Borders & Back-Roads: Sapa to Ha Giang by Motorbike

Last updated November 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Connecting two of the most mountainous provinces in Vietnam (Lào Cai and Hà Giang) this motorbike route straddles the Chinese border, carving a meandering course over mountain ranges and along river valleys. Largely on small roads that have only recently been blasted out of the mountainsides, this road trip is a slow crawl through some of the remotest parts of the country. Dramatic scenery, fascinating border towns, ethnic minority markets and lush farmland abound. This is a route to be taken slowly – there’s hardly a kilometre without a hairpin bend – and with plenty of time to allow for unforeseen circumstances, such as bad weather and landslides. This road trip makes a good alternative to, or extension of, the increasingly popular Ha Giang Extreme North Loop. Read on for my guide to the route between Sapa and Ha Giang along borders and back-roads.

Terraced rice fields in the mist, Hoang Su PhiDramatic borderland scenery along back-roads between Sapa and Ha Giang

[Back Top]

MOTORBIKE GUIDE:


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Route: Sapa to Ha Giang on back-roads [MAP]
  • Total Distance: 485km
  • Terrain & Scenery: mountains, valleys, rivers, minority villages, borderlands
  • Road Conditions: paved rural back-roads, occasional gravel roads, highways

ROUTE MAP:

Sapa to Ha Giang: along borders & back-roads


View a LARGER MAP

ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

Boy rides a buffalo, Ha Giang ProvinceI’ve written this guide in 4 sections, going west to east from Sapa to Ha Giang, but the route can be ridden in either direction. Note that each section doesn’t necessarily correspond to one day on the road. The total distance is 485km. I recommend spending between 3-5 days on this route. Remember that on these small, twisting mountain roads progress can be slow, averaging around 30km an hour. If possible try to time your trip to coincide with a weekend, as all the towns on this route have lively markets, which draw colourfully-dressed ethnic minorities from across the region. Weather in the mountains is very erratic, and even in the summer months temperatures drop significantly in the evenings. Spring and autumn are the best times to go, the latter coinciding with the bright colours of the rice harvest. You can easily turn this route into a loop by connecting roads QL279 and QL70 for a faster return leg between Ha Giang and Sapa. Alternatively, you can continue north from Ha Giang for the spectacular Extreme North Loop. In my guide below I’ve included a description of the route, directions and places to stay and eat.

Note: At the time of writing (2015) the road between Bac Ha and Xin Man, which has been under construction for many years, is now mostly finished. However, there’s still a 5-10km section that is rough and bumpy, making it especially difficult in rainy or muddy conditions. I’ve marked this road on my map with a red line. My advice is to see what the weather is like, and ask locals in Bac Ha about the current state of the road, before deciding to take it. Personally, I prefer to follow my alternative route in section 3 of this guide which, although longer, is just as scenic.

[Back Top]


SECTION 1:

Route: Sapa to Muong Khuong | Distance: 85km  [MAP]

The first section of this road trip is all on Road 4D, which heads northeast of Sapa, down to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, and then up a long mountain pass to the little visited outpost of Muong Khoung.

Trucks wait to enter China, Lao CaiLeave the mountain resort town of Sapa by way of the Sapa Pass. This scenic winding road takes you down to the Red River valley, which is noticeably warmer (and a lot less cloudy) than Sapa. The dusty but busy town of Lao Cai sits right on the Chinese border. It’s a major gateway for trade between the two countries, especially now that a new highway has opened, linking Lao Cai with Hanoi. Apart from soaking up the strangely compelling atmosphere at the border bridge, there’s not much else to hold your attention in this city. Shoot across the muddy waters of the Red River and head northeast out of Lao Cai on Road 4D. After 10km take a left turn (due north) signposted to Muong Khuong.

The early stages of this road don’t promise much. The road surface has been badly grazed and trucks clog the corners, squeezing past each other on their way to and from construction sites in the mountains, where ambitious new roads to remote settlements are being laid.

However, after 20km the road quality improves and so does the scenery. Leaving the valleys behind Road 4D aims skyward, not stopping until it’s over 1,000m high. Waterfalls and streams gurgle by the roadside, inviting you to wash the dust from your face, before gliding along the last 10km – a spectacular ride next to a terrifying drop – to Muong Khuong town.

Mountain pass to Muong KhuongThe last 10km to Muong Khuong is a thrilling ride next to a terrifying drop

1942 house front, Muong KhuongJust a few kilometres from the Chinese border, Muong Khuong is a strange and isolated place. Hemmed in on all sides by a ring of limestone pinnacles, it’s a mythical setting for an ugly town. Ugly, but interesting. Muong Khuong was a remote outpost during French colonial times, and there are still a few crumbling buildings left from that era (although they are soon to be demolished). Much of the town was destroyed during the 1979 border war between Vietnam and China. There’s a good market on weekends that attracts many of the ethnic minority groups living in the vicinity. A couple of OK nhà nghỉ (guest houses) can be found on the high street (click HERE for more information about guest houses). The imaginatively named Nha Nghi 386 (Tel: 0986 347 467) is right by the market and has large but dull rooms for 200-300,000vnđ ($10-15) a night. There’s not much food available, but you can still find a few empty rice eateries (quán cơm) along the main drag. Although I wouldn’t linger in this town long, I find it a fascinating place to be for a night.

