The South West of Hanoi 3 to 4 day motorbike loop

The South West of Hanoi 3 to 4 day motorbike loop
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Strangely enough, the southwest of Hanoi is one of the least documented parts of Vietnam in terms of motorbiking. It has been on my to-do list for years now, as I know there is great stuff out there, but no one talks about it!

My map of the South West of Hanoi explained.

In Purple is the route I drove, though it has been mildly edited to fix some detours I think were not worth doing. We drove directly to Ninh Binh, one of the country’s worst roads; I explain more about that below.

In blue, I have marked an alternative to the Ninh Binh Road (if you are willing to skip Ninh Binh). I have not done it before, and I hope there really is a ferry. If you succeed, let me know, and I will update this. If you are not willing to gamble, you can just follow Google Maps directly to Mai Chau instead.

I have labeled and marked the waterfalls and caves and also noted some of the offroad sections.

What is the South West of Hanoi

Tigit Jon enjoying a wobbly bridge

In my definition, the Southwest of Hanoi consists of the Ninh Binh, Mai Chai, Pu Luong, and Moc Chai districts. As I discovered on this trip, the area contains many beautiful waterfalls as well as other activities such as hot springs, hiking, silly glass bridges, and literally thousands of homestays.

The best way to describe this area is like a theme park. There are so many small activities to do in the area that you activity-hop your way around the different sites. There is a lot of driving to do, but no real commitments are needed because there are so many homestays. 

The only thing that has been lacking is a theme park map to show where all these activities are! Here it is!

Who is the South West of Hanoi for?

1. The person who doesn’t have enough time for Ha Giang or more. Ha Giang takes at least five days, and five days is a rush. This area can be done in three to five days, with no rush and no commitments. Despite how remote the journey can get, in real life, you are never further than a four-hour drive from Hanoi. How crazy is that!

2. The romantic couple on a honeymoon. Okay, you don’t need to be on a honeymoon, but you get the idea. You can homestay hop, or go to hotels, whatever you like. The point is, there are so many waterfalls, hot springs, or activities you can spend time doing together. This area doesn’t have to be about motorbikes, covering thousands of kilometers in a short space of time. I would argue that this is one of the few areas of Vietnam where you can activity hop without significant kilometer commitments.

3. Finally, the person who wants to get off the tourist trail with as little effort as possible. Usually, escaping tourism is a battle, but here, you can find yourself in areas where the locals have never seen a foreigner. Strange, considering how close to Hanoi it is.

Who is the South West of Hanoi not for?

Enjoying a boat

I have described what I would consider a beginner-friendly region for tourists wanting to motorbike around. However, this is not actually the case. This region is great for a tourist who doesn’t want to be ambitious in terms of covering kilometers and for someone who wants to break a day up between activities and driving. However, this does not necessarily make it beginner-friendly.

In reality, this region is very mountainous, beautiful, and remote. This means that the highways to get to this region are busy, and the country lanes are real country lanes. They are not maintained; they are full of potholes, and to make matters worse, they are covered with clay, which is unbelievably slippery. The roads can randomly go from road to offroad without notice.

With careful and cautious planning, you can stay on roads that are reasonably well maintained, but a small lapse of map planning can lead you to uncomfortable off-road conditions if you are not prepared.

Offroad is subjective, and as an Enduro guy, potholes and a bit of clay don’t cause me any problems. But for many, roads like this would be considered hard and challenging offroad and will catch people off guard. Be aware of that!

Quick plug: Book an off-road lesson in Hanoi. There is so much accidental off-roading in the North, and a quick lesson is very productive.

When to go to the South West area of Hanoi

Tigit Jon getting excited

I was so excited about discovering this area, and I want to return to it during the rainy season! I was driving in the dry season, and guess what? It still rained a bit! The waterfalls were impressive, but I can only imagine what they would be like in the rainy season.

The standard email is, “What do I do if it rains, or will it rain?” Well, the answer is to gear up properly and drive to these waterfalls. If the rain lowers your enjoyment of motorbiking, it will definitely increase your enjoyment of these waterfalls.

It appears to be a secret, but I tell everyone. Sure, rain is annoying, but Vietnam gets a lot prettier when it rains. The greens go very green, and the country just pops with color. I am from England and am used to the rain, but I am often confused by the fear that Tigit clients appear to have when it comes to rain.

Anyway, the sheer quantity of homestays and hotels in this area, combined with the short distances between waterfalls, makes this the perfect region for enjoying the rain! The rain is the right time!

We have an article that explains the seasons in Vietnam, so read that for accurate answers.

To go to Ninh Binh or to not go to Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is a very difficult topic because the drive to get there from Hanoi is so bad. Although it only takes around three hours, the traffic is some of the worst in the country. The way I look at it is this: Ninh Binh is worth going to if you are going to stay there and do some activities there. It is not a good idea to just pass through Ninh Binh as we did.

