The Ma Pi Leng Pass is a part of the 22 km stretch of road connecting the towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac in Ha Giang Province, Vietnam. Most people hire a motorbike and ride the pass as part of the “Extreme Northern Loop”, but since I can’t ride a motorbike (and the winding roads of northern Vietnam aren’t the best places to learn) I had to make other arrangements.
Hiring a car and a driver in Dong Van
I had originally planned on walking the Ma Pi Leng Pass but a foot injury suffered in Sapa put an end to that plan. I joined forces with a Korean guy and we hired a car to take us over the pass to Meo Vac and then to Sa Phin, a trip that ended up taking around four hours. We paid 800,000 dong between us (around $35). A motorbike and driver would have cost 400,000 each so the car made more sense, especially in the depths of winter (I’d seen snow in nearby Sapa just a couple of days before).
The Ma Pi Leng Pass: Dong Van to Meo Vac
We left Dong Van in good spirits — the morning cloud had cleared and we were about to drive down a road which has been described as one of the most picturesque in Southeast Asia. We drove past shapely limestone mountains, small villages and smiling locals. Our driver didn’t speak English but he understood the phrase “Can we please stop?” which we repeated a lot. He eventually communicated that we should walk for a bit and that he’d meet us a few kilometres down the road.
The spectacular scenery continued. After a while the bad weather rolled in and covered the mountains in a blanket of cloud. A family of goats grabbed my attention. They had climbed up a steep track but left a baby behind. He was screaming at them; I felt a bit sorry for him but hopefully everything turned out OK. We passed lots of locals and the guy I was travelling with loved taking photos of them. He never asked and would always get right up in their face with his camera — so rude! I asked one woman if I could take her photo and she said yes. Just as I was about to take the photo he rushed over and took a one too, which distracted her and ruined my photo.
We met back up with the driver and continued down towards Meo Vac. The clouds cleared enough to get the iconic Ma Pi Leng Pass photo of the road, which has been cut into the side of the hills, snaking its way through the emerald green surrounds.
The road then flattened out as we neared Meo Vac. There doesn’t seem to be much to do in Meo Vac (unless you’re there for the Sunday market) so we basically just turned around and headed back. My Korean friend decided he wanted to stop across the road from a wedding reception and take photos of the guests; you’ve got to wonder what they were thinking! The drive back to Dong Van, and then to Sa Phin (more about that in another post) was obviously very scenic, but it was also punctuated by several drive-by shootings — my (very temporary) travel companion would shove his camera out the window and hold down the trigger, often just metres away from someone’s face.
FURTHER READING: Two Weeks in Vietnam: The Ultimate Holiday Itinerary
The Ma Pi Leng Pass, from Dong Van to Meo Vac, is home to some of the best scenery in Southeast Asia. I’d recommend hiring a motorbike or walking — it’s mostly downhill after the first 5 kilometres — but hiring a car isn’t a bad way to go either. The guy at Lam Tung Hotel speaks pretty decent English and can help you sort out transport. I wrote a Ha Giang travel guide — make sure to check it out! One more thing…I did this trip in winter but it’d be a lot more impressive in summer, before the rice has been harvested. It’s still worth it in winter but it’s something to be aware of.
FURTHER READING: Backpacking in Vietnam: Costs, Tips and Places to See
What is the nicest road you’ve driven down? Let me know in the comments below!
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Wednesday 9th of October 2019
Hi Jon when is ur travel date around MA PI LENG is it rain ? do u book the hotel before going there
Thursday 10th of October 2019
Hey John, it was winter and pretty cold and I'm pretty sure it rained a bit, not too bad though. I didn't book any hotel, there were a few options and the town was very quiet in winter -- it might be a different story at a different time of year though.
Monday 8th of October 2018
Hi Jon I have read you have traveled across the ha giang area in winter.. What would be the temperature at ma pi leng pass in December?
Wednesday 10th of October 2018
Hey Marco, it was pretty cold when I was there I don't think I ever looked at the temperature though. The days were usually fine but the mornings / evenings were quite cold. Well, cold for Southeast Asia anyway!