When it comes to Vietnam, there seems to be one astonishing loop or drive after another, but my favourite has to be the northern parts, close to the boarder with China. It’s less touristy, more peaceful and completely unspoiled. Throughout my journey up there, I only bumped into a handful of other foreigners.
During my loop I found I was always looking for road conditions, so I’ll make sure to include information and a rating out of 5 on the roads I took.
Day 1 (heading North)
Ha Long City – Lang Son (170km)
From Ha Long City, I started my journey North. The first stint ended in Lang Son, the fourth largest city in Vietnam. This was a grueling day, as it rained 70% of the time.
QL279 – Easy single lane road, with occasional pot holes. 3.5/5
QL31 – Driving through small villages. It was lychee season and all these villages seem to be lychee suppliers. There are lots of 12 wheeler trucks everywhere. 2.5/5
QL4B – Easy and fast single lane road. Can be a bit scary, as this seems to be the main road into Lang Son. Watch out for the police. 4.5/5
Lang Son – Quang Uyen (135km)
I wanted to visit the Ban Gioc Waterfalls right at the boarder with China, so I decided to go straight to the closest town Quang Uyen.
QL4A – Easy and fast single lane road out of the city. Lots of trucks though. 4.5/5
TL208 – This was a hell of a road, and not in a good way. This entire section was just pot holes, some I wouldn’t even consider pot holes, as it was just ripped apart gravel and rocks. It’s also hella steep. Make sure your brakes are in good shape! It’s a shame the road is so bad, the scenery through the mountains is actually really pretty. Sh*t/5
QL3 – The relief when we hit this road! And boy was it a gift. This passage is stunning and the road’s almost mark-free. It goes through mountains and villages, but mostly through the valley, so it’s not particularly steep. 5/5
Quang Uyen – Ban Gioc Waterfalls (round trip 80km)
Quang Uyen – Cao Bang (45km)
Ban Gioc Waterfalls is right by the Chinese boarder, actually half the falls is in China. It was a lovely detour and I’m glad it broke up my journey from just going from town to town.
TL206 – A breathtaking road. Smooth and unspoiled by traffic. I actually enjoyed driving to the waterfalls more than the waterfalls itself. Similar to QL3, this road goes through the mountains, but it’s relatively flat. 5/5
QL3 – This section of the road consists of more turns and there’s also a dramatic increase of trucks. The last several kilometers into Cao Bang is pretty torn up, slowing things down. 3.5/5
Cao Bang to Meo Vac (177KM)
Today I drove. I wanted to push and save a day, as there isn’t much in between Cao Bang and Meo Vac. Luckily, the weather was on my side and it was sunshine all the way.
QL4A – Easy road out of the city. It’s also the start of winding up and down the mountains. 4/5
QL3 – This section is easy and mountainous. Some parts can get pretty steep though, but the view is pretty spectacular. 4/5
QL34 – The wrap around the mountains continue on this road. Our speed fell as the turns became more like hairpins.. 3.5/5
QL4C – The drive got better and better as we got closer to Meo Vac. This road takes you into the clouds, allowing for the perfect birds eye view into the valleys below. There’s still work to be done here though, as it was pretty steep in some areas and the corners carry on.
Driving into Meo Vac is another treat. The city is in a valley surrounded by mountains. It was a magnificent sight seeing these mountains open up to this town. 5/5
Meo Vac – Dong Van (22km)
After 11 hours of driving yesterday, I decided to take it easy today and only drive 22km. Considered by some as the best road in the country, the Ma Pi Leng Pass did not disappoint. It was absolutely breathtaking. It took me over two hours to drive 22km, just because I was stopping every 10 metres. Believe it, it’s that good!
QL4C – This section starts out flat and humbling between mountains. After a while it becomes a steady climb and the corners are sharp. Take extra caution when turning. Unlike other mountain passes, there’s no fake illusion of trees and vegetation on the side. You’re constantly at the edge of the cliff and the only things “stopping” you are small blocks of cement. You’ll want to drive slow anyways to soak it all up. 5/5
Dong Van – Yen Minh – Tam Son (96km)
All around Dong Van, the terrain is beautiful. It’s quiet and peaceful and unspoiled by tourism. But as we started making our way south, the roads and towns became bigger and more inhabited.
QL4C – Section leaving Dong Van – This was a hard road, not because it was bad and littered with pot holes, but because it was constant tight hairpins up and down the steep mountain. We worked our bikes and I’m glad they stepped up to the plate. 3/5
QL4C – Section leaving Yen Minh – The road changed for the better when leaving Yen Minh. There were still twists and turns, but they were more gradual and required less work and concentration.
The last several kilometres into Tam Son are newly paved roads with two lanes and motorbike lines. It was weird seeing something so sophisticated in the middle of no where. 4.5/5
Tam Son – Ha Giang – Quang Binh (133km)
With the main scenery sections of this loop behind us, we started to pound away at the miles. The roads started getting easier and the kilometres went by a lot faster.
QL4C – Section leaving Tam Son – The road was still a bit mountainous leaving Tam Son, but it soon straightened out and was fast riding for a large part of it. 4.5/5
QL2 – Section leaving Ha Giang – The road remained smooth and fast. There was traffic, but with two lanes it was easy to keep the speed up, while maneuvering around it. 4.5/5
QL279 – It’s like night and day when you turn onto QL279. From the smooth city driving to possibly the worst road ever. It was a fairly straight road, but the surface of this road is completely torn up. Some parts I wouldn’t even say it’s pot holes – it’s just not a road. Sh*t/5
Quang Binh – Lao Cai – Sa Pa (155km)
We had to make a stop in Quang Binh as we were running out of sunlight and patience. But the QL279 eventually ended and we made great progress to dreamy Sa Pa.
QL279 – Leaving Quang Binh – The nightmare continued this morning when we drove out of Quang Binh for an hour and a half. But the second we hit Lao Cai state, the sun shone upon us and we were welcomed into the new province with a beautiful, smooth road! Yay! There’s actually a hard line where the awful road ends and the amazing one begins.
The rest of this highway was fast and full of fun sweeping turns.
Sh*t/5 until Lao Cai. Lao Cai onwards 4.5/5
AH14 – Turning off the QL279 and onto AH14, we made quick progress. Note motorbikes aren’t allowed on the major highways like CT05. 4.5/5
QL4D – Leaving Lao Cai – Pretty much the entire way to Sa Pa was an uphill climb. The steep hill wasn’t much of an issue, but the worst part is the traffic. There are a lot of people going to Sa Pa and they all drive really, really fast. It was actually pretty scary driving up this road at times, especially when trucks try to pass each other at high speeds on your side of the road. Good thing it’s only about an hour. 2.5/5
This was one hella loop in Vietnam. We were pretty tired after driving for so many consecutive days, so after exploring Sa Pa, we put our bikes on the train in Lao Cai and “relaxed” all the way to Hanoi.
It’s pretty easy to take your motorbike on the train, but the motorbike price is flexible…The attendant simply named a price and we were expected to pay.
Also they drain your tank before putting your bike on the train. Just fill up a bottle and take it with you. Just don’t let anyone at the train station see you’re bringing a bottle of petrol on board or they’ll confiscate it.
I’d highly recommend this drive to anyone interested, as it was definitely the highlight of my trip in Vietnam.