Hanoi has a very clear “best way in and out” of the city, which, at the time of this article, is CT 03. It just so happens to go directly to the Southwest of Hanoi. It is an excellent road to escape or enter such a massive city. By going to Ninh Binh, you are throwing away the use of the CT03 road and instead hitting a very nasty Ql1A.

I suggest you do this loop anti-clockwise, leaving Ninh Binh as an optional extra at the end. Start with Mai Chau or Pu Luong and circle around this way, ending with Ninh Binh if you want to. This also coincides with splashing out on fancy accommodation in Ninh Binh for your final days in Vietnam.

My recommended route

Asking for a recommended route for this region is like asking for a recommended route around a theme park. I can do it, but it’s not the way you should travel here. I have a map where I labeled the areas and the waterfalls and attempted to mark the offroad sections. Follow my route loosely, and go here with an open mind to explore yourself. Remember that you are always close to Hanoi, so you don’t need to worry about timing! A key tip is to read the descriptions in the markers I provide on the map.

The following route is not recommended, as we were on a business trip to cover as much tarmac as possible and see as many sights as possible, but here it is.

Day 1: Hanoi through Ninh Binh to finish in Mai Chau.

Day 2: Mai Chau through Pu Luongand back through Pu Luong to Mai Chau again.

Day 3: Mai Chau to Moc Chau to finish in Phu Yen

Day 4: Phu Yen back to Hanoi

What is the right motorbike for the South West of Hanoi?

Bigger is not always better!

It is almost a strange question, but it was at the front of my mind on this trip. I was on a Honda CB 500x, and Giang, the Tigit guide, was on a Honda XR 150. The more I drive motorbikes, the more I realize that the motorbike must fit the driving style of the terrain.

The CB 500x excels at open, meandering, hilly roads. I did not enjoy the hairpin, mountain roads, or country lanes on this bike. The roads I enjoyed the most on this trip were the main highways, as I could open the throttle and calve the big bike around the hilly corners, overtaking traffic. The tarmac quality and traction are also very important on a big bike. Clay is brutal on ADV motorbikes.

I did not enjoy the small country lanes, which were smashed with potholes and clay. ABS does not work offroad, the CB 500x is heavy, and the constant turning of lefts and rights gets very tiring over a day. In reality, for most of this journey, I hardly left gear two. Not to mention, every time we hit offroad, I was in serious trouble.

There is no doubt in my mind that I would have had a lot more fun on the Honda Blade semi-automatic. I love hammering and revving small engines; it is a lot of fun. They can also go on any terrain in a fun and non-serious way. Finally, when you hit that moment of pure spectacular beauty, you are on the right bike, at the right speed, to take it all in. As always, Giang, the Tigit guide, is very comfortable on the Honda XR 150 in all terrain, and this motorbike type is a mighty fine choice as well.

If you have two people on one motorbike, I highly recommend the Honda XR 150 over the CB 500x in this region of Vietnam. You probably won’t understand why, but trust me. Finally, if you rent an adventure bike for this part of Vietnam, you must have some skill behind the wheel, and if you have two people on the bike, drive very slowly.

Vietnamese tourism, public holidays, and weekends

Just because this region is unknown in the Western market does not mean it is unknown in the Vietnamese market. These attractions and waterfalls are set up waiting for mass Vietnamese tourism. Karaoke and beer drinking are very normal in Vietnamese travel. I am not saying what is right and what is wrong, but Vietnamese tend to travel in a very different way from foreigners.

I was here on weekdays, which was fantastic, but I am sure this region will be slammed with drunk Karaoke pop stars at weekends. To get the deeply feeling of the place, I think it is very important to avoid weekends and not travel here at all if it is a Vietnamese public holiday.

My highlight of the journey

I love waterfalls!

The entire drive was a highlight. There were even some roads that Tigit Giang referred to as looking like Ha Giang, which is not bad for somewhere so close to Hanoi. Pu Luong as a place always amazes me. I would love to spend a week there properly discovering it. The area is much bigger than I had realized. In fact, I have now split it into Pu Luong A and Pu Luong B, which I might implement in future articles and content. It isn’t a singular place like I first thought.

However, the star of the show for me was the “Thac Nang Tien” waterfall. It is funny because my original mapping and research had missed it. The heavens opened, and it rained hard,Giang and I got split up. I stopped at the side of the road and started looking at Google Maps. I saw this waterfall nearby, and when we found each other again, we went to it. It turned out to be my favorite waterfall of the trip!

All the waterfalls and caves I visited described

Keep in mind I traveled here in dry season, which is the wrong time!

Thác Chiềng Khoa

Providing you have the skill to drive down a very steep slope to get to this waterfall, there is no walking involved, making this a quick and easy waterfall to visit. However, many people will struggle with this drive down, and most locals are walking.

It was a waterfall well set up for a quick picture, but beyond that, there was nothing special about this place. Overall, it was quite nice!

Thác Nàng Tiên

I love waterfalls!

This waterfall was my favorite on the trip in terms of beauty. It had Karaoke, swimming areas, and then a rough 15-minute walk to the main waterfall. Spending half a day or more in this place would be easy. I imagine it gets very busy during the holiday seasons, but overall, the place was a nice balance of touristy without being overly touristy. I enjoyed the design and layout of this place. I highly recommend it!

