Photo: On the road to Banlung.

Motorbiking in Asia forum

sapa-dien bien phu loop avoiding hanoi

Posted by cynthiacastle on 4/9/2012 at 10:06


My husband and I are traveling to Vietnam this November 1-12. We would like to do a motorbike loop in the Northwest, but I'd rather avoid Hanoi as it seems a bit crazy. So, the prospective itinerary is Sa pa- Lai Chau - Dien Bien Phu, then back to Sa Pa by either cutting through the park on route 279 or looping around routes 6-37-32 through Son La and Nghia Lo. Any recommendations on the itinerary? And my biggest concern is, how is the traffic around the roads up there? My husband has dirt-bike experience and can hopefully handle some muddy roads, but I'd be interested to hear about the other vehicles in the area. Secondly, are there any places to stay in the area outside of Lai Chau and Dien Bien Phu?

Thanks so much for your advice!


#1 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

Posted by UsTwo on 4/9/2012 at 21:37

I did a circuit from Ha Noi to Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu , Muong Lay ( your Lai Chau ? it does depend on the map you are using) Sa Pa, then Lao Cai to Ha Giang and onwards through the northern border area.

Can't help with your return to Sa Pa through Nghia Lo. That route is on my next visit.

There isn't much between Dien Bien Phu and Muong Lay. I stayed at the Hoang Long hotel overlooking the new lake being created as part of the Hydro scheme under construction, in ML. Newish, clean and comfortable.

The weather was against me on the section from ML to Sa Pa. I had planned on stopping at Lai Chau (Phong Tho on your map?) but I was in 100% cloud cover, and could barely see five yards in front. Expletive cold, too! (late March). I continued on to Sa Pa.
I found the run from DBP to ML interesting, but not spectacular. It's relatively flat, with the occasional ridge to cross.
ML to SaPa was more interesting. Serious climbs, and spectacular scenery - until I arrived at the cloud cover, that is! I knew there was a sheer drop of several hundred metres on one side of me, but which side?

Traffic between DBP and SaPa was light, mostly motor bikes. So long as you concentrate on the road, and aware of your situation, you should be OK. I am not a bike rider. I bought my bike in Ha Noi, and spent two days in Ha Noi traffic learning to ride, before heading off, and coped quite well.

I found the next part of my trip, from Lao Cai to Ha Giang, Dong Van, then Meo Vac to be the most spectacular trip I have ever had, anywhere, ever. Particularly DV to MV. A french couple in Cao Bang asked after it, and I simply said that you should take all of the superlatives in your vocabulary, roll them all together, and it still wouldn't do it justice. I WILL return to that part of the country.

Best wishes for your trip. I'm sure you will thoroughly enjoy it.

#2 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 72
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Posted by cynthiacastle on 5/9/2012 at 09:37

Wow, thanks so much for your response! What was so spectacular about the Ha Giang-Meo Vac area? Did you loop back around? How long was your trip? We only have about 6 or 7 days. I'd love to hear more about your experience. (Just using Google maps by the way, hopefully they're somewhat accurate..)


#3 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

Posted by cynthiacastle on 5/9/2012 at 22:57

One more question--I was just reading in a travel book from 2007 and it said that all travelers are required to go with an expensive permit and guide to Meo Vac area. Did you have to do this? Thanks!!

#4 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

Posted by UsTwo on 6/9/2012 at 00:15

I had the luxury of eight weeks for my trip, but the Ha Giang to Meo Vac part took me two days, with an overnight stay in Yen Minh. I spent two nights in HG first. I met a group on bikes along the way who were going straight through from HG to MV. You can loop back from MV to Yen Minh, on TL182, then re-trace to HG.

From HG to Minh Tan (Than Luong on Google) is a pleasant, relatively flat ride along a river valley, with several places along the way for a rest.

Leaving MT, the road was under construction, (late March, 2012) with lots more traffic. It was very steep, with switchbacks for several km. Continued in similar fashion to Tam Son. About 5km before TS is a lookout, and café for refreshments. On the valley floor is “Fairy Bosom,” two natural, cone shaped hills, strategically placed next to each other.

Approaching Yen Minh is a very steep downhill run. (Google doesn’t show YM clearly. Need to zoom right in at junction of QL4C and TL182.) Spent the night here. Leaving YM, still on QL4C, after 5km is another steep switchback climb. Great views over the valley. About 14km before Dong Van is a turnoff on the left, to Lung Co, a small village right on the China border, closed to tourists. Just past that on the right is a turnoff to the palace of Vuong Chin Duc, the King of the H’Mong. More fortress than palace. Very well hidden, you can’t see it from the road. Worth the 800 metre diversion, and only 20,000dong each.

