Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Motorbike Loop

Last updated December 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Sapa and Sin Ho are two towns high up on the slopes of the Hoàng Liên Sơn Mountain Range, known in French colonial times as the Tonkinese Alps. Sapa is a famous mountain retreat, enormously popular with Vietnamese and foreign tourists. Sin Ho, on the other hand, is hardly ever visited by travellers. These two highland towns are connected by lofty mountain passes, affording spectacular views over a landscape on a scale not found anywhere else in Vietnam. Rent a motorbike from Sapa and spend a couple of days on the Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Loop; you’ll be rewarded with some of the grandest alpine scenery in Southeast Asia.

Scenery on the road to Sin HoMajestic: the Sapa-Sin Ho Loop takes you through some of the grandest landscape in Southeast Asia

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GUIDE: SAPA-SIN HO SCENIC LOOP


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 320km
  • Duration: 2-4 days
  • Route: a round-trip between Sapa & Sin Ho on mountain passes [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: good mountain highways & back-roads, some rough patches
  • Scenery: the Tonkinese Alps: valleys, mountains & rivers on the roof of Indochina

ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:

  • SECTION 1: Sapa to Lai Chau (via road QL4D): 70km
  • SECTION 2: Lai Chau to Sin Ho (via Phong Tho): 115km
  • SECTION 3: Sin Ho to Sapa (via road 4D cũ): 135km

ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

I’ve written this guide in 3 sections, going anti-clockwise on the loop, but you can drive it in either direction. The total distance is 320km, but I’ve also included an optional side loop which would add another 80km to the total distance. Note that each section doesn’t necessarily correspond to one day on the road. You could ride the entire loop in 2 days. However, the roads are steep and windy so progress is slower than in the lowlands, and the scenery is superb so you’ll want to stop regularly to admire the views. 3-4 days is perfect. Weather and time of year are important considerations on this loop. Landslides are a common occurrence after wet weather and can block roads for hours or even days. Unfortunately, weather is very hard to predict in this area and conditions can change very suddenly all year round. The good news is that most of the roads on this loop are now either in excellent condition or in the process of being upgraded. April-May and September-October are the best months to go: the weather is warm(-er) and the terraced rice fields are a good colour. Below is my full guide to the Sapa-Sin Ho Loop, including a description of the route, suggestions of places to stay, eat and see, and my annotated map.

The road to Sin Ho, Lai Chau, northern VietnamThreading through the mountains between Sapa & Sin Ho in Vietnam’s stunning northwest region


ROUTE MAP:

Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Loop | 320km


View in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 1:

Route: Sapa to Lai Chau (via road QL4D) | Distance: 70km [MAP]

Head west on Road QL4D from the mist-shrouded town of Sapa. The first few kilometres getting out of Sapa can be pretty grim these days, because of potholed, mud-streaked, traffic-clogged, and construction-choked roads. Eventually, however, the road clears and passes a couple of pretty waterfalls (Silver Falls [Thác Bạc] & Love Falls [Thác Tình Yêu]) before reaching the top of the Tram Ton Pass (also known as O Quy Ho or Heaven’s Gate), Vietnam’s highest mountain road at 1,900m (6,230ft). You’ll know when you get here because, if the weather is clear, you’ll see the pass snaking around the mountains below you. Even in misty conditions you’ll know you’ve arrived because it’s significantly warmer on the pass than in Sapa: the pass is both a climatic divide and a provincial one, marking the border of Lao Cai and Lai Chau provinces. There are a few makeshift, rickety-looking viewing platforms by the roadside offering stupendous vistas.

Tram Ton, Vietnam's highest passThe spectacular Tram Ton Pass is the highest road in Vietnam: it’s a wonderful ride

The impressive, crenelated ridge to the south is Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s highest peak at 3,143m (10,312ft). Its looming presence bears down on the pass, casting a cold shadow over the road. Deep down in the valley indigo rivers forge paths over large boulders. Fansipan is so big that it dominates the scenery all the way to Lai Chau.

The Tram Ton Pass winds down through more pristine alpine scenery and past the Dong Tien Son caves to Tam Duong town. It’s not much of a town – although its new multi-lane high-street would suggest otherwise – but if you need a rest there are a couple of good accommodation options and food stalls along the main road. Putaleng Hotel has excellent rooms for about $20, or cheaper digs can be found at Tan Sinh Guest House. Continue northwest on Road QL4D for 40km to Lai Chau (perhaps detouring to take a quick look at the impressive Tac Tinh Falls, just behind Tam Duong town). If you’re visiting during September or October look out for some absurdly pretty valleys of terraced rice fields about 10km before descending into Lai Chau. This is the kind of scenery that brochures promise Sapa will offer, but in reality you have to travel a little further afield to find sights like this….


