Last updated December 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northern-most province. The mysterious landscape along the Chinese border – a mythical combination of conical limestone peaks and deep, craterous valleys – is probably the most striking in the country. Once considered the last frontier for adventurous travel in Vietnam, Ha Giang gained an almost legendary status among independent travellers. In recent years, visitor numbers have increased dramatically, and road conditions between Ha Giang, Dong Van, Meo Vac and Bao Lac have improved, making access to this remote part of the country relatively easy. With mountain passes hanging onto cliff-faces high above roaring rivers, and back-roads threading through forests of limestone pinnacles, it’s ideal territory for a motorbike road trip. Food, accommodation and ATMs can now be found throughout the region. Now is the time to ride the Ha Giang Extreme North Loop: before mass tourism arrives (which it inevitably will, especially as more travellers choose Ha Giang as an alternative to Sapa, which has suffered terribly from over-development) but after the completion of necessary infrastructure.
*IMPORTANT NOTE: from 31 October, 2018, it is now mandatory for all foreign riders in Ha Giang to have a Vietnamese license or International Driving Permit (IDP). Ask your rental company for further details.
GUIDE: THE HA GIANG LOOP
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 350km
- Duration: 2-5 days
- Route: Ha Giang-Tam Son-Yen Minh-Dong Van-Meo Vac-Du Gia-Bao Lac [MAP]
- Road Conditions: very mountainous paved roads, some rough sections, light traffic
- Scenery: limestone karsts, deep gorges, remote borderlands, minority villages
ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:
- SECTION 1: Ha Giang-Tam Son (Quan Ba)-Yen Minh: 100km
- SECTION 2: Yen Minh-Dong Van-Meo Vac (via Ma Pi Leng Pass): 70km
- SECTION 3: Meo Vac-Du Gia-Ha Giang: 180km
- SECTION 4: Meo Vac-Bao Lac (for Cao Bang): 75km
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
I’ve written this motorbike guide in 4 Sections. The main route (the blue line) is a loop: Ha Giang-Tam Son-Yen Minh-Dong Van-Meo Vac-Du Gia-Ha Giang. But I have also included several scenic side trips and alternative routes (the red lines). Another option is to forgo the loop by continuing southeast from Meo Vac down to Bao Lac in Cao Bang Province (see Section 4). The total distance of the main loop is 350km. You can complete the ride in 2 days, but the outstanding scenery is such that I recommend 2-5 days. Motorbikes can be rented in Ha Giang, but by far the best place is QT Motorbikes, who can also offer excellent route advice. Officially, foreign travellers still require a permit to visit this area. However, this is now just a formality, and travellers can simply buy the permit (200,000-300,000vnđ [$10]) when they arrive at their accommodation anywhere on the loop. Weather is best from March-May and September-October, when conditions are warm and clear, colours are bright, and rainfall is light. (It can get bitterly cold during the winter months.) Although most of the roads are now in pretty good condition, there are still some sections that are rough, under repairs, or suffer from landslides. In this guide, and on my map, I’ve included warnings of rough roads, as well as recommendations of places to stay and eat, and sights and excursions along the way.
The Ha Giang Extreme North Loop | 350km
Route: Ha Giang-Tam Son (Quan Ba)-Yen Minh | Distance: 100km [MAP]
Ha Giang, the provincial capital, is a likable city on the banks of the Lo (Blue) River which, despite its name, usually runs muddy and brown. It’s a comfortable place to prepare for the loop and, after the ride, to relax and recuperate. There are lots of good accommodation options on both sides of the river: Nguyen Trai Street on the west bank and Nguyen Thai Hoc Street on the east bank, which are connected by two bridges, one at either end. I prefer staying on the east bank because it’s close to cheap food options and there are plenty good guest houses (nhà nghỉ) and mini-hotels, some that are right on the riverfront (see below for details).
For budget rooms with river views try Thuy Tien Guest House (19 Nguyen Thai Hoc; Tel: 0913 271 248) which has balconies overlooking the river, or River Queen Guest House which has clean, new rooms, or the familiar Western Backpacker vibes of Ha Giang Backpacker Hostel, including dorms, or the Vietnamese backpacker vibes of Ong Vang Hostel, which has pod-like rooms by the river, or the fancier budget option of Tiamo Hotel. Other notable cheapies are Kiki’s House Hostel, Bong Ha Giang Hostel, and QT Hostel (owned by the excellent QT Motorbikes). All of the above run from $5-$15 a night, representing very good value for money. Another good choice, especially at the end of the loop, is to ‘treat yourself’ to the relative luxury of Truong Xuan Resort, which has bungalows in lush surroundings on the edge of town ($30).
