Pastoral Pathways: The Northeast Motorbike Loop

Last updated September 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | MOTORBIKE GUIDE | MAP | VIDEO

A bucolic corner of Vietnam, the northeast is a garden of rice fields, forests, lakes, and clear rivers ambling through limestone corridors. A mixture of meandering back-roads and freshly-sealed highways lead through three provinces: Cao Bang, Lang Son and Bac Kan; all of which are among the most sparsely populated in the country. Vietnam’s ethnic minorities are actually in the majority here, and their fascinating cultures and ways of life dominate the area. The scenery is pastoral and peaceful, but limestone karsts are a constant and dramatic presence on this loop. China looms large to the north; at times literally a stone’s throw away. A rich history – from victorious revolutionary exploits to devastating invasions and economic recovery – adds spice to this scenic ride. The Northeast Loop is a favourite of mine, and it links seamlessly with the Ha Giang Extreme North Loop, to the west. Below is my full guide, map and video of the loop.

The Northeast Motorbike LoopBucolic garden: the Northeast Loop is a favourite of mine

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GUIDE: THE NORTHEAST LOOP


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 850km
  • Duration: 4-7 days
  • Route: Cao Bang – Ban Gioc – Lang Son – Bac Son – Ba Be – Bac Kan [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: highways, paved country roads, gravel roads
  • Scenery: limestone mountains, valleys, rivers, minority villages, borderlands

ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:

  • SECTION 1: Cao Bang to Quang Uyen (via Pac Bo Cave and Ban Gioc Falls) 250km
  • SECTION 2: Quang Uyen to Bac Son (via Lang Son) 280km
  • SECTION 3: Bac Son to Cao Bang (via Ba Be Lake) 320km

ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

Northeast Motorbike Loop, Cao Bang

Each section represents one province: they do not necessarily correspond to one day on the road. The total distance is 850km. To get the most out of this road trip, I recommend spending 2 days on each section. I’ve included places to stay and eat throughout this motorbike guide, so no matter where you end up, you’ll be able to find food and a bed for the night. This is a meandering course around the northeast: it is not intended as the most direct route between each point; rather it is the most scenic and rewarding one. I’ve written this guide going clockwise on the loop, but you can ride it in either direction. As with other parts of northern Vietnam, the northeast experiences a real winter. From November to March temperatures can be chilly and conditions misty. The best time of year is September and October, when the sun is warm, harvest colours illuminate the countryside, and rainfall is rare. Note: the northeast is famous for its constantly changing road conditions: check the comments section at the bottom of this page to see any updates from readers.

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ROUTE MAP:

The Northeast Motorbike Loop: Meandering through Cao Bang, Lang Son & Bac Kan provinces


View in a LARGER MAP

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VIDEO:

The Northeast Motorbike Loop: Riding a bucolic & sparsely populated corner of Vietnam


Watch on YouTube

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SECTION 1:

  • Cao Bang to Quang Uyen (via Pac Bo Cave & Ban Gioc Falls)
  • Distance: 250km
  • [MAP]

The journey begins in Cao Bang City, a likeable little place on a promontory formed by the merging of the Bang Giang River and a tributary. Cao Bang has more than enough good food, accommodation, and small Vietnamese city charm to keep you entertained for a day or two. The romantically named Phố Vườn Cam (Orange Orchard Street) is a continuation Kim Đồng Street and Highway QL 4A as it passes through town. This is where you’ll find a string of decent-value mini-hotels and nhà nghỉ (guesthouses), as well as plenty of good street food. (For more about nhà nghỉ read this). Hoàng Anh Hotel (131 Kim Đồng; 0263 858 969) offers clean, bright rooms for $10-$20 (200-500,000VNĐ) a night.

Local food is interesting and appetizing in Cao Bang. A speciality of the region is lạp sườn which is a smoked pork sausage originating from China. There’s a cluster of lạp sườn producers on Vườn Cam Street, just beyond the night market, with strings of sausages displayed on the sidewalk. For breakfast, try the phở at the classic ‘no-name’ soup house between 2 and 6 Hồng Việt Street, behind the market. If you’re feeling cold, do as the locals do and order rượu nếp hấp trứng which is an egg and rice pudding soaked in rice wine. Eaten after breakfast, locals say it keeps your body warm on cold days.

Cao Bang CityA likable town: Cao Bang City at dusk

Head east over the Bang Giang River and leave Cao Bang on road TL203, going northwest. The lush countryside envelops the road as soon as you exit Cao Bang City. Bamboo grows up over the road, forming a shaded archway of dappled sunlight. Old, stone farm houses stand in fields of shimmering rice, bisected by gentle streams. Limestone karsts rise up from the carpet of green, like giant arrowheads. This is the northern-most stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Road, which runs the entire length of Vietnam. This particular section is a sacred way for many Vietnamese, because it leads to a remote border with China, where Ho Chi Minh crossed back into his native Vietnam in 1941, after 30 years of absence. Ho lived in a cave on the border and began the movement that would eventually lead to the declaration of independence from French colonial rule, in Hanoi on 2nd September, 1945. Even if you have no interest in Vietnamese revolutionary history, Pac Bo Cave is a mesmerizingly beautiful area to visit. The cave is located at the very end of the Ho Chi Minh Road, 8km beyond the crossroads just north of Xuan Hoa (also known as Ha Quang). There’s a local guesthouse near the car park: Nhà Nghỉ Hai Hoa: 0983 983 623. (Read my guide to Pac Bo Cave here).

