Riding the Hà Giang Motorbike Loop in Vietnam During COVID
A traveler reflects on her four-day journey riding the Hà Giang motorbike loop in North Vietnam during the coronavirus pandemic.
There were four of us in a caravan of motorbikes, rounding switchbacks through an endless wall of clouds. It was the first of our four-day journey through the Hà Giang mountains in the north of Vietnam, and we were surrounded by the ghostly gray of precipitation—riding not above or below the rain, but straight through it as it formed. Visibility was cloaked in silk smoke, and oncoming silhouettes became clear only when they emerged from the mist within a car’s length of sight before disappearing behind me when they passed. I noticed cement barricades on the outside of the mountain, spaced too wide to save a motorist who took the gravel too fast or who might have to swerve to avoid a truck taking the corner too wide. I was in the lead as we passed a yellow sign with the incline number of 10 percent and a stencil outline of a vehicle heading up a pencil-thin line. Somewhere above us was the resounding echo of a truck’s horn threatening oncoming traffic, each blare sending chills through my body already shivering from the cold wind and mist.
I was disoriented by the noise, hunted by the sound moving around the mountain above me. My husband passed to head the charge, and I was relieved. I had begun to doubt myself on the unfamiliar bike and thin road. Having driven a motorbike in the city daily, I expected the open road of the mountains to be an easy transition, but these were weather conditions I hadn’t planned for.
A Hà Giang Motorbike Trip Is Every Traveler’s Dream
Because of its level of difficulty, the Hà Giang loop was a keen draw for adventure tourists. I had been dreaming of making the trip since arriving in the country four years earlier. I wanted to see the natural beauty of the North and ride through quaint villages to experience the culture of the Hmong people, but here I was, in the most luscious and beautiful peaks of Vietnam, taunted by grey where I should have seen the pastels of an open landscape. I white-knuckled around the switchbacks as we climbed further over the mountains, counting each passing kilometer marker, wishing for a hot shower and hotel bed. Again, the call of the truck above. I lost my husband’s brake lights in the clouds, but I could hear him laying on his horn. I swerved to the outside of the mountain and hit my brakes, blaring my own horn and letting the truck pass. The top of its front tire was at the height of my chin, and the gust as it blew past shook my bike. I finally took a breath. It was going to be a long four days through the mountains, and my gut churned wondering what the point of the physical torment of driving would be if we missed all the views.
I had an A4 paper map of the loop in my pocket, safe from the humidity. I thought about how we were missing the view of the Twin Mountains and Heaven’s Gate as we drove. I pictured us moving along the thick red highway line of the map past designated sites and I wished we had booked the trip a week earlier to miss the rain. The journey was broken up into four parts to divide the driving time evenly and ensure we had plenty of time for stops on the third day over the Ma Pi Leng Pass—the best views above the Lô River. I had ached to see it for myself, and because of the pandemic, I ventured to hope our group would be among the only ones on the road.
Traveling Further Into the Mountains Gave Way to New Culture
We collected kilometers of distance in the clouds on day one. Turning over day two, Mother Nature eased her grip and we awoke to mild fog. The day warmed as we continued our drive over the second pass of the journey, the Thẩm Mã Pass. I gripped the handlebars of my bike, stiff on the road, which from above looked like an asphalt dragon slithering up toward the flower fields of Lũng Cẩm. Along the road walked dozens of children and elderly women, each dressed in clothing thicker and more colorful than I’d seen in the cities. Clothes like in the women’s museum back in the capital from the Hmong, Lolo and Han people of the far North—vibrantly colored cloth, intricate floral embroidery, long pleated skirts, long sleeves and headscarves or headbands with loosely hanging beads. Some carried woven baskets on their backs, stacked full of flowers packed stiff as straws, heading to the top to await tourists. We stopped to mingle among the handful of young Vietnamese travelers taking the same path. A woman whose wrinkled face spoke of a long life of working in the sun stood beside me with a thick bouquet of small blossomed buds wrapped in string. I smiled and nodded as she gestured for me to hold them. If I did, I would have to buy them, so I exchanged the bouquet for the equivalent of a dollar and strapped them over my backpack, hoping they would bring us good weather.
