First published November 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS
North of Sapa, the dramatic mountainous landscape which you can see (on a good day) from your Sapa hotel window, continues all the way to the Chinese border. Several small roads penetrate deep into steep, terraced valleys and climb high above ferocious rivers, swollen with cold mountain water, to remote minority villages, where a handful of homestays offer basic accommodation for a night. Creating a scenic loop, starting and ending in Sapa via the hilltop hamlet of Y Ty, this short, easily-navigable road trip is a great escape from the increasingly grim and touristy mountain town of Sapa. Either bathed in a warm, sharp highland light, shimmering over the ripe rice terraces like a halo, or covered in a cold, haunting, Dickensian fog, so thick it induces feelings of claustrophobia, the Sapa-Y Ty Loop is a rewarding way to spend a day or two in the saddle, especially as an extension of, or alternative to, the Sapa-Sin Ho Loop.
GUIDE: SAPA–Y TY SCENIC LOOP
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 195km
- Duration: 1-2 days
- Route: a mountainous loop north of Sapa via Y Ty & the Chinese border [MAP]
- Road Conditions: paved back-roads, some extended bad sections, light traffic
- Scenery: mountains, rivers, rice terraces, minority villages, remote borderlands
The Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Loop | 195km
View in a LARGER MAP
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
For experienced riders (and with an early start), the Sapa-Y Ty loop can be completed in one day. However, two days is much more comfortable and also gives you a chance to stay at one of the several homestays along the way. Although it’s possible to ride this route in either direction, I recommend going clockwise on the loop, starting from Sapa. There are two ways to complete the Sapa-Y Ty Loop. Either as a literal ‘loop’ (see the blue line on my map), coming back via Lao Cai on road QL4D, or as a ‘P’-shaped loop, coming back via road DT158 from Bản Vược to Bản Xèo (see the red line on my map) and then retracing your outward route back to Sapa on road DT155 and QL4D. Whichever you choose, the total distance is as near as makes no difference 195km.
Bear in mind that this is a very mountainous route, and, like all highland regions in the north, the roads are subject to landslides, especially after heavy rains. At the time of writing (November 2017), about 70% of the roads were in good condition. But a 40-50km section, starting from at least 10km south of Y Ty and continuing all the way A Mu Sung, was pretty rough, but passable (see map). However, this section is in the process of being upgraded, so I expect conditions to improve within a year. Just after passing through Muong Ham the road is often flooded by the river, so it may be necessary to take the short alternative route (marked in red on my map) to go around it. Motorbikes can be easily hired in Sapa; try asking at your accommodation to begin with. Weather is always difficult to predict in this region, but spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are probably the best months for warmth, light, and colour.
There are at least half a dozen different homestays (often with the local ethnic minority group, the Dao) on roads DT155 and DT158 between the turn off from QL4D all the way to Y Ty. (Be warned that north of Y Ty until Bản Vược there is no official accommodation at all.) Most of the homestays can be seen, or are signposted, from the road. In general, the homestays on this route offer simple bedding (mattresses on a wooden floor under mosquito nets in a communal dorm room) and home-cooked meals. Prices for sleeping are rarely more than a few dollars (100,000vnd) per person, and meals usually run between 100,000-200,000vnd per person. In addition, many of the homestays offer ethnic Dao herbal baths (tắm lá thuốc người Dao). For the names, locations and contact details of some of the homestays on the Y Ty Loop see the markers on my map.
If you’re lucky and the weather is good, then the scenery on the Y Ty Loop is fabulous. The grandeur and scale of the mountains and valleys of the northwest is unmatched anywhere in Vietnam. The rice terraces are higher, steeper, more dramatic, and less crowded (if you avoid weekends) than the more famous terraces of Mu Cang Chai. However, such is the weather in this region, that you may find it difficult to see more than a few metres in front of you. But, even in the mist, cold and rain, there’s still a sublime bleakness and majesty up on the high passes. North and east of Y Ty, the road is much less-travelled, following the Chinese border (formed by the Red River) for much of the way. The large border city of Lao Cai is a much more interesting place, with a far more local atmosphere, than Sapa, although it does lack the mountain vistas of the latter. There are lots of budget accommodation options around the train station (including the spotless Kim Cuong Hotel), or good-value mid-range hotels, such as the Sapaly (right next to the China border gate), or Lao Cai’s newest, fanciest hotel, the Aristo International.