The High Roads: Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang

Last updated December 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


The roads linking the three northern provinces of Ha Giang, Cao Bang and Bac Kan travel through some of the most spectacular and remote regions of Vietnam. The landscape around here is extraordinary: many travellers consider this their favourite place in Southeast Asia. Connecting two of the most scenic motorbike routes in the country (the Extreme North Loop and the Northeast Loop), a handful of incredible mountain roads corkscrew their way through a complex terrain of steep valleys, limestone karsts, and raging rivers. There are several different route options for riding between Ha Giang, Ba Be Lake (in Bac Kan Province), and Cao Bang; all of which are stunning, but none of which are particularly straightforward. In this guide, I’ve mapped three routes that connect the extreme north with the northeast.

Ha Giang-Ba Be Lake-Cao Bang, road trip, VietnamThree spectacular (but unpredictable) routes lead over the mountains from Ha Giang to Cao Bang

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  • Total Distance: 360km/370km/310km
  • Duration: 1-3 days
  • Route: three scenic routes linking Ha Giang with Ba Be Lake & Cao Bang [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: back-roads & mountain highways, rough sections, light traffic
  • Scenery: limestone karsts, mountains, deep valleys, jungle, terraced rice fields, minority villages



The map below shows three alternative routes between Ha Giang, Ba Be Lake, and Cao Bang. The Classic Route (the blue line) is the most popular and easiest to follow; the Border Route (the red line) is the most remote and least travelled; and the Ba Be Lake Route (the green line) is a combination of rarely used roads and national highways. The purple lines are connecting roads between the three routes, so you can mix and match as you please to create a route that suits you best. Although all of these routes are extremely scenic, they’re not necessarily easy to ride. The difficult, mountainous terrain, and frequent bad weather, mean that road conditions often deteriorate, resulting in treacherously muddy sections. What’s more, roadworks to upgrade and maintain these routes are ongoing. I’ve marked sections of rough road as best I can on my map. But, when riding any of these routes, take note of recent weather conditions (heavy rain, for example, can lead to serious landslides which can block roads for hours or even days), and try to ask locals or other riders you meet about current road conditions. Below, I’ve written a brief description of each route. For accommodation, there’s at least one mini-hotel or local guest house (nhà nghỉ) at each of the places marked with a red pin on my map. (For more details about accommodation in Ha Giang and Cao Bang see my Extreme North and Northeast guides.) Any time of year is good, but the heaviest rains occur during the summer months (June-August), and it can be bitterly cold during the winter months (December-February). Although any of these routes can be completed in one (long) day, the winding roads make riding a lot slower than you might expect. Alternatively, you can turn this into a scenic round trip by connecting the upper, lower, and middle routes and making a loop.


Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang | 3 Routes

Blue line: 360km | Red line: 370km | Green line: 310km

View in a LARGER MAP

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The Classic Route:

BLUE LINE: Ha GiangMeo VacBao LacCao Bang: 360km [MAP]

Starting out on the famous Ha Giang Extreme North Loop via the limestone landscapes of the Dong Van Karst Plateau, the Classic Route then heads southeast from Meo Vac on road QL4C down to the Gam River Valley. Out of Meo Vac there are some fabulous views over a vast and sparsely populated landscape. Although mostly upgraded, parts of the southern half of QL4C to the Ly Bon intersection with QL34 are still undergoing repairs. However, these should be finished by the time you read this. After crossing the bridge at Ly Bon, turn onto QL34 due east towards Bao Lac. Ly Bon is at the confluence of the Nho Que and Gam rivers, and the ride to Bao Lac affords some picturesque views of riverine scenes. However, there are currently (2019) major road works on the section of QL34 between Ly Bon and Bao Lac, so ride very carefully. Bao Lac has plenty of guest houses if you need them.

Road QL4C between Meo Vac & Bao Lac, VietnamRoad QL4C between Meo Vac & Bao Lac offers some extraordinary views over rice terraces & mountains

From Bao Lac, continue southeast all the way to Cao Bang city, via the mining town of Tinh Tuc and Nguyen Binh (both of which have a couple of nhà nghỉ guest houses). It’s a long ride to Cao Bang, and, although the scenery is superb (particularly around Tinh Tuc), the road conditions to Nguyen Binh are unpredictable. Expect a few rough patches, potholes and, if there’s been rain, landslides. Between Tinh Tuc and Nguyen Binh, there’s an intersection with a turning due south on road DT212 to Cho Ra: use this excellent back-road if you want to go to Ba Be Lake. If not, continue east along the meandering QL34 to Cao Bang City.

