Heart-stopping mountain passes in Northern Vietnam

Tiếng Việt

One of the reasons to proceed my road trip across North East & West of Vietnam is the mountain passes, famous for their ruggedness, which can take the breath of the amateur drivers away. I like road trips and also have some experience of long-distance driving. However driving on such craggy mountain passes in Northern Vietnam is a completely different challenge.

13 days have passed with layers of emotions continuously interchanged, from nervous, tensed and concentrated to overcome dangerous sharp turns, to excited, surprised and fascinated by the spectacular natural scenery appearing after the curves, which can not be expressed in words. I am really proud of myself for conquering such heart-stopping mountain passes.


I and my car, somewhere in Cao Bang, Vietnam

1. Ma Pi Leng Pass, Meo Vac, Ha Giang

Ma Pi Leng pass is without doubt one of the top 4 King mountain passes in Northern Vietnam. With only 20km long, located on The Happiness Road connecting two counties of Dong Van and Meo Vac, at an elevation of 1500m above the sea level, Ma Pi Leng pass is renowned for its heart-stopping sharp turns, steep slopes and magnificent panoramic natural scenery.

View of the road 193A to Sam Pun border – from Ma Pi Leng pass

We turned to the road 193A at the junction on the foot of Ma Pi Leng Pass to get down to Nho Que river. Driving on this road was a wonderful experience as the scenery appeared surprisingly spectacular in every turn. Being amazed by the light mist hovering around mountainsides, we opened our car’s window to enjoy fresh lush air and experience the chilled weather at 12 degree Celsius. Though it was a short drive, we felt the need to stop in almost every 5 minutes to fully appreciate this impressive natural landscape.

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Back to the junction, we started going up to Ma Pi Leng Pass. The road was continuously up with multiple sharp twists & turns from the altitude of 800m to 1500m. It was such a striking challenge for every driver. Reaching the summit, we were astonished by the turquoise Nho Que river winding around lush towering mountainous landscape.

Panorama view of Nho Que river from the view point of Ma Pi Leng summit

From the view point at the summit, we also could see a immense karst plateaus with countless jagged black formations which is the unique geological structure of this region.

Ma Pi Leng Pass

2. Nine-turn slope, Pho Cao, Ha Giang

Nine-turn is one of the most challenging steep slope in Dong Van, thanks to its twisting and continuous sharp turns at the altitude of 1400m. Legendarily, any couple who come back from Pho Cao market and climb all the turns of this pass will get married.

Nine turn slope in the mist of Pho Cao, Dong Van, Ha Giang
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Helicopter view of Nine-turn slope – Photo credit of Cinvesta Travel

The garden of buck wheat in its full blosson at the edge of Nine-turn slope makes this dangerous road look more charming and romantic.

Buck wheat garden at the edge of Night-turn mountain pass

Buck wheat is a featured flower of northern mountain, only blooming during autumn (around Oct). Tiny petals in white and pink were racing to show off their gorgeous beauty in the chilled weather of early autumn.

3. Tham Ma slope, Dong Van, Ha Giang

Tham Ma slope from Dong Van to Yen Minh is one of a kind, renowned for its nine extremely sharp curves, particularly in foggy days.

Tham Ma slope with its unique twists

Many people have mistaken it with Nine-turn slope as both have 9 heart-stopping turns and both are on Highway 4C. However they are 7km away from each other. Situated at the altitude of over 1000m, these two slopes are familiar trails for those who like to challenge their driving skills. If you drive from Dong Van to Ha Giang on highway 4C, you will face Nine-turn slope first, then Tham Ma.

Tham Ma slope almost disappeared in the mist

Tham Ma literally means to evaluate the horse power. Legendarily in the past, people used horses to carry things from the bottom to the top of this slope. Which horses could reach the summit healthily were the good ones and would be kept. The ones who couldn’t breath after the slope would be killed and become food.

Tham Ma slope, Dong Van, Ha Giang

On the top of Tham Ma slope, there were a bunch of H’mong ethnic kids with buckets of colorful wildflowers. Their innocence tinged with austerity since they have to work in a very young age to help their family.

H’mong kids at the top of Tham Ma slope, Ha Giang

At the foot of Tham Ma slope, there is a buck wheat garden in its early blossom. Tiny flowers seem to be protected by the craggy and massive karst plateau.

Buck wheat garden at the foot of Tham Ma slope

4. Bac Sum slope, Quan Ba

Bac Sum slope is another challenging road in Ha Giang. From Quan Ba Heaven Gate, it looks like a giant silky scarf stretching across northwest mountains. Despite its softness and lissomness, the road is dangerous with sharp turns and craggy surface.

Bac Sum slope from Quan Ba Heaven gate

The higher we climbed, the more fascinated we were by its speechless beauty. The scenery was like in the fairyland with clouds drifting gently among the mountainsides and lush vivid jungles.

Bac Sum slope in Quan Ba, Vietnam

5. O Quy Ho Pass

Not far from Sapa center and on Highway 4D, we had a “drive on clouds” at O Quy Ho pass one of the top 4 King mountain passes in Northern Vietnam.

Driving on clouds at O Quy Ho mountain pass, Lao Cai, Vietnam

O Quy Ho is the longest mountain pass in Northwest Vietnam (more than 50km), crossing the majestic Hoang Lien Son range with its peak at 2000 m above sea level. Driving through the vast sea of clouds spreading from mountainsides to the highway and sometimes blocking our eyesight was one of a kind experience in our road trip. That’s why the pass has another lovely name as “Cloudy Pass”.

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Thick clouds sometimes block our sight in O Quy Ho pass, Lao Cai, Vietnam

We focused on managing our car on ascending slopes with continuous sharp turns, felt tensed with multiple warning boards on the way, while excitedly enjoying the cold weather and admiring stunning fairy-tail landscape. The massive Hoang Lien Son range fully covered by lush jungle was seen on and off in the thick mist. It was awesome!

The lush massive Hoang Lien Son range on O Quy Ho pass, Lao Cai, Vietnam
Majestic mountains and clouds in O Quy Ho pass, Lao Cai, Vietnam

6. Khau Pha Pass, Yen Bai

Renowned by the mighty and majestic scenery of mountains, white clouds and stunning terraced rice fields, Khau Pha pass spreads over 30km at the altitude from 1200m to 1500m, crossing by the summit of Khau Pha mountain – the highest mountain in Mu Cang Chai.

Khau Pha mountain pass, Yen Bai, Vietnam

Khau Pha is also one of the most steep and zigzagging mountain pass in Vietnam. Throughout the length of the pass, there are several dozen of sharp turns. On foggy days, the pass is extremely dangerous because there is no barricade or any warning sign.

Yellow wildflowers enhance the beauty of Khau Pha pass

Hopefully in the close future, I will have the opportunity to conquer more dangerous mountain pass in all over Vietnam.

Traveled on Sep 30-Oct 13, 2018

Read other articles about my road trip to Northern Vietnam

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