The Extreme Northwest Loop: Motorbike Guide

First published August 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The extreme northwest of Vietnam – the big mountainous bulge west of Highway QL12, around the Black River basin – is probably the most remote region of the entire country. Straddling the border of Dien Bien and Lai Chau provinces, it’s certainly one of the least-travelled areas in Vietnam. The extreme northwest abuts both China and Laos, thus this route travels through extensive borderlands, which are often very sensitive. Indeed, this region is perilously close to the infamous Golden Triangle. As such, local police and government officials may hinder your progress. However, old roads have recently been upgraded, and new ones have been blown through the mountains, creating an extremely mountains, off-the-beaten-track, and circuitous route between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu. The roads lead further, higher, and deeper into the northwest mountains than ever before, threading between peaks pushing 10,000ft, which are the southeastern-most extent of the same geological collision that formed the Himalayas. It’s also possible to turn this route into a loop.

The Extreme Northwest Motorbike Loop, Lai Chau & Dien Bien, VietnamThe Extreme Northwest is probably the most remote, least travelled & mountainous region in Vietnam

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GUIDE: THE EXTREME NORTHWEST


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 800km/400km/310km (one-way)
  • Duration: 2-7 days
  • Route: three remote & mountainous routes between Lao Cai & Dien Bien Phu [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: paved back-roads, new highways, light traffic, regular landslides
  • Scenery: mountains, rivers, rice terraces, minority villages, remote borderlands


CONTENTS:

The Black River, Lai Chau Province, Northwest VietnamThe Extreme Northwest is characterized by forested highlands rising above the Black River basin


About this Route:

*IMPORTANT: Parts of this route travel through sensitive areas: please read the following paragraphs carefully before setting out on this road trip.

The main route in this guide is all about exploring remote roads and regions: it’s by no means the most direct route between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu, and sometimes it requires back-tracking. But the rewards are big scenery and virtually no other travellers. The total distance between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu via the main route (the blue line on my map) is 800-900km. However, you can also turn this into a loop by returning via road QL6 and Sin Ho (the green line on my map: 400km), or the most direct route via QL12 and QL4D (the red line on my map: 310km). Using any of these routes, the one-way or return journey between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu can take anything between 2-7 days, depending on road conditions and weather. Despite its remoteness, the roads are generally in reasonable condition and there’s accommodation (usually in the form of local guest houses, called nhà nghỉ) at all of the towns and villages marked with a red pin on my map. However, as the roads are so mountainous, they are highly susceptible to landslides, especially after heavy rains, which can render them impassable for hours or sometimes days. In my experience, weather is best from March-May and September-October.

You need a lot of time, patience and flexibility for this route, because if the landslides don’t stop you at some point, the local authorities will. The border regions are very sensitive to the Vietnamese government and army. In particular, if you ride the roads between Muong Te, Muong Nhe and A Pa Chai (marked with a black line on my map), you should ask permission at the local government/police offices first; or head out and hope for the best, but you do so at your own risk. If stopped you will most likely not suffer anything worse than a fine, but there’s always the possibility of something more serious, such as your bike being impounded or even visa issues. In general, I found the authorities on this route to be polite and accommodating. But remember, you are a guest in another country.

The road to the Extreme Northwest, Lai Chau, VietnamThe Extreme Northwest is more accessible than ever thanks to new roads, but remains a sensitive region

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About this Map & Guide:

Below is a detailed, annotated route map followed by a short image gallery illustrating the kind of landscape and scenes you can expect to find on this road trip. On the map, I’ve outlined 3 main routes between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu. The blue route is the real Extreme Northwest: this is the longest, most remote, least travelled, and highest of all the routes. The green route is slightly shorter, with equally spectacular landscape and unpredictable road conditions. The red route is the easiest, most direct, and most travelled (but still highly scenic and remote). In general, the idea is to take one route out and another route back, thus creating a full Extreme Northwest Loop. On my map, I’ve started the route at the train station in Lao Cai, because this is where many travellers begin their road trips in northern Vietnam, having shipped their bikes as freight on the overnight train from Hanoi. However, another convenient starting point is Sapa, since it’s such a popular destination and there are many places to rent motorbikes. (Note that the route from Lao Cai to Sapa is covered in my Y Ty Loop Guide and the route from Sapa to Sin Ho is covered in my Sin Ho Loop Guide.)

As mentioned before, bear in mind that this is an extremely rugged, remote, sparsely populated, and politically sensitive part of the country, so take your time and take it easy. Roads can be dangerous, not because of traffic, but because of landslides, potholes, and inclement weather. Much of the Black River valley has been flooded for hydroelectricity projects, and this has shifted road routes away from their original course along the river banks: in some cases, Google has yet to update its maps, so there are some discrepancies between the roads as they appear on the map and their actual route. However, the general route is still the same, just several kilometres further away from the river banks, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate. There’s at least one local guest house (nhà nghỉ in Vietnamese) or hotel in each of the places marked with a red pin on my map. Gas stations aren’t frequent, but can been found in most of the villages and towns on this route.

