Hanoi and the North by Motorbike

Jon

Hanoi and the North by Motorbike

Choosing which sections of the Vietnam Northern territory to drive

Above Hanoi are spectacular mountain ranges running along the Vietnam-Chinese border. The North of Vietnam provides incredibly remote and beautiful landscapes.

To travel the north by motorbike ranges between one and three weeks. Split into three sections, one week per section.

The Motorbikes we recommend for travelling the North of Vietnam are the Honda XR 150cc or Honda CRF 250cc.
However any motorbike in the Tigit rental fleet will do the job!

 

The Central Ha Giang loops – Beautiful mountain scenery on paved road, close enough to tourist areas to be safe for casual drivers. The roads twist and turn up and down mountains and create amazing back drops. There will be other foreigners on the road, but it still remains to be a remote and mostly untouched place.
For casual drivers these loops will provide difficult and adventurous driving.

The North East – Containing the absolutely stunning Ban Gioc waterfall that few people witness. Mostly good road conditions with regular safe stopping points. The North East is off the tourist trail so an adventurous attitude is needed as this gets remote, but there are convenient main road alternatives for if the going gets tough.

The North West – For the extreme adventure seeker. A traveller will hit mud and  difficult roads that only hardcore offroad enthusiasts can tackle. A travel partner is definitely needed and these roads should not be attempted alone. Rewards of phenomenal scenery and local ethnic groups that are untouched and unknown to the outside world. People who make it into these parts respect the beauty that they have stumbled into, and the acknowledgement of the pristine untouched nature overcomes the need to blog and promote the area. These places have managed to escape the tourist industry and remain to be only for the extreme thrill seekers.

For most people, heading to Lao Cai and over to Ha Giang is a sensible move. The weather is variable and volatile in the North, and heading straight for the middle provides the safest option. Even if the weather is terrible, a traveller can get a sense for the incredible mountain scenery and then head back to Hanoi having ticked the box of motorbiking the North.

People wishing to continue can venture off into the North East to find Ban Gioc Waterfall and Ba Be lake.

For the person wanting a battle and to be pushed to their limits, then off you go to the North-East… maybe  you make it back alive to tell your stories.

The Weather in the North

The North of Vietnam has unpredictable and random weather conditions. It is pointless and impossible attempting to predict the weather that will come.

If the weather is a make or break situation for the journey, then it is best to not attempt to go into these regions. All to often have I met miserable backpackers complaining about the difficult mission it was to get to the North, only to be met by rain and cold. If good weather is needed to enjoy the scenery, then just don’t risk going there.

The terrible and unpredictable weather is the reason the North of Vietnam (which is arguably the most beautiful place on the planet) has managed to escape mass tourism. So when that freezing cold rain storm hits you up in the clouds, remember that this is what is protecting the environment and allowing you to travel this untouched part of the world!

For people wanting the sun, then choose the amazing South loops instead where the sun is always shining!

The weather is often localised and it is possible to drive through the rain to be met by the sun. The mountain ranges are so massive, that roads often pass through bitter cold and back into the sun depending on which side of the mountain the road is sitting on.
The hill climbs and descents are extreme and the weather can flick from hot to cold in minutes.

When to travel the North

August to September is the best time to travel the North. The weather is mostly stable and the yellow paddy fields bloom.

Keep in mind this is also stormy season in Vietnam and random cyclones can smash through the area at any point. Storms come and go quickly, they usually pass over within two days. Apart from safety concerns for the big storms (check news sometimes), then just continue with the holiday knowing that the storm will pass.

March and May is also good for allround mostly stable conditions.

June to August is rainy season.

December to February are cold, so cold that the snow can fall. Plan for a skiing holiday and you should be ok! A big mistake travellers make when motorbiking Vietnam is to assume everywhere is hot. With Tigit Motorbikes it is possible to send luggage on the train, so plan ahead and have the correct gear sitting in our office waiting for cold weather conditions.

For all times of the year, a traveller should be preparing cold weather gear for the North.

The Train to Lao Cai

The Train from Hanoi to Lao Cai runs overnight for around 8 hours.
By train 300-350.000vnd without bike ( 8 hours to lao cai city + 2 hours on bus from lao cai to sapa)
By train with the bike 700-800.000vnd.

The train leaves at around 9.30pm each night.

Driving out of Hanoi is relatively straight forward and the roads quickly turn into countryside. In Tigit’s point of the view the train is a slow and expensive way of exiting the city.

Going Hanoi towards Lao Cai head towards Vu Linh Farmstay near to Tuyen Quang.

Going Hanoi to the North East, head for the Ba Be lake.

Going Hanoi to the North West, head for the Ta Xua along the CT08.

How to travel the North of Vietnam

The North is a network and maze of small roads that scatter the mountains. Googlemaps manages to document these roads, but fails to determine which roads are real and which roads are mud tracks. This often sends travellers off down roads that are above and beyond the capabilities of the driver.