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Terraced rice fields near Lai ChauScenes like this await you on the road to Lai Chau if you visit in late summer to early autumn

Lai Chau city is a brand new concrete creation in a remote valley surrounded by pyramidal peaks. It consists largely of grandiose government buildings, wide empty boulevards and depressingly vacant public spaces. On a wet, cold day Lai Chau is a painfully soulless place to be, but on a bright day it can be quite appealing. The scale of infrastructure and architecture are not in proportion to the population or significance of the city, but over the last couple of years local life has started to inject some character to this somber provincial capital. Thus, Lai Chau makes a convenient overnight stop. There are decent-value guest houses (‘nhà nghỉ‘ in Vietnamese) and hotels on the main road (30 Tháng 4 Street). Try Binh Long Hotel (2 Tháng 8 Street | tel: 0213 2488 488) or Hà Nhi Hotel (30 Tháng 4 Street | tel: 0213 6250 999) for cheap, clean rooms. Or you could ‘splash out’ ($30) on the Muong Thanh Lai Chau Hotel, which has balconies with views over the town and tea plantations as well as a (often dirty) pool. The area around the lake has some good bánh xèo (Vietnamese savoury pancakes) and ốc (snails and shells) joints in the late afternoon/evening. Or meat lovers should try the roast suckling pig (lợn quay) at Quán 25 (62, 30 Tháng 4 Street). For good coffee head to Gateway Cafe (305 Tran Hung Dao Street).

Lai Chau City, northern VietnamLai Chau is a fairly soulless town, especially in bad weather, but it’ll do for a night

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SECTION 2:

Route: Lai Chau to Sin Ho (via Phong Tho) | Distance: 115km [MAP]


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From Lai Chau continue northwest on Road QL4D toward the town of Phong Tho. This section of road is in very good condition and passes over high mountains before dropping down into a valley. Eight kilometres before reaching Phong Tho, there’s a turning due north for Muong So. This is the beginning of an optional and scenic side loop. The total distance of this detour is around 70-80km. The scenery is very mountainous, heavily farmed with terraces of rice and corn, and dotted with minority hamlets. There are a couple of local guest houses in Muong So, including the clean, simple and friendly Gia Bao (0976 677 999). Alternatively, continue on QL4D to Phong Tho, where there are more hotels and plenty of local rice eateries. By far the most atmospheric of the places to stay in Phong Tho is the Lan Anh Hotel (0989 673 888), a timber, tile and concrete structure built around a verdant courtyard. After Phong Tho the road turns back on itself, becoming QL12 and heading southwest along the Nam Na River valley. The road is in good condition, and it’s a quiet, easy stretch of riding through a pleasant valley all the way to the Nam Cay/Chan Nua junction.

Road QL12 from Phong Tho, Lai Chau Province, VietnamRoad QL12 from Phong Tho is a pleasant, riverside ride on a good, quiet highway

Nam Cay/Chan Nua is less of a town and more of a country junction. There’s a guest house (nhà nghỉ) here called Hưng Tâm (Tel: 0948 943 643) if you feel like staying the night, and some local food is also available. At the junction turn left (due east) on Road TL128 for the impossibly scenic and steep ride to Sin Ho. In good weather this route is exceptional. Cutting a path in the mountainside, the single-lane road zig-zags up for 40km to the isolated mountaintop town of Sin Ho. The views over ridges, farmland, ethnic minority villages and clear rivers are superb. Every time I ride up here I have a grin on my face the whole way, constantly stopping and gazing in disbelief at the landscape. The road conditions are pretty good for most of the climb, but landslides are a regular occurrence, so expect some extended patches of earth, mud and potholes. If it’s been raining a lot, it may become quite slippery.

wonderful scenery around sin hoJaw-dropping: the scenery on the road to Sin Ho is simply staggering

Just when you think it can’t possibly get any better, the road snakes through a series of switchbacks until it bears northwards, thus opening up astonishing views down to the Nam Na river valley and far beyond to the distant mountain ranges straddling the border with China. It’s a breathtaking ride.


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Big landscape, road to Sin HoTiny hamlets cling to mountainsides outside Sin Ho, blue ridges disappearing into the distance

Like Sapa, Sin Ho is often engulfed in mist and drizzling rain. The town is a bit scruffy and feels very remote. But, as with every town and city in Vietnam, upgrades to public spaces are beginning to make Sin Ho feel more welcoming with each year. Built on a small plateau, at an altitude of over 1,000m (3,300ft), Sin Ho is very cool, especially in the evenings. Ringed by limestone pinnacles and surrounded by minority villages scattered over the mountainside, this town has huge tourist potential, but as yet very few travellers make the trip.

