The 60km ride from Yen Minh to Dong Van via the Ma Pi Leng Pass may well be the most remarkable stretch of road in all of Vietnam. Traveling onward on Road QL4C we marveled at the striking landscape of dramatic peaks and troughs, formed over centuries by tectonic activity and eroding limestone. Limestone pinnacles rise and fall at regular intervals making you feel as though you’re traveling through an animated stone forest. The shapes appear to be alive looking as though they are actually in motion. The impression one gets is that of a mythical landscape as though viewing a Chinese ink and wash painting.
This impressive topography is traversed on the ambitious mountain roads, many of which are new-having been completed in recent years by the Vietnamese Government. There are many tempting side roads leading off to isolated villages hidden deep in the surrounding mountains.
The people who inhabit these villages are predominantly H’mong and other minority’s. Unfortunately their crops are limited due to the sparse rocky soil. Children found along the route are friendly and usually smiling while they beg the tourists for small money.
The problem here, like most places throughout Vietnam, is that the poor families will send their children out to beg for money from the tourists instead of sending them to school where they belong. We really love children but are concerned about the bad habits formed when giving money to the begging children thereby encouraging them not to attend school.
Shortly after leaving Yen Minh, the road comes to a fork and we turned to the left thereby continuing in a clockwise northeasterly direction on Road QL4C towards Dong Van. The steep pass immediately passes through the limestone karst. Here the terraced rice fields were replaced by barren rocky slopes. We saw soybean plantations along with occasional clumps of sweet corn and stands of green bamboo. The structures in this area were built with mud bricks and blocks carved out of limestone.
The road became a helter-skelter stretch of tarmac known as ‘Nine-turn Pass’. The road continued on down an incredible Martian like valley. In this valley is a small home stay village with quaint places available for staying the night. As it was still early in the day we continued on.
After a glorious display of more spectacular scenery we came to another fork in the road at a small village called Sa Phin. At this fork the choice is between the towns of Dong Van and Lung Cu, a place known as Vietnam’s North Pole where the giant flag tower flies an impressive oversized Vietnamese flag. We headed on our way to Dong Van.
The final 15 km to Dong Van was another extraordinary ride through impressive limestone pylons. The narrow road is chiseled out of the mountain gripping to the precarious side of the rocky cliffs. This road can be dangerous as there are stretches with no protective barriers, leaving only a threatening deep drop down to the valley floor below. Girls as young as ten to ladies as old as 80 line the road carrying heavy loads of wood, hay and crops over their seriously burdened backs—a very impressive sight.
Dong Van is a busy and dusty mid-sized town that’s enjoying a recent tourist boom thanks to the growing popularity and interest in traveling the Ha Giang Loop. The town has basically become the ‘Sapa’ of the ‘Extreme North’. Virtually all of the travelers to Ha Giang spend at least one night in Dong Van, making it the most touristy town on the Loop. Not surprisingly a distinctive backpacker vibe has emerged. Accordingly there is an excellent selection of places to stay and in which to eat accommodating most all budgets.
Dong Van has two main markets. A large market held on the weekend known as the ‘New Market’ and a smaller nightly market known as ‘the Old Quarter Market’. On the weekend people come from miles around to both sell their goods and to do their personal shopping as well.
We stayed in a great place called the Lam Tung Hotel which was perfectly located strategically between these two markets. Our room was spacious and included a nice balcony looking out on the sights below.
The next morning we were treated to the best views yet. The final stretch from Dong Van to Meo Vac was a spectacular 22 km ride along the Ma Pi Leng Pass, a staggering road clinging precariously to the edge of a wall of limestone mountains towering hundreds of feet above the a Nho Que River Valley. The first 15km the road carves a terrifying path out of the limestone mountainside. This may be the most epic and inspiring pass in all of Southeast Asia.
We stopped at a viewing platform about half the way to Meo Vac and enjoyed some drinks and further admired this incomparable view. We learned that the Ma Pi Leng Pass is the deepest gorge in Vietnam, however as a dam down river is currently under construction the valley floor is soon to change. This incredible ride through the pass took us almost three hours due to our many stops for photos and the appreciating of this ever changing incredible view.
And the day was only half-way completed. Please read more at “Completing the Ha Giang Loop“