Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang

Tu San Canyon Boat Trip | Ha Giang

First published May 2024 | Words and photos by Joshua Zukas

Joshua Zukas

Joshua is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. A freelancer whose body of work focuses primarily on travel & architecture, Joshua covers Vietnam regularly for Lonely Planet, Michelin Guide, Insider, Ink Global & many of Asia’s top inflight magazines. He also writes intermittently for publications such as The Economist, Wallpaper & Interior Design Magazine. He holds an MSc in sustainable tourism….read more about Joshua


The Mã Pí Lèng Pass is a meandering ribbon of road that connects the mountain settlements of Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc in the northern province of Hà Giang. Coiling around limestone peaks many hundreds of metres above the turquoise Nho Quế River, this 23km-long stretch is, for some, the climax of the Hà Giang Loop, a road trip route that is fast becoming one of Vietnam’s most popular adventure trips. As with Vietnam’s other natural hotspots, if you linger a little longer you can dodge the crowds and take the time to lose yourself in this scenically dramatic corner of the country. One way to go ‘off road’ is to leave your vehicle behind and hike the Sky Path, a cliff-hugging pathway soaring above the pass. Another is to board a tour boat and glide through the Tu Sản Canyon section of the Nho Quế River. This 60-90 minute boat journey offers a different perspective on the topographical drama of the region; scenes that are far removed from the roads, construction and crowded viewpoints of the Mã Pí Lèng Pass.

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang, Travel Guide
Tu Sản Canyon, Nho Quế River, Hà Giang Province

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TU SAN CANYON BOAT TRIP


Boating on a Sweeping Waterway below the Mã Pí Lèng Pass

This guide details how to explore the Tu Sản Canyon, a short and narrow stretch of the Nho Quế River. As of November 2023, an organised boat tour was the only official way to get out on the water. Kayak, paddle board and other private boat and water sports operators are not permitted, though this may change in the future. While this means that the Tu Sản Canyon is not as intrepid as it once was, it is probably safer and cleaner, and it remains extremely picturesque, particularly at the Hẻm Tu Sản (Tu Sản Alley) an abnormally slender segment and popular selfie spot. This guide begins and ends in Mèo Vạc, the closest town to the canyon, but it would also be possible to detour to the river while journeying between Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc. It assumes you’re travelling with your own transport (motorbike, bicycle or car).

The Tu Sản Canyon boat trip is one of the few Hà Giang activities that is safe and enjoyable in almost any type of weather. Even when the province is chilly, rainy and foggy (quite possible in January and February), the canyon is an atmospheric place, albeit in a subdued, moody and almost spooky kind of way. The only time that boating on the river is not recommended is during storms and heavy rain. It may also not be a good idea to take the boat tour during public holiday weekends when Hà Giang is busy with vacationing Hanoians and you might have to queue (you cannot book ahead). Bring water, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, money for the entrance ticket and perhaps some drinks and snacks for the journey. Note that the ticket office is open from 7am to 6.30pm, but you’ll need to arrive by 4pm at the latest to avoid driving back in the dark. [For more Hà Giang guides see Related Posts.]

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Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Travellers posing for photos on a boat tour through Tu Sản Canyon

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Tu Sản Canyon | Hà Giang

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Tu Sản Canyon Boat Trip

How to do it: boat tour | Time: 60-90 minutes by boat | Entry: 120,000/60,000vnđ

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Leave Mèo Vạc and drive north towards Đồng Văn on QL4C, a straight, decent road with light traffic flanked by simple eateries, cafes and a few guesthouses. This is a good opportunity to load up on snacks if you want them for the boat trip. Immediately after Làng H’Mông Pả Vi, a counterfeit, commodified and distasteful mountain “village”, take a right on road 193A. This narrower mountain road climbs briefly before descending to the river. It offers sweeping views at times, but it is full of potholes so take it slow and be cautious of trucks coming from the hydroelectric plant down below.

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Road 193A leads from the Mã Pí Lèng Pass down to the Nho Quế River

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Tu Sản Canyon seen from the Mã Pí Lèng Pass

Eventually you’ll reach the Du lịch Hẻm Tu Sản visitor centre and ticket office. Park your vehicle in the respective parking lot where there is a guard who, in theory, looks after your vehicle and luggage. If you have valuables, it might be wise to take them with you or leave them at the visitor centre. The journey from Mèo Vạc should take about 30 minutes, plus any shopping and photo breaks.

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
The visitor centre & ticket office for boat trips

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
A bowl of noodles with a view of the Tu Sản Canyon

Buy your ticket (120,000vnd for adults; 60,000vnd for kids under 1.2m) in the garish orange visitor centre and a green electric buggy will soon whisk you off to a dam, an eyesore or a sight, depending on your penchant for hydroelectric engineering projects. From here, walk 200 metres on a concrete path that hints at the views to come. You’ll soon reach the small marina, where a fleet of motorised longboats awaits. They depart only when full. This is a popular activity with a steady stream of Vietnamese travellers, so you shouldn’t be waiting long before your boat fills up. Each one takes 18 passengers or so. Unfortunately, these boats come equipped with a speaker that plays music throughout the journey and also offers karaoke. If the idea of this puts you off – and your group is big enough to justify the extra cost – consider trying to commandeer your own boat when buying your ticket at the visitor centre. This won’t stop noise interference from passing boats, but at least yours will be quiet.

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Green electric buggies take visitors from the ticket office to the boat marina

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
It’s a short walk from the buggy stop to the boats

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Dozens of boats at the marina. (Boats leave when full)

After a kilometre or so, you’ll reach the Hẻm Tu Sản (Tu Sản Alley), an especially narrow section of the river. This makes an excellent photo backdrop, an opportunity probably not lost on your fellow Vietnamese travellers. (Indeed, taking a photo here has become somewhat of a rite of passage.) The boat will stop, giving enough time for everyone to get a photo with the hẻm, before squeezing through this narrow waterway and making an about turn ready for the return journey.

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
View of the Nho Quế River from a boat

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
The hẻm is the narrowest part of the canyon – popular for photos

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Gazing down at Tu Sản Canyon from the Mã Pí Lèng Pass

After you pass back through the hẻm, your boat will stop at a café on the river’s southwest bank. Here you can order from a basic menu of drinks (coffee, sugarcane juice, beer and soft drinks) and food (instant noodles and other ultra-processed snacks) and enjoy near-panoramic views of the river from artfully positioned elevated platforms. This peaceful interlude might be the highlight of the whole trip and you can stay as long as you like; once done, simply hop on the next departing boat (it doesn’t need to be the same one that brought you). After arriving back at the marina, get on an electric buggy that will take you back to the visitor centre. Retrieve your vehicle from the parking lot and return the way you came.

Tu San Canyon, Ha Giang
Tu Sản Canyon, Nho Quế River, Hà Giang Province

*Disclosure: Vietnam Coracle content is always free and independent. Joshua has written this guide because he wants to: he likes the Tu Sản Canyon and he wants readers to know about it. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page

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