Showers pass across Sin Ho plateauSin Ho is subject to very changeable weather, making the landscape mysterious and brooding

Try to time your visit to catch the Sunday market. Busiest between 8am-11am, Sin Ho market receives hundreds of minority women dressed in their various colourful clothing. They make the journey by foot (sometimes starting before dawn) in order to buy (not sell) supplies for the week ahead. Unlike Sapa market and the horrendously touristy Bac Ha Market, where minority people are more likely to be seen selling to foreign and Vietnamese tourists, Sin Ho market is the real deal. This means there’s no hassling to buy trinkets and garments: most of what’s for sale is fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and practical equipment for use in the villages. Sin Ho market is noticeably calm and unhurried compared to other, more famous, minority markets in the region.

Ethnic minority girl, Sin Ho Market, northern VietnamA girl from one of Vietnam’s many ethnic minorities shops at Sin Ho’s Sunday market


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Sin Ho has a smattering of local cơm phở (rice and noodles) joints, particularly around the main square, and there’s a new bakery opened, called Thanh Nam. The town has an increasing number of budget places to stay, mostly in the form of nhà nghỉ (guest houses). However, by far my favourite place to stay is the Phuc Tho Hotel (0213 3870 186). Just a 30 second walk from the market, this is a relatively large hotel run by a sweet older couple. Rooms have balconies looking over town and the main square. Rooms are basic but clean, including hot water showers: 200,000-600,000vnđ for 2-6 people sharing. If, for some reason, you don’t like the Phuc Tho Hotel, there are several other decent accommodation options, including the Hong Hoa Guest House (o1687 271 123) and the Thai Binh Hotel (02313 870 366). But perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the cheapest) option is Ba Sanh Homestay (01649 434 628). On the southern edge of town, Ba Sanh offers dirt-cheap digs (a couple of dollars) sleeping in a communal room, but the real attraction is the Dao minority-style hot herbal baths. Costing just a few dollars (for staying or outside guests) these medicinal baths might be just what you need after a long, wet, cold day riding the mountain passes.

Unusually sunny, Sin HoTown in the clouds: Sin Ho sits on a plateau surrounded by high peaks

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SECTION 3:

Route: Sin Ho to Sapa (via road 4D cũ) | Distance: 135km [MAP]

The 60km descent on Road TL128 from Sin Ho back down to Lai Chau is just as beautiful as the ride up. As the road emerges from the mist, which on most days engulfs the town of Sin Ho, a vast landscape opens up beneath you: endless mountains stretching into the distance and craterous valleys dotted with stilt-home villages clustered around clear streams. However, there are some short but treacherous sections for the first 10km out of Sin Ho, where maintenance work is ongoing and landslides cause the surface to be muddy and slick. Take your time and take care on this section, especially in wet or damp conditions.


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About a third of the way down to Lai Chau, there’s a junction with a turn off to the right (due south) to Nam Tam. Although this looks like an appealing road to take, I was told that road conditions were bad. (If you want to go to Nam Tam, approach from the north via Lai Chau instead, as this road is good and scenic.). As road DT128 drops further, through very dense jungle, with the city of Lai Chau visible in the valley, take a short break from riding in order to visit the caves of Pu Sam Cap.

Descent, Sin Ho to Lai ChauMore wonderful and expansive views on the pass down from Sin Ho to Lai Chau

Back in Lai Chau take the alternative route (road 4D cũ) to Tam Duong. To get there turn right (due southeast) at the Ha Nhi Hotel on Dang Van Ngu Street. This is a pretty, quiet route through limestone karsts and extensive tea plantations. It’s almost exactly the same length as taking the main road (QL4D). From Tam Duong, rejoin QL4D and retrace your route back to Sapa via the Tram Ton Pass.

Road 4D cũ, Lai Chau to Tam Duong, VietnamRoad 4D cũ (the alternative route from Lai Chau to Tam Duong) is a lush, quiet route through farmland

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173 Responses to Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Motorbike Loop

  1. Eugene says:

    Just finished the whole loop, with the long detour to the north. Again, great write-up and guide, really appreciate the time you put in it. A few notes. I should have taken your advice and spent the night in Lai Chau, but I thought it was early enough and continued to Muong So. The 3 guesthouses in that village are perhaps the worst accommodation values I’ve seen in Vietnam so far. Yes, they are cheap-ish (200-250K), but for rooms with no windows or really, really basic. Nobody speaks a word of English or even really bothers with tourists at all – it’s not a village that cares for tourism. Moreover, there are hardly any food options after 8pm, so just something to keep in mind for anyone deciding to stay here.