At Dong Van is the well preserved French fortress of Pu Lo. About half an hour walk, each way, if you have time.

From Dong Van to Meo Vac is the most spectacular part of this run. I seemed to stop every 100 yards for photos, each better than the last. Very steep hills – I reckon about 80 degrees. The locals farm this land, terraced where-ever they can. Black rock all over, which they use to form small “fields” of perhaps 3 or 4 square metres. Soil is carried up in baskets from the river bank far below, on their backs, to place there. Hell, I chose my parents well!

If you consider this trip, then you will need permits for the section from Ha Giang to Meo Vac. You DO NOT need a guide. Cost is 220,000dong each, from the Immigration Office in HG. Travel north along the main road, west side of the river. This is Nguyen Trai. Approaching the second bridge over the river, turn LEFT onto Tran Hung Dao. On the left hand side, at the next intersection is the Immigration office. You will need to show your passport, and rego details of your bike. You will be asked how long your trip will take. I nominated Tam Son, Yen Minh, Dong Van, and Meo Vac as places where I would spend the night, just to give myself plenty of time to divert if I wanted to. The office is closed from 11:30am to 2:00pm. On Google, this is the block showing Ca Phe Zic Zac, and Khach San Kien Vang. The immigration office is on the north east corner. All hotels or guest houses along the way will ask for your permit before accepting you. No permit, no bed.

I didn’t return to HG, instead continued on through Bao Lac, and Tinh Tuc, to Ba Be National Park. That was another fantastic location. I spent four days there, roaming the back roads on my bike, and boat trips on the river and lake.

#5 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 72
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Posted by UsTwo on 6/9/2012 at 00:29

More on the guide requirement.

The permit is also available from the cop shop, and they are the ones insisting on guides. Just don't go there - use immigration.
Also, the procedure is very easy and straightforward. No need to use your hotel to arrange it, as they are more likely to go the cop shop direction.

#6 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 72
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Posted by cynthiacastle on 6/9/2012 at 22:58

WOW! Thank you so much for your detailed report! We're definitely thinking about rerouting our trip to that area now. Do you think it's reasonable to plan a loop around Cao Bang- Ba Be-Ha Giang-Dong Van-Meo Vac-Cao Bang within about 6 days?
You mentioned there was more traffic with the construction; did the ride ever feel super dangerous? Rather not fly off a cliff or anything :)

Thank you again! I'm really looking forward to this trip!

#7 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

Posted by UsTwo on 7/9/2012 at 02:35

What you are proposing would be a good trip, and is possible, on reasonable roads. However, I think you would spend most of your time on the road, with very little sight-seeing.
For example, I spent five nights in Cao Bang – two days of which was resting, and repairs to my bike.
To the north east, is Ban Gioc waterfall, which is right on the Chinese border. Punts from either side take tourists to the centre of the river, but no further. (although I did video the locals doing constant contraband visits) That is a full day, and it can be done in a partial loop.
Another trip was to the north, to Pac Bo, where Ho Chi Minh had a cave as a hideout in the days of the French, and the third to Thung Hen lakes. Of the three, Ban Gioc was the best.
At Ba Be, I spent four days, touring the back roads on my bike, and taking a full day tour down the river and onto the lakes.
I didn’t go from Ba Be to Ha Giang, but route QL279 and QL2C would get you there. The section of QL279 that I rode was a good sealed surface; so personally, I think it would be OK.

I presume you are flying into Ha Noi, and leaving for your trip immediately. The distance to Cao Bang is about 280km, and would take five hours of riding.
Cao Bang to Ba Be is 200km, four hours; to Ha Giang is about 220km, and a ‘ferry’ trip across the lake, with a similar time of travel. Ha Giang to Dong Van is about 160km. I took 2 days, but it can be done comfortably in one. On to Meo Vac is only around 24km, but allow plenty of time for this. I was sorely tempted to turn around and doit again! Then to Cao Bang is about 200km, four hours ride.
Please note, the times I have given are the optimum. Best togive yourself plenty of leeway.

