The extreme north of Vietnam offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. Jungle-clad limestone mountains, dramatic valleys, raging rivers lead travelers to gape at the dramatic landscapes. Traditional farming communities, including many ethnic minorities, make up the human landscape — complete with terraced rice paddies and rustic villages. Combine that with roads that are some of the most thrilling in the country, with endless twists, turns, and climbs, and it’s clear why a motorbike tour of north Vietnam — especially the far north — is becoming so popular.
Some areas like Sapa have long been on many tourist agendas in Vietnam. Others, like Ha Giang, have only recently shown up on itineraries. Recent improvements in the quality roads have made motorcycle travel in the area and a Sapa to Ha Giang tour much more viable than in the past. Concurrently, new developments in lodging, infrastructure, and services make traveling in general much simpler.
Below, we’ll cover some of the best routes in and around the area. We will also discuss some of the most worthwhile places to check out.
A stop in Sapa is a staple of any motorbike trip through north Vietnam. For good reason: its steep stepped rice paddies and relaxed, rural atmosphere attract all kinds of visitors. Recently, the place has been a bit overblown by tourism but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. Rather, more services are available than ever before, so options range much wider than they previously did.
For reference, Sapa is a town in Lao Cai province. However, it’s generally considered more of a region than a town.
Motorbike Routes in and Around Sapa
The only real way into Sapa is along the QL4D highway. The highway connects Lao Cai to Lai Chau, a town to the west. Sapa lies in the middle. If you’re looking to motorbike in north Vietnam, this road is an absolute must.
In case you’re curious, QL is an abbreviation in Vietnamese that designates a national highway. So, essentially, there’s only one major highway that runs through Sapa.
There are, however, countless small roads in Sapa that extend both southeast through the valley and northwest into the mountains. Homestays and eco-lodges have popped up all over these roads in recent years. So, while the town has grown, it has expanded out rather than up. At the same time, it has maintained miles of terraced rice paddies among dramatic valleys.
An adventurous rider could follow the Seo My Ty road south of the valley as it winds back up into the mountains before arriving at the Seo My Ty reservoir. The reservoir is a man-made lake nestled in the mountains and offers spectacular views. In summer months, it can make for a refreshing swim.
Motorbike riders exiting the reservoir would require either heading back north of Vietnam, since the road to the south dwindles and dead-ends. Alternatively, you can follow roads that are little more than dirt tracks northeast out of the mountains before re-entering the valley. There, you’ll find semblances of civilization once more.
There are countless other narrow and winding paths through the mountains around Sapa. Some of them connect to other roads, while others dead-end without warning. If you’ve got time to kill and a bike that can handle a bit of a climb and some occasional rough terrain, head in any direction and you’ll find something worth seeing. We just recommend keeping your phone with GPS on you in case you get lost.
Activities in Sapa
No north Vietnam motorbike trip to Sapa would be complete without a visit to Fansipan — the highest mountain in Vietnam. While it’s worth seeing, it’s often overrun with tourists. Fortunately, a trip up to the top can be accomplished by cable car, so if you’re looking for a day off from riding this is a quite acceptable option.
Another popular choice in Sapa is simply trekking through the seemingly endless hills, rice paddies, and minority villages. Whether you choose to do a one-day or a multi-day trek is up to you: the sky is the limit when it comes to where you want to hike.
The market is also a popular tourist destination. Although be warned that locals will likely follow you around until you buy something. And when you do buy something, they’ll continue to follow you around. So, if you plan on buying anything (which you’ll likely be coerced into doing) make sure it’s one of the last things you do before leaving town.
When you leave town, heading northeast will lead you to the next stop on our list: Lao Cai.
Motorbiking Lao Cai and Bac Ha
Lao Cai, unsurprisingly, is the capital city of Lao Cai province. It’s a busy border town with China where the Red River first crosses into Vietnam. The town itself doesn’t offer that much to travelers beyond places to sleep and eat, but the scenery to the east of it certainly does.
Routes Out of Lao Cai
To the northeast of Lao Cai lies some of the best scenery and highest mountains in the country. If you find yourself with a full open day, a ride connecting the QL4D and the DT154 can make for an excellent detour before heading over to Bac Ha. There are more than enough bends on this road to thrill even the most steel-nerved rider. You can choose to make this road a loop before hooking back up with the DT153 and heading north into Bac Ha town.
Alternatively, the DT153 and 154 split where they meet the QL4, and you can take the 153 north before looping down south into Bac Ha. Either way you go, the ride will be thoroughly satisfying.
Motorbike Routes Around Bac Ha
Just to the east of Lao Cai town is Bac Ha district, which is itself a part of Lao Cai province. Here, the roads get very interesting, although there’s only one that could be called anything like a highway.
It twists and turns along steep climbs and past mountain peaks, while stepped rice paddies and traditional houses are found around every bend. For those with a curiosity for history, this region is one of the strongholds of the Hmong people. Indeed, along the way you can see the palace of king Hoang A Tuong, who was notable for controlling trade — especially the lucrative opium trade — in the area with the support of the French.