    Continuing on the northern detour from Muong So, it is actually really really easy to miss the turn off from DT132 to the secondary route to complete the loop. There is no signage of any kind, so you really have to keep checking your map every 5-10 minutes or so. I carried on DT132 for about 40 minutes towards China until I finally realized I veered way off the loop. Is it worth doing the detour? I thought so – some decent views there (although nothing like on the Y-Ty loop or south of Sin Ho), and you are not going to see any other tourists at all. But if you are strapped for time, it’s OK to skip it.

    The best section of the whole Sapa-Sin Ho loop is the 30km or so before you reach Sin Ho from the south. The road condition is decent despite the occasional construction patches. But yes, north of Sin Ho is another story – the road is as bad as it was when this guide was written. Passable, but utterly unenjoyable.

    Sin Ho market is a nice place to watch the different minority people. It’s a really small market, actually, and no farm animals except an odd chicken or a puppy, unlike the others, but on the plus side, you are likely to be the only foreigner there. Sin Ho is an agreeable town to spend the night, and I concur, the Dao baths at Ba Sanh are the highlight of the whole trip and well worth the 100K they charge for them nowadays. Watch out for the little boy peeking in your bath room though!

    Doing this loop in early winter means you are going to pass through bright sunny skies warranting a t-shirt and bone-chilling, foggy, drizzly conditions (usually closer to Sapa), so my advice – bring layers! And something reasonably waterproof for the outer layer. Otherwise, a great motorcycle trip easily doable in 3 days total. Thanks!

    • Hi Eugene,

      Glad you enjoyed the route – I think it’s one of the most spectacular in the north.

      Thanks for the road updates – it’s a shame they haven’t made any progress with that section of the road north of Sin Ho – they’ve been repairing it for years now.

      Thanks,

      Tom

      • Young Lee says:

        Just went past the road north of Sin Ho today- no construction vehicles in sight at all, guess they gave up repairing it already…

        • Strange. I’m sure they’ll be back 🙂

          • María Rios says:

            Hi Tom!
            I am planning on doing this two day loop in a couple days. Do you know where the best place to rent a bike in Sapa is? Also, what is the approximate end time of the loop on the second day? Trying to see if I would make it to the overnight train. Thank you!!!

            • Hi Maria,

              Try contacting Flamingo Travel – they have recently opened a new shop in Lao Cai/Sapa.

              I think you probably could make the overnight train, but it’s best not to rush this route, because bad road conditions or bad weather can slow you down. So I wouldn’t commit yourself to catching the train on the same night.

              I hope this helps,

              Tom

  2. Ignotas says:

    Hello, thank you for an awesome guide. Maybe someone knows if the road works north of Sin Ho are complete? Thank you

    • Hi,

      I had reports from last month that the road conditions coming from the north to Sin Ho on road DT128 are still quite bad for the last 10km. And going due south from Sin Ho on road DT128 there are still some rough patches caused by landslides and road works.

      Tom

  3. Roberto says:

    Great guide as usual.

    What route would you suggest for the trip from Hanoi to Sapa?

    • Hi Roberto,

      It’s a fairly long ride from Hanoi to Sapa and the first couple of hours involve getting out of the capital and industrial suburbs, which isn’t very fun. After that, you can either take QL70 along the east side of the Red River or head through the mountains on QL32. The former is faster, but the latter is more scenic, including Mu Cang Chai.

      However, it’s also a good option to put your bike on the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai instead.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  4. Hugo says:

    November 2018 update : Just finished the loop. Did Lai Chau – Nam Tam – Sin Ho with a night in Sin Ho.

    1/ The road between Lai Chau and Nam Tam is in excellent shape with really nice vistas.

    2/ Once in Nam Tam we chose to take a completely offroad option : https://goo.gl/fSM4uQ instead of the regular road between Nam Tam and Sin Ho. This isn’t a road, it’s a dirt and gravel track, which takes a long time. The scenery is incredible and there is absolutely no one around. Easily passable in dry months, just a very slow ride. There’s a shop/place to eat in the middle of the road at some point. The last 10km of that road are incredible. A small paved road snaking up through thick vegetation, absolutely beautiful.

    3/ The road south of Sin Ho is in good state. Bui Sanh Homestay in Sin Ho is the perfect place to stay. The family is very welcoming, food is good, herbal baths are awesome and you can even get a massage at the homestay. Definitely recommend it.

    4/ North of Sin Ho, the road is being rebuilt and is in terrible state in many places. They are in the process of widening the road but that will take some time. Again, no problem in the dry season, might more complicated with rain.

