Ba Be Lake is a great place to visit and nowhere near as crowded as places such as: Ha Long, Sa Pa, Ninh Binh etc… You can make a visit to the lake itself or make it part of a larger loop to Cao Bang or a stop off on the way back from Meo Vac, Ha Giang.
Some people choose to stay two nights so that they can spend a day either chilling in a hammock, on a boat to see the sites around the lake (Ba Goa Island, Fairy Lake, Dau Dang Waterfall, Puong Cave), Kayaking to one of the small islands for a picnic, or driving on the several small loops around the lake.
Perhaps the only down side is that the lake is quite a long way away from Hanoi. It will take the whole day to get there or back and there are not any decent places to stop over along the route. Of course Bac Kan or Thai Nguyen are options but they are not very good ones.
There is a huge range of accommodation options for all budgets and guest types. The only time I would say be wary is vietnamese national holidays as the place will be packed out and it is hard to find somewhere to stay unless you book in advance.
As you will see below, I recommend taking the back road route from Hanoi and not the ‘tour bus route’ as I call it. It is marked in a brownish colour for a reason.
Hanoi to Ba Be - Route 1
This is a long route and it takes the whole day to get to the lake from Hanoi. You will see on Google Maps that it is marked at about 4 hrs driving but this will not include any late departures, traffic, pit stops or just general goofing around. therefore, Leave early, before 9am if you can, or earlier.
The first leg of the trip up to Thai Nguyen is often busy with traffic and very dull. You need to be careful not to take the CT07 as no motorbikes are allowed on this highway. You can easily set Google Maps to ‘motorbike mode’ or ‘avoid tolls / highways’ to achieve this. It is probably a good idea to regroup at Thai Nguyen so you don’t lose anyone. You will hit a roundabout and that is a good spot with a lot of cafes nearby.
For this route we suggest you head further North past Thai Nguyen to Yen Do. This is where I advise you to turn off the QL3 and onto the QL3c / DT268 as it is a much more interesting and quieter route up to the lower end of the lake. NOTE google maps may route you on the new highway up to Bac Kan (brown route)
After Yen Do it is a straight run following the DT254 and I suggest you take the quieter DT254B for a stretch to get on the smaller road. Then you head up to Bang Lung, better known as Cho Don. There are plenty of little cafes and eateries here as it is a fairly busy junction town.
Then, you just head for the lake as the road becomes quieter and quieter.
Hanoi to Ba Be via Bac Kan
The second route of choice from Hanoi is to go via Bac Kan. Your first real choice comes just as you are leaving Thai Nguyen. You will see that there is the new route to Bac Kan. This is a fast and clear stretch of highway and you will make good time on it. There is something to be said for taking this route and then turning West as Bac Kan. With a quick pit stop in Thai Nguyen and then again in Bac Kan, you will find that this route is pretty fast and easy.
After Bac Kan, you head towards Bang Lung, Cho Don on the DT 257 which is a great road. After this you head North on the DT254 just like the route above.
You could opt to take the QL3 up to Yen Do and then further up to Bac Kan but this would not seem logical. The QL3 and the DT254 are similar even though the QL3 has a little more traffic. You would be making your journey longer for no real gain.
The back road
Around 5km before Cho Don there is a small back road that will take you to the lake
There are a variety of other route options from different destinations that you might be coming from as part of a loop of the North. I have listed some ideas and comments below and ordered them by the likelihood that you will be using them.
From Cho Ra
Cho Ra is about 15km from Ba Be National Park. You will pass through this small town if you are coming from Cao Bang, Tinh Tuc or Bao Lac. The road is easy to follow and well signposted, if you plan to go direct. It is a quick and easy route.
There is a detour that will take you off the DT254 and on a much quieter road that I have heard is a good drive but I have yet to take it myself. This would be good for the adventurous but the 254 is quite a pleasant drive in itself. This road will link up with the back road from the DT257 and then lead you to the lake.
From Na Hang
There are two routes that will take you from Na Hang to Ba Be Lake. The longer and easier is marked in light purple and take you on the DT176 and then eastwards on the DT187. Once you cross the border of Tuyen Quang Province to Bac Kan Province, this becomes the DT255 and continues on to Cho Don.
However, around 15km after turning off the DT176 there is a back road that will take you over to the DT254. This is a small winding road that is easy to pass and is a bit of a shortcut.
From Bac Me
This is a difficult route to follow and only recommended for those who like adventure and are used to asking for directions. The DT176 has been upgraded in recent years but are still challenging in parts. You will pass through some fairly remote areas so a degree of self sufficiency is needed.