On Nguyen Thai Hoc Street there are several good ‘common’ rice eateries (quán cơm bình dân) where you point and order. These offer decent, local food for around 30,000-40,000vnđ ($2) per person (for more about quán cơm read this). If you’re looking for a feast – especially when returning from the loop after a few days of ‘mountain food’ – try the big riverside restaurants on Nguyen Trai Street; on the right hand side just north of the second (northern) bridge. Here you’ll find local specialities, such as salmon hotpot (lẩu cá hồi), for which the region is famous. For breakfast, I have a soft spot for this local place at 31 Nguyen Thai Hoc. A good place to buy supplies for snacks and picnics on the road is Ha Giang’s big central market.
Take Road QL4C north out of Ha Giang towards Tam Son. It’s only a few kilometres before forested limestone mountains tower over you and irresistibly-blue rivers (depending on the season) run alongside the road. After 30km of winding through beautiful valleys, a rather cheap-looking gate announces your arrival at the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geo-Park. In case you didn’t get it the first time, there’s a sign on the hillside in giant Hollywood-style lettering with the park’s name in Vietnamese and English. The area was designated a UNESCO Global Geo-Park – only the second in Southeast Asia – in 2011. There are information boards by the roadside throughout the geo-park with (infuriatingly esoteric) details about the land formations in this region.
The road begins a long, snaking ascent up Heaven’s Gate Pass (one of several so-named mountain passes in Vietnam). The views back down over the meandering road are terrific. After crossing a treeless plateau, Heaven’s Gate Pass drops down into Quan Ba District and the town of Tam Son, nestled in a valley between dozens of limestone ‘molehills’. Near the top of the pass there’s a viewing point and information centre with a coffee shop, where various maps of the area are available. Climb the steps behind the cafe up to a small gazebo for unobscured views of the entire district. (Be very careful when riding Heaven’s Gate Pass: some of the twists and turns are tight and narrow, and local driving can be extraordinary dangerous and irresponsible. Take care.)
Despite its scenic location, the town of Tam Son (also known as Quan Ba) is a fairly prosaic place. Most people simply stop for some lunch at one of the roadside eateries and a drink at the popular Yen Ngoc Cafe, before continuing on the road. However, Tam Son does have a few places to stay on the main street, should you feel like stopping for the night. These include Kim Son Motel (Tel: 098 908 3222) and Van Duy Hotel (Tel: 097 479 8468), both of which offer decent rooms for around 200,000vnd. But a much better option for an overnight stop is the collection of homestays in the valley a few minutes southeast of town. Dao Lodge Nam Dam is superb and Ly Ta Danh Homestay is also good.
From Tam Son, continue on Road QL4C east down to the Mien River valley. Before reaching the valley, the road passes a pair of distinctively round hillocks, which someone imaginatively named ‘fairy bosom’. At the end of a series of severe switchbacks (affording yet more stunning views), the road crosses the Mien River, following its course north through a steep canyon. There’s something beguiling about this bamboo-lined river valley. Hamlets of wooden houses line its banks and naked children fish, play and jump from boulders into the sluggish waters. Before the road veers east, it passes the ruined fortifications of Cán Tỷ which, I’m told, are from French colonial times, although they look much older.
Another long pass climbs up through a pretty, cultivated landscape close to the Chinese border, before cresting at a cool pine forest. Descending the other side into Yen Minh District, you’ll see the limestone forests of the Dong Van Plateau in the distance, looking like the crenulated ramparts of a giant castle. Yen Minh is another small, dusty town in a basin surrounded by great limestone pillars. Although it’s not a particularly charming place to stay, it’s a convenient stop and the main street has a few hotels to choose from. Try Thao Nguyen Hotel (Tel: 0219 385 2297) or Hai Son Guest House (Tel: 0219 385 2091) for clean rooms from 200-500,000vnđ. Or stay a few minutes ride out of town at the quiet and lush Sinh Thai Guest House (Tel: 097 559 2624). Food is available on the high-street in the form of dozens of rice eateries (quán cơm) and there are a couple of cafes too.