  5. Lulu says:

    UPDATE JULY 2018

    Hello Tom,
    We just finished the loop, did the whole side loop also, didn’t take the side road past Nam Tam though, since it looked pretty bad still.

    I wanted to make an update on the road DT128 heading to Sin Ho from the South; it has been raining a bit in the past few weeks, so there’s been alot of landslides, and the road is bad and horribly muddy. Parts of the road were broken down the valley, and we had to walk some of the mud sections, or you would fall down from the bike. There were also construction work cars blocking the way, so it takes quite long to get up the mountain.

    The road down to Lai Chau is still in work and partly muddy, but not half as bad.

    • Hi Lulu,

      Thanks for the road updates. Yes, I’m sure those roads suffer major landslides during the heavy rains. On the bigger roads they’re usually cleared within days, but on the smaller ones it can take a long time.

      Tom

    • Peter Link says:

      I cycled this road from Lai Chau to Sin Ho today but at one point a Vietnamese lady pointed out to me that the road was not passable due to landslide. I didn’t want to get stuck in this remote area so I took an alternative route. One of the reasons for my decision was that there seems to have been massive landslides at the end of June near Sin Ho. Is the road passable?

      • Hi Peter,

        Yes, there have been big landslides in Lai Chau this summer, including most recently in early August. But it’s highly likely that any landslides affecting road QL4D will have been cleared as soon as possible because it’s a major transport road, but landslides on the smaller road from Lai Chau to Sin Ho are likely to take more time to clear.

        Good luck,

        Tom

        • Laith says:

          Hello all, Tom man, your site is awesome, thanks a lot, I have been referring to your routes quite often throughout my trip. Just wanted to update you and readers that I was on DT128 today from Lai Chau to Sin Ho and 35 kms out from Sin Ho the road is closed due to landslides and road repair. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise the “closed road” notice and read it as you exit Lai Chau because it was all in Vietnamese 🙁 However, while driving the same way back to spend the night in Lai Chau, I saw a huge truck transporting a huge tractor so work is beginning to clear the road but I don’t know about the timeframe.

          • Hi Laith,

            Thanks for the update, that’s really useful information. There’s been some pretty heavy rain in Lai Chau this year so I expect the landslides will take a while to clear, but it’s usually possible for motorbikes to get through pretty soon after the tractors and earth movers arrive.

            Tom

  6. Baptiste says:

    Hi Tom,

    We have just finished The Ha Giang northern loop, and thanks for all your tips and yoir map.

    Now we are planning The Sapa- SinHo loop, and we would like some advice about the best shop to rent a 125cc manual motorbike, Yamaha or Suzuki.

    Thanks a lot.

    Baptiste & Solène

    • Hi Baptiste & Solène,

      Do you mean a place to rent bikes in Sapa? If so, I can’t recommend a specific place there, but you will find lots of rental outlets in Sapa.

      Good luck,

      Tom

      • maria paz rios says:

        Hi Tom,

        I am planning on doing this two day loop, and was wondering where is the best place for a manual motorbike rental in Sapa. Also, on the second day, around what time would one be back in Sapa? Trying to figure out whether I’d make the overnight train. Thanks!

        • Hi Maria,

          Try contacting Flamingo Travel – they have recently opened a new shop in Lao Cai/Sapa.

          I think you probably could make the overnight train, but it’s best not to rush this route, because bad road conditions or bad weather can slow you down. So I wouldn’t commit yourself to catching the train on the same night.

          I hope this helps,

          Tom

          • Maria says:

            Thank you! I’m planning on doing it tomorrow and finishing it in two days. Do you think doing Sapa-Lai Chau-Sin Ho , and sleeping in Sin Ho is too ambitious? / how long do you think it would take? If it is too ambitious, where do you recommend I stay overnight? Thanks!

            • Hi Maria,

              If you leave early and road and weather conditions are good then you can make it all the way to Sin Ho in one day, but it would be a full day’s ride. You can stay in Sin Ho or in Lai Chau or Phong Tho. See the information on this page for accommodation recommendations in all those places.

              Tom

  7. Rachel T says:

    Hi, we are deciding between this loop and the Ha Giang loop. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Rachel,

      It depends on your time and onward travel plans, really. The Sapa-Sin Ho loop is shorter and onward travel from Sapa is pretty easy. The Ha Giang Loop is longer and Ha Giang city isn’t as well connected as Sapa. They are both great rides.

      Tom

      • Rachel T says:

        Hi Tom,

        Thanks very much for the reply! We will probably do the Sapa-Sin Ho loop because Sapa is better connected than Ha Giang.

        Thanks,
        Rachel

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