Pac Bo Cave, Cao BangHistory and natural beauty: Pac Bo Cave

After the cave head back down to the crossroads just north of Xuan Hoa. Turn left (due east) on road TL210, signposted to Tra Linh (also known as Hung Quoc). Climbing sharply up limestone cliffs, this fantastic back-road shadows the Chinese border. A huge white gash in the landscape, the road twists through a karst forest, passing remote villages that appear to be stuck in time. Homes are made of packed mud and straw with baked tile roofs. Oxen, buffalo, and horses transport crops, farming equipment, and people from field to village. Stone walls divide fields of rice, corn, and soy beans. Hay is stacked by children in 20-foot high pylons, echoing the shape of the limestone hills. Dozens of small villages dot this road, each one teeming with kids, flowing out of school gates on bicycles for the long ride home. A rocky creek ekes through the valley, providing animals and farmers with a bath after a hard day’s work in the fields.

Karst landscape, Cao BangPloughing through the karsts on remote back-roads near the Chinese border

Breakfast at Tra Linh, Cao BangEventually, this wonderful roads ends at the dusty, crossroads town of Tra Linh. A short hop from a remote Chinese border gate, Tra Linh sells Chinese beer and candy in its shops, and large trucks, loaded with a hidden cargo, await the cover of darkness to head over the border. There’s a guesthouse here, but it’s clinging to life. Nhà Nghỉ Quang Dũng (01669 872 234) is a narrow, four-storey building near Tra Linh’s main crossroads. Blighted by cobwebs and bad plumbing, this is a rather sad place, but it’s kept alive by the hard working son of the owner. Rooms are around $10 (200,000VNĐ) a night. Tra Linh has an intriguing market which displays a number of goods from across the border. In the mornings it’s a great place for some Chinese-influenced noodle soups.

Head south from Tra Linh on road TL205. After 12km this meets National Highway QL3 at the top of the Ma Phuc Pass. Bear left (due east) towards Quang Uyen. However, before you do so, it’s worth driving five minutes in the opposite direction, down the Ma Phuc Pass, to see the tremendous views. The tarmac snakes into the distance, between limestone crags.

Ma Phuc Pass, Cao BangFine views from the Ma Phuc Pass

Rice harvest, Cao BangNational Highway QL3 follows yet another beautiful valley punctuated by limestone karsts. There’s a new homestay initiative on the right side of the road, about halfway to Quang Uyen. Bản Pác Rằng is a cluster of ethnic minority wooden stilt houses that offer basic accommodation and food. It’s still in the early stages so, for anyone who wants to experience a more rustic homestay than the popular area around Mai Chau, this is a decent option. Unsurprisingly, rice in the main crop here. During late summer and early autumn the fields and villages are abuzz with harvest activity: a wonderful sight for a visitor; a lot of hard work for the farmers.

Turn left off Highway QL3 and pass through Quang Uyen on road TL206. A magnificent route through the kind of scenery that makes you wish you were a romantic poet, this is a ride to savour. Drive slowly and bask in the warmth of this landscape: gurgling streams, bamboo groves, crumbling farm houses, and jungle-clad limestone hills. However, strange as it may seem, trade with China along this peaceful route is roaring. The road has been upgraded to accommodate articulated trucks, carrying containers to and from remote border crossings. Travelling in convoys, they plough through this rural idyll, leaving clouds of dust behind them. Indeed, many of Cao Bang Province’s small roads are plagued by these giants of the road. It’s a bizarre and somewhat unsettling sight to see six juggernauts screeching through hairpin bends and growling up steep passes in such a sparsely populated and scenic area.

Limestone karsts, Cao BangQuiet, scenic back-roads, sometimes disturbed by China-bound juggernauts

Trung Khanh is another dusty, crossroads town near a Chinese border gate. Like Tra Linh, there’s an interesting market here and a definite Wild West feel to it. Something appeals to me about these desolate, rarely visited towns, and their intriguing, dilapidated, old shophouses. There are several places to stay here, including Nhà Nghỉ Hoàn Lê, a guesthouse opposite the market on the main drag (685 Trung Khanh; 01695 705 355).

Road TL206 heads east from Trung Khanh towards Ban Gioc Waterfall. I have a soft spot for this area. The jade-coloured Quay Son River flows through a gorgeous landscape that somehow gets me in my stomach; it’s the same reaction I have when listening to a piece of music I love. I once camped overlooking the river here on the night of a lunar eclipse, which I will never forget. After 25km Ban Gioc Waterfall comes into view. One of the most impressive natural sights in Vietnam, this is a place to stop for a couple of hours and explore. I’ve written a guide to the falls here.

Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao BangAn impressive sight right on the Chinese border: Ban Gioc Waterfall

Vietnam-China border, Cao Bang
Vietnam-China border

After the waterfall, road TL206 follows the Quay Son River for several kilometres. At this point, the river forms the border between Vietnam and China. Chinese characters are clearly visible on shopfronts and restaurants. At times the distance separating the two countries is only 10 metres. You can wave at Chinese people on the other side of the water, or throw a stone into the Chinese brush.

