Sa Pa to Ha Giang (How to do it)

Rentabike rider and his Honda XR150 way up in the northern Vietnamese mountains

Table of Contents

Sa Pa and Ha Giang are two big names that anyone considering a trip to Vietnam will certainly hear about. Therefore, lots of people wish to visit both areas but are unsure of the possible routes.

Sa Pa is a former french colonial hill station and outpost and Ha Giang is the spectacularly mountainous northernmost province of Vietnam.  

Sa Pa

This was a very sleepy hill town until tourism hit in the early 2000s. Now, it has mushroomed and offers a huge range of hotels and activities for everyone. Rentabike Vietnam offers a tour that passes through Sa Pa. You can see more here in our ‘Historic Northwest’ or our ‘Great Loop’ Tour

Ha Giang

Ha Giang has boomed over the last 5 years and is now very popular with tourists wishing to ‘do the loop’. You should try to get onto the smaller less-crowded roads if you wish to get a real feel for the area. It is one of the destinations on our ‘Great Loop’ Tour  and our sister company ADVOutriders also visit the province on their Ha Giang Loop Tour.

Danny, Brian and John at Ma Pi Leng, Ha Giang
The stunning Ma Pi Leng Gorge

Route Map

This is just a few of the possible routes between Sa Pa and Ha Giang. 

Sa Pa to Ha Giang Route Choice.

You can drive from Sa Pa to Ha Giang in one day. It is a long day and boring. It seems like an unnecessary thing to do and much better to take a couple of days to do this. Driving for 230km in Vietnam is quite a long day and if you are with a pillion, two up, it is tiring. Not to mention the fact that you will miss out on two areas that I think are overlooked and underrated. 

With good weather the Bac Ha and Hoang Su Phi areas are stunning and easily rival Sa Pa and Ha Giang. What is more there are very few tourists so, even though it may be tougher travelling, you get to see more fo the real Vietnam. 

I suggest splitting it up into a 2 or 3-day drive. Your key towns on route are: Bac Ha and Hoang Su Phi. It is very important to note that when I refer to Sa Pa, Bac Ha and Ha Giang I mean the towns/cities and Hoang Su Phi refers to the general area, which is quite large. 

Rentabike Vietnam riders leaving on a Honda XR 150 in Bac Ha, Lao Cai
Leaving the ethnic family run homestay in Bac Ha

3 Day Route from Sa Pa to Ha Giang

Day 1 – Sa Pa to Bac Ha  –  between 90-170km

Day 2 – Bac Ha to Hoang Su Phi  –  between 110-130km  

Day 3 – Hoang Su Phi to Ha Giang  –  between 80-120km

You may snigger and say, ‘Why such short days?’ Well, the idea is to stop on the way and have fun, and allow for punctures or problems, rather than simply drive all day. Of course, you can choose to make this a 2-day trip, or even a 1-day trip. It’s up to you and I have added in the Direct Route just for that reason. 

Direct Route

This route is 230km on main roads and it will take a full day. Yes, some of it is scenic, but you will basically be blasting your way through the countryside in order to get to your destination. You might take this route if you were short on time and needed to get to Ha Giang toute suite. 

We do not recommend this as we feel it defeats the purpose of you being on a road trip in Vietnam. You miss so much. 

Day 1 - Sa Pa to Bac Ha

This corner of Lao Cai is teeming with markets; there is one or more on every day of the week. They are real ethnic markets and, with the exception of Bac Ha market, are not very touristy at all. 

Here we offer you 4 choices of route that you can take depending on your circumstances. 

Direct route 90km

This will take you down the main road to Lao Cai, QL4D (very busy with cars and buses) and then along the AH14 (also busy) before turning onto the DT153 (quieter and much more scenic). 

Sa Pa Valley Back Route 95km

This routes you down the back road into the Sa Pa valley and to Pho Lu (quieter and more rugged, but easy to drive) then on the QL4E (quite large and dull) to Bac Ngam and finally up the DT153 (scenic). 