[Back Top]


SECTION 2:

Route: Muong Khuong to Bac Ha | Distance: 90km [MAP]

The journey between Muong Khuong and Bac Ha is only 90km, but it can take all day because the roads are extremely mountainous. Following the Chinese border for much of the way, Road TL153 climbs up and down several mountains, connecting dozens of small minority villages and remote army outposts, before heading south to the famous market town of Bac Ha.

It’s a good idea to start reasonably early in the morning from Muong Khuong. Take Road TL153 northeast out of town. Almost immediately the road carves a path along the edge of a high precipice; above waterfalls, terraced rice fields and tiny hamlets far down in the valley below. Most of this section has only recently been paved. Finishing touches are still being put in place, and already there are regular landslides that cover the road surface in boulders and earth. If you’re lucky enough to have good weather it’s a dramatic ride all the way to Bac Ha.

Waterfall near Moung KhuongIt’s a dramatic ride from Muong Khuong to Bac Ha along the Chinese border

At Pha Long – the northern-most point of this route – there’s a lively, rustic market on weekends. From here the road turns south, following the course of the My Phu River, along a spectacular valley dominated by limestone mountains. China is on the other side of the river. It’s very apparent that, on the Vietnamese side, all land is cultivated – from the river banks to the mountaintops – whereas, on the Chinese side, there’s hardly any sign of human activity; no roads, fields or buildings, just a bare mountain wall. Apart from the great views, I love the strange feeling that comes from being so close to the border of a country as big as China.

Deserted boulevards, Si Ma CaiLeaving the Chinese border behind, Road TL153 corkscrews over several passes before reaching the alpine settlement of Si Ma Cai. Set on a lovely crest of land surrounded by steep peaks reaching over 2,000m, this is yet another strange town in the middle of nowhere. The original town is no more than a crossroads, but there’s now a vast new town with wide boulevards, empty squares, and over-sized government buildings. Massive construction is ongoing. If you feel like stopping for the night, there’s a decent guest house right at the town’s crossroads: Nha Nghi Hong Nhung (0987 225 228), 200-400,000vnđ ($10-20).

The ascent out of Si Ma Cai is so steep that your motorbike may struggle if there’s a passenger on the back. It can get very cold at the top, but the views are outstanding once again as the road continues south. It’s interesting to note that, although this is one of the more remote parts of Vietnam, the population density is surprisingly high. There’s always some activity going on in this big landscape; people working in the fields, walking along paths to isolated homes on the mountainsides, herding cattle, chopping wood in the forests. Most of these people are from Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. With over 50 different ethnic groups, these minorities only make up 14% of the country’s population, but they are concentrated in highland areas, especially in the north. Most minority people make their living from agriculture. Such is the density in Lào Cai Province that there’s hardly any ‘unused’ land; the entire landscape is cultivated. Minority children are always excited to see foreigners. It’s a good idea to carry some candy with you to offer these kids (as an alternative to money) and put wide smiles on their faces.

Minority children by the roadside, near Bac HaEthnic minority children sitting by the roadside near Bac Ha

Descending through pine trees, the town of Bac Ha comes into view. Bac Ha’s Sunday Market has become a favourite attraction for foreign and domestic tourists alike. Every weekend, thousands of minority people – the women all dressed in brightly coloured traditional clothing – make the long journey on foot from their homes in mountain villages to the market. If you happen to be here on a weekend this market is quite a spectacle. There’s a hot food section where minority men eat delicious bowls of noodles, smoke bamboo pipes and consume large amounts of potent local liquor. Meanwhile, the women wander through the market’s wide spread of stalls, buying clothes, food, and supplies for the week ahead. It’s a lively, vibrant market with lots to see. However, try to get here as early as possible because, from about 9.30am, hundreds of tourists arrive on buses, armed with big SLR cameras with giant detachable zooms, that many proceed to stick in minority women’s faces; suddenly it feels more like a zoo than a market. (Read my guide to Bac Ha Market HERE)

There are plenty of places to stay in Bac Ha. I like the Sunday Hotel (Tel: 0904 646 955; 200-500,000vnđ [$10-25] a night) on the main square, just a stroll away from the market. There are food options around the square, including some hotel restaurants which have English-language menus.

Sunday market, Bac HaBac Ha Sunday Market is a colourful and intense experience

[Back Top]


SECTION 3:

Route: Bac Ha to Xin Man | Distance: 170km [MAP]

There’s a more direct route between Bac Ha and Xin Man (also known as Coc Pai) than the one I outline here. The road, which has been under construction for years, is now in good condition, apart from a 5-10km section, which is still rough and bumpy. I’ve marked the road in red on my map. You can ask around in Bac Ha for up-to-date information about the state of this road. However, even when it’s completely finished, it’d be a shame to miss the longer route to Xin Man, because it’s a beautiful drive.

