The Road Less Travelled
The North East loop region is less traveled than the North West and Ha Giang regions. As such, you will find it much quieter and less developed. The scenery is beautiful Karst and the long border with China means that there is quite a diverse mix of cultures. There are also lots of military sites from the campaigns against the French and Chinese as well as waterfalls and chances for off-road riding.
All together compelling reasons to go eastwards and get away from the crowds.
North East Loop Route Map
Day 1: Hanoi - Lang Son (160km, 4hrs)
This is a good distance to drive on the first day but the road is good and fast so it is manageable for most. For those who wish to see a little more, there is the option to visit the peak, Mau Son. This adds another 30km to the route.
The last 10km of this route is uphill, winding and great fun. At more than 1,500m, this is one of the few places in Vietnam that it is possible to see snow.
Day 2: Lang Son - Cao Bang (130km, 4-5hrs)
This is one long stretch along the historic highway 4A built by the French during their occupation. You are now out of the plains and fully in the mountains. Southern China to your right, you will travel through small limestone outcrops. It is slightly peculiar but very scenic and the route is fairly calm of traffic. Closer to Cao Bang the road turns into a more winding and fun road to drive.
The alternative route will lengthen the journey by some 40km but get you on to the less-used route. If you stayed on Mau Son, then it would be wise to go direct and perhaps vice versa. Cao Bang can be used as a base to get to places such as Ban Gioc, Pac Bo or Thang Hen. This is useful in terms of getting the washing done but does mean you have to do ‘out and backs’.
Day 3: Cao Bang - Ban Gioc Waterfall (80/100km, 3-4 hrs)
There are several routes that will take you to Ban Gioc Waterfall. The main route is a good road and fast. The other routes are in variable condition and but take you through even quieter areas. They also allow you to see some sights that are off the main road.
The falls itself is quiet on the Vietnamese side but the Chinese side always seems to be busy and is much more developed. There are homestays and hotels here so it is possible to stay overnight.
Day 4: Cao Bang - Pac Bo (50km, 1.5/2hrs)
There are two routes to Pac Bo. The first is the main road and it is quite direct and easy to drive. There is not much traffic on this road. Taking this route will get you there fast and allow you to spend a lot of time looking around. There isn’t much to eat in Pac Bo so it would be a good idea to take something along unless you plan to stop on the way.
The second route is longer and takes you up to the border crossing Tra Linh. This is a busy route for obvious reasons; however, you then turn off to take the DT210 which is not too bad. Then you need to take the DT208, which is more adventurous.
Day 5: Cao Bang - Ba Be (130km, 4/4.5hrs)
The QL34 is our preferred route for this leg of the trip as it is quieter and note much slower than the QL3. You will find yourself winding your way through small towns and over some huge hills. This area is known for its tea hills, salmon and rose flower farms.
In some places when the cloud is low you will find you are engulfed in one corner only to escape into clear blue skies on the next. It can be eerie at best.
Once you hit the 279 you will be on flatter, faster, busier road and make quite good time to Ba Be. Here you can chill out on the lake and visit quite a number of sites. This makes a very good rest day and two nights here is not a bad idea.
Day 6/7: Ba Be - Hanoi (240km, 6/7hrs)
Currently, the best option is to take the 279 and then the QL3 down to Bac Kan. This is due to road works on the back road. This route is not a bad one. The first stretch will be the familiar small road that you already took.
Then, you will move on to the ever-widening highway and you will move from winding roads surrounded by hills to faster straighter roads through the rice plains.
This is a long but manageable drive due to the quality of the road. However, do set off early enough to get back to Hanoi before rush hour traffic hits. Consider stopping for a break about 50-60km out of Hanoi just to give yourself time to get to grips with the traffic.
Information on the Destinations
A reasonably sized border trading town up in the far northeast of Vietnam. This is the beginning point of national highway 1A and has been the site of many battles between the Chinese and French forces. There are many options for hotels and food here and a variety of Chinese specialties can be found. It is easy to access due to the main highway between it and Hanoi. As the town is traditionally and mainly a market post you may wish to visit Dong Kinh Market. If not, you can choose to ride up the Mau Son mountain which is around 20km away.
A large town and capital of the Cao Bang Province. There is a lot of good accommodation here and this can be used as a base for excursions to surrounding sites. There is also a large market which is interesting and a lot of local food specialties are sold here. Sausage is one of these.
Ban Gioc Waterfall
Called Detian Falls by the Chinese, this marks the border between Vietnam and China. It is currently the fourth largest fall on a national border and drops some 30m. The areas surrounding it have a few local sites to visit and several homestays and a resort. You can easily stay overnight here.
This is the legendary cave that Uncle Ho stayed in when he returned from exile in 1941. He was here for two months. There is nothing but the cave site and the stream so you cannot stay here.
One of Vietnam’s premier national parks. There is a wealth of accommodation here and due to its appeal to locals, it will still get booked up on holidays. There are several sites here such as Dau Dang Waterfall and fairy grotto. It is a good place to have a rest day from riding. The legend of the lake is similar to Noah’s Ark in many ways.
The Take-Away of the North East Loop
This North East Loop will take you to the less-visited side of Vietnam and you will often feel you are the only one there. You will see the locals going about their daily business and not be hassled by touts and hawkers. The tour is manageable for all and can be adjusted for all levels.