Mã Pí Lèng Mountain Pass – Hà Giang
The Ma Pi Leng Pass is one of the most majestic sights Vietnam has to offer. It’s a must see for any motorbike tour riding to the far north province of Ha Giang which borders China.
It’s positioned along the 20 kilometre stretch of road connecting the towns of Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc and is part of what is cheerily named “Happiness Road”. At major viewpoints you encounter sometimes near vertical mountain slopes leaning down to the Nho Quế River.
While it is only a short pass, it generally takes a couple of hours to cross – it’s hard not to stop and take in the panoramas as you move along its length.
Ma Pi Leng translates as horse nose or bridge of a horse’s nose, and the name is said to come from the shape of a nearby peak.
Construction of the Road
Vietnam is no slouch when it comes to building roads through seemingly impossible terrain, the country positively excels at it. The construction of the 185 km Happiness Road which began in 1959 is no exception.
In a mere 6 years the road linking Ha Giang to its highland districts was established. Over a thousand workers alongside 1200 youth volunteers from 16 ethnic minorities toiled away on the project. With only basic hand tools such as crowbars and buckets they managed to move an astonishing 3 million tonnes of rock and earth.
The Ma Pi Leng Pass proved to be the most challenging ridge to conquer – For almost a year workers hung suspended by ropes using hammers, chisels and small charges of dynamite to carve a path through. Once a reportedly 40cm wide trail was achieved other brave workers were able to walk out and continue the arduous undertaking. The labour was treacherous and sadly lives were lost. There is a monument to the north of the pass in remembrance of the unflinching workforce.
The road has come a long way since it completion in 1965, with the availability of modern machinery it has been widened, repaved and a lot of it in a now excellent condition to ride.
The 4 parts of Happiness Road
Visitors will notice Happiness Road is broken up into 4 stages each with its own colourful name.
The road from Ha Giang City to Yên Minh town is interestingly called “Road up Earth’s Fecundity” make of that what you will.
The road from Yen Minh to Dong Van is tunefully named “Life Melody in a rocky Kingdom”.
The road from Dong Van to Meo Vac is the “Sky Journey to Pride and Happiness”.
Finally the road looping from Meo Vac to Ha Giang again is the comparably dull “Geopark Road in Project”.
Weather at Ha Giang and Ma Pi Leng
The weather in Ha Giang varies depending on the time of year and also can change very quickly between days.
During winter (December to February) the weather is dry but can be very cold. In spring (March until May) the temperature is very pleasant although there is a little rain which on a bad day can inhibit visibility.
Summer (June through to August) is warm but it is also the wettest time of year so be prepared for potential rain. Autumn (September through November) has the best climate but is occasionally windy.
Riders must be careful when traversing the pass in wet or foggy weather – you can’t see much anyway so it is best avoiding the discomfort. In cases of extreme conditions or high winds we advise bypassing Ma Pi Leng altogether.
The Nho Que River
Originating in China the Nho Que River is 192 km long with its final 46 km flowing in Northern Vietnam into the provinces of Hà Giang and Cao Bằng. Nearly 15 km of the river surges along Vietnam’s international border and due to the large variety of different minority people living in its proximity – the river has numerous names from different dialects.
In the past decade Vietnam’s hydroelectric power sector has boomed with dams and power stations popping up in rivers all over the country. The Nho Que is no exception – there are currently 5 hydropower plants along the waterway.
There are boat trips available along the river below the Ma Pi Leng pass. To get there you need to take a smaller less well-maintained road that winds down 7 km to the water’s edge. It’s another fantastic motorbike down although we need to travel slowly and with caution.