Lush valleys in the Red River basinThis is the longest section of the road trip, so leave early and give yourself plenty of time to reach Xin Man by nightfall. Leave Bac Ha on Road TL153 heading south, down a long and scenic mountain pass to Highway QL70. Turn left (due southeast) and continue for 40km to the crossroads town of Pho Rang. Until the opening of a new expressway in September 2014, this meandering road was the main highway between Hanoi and Lao Cai. It was hopelessly narrow to accommodate all the trucks plying between the capital and the Chinese border, not to mention all the tourist traffic heading to Sapa on weekends. Nowadays, with all heavy traffic taking the new expressway, QL70 is an enjoyable ride, threading through a very lush landscape of fruit trees, red earth and hamlets of wooden houses on stilts.

Pho Rang makes a convenient lunch stop before heading north once again on Road QL279, signposted for Bac Quang. After crossing a bridge over the Chay River – the course of which weaves in and out of this entire route – this excellent road leads through a peaceful, verdant landscape, characterized by rice fields, different kinds of palm tree, and attractive rural hamlets clustered around clear rivers.

After 25km the road bends east, entering Vietnam’s northern-most province, Ha Giang. Unfortunately, the border between provinces is made apparent by the immediate deterioration of the road surface. Smack on the provincial border asphalt turns to mud and rocks: welcome to Ha Giang.

Rough roads, Ha Giang ProvinceWelcome to Ha Giang: the road surface deteriorates the moment you cross the provincial border

However, you only need to put up with the bumpy ride for 10km before reaching the town of Quang Binh (also known as Yen Binh). Look out for a signpost to the left (due north) for Na Tri just before crossing a small bridge. Under the signpost there’s a milestone for Coc Pai (Xin Man) so you’ll know you’re on the right road. This is Road TL178. It heads north, leading through a gorgeous valley, up a mountain, and down the other side to Xin Man town, near the Chinese border. In good weather, this small back-road is my favourite part of the road trip; a rich, verdant valley of terraced rice fields, surrounded by high, forested mountains, spouting waterfalls which run into streams leading through pretty villages of wood and thatch homes.

There’s a new home stay option near Na Tri village (look out for the signboard for Làng Mới), but if the sun is out I’d continue on up the spectacular mountain pass leading straight over the Chay River Massif. At times this pass is so steep that all vehicles struggle against the gradient. Near the summit the road surface is pretty bad but only for a few hundred metres. The air is thin and cool at the top. The views north and south are very grand.

The road to Xin ManRice terraces at the start of the road up to remote Xin Man

Pristine, Tien WaterfallDescending the other side through thick forest there’s a tree by the roadside with a small altar next to it. A plaque announces that this tree is over 500 years old. A few minutes further down is Tien Waterfall. Reached via steep steps through a bamboo forest, this is a beautiful cascade of blue water fresh off the mountains. You can swim in the (cold) pool below the falls. There’s a small cafe at the entrance where you can also stay the night (150,000vnđ [$7]) but the rooms aren’t great.

The long descent to Xin Man town offers terrific views of mountains receding into the distance (which is Chinese territory) in shades of purple and blue. The road echoes the course of mountain streams, each one becoming increasingly bloated on the way down as they’re joined by other watercourses. During harvest time (September-October) the hillsides are covered in bright yellow rice terraces. Children wave from the roadside, buffalo carry wooden carts full of hay, and men and women are busy working in the fields. It’s a wonderful sight and one that you wouldn’t see if you took the short route between Bac Ha and Xin Man.

View from the pass to Xin ManStunning views from the road as it meanders over a mountain and down to Xin Man

The town of Xin Man is built on a steep slope. There’s a relative glut of accommodation on the high street here. Choose from half a dozen nhà nghỉ (guest houses) and hotels. I like the large, clean rooms with balconies at Nha Nghi Ngoc Son (29 Le Duan; Tel: 0972 307 999; 200-400,000vnđ [$10-20] a night). There are some standard cơm phở (rice and noodle) eateries serving hearty meals for 60-150,000vnđ ($3-7). On weekends there’s a large market, and even on weekdays this is a good place for a local breakfast of noodle soup. Xin Man is remote – it’s a 2-3 hour drive in any direction to the nearest main road or city – but the people are friendly and, if you arrive on a weekend and find a good room, you might want to spend a couple of nights here.

[Back Top]


SECTION 4:

Route: Xin Man to Ha Giang | Distance: 140km [MAP]

The journey from Xin Man to Ha Giang follows the course of two rivers. First, a rarely used road near the Chinese border clings to the valley of the Chay River, heading east then south to join Highway QL2, which leads north along the Lo River towards China once more, stopping 20km short of the border at Ha Giang, the provincial capital.

