So you’ve decided to do it, you’re heading to Vietnam and are going to rent or buy a motorcycle to get around on your own. Let me start by saying, great decision! Secondly, I want to say that this article is going to focus on the northern region and on renting- not buying. There are plenty of articles or Reddit threads that talk about buying one and going around so if that is your mission, I wish you the best, but stick around because this may still have some good pointers for you in terms of where to go and what to expect.
Now, I would say the first thing you want to do is get do Sa Pa. This lovely little mountain town has become a backpacker hotspot and even has some higher end accommodations for those who are on a more expansive budget- and after some more delectable tastes. Here, you can begin your trip by finding and renting and motorbike. Daily costs range from $4-$10USD depending on the bike and your skills as a negotiator. Since this article is about a longer trip you should be able to get a deal as long as it isn’t peak season when bikes can be limited. Expected time for this itinerary is 10-12 days, and it is important to remember that a semi-automatic motorcycle is preferred, due to the hilly landscapes. Although the automatic bikes can be rented, it is generally not recommended.
Days 1 and 2 are in and around Sa Pa. Now there are many things to do and see in this lovely area that include amazing trekking, and experiencing the culture of the local villages, but we are going to focus on the bike tour. So we would recommend finding a great hotel and they can guide you as to finding your bike for the journey. There are no shortages of rental places and the odds are that if you walk around in the main square, you will be approached by several people asking if you are looking for a rental. Then you can go look at their inventory, check over the bikes, settle on a price and go get gas as they are almost always running on fumes at the beginning. (A local in Indonesia once told us that they syphon any extra gas out of the tanks for their personal bikes if returned with a full tank)
So this may take some time so now just enjoy cruising around town, checking out the sites nearby and enjoying some of the tasty food in town (I’m telling you, it’s pretty damn good). Day 2 you will head out and go see some waterfalls and more. There is a multi-tiered falls called Silver Falls not far from town that is a good place to start. Along the way, you can stop by a viewpoint that has an observation walkway for some great photos and views of the countryside (and a couple of swings for you insta photobuffs). Then check out the falls and some of the markets around it and from there head to Sa Pa Heaven gate for a coffee and some more amazing views of this mountain pass. This couple hours of driving will give you a sense of the terrain you are about to experience, the feel for the bike, and give you an insight into making sure you want to do this!
Day 3 is a nice and easy drive from Sa Pa to Ha Giang where you will be at the beginning of the Ha Giang loop. A motor biking loop that is becoming more and more famous every year, thus we recommend embarking asap before too much commercialization. This little town is a good place to stock up on any supplies you may need and get a good night of rest as you prepare to spend some time wondering about the countryside and villages in this area.
Next day, you will begin by heading out of town and starting the loop. There are so many roads and variations that the main recommendation we have is to download google maps or maps.me to make sure you don’t get too lost, and just take your time making your way to one of the many villages around the area. You can pre-book your accommodations early if you want, but it is not always necessary being that this is a much more an ‘off the beaten path’ area- AKA not so many hotels!!
PRO TIP: Heading out of Ha Giang is a police stop where they will want to see an international drivers license. They do take lunch breaks so you can time it accordingly as we did if you don’t have this license, but there are no guarantees and plan to pay around $50USD to get a ‘license’ for yourself on the spot, or just hang around and wait for that sweet spot between 11am and 12pm for you to make your quick break!
This area is so unbelievably gorgeous in its scenery that every turn will have you stopping for photos and just soaking it all in. We recommend making your way to TT Dong Van for the night. It’s a nice little town surrounded by some striking mountains and having many accommodations, bars and restaurants to relax and enjoy.
The next morning, get up and enjoy a cup of coffee before heading out on what might be the most epic day you will have in terms of scenery! You will spend the first couple of hours of the day along a mountain road that winds along the Song Nho Que river valley and it is hard to overstate the beauty in this area. Think beautiful valleys, crystal blue wading rivers, green mountains and amazing roads. And don’t worry, there are plenty of coffee shops and viewpoints to stop and get your photography fix along the way. So take your time and enjoy this gem of Vietnam because it might be the best couple of hours of this whole trip!
At this point you will likely notice that you’ve been primarily riding along the highway QL4C. This soon changes to QL34 and many people would take this back to Ha Giang to end their loop there. But we have a better idea! Take QL34 the other direction and start heading towards Cao Bang. It is a long ride with truly great vistas the whole way, but you may not want to do it in one day (even though you can) so perhaps pick a little village to crash in for the night and finish the drive the next day, you won’t regret it. Even though the views were slightly less dramatic than the previous day, it was probably our favorite part of the ride, as we got such a variety of idyllic scenery.
Now you have arrived in Cao Bang, which is a fairly large city with much to do and see and many forms of accommodation. We cannot express enough that we think you should stay at Primrose Homestay. The owner is one of the kindest and most helpful ladies around and the beds are a welcome cushion for the inevitably sore bum that you will be having by this time. She spoke great English, she had amazing recommendations, an even more amazing attitude, and even dropped us off for our bus to move onwards (sadly we bussed this part of the journey although we wish we had biked).
From Cao Bang take a full day and head out to see the amazing Ban Gioc Waterfalls. Not only are these falls some of the most beautiful we have ever seen, but the drive to get to them is almost as good! Spend some time at the Tiger Caves, which are very close to the falls if you have the time and then enjoy a lovely evening drive back to Cao Bang as you chase the sunset to the west. The winding roads through the mountainous valleys are something from a movie.
Next, is the simple task of retracing your steps to Sa Pa. This should take you anywhere from 3-4 days depending on your stamina and route. You can’t go wrong with the views, as you will by now be sure of, so just enjoy the road, the local food (and prices), local people and non-stop views as you make your way back.
We found that there were plenty of places to find petrol along the way, but always best to play it safe and keep that tank full when you can. Most of the little villages had small mechanic shops that could become useful if you were to have any issues with your bike. Other than that, we cannot think of a better way to experience this vast and amazing part of the world. Vietnam has so much to offer and this is just one way to do it. Please do not hesitate to ask any questions in the comments below and as always wear a helmet and be safe out there!