When exploring the north the Ha Giang Loop is by far the most popular one, but Cao Bang with Ban Gioc waterfall and Pac Bo cave becomes a more interesting destination for motorbike trips. With enough time both the Ha Giang Loop and Cao Bang Loop could be combined for a great trip to the far north of Vietnam.
Coming from the Ha Giang province the best option is to head towards Cao Bang from Meo Vac, as it is closest to the other province, and the route covers some nice scenery. Adding the route to a north Vietnam trip would be worthwhile.
I would suggest taking two days for the approximate 200km, with an overnight stay in Bao Lac (or as alternative in Tinh Tuc). From Cao Bang the same route can be used to head to Meo Vac – though an alternative route will be highlighted as well.
Part 1: Meo Vac – Bao Lac (~75km)
The first part of this route will cover an interesting mix of harsh looking scenery, to stunning valleys, little villages and rice fields before reaching one of the largest towns in the region Bao Lac.
From Meo Vac follow QL4C southward, which is the main road passing the stadium to your right and head into the mountain. Initially the road is flanked on both sides by harsh looking rock formation, with one or two little valleys open up. However, after a few km the interesting scenery turns into something stunning. The road suddenly follows the side of a hill, and a large valley full of rice terraces opening up. The first glimpse you get is just great, and seeing the road ahead you can’t help but look forward to the next stretch. It is a nice road to ride – just be careful with the occasional potholes. And to make things even better – the scenery becomes even more stunning. rice terraces is beautiful. Seeing that view during harvest time must be amazing.
After the initial valley a larger one follows, and another one after that. You really can stop in this area a few times. The contrast of the trees, plantation and rice terraces is beautiful. Seeing that view during harvest time must be amazing.
After a while the lovely road heads down into the lovely valley filled with rice fields, streams and villages where you can see adults working and kids playing. This is one of the places that looks like a picture you have in mind when thinking about Vietnam.
After valley the road is climbing up the hills again, following a stream to your right. After around 30km the road becomes a bit more rough, with gravel and potholes covering it. Ride carefully here as you could be unlucky getting a puncture here. While the road follows the little stream you will ride through some little minority villages with little shops and even garages. The people in that area are very friendly. If you have a puncture here, they will help you as much as possible. It happened to me in that area, and it turned out to be one of my favourite area of my trip.
Around 40km from Meo Vac you will enter the Cao Bang province – announced by a large sign. The highlight on the first stretch in the new province is riding on a ridge between two valleys and the little village of Khuoi Vinh with a few stalls on both side of the QL4C road. This is a good stop for a little break. Food and water can be bought here – and the local will watch you with curiosity and a smile. If you are lucky / unlucky you might be even invited for a corn wine while sitting next to the road.
From the village the next 10 kilometres the road was winding up between mountains like a snake, getting higher again, offering some nice views, passing little houses next to rice and corn fields, belonging to different minority tribes. Some villages had wooden longhouses, others had beautiful red tiles. It is nice to see the differences. You will also pass a construction site for a larger dam being build – even here in the far north progress is happening. After another bad stretch of road you will finally cross a large bridge and you reach the QL34 highway, connecting Bao Lac with Ha Giang Town. At the crossing is a litle village with several food places and cafes. This village is not as nice as the previous one, but good enough for a coffee.
The QL34 is in excellent condition, and the last 10km to Bao Lac will be a comfortable ride along a river and little villages. The scenery is not spectacular as before, but still nice.
When reaching Bao Lac look out for signs for the hospital, as this will indicate when turning left off the main road – otherwise it will lead you around the town.
Bao Lac is the largest town in the area. It is located next to the river, and you can see some mills along the river, with plenty of rice fields surrounding the villages. The area around the town is certainly beautiful. Here are some details about Bao Lac, including accommodation and places to eat.
If you arrive very early in Bao Lac and you feel ready to ride another 60km, you could consider continue with the journey to stay overnight in the little village of Tinh Tuc.
Part 2: Bao Lac – Cao Bang (~125km)
The second part of the journey will be an interesting mix of some stunning mountainous roads and some relaxed ride on a well paved road to enjoy a proper motorbike ride – that will end in the final destination Cao Bang.
From Cao Bang head back to the QL34 and follow the main road south. The road initially rides nicely along some streams, passing some rice fields and streams before it ascended slightly, higher and higher into the mountains again – but not without offering some great views over green valleys and beautiful little villages, with little streams going through the fields and village. Especially when the sun is out the contrast of the colours is just beautiful.
After a stretch of the road overlooking some valleys with terraces filling the slopes you will enter a plateau where the road was cutting through, seeing houses left and right. This is actually an area where you can easily slow down to watch rural life in Vietnam – locals working on the fields and water buffaloes enjoying wading through some cold water, with the red roofs showing another contrast to the green rice fields.Some of the views are just like images of postcards you have seen from Vietnam – thinking they do not exist. Well, they do here!!!
After the plateau the road went up again, the road winding along the hills, with valleys dropping down on your other side. if you arrive in the afternoon you might feel that it gets colder here, as you will reach the highest point of the road. The point is actually a little village with a crossing of the QL34 and a road leading to one of the other villages like Phieng Na.