So let’s say you do the trip:

Day 1 Arrive Ha Noi - overnight
Day 2 On the road to Cao Bang - overnight in Cao Bang
Day 3 Visit Ban Gioc - overnight in Cao Bang
Day 4 On the road to Ba Be - overnight at Pac Ngoi
Day 5 Tour Ba Be - overnight at Pac Ngoi
Day 6 On the road to Ha Giang - arrange permit, and overnight
Day 7 On the road to Meo Vac - overnight
Day 8 On the road to Cao Bang

I feel this is the minimum that I would want to spend on your suggestion. Well worth it, a fantastic trip you would be talking about and boring friends silly with, for years to come! But, of course time is your problem. If you have discounted Ha Noi from your six days, then you are still left with seven to find.

Hope this helps you, I have certainly re-lived my trip!

#8 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 72
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Posted by UsTwo on 7/9/2012 at 08:38

Just realised I didn't reply to your concern about traffic.
If you check various Travelfish postings, you will find there is some concern about Vietnamese traffic.
There is a Hierarchy.
The biggest takes precedence. Then the next. And so on, down to motorbikes, then cyclists, and finally pedestrians.
Also, the major through roads have much more of heavy traffic. That will be obvious if you ride on one.
Personally, I found car drivers to be the worst - truck drivers appeared to have some degree of competence, whereas the car drivers had an attitude. Perhaps because they are wealthier than the "peasants" they encounter.
However, I never felt intimidated, because I kept to my place in the hierarchy.
Stay aware, and be sensible. But don't be put off by the extreme stories.

#9 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 72
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Posted by cynthiacastle on 8/9/2012 at 01:32

Wow. This is great. Again, thank you SO MUCH for your detailed help!

We have a total of 12 days in Vietnam, so the motorbike tour will be after touring Hanoi and Halong Bay as well, leaving us with about 6 full days. We would still like to avoid the traffic in Hanoi if possible, so now we're thinking of a loop in and out of Sapa that would still include the northern corner and Ba Be. Does this sound reasonable?

Day 1: Overnight train to Sapa; rent bike and ride to Ha Giang; stay in HG
Day 2: HG to Dong Van; stay in the area
Day 3: Dong Van - Meo Vac - Ba Be; stay in Pac Ngoi
Day 4: Explore Ba Be; stay in Pac Ngoi
Day 5: Ba Be - Sapa; stay in Sapa
Day 6: Explore Sapa area; overnight train back to Hanoi

I saw on some forums that motorbike travel from Sapa to Ha Giang was difficult, but were you able to manage it?

Thank you thank you thank you! :)

#10 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

Posted by cynthiacastle on 9/9/2012 at 03:49

Ok, so I've been obsessively pouring over travel forums and tour itineraries and Google Maps, and I think we've finally come to a conclusion! I think we'll try to go out of Hanoi after all (despite my initial concerns of biking in the big city), so we don't lose time on the bus or train trying to get somewhere first. We also cut out some tour time in Hanoi, so now we have 8 days and 7 nights. Our current plan is similar to your route suggestion, UsTwo, but without CaoBang so we have a little more leisure time.

1. Hanoi - Thac Ba or somewhere around there
2. TB - Ha Giang
3. HG - Dong Van
4. DV - Meo Vac
5. MV - Ba Be
6. Explore Ba Be
7. BB - Tam Dao
8. TD - Hanoi

That's about 150-200 kms each day on the longer stretches, giving us time to explore up north and in the park. Hopefully it's a good plan!

Anyone know how to avoid the traffic in Hanoi?

Any more suggestions are welcome--thanks thanks thanks!

#11 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

Posted by UsTwo on 9/9/2012 at 05:15

You can comfortably do Ha Giang to Meo Vac in one day. I chose to take two days, because I had the time available. This would give you an extra day in Ba Be, or alternatively, extra time for Tam Dao. Haven't been to Tam Dao, but from what I've read it would be similar to Sa Pa.

As far as Ha Noi traffic goes, I did not find it at all intimidating, even as a novice rider. The traffic is quite organic, blending very easily, much like watching a river flow. Let your experienced husband ride ahead, and tuck in behind him. Be confident, but watchful, and you should be OK.

#12 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Location: Australia. Posts: 72
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Posted by cynthiacastle on 9/9/2012 at 07:46

Great! Yeah I'll look into the parks a bit more and see if we'd like to spend more time there. Now that we have 8 days to work with, I feel much more comfortable about the whole route. I'm so excited to have rerouted our trip up into the deep North, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help in our planning! Seriously, thank you a million!

#13 cynthiacastle has been a member since 4/9/2012. Posts: 7

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