Coc Ly Market Route 120km

For this, it is down the main road to Lao Cai QL4D (busy) and then you follow this out of Lao Cai, past Hekou border gate with China and up to Lung Vai Market. The DT154 will wind its way around to Coc Ly and it has some amazing views of the Chay River below. From Coc Ly there are plenty of fun little routes that take you up to Bac Ha or the DT153. 

The Si Ma Cai Route 170km

You need time for this route but it is worth it so long as the skies are clear. Follow the QL4D down to Lao Cai and then up to Lung Vai, but you keep heading North further into Muong Khuong District. You skirt the border with China and you can head up to a couple of the border crossings. The road is good and very fast in parts, very winding and interesting. You can turn onto the tiny roads around Sin Cheng and take these down to Bac Ha, if you have time. This would be a great route to take. 

Bat Xat, Sa Pa
Looking back over the hills towards Sa Pa

Day 2 - Bac Ha to Hoang Su Phi

All of this area is really worth spending time in. There are beautiful roads, views, waterfalls and tracks. Too many people pass by and miss out. 

The QL279 Route

This route takes you on the Nghia Do Tan Tien Rd which is an absolute beauty. There are some great stretches on it and great views. You will pass through some very out-of-the-way places. Then, you hit the 279 at Nghia Do which is a little market town and head East on this to Tan Trinh. From Tan Trinh you take the road north up to the dam construction and on to Thong Nguyen. There are lots of choices of homestays/resorts/retreats in this area and they are not as cheap as other places. Be warned. 

The Xin Man / Deo Gio (windy pass) Route

You can take the DT153 North out of Bac Ha and through Lung Phinh on your way to Xin Man (or Coc Pai, same place). This is very easy winding scenic road. Xin Man is quite large but sleepy. It is hard to get food outside of regular eating times. Then you can take the DT178 to Thac Tien which is worth the walk down to it for good photos. You turn onto the Quang Nguyen Rd and wind your way up and down to Ho Thau. You can stay there or you can continue on to Vinh Quang or Thong Nguyen.  

The Xin Man / Vinh Quang Route

This route is the easiest and smoothest of the three but as you might expect it is the dullest. The road is good with only a few landslides and plenty of waterfalls to have a dip in. It takes you out of Bac Ha past Lung Phinh and then Xin Man but continues directly to Vinh Quang. That is where you have the choice to head up the hill to Ban Luoc (a more difficult route, not marked)and then Ho Thau or to follow the DT177 for a way and then choose either the 197b up to Nam Son and Ho Thau or the  road to Thong Nguyen. 

Road conditions on the way to Panhou Retreat in Hoang Su Phi
Hoang Su Phi has some very good stretches of road

Day 3 - Hoang Su Phi to Ha Giang

The first part of this trip is plagued by road works no matter which route you take. After, that you ride on main highway to get to Ha Giang. There are side roads that you can easily explore, if you have time and they are easy to see on Google. 

Direct Route

This will route you on the main road to Tan Quang and then the highway up to ha Giang city. The DT177 is being rebuilt, 2024, and is dusty or muddy and has plenty of construction vehicles on it. The QL2 from Tan Quang to Ha Giang is a main road and quite dull. However, this route will get you to Ha Giang quickly. If you wish to spend the morning in Hoang Su Phi and the afternoon driving to Ha Giang, it could work out for you. 

Tan Trinh Market Route

The Tan Trinh route will add about 25km to your journey. This takes you on the back road down to the QL279 which you then take to the QL2 at Tan Quang. This back road has some construction at the northern end near Thong Nguyen where they are building a dam. Further down it is a small winding road that is very scenic. The QL279 and QL2 are main roads and are not very interesting.  

Thuong Son Route

A much longer route that takes you up some smaller winding roads to Vinh Quang and then down the Thuong Son road which is also being rebuilt in part. It is a bit bumpy and it is best to use an off road bike like an XR or CRF but the ride is good and it has some great views. 

The Best Choice of Bike

The driving around Lao Cai and Ha Giang province is not difficult or rugged if you stay on the QL or DT roads. If you venture off-road, it can get quite tricky, quite quickly. Any bike that is good for a long-distance trip should be fine on the QLs and DTs. You will probably be driving around 120- 150 km per day so a bike with good range and that is comfortable is a good idea.