At this point it is like being in another world. You will suddenly ride on a very impressive mountain road (mainly in good condition with some exception) winding along the side of the mountains, right – left – up – down, a valley with drops of hundred metres or so on your side. The views are just stunning, able to see peaks of mountains and limestone karst in the far distance. Down the valley you can see plenty of rice terraces, single houses and villages dotted around, and little streams flowing between them. Sometimes you will pass sections where bamboo trees are growing high on both sides – making it look like riding through a tunnel. And to add to the atmosphere you see locals working on the fields, or guiding buffaloes along the street – and many will just wave at you when passing. This section is just breathtaking. If you cannot enjoy riding this road you should not ride a motorbike at all.
After 60km from Bao Lac you will pass through a little village Tinh Tuc, the biggest place on the QL34 between Bao Lac and Nguyen Binh and maybe the most beautiful village in the area. The colourful houses are all build along the slopes of the mountain, some seemingly hanging over the slope. I would highly recommend to stop at least at the cafe Ghiai Khat located on the main road. And if you have not stopped in Bao Lac this is a great alternative for an overnight stay – as there is a guesthouse. Here are more details of the village.
After Tinh Tuc the road continuous to ride along the mountains, with more great views on offer. After a few kilometres the road started to descend, so make sure the brakes of the bike are working properly. Arriving down in the valley you have reach Nguyen Binh, a town connecting the low lands of Cao BAng with the highlands. if you need a place to stop for a market, this it is, as you will pass the local markets. When you reach it, turn left and follow the road out-of-town.
The remaining 50 km towards Cao Bang is on a nice paved highway in good condition. You will pass more villages and fields, though you will only have a fe ascends and descends, as the road was mainly flat. It is a nice road to ride the bike, but scenery wise not on par with the sections before (you really get spoiled here!!!).
Soon enough you will turn from the QL34 into the QL3 and reach the outer part of Cao Bang with a dual carriageway. To find the area with hotels stay on the road, and when reaching a large roundabout, take the first exit, and at a larger crossing with traffic lights turn right. Stay on that road until you see a bridge on your left at a small roundabout. Head over the bridge and you reach the tourist area. Here are more details of Cao Bang – and the starting point of the Cao Bang Loop.
Alternative: Cao Bang – Nguyen Binh (75km)
If you leave Cao Bang for Meo Vac the easiest route is the one highlighted above. However, you have to pay attention, as at some point the main road will either go straight ahead into an area with trees on both sides, or a right onto another main road. The right way would be to turn right onto QL34, however, it is easy to be convinced that staying on the road is the right decision. Unfortunately this is still road QL3 leading to Hanoi. If you get onto that road you do not need to turn back, as there is an alternative route that brings you to Nguyen Binh.
So follow the road, which is winding around hills, a valley constantly on either side of you, sometimes on the right side, then on the left side – and trees everywhere. It all looks very peaceful. After nearly 35km, before a little village called Deo Cao Bac, is a statue on your right side, and a little road appears on your right around a sharp corner. This little road is leading over the valley that separates QL3 and QL34, and leads to the village of Hoa Tham.
The little road was ascending quite a bit, and soon enough you were on top of the hill, riding a ridge, with valleys full of trees on both side – offering a drop of more than hundred metre. At the initial stretch of the road there is hardly anyone, except maybe some water buffalos. Not any houses. It really has a remote feel to it. Soon the road is winding around the hills, with some very interesting serpentine. After 10km it feels like being back in civilisation, as houses and rice fields appear again. The scenery becomes warmer, and soon you ride through a valley passing villages and the typical lush green of rice fields on both sides.
After nearly 30km the road ends and you turn right onto a large road with more nice views of typical Vietnamese scenery (be careful when riding through the villages, as little chicks and ducklings will cross the street without warning!!!). The road will eventually brings you to QL34, just turn left and you are in Nguyen Binh and can follow the above description to Meo Vac.
- For the route Cao bang to Meo Vac follow the same description. Consider the detour via QL3 if you feel a bit adventurous.
- It is possible to ride the 200km in one day if you leave Meo Vac / Cao Bang early enough. Though a two-day trip is more relaxed and offers you the chance to include a few photo stops.
- While Bao Lac is larger and offering better tourist infrastructure, Tinh Tuc offers some thing more special. Even if you do not want to stay overnight here, a stop here is worth it.
- When arriving in Cao Bang for the loop, I would stay the first night there, and start the loop early the following day
- If you do the Ha Giang Loop first you could head from Meo Vac to Cao Bang, and the return the same way to Meo Vac to cover part 4 to Yen Minh and Ha Giang. As an alternative for the return trip stay on the Ql34 from Cao Bang instead of turning onto QL4C. This will lead you directly to Ha Giang.
- If you do Cao Bang first you could either start the Ha Giang Loop in Meo Vac with part 4, followed by part 2 and 3 and back to Cao bang without visiting Ha Giang. Or you head first to Ha Giang via the QL34 from Bao Lac and do the Ha Giang Loop in the order as described.
- For my personal experience of the Cao Bang – Meo Vac trip visit my blog entry from May 2016
- For my personal experience of the Meo Vac – Cao Bang trip visit my blog entry from May 2016