Motorcycle Diaries: The extraordinary Karst landscape of North Vietnam

Karst landscape of North Vietnam

Panoramic views of jagged green Karst Mountains jutting out endlessly till the horizon, winding roads lined with wildflowers passing through small towns & villages surrounded by terraced paddy and cornfields, it was an enchanting world floating in the mist, weathered by monsoons soaked in rain.

That’s me! 🙂 Riding in the rain.

The best way to visit Dong Van Geopark in North Vietnam is on a motorbike, riding through the twists and turns around the towering forested Karst Mountains. Having ridden across half of the country on a motorbike from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to the central highlands (1300+ km) on our last trip, V & I decided to explore the extraordinary Karst landscape of North Vietnam this time.

Dong Van Karst Plateau

One of the oldest natural geological museums in the world – Dong Van Karst UNESCO Global Geopark is covered more than 60% in limestone forming 2000m high mountains & 800m deep gorges in a unique Karst landscape that was formed millions of years ago. Some of the oldest fossils found in Vietnam at the rocky Dong Van Geopark are dated to be more than 500 million years old! About the time when the first life forms appeared on Earth, the Cambrian period on the geologic timescale!  (Travel Through Deep Time With This Interactive Earth – Read more)

As baffling it is to grasp how much time constitutes a million years it’s even more mind-blowing to see ancient fossils today as a story of all that passed time!

Located in the northernmost mountainous province of Vietnam, sharing a border with China’s Yunnan province the small town of Ha Giang, pronounced as Ha-Zung, on the banks of Song Lo or Lo River that originates in Yunnan, is the gateway to Dong Van Geopark. Covering an area of 2,356 km sq the Geopark spans four districts of Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac of Ha Giang province. Mainly inhabited by Ethnic groups the Yunnan region is also home to a special old-world animal – the rare Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey. (A video of the rare monkeys of Yunnan)

Winding roads and happy faces

Route

Motorbiking through 400 km of the Karst landscape over 5 days our route was a loop starting and ending from Ha Giang town, taking us through the entire Dong Van Geopark. Located 300 km from Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, Ha Giang is easily accessible on a comfy sleeper night bus that takes about 7-8 hours. We planned our trip in the monsoons (August) and like last time, it couldn’t have been better! (Read about our first motorbike trip )

Highway 4 (QL4C) from (A) Ha Giang – (B)Quan Ba – (C)Yen Minh – Hmong Palace – (D) Lung Cu – (E) Dong Van /Ma Pi Leng Pass – (F) Meo Vac – (G) Du Gia – Ha Giang

Bridge over Song Lo in North Vietnam

Motorbike, Gear & Permits

A copy of your International Driving License is required (and is mandatory now) to rent a bike in Vietnam. We got our permits and planned the details (routes and places to stay) of our 5-day motorbike trip with the help of a guide at QT motorbikes, which is where we rented both our bikes. Most of our gear (helmets, knee & elbow guards, etc.) was from our previous trip to Vietnam, so were our backpacks and travel gear (Decathlon’s great!).

V riding through the Karst landscape of Dong Van Geopark in Ha Giang, North Vietnam

Motorbiking in Vietnam is an exceptional experience and the most intimate way to see “real” Vietnam.

Motorbiking through vistas of a picturesque Karst landscape formed millions of years ago speckled with quaint villages of Ethnic Mountain people and colorful fields of rice and corn, all the way to the northernmost point of the country Lung Cu that is still untouched by mass tourism with only Home-stays for accommodation, and the breathtaking ride on Ma Pi Leng pass – one of the highest mountain passes in the country with blind curves & hairpin switchbacks, riding through Northern Vietnam was one of the most thrilling travel adventures I’ve had!

Idyllic Du Gia, one of the most beautiful villages in the geopark

The only thing I would change in our trip would be to choose Dong Van town as the base to explore the area and just carry day bags rather than lugging all your bags through the entire route. But we realized this after reaching Dong Van town and decided to stay there instead of Meo Vac and ride over Ma Pi Leng pass three times! 😉

Know more: What is a Geopark? UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education, and sustainable development. Read more.

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