*WARNING: Police and army personnel patrol much of the border territory on this route. When it comes to the authorities, the biggest challenge is the road near the Chinese border, which links Muong Te with Muong Nhe, with a side route to A Pa Chai, the point where Vietnam, Laos, and China meet. In fact, parts of this road are so sensitive that it doesn’t appear on most maps (I’ve tried my best to draw it on my map in black). If you choose to take this road, it’s highly advisable to seek permission in Muong Te or Muong Nhe before attempting to do so.

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ROUTE MAP:

The Extreme Northwest: Lai Cao→Sapa→Dien Bien Phu | 3 Routes

Blue line: 800-900km | Green line: 400km | Red line: 310km

View in a LARGER MAP

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IMAGE GALLERY:

The following images are all taken along the Extreme Northwest Loop between Lao Cai and Dien Bien Phu, via the three routes outlined on my map. Read the captions below each image to find out exactly where they were taken.


Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamA rainbow in the mountains between Sin Ho & Muong Lai on Road QL12, Lai Chau Province


The Black River, Dien Bien Province, northwest VietnamThe flooded valley of the Black River, near Muong Lai at the junction of Road QL12


The road to the Extreme Northwest, Dien Bien Province, VietnamRoad QL4H meandering through the mountains between Cha Cang & Muong Nhe, Dien Bien Province


The Black River valley, Dien Bien Province, northwest VietnamRoad QL12 echoing the course of the Nam Na River, seen from the road to Muong Te


A1 Hill, Dien Bien Phu, northwest VietnamVietnamese visitors relax next to a tank on top of A1 Hill, site of the battle for Dien Bien Phu, spring 1954


Mountain road, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamThe spectacular Road DT128 winds up the mountains between Lai Chau & Sin Ho


Passing a landslide, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamMy parents passing through a landslide on the Black River road between Muong Te & Muong Lay


The Black River, Dien Bien Province, northwest VietnamThe wide, muddy Black River, swelled by the construction of hydroelectric dams near Muong Lay


Mountain road, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamThe empty & remote road between Phong Tho & Muong Te, passing through endless mountain scenery


Mountain road, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamExtreme switchbacks on the road to Muong Te, making progress slow but the views are stunning


Rice terraces, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamTerraced rice fields on the mountainsides descending Road DT128 from Sin Ho to Muong Lay


Mountain road, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamThe new road cut into the hillside along the Black River valley, between Muong Te & Muong Lay


Rain, cloud, mist, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamA passing shower in the mountains & forests of remote Dien Bien Province


O Quy Ho (Tram Ton) Pass, Lai Cai Province, northwest VietnamThe famous O Quy Ho Pass curling around the mountains from Sapa to Lai Chau


Mountaintop, Lai Chau Province, northwest VietnamSitting atop a mountain & taking in the views across the landscapes of Dien Bien & Lai Chau provinces


Mountain landscape, Dien Bien Province, northwest VietnamA remote hamlet on the hillside between Sin Ho & Moung Lay, Lai Chau Province


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

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4 Responses to The Extreme Northwest Loop: Motorbike Guide

  1. Dan Dockery says:

    It’s a difficult one to comment on this post, but I will start with 2 clear points, reiterating issues brought up in Tom’s article…

    1) Muong Te is a sensitive border region; to be honest it is not yet ready to be opened up to adventure-seeking (foreign) tourism. Until recently the roads were so bad or non-existent that few were hardy enough to try their luck bur recent infrastructural improvements are rapidly changing that. I met and discussed at length with the authorities in each of Muong Te, A Pa Chai and Muong Nhe (when they pulled me out of bed at 11pm); they made it clear that the black route on Tom’s map is not open to foreign visitors unless official permits have been issued in advance. The officials were cordial and friendly but the message was clear. Official permits cannot be issued in the places listed above, they must be applied for either in Hanoi (at Hanoi City Police) or at Công an Tỉnh (provincial police HQ) in the provincial capital of Dien Bien Phu. Without this paperwork the authorities will turn you back. Local Vietnamese meanwhile are allowed to register at the “Don Bien Phong” border authorities near to A Pa Chai.
    2) Forget about Google Maps pretty much entirely in this region, most of the information is missing and what is listed is often completely wrong/misleading. Some roads have been flooded with the construction of dams, others have been abandoned and new roads are often completely absent. Google secures its maps from the Vietnamese authorities and this data appears to have been witheld; however with the volume of traffic moving around in the area it’s also quite surprising that Google’s data has not updated accordingly. Turn off Google Maps, follow signs and rely on local knowledge.
    3) This is an extremely poor area and sparsely populated. There is little in the way of services so make sure you have spare parts and tools with you if you’re travelling by motorbike. Tom’s map has marked the towns with accommodation which as you head further west are namely (in an anti-clockwise fashion) Muong Te, Pac Ma and Muong Khe, although to be honest I’m not sure how the authorities would feel about foreign guests registering to stay in Pac Ma.