Rustic lunch in Hoang Su PhiHead east out of Xin Man on Road TL178. It’s 100km from Xin Man to the junction with National Highway QL2. The first half of this road is pretty bumpy and progress can be quite slow. Although the second half is in much better condition it’s extremely mountainous which, once again, will slow you down. Expect the first 100km of this section to take 3-4 hours, not including stops. From Xin Man to Hoang Su Phi (also known at Vinh Quang) Road TL178 glides high above the galloping cascades of the Chay River. To the north is a wall of mountains, the other side of which is China.

The isolated town of Hoang Su Phi sits in a steep valley like trash in a landfill. On a rainy, grey day it looks very grim indeed. A couple of nhà nghỉ (guest houses) on the high-street and the large Sông Chảy Hotel are available if you get stuck here for a night. Food is also available and it’s a good idea to take lunch here before continuing southeast again on Road TL178.

The road surface is smoother for the next 60km to the junction with Highway QL2. The scenery is better too. Two high passes – called Heaven’s Gate Pass 1 and 2 – zigzag up through terraced rice and tea plantations. The tea is a special variety with a white flower, called trà shan tuyết. Look out for roadside shacks selling it. The second Heaven’s Gate Pass is the more thrilling of the two. Views over terraced crops, waterfalls and rivers are majestic. Even in the ghostly mist that often hangs over the pass, it’s a sublime ride and a fitting end to the big landscapes on this route; for once the road drops down to meet Highway QL2 it’s a smooth, quick drive north along the Lo River to Ha Giang.

View from Heaven's Gate Pass 2View from Heaven’s Gate Pass of rice terraces and tea plantations

Street food in Ha GiangI like Ha Giang. Built on the banks of the Lo River this city has wide roads, good, plentiful food, a large market, and lots of accommodation options. You need to choose which side of the river you want to stay. Nguyen Trai Street runs along the west side of the river, while Nguyen Thai Hoc follows the east bank. There are hotels along both streets and a bridge over the river at either end. I prefer the east side, on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, because there are more food options here and a couple of good guest houses right on the riverfront. Nha Nghi Thuy Tien (19 Nguyen Thai Hoc; Tel: 0913 271 248) has good but aging rooms with balconies overlooking the river for 200-400,000vnđ ($10-20) a night.

On Nguyen Thai Hoc there are dozens of rice eateries where you point and order. These offer decent food for around 40,000vnđ ($2) per person. I am particularly fond of this one, but it has changed its decor since I last visited. If you’re looking for a feast and some relatively fancy dining after a few days of ‘mountain food’, try the big restaurants on Nguyen Trai Street, on the right hand side just north of the second (northern) bridge. Here you’ll find local specialities, such as salmon hotpot (lẩu cá hồi) for which the region is famous.

From Ha Giang you could easily complete a loop, heading back to Sapa, by connecting highways QL2, QL279 and QL70 to Lao Cai. Alternatively, you could continue north from Ha Giang on the spectacular Extreme North Loop.

[Back Top]

RELATED POSTS:


SAPA-SIN HO SCENIC LOOP:
Ride the highest roads in Vietnam on this spectacular loop……read more

Sapa, Sin Ho, Northern Vietnam


HA GIANG EXTREME NORTH LOOP:
A thrilling ride through the mythical Tolkienian landscape of the north……read more

Ha Giang mountains, Vietnam


THE NORTHEAST LOOP:
Pastoral pathways thread a sumptuous route through bucolic scenery……read more

Cao Bang scenery, northeast Vietnam

[Back Top]


Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats:  What's this?

This entry was posted in ALL, DESTINATIONS, MOTORBIKE GUIDES, Mountains, Mountains, Off Beaten Path, The North, The North and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

58 Responses to Borders & Back-Roads: Sapa to Ha Giang by Motorbike

  1. Xaviera says:

    Hello!
    In part 4, you talk about Hraven’s gate pass, on the road Ql2….isn’t the heaven’s gate pass on the 4 near Tam Som?

    Thank you!

  2. Flip says:

    Hi there. Great resource.

    How big of a mission is it to rent the bike in Hanoi and ship on the train? Is it worth the effort for 7 days of exploring or better to take the train and rent in the main towns?

    Thanks
    Flip

    • Hi Flip,

      It shouldn’t be too much of a mission to do that: contact the motorbike rental companies in Hanoi in advance – they will probably be able to advise you about putting your bike on the train. Try Rent a Bike Vietnam, Tigit Motorbikes, and Style Motorbikes – they all have offices in Hanoi and are all reputable rental companies. There are links to all three of them in the right sidebar and bottom of all my pages. You can mention Vietnam Coracle if you like, they know me.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

    • Flip says:

      And another q. If you had to cut one option between Sapa and Ha Giang for a firat time solo visit to the North where would your heart be?

  3. Kimmy says:

    Hi Tom,

    Love all your articles here! My fiance and I will be in the northern Vietnan area for 5 days in March. We are hoping to take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and renting motorbikes there. We will be in Sapa for 2 nights (motorbiking around) and then plan on (hopefully) doing a 3 day -2 night loop ending up in Lao Cai. I REALLY wanted to get to Ha Giang but I’m not sure if that’s possible. I saw you had a Sapa 2-3 loop as well, although it doesn’t look as stunning at Ha Giang.