Thankfully, relations between the two countries are (generally) pretty good now. This is mainly due to valuable economic trade ties. Historically, however, this border has been the main point of entry for invading Chinese armies over the last two thousand years. The most recent was the brief but bloody border war in 1979. Tens of thousands of Chinese troops poured over the border, laying waste to villages and agricultural land. Today, there are shrines by the roadside commemorating the Vietnamese who died.

Eventually, the road veers away from the Quay Son River, forming a long loop all the way back to Quang Uyen. This is a corner of Vietnam that’s seldom visited, yet it’s utterly bewitching. Single track, paved lanes meander around the base of looming limestone karsts, casting their shadows over hamlets nestled among lush crop fields. At Ha Lang (also known as Thanh Nhat) Nhà Nghỉ Minh Vân (0263 830 888) is a local guesthouse that’s great for those looking to spend a night off the beaten path. Rooms are around $10 (200,000VNĐ).

Karst landscape, Cao BangBewitching scenery: dusk approaches near Ha Lang

From Ha Lang bear right onto road TL207. Interesting new roads are being cut throughout this area, most of which eventually lead back to Quang Uyen. However, staying on TL207 is the most direct route. Quang Uyen is a good place to spend a night. Khách Sạn Duy Hương (0266 266 888) is a great comfortable hotel on Phố Hòa Trung Street, Quang Uyen’s main drag. There’s food available next door and throughout the town.

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SECTION 2:

  • Quang Uyen to Bac Son (via Lang Son)
  • Distance: 280km
  • [MAP]

Take National Highway QL3 south out of Quang Uyen. After 25km of easy, scenic, and smooth driving turn right (due west) at a T-junction for Dong Khe (also known as Thach An). Unfortunately, this short, pretty, back-road has been ripped to pieces by articulated trucks on the China-Vietnam trade route. Potholes and dust slow progress considerably. The 25km stretch can take up to an hour. However, it’s still a pretty route and the road surface was undergoing some much needed repairs on my last visit in October 2014.

Road to Lang Son, Northeast VietnamAt Dong Khe it’s a relief to join National Highway QL4A, heading south towards Lang Son. This bold highway was constructed during French colonial times. Cutting through limestone mountains high above rocky riverbeds, it used to be poorly maintained and extremely dangerous. However, it’s recently been completely re-laid and widened; now it’s a shining blade of asphalt chiseled into the cliff-face. The 90km ride to Lang Son is smooth and easy, although it can still get clogged around the intersection for Dong Dang, the busiest border gate in Vietnam.

The last few kilometres to Lang Son are on the northernmost reaches of Highway 1, Vietnam’s infamous north-south main artery. Happily, it’s in fantastic condition here, as this is the main entry and exit point for the roaring cross-border trade with China. The city of Lang Son has prospered from the increase in trade with the People’s Republic. A small, friendly city with a pleasant buzz on its streets, Lang Son is full of food, guesthouses, and a night market selling all sorts of products from across the border. Settle into a room at one of the dozens of mini-hotels on and around Trần Quốc Toản Street, sit down to a glass of cold Chinese beer, and soak up the atmosphere of this once far-flung border town. I like the friendly service and dirt cheap rooms at Nhà Nghỉ Hải Vân (10 Trần Quốc Toản; 0253 879 590). Just across the road is a quintessential local rice eatery, called Thanh Lan, where you can fill up fill with a variety of classic dishes, including chi trám, which I like to call the Vietnamese olive. After dinner, browse the night market, located a short stroll from the guesthouse.

Rice meal, Lang SonClassic, one dollar, rice dinner, Lang Son

Star anise, Lang SonWeave your way out of Lang Son via Tam Thanh Street and onto Bến Bắc Road, heading west along the north bank of the Ky Cung River. Following the course of the river, the road snakes through a valley dotted with stumpy limestone hills, like oversized molehills covered in moss. After half an hour turn left across a bridge over the river, taking you onto Highway QL1B, towards Van Quan and Binh Gia. This is a lush, cultivated river valley, full of aromatic perfumes from the fields, the most potent of which is the star anise drying by the roadside.

At Binh Gia turn left (due south) to stay on Highway QL1B to Bac Son. Climbing steadily, the road slices through a cluster of forested limestone karsts, affording fabulous views down into the valley, where smoke rises from the little villages of wood and tile houses.

Bac Son’s reputation as a region of considerable natural beauty has been slowly growing over the last few years. Bac Son is a small, bland town with some interesting, narrow backstreets. But the town is surrounded by rice fields that are so brightly coloured it’s as if each blade of grass has been charged with an electric current. The fields are enclosed by a cradle of limestone karsts, which, no matter how many times you’ve see them, never fail to impress. Ethnic minorities populate the countryside here, living in brick, wood, thatch and tile homes that appear like nests amongst the fields and foliage. Just before entering Bac Son town, there’s a string of hive-like brick ovens where the roof tiles are baked.

