Most travelers that decide to ride around Northern Vietnam on the back of a motorbike do the classic route from Hanoi to Sapa (through Son La, Dien Bien Phu and Lai Chau). After trekking in Sapa, they put their motorbike on a night train and return to Hanoi. This journey takes around 7 days, but if you do come so far and if time permits, I would highly recommend that you continue your way from Sapa to another mountainous province of Vietnam, Ha Giang, the starting point of the Extreme North Vietnam motorbike loop.
The Extreme North Vietnam Motorbike Loop
The town of Ha Giang is the gateway to the so called “Extreme North Motorbike Loop”. It’s not called that way because the roads are more extreme or dangerous, just that it’s “so North” that much of it runs along the border with China. And what a ride that is! The high mountain roads lead you over endless mountain ranges, villages and river valleys that make this one of the most scenic motorbike rides in Vietnam.
The whole trip should take (or add) around 7 days (including the ride from Sapa to Ha Giang). I did it in 5 days, which is possible, but means that you’d be driving pretty much non-stop. I would definitely like to have more time for stops and d-tours into villages on the way, but more on that in the next post.
To do the Extreme North Vietnam Motorbike loop one first needs to get from Sapa to Ha Giang.
Sapa to Ha Giang route
Route: Sapa – Lao Cai – Phong Hoi – Bac Ha – Lung Phin – Coc Pai – tt. Vinh Quang – Tan Quang – Ha Giang
Alternative route: Sapa – Lao Cai – Ban Phiet – Muong Khuong – Pha Long – Si Ma Cai – Lung Phin – Coc Pai – tt. Vinh Quang – Tan Quang – Ha Giang
Time of driving: Sapa to Vinh Quang ~6.5 hours, Vinh Quang to Ha Giang ~4 hours
The distance to cover is approximately 255 km – that’s quite a lot when considering the bad road conditions which, in combination with frequent bad weather, make progress on these mountain roads very slow and mudslides that block out whole areas a common encounter.
Plan two days for this trip. First night can be spent in the small town of Coc Pai (Xin Man on some maps), located around 135 km from Sapa or Vinh Quang (Hoang Su Phi on some maps), around 170 km from Sapa.
Most of the ride from Sapa to Ha Giang is not really scenic, but you do pass a few nice villages and towns where travelers are a pretty rare sight, so curiosity and kindness of the people living there still remain untouched by the effects of mass tourism.
And the road conditions? Well … most of the time, they’re the worst!
My journey from Sapa to Ha Giang
These two days were definitely the toughest part of my journey around Northern Vietnam. Bad weather caught me on one of the trickiest parts and I was basically driving in constant rain for two days straight.
It was still a bit on and off with the rain on the first day (Sapa to Vinh Quang), but it was just pouring non-stop on the second.
I could hardly take any pictures and after a full day of driving in the rain everything on me was soaking wet. On the second day even the rain cover of my small backpack had failed – water somehow accumulated on the bottom of the inner part of the cover, so my backpack was literally swimming in water. I carried my ultrabook and camera gear in there and I was lucky that it had survived.
I also tried taking a more direct (and mountainous) route from Vinh Quang to Ha Giang, but it was the stupidest idea ever. I had to turn around because of a landslide after almost two hours of driving and go back to Vinh Quang. Luckily, it was only a bit more than 4 hours to Ha Giang and I could still reach it before dark.
The temperatures were constantly dropping as I went higher and higher and I had at least four layers of clothes on me (basically everything warm and with long sleeves that I had with me).
And no feeling is worse than getting up at 7:30 AM in the middle of nowhere, looking out of the window only to see that rain is still pouring, getting back into wet clothes and on your motorbike for another day of driving.
But in the end it was all worth it, because a big bowl of awesomeness awaited after Ha Giang. Stay tuned!