    I would love to know your thoughts!

    • Hi Kimmy,

      Both Ha Giang and Sapa routes are spectacular. If you wanted to do that Ha Giang loop you would have to spend one day riding there, one day riding the loop, and one day riding back to Sapa again. This is doable but not really a good idea. So, yes, I would suggest doing the Sapa-Sin loop over 2 days instead and then maybe add on the Mu Cang Chai route for a day too. This is a great ride, and it will be more relaxing than trying to get all the way to Ha Giang and back again.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

      • Kimmy says:

        Thank you for getting back to me so quickly! I think I agree that we just don’t have enough time to do Ha Giang this time around. I will look up Mu Cang Chai and Sapa-Sin Loop and just staying in that area.

        Are the road typically good in mid March? I suspect the rain won’t come for a few months at least!

        Would you recommend renting bikes in Lao Cai or Sapa? How did you deal with the passport situation (giving to the bike rental company or paying a deposit?)

        Thanks again!
        Kimmy

        • Hi Kimmy,

          March/April is generally one of the best times to visit that area, however, it’s a mountainous region and the weather is always fairly unpredictable. Road conditions in the northern mountains are pretty good but changeable depending on the weather – if there’s been a lot of rain then landslides can block roads for hours or even days.

          I would recommend renting bikes in Hanoi and then putting them on the train to lao Cai. Style Motorbikes, Rent a Bike Vietnam, and Tigit Motorbikes are all reputable rental companies with offices in Hanoi – there are links to all three of them in the right sidebar and bottom of all my pages. You can mention Vietnam Coracle if you like, they know me. If not, then renting a motorbike in Sapa would be easier than in lao Cai. You won’t need to leave your passport with any of the recommended agencies, but in Sapa you will probably have to give them a copy of your passport or some collateral.

          I hope this helps,

          Tom

          • Kimmy says:

            Excellent, thank you! I will reach out to those rental places. Our trip was just extended by 3 days so we now have 5 days (7 including Sapa) for motorbiking around. Is that enough to get over the Ha Giang? Thank you SO much for taking to the time to answer my questions!

            • Hi Kimmy,

              Yes, if you ride from Sapa to Ha Giang and back again on the most direct route, and spend 2 days doing the Ha Giang Loop, you’ll have enough time. But bear in mind that it would be quite a lot of riding in a relatively short space of time. However, if you’re used to riding longish distances you’ll be fine.

              Tom

  4. Antek M. says:

    Road from Pha Long is currently in pretty bad shape – exactly some 20km starting from the top of the mountain above Pha Long until the river. As soon as you cross the bridge, road becomes great again and stays so until Simacai and Bac Ha.
    Nevertheless it’s very beautiful ride and definitely worth the effort it takes

  5. Antoni says:

    I would recommend taking road TL155 from Sapa (starts a little bit to the west), then continuing with TL158 all the way to China border and going back to Lao Cai along the Red River – I just finished this today and wow – this was one of the most amazing rides I’ve had so far in Vietnam. Roads were mostly in very good conditions except for some rough parts near Y Ty village (nothing really bad though), but views certainly make up for it – and this road is fun!

    Alternatively if someone is short on time (the route described above is around 170km and will take easily full day) it’s possible to turn right on TL158 and go to Lao Cai directly – you will miss some amazing ride this way, but it’s still much nicer than going down from Sapa to Lao Cai via crowded and bit boring main road

    • Hi Antoni,

      Thanks for that suggestion. A couple of other readers have mentioned this road too. It looks and sounds fantastic. I’d love to ride it some time soon, but haven’t had the chance yet :-(

      Enjoy the rest of your ride.

      Tom

  6. David Molony says:

    Can confirm that by October 2015 the red part of the route is easily passable on any motorbike.

    This route is fantastic… Actually started from lao cai and went up road 153, which Google maps only acknowledges exists when you zoom right in. Perhaps the best bit of motorbiking in my 4000km through Vietnam so far. Highly recommend. Writing this from near Panhou village… But not staying there, because it’s retardedly expensive. But there’s an OK hotel nearby.

  7. Nadav says:

    HI Tom,
    Is there any rental agency you know of that allows renting a bike in Sapa and dropping it off at Ha-giang?
    I really don’t want to backtrack to Sapa

    Thanks!

    • Hi Nadav,

      I don’t know a specific rental agency that does that. It seems unlikely too. But perhaps you could try contacting Sapa O’Chau and asking them if they have some information about it.

      Good luck,

      Tom

  8. Ray says:

    Love your stories absolutely great.

  9. Ray says:

    Hi Tom
    Did you ever cross over the border into China with your bike in the outback and return with no issues.
    Kind Regards

    • Hi Ray,

      I’ve never crossed ‘officially’, no. (Only in parts where the ‘border’ is just a tree and people appear to ride over freely, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing that if you plan to stay in China.)