If you are driving from Hanoi, on part of a longer tour or arriving from Ha Giang Province, then you will need a bigger touring bike, for sure. 

Our opinion is that the two best options for economy and ease of driving are the Honda Future and the Honda XR150. It depends on your budget and whether you wish to drive a semi-auto or manual. 

Honda future looking out over rice fields in the valley
Honda Future
Honda XR150 parked by a river in northern Vietnam
Honda XR150

A Word on Licensing

To drive legally in Vietnam you will need to have one of the following combinations of license and IDP. 

  1. A license from your home country plus a 1968 IDP from your home country.
  2. A license from an ASEAN country plus a 1968 IDP issued by that country. 
  3. A vietnamese license – only issued for those residing in Vietnam for more than 3 months.

You can see more in our blog on ‘How to drive legally in Vietnam.’

UK International Driving Permit Front Page
Chances are you will need an International Driving Permit

Driving Tips

  • Make sure you are driving legally. You can find out how to drive legally in Vietnam here.
  • Drive slower than you normally would. The speed limit will be 40 km/h in town and usually 60 /70 kmh out of town. This is because there are lots of hazards on these roads.
  • Respect the speed limit. The cops are quite happy to pull over foreigners nowadays and they are happy to fine them, too. Fines can be several million VN Dong so they are worth avoiding.
  • If you are riding in a group, rotate the back rider. So, every 5 or 10km have the back rider come up to the front so that no one gets left behind.
  • Stay in touch through apps and set regular stops, be them 1hr or 50+km intervals. This way you should all slow down and group up.
  • Don’t get complacent on these quiet roads. There can be large trucks, crazy teens or even a dangerous dog. All of these can cause an accident. 
 

Don’t Drink and Drive. Obviously, this is not a good idea, however, you may be unaware that the legal blood alcohol level in Vietnam is ZERO. So, not even a sniff of booze is allowed.

Other Local Routes

There are hundreds, or thousands of little routes that traverse all over the area. If you are interested in exploring, then you should take a good look at Google Earth and plan a route. 

It is impossible for us to tell you which routes are good and which are still open as there are so many and things are changing all the time. Search around and have fun. 

When to Visit

Generally speaking, it is best to visit Sa Pa and Ha Giang in the dry season, which is from October to April. 

You should also be aware that North Vietnam can get really cold in the winter, from November to February, so be sure to pack several layers of clothes and waterproofs.  

Rainy season, which is from May to September in the North of Vietnam, can be wonderful but it is very hot and humid. You will want to avoid the midday heat. 

This info on ‘The weather in Hanoi’ will serve you well. Ha Giang and Sa Pa share the same general weather pattern as Hanoi. 

riders in the rain coming around a corner in Ha Giang
Rain can make the trip miserable AND dangerous

FAQ

Can we drive to Sa Pa / Ha Giang in one day?

The journey to either Sa Pa or Ha Giang from Hanoi is a long one. It can be done in one day, but it is a long day. 

We suggest splitting into 2 days and stopping in somewhere like Thac Ba on the way. 

To the best of our knowledge there is currently no service for this at all. This is due to the high cost of returning the vehicle. 

Most, but not all, sections of CT road are restricted to large vehicles only. Two-wheeled vehicles are not allowed on these roads. Be careful with Google and remember to use the motorbike setting OR use the ‘no highways’ function to avoid being routed onto these. 

Yes, as with almost everywhere in Vietnam fuel is easy to find. It is a country of some 50 million motorbikes, 90% of which have 4l fuel tanks. Think about it.

You are usually never far from a fuel station [Petrolimex] or a small roadside vendor selling fuel in plastic bottles.

QL means Quoc Lo, national highway and is used to indicate roads that Connect 3 or more provincial capitals. DT means Duong Tinh, provincial road and is used to show roads that connect provincial capitals. 

This classification does not really mean anything to us. Generally, speaking, the QL are larger and busier and we want to try to stay on the DT unless we need to get somewhere fast.