The town of Bac Ha itself is an excellent striking out place for mountain excursions. Heading out east of town on the Thai Giang road, for example, can lead to an envigorating loop into the mountains full of twists, turns, and bends, before heading back to town. Alternatively, heading northwest out of the town on the DT159 can lead to a road full of ultra-tight bends that eventually links back up with the DT159 to the northeast side of town.
Things to Do in Bac Ha
The biggest draw in Bac Ha is visiting the local market. This is not a typical tourist attraction, though the odd backpacker can be found here. Instead, this is a market where tribes from local villages meet to exchange goods. It happens every Sunday, and if you’re in town on a Sunday it’s well worth visiting.
Note that the people in this region are generally ethnic minorities and still live a fairly traditional lifestyle: the clothes, products, and everything else around is not an affectation for tourism.
Ha Giang is due northeast of Bac Ha, but getting there isn’t quite so simple: you can head out of Bac Ha to the northeast before linking up with the DT178. The DT178 is effectively a loop that runs around some mountain peaks, including Kiou Leou Ti.
Choosing to go motorbike riding north of Vietnam on DT178 rather than south allows for some wild scenery along the way — including a chance to ride up to the top of Kiou Leou Ti. Whichever way you go, don’t expect many services along the way: bring extra food, water, and gasoline just in case.
Although the map may indicate roads hugging the border with China, we recommend avoiding these roads for many reasons. First, they may simply be dirt tracks, even though the map indicates otherwise. Second, adverse weather conditions can lead to landslides, blocking roads and leaving you stranded. Third, there are essentially no services along these roads. And fourth, border guards in the area may not take kindly to your presence.
Instead, the town of Ha Giang should be approached from the south by linking up with the QL2.
Once on the Ha Giang loop, charge the batteries on your phone because you’re likely to wear it out taking so many photos.
The Ha Giang Loop
The Ha Giang loop has made a name for itself internationally, and for good reason: it offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. Now it’s one of the main attractions for those looking to motorbike north Vietnam. Traditionally, motorbike cyclists completing a Ha Giang Loop Tour will head out north of the town along the QL4C all the way around before connecting with the QL34 and heading back to town.
The pace at which you choose to go depends on you: some people take it easy while others want to cram as much into a day as possible.
For example, within around 60 kilometers of Ha Giang is Heaven’s Gate at Quan Ba. This marks the beginning of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Global Geopark: a UNESCO site. Heaven’s Gate was the site of an actual gate built by the French in colonial times that designated the borderline between French-controlled territory from that controlled by ethnic minorities like the Hmong. Quan Ba also features several notable geographical features, including Lung Khuy cave and the Fairy Mountains, which humorously resemble breasts. Visitors would be remiss to miss out on these unique locations.
Quan Ba is just a short ride from Ha Giang. There area handful of places to stay at Quan Ba, but as the ride is so close to Ha Giang many choose to carry on.
Dong Van and Further East
Further north, and about a day’s good ride, is Dong Van — the northernmost full-fledged town in Vietnam. The town itself features an old Hmong Royal Palace. For history buffs, the Hmong king of the time hired Chinese architects to come build the palace. It’s fairly unique, and worth a visit.
To the north of Dong Van is Lung Cu Tower, the northernmost point in Vietnam. Here, you can climb the tower and have a fantastic viewpoint into southern China and the surrounding region.
Continuing to the east on the QL4C will lead you to one of Vietnam’s best highlights: the Ma Pi Leng pass. The road is etched onto the side of a mountain and is a marvel of engineering. It’s also one of the best rides we’ve ever seen.
Besides the major highway that makes the loop, there are also some fantastic internal roads that cross the Dong Van Plateau. Just make sure to look for signs that say either “DT” or “QL.” These are the best-maintained roads that are guaranteed to be asphalt rather than dirt tracks.
The loop finishes by heading back towards Ha Giang — though you can continue east into Cao Bang province if you plan on continuing your journey.
A Note on Safety
Do note that some of the roads in this area of far northern Vietnam are subject to adverse weather conditions, especially in the winter. Not only does the area receive a lot of rain, but it is also at elevation — meaning landslides are always possible. Additionally, some of these roads are built next to sheer cliffs where a fall could well be fatal. If you’re an inexperienced rider, consider a pillion tour. Whatever you do, take the utmost caution when driving these roads so that you don’t become a statistic.
Onyabike Adventures’ Thoughts
The far north of Vietnam offers some of the best motorbike riding in the country, so a north Vietnam motorbike trip is exceptionally memorable. Additionally, cultural heritage is well-maintained here, so visitors get to see traditional lifestyle in a very remote area. We can’t recommend this area enough. Check out our Sapa and Ha Giang Adventure if you’d like to plan a trip.