Feb.13, 2022

Our lead guide calls me mama as we zoom around the mountains in northern Vietnam.

“OK, mama?” Su asks, after a particularly long brutal section on the Ha Giang loop.

“Mama OK,” I reassure him.

There’s nothing like being in Vietnam for being made to feel old. “How old are you?” is often the first or second question and I know it’s partly so the Vietnamese know whether to call me Em, Chị, Cô or Bác. But still…

Su – who is 24 – says mama with respect and that he thinks about his own mother every day.  It’s endearing and I grow reluctantly into the role assigned to me.

There are 10 of us on this trip, five tourists like me and five local riders from the Hmong and Tay ethnic groups. Su is from Sapa, a Black Hmong, working out of Ha Giang to save money after Covid and to pay for building his house. My driver Hai is Tay and speaks very little English but laughs at my broken Vietnamese and the occasional “Ối Giời Ơi”. He’s a dab hand at karaoke.

Riding through a village on the Ha Giang loop
Zooming into town like a posse on the Ha Giang loop (All pix by Alison Bate)

We zoom through towns and small villages like a posse of cowboys in the American west, the children waving cheerfully as we pass by, five motorbikes in a row, us tourists riding pillion, or Easyrider, as it’s called here.

The other tourists include a couple from Uruguay (near Argentina,” they say helpfully). They’re on their honeymoon and I learn that Uruguay has a population of just three million, is flat, and nearly all the citizens have Spanish or Italian roots.  “We killed all the indigenous people.” As did my ancestors, I expect.

Then there’s a Dutch couple from Amsterdam with almost flawless English, of course, on a month’s vacation between two jobs (her) and projects (him). There are lots of young Dutch tourists on the Ha Giang loop, and they’re trying to avoid them.

Day 1 is full of winding roads like these, in and out of the mountain valleys

The first day is long and action-packed, riding through the mountains for about 150 kilometres. I rode a Yamaha Nuovo in Hanoi while working in Vietnam before Covid, so am comfortable on a bike and the roads are better than expected. A bit like kayaking, getting in and out – or on and off in this case – is what takes practice. The bike isn’t very big but eventually Hai and I get into a rhythm: I get my right leg over first, wedging between my full yellow daypack, Hai and his pack. Then he gets on, I pull my left leg onto the second footrest, and off we go.

Hmong women and girls often wear colourful pleated skirts in Ha Giang

The landscape is striking and pictures show that better than words. The villagers, nearly always the women,  are busy preparing the fields for rice or corn. Wearing lightweight pleated and colorful skirts over pants, they sometimes walk along the road like walking trees at the end of the day, carrying long branches or sticks on their backs.

The landscape in Ha Giang is less spoilt than in Sapa and the villages aren’t as touristy. There’s only one place where I really feel uncomfortable. We’ve stopped at a viewpoint in the middle of nowhere,in the middle of the day, full of lots of young girls wearing lipstick and holding baskets of flowers.

Puzzled, I ask Su why they are here. “They aren’t in school because they can make more money for their families here, maybe 5,000 or 10,000 dong for a photo.”

The boys are in school, naturally.

As we enter the village of Sa Phin,  some men are trying to wrestle a live trussed pig onto the back of a motorbike. The squeals are bone-chilling and the Dutch guy is shocked but I’m a bit desensitized, having lived in Vietnam previously.

We walk around the grand palace of the Hmong opium king, Vuong Chi Duc. He had three wives but there are only pictures of the two who bore him sons. The architectural style is a combo of local and Chinese — a reminder that we’re really close to the Chinese border. Many of the villagers used to pop back and forth to see other family members but the border is still closed, due to Covid. A hardship for many.

We arrive in Dong Van after a long day on the motorbike and check into an ordinary small hotel in a typical Vietnamese town. I’d prefer a homestay but the hot shower is lovely for warming up and we meet up later for Lau (hotpot) and “happy water” and learn how to say cheers the Vietnamese way, the Hmong way,  the Uruguayan way and the Dutch way.

Flower pots and mountains at the "Happiness Memorial" in northern Vietnam
View from the “Happiness Memorial” in Ha Giang, northern Vietnam (Pix: Alison Bate)

The second day is my favorite, with more stellar views, such as this one taken from the Happiness Memorial, built to commemorate the loss of life of 14 “volunteers” during construction of the 185-kilometer road through the mountains.

Rice fields in Du Gia, northern Vietnam
View from terrace at Lo Lo’s homestay in Du Gia, northern Vietnam

The highlight is the end of the day, staying at Lôlô’s Homestay in the village of Du Già. I sip a Pengo beer and chat with the others on the upstairs terrace. We’re overlooking a patchwork of stubby rice fields against the backdrop of spiky mountains, the laughter of kids playing volleyball in the school grounds below. This is the place I’d return to.

On our final day, we head up narrow bumpy rice field roads to a waterfall. It’s nothing special (to a Canadian) but the scenery around is magnificent. By now, there are several motorbike tours on the road and I sit by the river looking across at the long line of parked tourist motorbikes, while on the rocky hillside above, three local girls/women toil away at the grass with old fashioned scythes.

It’s amazing they put up with us so gracefully, really,

Tips for the Ha Giang loop

  • Take as little luggage as possible. The more stuff you take, the less room for you on the bike.
  • In December or January, take or buy cheap gloves.
  • Buy a cheap North Face knockoff jacket in advance, so you look like everyone else

    Pix author in Ha Giang in 2023
    Alison Bate – wearing the required fake North Face jacket – in Ha Giang in January 2023