LONG and WINDING road

The giant “lollipop loop” north of Hanoi up to Ha Giang delivers you to a stunningly unrivaled landscape.

By Le Diem on October 16,2019 10:16 AM

LONG and WINDING road

PHOTOS LE DIEM

Ha Giang has become a destination over recent years that foreign travelers suggest others should head to. “Amazing” is a common sentiment as its beauty spreads by word-of-mouth. It offers spectacular climbs over high peaks and descents into deep valleys, but it’s a journey you need to be ready for, because:

It’s remote

Different from most other places in Vietnam, which are easy to reach by different transport options, Ha Giang’s location in Vietnam’s far north means no airport or train station. The only way to get there is by road, most commonly by motor car or motorbike. It’s about 300km from Hanoi and takes some six or seven hours to reach Ha Giang city.

So it’s not exactly ideal for those on a tight schedule. At least four or five days are needed, but if time is short you can take an overnight bus and wake up in Ha Giang and do the same back to Hanoi.

Given its remoteness, it’s quite different from elsewhere, in landscapes, people, culture, and food, and offers a truly new experience in Vietnam.

It’s hazardous

Arriving in Ha Giang city is really just the beginning of the journey. A long trip still lays ahead. With many mountain passes to overcome, in some ways it’s not exactly a leisurely vacation. But excitement is almost guaranteed.

The trip from Ha Giang city to the four mountainous districts of Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac and return, including Ma Pi Leng, one of the four most dangerous mountain passes in Vietnam, is called the “lollipop loop” by many foreign travelers, for its shape resembling a lollipop. While it can actually be “bitter” for some, with zigzagging mountain roads heading up and heading down up and cut into steep mountainsides, it’s no doubt “sweet” for more adventurous travelers. They usually choose a motorbike as the best way to take in the scenery, without being limited to a car window. Some rent both motorbike and driver as they don’t feel too confident, while a brave few who have never been on a motorbike before grab the handlebars themselves.

My friends, Hana and Sara, rented motorbikes for their trip. They saw many foreigners dealing with the aftermath of spills, especially when it rains and the roads became slippery, or of having hit some chickens or some local wildlife. Their strategy was pretty much “slow and steady wins the race”. They prepared well, and didn’t feel at all rushed. Having conquered the travails of Ha Giang, no other trip intimidates them.

LONG and WINDING road

It’s off the beaten track

Once out of Ha Giang city, buildings are left behind and fields and mountains appear, with the occasional small thatched-roof houses. When the sun sets an inky

darkness descends. There are no street lights or, when in a local town, any nightlife. Five-star hotels are unheard of. Accommodation tends to be comfortable but basic, with some homestay options in stilt-houses also available. Usually just one story with a single large room, stilt-houses offer dormitory-style accommodation but are clean and tidy. Some may have a private room for two to four people, but not many.

But such things add a great deal of interest to those looking to escape from city life. Fresh and tranquil nature awaits, away from any pollution or noise. And staying in a dorm is generally no problem; everyone respects each other’s space, and it’s a great way to make new friends and pick up some useful travel tips. It also good for the budget, at only VND50,000-80,000 ($2.15-3.45) per night. The uniqueness homestays offer is the “family dinner”, where you share local dishes with your hosts and perhaps some rough and ready corn wine.

Going to bed at 9 or 10pm after a long day on the road is also a pretty good idea, lulled to sleep by a “concert” of crickets and frogs.

It can break your heart

As soon as we arrived in Quan Ba, I thought it should have been called “Another World”. Though I has seen photos of Ha Giang and had been on road trips to other mountainous areas in Vietnam such as Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa, Lao Cai, Sapa, and Son La, I was still stunned. I’ve never felt so small. All around me were mountains, mountains, mountains on ranges, ranges, ranges.

The area along the “lollipop loop” takes you through the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a member of the UNESCO Global Geopark Network and Asia Pacific Geoparks Network since 2010. The karst plateau is marked by at least 80 per cent limestone and many fossils of ancient creatures from 400 to 600 million years ago have been found at an elevation of 1,400 to 1,600 meters above sea level.

LONG and WINDING road

Coming from Austria, where trips to the Alps are quick and easy, Hana and Sara are mountain fans and were impressed by Dong Van Geopark, as it’s typical of tropical mountains with massive green canopies. The zigzag roads, yellow-green terraced rice fields, and wooden stilt-houses here and there added to the appeal.

Moreover, as home to over 20 ethnic minority groups, Ha Giang’s diversified culture brings a certain charm. People use the ubiquitous rocks lying all around to build houses and fences, making them not only solid but also unique. We also caught sight of pretty young women in their traditional costume of colorful brocade they make themselves, carrying home loads on their small shoulders. Meanwhile, kids played around the house with bright smiles. One time we stopped at a village where there was a festival, and we were invited to eat some local dishes and drink some corn wine. They were far too friendly though, offering us shot after shot, and we bade a hasty retreat so we would be safe out on the roads.

Like mountain climbing, when we reached Meo Vac it felt like a real accomplishment. The most magnificent place in magnificent Ha Giang spread out before our eyes as we stood atop Ma Pi Leng Pass, with endless mountain ranges and the charming Nho Que River meandering through the valley. Ma Pi Leng is the most challenging part of the “lollipop loop” - 200km of winding roads. It was named by the thousands of local people who volunteered to build the road by hand over a six-year period, using “primitive” tools like hammers, crowbars, hoes, and shovels. Explosives were also used when there was no alternative given the vertical cliffs that took the lives of 14 people. It remains the only way in and out of the remote Dong Van Karst Plateau.

Their efforts are very much appreciated by visitors to the area, allowing them to explore its hidden beauty. Another friend, Dani from Spain, decided to stay in Ha Giang after his heart was “stolen” from the first sight of the rugged mountain-scape. Every month, he takes the “lollipop loop” and his trip with us was his sixth. Ha Giang can linger long in the mind, like a lost love.

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