The High Roads: Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang

First published June 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The roads linking the three northern provinces of Ha Giang, Cao Bang and Bac Kan travel through some of the most spectacular and remote regions of Vietnam. The landscape around here is extraordinary: many travellers consider this their favourite place in Southeast Asia. Connecting two of the most scenic motorbike routes in the country (the Extreme North Loop and the Northeast Loop), a handful of incredible mountain roads corkscrew their way through a complex terrain of steep valleys, limestone karsts, and raging rivers. There are several different route options for riding between Ha Giang, Ba Be Lake (in Bac Kan Province), and Cao Bang; all of which are stunning, but none of which are particularly straightforward. In this guide, I’ve mapped three routes that connect the extreme north with the northeast.

Ha Giang-Ba Be Lake-Cao Bang, road trip, VietnamThree spectacular (but unpredictable) routes lead over the mountains from Ha Giang to Cao Bang

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GUIDE: HA GIANGBA BECAO BANG


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 360km/370km/310km
  • Duration: 1-3 days
  • Route: three scenic routes linking Ha Giang with Ba Be Lake & Cao Bang [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: back-roads & mountain highways, rough sections, light traffic
  • Scenery: limestone karsts, mountains, deep valleys, jungle, terraced rice fields, minority villages


ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:

ABOUT THESE ROUTES:

The map below shows three alternative routes between Ha Giang, Ba Be Lake, and Cao Bang. The Classic Route (the blue line) is the most popular and easiest to follow; the Border Route (the red line) is the most remote and least travelled; and the Ba Be Lake Route (the green line) is a combination of rarely used roads and national highways. The purple lines are connecting roads between the three routes, so you can mix and match as you please to create a route that suits you best. Although all of these routes are extremely scenic, they’re not necessarily easy to ride. The difficult, mountainous terrain, and frequent bad weather, mean that road conditions often deteriorate, resulting in treacherously muddy sections. What’s more, roadworks to upgrade and maintain these routes are ongoing. I’ve marked sections of rough road as best I can on my map. But, when riding any of these routes, take note of recent weather conditions (heavy rain, for example, can lead to serious landslides which can block roads for hours or even days), and try to ask locals or other riders you meet about current road conditions. Below, I’ve written a brief description of each route. For accommodation, there’s at least one mini-hotel or local guest house (nhà nghỉ) at each of the places marked with a red pin on my map. (For more details about accommodation in Ha Giang and Cao Bang see my Extreme North and Northeast guides.) Any time of year is good, but the heaviest rains occur during the summer months (June-August), and it can be bitterly cold during the winter months (December-February). Although any of these routes can be completed in one (long) day, the winding roads make riding a lot slower than you might expect. Alternatively, you can turn this into a scenic round trip by connecting the upper, lower, and middle routes and making a loop.


ROUTE MAP:

Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang | 3 Routes

Blue line: 360km | Red line: 370km | Green line: 310km


View in a LARGER MAP

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The Classic Route:

BLUE LINE: Ha GiangMeo VacBao LacCao Bang: 360km [MAP]

Starting out on the famous Ha Giang Extreme North Loop via the limestone landscapes of the Dong Van Karst Plateau, the Classic Route then heads southeast from Meo Vac on road QL4C down to the Gam River Valley. Out of Meo Vac there are some fabulous views over a vast and sparsely populated landscape. Although mostly upgraded, parts of the southern half of QL4C to the Ly Bon intersection with QL34 are still undergoing repairs. However, these should be finished by the time you read this. After crossing the bridge at Ly Bon, turn onto QL34 due east towards Bao Lac. Ly Bon is at the confluence of the Nho Que and Gam rivers, and the ride to Bao Lac affords some picturesque views of riverine scenes. Bao Lac has plenty of guest houses if you need them.

Road QL4C between Meo Vac & Bao Lac, VietnamRoad QL4C between Meo Vac & Bao Lac offers some extraordinary views over rice terraces & mountains

From Bao Lac, continue southeast all the way to Cao Bang city, via the mining town of Tinh Tuc and Nguyen Binh (both of which have a couple of nhà nghỉ guest houses). It’s a long ride to Cao Bang, and, although the scenery is superb (particularly around Tinh Tuc), the road conditions to Nguyen Binh are unpredictable. Expect a few rough patches, potholes and, if there’s been rain, landslides. Between Tinh Tuc and Nguyen Binh, there’s an intersection with a turning due south on road DT212 to Cho Ra: use this excellent back-road if you want to go to Ba Be Lake. If not, continue east along the meandering QL34 to Cao Bang City.