      Otherwise, you’d have to cross at the main border gates – Lao Cai, Dong Dang and Mong Cai. I’m not sure if the one north of Ha Giang city is open to foreigners or not.

      If you do it, please let me know how it goes – I’m sure it would be useful to other readers too.

      Thanks,

      Tom

      • Antoni says:

        As far as I know foreigners can’t easily drive a motorbike in China (unless they are part of special, organised tour or have Chinese licence – and this requirement is for sure not as easy to go around as in Vietnam) – so I don’t think it’s possible.

  10. Chris says:

    I cannot recommend the Song Chay Hotel in Su Phi. I’m there now with major ant problem and no hot water. However, I noticed on the way entering town a new hotel. The owner says it will open tomorrow. It is visible from the road as you drop in and enter town

  11. Chris says:

    I just rode up the Na Tri road from Yen Binh to Xin Man. bridge I agree it is a very worthwhile detour if anyone is coming from Bac Ha. I may go so far as to say it is the best ride I’ve had on this trip.

    By the way, I did not see the signs for the Na Tri guest house. I made a cursory look as I was driving by the bridge but did not look thoroughly.

  12. Chris says:

    I think I saw you mention a possible homestay in Na Chi near Bac Ha. I cannot find any information about it, do you have any additional information?

    • Hi Chris,

      No, I don’t think I mentioned that homestay. I can’t find any more information about it either, sorry.

      Tom

      • Chris says:

        Sorry, Na Tri. You mention it on the road from Yen Binh to Xin Man. I had it listed as Na Chi on my map…

        • Hi Chris,

          Yes, there were at least a couple of homestay options near the bridge over the river at Na Tri – they are signposted from the road is English. As long as it’s not the weekend or a public holiday or late in the day, I expect that you could just show up and stay. However, make sure you leave enough time to make other plans if this doesn’t work out.

          Tom

  13. Pingback: LIVE JOURNAL WEEK 3: Solo motorbike trip around northern Vietnam - World Wide Winther

  14. Richard says:

    Over the last couple days, we traveled from Bac Ha to Hoang Su Phi via Xin Man by minivan. The road rough in some areas with a bit of erosion here and there and potholes but certainly a useable road. No buses, just xe om and cars. Yesterday, we did the piece from Hoang Su Phi to Ha Giang. Lots of road work going on and rook about four hours. From Ha Giang, I believe there are some smaller buses that make this run. It must be a terrifying trip for bus riders. Regards,

    Richard

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for sharing your experience of that road. Yes, the section from Hoang Su Phi to Viet Quang has always been a little rough and takes around 4 hours, even on a motorbike. It’s good to hear that they are do some roadworks to upgrade the surface a bit.

      Enjoy the rest of your trip,

      Tom

  15. Andoni says:

    Fantastic guide. I’d just like to provide a bit of quick updated information on this for those in the future.

    I did this motorbike loop in August 2015, starting from Ha Giang. As of then, the road from Bac Ha to Xin Man was not bad at all. It was much shorter, and the roads were fine in all but one place. I can’t remember now, but maybe 15-20km from Bac Ha to Xin Man, the way to go is up this small steep dirt hill. It’s not possible to ride up, you have to push your bike up and use the throttle. The hill is only about 20 feet high.

    Of course when I was there, it was storming and the dirt hill turned into slippery mud. I wasn’t able to push the bike up myself, but there were many people around also trying to get up the hill, so they were helping each other out.

    Outside of that, like I said the roads were fine, and if you’re pressed for time like I was, it’s worth it to go the fast way.

  16. Florent says:

    As other people mentioned, the shortcut between Bac Ha and Xin Man is now in good condition EXCEPT the last 5 KM which are really terrible but the view over the valley made it up for the pain.

    Tom, I totally randomly had my breakfast at this place in Ha Giang. It’s only after a little while that I realised it was the same place you described. You wouldn’t recognise it. They renovated the entire place and she switched her wood fire with electricity but still, I had a great time with a lot of laugh and delicious Banh Cuon with some chopped sausages in a soup. She perfectly remembers you.

    • Hi Florent,

      Thanks for another update about the Bac Ha-Xin Man road. And thanks for letting me know about the transformation of Breakfast in Ha Giang! I can’t believe that attractive, old dilapidated shop front has gone. Although, of course, I understand that it’s a good thing for the family and the business, I still can’t help feeling a little sad about the change, especially the wood-fired hearth. I hope to revisit next time I’m in Ha Giang.

      Tom

  17. Muri says:

    Hey Tom, I must admit that this is one of the very best travel blogs I’ve ever read about Vietnam – seriously. I really enjoyed exploring the beaten path in Vietnam and even nowadays I often think about the adventures we went through on our Honda Wins. Your blog entries definitely awakened some memories.

    After looking at your itinerary and possible routes from Sapa to Ha Giang, I immediately recalled a rather funny story from my own trip through Northern Vietnam in 2014.

