The route we were taking was a loop around the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark (DVKPG) but what had brought us there was the Ma Pi Leng Pass which I had been told about by someone at our hostel in Dalat, this was also the picture we had seen and that was the extent of our knowledge for what we were doing. To be honest I hadn't expected to see much on our journey to and from the pass as it is considered the highlight of the geopark and not much else is talked about.
I could not have been more wrong.
The second we were out of the centre of the town, the surrounding environment was beautiful. Rach and I were on our bike with our mouths open gaping at these humongous karst mountains that were rising up next to us in an unbroken horizon of peaks and troughs, driving on a what was actually a decent road through small towns and villages with local children smiling and waving at us going by. I could not believe how quickly and how dramatically the landscape around us became jaw-droppingly stunning. This was about 20 minutes in.
As we carried on driving Rach was on the back taking photos with our camera and we don't know what happened but the lens stopped working so no more camera photos for us just vanilla phone captures but that didn't take away from our experience whatsoever. As we'd stopped to take photos in various places the guys we were with were gob smacked at what they were witnessing, saying that this is completely alien to them and they'd never experienced anything like it. Well after 1 year and 7 months away from home and 25 years of life I can safely say that neither had I.
As we kept climbing the views just became more and more incredible, the roads becoming a small, insignificant dent on the sides of these behemoths that had taken between 150-420 million years to form and my gosh were they fun! The Ma Pi Leng Pass is but one of the many around the loop which consist of countless hairpins and chicanes, roads that border the sky, run along rivers, scale mountains and dissect valleys.
Our first day was spent heading to the town of Dong Van which is one of the starting points of the Ma Pi Leng Pass, throughout the day I was mostly speechless, just involuntary moans of joy and amazement bursting through my lips after each turn, thinking that nothing could match up to what I had just seen and then being dumbfounded at the majesty of the landscape revealed before my eyes. Seeing for miles in front of me, the farthest mountain peaks shrouded in mist taking on a blue hue and all else laid before them it seemed as though we were in the mouth of some gigantic monster about to snap his jaws shut.
The greenness of the geopark was staggering, Vietnam as a country is very verdant anyway but the sheer volume of trees, plantlife, grass, shrubbery, rice paddies waiting to be harvested, flowers, everything!! The biodiversity was phenomenal and everything everywhere was green! The mountains themselves were surprisingly cultivated as I could see from the bike rice paddies climbing higher and higher, way above the road lines, hundreds of them carved into the mountain side, appearing as contour lines would on a map taking the form of its provider. It was amazing to see the fruits of human ingenuity, determination and effort in motion and how in this environment and with the people that live here nothing goes to waste.
Along the way the couple we were driving with had an accident on the bike and they came off. No serious injures thankfully but a few surface wounds that did need to be cleaned and bandaged so after they were good to go we headed to the local medical centre to sort them out. We were probably stationary for a couple of hours or so and so once we got the guys to the town of Yen Minh safely we said our goodbyes and parted ways so they could rest up but as we had to be back in Ha Giang town the next evening for a bus we couldn't wait.
Driving from Yenh Minh to Dong Van was the next leg of the journey but was different to what we'd seen earlier. For starters the roads were a lot tricker to navigate, less well maintained and narrower but as we were higher up in the peaks we weren't seeing the opposite ranges in all their glory laid bare from foot to tip in front of us, instead we were winding through valleys and across the slopes very intimately with slopes of the peaks within walking distance and at the same time completely insurmountable. Karst mountains are like no others in that there is no gentle rise at the base and then slowly taper towards the tip, they just jut out of a flat plain thrusting towards the sky with complete disregard for how nature usually works. This produces magnificent formations and frightening drops within a mountain itself. And so winding around the tips of the tips with barely another soul to share the roads, I felt very, very small in the best possible way, completely immersed in and in awe of the nature that was surrounding us.
Another suprise of this leg was that we were driving through ethnic minority villages who live way up there and stay there for the duration of their lives. After we passed Yen Minh and until we reached Dong Van the majority of people we saw were from a hill tribe and it was fascinating to see. Unlike the Karen tribe of northern Thailand whose culture has been turned into a tourist attraction these people were genuinely going about their business and I reckon only half of them were happy to see us roll through their towns and villages on a bike.
The DVKPG is still relatively remote and unknown however it is on the tourist map and probably a small yet consistent amount of tourists would have been driving through for years now but it hasn't affected the local peoples of the area which made the whole thing that much more unique. Men were walking the roads herding water buffalo or cows in traditional clothing, coloured hats, tops and male skirts. Women were carrying rice husks, the days fruit or vegetable picks on the backs in weaved wicker baskets up tracks that were as steep as the mountainside. These people came in tiny packages with massive amounts of strength in every sense of word because there were young girls all the way through to old women working the arses off and you know that they are doing that day in day out with no respite. This is not a question of less pay or holiday used up, this is "I need to eat tonight". The villages we went through were poor, no doubt about it, and it was such a contrast to see beacuse they had clearly been living the same way for years, probably hundreds of years, neither Chinese nor Vietnamese, content in their tribe and their way of life. All of a sudden modernity is thrust upon them and so they have access to some aspects of "civilised" life but with no place for them in their existing world. This leads to cement structures barely built to shelter in but not made into homes. Children with dated football t-shirts asking for food or money from tourists going by because it's easier and probably more lucrative than working. A cattle herder urging on his cows with a branch and a hand crafted yoke made from a branch whilst in his other hand he's looking at an iPhone into a world out of his reach. Rubbish and plastics bring piled up and burnt (although to be fair thats everywhere in SE Asia). Thee juxtaposition is quite a thing to witness and is neither good or bad, just a strange thing to experience from an western outsider's point of view. Saying that, there is a lot to be said for the children. All of them are bursting with life, smiling, laughing, holding each other jovially, waving, running after us, screaming in English, Vietnamese or a local dialect who knows? All I know is that they are all truly happy with as little as they have and it's wonderful to see.