Route: Yen Minh-Dong Van-Meo Vac (via Ma Pi Leng Pass) | Distance: 70km [MAP]
The 70km drive from Yen Minh to Meo Vac (via Dong Van and the Ma Pi Leng Pass) is perhaps the most remarkable stretch of road in the country. Road QL4C ploughs through a striking landscape of dramatic peaks and troughs, formed over millions of years by tectonic activity and the erosion of the limestone that defines this area. Limestone pinnacles rise and fall at regular intervals, creating the sense that one is in a stone forest. The shapes are so live and animated it’s as if the landscape were in fluid motion until it was suddenly petrified, like a frozen sea. The impression is of a mythical landscape equal to any Tolkienian novel or Chinese ink and wash painting.
Just as impressive as the topography are the ambitious roads that ride over and around this complex terrain. In the last few years, dozens of small paved lanes have been completed, criss-crossing the entire area. These offer tempting diversions, leading to isolated villages hidden deep in this strange landscape (see the red lines of my map).
The people who inhabit this region are predominantly ethnic minorities, particularly H’mong. For them, this rocky, treeless land offers little protection from the elements, and crops are limited because of the lack of fertile soil. Travellers who’ve come from Sapa, may find minority people in this region less forthcoming when compared to the business-savvy minorities in the northwest. However, children all along this route will skip and jump down the road screaming “‘ello” and occasionally putting their hands out for money. It might be a good idea to keep some small, nourishing snacks on you to offer these children as an alternative to money. One of the (many) problems is that, as the number of foreign travellers to this region has increased, many families have started to send their children onto the streets to ‘beg’ for money from these relatively wealthy visitors, rather than sending them to the local schools. Children may also pose for photos with foreign travellers and then ask for money. This is a dynamic which has made social interactions between foreign visitors and ethnic minorities in more touristy areas, such as Sapa, increasingly uneasy. It can be a difficult and confusing situation, and there are many different ways to think about it and to deal with it: do what you think is best.
A couple minutes after leaving Yen Minh, the road forks. From here, you can choose to ride the loop in either direction, but I have written this guide going clockwise on the loop, bearing left (due northeast) out of Yen Minh on Road QL4C towards Dong Van. A steep pass takes you immediately into the limestone karsts. Trees are noticeably absent from the rocky slopes, and there are no more terraced rice fields and fertile valleys. Instead, you’ll see acres of soy bean plantations, punctuated occasionally by clumps of sweet corn and stands of bamboo. Because there are no trees, the majority of structures are made of mud bricks or blocks cut from the limestone. Walled hamlets shelter in the tight clasp of conical hills, their shadows offering the only protection from sun and rain.
After cutting along steep, treeless valleys, the road winds up to what has become known as the ‘Nine-Turn Pass‘. A helter-skelter stretch of tarmac, this pass is a favourite photo-opportunity for road-trippers. From the top, you can see the road snaking down to a flat valley encased by limestone karsts. A little further on, a left turn (due north) offers the opportunity for a short side route, heading to the market town of Pho Bang and a remote Chinese border. This is worth it if you have the time, especially in October, when the purple, pink and white buckwheat flowers are in bloom. Otherwise, continue straight on, down into another incredible, martian-looking valley. At the bottom, there’s a little homestay village where you can spend a night in pretty-looking adobe and baked-brick homes.
After more glorious scenery, there’s another fork in the road at Sa Phin. For an interesting detour, bear left (due north) at the Hoa Da Guest House, onto a winding, scenic and remote road leading all the way to Lung Cu, Vietnam’s ‘North Pole’. A spectacular 45km loop (ending back in Dong Van), this is a popular pilgrimage for young Vietnamese groups, who make the trip on motorbikes from Hanoi, wearing red and yellow T-shirts with the Vietnamese flag and ‘I love Vietnam’ printed on them. On the way, the road briefly runs parallel to the Chinese border. The border appears fluid and unguarded: motorbikes cross over to China and back again, passing a sinister milestone with a black skull and crossbones next to a few red-painted Chinese characters. (Obviously, it’s not a good idea to attempt to hop across to China for a couple of hours.)
At Lung Cu, the ‘North Pole’ (entrance: 20,000vnđ) takes the form of a tall tower atop a small hill with excellent views across to China from the top. There are a couple of good homestays in the area, including the popular Ma Le Homestay, located between Dong Van and Lung Cu, and Lolo Homestay, which is 5 minutes west of the pole itself. Both offer cosy, very cheap, friendly, communal-style accommodation and food. These are good alternatives to staying in the increasingly tour-group-filled town of Dong Van.
