites. Everything clinical and hyper-organised about Singapore was suddenly whipped away from beneath our feet. The comfortable, air conditioned, polite world we’d just come from now felt like another planet.

After we managed to figure out which cramped bus was headed for the city centre, faffed around for a while at the train station-come-bus-interchange, sweated our way to the bus stop nearest our hostel, our haven was finally in sight. There was just one more challenge to face: crossing the road. Honestly, I think you should get some kind of recognition (perhaps a certificate?) for every road you manage to successfully navigate in Jakarta: the roads are CHAOS.

Ryan and I, two polite and nervous Brits, stared across at our would-be home for the next two nights. The Wonderloft hostel is painted bright yellow and looks incredibly inviting after you’ve trekked across the busy city with a backpack. But for a minute there, I didn’t think we’d actually manage to get to the front door. Anyway, this crossing the road saga probably isn’t the insightful and informative travel info you tuned in for… Although you’ll be happy to know we made it in the end. I never quite mastered the art of confidently walking into traffic, one authoritative hand outstretched in a ‘stop’ motion, but Ryan took it in his stride (perhaps the traffic stopping power went to his head?)

Other than the road crossing drama, our few days in Jakarta went pretty smoothly. It is a big city and could be given much more time for a thorough exploration, but with the short time we had, we mainly stayed around the old town area. Fatahillah Square turned out to be a great place to start. Flanked by museums on all sides you have an instant selection of arts and culture to choose from. I somehow got my way and managed to drag Ryan to the Wayang puppet museum (instead of the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics or the Jakarta History Museum) which was rich in Indonesian culture, but super creepy.

The puppets were all intricately decorated and the craftsmanship behind each style was amazing. Each piece was initially made as part of a Wayang performance, in which the puppets would be used to tell traditional folk stories. As impressive as the puppets were, and as much as we appreciated the artwork, wandering through those dimly lit rooms full of menacing looking characters without any other humans in sight proved enough to give anyone the creeps. Getting back into the scorching daylight and managing (quite skilfully) to avoid what was shaping up to be a perfect slasher film premise came as a relief.

As we’d already seen in Singapore, Jakarta’s colonial history was difficult to avoid. We ate at cafe Batavia which had a balcony overlooking the old town square and the whole vibe of the place, from the architecture to the framed black and white pictures of British royals, was heavily colonial. It seemed strange in relation to the rest of the bustling city.

Jakarta is a shockingly ‘real’ city, compared with the metropolitan dreamland that is Singapore. It definitely grounded us back in reality. The hectic life there was so interesting to be a part of, even in the brief whirlwind of a couple of days. Creepy puppets and death defying road crossings may not be the regular tourist itinerary, but I enjoyed Indonesia’s fast-paced capital nonetheless!

What I’m reading in Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians

Wherever I go, I want to make sure I’ve got a book to accompany me. Seeing the world from the novel come to life around you as you explore a new city is such a perfect way to travel; and as an English literature graduate, my natural way to learn. Admittedly, I wanted to start this trip with something pretty light. Something I could easily get into during the THIRTEEN HOUR flight. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan certainly did the job.

At times this book was deeply satirical (I hope) and at times completely ridiculous. The characters were pretty standard, fairly 2-dimensional yet humorous, with gossip and the social stratosphere always at the forefront of their minds. As I read, I found myself far more invested in the descriptions of the city- the food, the local haunts, the different districts- than in the interweaving plot lines.

Don’t get me wrong, the stories were enjoyable. At the centre of the narrative there was a Romeo and Juliet-esk melodrama. A VERY rich young man falls in love with a (wait for it) SLIGHTLY LESS rich woman. I know, shock horror. I imagine you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear how that one will unfold, but I’m afraid you’ll have to go out and buy the book yourself.

Image result for crazy rich asians book

I think that if I hadn’t been using this book half as a travel guide (ok fine, most of the places weren’t exactly in my backpackers’ budget but they did mention the occasional Hawker centre…) then I might have grown tired of the laborious lists. Ok Kevin, you know Singapore very well, we get it. For my purposes though, this narrative style worked perfectly. All this name dropping of specific streets, districts and eateries heightened my anticipation to find them all in real life. This detail was also great for giving a poor tourist like me little imaginary glimpses into the interiors of the super flashy buildings that I could merely gaze at from the outside. Reading about rich kids Nick and Rachel flirting over Singapore Slings, toes dipped in the infinity pool on the rooftop garden of Sands Skypark, was BASICALLY as good as the real thing, right?! Probably…

Some of the description in the novel really did pin-down the metropolis though. When new-girl-on-the-block Rachel first catches sight of the city the view that greets her will be familiar for anyone who’s visited:

“The view she could glimpse from the plain did not resemble some romantic terrain swathed in midst- rather, it was a dense metropolis of skyscrapers glittering in the evening sky, and from six thousand feet Rachel could already feel the pulsating energy that was one of the world’s financial powerhouses”

This was spot on. You can feel the power of Singapore as soon as you catch a glimpse of that crazy cityscape. It is certainly no surprise that it has become a playground for the rich.

For now however, I’m going to have to accept that this crazy rich lifestyle will remain the stuff of novels. Time to bring by backpacking head down from the clouds and pick up my next book!

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.

DSC_0106.JPG

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…

On the road again: Southeast Asia

After saving up for the past year (working an actual job, oh my) I’m off on adventures again, and plan to share all the best bits! I’ll probably also share the strangest bits, tastiest bits, most picturesque bits and, should they happen, the most challenging bits.

At the beginning of October, my boyfriend Ryan and I flew from London to Singapore, on an insanely cheap flight by the way- check out Norwegian air if you’re on a budget. 13 hours later we stepped out into the super fancy Changi airport (I’ve never been so hyped for smooth airport security and plant-based interior design), and then into the CRAZY HUMID city streets.

Before we arrived at our lovely Air BnB, in the Choa Chu Kang area, I had already seen the biggest wasp in existence (chronic fear of buzzy things over here) and had serious fears that the humidity would be the end of me, badly chosen skinny jeans and all.

But we got there and- spoiler alert- I did not die. So, we begin another adventure… watch this space for twists, turns, oversharing and lots of chatting on about food.

Oh also, I’ve made it my mission to incorporate a reading diary/book review section to the blog. I’m going to try and read a book about each place I’m in, or a book by an author from each country. So expect a bit of a mishmash of travel stories, local tips and book reviews- these are a few of my favourite things!