This is why as a normal traveller, it is wise to stick to the established Ha Giang loops and North-East territories.

Sticking to “QL” roads is what most people should be doing. These are main highways, but can often throw in the occasional minor offroad section.

When venturing into “DT” roads, anything can happen. Even roads that appear to be connecting two major destinations may be connected by a mess of mud that is a DT.

On other occasions, DT roads can be a perfect road of single track tarmac road.

Dotted throughout the region are small villages. Nearly every village has either a Hotel, Home stay or Nha Nghi (Vietnamese guest house), which means a bed is never far away. Even in the most remote regions.

There is no right or wrong road to take. The area is so amazing that even the highways are stunningly beautiful.

Due to the weather, and the beauty of the region it is impossible to accurately predict how long a road will take. Create an estimated plan and roughly keep to it. If time runs short, then take a “QL” to make up for lost time.

A full description of how to use GoogleMaps and Maps.me combination can be found on how to navigate Vietnam by motorbike.

The four Famous passes in Hanoi by motorbike

4 famous pass in the north : Pha Đin( between son la and dien bien), Ô Quy Hồ ( between lao cai and lai chau),Khau Phạ ( between Văn Chấn district & Mù Cang Chải, Yên Bái province) ,Mã Pí Lèng ( dong van and meo vac)

Pha Din

Around 32km long, Pha Đin pass connects the two provinces Son La and Dien Bien. The road is foggy at dawn, which brings a marvellous driving experience for travellers. Fog goes away around 8:30 -9am. The scenery with small villages and green rice fields surrounded by the valley is absolutely amazing!

O Quy Ho

Khau Pha

Khau Pha pass is mostly known for its view to Mu Cang Chai during September and October, when the rice fields are all bright yellow. Length is around 32km.

Ma Pi Leng

Ma Pi Leng is only around 20km but is named “King of all passes in Vietnam” because of its toughness. A great drive if doing the North by motorbike!

The North East

Hanoi — > Ba Be Nationial park — > Cao Bang — > Ban Gioc Waterfall –> Meo Vac –> Ha Giang –> Tuyen Quang — > Hanoi

Day 1: Hanoi to Ba Be National Park:

Leaving Hanoi and head to Ba Be national park. Ba Be National park drives down into a lake of stunning beauty. At the bottom of the hill there are boat tours that can be done. Tours in this area are mostly day activities. Mr Linh’s Home stay is the main accommodation within this area.

Day 2: Ba Be Nation Park to Cao Bang

Head towards Cao Bang along the QL3. A pleasant drive but nothing to write home about.

Day 3: Cao Bang to Ban Gioc Waterfall to Cao Bang

From Cao Bang head to Ban Gioc Waterfall along the DT206. A great road of open driving, rivers and countryside life.

Ban Gioc Waterfall is a marvel that should be one of the seven wonders of the world. The road climbs down into the valley which gives an areal view of this magnificent waterfall. A place that looks like it has been taken out of a kids animation movie of perfect paradise.

Loop back to Cao Bang using  the DT211. This is a dirt track and only recommended for adventure seekers on the Honda XR or Honda Blade. Other tour companies also use the DT206, but we have not experienced this road.

Day 4: Cao Bang to Meo Vac

The QL4c is the main road, and from our research is what most of the tour companies use. I imagine this road is fantastic but we do not have experience with it.

We used the DT203 shown as a small white road on googlemaps that heads towards the Chinese border. This road is mostly gravel roads, but in the wrong conditions will probably be impossible to drive for most people. The road has incredible views and crazy mountain climbs that over look farmland valleys. Not recommended for beginner riders.

The roads meet up at the Ql4c to Meo Vac. This road has the Ma Pi Leng Pass which is a truly awesome spectacle.  If done in the correct conditions, the corners, ups and downs and general valley beauty will leave the driver speechless. As sunset approaches the variations of lights and shadows on the mountain surroundings are stunning.

Meo Vac was a terrible town with nearly nothing to eat. If it is possible then avoid this place. We have nothing good to say about!

Day 5: Meo Vac to Ha Giang

From Meo Vac head towards Ha Giang on the Ql4c . From beginning to end this road is beautiful. The terrain and roads change as distance is covered. The only consistency is incredible mountain edge corners overlooking massive valleys.

In Ha Giang we recommend Ban Tuy Homestay for an authentic Vietnamese experience. For a backpacker style hostel then Kiki House.

Day 6: Ha Giang to Tuyen Quang

Follow the QL2 and QL279 to Lai Cai. At the time of writing this, we do not have experience with this area.
We went to Vu Linh Family Homestay down the QL2. The idea being we did not want to take a train from Lau Cai.
This homestay is in a beautiful area on the lake. We highly recommend the boat tour where one of the family members rows you through a spectacular and empty lake. A guarantee that you will be the only foreigner in the area, and probably the only person within eye distance. Insane to think a place of such beauty remains empty when located just a few hours from Hanoi. Please keep in mind we had perfect weather conditions!