Road QL34 between Bao Lac & Cao Bang, northern VietnamRoad QL34 southeast from Bao Lac to Cao Bang has some rough patches but the scenery is excellent

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The Border Route:

RED LINEHa GiangMeo VacBao LacPac BoCao Bang: 370km [MAP]

After following the Extreme North Loop from Ha Giang to Meo Vac, head southeast on road DT217 towards the famous ‘Love Market’ of Khau Vai (usually held in April). This meandering road soars over a limestone plateau before descending sharply through Khau Vai village and down to the banks of the Nho Que River. Road conditions deteriorate severely before crossing the river on a bamboo raft ferry and continuing the other side. From here, it’s a twisting ride over barren mountains (with incredible views) all the way down to Bao Lac in the Gam River Valley. The road surface is very inconsistent on this section, and it may prove challenging for riders on automatic motorbikes. Bao Lac has a few local guest houses if you need to stay the night.

Road DT217 between Meo Vac & Bao Lac, Ha Giang Province, VietnamRoad DT217 winds up the hillside leaving Meo Vac & then heading southeast to Khau Vai & Bao Lac

Follow the Gam River east of Bao Lac on an as yet unnamed road. This road is currently the talk of many riders in Vietnam. Hugging the Chinese border for much of its length, the road passes through some extremely remote landscapes. As if the fabulous scenery weren’t enough, the road itself is quite a sight. A narrow asphalt lane, it’s full of contortions and knots; constantly switching back on itself as it negotiates the difficult terrain. Just look at it on the map: it looks like the path of an agitated dragon, shifting violently from left to right, as if trying to shrug an assailant off its back. One pass in particular is breathtaking: Ascending what is essentially a vertical wall of rock, the road passes 14 (by my count) consecutive switchbacks. I call this the ‘Roller Coaster Pass‘, although it has recently been named đèo Mẻ Pia on Google Maps. And while we’re randomly namely things, let’s call this unnamed road the ‘Agitated Dragon’.

The unnamed (Agitated Dragon) road between Bao Lac & Pac Bo Cave, Cao Bang Province, VietnamLooking down on one of the 14 switchbacks of the ‘Roller Coaster Pass’ on the ‘Agitated Dragon’ road

And so, the Agitated Dragon continues east along the Chinese border (with some extended rough, gravelly sections in the middle) until it hits the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208), just south of Pac Bo Cave. (To visit the cave – which is well worth it – turn due north on road DT208 for 10km). Turn onto the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208) and ride its smooth course south for 40km to Cao Bang city.

Pac Bo Cave, on the Chinese border, Cao Bang Province, VietnamPac Bo Cave on the Chinese border is a fascinating historical sight in a beautiful natural setting

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The Ba Be Lake Route:

GREEN LINEHa GiangDa ViBa Be LakeCao Bang: 310km [MAP]

This southerly route between Ha Giang and Cao Bang, via Ba Be Lake, can be joined at any point along road QL34: you don’t necessarily have to begin it on QL34 right out of Ha Giang city (see the purple lines on my map for connecting roads with the green Ba Ba Lake route). This route comes in two halves: the first half passes through lovely landscape on QL34 along the Gam River Valley; the second half, from Ba Be to Cao Bang, is a smooth ride mostly on QL3 through fantastic mountainous landscape.

Terraced rice fields between Ha Giang & Cao Bang, northern VietnamThe southerly route between Ha Giang & Cao Bang, via Ba Be Lake, passes particularly lush scenery

Take QL34 east out of Ha Giang along the very pretty Gam River Valley. This section of road was in poor condition for years, but now (2019) is in much better shape. Eventually you’ll reach the intersection with road DT176 heading south to Da Vi. This is an isolated, beautiful road: a narrow paved lane slicing along valleys and over mountains. It’s a gorgeous ride in good weather, but again you will have to contend with some pretty awful road conditions. In dry weather it should be OK, but if there’s been heavy rain it’s likely to cause landslides and mud pools. Take a look at the photo below to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Having said that, the bad patches are short (but difficult), and if you have a decent bike, it shouldn’t be any problem.

A muddy section of road, DT176 to Da Vi, VietnamSome sections of QL34 & DT176 can be very tricky conditions, but the bad patches are generally short

DT176 ends at the small village of Da Vi, on the edge of a giant reservoir. It’s a very off the beaten path place, but there’s a nhà nghỉ guest house here if you need it. From here, bear east onto an unnamed road leading over some spectacular mountains and through dense jungle all the way to the crossroads near Ba Be Lake. To go to the lake and the homestays on its southern shores, turn due west. Otherwise, take road QL279 east towards Cho Ra village, where there are several guest houses. From Cho Ra, it’s a lovely, lush ride to the intersection with QL3 at Na Phac. National Highway QL3 is a great road ploughing through marvellous scenery all the way to Cao Bang city.