If you don’t fancy the detour to the ‘North Pole’, take the right fork (due south, then east) at the Sa Phin junction to continue on the direct route (QL4C) to Dong Van. In a dramatic valley, just after the fork, there’s a small settlement clustered around a large stone building. This is the former palace of the H’mong king (entrance is a couple of dollars). Well worth a visit, this attractive stone and timber structure was built by the colonial French to keep the H’mong king happy (although I’ve been told several different stories about the construction of this palace). The H’mong king had a fearsome reputation and considerable wealth, gained from growing opium poppies in the area. The palace’s three stone courtyards and tiled rooftops look like a set from the Ang Lee martial arts movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Outside, there’s a local market selling seasonal produce: in the autumn there are walnuts, chestnuts and star anise for sale. The palace is signposted off the main road, down a steep lane leading into the valley.
The last 15km to Dong Van is an extraordinary ride through limestone pylons, each one casting a sinister shadow over the deep valley. The road is chiseled out of the mountains, gripping to the side of rocky cliffs. Sometimes there are no barriers; it feels like flying. But drive carefully, especially in the rain, because it’d only take a slight skid on a corner for you and your bike to plunge hundreds of feet into the valley. All along this road there are women and girls – from as young as 10 to as old as 80 – carrying heavy loads of wood, hay, and crops over their backs. The bodies of the older women have been permanently distorted, so that their backs are almost at right angles to their legs, even when walking unburdened. Before descending into Dong Van town, the main road (QL4C) is joined by the Lung Cu (‘North Pole’) road at Bui Homestay, which is a popular accommodation for Vietnamese backpackers.
Dong Van is a fairly dusty and relatively busy town that’s enjoying a significant boom thanks to growing interest in travel to the region. It is essentially the ‘Sapa’ of the Extreme North. The majority of travellers to Ha Giang spend at least one night here, making Dong Van the most touristy town on the loop, and there’s a distinctive backpacker vibe to the place these days. There’s a clutch of good places to stay and eat in Dong Van, and the town boasts two markets: a big market held on weekends (known as the ‘new market’) and a smaller night market held every evening (known as the ‘old quarter market‘). The Lam Tung Hotel is my pick of the hotels, boasting excellent rooms with balconies, and perfectly located between the ‘new market’ and the ‘old market’. Another good mini-hotel is Hoang Ngoc, and the recently opened Hoa Cuong Hotel is by far Dong Van’s biggest, plushest accommodation. Dirt cheap rooms, specifically aimed at budget Vietnamese travellers can be found along the west side of the old quarter on Pho Co Street. These style themselves as ‘homestays‘ – look out for signs saying: phòng nghỉ tập thẻ.
The phố cổ (old quarter), is where most of the action is. Originally a handful of picturesque old stone houses with tiled roofs, local authorities obviously recognized its tourist potential, because now a row of brand new ‘old quarter’ buildings have been constructed here. It’s quite tastefully done, with cafes and restaurants, some offering the mountain specialities of thắng cố and lẩu (horse meat and hotpot), and the night market held in the square here is a good place to while away an evening. For informal, cheap meals, rice and noodle eateries line Pho Co Street in the mornings and evenings. Decent cocktails (a rare treat on the Extreme North Loop) are served at the Green Karst Bar.
Saving the best until last, the final stretch from Dong Van to Meo Vac is a 22km ride along the Ma Pi Leng Pass, a staggering road clinging to the edge of a wall of limestone mountains, towering hundreds of feet above the craterous Nho Que River valley. If any mountain pass in Vietnam deserves the title ‘epic’ it’s this one. After a short climb southeast out of Dong Van on Road QL4C, the ground seems to fall away, and you’re left gasping at the enormous chasm below. For 15km the road carves a terrifying path out of the mountainside. Incredibly, farming continues on the near-vertical slopes below and above the pass. This deep, treeless valley has the acoustics of an amphitheater: you can hear the voices of children and bleats of goats from way down on the banks of the river, echoing around the mountains.
There’s a viewing platform about halfway to Meo Vac where you can find refreshments. A little further on, the twists and turns open up mesmerizing views over a vast landscape that appears to have no discernible ‘bottom’, because the levels are constantly changing. It’s enough to induce feelings of vertigo. A particularly popular photo opportunity on the Ma Pi Leng Pass is looking back across the valley, down into a narrow gorge created by the Nho Que River as it squeezes through the mountains. This is, apparently, one of the deepest gorges in Southeast Asia. However, it may soon lose some of its majesty, because a dam is being constructed downstream, which will lead to a rise in water-level. In good weather, this short stretch of road can take a couple of hours because the views are so superb. It’s a thrilling ride.