    Ha Giang region used to have very strict controls on access to the region by foreign guests and this has slowly eased over time. The situation will change in Muong Te too but not for a while. Having said that some of you will have made the decision to go into this region already and whatever you read will not change your mind so I will at least update you with the information I can share.

    The 2 northern roads out to Muong Te (from Pa Tan and from Muong Lay) are in decent enough condition. Sealed for the large part, and about 110km each (allow around 3 hours by motorbike), both are stunning drives. In Muong Te I recommend ignoring the large hotel, which has an uncountable number of pairs of high heels kicking around but not much in the way of a receptionist, and head down to Nha nghi Hoang Anh just round the corner. It’s in the golden square of guest house – dinner – breakfast – petrol station, all just a stone’s throw from each other. Really nice clean and comfy rooms out the back, good food next door for dinner; petrol station opposite and banh my pate or bun dau mam tom for breakfast next to that.
    The road onwards (along the “black route”) to Pac Ma is about 55km. The road surface itself is not bad but the area is prone to serious landslides; it’s a pretty safe bet that this road is unpassable for much of the rainy season. Even in late October we drove through the remnants of at least 10 significant slides. You can fill up with gas (if needed) at Pac Ma and the road onwards is signposted (at Pac Ma Bridge) 82km to Muong Nhe (along Highway 4H).
    There are border patrol buildings along this road and if spotted you will be turned back without question. I think the only reason we got through was that we passed through in driving rain when only a fool would have voluntarily been outside. Once the road meets the A Pa Chai – Muong Nhe road you will have travelled about 60km from Pac Ma. Head west for the border or east for Muong Nhe.
    For myself the border authorities stopped us 3km short of A Pa Chai. In driving rain at 1800m altitude and with a spluttering bike their instruction to ‘go back the way you came’ sounded quite welcome. As stated above the authorities were friendly and cordial, but clear and to the point. Without a permit you cannot proceed any closer to the border and shouldn’t even have got that close anyway. It’s almost 40km from here back to Muong Nhe, a town larger than Muong Te with several options for places to stay or eat. Whilst you will be allowed to stay here expect that the local police will visit you at some stage to inform you that you may not advance any further into the frontier zone in the direction of A Pa Chai.
    From Muong Nhe the road surface is smooth and fast to Cho Cha Cang. It likely continues in similar fashion down to Muong Cha if you take the southern route but if you head to Muong Lay the road gets narrower and a little slower, although quite ok. Expect about 4 hours from Muong Nhe over to Muong Lay.

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your experience of this route.

      I agree: I think if you get stopped at all then, without the necessary permits, you’ll certainly be turned around. My experience with the authorities in the region was also cordial and polite but firm.

      I didn’t have any problem until north of Muong Te and north or Muong Nhe. Staying in Muong Te was fine and there were lots of decent enough guest houses for a night. But in Muong Nhe, as you say, you’re much more likely to get a visit from local officials if you stay over night there.

      The road from Cho Cha Cang down to Muong Cha actually deteriorates because it’s undergoing renovations, but I imagine that’ll be finished soon.

      I mention the Google Maps issue above, but I didn’t find it too difficult to improvise around this, but perhaps that’s because in Vietnam you get used to roads being diverted due to flooded river valleys and landslides etc. By cross-referencing the map above with the information in this guide and the comments here and some local advice you can avoid getting lost.

      Thanks again,

      Tom

  2. Gerd E says:

    What a great website! Such an invaluable resource. Very well written, too. Thank you sir!

    Supposing…you were going to cross over from Laos to Dien Bien Phu in about February 2019, or thereabouts. Suppose you had two or three weeks, or maybe even more. Suppose you wanted to rent a motorcycle and experience these magical areas for yourself for the first time. Suppose you had years of experience traveling in Southeast Asia (but for some stupid reason or other had not spent nearly enough time in Vietnam). Suppose as well you had a great deal of motorcycle riding experience in Asia, mainly Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

    What would you do? Where would you go? What would you suggest to such a person, who just happens to be me? Maybe bus it to Sapa or Ha Giang or somewhere like that first, use it as a base?

    • Hi Gerd,

      Yes, I would get up to Sapa or Ha Giang first – you can rent a bike in both places, but Ha Giang has better rental companies (check out QT Motorbikes). Alternatively, you could rent a bike from one of the reliable rental companies that I mention here and get them to ship your bike from Hanoi to Sapa (most probably Lao Cai train station).

      Either Sapa or Ha Giang is a good base from which to explore most of the northern routes suggested on my site – take a look at my Northern Routes Archive and you’ll begin to see how you could stitch a few of the routes together.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

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