    Me and two other travel companions were on our Honda Wins on a similar route between Lao Cai and Ha Giang, and eventually we arrived in Hoang Su Phi / Vinh Quang (we also took the road from Bac Ha to Xin Man). But instead of continuing TL178 southeast to reach Ha Giang via QL2, we decided to take the mountain roads north-east of Hoang Su Phi to reach Ha Giang directly along the Chinese border.

    As you may imagine, the “road” was a complete disaster. After about 5kms the small paved road suddenly transformed into a small hiking path with some really steep slopes and even wild torrents blocking the way sometimes. Partly the path was again and again interrupted by muddy pools and other nasty obstacles. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, the road directions on Google Maps were completely wrong as well – according to our GPS were were driving somewhere in the green. The local hilltribe people who lived there just kept staring at us like we where ghosts. :D

    After maybe 4 hours we only progressed like about an aerial distance of 8km and as the afternoon drew in, we eventually decided to return to Hoang Su Phi. On the way back we spoke to a friendly local who spoke some English, and personally he thought we were plain crazy for trying tackle that nasty “road”. He also said that maybe 20 years ago this road wasn’t so bad at all, but weather, landslides and poor (to not at all) maintenance definitely took a toll on it. We definitely learned a lesson this day…

    But man, it was a beautiful countryside. Completely green valleys, almost untouched by modern civilization, full of rice terraces and some hilltribe huts. If the government someday decides to restore this road, then I would gladly take it again!

    • Hi Muri,

      Thanks. Great to hear that you enjoyed yourselves while riding around Vietnam. Yes, I agree, that area is incredibly beautiful. Roads are being improved all the time in Vietnam, so I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the route you took is paved – and then I too can’t wait to ride it! :-)

      Tom

  18. We are currently in Sapa and want to ride by motorbike to Ha Giang in a few days but are a bit concerned about landslides. Is this something that we should be worried about given that it has been raining for a few days? Do you think that we can make it to Ha Giang in one day or do you recommend taking two days to make the trip? We are traveling on one motorbike with about 30kg of luggage, which means that we drive fairly slowly.

    Any advice is appreciated as I (Nikki) am a bit hesitant.

    Cheers.

    • Hi Nikki and Dave,

      If you take the route suggested in this post then I think 2 days would be best – especially because there are two of you on one bike and because it’s been raining a lot.

      You could, however, take the more direct route in a day: Instead of going via Bac Ha and Xin Man, stay on Highway 70 to Pho Rang, turn left onto Road 279 until it meets Highway 2 to Ha Giang.

      Yes, landslides might be a problem because of the rain. In general these get cleared surprisingly quickly, but the real problem is the wet mud they leave behind, which makes the road surface slippery and treacherous.

      If it’s still raining in a few days then I’d take the more direct route to Ha Giang. If the suns out then take the longer route, but still 2 days is best. (Note that according to the previous comments above, the road between Bac Ha and Xin Man is now in good condition).

      I hope it goes well,

      Tom

  19. Kez says:

    Thanks so much for your accommodation tips Tom. Two days ago in Ha Giang we stayed at Khách sạn Thiên Hương just 100m up the road from Nga Nghi Thuy Tien. It was a good guesthouse.

  20. Kez says:

    Hi Tom,
    We rode Xin Man to Bac Ha yesterday & I can confirm what Campbell says here. The new road is a really fun ride with little traffic :-)

  21. Campbell says:

    Hi Tom,

    I recently drove through this area and went along the road which was marked red on your map. I went from Xin Man heading towards Bac Ha.

    The first 10km were fairly average, with good and bad patches but then all of a sudden it opened up to a new Road which was great to drive on.

    If anyone has time constraints and still wants to see this amazing area s then I’d recommend using the road marked in red. It saves a lot of time and is now in pretty good condition.

    Cheers,
    Cam

  22. Kacper says:

    Very good blog, I love the detailed explanation. This Thursday I am planning to do my own EXTREME North Loop. Travelling from Hanoi to Hanoi via Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Sapa and Bac Ha.

    I would like to ask your opinion on that. I wll also be travelling alone and I am planning to do a lot of milage on certain days. Like going from Hanoi to Son La on one day or from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa on one day. Well maybe two.
    I also want to ask if you have travelled from Son La to Dien Bien Phu through the mountain tracks avoiding the road no 6. On my map I can see two options for that. Option a) a track/footpath with a handful of villages next to it. I mean the track that starts at the end of road 108. The other option is to go with the 4G road via the border town of Chieng Khuong and then road 115 into the mountains and when it ends carry on going near the river to road 130 and then Dien Bien Dong and Dien Bien Phu.

    Do you have any comments on that?

    And I would also like to ask you about the road from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa. Is that journey possible in one day? (Ofcourse it’s possible but maybe its worth to slow down and do it in two days?)

    I will aprreciate a reply.