Road QL34 between Bao Lac & Cao Bang, northern VietnamRoad QL34 southeast from Bao Lac to Cao Bang has some rough patches but the scenery is excellent

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The Border Route:

RED LINEHa GiangMeo VacBao LacPac BoCao Bang: 370km [MAP]

After following the Extreme North Loop from Ha Giang to Meo Vac, head southeast on road DT217 towards the famous ‘Love Market’ of Khau Vai (usually held in April). This meandering road soars over a limestone plateau before descending sharply through Khau Vai village and down to the banks of the Nho Que River. Road conditions deteriorate severely before crossing the river and continuing the other side. From here, it’s a twisting ride over barren mountains (with incredible views) all the way down to Bao Lac in the Gam River Valley. The road surface is very inconsistent on this section, and it may prove challenging for riders on automatic motorbikes. Bao Lac has a few local guest houses if you need to stay the night.

Road DT217 between Meo Vac & Bao Lac, Ha Giang Province, VietnamRoad DT217 winds up the hillside leaving Meo Vac & then heading southeast to Khau Vai & Bao Lac

Follow the Gam River east of Bao Lac on an as yet unnamed road. This road is currently the talk of many riders in Vietnam. Hugging the Chinese border for much of its length, the road passes through some extremely remote landscapes. As if the fabulous scenery weren’t enough, the road itself is quite a sight. A narrow asphalt lane, it’s full of contortions and knots; constantly switching back on itself as it negotiates the difficult terrain. Just look at it on the map: it looks like the path of an agitated dragon, shifting violently from left to right, as if trying to shrug an assailant off its back. One pass in particular is breathtaking: Ascending what is essentially a vertical wall of rock, the road passes 14 (by my count) consecutive switchbacks. I call this the ‘Roller Coaster Pass‘. And while we’re randomly namely things, let’s call this unnamed road the ‘Agitated Dragon’.

The unnamed (Agitated Dragon) road between Bao Lac & Pac Bo Cave, Cao Bang Province, VietnamLooking down on one of the 14 switchbacks of the ‘Roller Coaster Pass’ on the ‘Agitated Dragon’ road

And so, the Agitated Dragon continues east along the Chinese border (with some extended rough, gravelly sections in the middle) until it hits the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208), just south of Pac Bo Cave. (To visit the cave – which is well worth it – turn due north on road DT208 for 10km). Turn onto the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208) and ride its smooth course south for 40km to Cao Bang city.

Pac Bo Cave, on the Chinese border, Cao Bang Province, VietnamPac Bo Cave on the Chinese border is a fascinating historical sight in a beautiful natural setting

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The Ba Be Lake Route:

GREEN LINEHa GiangDa ViBa Be LakeCao Bang: 310km [MAP]

This southerly route between Ha Giang and Cao Bang, via Ba Be Lake, can be joined at any point along road QL34: you don’t necessarily have to begin it on QL34 right out of Ha Giang city (see the purple lines on my map for connecting roads with the green Ba Ba Lake route). This route comes in two halves: the first half passes through lovely landscape but there are a fair few rough road sections; the second half, from Ba Be to Cao Bang, is generally a very smooth ride.

Terraced rice fields between Ha Giang & Cao Bang, northern VietnamThe southerly route between Ha Giang & Cao Bang, via Ba Be Lake, passes particularly lush scenery

Take QL34 east out of Ha Giang along the very pretty Gam River Valley. Unfortunately, this section of road has been in poor condition for years. Expect to have to deal with giant potholes and muddy patches. It might be slow going but eventually you’ll reach the intersection with road DT176 heading south to Da Vi. This is an isolated, beautiful road: a narrow paved lane slicing along valleys and over mountains. It’s a gorgeous ride in good weather, but again you will have to contend with some pretty awful road conditions. In dry weather it should be OK, but if there’s been heavy rain it’s likely to cause landslides and mud pools. Take a look at the photo below to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Having said that, the bad patches are short (but difficult), and if you have a decent bike, it shouldn’t be any problem.

A muddy section of road, DT176 to Da Vi, VietnamSome sections of QL34 & DT176 can be very tricky conditions, but the bad patches are generally short

DT176 ends at the small village of Da Vi, on the edge of a giant reservoir. It’s a very off the beaten path place, but there’s a nhà nghỉ guest house here if you need it. From here, bear east onto an unnamed road leading over some spectacular mountains and through dense jungle all the way to the crossroads near Ba Be Lake. To go to the lake and the homestays on its southern shores, turn due west. Otherwise, take road QL279 east towards Cho Ra village, where there are several guest houses. From Cho Ra, it’s a lovely, lush ride to the intersection with QL3 at Na Phac. National Highway QL3 is a great road ploughing through marvellous scenery all the way to Cao Bang city.

