Day 1: Hanoi - Thac Ba Lake
Thac Ba Lake; the minority area of Vu Linh
You'll follow the Red River northwest, eventually crossing it and continuing along the banks of the smaller River Chay to Thac Ba Lake. Created by damming up three rivers in order to power the first power station in Vietnam, this manmade lake is the largest in Vietnam. Time and weather permitting, you'll have the opportunity to take a little boat out to one of its many islands to have a swim and watch the sunset before stopping for the night in a homestay in Vu Linh, an area on the eastern edge of the lake populated mainly by people of the Dzao minority.
Day 2: Thac Ba Lake - Ha Giang
the mountain province Ha Giang
After Vu Linh the terrain gets rougher and you'll be able to enjoy a relaxing ride along the hillsides before hitting the new highway—this is an opportunity to really open up. You'll pass through miles of palm forest before being met with the sight of the great mountain range that forms Vietnam's natural border with China and then it's up and up, the roads becoming steeper and rockier, to the city of Ha Giang set right in the mountain range's midst. Ha Giang Province is populated almost entirely by minority folks who live in small communities nestled in narrow valleys and on mountainsides, and is easily one of the country's most famous riding spots.
Day 3: Ha Giang - Dong Van
the Dong Van karst plateau; the mountain town of Dong Van; the Ma Pi Leng Pass; the palace of the H'mong King
The roads on this section of the tour, winding as they do across the mountainsides, require a fair bit of concentration but the sights up there, particularly on the Ma Pi Leng Pass, are absolutely magnificent. Before arriving in Dong Van you'll stop by Dinh Vua Meo, the palace of the H'mong King who once ruled the area and famously allied himself with Ho Chi Minh. It doesn't take long to visit, but houses plenty of cool artefacts. This is also where you'll catch your first glimpse of the area's unique topography: Dong Van lies on a karst limestone plateau, surrounded by weirdly shaped, extremely steep mountains.
Day 4: Around Dong Van
the mountain town of Dong Van; the old French fort, the Lung Cu Flag Tower; offroading around Dong Van
This second day you'll have time to check out the colonial architecture and traditional marketplaces of Dong Van's Old Quarter, hike up to the top of the town to explore the ruins of the old French colonial fort, or take the road just north to see the Lung Cu Flag Tower which marks the country's most northern point. There are plenty of offroading opportunities in the vicinity, too: the minority villages dotted around Dong Van Town are all connected by dirt roads that were built by the locals, and many remain completely unmapped.
Day 5: Dong Van - Bao Lac
the Nho Que River; the Bang River; the Ma Pi Leng Pass; offroading around Bao Lac
After Dong Van you'll continue through the mountains, skirting the Chinese border and traversing once more the Ma Pi Leng Pass. The pass was originally built by the minority tribes who live in the area, is 20km long and its name, from a Mandarin term which means, 'the bridge of a horse's nose', was given to it because of the look of the peak that towers above it. Then you'll ride through Meo Vac, a tranquil mountain town, before following the Nho Que River down to the homestay in Bao Lac. This whole area is sparsely populated and covered in mountains and forests and, like Dong Van, is a great place to explore offroad.
Day 6: Bao Lac - Ban Gioc Waterfall
Ban Gioc Waterfall
After spending the night in Bao Lac you'll head east through the wilderness towards Ban Gioc Waterfall. There's been a long running border dispute between Vietnam and China about which country the waterfall actually belongs to, and when you get there you'll see why both countries want it so much. There'll be plenty of time for you to have a swim there before you turn in for the night in a homestay not too far from the lake.
Day 7: Ban Gioc Waterfall - Ba Be Lake
Ba Be Lake; Ba Be National Park
Another highlight: Ba Be Lake. Ba Be means 'three bays', and is actually three lakes joined together into one body of water. It's home to some caves and lagoons which, time and weather permitting, you'll get to explore by boat and the national park in which lies is home to a diverse range of indigenous species. There are a number of traditional homestays run by the minority folks who inhabit the area dotted around the park, too, and that evening is likely to be when you taste some of the best dishes of the entire trip.
Day 8: Ba Be Lake - Hanoi
the Ba Be Pass
It's a long ride back to Hanoi but the roads on the way are pretty good, and the Ba Be Pass you'll ride as you exit the national park makes for an excellent first leg of the journey.
English speaking tour guide
breakfast, lunch and dinner
helmets and gloves
tickets to national parks and for ferries
drinks at the end of the day
health and liability insurance