If you just can’t get enough of this incredible scenery, there’s a side route, leading down to the Nho Que River and off to a remote Chinese border, which you can take in order to extend the high road a bit longer. As the Ma Pi Leng Pass drops down toward Meo Vac, you’ll see an enticing little road wriggling around the mountainside on the opposite side of the valley. Turn sharply left (almost completely back on yourself) and roll down through a series of very tight switchbacks all the way down to the river. Here, there’s a makeshift bridge across the Nho Que River, from where the road continues to curl up the hillsides to China. However, after the bridge, road conditions deteriorate a bit and, as you get closer to China, you may find the police turn you back to the main road. But the excellent views make this easy side route a worthwhile detour.
Meo Vac sits in a sheltered basin, bathed in blue shadows cast by the ubiquitous, looming limestone karsts. Meo Vac is my favourite town on the loop: if you only stay in one of the main towns make it Meo Vac. It’s small and manageable: quiet in the daytime but pleasantly bustling in the mornings and early evenings. There’s a good market, a new night market, plenty of accommodation, and the location – at the eastern edge of the loop – lends it a certain far-flung ambience.
For budget beds, I like the spotless, large rooms at Linh Anh Guest House (63A1 To 2; Tel: 094 817 4669; 200,000-400,000vnđ), or try Mr Hung’s Backpacker Guest House, or the pod-style lodgings at Ong Vang Hostel. Of the dozens of other good-value mini-hotels, Mai Dao and Huyen Loi, near the western edge of town, are both decent, and Meo Vac Hotel is right in the centre of town. However, for some of the most atmospheric lodgings in the entire region, check out the Auberge de Meo Vac (Tel: 0219 387 1686). A small boutique accommodation housed in an old H’mong family home, with a beautiful stone courtyard and adobe walls, the Auberge has dorm beds on the floor (300,000vnd) or private rooms (from $50). But book ahead, because they can only accommodate about a dozen guests. One thing I’ve found to be lacking on all my visits to Meo Vac is good food. There are street-side barbecues opposite the market, and several OK rice eateries on the west side of the market. For breakfast, there are cheap fried egg baguettes (bánh mì) in front of the market. Coffee is surprisingly decent at the cafes around the main square.
From Meo Vac there are a couple of interesting side routes to explore, either as round trips or one-way (see the red lines on my map). For example, Road DT217 heads steeply out of town, via a good viewing gazebo, and leads southeast to the market town of Khau Vai and then down to the banks of the Nho Que River as it crashes through yet another rocky gorge. Khau Vai is famous for its annual ‘Love Market’, which takes place in the spring. However, this has become a massively touristy affair, so it’s best to ride this very scenic side route at any other time of year, when it’s virtually empty. It’s possible to continue on Road DT217 from Khau Vai to Bao Lac, in Cao Bang Province, although parts of the road are quite rough (see Section 4 for details).
Another side route is to loop from Meo Vac back up to Dong Van on road DT182 (marked in red on my map). This road sees hardly any traffic or foreign travellers. Passing through a dry, tree-starved landscape dominated by conical peaks and dotted with tiny settlements, the route offers an insight into how farming works in such a harsh region, and how difficult it must be to sustain a living on this land.
Route: Meo Vac-Du Gia-Ha Giang | Distance: 180km [MAP]
From Meo Vac, there are several ways to complete the loop back to Ha Giang. Whichever route you choose, it’s another spectacular ride through karst scenery. The simplest route back to Ha Giang is to leave Meo Vac on Road DT182 (also marked as DT176) heading west towards the Mau Due crossroads. This ‘lower road’ passes through a stark, rock-strewn limestone valley with some death-defying sections of mountain road, before looping back to Yen Minh after bearing right (due north) at Mau Due along a pretty river valley. From Yen Minh simply retrace your outward route on Road QL4C back to Ha Giang. At 150km, this is the shortest option back to Ha Giang.
However, another alternative is to extend this return route by adding a highly recommended and scenic southern excursion to Du Gia. At the Mau Due crossroads, bear left (due south) onto Road DT176. This is an extraordinary road leading up a seemingly endless pass over a chain of high, jagged limestone peaks, then down the other side through pine forests and mysterious valleys, before the final breathtaking descent into an idyllic valley where the tiny hamlet of Du Gia offers a handful of good homestays (see below for details). Road conditions between Mau Due and Du Gia are mostly fine, but there are a few rough, rocky sections.