As we moved from the thick red line on the map to a thin yellow one directing us to the flag tower, the roads also thinned. It felt like we should have been heading over mountains to go north, but instead, we wound through them on a flat road closing the gap between the borders of Vietnam and China. We arrived at the flag tower and followed the thin herd of spectators to the top, which offered a 360-degree view of hills giving way to more hills dropped along the landscape like melting Hershey’s Kisses. The clouds had thinned above the tower, but the true depth of the landscape was blurred by haze. No amount of blinking would move the mountains into a countable order. How far could I have seen had it been a clear day?
Getting High, and Taking in the Long Day
There was a village circled on our paper map near a flag tower, and I was excited by a night's stay among the people who lived there. We passed closed doors and quiet houses on the one-way path in the village. While there were signs for homestays and hostels, no one answered our knocks. Finally, a young woman emerged from a homestay, and through patient translation, we arranged three rooms in her family’s place. We were told dinner would be at seven.
At sunset, the four of us followed a trail out to the edge of the village and found refuge behind a cluster of boulders where it didn’t feel so disrespectful to get high. I took the joint and melted into the exhaustion of the day, wishing tomorrow’s views would surpass the previous day’s. I gazed past the drop-off as the valley extended north to dusk gnawing at the light of day. We had made it to the edge of Vietnam, far beyond the cities and deep into the mountain ranges—a place where humankind was a blade of grass whipped by the winds of nature. I could make out a road on the east side of the valley slicing through a compound of homes where lights were on for the evening. Then, below us, an archaic loudspeaker crackled to life. I was accustomed to the loudspeakers on city corners, but out here, where water buffalo trafficked the paths between homes, it was abrasive. The announcements were in Vietnamese, a second language of most Hmong people here. The words then subsided to music, filling the valley with echoing instrumental dullness.
Settling in and Indulging Late Into the Night
We headed back to the village, where a few children were playing at an intersection between alleyways. I drew out the sparklers from my backpack that I had brought for such an occasion. I managed the lighter and sent the first young boy into the dark to draw circles before he came running back, eager for another. The excitement drew more children, and soon we were in the company of 20 kids who all wanted to play. I couldn’t supply the sparklers fast enough. The night air was filled with the continuous crackle of fire.
I tried to be fair in giving the sparklers out, as the kids returned, more eager to hold fire than before. As my stock dwindled, I noticed a young girl in a dress taller than all the others had put out her hand. I gave her my last sparkler. She took the metal wand between her fingers like the stem of a flower and then turned to hand it to a younger boy who was out of breath having made it to the commotion late. She helped him draw his first circle of light in the dark sky. As his sparkler fizzled out, I showed my empty hands. The kids waved and said thank you, then turned to one another chasing and playing as we headed back for dinner.
The table had been set with a multitude of plates filled with steamed rice, chicken, tofu in tomato sauce and seasoned vegetables. Afterward, with full bellies and plates cleared, our hosts, a young man and his sister, joined us until the night hours were lost to card games and a never-ending pitcher of home-brewed rice wine.
Motorbiking Through Vietnam Was Everything I’d Hoped For
On day three, the sun had finally broken from the hold of the clouds. I should have been elated, but the lingering rice wine pinched my stomach, and I dreaded the six-hour ride ahead. We followed our way out of the village on a road adjacent to a massive six-lane highway under construction across the Chinese border. I steadied my focus on the road, and not the growing need to hurl my breakfast over the front handlebars. The map took us southeast through the city of Dong Van as we began the Ma Pi Leng Pass, what I had been most looking forward to. I had accepted my headache and began melting into the mountain curves swept as dust over an unfolding paper fan of lime-green ridges. As we drove farther, the peaks overhead towered taller, and the drop to the river steepened. I wondered how people could get to the rice terraces overhead without sliding down the mountain.
