Story: Huong Quynh
Photos: Amachau

Discover the four most spine-tingling routes through Vietnam’s Northwest mountains

There are dozens of challenging mountain passes in the Northwest, four of which are collectively dubbed “the Four Great Passes” – the most spectacular mountain routes in Vietnam’s border area that every backpacker wants to conquer. They are Ma Pi Leng Pass, Pha Din Pass, O Quy Ho Pass and Khau Pha Pass

Ma Pi Leng Pass

Which mountain pass is number one?

Ma Pi Leng is undeniably the most dangerous mountain pass in the Northwest. Located in Ha Giang Geopark, part of the 164-kilometer Hanh Phuc Road, Ma Pi Leng Pass features nine bends with a steep cliff on one side and a frightening abyss on the other, once the nightmare of many long-distance drivers. However, every backpacker wants to conquer this pass to enjoy commanding views of the majestic mountains and the Nho Que River far below, which looks just like a green thread. Moreover, Ma Pi Leng Pass is legendary thanks to its association with touching stories about the locals’ solidarity during the road’s construction. Over a span of nearly one year, people from 16 ethnic groups and eight northern provinces joined hands, risking life and limb to clear the way and complete the 20-kilometer-long mountain pass with tears, smiles and lofty sacrifices.

Pha Din Pass

On which pass do heaven and earth meet?

With a length of 32 kilometers, Pha Din is one of the longest passes in Vietnam. Located in the territory of Son La and Dien Bien, this winding pass has a cliff on one side and a valley on the other. It is famous for its slopes and A- and Z-shaped curves. In the language of the Thai people, “Pha” means heaven, while “Din” means earth, implying this mountain pass is where heaven and earth meet. This is no exaggeration. From halfway up to the highest point, it feels like you are lost in the clouds, with your feet touching the ground, and fluffy clouds embracing the nearby mountains. In the distant valley lie peaceful villages and glimpses of stilt houses and luxuriant rice and corn fields.

O Quy Ho Pass

Which pass is snow-covered?

O Quy Ho Pass, which connects Lao Cai and Lai Chau, is rare in Vietnam because it gets covered in snow, making it utterly charming in the winter. The highest point of this mountain pass, known as the Heavenly Gate, is more than 2,000 kilometers above sea level. From here, looking at both sides of the pass into two provinces, one can catch sight of the Lai Chau Valley encircled by mighty mountains, and the magnificent summit of Fansipan. In the winter, when cold air rushes in, it snows heavily on O Quy Ho, luring travelers to this highland. Stretching nearly 50 kilometers long, O Quy Ho Pass has been used as part of the course in many marathons, and is dearly loved by athletes who can both compete and enjoy the road’s dreamy natural scenery of spectacular falls and peaks, and the pure air of serene mountains and forests.

View from Khau Pha Pass

Which pass is the busiest during the golden season?

In the Northwest, the golden season – when the rice crops are ready for harvest, starts in the middle of September. At this time, the roads to the terraced fields grow busier than usual. During this time, the renowned Khau Pha Pass in the northern province of Yen Bai is the most crowded, since it is home to the Mu Cang Chai terraced fields, the most beautiful of their kind in Vietnam. In the ethnic Thai language Khau Pha means “the horn of heaven”, because Thai people say the peaks rising above a sea of clouds resemble a horn pointing majestically skywards. This 30-kilometer-long mountain road features multiple bends, with picturesque forests, mountains and terraced fields coming into sight. When the terraced rice fields turn golden, Khau Pha Pass is an ideal destination for passionate paragliders, allowing them to challenge the heights and admire the forests and mountains when they are at their most impressive. As Khau Pha Pass is rated as one of the 10 most beautiful destinations for paragliders in the world, its reputation has reached far beyond Vietnam’s borders.