Bac Son Valley, Lang SonGateway to Bac Son: view from the mountain pass

Locals are warm and friendly, and – to my ears, at least – very well spoken. Quỳnh Sơn homestay village is located 2km behind Bac Son town. It’s clearly signposted to the left at the bottom of the pass, before entering town. Expect to pay around $10 (200,000VNĐ) for a mattress on the wooden floor and two meals. However, before bedding down for the night, ride the bucolic ‘Bac Son Loop’. This 60km scenic ride takes you south from Bac Son on Highway QL1B, before turning left at Nga Hai crossroads on a gorgeous back-road that eventually leads back to the Quỳnh Sơn homestay area. The scenery is lovely: green and fresh like a salad. If you’re hungry try the roast pork sold by the roadside near Nga Hai: the ultimate driving snack.

Roast pork, Bac SonThe ultimate roadside snack: roast pork near Bac Son

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SECTION 3:

  • Bac Son to Cao Bang (via Ba Be Lake)
  • Distance: 320km
  • [MAP]

From Bac Son ride north back over the pass to Binh Gia. Bear left (northwest) on road QL279 towards Yen Lac. Although this road is officially labelled a National Highway (QL), in reality it’s a small, paved, country lane which sees very little traffic. QL279 is an extraordinary road that leads cross country, through some of the most mountainous terrain in Southeast Asia, all the way to Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnam’s northwest. This particular section goes through Bac Kan Province, the most sparsely populated in Vietnam. It’s superb riding through warm, forested mountains and remote minority villages. The driving is easy and joyful; it’s like sitting back on a motorbike simulator and watching the landscape go by on projector screen. This is the heart of the Việt Bắc region, which was a revolutionary stronghold, particularly in the 1940s. Ho Chi Minh and his entourage could avoid detection by French authorities by taking cover in the tangle of steep valleys and forests.

Rice fields, Bac KanBac Kan: the most sparsely populated province in Vietnam

QL279 briefly joins QL3B just south of Yen Lac, before bearing left and continuing into the mountains. The twists and turns of this road can make you dizzy; it’s a knot of tarmac in an empty, jungled landscape. However, due to serious deterioration of the road surface, it’s necessary to turn off QL279 at Bản Giang and take a less direct (but no less scenic) route to join Highway QL3: Instead of crossing a small bridge over a river on your left, continue right (north) on a newly paved road. This road climbs up and then descends into a valley, from where it bears left (due west) and meets Highway QL3 (zoom in on my map to make sure you don’t miss the turn). Take Highway QL3 south for several kilometres to Phủ Thông. This is a very scenic stretch of road.

At Phu Thong take a sharp right (due north) onto the freshly resurfaced TL258. This pretty road ends at the crossroads town of Chợ Rã, which is known as the gateway to Ba Be Lake. The town is nice enough to spend a night before heading into the national park and exploring the lakes the next day. There are plenty of hotels and food outlets at the main crossroads. Khách Sạn Hoa Sim (02813 876 278) is right opposite the market and has excellent rooms with large windows, balconies, and wooden furniture, for around $15 (300,000VNĐ). For breakfast, look out for the old woman selling bánh cuốn (steamed rice flour rolls) across the street from Hoa Sim Hotel.

Cho Ra, Ba Be LakesSteamed rice flour rolls (bánh cuốn): breakfast in Chợ Rã

To get to the entrance of Ba Be Lake National Park, continue west on road TL258 from Chợ Rã. There are several places to stay around the park headquarters, all offering homestay-style accommodation in brick and wood houses. Pay the park entrance fee at the ticket kiosk (25,000VNĐ) and ride on through the gates, past the big but bland national park resort, and on towards the lake. The road is in great shape as it sweeps deeper into the conservation area. There’s a noticeable change in the foliage and general atmosphere: trees get taller – their trunks become knotted and gnarled – the brush gets denser and greener; everything is on a grander scale; nature has a powerful presence here. Then the lake comes into view: a placid body of water enclosed by jungled limestone mountains, the water and silence occasionally broken by narrow, wooden motorboats ferrying locals and tourists across the lake.

Ba Be Lake, Bac KanBa Be: Vietnam’s largest natural lake

Follow the road to the right until it ends at a cove where wooden boats gather to offer trips around the lake. This is a fantastic way to see the area, and trips are reasonably priced (200-800,000VNĐ); check the price list at the ticket kiosk when entering the national park. Alternatively, turn left just before the road starts to descend to the lake’s edge, onto a bumpy lane that leads above the lakeshore to the village of Pac Ngoi. Sprawled along the southern tip of the lake, Pac Ngoi village is crammed with decent ethnic minority homestays. However, it’s best to continue a while further to the next cluster of wooden houses at Bo Lu: it’s less crowded here and they have better views of the lake. Tourism has certainly arrived at Ba Be Lake, but it’s still in the early stages, and, although these homestays are far from rustic – wifi, satellite TV, plenty of food and drink – it’s still a fabulous experience, and homestay hosts are exceptionally warm.

Boats on Ba Be LakeLong boats are a great way to see Ba Be Lake

Newly paved back-roads lead south of Pac Ngoi and Bo Lu through wonderful, rural scenery; if you’ve got the time and want to head way off the beaten path, try getting lost on these remote routes for a couple days. The government has big plans for Ba Be Lake National Park: perhaps, one day, this will be a Southeast Asian Lake Como; celebrities and aristocrats will have their villas perched on the forested slopes above the calm waters. But for now, it’s an easily accessible, cheap, and extremely beautiful area to visit. Excellent maps and tourist information huts are dotted along the lake road.

