I recommend the trip, not the company. Mr. Nam Tran, despite several phone calls, didn't care about showing up and left the business to his wife and his father. I wouldn't expect him to a be a good guide either.
I've just seen basic Hondas moped in the parking in front of the shop.
The motorbikes are pricy (200K Dong/ten dollars per day) but in very good conditions, my back brake was a bit weak, but that's it. I found them perfect for our needs, they're light and flexible, we explored narrow dirty roads to get a glimpse of village life and I don't think we would have been able to do the same with heavier bikes. The suspension are not so good, but with the itinerary I suggest you, you'll never need them so much. The roads are paved almost everywhere, you'll frequently have to dodge huge holes, or find the flatter side of the road, but the locals do it daily so why shouldn't you?
This said, the Rocky Plateau are supposedly the only handy place to rent a motorbike. If you look for a more economic place you better ask help to a xe om driver, you might have to do some kilometers, and even though I've been asking around (in Vnese) nobody knew any other business.
The shop itself is a flower seller/Internet point/barber (and it doesn't have a sign Rocky Plateau on it) so don't expect a travel agency. They don't even have a map of the area to give you.
You'll have to look for a map in a supermarket and you'll get a badly printed tourist map, with very few side roads, wrong distances and almost unreadable name of villages and road numbers. There are no clear directions or explanations for the attractions and don't expect to find them easily on the road. Anyway, I feel like the main attraction is the landscape. Whatever cave or temple you'll see would be nothing compared to other sights around Viet Nam.
Ha Giang province is the North in a nutshell and the best of the North at the same time. We spent there 3 days with good weather (beginning of September during a weird rainy season) and we felt it was the perfect time, I'd say a week is far too much. But we didn't join any trekking tour and we missed, without so many regrets, the "historical village" north from Dong Van.
The road from Ha Giang to Dong Van can be easily done in one day and it's a crescendo of beautiness with the last 40 km from Yen Minh to Dong Van as the climax.
From Quan Ba to Yen Minh I suggest taking the road that goes along the river, it's more scenic, to do so after Quan Ba you'll have to turn right instead of following for Yen Minh and go down to a very small village, pass it through and continue towards Yen Minh.
In pure Vietnamese bureaucracy style, despite it's illegal to be in Dong Van without a permit, you can arrange the permit at an hotel in the city. We got the best deal with Hoang Ngoc Hotel (they have a website): 150K Dong for a room for two people and 270K Dong (less than 15$) for the permit and this was done at six in the evening, when the police station was supposedly already closed!!!
The day after you start with some stunning views on the road to Meo Vac, different, but as good as the ones on the way to Dong Van.
Meo Vac is a bit more closed than Dong Van. In the words of a local teacher
"A couple of years ago two western girl donated some goods, together with some books, supposedly containing considerations about Meo Vac that the local government didn't like. Since then you need a permit to do anything".
I noticed that in "hot" areas of VN the propaganda signs are spread every five meters of the road. It's the case of Meo Vac or Dak Nong province in the South.
From Meo Vac we entered in Cao Bang Province, the landscape wasn't so nice but the road was almost deserted, actually a common feature of the whole trip together with the absence of tourists, and we could run smoothly our bikes.
The river that runs along the road is quite strong, but still inviting, we found a small and isolated beach at the kilometer 96 (miliar stone 3) on the road towards Bac Me (again Ha Giang province). You cross a couple of cultivated fields and you can see a boat looking like a wreck. Be aware of the stream though, stay sticked to the first five meters.
Bac Me has a very lively market, with cattle and pigs, many ethnic groups coming down from the mountains around and NO tourist traps. We found accomodation for 180K Dong in a pension (Nha Nghi) at the entrance of the village.
We took the last day very calmly, entering side roads to enjoy the rivers and the countryside, playing pool with young Vnese... the road is quite cool but much more trafficked and passing trucks or buses is quite tricky.
10 km before Ha Giang you can get the cherry on your cake, with stunning views from the top of a mountain.
All in all, one of the best parts of my trip in Viet Nam. I travelled through the other provinces in the North-West (I cannot speak for Cao Bang, which has just been reviewed on TF) and I never got to see such beautiness again: in Lao Cai the vegetation is much more thick and jungle-like, so if you want to see some glimpse of canyons or rivers you'll have to be on a bus and not need to keep an eye on the road. From Xin Man to Bac Ha the road is just a nightmare, with mud, landslides, huge stones and a river running through it (THROUGH not across), in fact I had to do it with a xe om driver who wanted 500K dong. There are no buses going through it as far as I've understood. If not for the market Bac Ha is quite an ugly city and definitely not an alternative to the Da Lat-like Sa Pa.
On the road to Dien Bien Phu there are some mud parts, and the scenario is not as amazing as Ha Giang.
So my suggestion is, if you're looking for an intense and rewarding experience rather than an achievement invest on an Ha Giang province-ring rather than a long trip from Ha Noi to Dien Bien Phu on a Minsk.
we're 6 belgian twentysomething girls and we were thinking of doing the exact same trip as you did in september 2013 :) Did you have a guide? Or were the roads easy to find yourself? How long does it take to get from Ha Giang to Dong Van? and from Dong Van to Meo Vac? Was there a lot of traffic? Haha sorry for bombing you with questions but i'm so excited to get out there!
We plan to take the morning bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang and stay the first night in Ha Giang then in the morning rent bikes at Rocky Plateau and get on the road to Dong Van. The second night we want to stay in Dong Van, in the morning we want to head to Meo Vac to see the sunday market and walk around town then head back to Dong Van and stay there the third night, next morning we want to head back to Ha Giang and take the night bus to Hanoi. Do you have any advice/critique for our trip?
I'm very happy to share information!! We didn't have a guide and the roads were easy to find on our own, the colourful map they sell in Ha Giang is not good at all, but it will help you to orientate. Anyway if you know the name of your next destination it should be quite easy to find your way, not so many roads up there. The last day, on our way back to Ha Giang we had some trucks and traffic but for the rest we were alone most of the time.
From Ha Giang to Dong Van is one day ride, almost without stops. From DV you can reach Meo Vac in a couple of hours if you don't make stops. It's a good idea to travel from DV to Meo Vac, a lot of wonderful landscapes.
To use the rest of the day you can also head north to do some sightseeing or do some trekking, but I don't know much about it. There's plenty of ethnic minorities in the area, you will see them everywhere while driving so it's up to you whether you want to breach in their daily life by joining a trekking tour. I expect there will be very few tourists in the area.
Hello , your trip sounds great , you said that you did this trip in September ? what was the weather like , had you been in Vietnam throughout August at all , me and my brother are heading to South East Asia this summer again for 3 weeks and considering buying motorbikes in Vietnam but I know August is the rainy season so we're not so sure ...
Hi GJL, we had three days of great weather, but I have to admit it was a peculiar rainy season. Not much rain while I was there. Last year and this year have been more regular, with half-an-hour, one hour rain every afternoon. Usually not more than that. So if you take your pause for one hour every day you shouldn't have big problems. While most of Vietnamese road are ok even during rainy season, when it comes to mountainous roads like Ha Giang, you can always expect some minor land-slide. I will do this round again next month, so I will report about the road condition. Just remind me around mid-July if you can! :)