As we arrived into Dong Van it had turned to dark, we were both pretty tired, and so we checked in for the night ate and slept ready for a longer drive tomorrow.
We set off around 8am back the way we came heading for Lung Cu commune which is the most northernly region in Vietnam bordering China. Again the drive up was staggering beautiful surrounded by landscapes that belong in fantasy writing, on our way passed through Ma Lae which is an ancient village, unfortunately we weren't able to stop and visit our friend from the night before who owned a homestay there as we were on a time scale but on the drive we could see the incredible let rice paddies stepped into the hills all the way to the peak so that literally no landed was unused.
On the way to Lung Cu the road comes within metres of the Chinese border. We got out to have a look and found ourselves face to face with concrete posts and barbed wire blocking our path. It was pretty cool to see china for the first time even though we'll be heading there very soon. Just to the left of the fence however was a makeshift staircase in the mud leading to up to the side of the fence and after followimg it I saw that there was a perpendicular to the fence roughly 5m long that led straight into the PRC unmanned and unblocked. Walked right through it and stepped boldly into China for the first time for all of seconds before running back in case I was about to be jumped from the bushes for illegally entering their country.
We finally reached the Lung Cu Flag Tower, a marker for the most northernly point in Vietnam, which is set upon dragon mountain to take in the panoramic views around us. Again knowing china was just there was awesome but I honestly think for the people of this region the official country lines do not matter, they are of the same tribes and life living peacefully and off the land. Trade and travel across this blurred line is probably plenty with little consequence to the nation's they hail from as a whole and so are left to be.
Right, Lung Cu check, it was time to set off for the Ma Pi Leng Pass which ran between the town of Dong Van and Meo Vac. Driving back to Dong Van for the seconds time it was nice to see it during the day, this surprisingly large town nestled at the feet of the surrounding mountains. We raced on through eager to see what this wonderful place held for us on the other side.
Now the road from Dong Van to Meo Vac is pretty much one road that is cut into the side of the mountain which is part of the Ma Pi Leng Valley and runs next to the Nho Que River and canyon. The Nho Que River Canyon is the deepest in SE Asia at a whopping 800m with a 70-80° slope. Again going into this we knew nothing about what we were about to see and on the way I kept being astounded by the fact that we hadn't entered the pass yet as the road and the views that were passing before my eyes were astounding (running out of descriptive words!). At the start of the pass there is a viewpoint where you can take a moment to marvel at all that there is in front of you. The river. The valley. The road snaking around the slopes of a giant. The mountains in the distance. The specks of moving colour denoting people winding their way along the pass.
I gotta say it was emotional! It was a moment that encompassed everything that I wanted when I decided I wanted to travel all those years ago, when I wanted to travel the world and do amazing things but didn't know exactly what that was, not searching for anything in particular, just wanting to know what else is out there. But in that moment I found something. Words can't describe it, though I've written a lot of them, and it wasn't just the pass but the whole journey since we left Ha Giang had been inconceivably brilliant, I felt as though I'd made it, which is funny because usually you can just revel in that fact which I did for sure but with travelling it just makes you want to see more and do more. Oh well guess I'll just have to keep going 😁.
We drove the pass and it was epic! Winding I'm towards the heart of the belly of the mountain tight hairpin then zooming towards the precipice of the slope as if your about to carry on going and fly. It was magical amd once you get through far enough we could look back and see the canyon which was as deservedly dramatic to the landscape around it, the river running through, green under the sunlight. Just wow.
By the time we'd exited the pass, arrived in Meo Vac and eaten lunch it was 1.30pm, potentially because of the revelry, awe and pictures of what we had been doing the entire morning but we still had approx 140km to go which was the same distance as our entire days drive the day before. Fudge. We were driving back via a town called Mau Due which we had seen was a stop on the DVKPG loop and so we spef off anxious to grind down the kilometers to catch our bus at 7.30pm.
The road to Mau Due turned out to be more of a track that was half paved, half dirt and ran through all the little villages that are not mentioned on any maps. I don't need to keep saying it but the views were stunning and again this portion of the loop shed a different light on life up in the far reaches of northern Vietnam. Only accessible via dodgy roads the people here had even less access to resources and equipment. Only thinhd that could be transported by bike or mini-truck (like a minibus but truck version) could reach these far removed communities. Again highlighting the disparity between what you need and you want.
This leg of the journey was faster paced than before meaning less stopping time but as the roads were still extremely windy and not in a good condition our going was relatively slow despite having conquered the semi-automatic bike. As we reached May Due we didn't have time to stop and check out the viewpoint as we had to carry on through to Yen Minh. Once we reached the city we were on the same road we came out on and back on a "good" surface. I cranked up the speed and headed for home. There was a moment or two when I didn't think we were going to make it but that soon alleviated as we made up time thanks to some impressive driving from yours truly. On the way back seeing the same landscape reversed was like seeing a totally new landscape, the feeling of pure wonder never wavered even during our mad rush home.
I made it back to Kiki's at around 6.30pm unharmed, unscarred and awe stricken at what I had experienced over the past 2 days. It felt as though we'd spent longer on the road after everything we'd seen and I will be eternally grateful at having the opportunity to embark on such an adventure, the courage to take it and to have shared it with my partner in crime (even if she did get chauffeured around the whole time 😉)Read more