I finally gave in to the openness around me. I let my friends pass. I wanted to be alone in the scenery, lost in nature and as far away from the sounds of civilization as possible. This was the beauty I promised myself. This was the adventure. I howled and sang off-key, taking the road slowly and letting the landscape swallow me whole, revived from the morning’s rough beginning. The journey was more thrilling and spectacular than the paper map or any photograph could portray—me, the bike and the open road snaking around green-tipped peaks.
I pulled over so I wouldn’t be distracted by the motor. The steep mountains formed a crown around the rice fields while the sun struck through the clouds and fell on the water. Shattered by thousands of sprouting blades was the reflection of clouds painted gold, the world flipped upside down.
The valley wasn’t named on our map. We had run our tires toward what we knew, what was labeled. Taking a night in the neighboring village we had caught up with people again and a handful of other riders for the evening.
It was odd how the map, a basic outline of the area, could affect what I felt would be the most valuable sections of the journey. I had finally seen the Hà Giang mountains. I had climbed the flag tower and spent time in a local village, eating local food, mingling with local people. I had leapt into the cold current of a waterfall. I had wrapped up the trip into a tight bow, with day four’s journey being mechanical. A return to the start.
By Day Four, I Had Mastered Motorbiking in the Mountains
We ignored the advice from our host to avoid the local road, the crossed-out road on my map. There were no designated sites or labels for places to stop along the way—the road was a shortcut back to the highway connecting to Hà Giang. We drove a paved road chopped by long stretches of bumps, dirt eroded and embedded with rocks having melted off the mountainside from the previous rainy season. I flicked between gears with an odd comfort. The stiffness in my posture from the beginning of the trip had eased and though I was driving a motorbike on the rough patches like straddling a jackhammer, my body had adjusted. My arms and torso were fluid with the jostle of the bike and I began to glide over gravel. Other motorists passed me—or I them—in movements like ducks on water. I rounded corners shaded by palm leaves larger than bedsheets and saw children along the road waving. It felt good to wave. Around another corner, I waved preemptively at a toddler whose attention was occupied by a group of baby chicks in the grass. He didn’t wave back. I came down around a corner opening up to a valley and saw a figure walking up the highway shaded by a black embroidered parasol.
Moving closer I saw it was a woman dressed in black with a vibrantly colored fringe. My engine was revving as I let second gear control my descent and wondered how far she had already walked. I stared, guilty of how tired I felt sitting. Where was she walking? She waved from the shadow of her parasol and I hurried to return her wave before passing. I wanted to look at her again, so I pulled off the road to look back. My husband had also pulled off the road far behind me but ahead of the woman. I couldn’t hear the exchange, but I saw he was asking to take her photograph. She laid down her parasol to straighten herself. Picking up the parasol again, she stood still for the frame as she had maybe done before. Maybe she was accustomed to photographs, or maybe she had said yes because he had asked rather than just taken.
I admired how he asked for permission, and I felt I had neglected to do the same, to ask for a kind of cultural permission to be here and to form thoughts about the things I saw. I floated through the mountains presuming to know just because I could see it, yet I never asked any of the people I saw about their life. Would they have wanted to share with me? I had begun the journey with high expectations to see beauty and experience the people, but what had that meant?
In the End, I Couldn’t Help but Question My Experience
I realized I’d wrapped up the wrong experience to take home and write about—or at least not the whole picture. I’d been focused on myself, obsessed at first by lack of sight, where I had missed a greater picture. I had no effect on this place. The landscape remained spectacular whether I saw it or not. The children would keep playing or chasing ducks or carrying flowers. These were people like anywhere, making a life, building a home, working, playing, walking. Each individual turned over a new day here as in the rest of the world, whether tourists came tearing through the roads or not. I had been looking for an experience to unlock from the outside and quite uncomfortably found a greater experience on the inside. I was in awe of these mountains, and I wanted to romanticize life here, grinding the landscape down to a few sentences in my notebook, but I realized as I watched the woman continue up the hill, that this place and the people here did not exist for me.