Ba Be Lake, Bac Kan Province, northern VietnamStay at one of the homestays on Ba Be Lake before continuing on the excellent road QL3 to Cao Bang

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80 Responses to The High Roads: Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang

  1. Steve says:

    Hi, just wondering the best route to take from Ba Be Lake back to Ha Giang? I was hoping to break that into 2 days and stay somewhere overnight? Is Viet Quang the only option? If I took DT176 from Da Vi and headed north to join up with QL34, are there any homestay around halfway to stay at? Thanks

    • Tom says:

      Hi Steve,

      There’s a local guest house (nhà nghỉ) at Da Vi or you could continue a bit further west to lòng hồ thủy điện Na Hang where there’s a lake and some accommodation. Otherwise, your best bet is probably along QL34.

      I hope this helps,


  2. richard hancock says:

    Hello Tom ,
    Firstly thanks for the website : )
    me and my wife are coming to ha giang in early april and plan to do a mixture of the routes youve given.
    i have a Garmin 610 montana which i use for trail riding in the uk / wales which i find works really well .
    I plot the tracks on basecamp and upload to the unit . the shop i bought it from supplied me with a custom sd card of northern vietnam which is open source ( not 1:50,000 os that we get here )
    Planning has been good but ive run into a problem , we really want to do the border route from bao lac to pac bo cave ( deo me pia ) route .
    Unfourtunatley the open source is incomplete and has a section missing in the middle whereas youre map looks very accurate , given the remotness of the road i want to feel really confident navigational wise before we set off from bao lac.
    ive downloaded google maps that can be used offline which im assuming is what youre maps based on ?
    can i plot a route to follow offline like the map you have ?
    would qt bikes ( or anywhere else ) in ha giang have an accurate paper map of that route that i could mark over ?
    any help or suggestions would be very helpful , it looks an amazing route .
    lastly how long in distance is it from bao lac to the pac bo cave turning ?
    and though were not rushing at all how long would you expect it to take please ?
    were 2 up on a honda xr150.
    thanks again richard

    • Tom says:

      Hi Richard,

      You should be fine with a saved Google Maps on your phone. You’ll probably get reception up there anyway – get a local sim card in Vietnam, and try to get a Viettel sim because they tend to get the best coverage in the northern mountains.

      Most people export the maps from my site (which are made using google maps) to KML file then upload that to the app on their phone.

      If you’ve been riding before and have a decent sense of direction, it shouldn’t be too difficult to follow the route, and local people are always helpful if you need it.

      I would estimate the distance between Bac Lac and Pac Bo on that route to be around 80km – but the road is very twisty (and beautiful) so it takes at least 2-3 hours.

  3. Gaston says:

    Hi Tom and thank you for your detailed work here!
    What would you recommend for first time travellerers to NE Vietnam east of the Ha Giang loop: QL 4c or DT 217? Thank you; Gaston Switzerland

  4. richard hancock says:

    Hi Tom , what a great website thankyou : )
    Me and my wife are coming to ha giang in April and are renting a honda xr150 from qt bikes.
    We have 11 full days and a half day to return the bike on .
    Im getting an idea of a route from here and on my map i just wondered if you could give me a rough idea of whats realistic in that time frame , were thinking 100 to 150km a day .
    So far im thinking ha giang , yen minh , dong van , meo vac , bao lac , tinh tuc , cao bang , ban gioc waterfall then retrace to cao bang then ba-be -lake .
    im really not to sure what to do from here and roughly how long the previously described route would take us at that kind of pace .
    Any suggestions would be really appreciated , thankyou richard
    Also im really tempted to ride the 217 from meo vac to bao lac , i ride dirt bikes at home a lot but my wifes not so sure ha ha : ))

    • Hi Richard,

      For road 217, if you have suitable bikes and some experience with riding off road, it should be fine. Although if it’s been particularly wet when you get there, the mud can be treacherous and landslides are likely.

      100-150km is a very nice pace – when it comes to these scenic, mountainous areas the journey is often the goal (it’s not necessarily about the destination). So that means relatively short distances like 100-150km is about right because you’ll have time to enjoy the ride, stop regularly for scenery, and still arrive at your destination with plenty of daylight left.

      11 full days should be enough to ride the route you are planning – and it’s always possible to adjust your plan when you’re out there on the road.

      From Ba Be back to Ha Giang you can follow any of the three routes outlined in the guide on this page above. But another option is to take road 279 due west all the way to Highway QL2 and then take that north back to Ha Giang. However, if you do this, note that half way along 279 when the road splits (the upper is a yellow road, the lower is a white road) take the lower white road, because there are reports that the upper yellow road is rough for that section.

      I hope this helps,


      • richard hancock says:

        thats really helpful Tom thankyou ,
        what would you say fuel availability is like on the route in general ? any areas to be wary of running out ? hopefully the xr150 should be pretty good.
        thanks richard

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