Day 7: Tuyen Quang to Hanoi

The drive into Hanoi, follow the Ql32 and once reaching “the red river” or “da river” take the white road “Duong Da” towards the “Trung ha sub parish church”. Follow this road all the way into Hanoi to avoid the traffic! A good road to finish the North by motorbike!

The North West

You need to be one crazy traveller to take on the route described below. It can be done using the QL32, but really the West is all about offroad and this is where the offroad tour companies come to play. I feel conflicted documenting the following route as I believe natural beauty should be left to the people willing to put in the time and do the leg work of research. On the other hand, very few people have the skills to tackle this route anyway! So even publicly documenting this route on a site like Tigit, it will remain untouched and remote as few people have the skills to tackle it.

People reading this who own Honda Wins, or are planning on owning Honda Wins. Just don’t, for my sake and yours…. Do not take a Honda Win on this route.

Day 1: Head out of Hanoi to Ta Xua

Use the CT08 to exit Hanoi. We headed for Ta Xua, but didn’t make it. A reasonable sized crash left one guy needing to go home. So we turned back and exited the mud to take the highway. The crash site was turning into some challenging hill climbs on jagged rocks.
The day finished with 9 hours Hanoi to Phu Yen.

Day 2: Phu Yen to the middle of nowhere. The aim was to get to Nghia Lo. We didn’t make it…..
Through Ta Xua I highly recommend coming of the DT112 detour as shown in my pictures. This goes scarily high and into the mud. Cliff edge mud driving through the clouds.

The DT 112 was incredibly difficult, and pushed the crew to their limits. An all day drive of 10 hours and 19 minutes of nothing but pure battling adrenaline. This was just after a storm where landslides had made life even more difficult 🙂

Through Ta Xua

 

Day 3: Nghia Lo to Mu Cang Chai

A remarkable day as the paved road was overrun with land slides, had we been a day earlier and this road would have been closed. The rain hammered down and as the sun began to shine some of the crew fell in love with a random country spot in Mu Cang Chai, so we decided some droning and chilling was in order for this day. We didn’t have an objective on where to stay. The idea was to get close to the crossing of Ql32 and Ql279 where the next day was an unknown and potentially crazy drive.

Nghia Lo

 

Day 4: The middle of nowhere to Sapa

The crew started as 5, an early crash put us down to 4. The unknowns of the proposed plan and the possibilities of possible or not possible put two members of our team to the highway.
An early start for the remaining explorers as we headed into the unknown to see a back road that was randomly showing on Maps.me but not on googlemaps.
The Ql 279 turned out to be one of the most beautiful roads I have ever witnessed. No words for it other than, perfection.

We struggled to find the mystery unknown white road that was on googlemaps. It didn’t correctly link up to our GPS location. This lead us offroad up a mountain. When we reached the top and confirmed with eachother that we were definitely going the wrong way. A few pictures before turning around. We admired a fantastic loop that can be seen miles in the distance, sure enough on googlemaps this loop is there. A loop for another time, we needed to meet the others in Sapa. For explorers out there, I highly recommend this very obvious loop that can be seen for miles.

We eventually met up with the mystery white road which led through some bizarre and impossible to navigate villages. Guess work of left and right turns, single track mud paths and some rickety bridges and we finally hit the lakes edge where maps.me was promising us a road. Some boats were sitting there but no signs of people. We drove around looking for the owners of the boats. After finding them, we asked about crossing the river. $10 was agreed upon. Off we went, no idea where we would land, but the crossing followed maps.me to perfection. Nothing overly difficult about this drive, and providing people understand that these boatmen might be sleeping, I recommend trying to find this road!

The drive up to Sapa on the Ql32 was pleasant, but nothing compared to what we had just witnessed!
It took us around 8 hours of driving to figure out this fantastic route!

To sapa

 

Day 5: Sapa to Cốc Pài

This road is all paved, and to date is the most beautiful peace of road I have driven. It goes miles from mainstream civilisation and crosses small towns and ethnic minority groups. The scenery is mind blowing and every minute of this drive deserves a picture. With everything being so beautiful it is impossible to know if you should be driving or looking at the landscape. The problem is, that any moment not looking at the landscape is an insult to its beauty.
It takes alot to distract me from ploughing through corners with just me and the motorbike on glorious roads such as this. Most of the time I don’t care for my surroundings, I drive for the amazing feeling of driving so my concentration is on the bike and the roads.

However this is one of the few roads that brings things to stop, with amazement that what I am witnessing unfolding before my eyes really is real.

As the roads enter the Ha Giang province they turn into fairly comical broken down pot holed disasters. The descent into Cốc Pài is incredible leaving you abandoned in this beautiful village in a valley.
The drive took 9 hours at a casual pace where the focus was on the mesmerising scenery.

 

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