Abandoned French colonial villa, Ba BeRide back to Chợ Rã and go out of town of road QL279, heading east. After 17km take a left (due north) onto road TL212. The first part of this spectacular road was still being upgraded when I last visited in October 2014, but it should be finished by the time you read this. This route takes you from a river valley – so lush you’ll want to hug it like a furry animal – all the way up and over one of the highest mountains in the region. Even if it’s hot and sunny in the valley, it can still be cold and windy at the top of the pass. Just before the final ascent there’s a small blue signpost on the right for ‘Tea Production and Processing Enterprise’. This small lane leads to a tea plantation with a guesthouse (0262 211 116) attached to it on a scenic plateau overlooking the valley. The tea is a special variety that only grows in certain conditions. Even if you’re not planning to stay at the guesthouse (nice, clean rooms for $30) you can still pop in for a brew. The tea tastes a lot like Earl Grey, which is one of my favourites. Just beyond the tea plantation there’s a dilapidated French colonial villa in the distance, crumbling on the mountainside to the west of the pass.

Tinh Tuc Mine, Cao BangDecision time: Head east back to Cao Bang, or west to the fabled Ha Giang Extreme North Loop?

Road TL212 ends at a T-junction near the mining town of Tinh Tuc. Turn right (due east) onto Highway QL34 towards Nguyen Binh. After descending a sublime mountain pass, the highway is newly paved along a pretty valley, all the way back to Cao Bang. If you’re planning to continue west to join the Ha Giang Extreme North Loop, turn left (due west) at the T-junction instead, and continue on Highway QL34 towards Tinh Tuc and Bao Lac.


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43 Responses to Pastoral Pathways: The Northeast Motorbike Loop

  1. Adam says:

    Hello Tom, thanks a lot for the good information.
    Me and my friends are going to do a small part of the trip – Cao bang to Ban Gioc and back again. I have a few questions:
    1. Is this part of the loop suitable for 4 guys who never used a motorbike before?
    2. I’ve read in the comments that’s it’s hard to rent a motorbike in Cao bang. Is it possible to rent it in Hanoi, and transport it within a bus?
    3. Are there gas stations on the way?
    4. Are there clear signs in the way for each road name etc? is it possible to get around without GPS/maps?

    Thanks,
    Adam

    • Hi Adam,

      If you are only going to ride from Cao Bang to Ban Gioc and back again on the same road, then this should be fine for you. Most of those roads are pretty quiet. But always be very careful, especially because large trucks sometimes use those roads on the way to and from China.

      Some buslines in southern Vietnam do allow you to transport bikes in the luggage compartment of the bus, so it’s worth asking the buslines and bus stations in Hanoi if this is possible. You could also try contacting the bike rental companies in Hanoi and asking if they have any more information about this: try Rent a Bike Vietnam, Tigit Motorbikes, and Style Motorbikes. There are links to all of them in the right sidebar and bottom of all my pages.

      There are gas stations along the way, but make sure you have a full tank before you leave Cao Bang anyway.

      Signage is OK, but it’s a good idea to have at least one smart phone with Google Maps GPS with you in the group.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  2. Jonai says:

    Did some parts of the loop last Dec 27-28, 2016. Started from Bao Lac, the end of my Ha Giang Loop, and took the road QL4A to Pac Bo instead of going to Cao Bang City. At the first quarter of the way, some roads are under construction, there were even parts that were worse than bad. However, if you wish to skip the city and go direct to Pac Bo, you can take chance on QL4a maybe the road is finished by the time you take it.

    I only went to Pac Bo then went to Ban Gioc. I asked for permission if I can camp inside the Ban Gioc waterfalls territory but Tom is correct, it’s not allowed due to the proximity to the border. However, I found a small peak, actually a military cemetery, just a few graves, with an amazing view of the sunset and the rivers. You can bring your motorcycle up it, the road is paved as well. Since vietnamese are scared of ghosts, you can be sure that no one would bother you at night. Just make sure your camping stuff is complete specially soft sleeping bags :) The location can be found here if you want to camp there too https://www.google.com/maps/place/Ngh%C4%A9a+trang+Li%E1%BB%87t+s%C4%A9+Khu+v%E1%BB%B1c+m%E1%BB%91c+53-54/@22.8539393,106.6639257,16.28z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0xfbce194c7f2c8568!8m2!3d22.8551976!4d106.6690278

    After Ban gioc, went straight to Ba Be and spent two nights. Did not complete all of the loop at the lang son part but these highlights were more than enough for me. Check some pictures at my site if you wish, thewanderwalkers.com

    Amazing site Tom! thank you for corresponding to me even while I was on the journey. :)

    Jonai

    • Hi Jonai,

      Thanks for the updates. The camping sounds great. I hope to go back to that area sometime this year – it’s been too long.

      Very glad to hear that you have fun on your road trip – and the photos look great too!