Gallery

Quick Connect

BMW 1250 GS

Engine Type

air-liquid cooled, twin cylinder, DOHC, boxer engine

Displacement

1255 cc

Bore X Stroke

102.5 mm x 76 mm

Ignition

FI

Fuel System

fuel injection

Compression Ratio

12.5:1

Starter

electric

Gearbox

6-speed

Front Suspension

BMW Motorrad Telelever; stanchion diameter 37 mm

Rear Suspension

single-sided swing arm with BMW Motorrad Paralever

Front Brakes

dual disc brake, floating brake discs, diameter 305 mm, 4-piston radial calipers

Rear Brakes

single disc brake, diameter 276 mm, double-piston floating caliper

Front Tyres

120/70 R19

Rear Tyres

170/60 R17

Wheelbase

1514 mm

Seat Height

850 mm

Ground Clearance

790 mm

Kerb Weight

249 kg

Fuel Capacity

20 litres

Dimensions

2207 mm (L) x 952.5mm (W) x 1430 mm (H)

Honda XR 150 motorcycle rental

Engine Type

air cooled, OHC, single cylinder

Displacement

149 cc

Bore X Stroke

57.3 mm x 57.8 mm

Ignition

CDI

Fuel System

20 mm piston valve carburettor

Compression Ratio

9.5:1

Starter

electric with kick starter backup

Gearbox

5-speed

Front Suspension

telescopic fork, 180 mm axle travel

Rear Suspension

single shock swing arm, 150 mm axle travel

Front Brakes

dual piston caliper, 240 mm disc

Rear Brakes

mechanical drum

Front Tyres

90/90 19

Rear Tyres

110/90 17

Wheelbase

1362 mm

Seat Height

825 mm

Ground Clearance

243 mm

Kerb Weight

129 kg

Fuel Capacity

12 litres

Dimensions

2091 mm (L) x 811 mm (W) x 1125 mm (H)

Honda CB 500X motorcycle rental

Engine Type

liquid cooled parallel-twin four stroke

Displacement

470 cc

Bore X Stroke

67 mm x 66.8 mm

Ignition

PGMI – FI

Fuel System

fuel injection

Compression Ratio

10.7:1

Starter

electric

Gearbox

6-speed

Front Suspension

41 mm SFF-BP USD Forks

Rear Suspension

Prolink Mono with 5 stage pre load adjuster

Front Brakes

dual 296 mm discs with 4 piston calipers; ABS

Rear Brakes

240 mm disc; ABS

Front Tyres

110/80R19M/C (59H)

Rear Tyres

160/60R17M/C

Wheelbase

1445 mm

Seat Height

830 mm

Ground Clearance

180 mm

Kerb Weight

199 kg

Fuel Capacity

17.7 litres

Dimensions

2,155 mm (L) x 830 mm (W) x 1,410 mm (H)

Honda CRF 300 motorcycle rental

Engine Type

single cylinder, DOHC, liquid cooled

Displacement

286 cc

Bore X Stroke

76 mm x 63 mm

Ignition

Full Transistor Digital

Fuel System

PGM-FI electronic fuel injection

Compression Ratio

10.7:1

Starter

electric

Gearbox

5-speed

Front Suspension

43 mm telescopic upside down

Rear Suspension

Prolink Mono with 5 stage pre load adjuster

Front Brakes

256 mm disc, 2 piston caliper

Rear Brakes

220 mm disc, single piston caliper

Front Tyres

80/100 21

Rear Tyres

120/80 18

Wheelbase

1455 mm

Seat Height

880 mm

Ground Clearance

285 mm

Kerb Weight

142 kg

Fuel Capacity

7.8 litres

Dimensions

2230 mm (L) x 820 mm (W) x 1200 mm (H)

Tourist

One-Way

Expat

Pricing

N/A

N/A

Damage Waiver

$0/day

N/A

N/A

Security Deposit

N/A

N/A

Required Docs

passport

N/A

N/A

Mileage Limit

unlimited

N/A

N/A

Touring

N/A

N/A