Ba Be Lake, Bac Kan Province, northern VietnamStay at one of the homestays on Ba Be Lake before continuing on the excellent road QL3 to Cao Bang

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16 Responses to The High Roads: Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang

  1. Dave Gould says:

    Hi Tom, Myself and a couple of friends are planning on riding one or more of these routes during the first couple of weeks in August. I know there have been some heavy rains in the North and I am wondering what the roads are like at the moment. Is there any way for a non-Vietnamese speaker to find out?
    Also, I’m having trouble viewing your maps. Is it my connection, I’m outside of VN at the moment, or a known issue?
    Thanks for taking the time to write this blog in such extensive detail. It’s interesting reading and incredibly informative. Cheers!

    • Hi Dave,

      There isn’t really any way of knowing for sure – just asking other riders, and perhaps some of the motorbike rental companies, because they get reports back from customers who’ve recently ridden those routes. You could contact QT Motorbikes in Ha Giang, for example, and they are also a very good place to rent from in that area.

      In general, if there have been landslides, the QL roads will be cleared quickest, because they are ‘national highways’, not ‘provincial roads’

      Tom

    • Oh, and the maps problem must either be your browser or device – all my maps are ‘public’ so you should be able to view them easily.

      Tom

  2. Rick says:

    Rented a car and driver for two weeks in the northern mountains. Did this exact same segment. Most enjoyable and beautiful ride. Spent two nights in a Babe homestay. Can’t recommend enough. Cheers!

  3. Barry says:

    Hi Tom

    Hope you’re well. How many days riding would you suggest for the border route? I see you say its 370km so want to plan where to stay overnight. Any specific places you would suggest for accommodation?

    Many thanks

    Barry

    • Hi Barry,

      It depends where you start. If you start from Ha Giang and want to take the border route (via Meo Vac, Bao Lac and Pac Bo) all the way to Cao Bang then you’ll need at least 2 days. For example, Day 1: Ha Giang-Yen Minh-Meo Vac; Day 2: Meo Vac-Bao Lac-Pac Bo-Cao Bang. However, 3-4 days would be much more comfortable and leisurely.

      You can find accommodation in all the towns on the Ha Giang Loop (check the relevant sections of this guide for my recommendations of accommodation in each place), from Ha Giang through to Dong Van, Meo Vac and Bao Lac. Between Bao Lac and Pac Bo there’s hardly anything, but there are a couple of guest houses near Pac Bo. The nearest decent accommodation is in Cao Bang.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  4. Hai Nguyen says:

    Hi Tom.
    Have you taken DT 197C from TT Vinh Quang to Thanh Thuy on QL2 (running along Chinese border) and then to Ha Giang?
    Last year I took QL 4D to Muong Khuong and continued to Hoang Su Phi as you recommended. At Hoang Su Phi I am wandering if I should take DT197C to Ha Giang, but then I chicken out, and chose the safer road of DT177 to QL2 and on to Ha Giang.
    Your infos are really helpful.
    Thanks.

    • Hi Hai,

      I tried DT197C once, a couple of years ago, but it was in bad condition and local authorities didn’t like me being there. However, it might have changed by now – both the road quality and the authorities. Although I think one reader tried it about 6 months-1 year ago and said he had to stop because of bad conditions.

      Let me know if you do decide to try it – I’m sure it would be a really scenic road.

      Thanks,

      Tom

  5. Chris Tizita Chalk says:

    Wow! I checked your website today (currently in Quang Uyen) in order to plan my next route, and I see that you have updated it with yet another route! I took the ‘agitated dragon’ road two days ago and was in awe at the section in which you have mentioned. So much so, that I shared it on Facebook with the Google Maps terrain that shows the 14 switchbacks. And what about that view from the other side? Wow! It has to be one of my favourites so far!

    I also took the DT217 Road from Meo Vac all the way to Bao Lac and that was also a spectacular road (not suitable for anything else but a dirt bike though). I crossed the lake on a man-made raft but the road doesn’t really exist as such and is instead a orange dirt track. Great fun, but certainly not recommended for scooters / Honda Win/Detechs.

    Great piece again! Keep up the great work!

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks. That’s great – sounds like you’re having a fantastic road trip so far. Yes, I agree about DT217 between Meo Vac and Bao Lac – it’s only really suitable for bikes that can handle off-road. Although I did manage it on an automatic, but I wouldn’t do it on an auto again 🙂

      Thank you for sharing your experiences of the roads. They’re in a constant state of flux up in that area: resurfaced then falling apart again all the time 🙂

      Tom

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