      Thanks again,

      Tom

  3. james says:

    Hi Tom,

    Some friends and I are looking to do the Northeast Loop in March next year. we have flights to Hanoi but are unsure of which is the best source of transport from Hanoi to Cao Bang where we will start the loop. Are there buses, or would it be possible to get a taxi at a reasonable price?

    Thankyou

    • Hi James,

      An overnight bus from Hanoi to Cao Bang is probably the easiest option. You should be able to find some more information about times and prices online or in guidebooks. I think a taxi wouldn’t be worth it – it’s a long way. You could share the cost of a hired minivan – I’m not entirely sure how much that would be; maybe a couple hundred dollars.

      Bear in mind that some travellers have found it difficult to find bikes to rent in Cao Bang. You should be able to find them through the Cao Bang hotels, but perhaps expect to spend the first day there sorting this out.

      Another alternative might be to contact the Hanoi motorbike rental companies and see if they can arrange anything. Try Rent a Bike Vietnam, Style Motorbikes, and Tigit Motorbikes – there are links to them in the rigth sidebar and bottom of all my pages. You can mention Vietnam Coracle if you like, they know me.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

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  5. Antek M. says:

    I’m planning to do Cao Bang loop (well, part of it, will skip section 2) and then head on to Ha Long – the most obvious choice would be to go via Lang Son, but from what I’ve heard from people who did it – it’s not the most interesting road (it’s ok, just not special) – some alternative that comes up from Google Maps analysis is to take QL279 (either all the way to Ha Long or switch to TL330 to Cam Pha). Do you know anything about those roads? Are they passable and are they more interesting than QL4B via Lang Son?
    Thanks

    • Hi Antek,

      I haven’t ridden QL279 in that area so I can’t help you there. You could try posting it on the Vietnam Back-Road Facebook page.

      QL4B is not that bad, but because trucks use it for the China border trade, the surface can sometimes be torn up.

      If you’re going to Ban Gioc Falls, be careful of the road behind the falls and back to Quang Uyen; readers have reported bad road conditions there

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

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  7. Stefan says:

    Tom,

    I have done the Cao Bang Loop (Cao Bang – Pac Bo – Tra Linh – Ban Gioc – Cao Bang), as it is a wonderful journey to do. However, it is not that easy to get a motorbike in Cao Bang. Most hotels require to keepo your passport (impossible if you head out for a few days. Found two places in the end, however, they require deposits. One shop wanted 10.000.000 Dong (the bike was not even woth half of it) the other from a hotel was only 5.000.000 for a decent semi-automatic bike. But it seems it is much easier in Ha Giang

    The road on most of this loop was still very good, especially the TL208/203 to Pac Bo and the Q3 and TL 206 to Ban Gioc.
    One local I met actually advised not taking the mountain road from Pac Bo to Tra Linh, but I thought the condition was ok, and the route is just lovely with some stunning views. Though the hotel in Tra Linh was the worst place I have every stayed at.

    As others have stated taking the road south of Ban Gioc and taking the TL 206 to Quang Uyen was not bad – it was atrocious. The scenery was outstanding, but the road was bad, or even worse than bad. Still worth to go that way, but people should be aware of the condition.

    Got a few pictures of the road and scenery on my website solotravellerontour.com.
    But I just wanted to say thanks for your advise and your website, as it provided such great insite an helped me planning the trip.

    • Hi Stefan,

      Thanks for sharing your experience on this loop and the updates on road conditions. It’s a shame about the road behind Ban Gioc Falls – every time they fix it, it just gets beaten up again by trucks and weather.

      Sorry to hear about the problems finding a bike to rent in Cao Bang. That is a common scenario, even in Saigon: but usually, after lots of negotiation, they will accept a copy of your passport and visa, and maybe some sort of collateral as well. But, as Cao Bang becomes more popular, I’m sure they’ll be a more competent bike rental place opening up there.

      Yes, the hotel in Tra Linh is not a good one, but that town has a dusty, off the beaten path vibe that I like, so I was just about able to stand the bad accommodation for a night :-)

      Glad you enjoyed this beautiful part of the country.

      Tom

  8. Maggie says:

    Hi Tom, Thanks for your excellent site. We will do a short version of your trip (Cao Bang- Pac Bo-La Trinh- Ban Gioc- Quang Uyen- Cao Bang) starting 3-10-16 and will let you know the conditions of the road afterwards.

    kind regards

  9. Ken says:

    Tom,

    Is it realistic to be able to go to Bac Son and Ban Gioc in 4 days? Is it better to go by motorbike or public transit? Thank you.

    Ken

    • Hi Ken,

      Yes, it’s possible. Personally, I would prefer to go by motorbike: ride to Bac Son on day 1, then Cao Bang on day 2, the waterfall on day 3, and back on day 4. But it’s a lot of riding, so you should only do that if you’re used to long rides.

      Public transport might be more complicated. It’s easy to get a bus to Cao Bng and then ask your hotel for transport options from there to the waterfall. But I’m not sure about public transport to/from Bac Son.

      Also, if you’re thinking about travelling during the public holiday, bear in mind that everything – from roads to hotels to sights – will be busier than usual.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  10. Nasci says:

    Hi Tom, I’ll be heading back to VN in early Oct on an off-road bike. I was wondering if you know of any routes/trails/areas that provide for easily- to moderately-challenging off-roading in the Northeast or Extreme North Loop rides?
    Also, are any permits/permission required for entering into the area around Ban Gioc falls on the VN side. A tour itinerary on a VN motorcycle tour sight indicates permission was rec’d from the border police.

