Travel The North West of Vietnam by Motorbike

By Lang Thang.

The North-West of Vietnam with wild mountain peaks, with colorful hill tribes, with stunning rice terraces, with challenging roads offers great adventures by motorcycle to the thrill-seeking travellers. Inspired by the fresh nature of the region and pushed by the passion to get wild, I embarked on a journey by motorbike seeking another adventure of life in the Far-North of Vietnam.

From Hanoi, I took Road No. 32, which snakes its way from the western side of the city, through the rice paddies on the outskirt into Phu Tho Province. Phu Tho is the gateway to the North West of Vietnam with ranges of high mountains to the west and river basins to the east.  The road to the North-West has about 100km through Phu Tho, more on the western side of the province. The first half of the road is through green tea plantations stretching on ranges of low hills, and the other half includes rugged mountains with forests or patches of agricultural work. It was a small road, but in great shape and traffic-free; I hummed along and stopped every now and again to take in the fresh air and the green countryside...

Tea plantation in Phu Tho Province
Green tea is the specialty of Phu Tho Province and tea plantations are just all along the road.

The further I travelled, the road got more steep and meandering. Blind curves with deep ravines were seen often on the way. There were more  peaks in clouds on both sides of the road and the tea plantations were replaced by dense forests and wild nature. It was wet at some point and dry at the others along the journey, but it was a cool day and the ride was just a smooth one. When in Yen Bai Province, I saw more ethnic people along the road, most of them seemed from the Dzao communities.

Phu Tho - Vietnam
Road No. 32 between Phu Tho Province and Yen Bai Province

The road got higher the closer I got to Yen Bai Province, the mountains were covered more in fog. It was a bit wet at the border of the two provinces. And, I got to Muong Lo Valley, the second biggest valley of the North-West of Vietnam, in early afternoon. The valley is about a dozen kilometers in length and 6-7kilimeters in width. The minorities in Muong Lo include the Kinh, the Thai, the Tay, the Nung and Kho Mu.

Muong Lo Valley, Yen Bai, Vietnam
Muong Lo Valley, Yen Bai, Vietnam

I rode to different villages in the valley and found there were opportunities to stay overnight with local families in some. The local people mainly cultivated wet rice for a living. Their life was not of luxury, but clearly everyone encountered got a happy face. I decided to go back to town to make it more convenient. Yes, Nghia Lo was the economic center of the North West of Vietnam. The town was visibly a prosperous one and prices were of the same levels as those in Hanoi. It's only a few kilometers from the villages, but life in town was so much different to that in the villages!

In late afternoon, I went to a village 5km from the town for a bath at a hot-spring. It was a relaxing experience after a long day riding: the water at the hot-spring was refreshingly warm, the air was fresh and the surroundings were just peaceful... After having absorbed in so much for the day, I wanted an early night. There was not much of a night life in town anyway.

The next day, I got up early and got a walk around the town before breakfast. When I was about ready for the adventure again, the rain suddenly came with water bucketing down. I wasn't in a hurry and pulled into a cafe for some hot coffee. The rain stopped after about 20 minutes and I got no difficulties taking on the journey on the paved road with scenic mountains passing by...

Tu Le Valley, Yen Bai, Vietnam
Tu Le Valley, Yen Bai, Vietnam

After over 2 hours of riding, I arrived at Tu Le Valley. Tu Le is breathtaking when the rice terraces turn into golden colors. Tu Le was then somehow misty and wet and it took me only 15 minutes for a few shots of the rice terraces, then I continued onto Khau Pha Pass, 1,000 meters in elevation. From Khau Pha Pass, the surrounding mountains were just so wild and captivating! The houses and rice terraces became so tiny, just like a great painting!

Khau Pha Pass, Yen Bai, Vietnam
Khau Pha Pass, Yen Bai, Vietnam

Two and a half hours from Khau Pha Pass, I found myself riding amid real stunning rice terraces. Yes, it was Mu Cang Chai, a township or a cluster of villages of the Hmong people... whatever you name it! There was only a road  and a river running through the town and houses of the Hmong and Thai peoples perched in the mountains, amid the rice terraces... Mu Cang Chai was far poorer than Nghia Lo and it seemed everything in town was just newly constructed. At Nghia Lo, apart from farm work in the fertile valley, local people also benefited from trade; while  at  Mu Cang Chai, the Hmong mainly lived on cultivating rice on terraces and the it was drought every now and again...  I made a few circles around the town and stopped at the government guest house. Surely, I loved Mu Cang Chai and would spend a night here. For the rest of the afternoon, I just wandered from one place to another amid the rice terraces. I'm sure when the rice ripens, Mu Cang Chai would be just stunning!

Night fell in Mu Cang Chai earlier than at Nghia Lo. I got early dinner and found the street empty at 6:30 P.M. There was only the fog, the sound of rivers and the winds... I got back to the guest house and got it over.

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai, Vietnam
Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai, Vietnam

Awaken by early cock-a-doodle-doo sounds, I put on my shoes and went jogging around the town which was completely covered in fog. I suddenly felt like riding early, so I went back to the room to pack things up and left Mu Cang Chai at 06:00 A.M. I didn't have breakfast, neither coffee as usual. I just wanted to ride in the fresh air!  After an hour or so, I arrived at Muong Than (Than Uyen) the third biggest valley in the North-West of Vietnam. Than Uyen is more accessible and more visited by travellers from Sapa, that may be why the town got a more prosperous look than Mu Cang Chai. I heard that some people would do day trips by jeep or by bicycle to Than Uyen's villages. Yes, it was very scenic all the way from Than Uyen to Sapa, and it was sublime on the Pass of Hoang Lien where you could cast your eyes around to take in the unreal scenery.

Muong Than Valley, Lai Chau, Vietnam
Muong Than Valley, Lai Chau, Vietnam

Some part of the road from Than Uyen to Sapa was under construction, still I arrived in Sapa in time for lunch. It was dry but very foggy, and cold. Sapa is kind of home for me having been to town, having trekked the mountains so many times... I got a light lunch and traveled further into the Valley of Muong Hoa where villages of the Giay, the Mong Peoples are nestled on the mountain slopes. The terraces were filled up with water ready for the coming crop, but it was so foggy that I decided to go back to town. On a clearer day, I would have had great photos of the mountains and terraces then.

Muong Hoa Valley, Sapa
Muong Hoa Valley, Sapa

 

Black Mong Lady, Sapa, Vietnam
Black Mong Lady, Sapa, Vietnam

 

Red Dzao Lady in Sapa
Red Dzao Lady in Sapa

 


Hoang Lien Mountain, Sapa, Vietnam

 


Hoang Lien Mountain, Sapa Vietnam
Sapa Muong Hoa Valley

In the afternoon I had some beautiful moments sipping hot coffee observing local ethnic people going about with their daily trade. Then it was time to make my way back to Lao Cai for the overnight train journey back to Hanoi. My motorbike adventure had been a great experience and tonight I should have a sound sleep on the train!