I’ve had an out-of-body experience or two in my life. At the very least, a brief spiritual awakening. My first was being front row to a Red Hot Chili Peppers show. A feat I accomplished by staying glued to the railing for six hours prior to those first few glorious chords of By The Way. The moment they started playing, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. Halfway through, I may have started believing in God. By the end, I’d figured out the path to enlightenment, and it was in fact, being front row to a Red Hot Chili Peppers show. Jokes aside, I took stock of my life among that pulsing crowd, scream-singing lyrics. They were my first musical love from childhood. I fondly remember kicking my feet in the backseat of my Mom’s jeep to the ebbs and flows of Californication, and there I was twenty years later. It was like I was six years old again. Surreal.
I considered that the closest I’d ever get to otherworldly. There’s only so many things on earth that can transport me back to that childlike awe so vividly. It was time travel, and that was rare.
Ha Giang Loop Road
Two years later, I was off to Southeast Asia by myself. I was in for more than my fair share of awe. I was a constant bundle of wonder, even by the smallest things. The food, the night markets, the animals, the people. Every day was stepping into a different reality.
Along the first months, there was one consistent suggestion from other travelers: go to Vietnam and do the Ha Giang Loop. Vietnam wasn’t originally on my itinerary, let alone the loop. It just wasn’t a place that grabbed me during my internet research phase. Despite that, after only about twenty people insisting it’d be my favorite country, I ended up booking a plane ticket to Hanoi, thinking at the very least, I’ll get a good cup of coffee and Bánh mì.
The Ha Giang Loop, on the other hand, I was still skeptical about. The experience was recounted to me as one of the most beautiful and dangerous activities in all of Southeast Asia. It was a 3-5 day motorbike trip through the North most mountains of Vietnam, stretching all the way to the Chinese border. A journey that was sure to leave its mark on the memories. I wanted that. However, it was a trip that could only be done on a motorbike (although, one guy at our homestay was somehow doing it on a bicycle!?). In the two months I’d been in Asia so far, the only thing I’d heard about more than Vietnam, was tourists getting into ghastly motorbike accidents.
The kind of bad that makes me feel dizzy at the force of bare skin kissing concrete. The chances of speeding too fast around a turn or colliding with a truck were raised greatly on the narrows twists and turns of the Ha Giang Loop. I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who lost their first three layers of skin. I also didn’t want to be one who missed out.
Luckily for me, a friend I’d made in Malaysia was setting off on the loop at the same time, and agreed to take me on the back of his bike, after some convincing. I was still nervous about the four day excursion ahead, but mostly excited that I wasn’t going to drive myself off a mountain. I had someone else to do it for me now.
Dinner with New Friends in Yen Minh
We arrived in Ha Giang from Hanoi in the middle of the night, after a five hour bus ride, and set off early the next morning. The hostel provided us with our best route, a motorbike, and protective gear. Warning us strictly before we left to “Be careful, and go slow, but not too slow”.
The moment we left the structure of the tiny town, we were swallowed by green. It gradually got more breathtaking with every mile we buzzed through. Stopping constantly to take pictures, or just stare into the distance for a while. The first day was pure awe, and my nerves from earlier were beginning to disintegrate at how much better the roads were than described.
After five hours of going up, down, and around the halfway roads of Ha Giang, we reached our first stop. A tiny town called Yen Minh. We booked a night at a cozy homestay, along with about twenty other foreign travelers making their way through the loop. Our faces were all painted in that same awe, exchanging our disbelief at the day we’d all just had. Immediately after a much needed shower, the entire guest list began drinking Saigon beers, in anticipation of the family style meal our hosts were preparing. I met so many new faces that they began to blend together. Back and forth in that typical travel convo of ‘where are you from, where have you been so far, and where are you going?”. It always starts like that, but by the time dinner was served, we were all laughing like lifelong friends. We ate a meal spread out across the floor from wall to wall. Consisting of brightly colored veggies, a few meat dishes, and some type of incredible fried ball that I still can’t figure out. The night turned to dawn. The Saigons were plentiful, and combined with many an inappropriate drinking game. This despite the knowledge that there was only a few hours standing between us and six hours on motorbikes through increasingly decrepit terrain.
I felt that decision in the morning.
Four Take on the Ha Giang
Once the clock hit 6AM, the entire homestay awoke to the peaceful sound of chickens screeching. Chickens, lack of sleep, and a brewing hangover. It was one way to start the morning. Everyone ate their breakfast like zombies. I was holding onto the edges of my coffee cup as if I was at risk of falling in. We were in for a long day, and frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Yes, the day before at surpassed my expectations, but it couldn’t possibly get better. I was torturing myself just to see more of the same.
Eventually, we piled onto our motorbikes. Our duo became more like a quad as we paired off with a couple from Sweden we’d been hanging out with. I had barely been on the seat for five minutes, and my butt was already sore. The wind seemed to be rushing past the spaces in my helmet more viciously than they had the day before. It was about when all these thoughts of aggravation were piling up in my head, that we came upon the first major photo stop. Many tourists and locals were stopped at this juncture, a little cutoff above the winding road below. It was the perfect view to capture what it felt like to travel through the Ha Giang Loop. Chaotically beautiful.
We continued on, and just like the day before, it only got better. That is, the views got better. The roads got worse the further we went. Once paved, progressively crumbled into pure rocks. At one point, it got so bad that we had to walk with the bikes by our sides because the road became more like a series of boulders. At another, we almost ran out of gas, and a local guy who spoke no English filled our tank with a plastic bottle he’d gotten from his house. It was difficult, exhausting and at times, a little frightening. Sometimes, that’s just the price to pay for the incredible. That price was a bargain.
I’m convinced J.M. Barrie witnessed the drooping mountains of Ha Giang before crafting Peter Pan’s Neverland. I could’ve sworn I’d entered a fictional world. The type of world where lollipops grow on trees, and fairies fly through the air. The kind I’d long since stopped believing in. I can remember begging my mom to play Peter Pan in the VCR just one more time when I was young. Watching the animation pan over miles of pretend lush hills and cotton candy clouds.
The Ha Giang Loop was my Neverland. That faraway place I didn’t think existed in the real world. A childhood fiction I always wished was true. It had been out there, existing, for much longer than I’ll ever be. I finally got to see it. It was something in that combination of nostalgia and awe. Being surrounded by this foreign beauty that just seemed so familiar. Not knowing the world could possibly be this amazing. It was like I was six years old again.
Written by: Sky Ariella
Sky is a 23 year old adventurer from New York, hoping to go everywhere. She fell in love with traveling while solo backpacking in Asia, and has been hooked ever since. She especially enjoys oddball activities, like urban exploration. The more adrenaline, the better. She is a freelance blogger, who writes everything from destination reviews and travel narratives to fiction. Currently in South America, you can follow her experiences on her blog: www.skyariella.com and IG: Skyariellla