    • Hi Nasci,

      As far as I know there’s no need for a permit in this area – at least not on the roads that I’ve ridden. But there’s a border road running from near Lang Son down to Mong Cai that a reader said was very beautiful but required a permit – I haven’t ridden it yet but it sounds like it’s worth looking into.

      The terrain and nature of the roads in the northeast is such that you may find you do quite a bit of off-roading anyway! But I’m not really the one to ask if you’re looking for a specifically off-road route. Try contacting Rent a Bike Vietnam, Flamingo and Off-Road Vietnam – they do a lot of that kind of riding and might be able to help you out with a suggestion, especially if you rent a dirt bike from them.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  11. Chris says:

    Not sure if this is good place for this but since I went from the Northeast to the coast finishing a loop the north I thought I would include it here.

    I wanted to see the sea karsts without the hub bub of a group tour and I think I may have done it.

    From Lang Son I rode to Van Don island and caught the ferry to Quan Lan island. I liked the wharf town of Cai Rong and had a room with a view over the wharf where there are boats and karsts in the background. Lots of guest house options. The ferry was 80000for me and the same for the motorbike. I also paid three guys 50000 each to load the bike on the boat. You have to take the slow wooden boatif you want to take your bike. But that is fine because on the slow boat you can go outside and up on the roof. Etc. You go through islands on the 2 to 3 hour trip and I felt satisfied that I had seen the sea karsts.

    I arrived on a Saturday in July and there were plenty of lodging options. I was only there one night but managed to ride 60km so there is enough to explore. I also saw a place where people were camping on anice little beach point.

    • Hi Chris,

      That’s great information – thanks very much! I’ve been hearing about that option from a couple of other readers and I’d love to get back to Van Don Island and take the ferry over to Quan Lan.

      Great to hear that you did it and it was worth the effort.

      Thanks again,

      Tom

  12. Teej says:

    Hi Tom,
    This is really useful thanks.
    I really want to do the north but August is the only free time I’ll have to do it. You mention the prime times to do the north. Would the first half of August be a bad time? What might I expect?
    Also wanting to take my own bike but want to avoid long day or 2 rides in and out of Hanoi. Can you put bikes on buses easily to and from places like Lao Cai, Ha Giang, Cao Bang or Lang Son etc?
    Thanks,
    Teej

    • Hi Teej,

      August is fine: it’s the height of the rainy season but that doesn’t mean it rains all the time – usually it’s bright and sunny in the mornings and then the rains come in the afternoon. However, it does mean there may be mud on the roads which can sometimes be a problem on the nroth because the roads are often in bad shape. Rain also increases the chances of landslides which can sometimes close mountainous roads for hours or even days. So the more time you have to ride the north the better.

      You can put your bike on the train to Lao Cai and Lang Son from/to Hanoi, and you should be able to put them on some buses too.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  13. Sven says:

    Hi Tom,
    me and my son Marvin want to go the pastoral pathways this September, we think the weather conditions will be fine then.
    We would like to rent the bikes in Hanoi. Can you tell us wich is the best (most quiet) road out of Hanoi to the starting point for the northeast loop.

    Best regards Sven

    • Hi Sven,

      Well, the most direct route is north on QL3. This used to be a nightmare of trucks and dust all the way to Thai Nguyen, but a new expressway (for vehicles only) has recently opened and this should have reduced the traffic on QL3. However, I can’t vouch for it because I haven’t ridden it since the opening of the expressway.

      Last time I did it, I wanted to avoid the Hanoi-Thai Nguyen crawl, so I took a meandering route: first northwest out of Hanoi on Highway 1 towards Tu Son and Bac Ninh, and then turning north and wriggling my way to Thai Nguyen, via QL37 mostly. It was fine, but not scenic.

      Usually, it’s not so much the route you take out of Hanoi (or Saigon, for that matter), but the time of day you choose to ride it: the best times for avoiding traffic and dust are early morning (really early, like 4am), lunchtime (11.30-1.30) or at night (after 7pm).

      If you’re renting your bikes from Rent a Bike Vietnam (you’ll find a link to them in the right sidebar and bottom of my pages) then they should be able to give you some more help with this – you can mention Vietnam Coracle if you like, they know me.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  14. Paul says:

    Great site Tom, I’ll certainly utilizing it quite a bit as I begin (hopefully once my I get my licence next week) my month+ trip from Hanoi to Saigon. I’m not planning too far in advance, but for my first leg I’m thinking of making it to Bac Son on day one. Then either:

    A) Cao Bang – waterfalls – Cao Bang – Ba Be, and on to the north west
    B) Ba Be – Cao Bang – Waterfalls – Cao Bang and on to the north west

    Any advantage to either route? I’m a sunrise to sunset type of travel but don’t really NEED to be anywhere. The more scenic the road the better.

    Thanks again, and I’ll be making good use of your site over the next month(s)!

    • Hi Paul,

      I don’t think there’s much advantage in taking one of those routes over the other. It’s a long day’s ride to Cao Bang from Hanoi, so maybe that’s reason enough to opt for B because you’ll have a break on the way.