    Peace,

    Kacper

    • Hi Kacper,

      Some of those roads were in OK condition last time I was there, but some of it was a bit rough. It depends what kind of motorbike you are using: if you have a real motorcycle then you don’t need to worry too much about the conditions of the roads because even if they are muddy and rocky you can still get across them. But if you’re on a regular bike, such as an automatic or semi-automatic Yamaha or Honda then muddy, rocky roads can be a problem.

      Personally, I think Road 6 is very scenic from Son La to Dien Bien Phu so, if this is your first trip to the area, there’s no need to take the other smaller roads. If you would like up to date information about the conditions of the smaller roads it might be a good idea to contact Rent a Bike Hanoi or Flamingo Travel in Hanoi as they may have more details.

      Yes, the journey from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa is possible in one day, but it’s more fun to do it in two days, with one night stop at Sin Ho – see this for more on that ride.

      In general driving in the mountainous north of Vietnam is relatively slow because of the twisting roads – even when the road conditions are good. However, the northwest loop that you are going to drive is well-established and almost all of the roads are in good to decent condition. As for the smaller roads, don’t always trust your maps (including Google Maps) – always cross check a road you are not sure about and confirm it by asking locals before you commit to it. For more about maps read this.

      Have a great trip.

      Tom

      • Kacper says:

        Thank you Tom for your reply. I am going on a Honda Win which unfortunately developed a fuel leak from the fuel tank today. So my departure is now delayed. I think I will stick to route 6 in that case. It is my first trip in general and as I am going alone I will play it safe.

        Thanks for your dedication to this blog. I have actually found it by googling “which map to use in vietnam”.

        I will let you know how my trip gets on.

        Peace brother!

  23. Gene says:

    @[email protected]
    this is an absolute treasure trove! looks great!
    can i ask you for some advice please?
    im doing a northwest loop motorbike trip in mid-may. Hanoi to Hanoi.

    -does this seems reasonable for 9 days please? http://tinyurl.com/kf4ywc2
    hanoi-cao bang (or is cao bang less exciting? straight to meo vac offers better scenery?)-meo vac-dong van- ha giang-sapa-lao cai- train back to hanoi.
    -any rain gear that you would recommend?

    thanks!

    • Hi Gene,

      Yes, you should always have rain gear: a full rain suit (coat and pants) is best. Drop into a supermarket while you’re in Hanoi and pick one up for around $10-15 a set. I think Randolf or Randy – something like that – is the brand that most people use.

      I think 9 days is fine to complete that route. But you will be in the saddle a lot of the time. This shouldn’t be a problem as the ‘journey is the goal’ on this particular trip. I would say you’d have about 3-4 days off and 5 days on the road if you do this route in 9 days.

      May should be alright for weather – a mixed bag of heat, sun, humidity, and rain. The ride up to Cao Bang is scenic, so I would say that this is a good way to get to Meo Vac. You don’t need to go all the way to Cao Bang City: you can stay in Ba Be National Park the first night, then continue up to Tinh Tuc on Road TL212 which joins QL34 to take you to Bao Lac and then on to Meo Vac.

      I hope this helps.

      Tom

  24. mary says:

    Hi Tom, Have really been enjoying your articles on the alternative routes to explore Vietnam. We (me, husband and 13yr old son) would love to travel in this part of the country. Can you advise if we would be able to travel this area in a car and where is best to organise this. Am thinking of extreme north loop mainly. Also was wondering how safe motor bike tours are?
    Thanks
    Mary

    • Hi Mary,

      It is certainly possible to drive a car along any of the routes that I’ve written guides to in the north. All the roads are paved and wide enough to accommodate cars. (Seasonal weather can change road conditions due to flooding and landslides, especially during the summer months). However, I still don’t think you’re allowed (even with an international driving license) to self-drive hire cars in Vietnam. You’d have to hire a driver. This is absolutely fine if you have a nice driver, but can be a pain if you don’t get on with your driver.

      Guided motorbike tours are a great way to see Vietnam on the back of a bike without having to drive yourself. The vast majority of people have positive experiences doing this in Vietnam. There are loads of options out there to choose from. Easy Riders is the most famous, but there are many competing factions who claim this title – check your Lonely Planet and trusted guidebook forums for the latest Easy Rider news. A Google search brings up tons of relevant (and irrelevant) info of this.

      It might also be worth contacting a trusted bike hire agency in Vietnam (try Rent a Bike Hanoi and Flamingo Travel) to see if they can help you (they might even have some more advice about hiring a car and driver too).

      I hope you work something out and that you have a fantastic trip together.

      Tom

  25. Les says:

    Hi Tom: Just a brief note to thank you for writing these posts. I am amazed by the motorbike trips you take (also assuming you do so alone). You are pushing on the edge of where many people would become uncomfortable. You don’t seem to be at all – though you must stick out like a sore thumb in Vietnam!

    • Thanks, Les. Glad you are enjoying them. Yes, I do stick out in some of the places I go. Plenty of other people make road trips to these areas, especially paid motorbike tours from Hanoi. It’s a great way to see the country.
      Tom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>