Thác Dải Yếm

This waterfall is a huge tourist site aimed at mass Vietnamese-style picture-taking tourism. However, unlike some of these concrete abominations of natural destruction, this one is relatively tastefully done and I do actually recommend it. It is a short walk to a stream of love, then a waterfall, and then a glass bridge of love. The glass bridge cost an extra 100,000vnd which I didn’t want to spend.

Overall, for a playful hour or two, this place is alright.

Đỉnh Pha Luông

I didn’t make it to this place, but it was one of the key attractions I wanted to see on this trip. In the end, we ran out of time. It is at least a three-hour detour in a pointless direction, and Google reviews suggest it takes another three hours to hike. Further to this, it looks like you might need a special permission slip to do it.

In the end, I had to scrap the concept, but I would love it if someone succeeded and gave me feedback!

Thác Tạt Nàng

This waterfall was clearly impacted by the wrong season. It is set up with an infrastructure for charging for tickets and quite a large parking area. However, when we were there, there was no soul on the property; we got in for free. Because of this, we could drive our motorbikes straight to the waterfall, which meant no walking. This is a nice place for a quick stop, and I imagine it is booming and spectacular in the right season.

Gò Lào Waterfall

This waterfall is extremely close to Mai Chau, where many tourists will stop for a hotel. Due to this, it is a key attraction that many of our customers should be doing. There was one parking guy on the side of the road to look after your vehicle, and it was about a 10-minute walk down a hill to get to the waterfall. It was not really a tourist site; it was a natural.

We were there around 8 a.m., and Vietnamese teenagers were already enjoying the site, which was nice to seeI don’t think I would be waterfall hunting at 8am when I was sixteen! We were just hammering through, but I think this waterfall is a must-see for anyone in the area.

Hang Dơi (cave)

Smack in the middle of Moc Chau; this cave is easy to reach if you are in the area. Whether to go or not is a difficult choice. It is around a fifteen-minute walk up a cliff, and then the cave itself is full of religious material, which is a bit of a vibe killer. In Vietnam, we are very spoilt for caves, so I have lost my bearings a bit when it comes to cave quality. This cave is okay, but nothing special.

If you want to spend one hour doing something other than driving, this cave is worth a stop. Apart from that, it is nothing special.

Hang Dơi Kho Mường (cave)

The cave is very close to one of the main homestay areas of Pu Luong. It was the best cave on the trip and is worth a visit. It takes around fifteen minutes to walk to the cave. You stand at the top of the cave and can look deep into the darkness; it is an impressive sight. It is possible to walk into the cave as a full circle loop, and I guess it would take around one hour to do so. We opted not to walk around the cave. This cave is a must-see if you are in the area.

Hieu Falls waterfall

This was a classic beer-drinking karaoke hotspot. I enjoyed checking it out as a quick stop, but Giang, the Tigit guide, seemed to be fairly disgusted by it. The signposting of where the waterfall is was very confusing. He explained to me it was done on purpose, as the karaoke places put up signs in the wrong places to trick tourists into accidentally walking into their bars. From my perspective, we were just lost, and I put it down to the usual useless directions we get in Vietnam; from his perspective, he felt tricked and annoyed. 

Either way, for a quick stop and a coke, this isn’t a bad one to go to.

Dan Waterfall

Bigger is not always better!

This waterfall looked like it was set up for a medium flow of tourism, but when we were there, it was abandoned. It was an impressive site, but a waterfall that definitely would have benefited from it being in the rainy season. You can drive your motorbike right up to the waterfall, which make it a quick and easy photo stop. 

Mây waterfall

This was one of the first waterfalls we saw on our journey, and it struck me as beautiful. It was another mass Vietnamese tourism beer-drinking Karaoke hot spot, and even at 3pm on a weekday, it had locals singing away their problems to this amazing natural beauty. It was tastefully done, though, and had a lot of local character. 

Writing about beer and Karaoke can be seen in two ways: on the one hand, it destroys the calm of once an amazing natural beauty, but on the other hand, it shows off the friendly, happy community culture this country has to offer. I liked this place, and I had some fun taking photos with the local girls and also politely refusing to sing with some drunk men. It is all part of the Vietnam experience! As of now, I guess this is why I don’t have a photo, as all the pictures I took were on other peoples phones, not my own! WOops.

This road, in general, that the waterfall is located on, is full of picture-taking coffee/beer drinking establishments that follow a beautiful river.

Hang Con Moong Cave

This cave is not worth stopping at. There is nothing to see or do here; drive on by!

Bach Long Glass Bridge

I didn’t go to this bridge on this trip, but I have been before. I rarely one star review places, but this one got the wrath of my negativity. It is a pointless glass bridge overlooking a construction site. The project clearly isn’t finished and I guess has run out of money. The entrance fee was large as well, and this bridge is everything wrong with tourism in Vietnam.

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