      If you’re continuing on to the northwest does that mean you’re skipping the extreme north? Because if you were planning on heading to the extreme north that might effect which of these route options to take.

      I hope my guides come in handy over the course of your trip!

      Tom

      • Paul says:

        Thanks for the reply Tom,

        I’ll forusre be stopping in Bac Son on day one, so that should be no trouble then (it’s tough judging how far I can comfortably do in a day until I’m out there!). I used the wrong term, I plan to basically do the reverse path of your extreme north trip. Does that change your advice?

        While I have your attention, I’m just bike shopping now, any thoughts on win vs. dream vs. nouvo? Or any other recommendations/red flags when looking?

        • Hi Paul,

          Well, it just depends which road you want to take from the Northeast to the Extreme North: You can either take QL34 all the way from Cao Bang City to Bao Lac, or you can take TL212 from Ba Be up to join QL34. The former is quicker but the latter is more scenic. Once you make that decision then you’ll know which of the Cao Bang-Waterfalls-Ba Be options to take, see what I mean?

          For a bike I always use my Nouvo. But any of the bikes you suggest will be fine for this trip. Honda Wins have a reputation for being unreliable but they are good in mud and rough terrain – which can happen on the northern roads if there’s a landslide or road construction.

          I hope this helps you make your decision.

          Tom

  15. Don says:

    Hi Tom
    Me n the missus gonna be in the North for a week or so.. We were wondering which would you recommend. The North East or North West. We’d probably shoot down to Dong Hoi after and onto Hue.

    • Hi Don,

      They are both great. The northwest is grander – bigger mountains – but the northeast is prettier – lush limestone valleys. So it depends which you prefer. However, there’ve been reports that Highway QL4A between Cao Bang and Lang Son is in bad condition so perhaps try to avoid that if you decide to go to the northeast. If going to the northwest don’t miss the Sin Ho Scenic Loop.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  16. Julia says:

    Another road update: your “gleaming blade of asphalt” is the euphemism of the year! I was cracking up several times about your description whilst surviving on my motorbike on CL 4A to Lang Son :)

    Apart from that, fantastic trip! Thanks for sharing but you might want to update your chiselings…

    • Hi Julie,

      Oh no! Sorry to hear that. I can’t believe it can be in such bad condition so soon after having been upgraded.

      Can you please more specific about which particular section of QL4A was in bad condition? It would be very helpful to other riders.

      Thanks,

      Tom

      • Julia says:

        Hi Tom,

        Basically the entire section you suggest riding after coming from the equally wrecked connecting road between QL 3 and 4A. There was a stretch of about 5 km which was indeed in good condition. The rest was the usual: craters, gravel, dust, no visible asphalt left, at some points even plain mud – plus heavy traffic. It gets better towards the end, but it’s astonishing in what little time (is it a year?) a perfectly fine highway can be entirely destroyed!

        All the best from Lang Son,
        Julia

        • Thanks, Julia.

          Wow! That really is a surprise. Yes, it’s about a year since it was fresh new asphalt. I would imagine it has something to do with regular landslides spoiling the road surface and then having to be constantly repaired, and the juggernauts plying the highway from China. It’s a very ambitious road so I suppose it’s bound to suffer as it clearly has done.

          Thanks for the update, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip.

          Tom

  17. Jp says:

    Great post!
    Where can you rent a reliable bike in Cao Bang

    • Hi JP,

      You can rent decent bikes from most hotels and guesthouses in Cao Bang city – just ask for xe máy cho thuê (motorbike for rent). It should cost between $5-$10 a day. Check it over first – lights, breaks, mirrors etc. If you’re renting for more than one day try to negotiate a slightly lower daily rate.

      Enjoy your trip,

      Tom

  18. Kevin Edkins says:

    An update about the road conditions November 2015.

    After leaving the Ban Gioc Waterfall I followed the road round the river and this is where the conditions started to get bad. I thought the road to Ha Lang was bad, however when I turned right at the junction in town and headed up hill out of town the road condition just became appauling. The surface from here back to the paved main road at Quang Uyen has been totally destroyed by the trucks. I encountered ruts half a metre deep, filled with mud. Possibility the most difficult riding I have encountered in Asia!

    I thought I would be stranded there as the light went whilst still trying to get back to sealed bitumen so ended up riding the ruts in the dark! Somewhere I also made it on to a newly constructed gravel road that was a little easier, however there were parts that were a little challenging to get past.

    Having said all the above it was just an awesome day!! Just brilliant just to get back to Cau bang unscathed felt like a massive achievement!

    Next day took the Bus from Cau Bang to Lang son. This road is also very bad. Ended up with 40+ people packed into a 22 seater.

    Could not find a bike to hire in Lang son so could not do the loop suggested to the west.

    Instead took the Bus to Cam Pha. By contrast, and much to my surprise this was a lovely trip. The road was smooth, the scenery great and as a bonus the transport was a luxury transit bus with reclining seats – heaven.

  19. Jim Carlson says:

    As always, this is fascinating, Tom.
    Something to enjoy vicariously and to anticipate.
    Hopefully next time.
    Jim

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