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Riding the Northern Loop

A mud-spattered Honda swished by me on the mountain pass. The young Vietnamese driver gripped the handlebars confidently, as if he knew every inch of the road. The bike disappeared around a curve. I turned to look out from the shoulder where I’d stopped. Below me, an immense chasm yawned. Beyond it, surreal and staggering in size, jagged peaks piled on one another in a breathtaking march to the horizon. The sky above, wide as the sea, glowed with pale light amid dark clouds as big as the mountains. This was Quan Ba Pass, the soaring approach to what is known in Vietnam as Heaven’s Gate.

Hill with a view: Arriving at Tam Son.
Hill with a view: Arriving at Tam Son.

Ha Giang Province has high mountain ranges, as well as dazzling wildflowers that blanket its valleys in the fall. A popular motorbike circuit known as The Northern Loop, which covers more than 300 kilometres, circles from the town of Ha Giang northeast to Dong Van, Vietnam’s northernmost town, heads south to Meo Vac, and continues southward until it finally swings west to reach Ha Giang.

The road from Hanoi to Ha Giang Town isn’t scenic, and since motorbikes are readily available in Ha Giang, most backpackers take an overnight bus to the town and rent one there.

Before catching the bus, I called my English-language students to cancel a weekly class I was teaching at a westside coffee shop, packed a few essentials unavailable in remote regions, and got a badly-needed haircut.

The overnight bus arrived at Ha Giang before dawn, letting me out at a guest house run by a woman named Giang, whose garage held a fleet of sleek, semi-automatic 125cc Honda Blades.

I hit the road on one of Giang’s Blades at about 9.30am, hoping by day’s end to cover the 140km to Dong Van, near the Chinese border.

The road continued to snake its way higher. It was then I saw the startling beauty of Quan Ba Pass. Beyond it, carved into the sides of the cliffs, wound the passageway the Vietnamese call Happiness Road.

The rainclouds began to clear, revealing patches of blue. The road followed a rocky stream. Through the intense blotches of red, pink, blue and purple appeared pieces of clothing that women were washing in the water. Little by little, the topography reinvented itself, with rockier limestone ranges starting to dominate. Long-trunked pine trees lined a high ridge that could have been in a Bavarian forest.

Yen Minh, the next point on the map, couldn’t match Tam Son’s fabulous cone-peaks, but it had a fine Alpine backdrop. The path quickly became steeper and more winding, trapping my bike in first gear. All around, the mountains reared at sharp angles. Knowing I wasn’t far from Dong Van, I didn’t fear the twilight, but as I ascended the temperature plunged, and my warm-weather clothes suddenly seemed foolish. In the gloom, mountains took on phantasmagoric shapes, like ogres in the Hall of the Mountain King.

Chilled, I descended into a valley. A bend brought me under a steel arch announcing the entrance to Dong Van. I needed a warm, comfortable bed.

High trade: Vendors at Quan Ba Pass.
High trade: Vendors at Quan Ba Pass.
Livestock: Processions of goats and cows.
Livestock: Processions of goats and cows.

After a deep night’s sleep, I awoke and looked out of the window. Light rain was falling. Downstairs at the reception desk the hotel manager gave me a map of nearby ethnic villages. Thanking him, I warmed up my motorbike and steered onto a concrete road leading to the villages. The concrete changed to crumbled concrete, the crumbled concrete to dirt, and the dirt to mud.

Further along the road the sound of small children singing, coming from a one-room school house, caught my attention. I stepped inside to greet the class, whose eyes widened in amazement at the western visitor, and chatted for a few minutes with the teacher.

When I got to Thien Huong, the largest of the villages, I met a kindly couple by a weather-beaten limestone house, who invited me inside. After tea and conversation, I thanked them for their hospitality, telling them I was sorry to leave but that I needed to get back to Dong Van.

It was about noon. Small children were walking home from school in groups. Not far away a girl of about 12 was hacking away with a sickle. On an adjacent path, a farmer was trying to coax his water buffalo out of a large puddle of mud in which the animal had comfortably settled.

The second leg of the loop would be twice the distance I’d travelled since leaving Ha Giang, making it tight to get back for my scheduled work in Hanoi. To save time, I decided to scrap my original plan and head back the way I’d come.

Immense mountain shadows had swallowed half of the valleys. Along the road, middle school children were snacking on dried instant noodles as they walked. In the valley were flat stretches speckled with more homeward-bound students. Along the main street of a hamlet, three girls walked as one, arms around one another’s shoulders.

After a night’s rest in Yen Minh, and with an early start the next morning, I navigated tight uphill turns to the plateau above the valley and the Bavarian pine ridge.

In mist and sunlight, life was awakening. Processions of goats and cows passed, shepherded by Mong girls in tribal black shouting and waving sticks.

The landscape began to look familiar, especially the big stream parallel to the road. As before, women were on the banks washing colourful clothes. In the adjacent field, two women stripped stalks of sugar cane.

At a sharp curve, women were drying corn on a tarpaulin. I pulled onto a dirt patch at side of the road, next to a house just above a mustard-coloured schoolhouse on a ridge. Just then, a splash of colour emerged from the nearby brush. Three female figures trudged toward me in single file, arms swinging, each with a huge load of kindling. When they reached the side of the house, one of the three slid the wood off her back, while the other two collapsed into sitting positions still bearing their loads. A man came out of the house and paid them for the deposited stack.

After a few moments the young women bearing the last two bundles straightened and marched off, glancing back at me with radiant smiles.

As the route descended and leveled out, fields spread on either side. Ha Giang was very close. Children herded cows, shooing them aside as buses swept by.

I reached Ha Giang at 3pm, paid Giang for the rented motorbike, and managed to share a taxi back to Hanoi with a couple who’d had to cancel their motorbike tour because of an accident. We got to Hanoi at 8pm that night.

A few nights later, I arrived at the coffee house where I teach English to a group of young adults. When Trang, one of the students, saw me, her eyes got as big as saucers.

“Did you go to Dong Van?” Trang said.

“Why, yes,” I said. “I just got back.”

“I SAW somebody who looked like you,” Trang said. “But he had NEW HAIR.”

“I did get a haircut last week,” I said.

“Then it was YOU!” Trang said. “I SAW you! In Dong Van, eating at a restaurant, and you were talking to the STAFF!”

I wished she’d said hello, I told her. But even so it was a great coincidence.

Just then an idea hit me.

“Trang,” I said, “Get your friends together in two weeks and join me. I’m going back to finish the loop.”

Rural life: Village girls at Heaven’s Gate
Rural life: Village girls at Heaven’s Gate