Stay at the Du Gia Homestay (the most authentic option; Tel: 0165 772 0252), or QT Guest House (the cleanest option; Tel: 097 527 8711), or Du Gia Backpacker Hostel (the most western-friendly option), all of which offer cheap, communal dorms sleeping on mattresses on the floor under mosquito nets in wooden stilt homes, with good family-style meals. There are lots of activities nearby, including swimming in the river, fishing, and hiking which can be arranged through your accommodation. Of all the stops on the loop, Du Gia is the least-visited, but if anything this area is even more spectacular than the rest. Some travellers end up spending days exploring Du Gia.
From Du Gia there are several options for completing the loop back to Ha Giang. However, road conditions may determine which one you choose. Heading south on DT176 to meet QL34 at Na Sai is the shortest route, but in reality it’s a long and difficult ride because road conditions deteriorate badly on DT176, meaning this route may be best avoided. The most scenic option is to head back several kilometres north of Du Gia on DT176 and then turn left (due west) on DT181, which leads all the way back to Tam Son (see the red line), then connecting with QL4C back to Ha Giang. This is almost the perfect loop, but for a couple of short, terrible sections of extremely rocky road surface. With a good, all-terrain bike you won’t have a problem, and even experienced riders on any standard automatic or semi-automatic bike should be OK, but if you’re not a particularly confident rider, these rocky sections can be dangerous and difficult so, sadly, it’s best avoided. This leaves the third, final, and easiest option from Du Gia back to Ha Giang: retrace DT176 back to the Mau Due junction, head due north on DT182 to Yen Minh, and then rejoin QL4C all the way back to Ha Giang, thus completing the Extreme North Motorbike Loop.
Route: Meo Vac-Bao Lac (for Cao Bang) | Distance: 75km [MAP]
The Extreme North Loop doesn’t have to be a loop. In the past, Meo Vac was the end of the road (well, the end of the good road), so it was necessary for most travellers to head back to Ha Giang. These days, however, you can forgo the loop altogether by continuing southeast from Meo Vac to Bao Lac, in Cao Bang Province, and then linking up with the Northeast Loop.
There are two separate routes heading southeast from Meo Vac down to the Gam River valley: roads DT217 and QL4C. The former is the continuation of the Khau Vai side route from Meo Vac (see the red line), but this route suffers from unpredictable road conditions. Just south of Khau Vai village, Road DT217 crosses a bamboo raft ferry over the Nho Que River and continues on the other side all the way down to Bao Lac. However, the road conditions around the rivers were quite bad at the time of writing so, unless you have a good off-road bike, it’s probably best to take the other route (QL4C) from Meo Vac to Bao Lac instead. At some points along DT217 you might be forced to dismount the bike and nurse it across waterways that have flooded the road.
Road QL4C leads south of Meo Vac, passing more gorgeous valleys and descending a scenic pass to the Gam River. For the most part, this route is in good condition, but there are a couple of rough sections near the Nho Que River. However, I’d expect these to be finished by the first half of 2018. Road QL4C crosses the Gam River and ends at Ly Bon, where it joins QL34. Turn left (due east) towards Bao Lac. It’s usually significantly warmer and lusher in this valley than up in the higher lands around Meo Vac. QL34 is a beautiful route along a rich, fertile valley. But the road is cut out of steep slopes, so in rainy weather landslides are common. What’s more, there are currently (2019) major road works on the stretch of QL34 between Ly Bon and Bao Lac, so ride very carefully.
Bao Lac, where several rivers converge, is a natural rest stop for travellers going between the Extreme North and the Northeast. There are a couple of decent places to stay on the riverfront and plenty of food and drink. I like Thuy Duong 2 Hotel (Tel: 096 442 0802) and Duc Tai Hotel (Tel: 0919 835 866), both with rooms overlooking the river and town for around $10. A popular choice for backpackers is Viet Hoang Guest House (Tel: 020 637 0879). There are rice eateries and cafes on the dusty main street, and there’s even a couple of cocktails available at Tri An Cafe & Bar. Bao Lac has a decent market, which is at its busiest in the mornings. From Bao Lac it’s a straight shot on Road QL34 all the way to Cao Bang City, or south from Nguyen Binh on Road DT212 to Ba Be National Park. To find out more about continuing east to Cao Bang Province, take a look at my Northeast Loop guide and my High Roads guide.