Dong Van on a motorbike

November 5, 2015

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This four day adventure into the mountains on our two motorbikes was the pinnacle of our incredible six week stay in Ha Giang province. We’d heard so much about it, seen so many photos, attempted to do it ourselves once but had to give up, Pete had done it on the back of Mr Quyen’s motorbike, but we’d not done it independently like we wanted.

We felt ready now: we were used to riding motorbikes; we knew what the roads were like; and we weren’t going to rush it or have to keep up with a guide.

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We started off into familiar territory, roads that we’d driven around a few times and the river that we’d swum in. It was a fairly misty morning so we felt lucky that we’d seen this lush landscape in brilliant sunshine before.

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The first 20-30km is pretty flat, it winds through the valley alongside the river. Then you reach the gateway to the geopark, the name is shown on a Hollywood-esque sign on the hillside and the first mountain climb begins…

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It’s actually one of the worst roads of the whole route, the corners of the zigzagging roads are particularly badly damaged and there always seems to be a truck or two. I think that’s maybe what made us loose confidence the first time we attempted it… don’t let this first hill put you off if you have a go!

Because then you reach Heaven’s Gate pass and find these gorgeous views back over the valley you’ve just passed through. (The hills here remind me of Tellytubby land.)P1030586

And a few metres on the view of the next valley, into Quan Ba district, and the Fairy Bosom Mountains. This is the local name for the mountains, honestly, it’s not something we’ve made up!
Legend has it that the fairy came down from Heaven and fell in love with a boy who she then had a child with. Unfortunately she was summoned back to Heaven, so she cut of her breasts and left them on earth to feed her child, and her tears of sadness formed the local river. At least that’s one theory about them anyway!

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And this is the view over Tam Son, a small town in Quan Ba. You climb up to an observatory pagoda above the information centre to get these views over the valley, it’s a pretty surreal feeling to suddenly climb super steep stairs after being clamped onto a motorbike for a few hours!

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We rolled down the other side of the mountain into Tam Son town, planning to stay there for the first night. However, every single hotel/motel we went into just said ‘No, full’ and we started to realise that the rumours we’d heard about it being high season for Asian travellers was definitely very true. We’d seen huge groups of Vietnamese tourists but apparently it’s also a popular time for Chinese, Korean and Japanese people to come to this part of Vietnam.

We were a little bit stuck, with nowhere to stay!

Luckily, the advantage of staying in an area for a while is that you meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends. We called around to ask advice and our lovely friends from Thon Tha village managed to book us in at a homestay in Nam Dam, a cultural tourism village we’d been to before just outside of Tam Son. Winner.

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It’s a stunning place with very smiley Dao people. We even managed to avoid the rice wine this time!

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It was Sunday the next day… market day! So we popped to the market in Tam Son before we got on the road. It was heaving and really authentic… nothing for the tourists… just local people doing their weekly shop. Really refreshing to see!

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And then it was off into unchartered territory for me. Pete had seen the roads before though so I knew there shouldn’t be anything too shocking!

We filled up with fuel and wound up through another mountain pass into an incredible valley with an impossibly blue river running through it.

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 The valley also has remnants of colonial French ramparts, built to defend the area. It’s pretty atmospheric.

We made it to Yen Minh, the next town, in time for a late lunch and Pete managed to find the restaurant he’d visited the last time. It was amazing… we had the closed thing to a roast dinner we’d had all year. The roast beef was incredible!

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As soon as you leave Yen Minh and enter Dong Van district the landscape changes dramatically. It becomes craggy and moon-like with little pockets of green all over it.

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We turned a corner and stopped for a while, taking in the view, waving to the local children who were wandering by in their bright colours.

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We passed through more simple mountain towns on the way to Dong Van.

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And stopped off quickly at the H’mong palace, reputedly built by the Chinese and the French to keep the H’mong king happy during opium trading times!

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And finally arrived at the outskirts of the town in the golden late afternoon light.

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Dong Van itself was nicer than I had imagined; I had been told it was a dusty market town, and it definitely is, the main road is very functional and concrete, but if you get off that there is character to be found. We were lucky to quickly find a room in a homestay in a street of mud clay houses (all the hotels were full again).

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And, even better, amazing Mr Quyen and Mr Van from Thon Tha were there too. It was so great to see some familiar faces.

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The tourism industry in Dong Van is definitely starting to grow. You can buy all sorts of traditional garments from the local ethnic minority people. Their mannequins have seen better days though.

The next morning, day three, we headed straight onto Ma Pi Leng pass, the jewel in the crown of this spectacular route. I can’t even explain just how beautiful the views from this road are and how lucky we were with the weather that day.

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The drop below you is so so deep and there are still mountains towering above you. It makes you feel like a dot. But you also feel really safe; there are no sheer drops and all the land surrounding the road is used by the local people. Some of the engineering of buildings onto the mountain faces are mind-blowing.

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It makes you feel pretty free!

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We met a poor family on the road and gave them all the food we had with us, which wasn’t a lot, but they seemed grateful.

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The amazing thing about this area is that it seems so remote but if you stop and look into the landscape you will always see spots of brightly coloured clothing moving around. You realise just how many people call this area home.

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Dropping down off the Ma Pi Leng pass into Meo Vac felt pretty sad, it had been such a stunning 20km drive! But there was still so much to see! One of the reasons that there are so many Asian tourists there right now are the fields of tiny flowers that bloom at this time of year. They love them, they have magic powers or something. It’s not unusual to see whole groups of people sitting in the flowers and posing for selfies. Apparently they eat them too. No comment.

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After Meo Vac the landscape continued to change and baffle me at each turn, this section seemed so lush!

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We encountered a bit of a road blockage; these two trucks had scraped together.

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But it was no biggie and we carried on, back to Yen Minh for our final night stop. This time we managed to get a room in a hotel; the crowds had disappeared for that night at least!

The final day was amazing because it was familiar territory so we could just take in things that we hadn’t noticed before and there weren’t any road surprises.

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We went back through the gorgeous river valley and stopped off this time for a quick swim.

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Then stopped to give these children some snacks. Check out the little guy’s outfit, it’s incredible!

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And navigated some barrier-jumping cows…

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And eventually arrived back into Ha Giang in the late afternoon, very tired but so so glad to have been on this insane journey.

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P.S. on tour.