Imagine a 2,000+km canvas of sand dunes, rice fields, cave systems, jungles, crystal blue coastline, beaches, mountain ranges and more, and you get to see it all at your own pace from the most panoramic & fun viewpoint there is – by motorcycle. That’s what’s in store for you when you choose to buy or rent a motorcycle in either Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south or Hanoi in the north and ride the scenic route all the way to the other end. Being an avid rider and both of us loving independent travel, this felt like a no brainer to us and we recorded our journey down to a tee so we could share it with you! We’ll be covering:
- How to get a motorcycle
- Recommended preparations
- A detailed route from HCMC to Hanoi, including GPS coordinates
- A breakdown of the costs of motorbiking
If you’d prefer to do Vietnam by bus, feel free to scroll down to LAGI
Getting a Motorcycle and Prepping
There are many avenues to source motorcycle from, including bike shops, backpackers’ posters plastered in hostels, Craigslist and Facebook groups such as Vietnam Backpacker Sales. The majority of these will offer “110cc Honda Wins,” though be warned none of these are authentic Honda products and reliability isn’t exactly the greatest, no matter how many sellers will tell you they “never had a problem.” We shared a single bike for the two of us AND 27kg of our combined luggage, and even though it got us through the journey, it wasn’t without numerous trips to the repair shop along the way. The Wins are certainly affordable ($150 to $250 US) and with mechanics just about everywhere across Vietnam, any issues that may crop up can be handled promptly. We would recommend it for solo riders, so if there’s two of you or heavy luggage, you’re better off looking for a machine with a 125cc engine or bigger.
These are things you’ll want to get changed all new when you buy the bike and again at the following intervals.
- Oil Change: Every 500km or every 400km if the bike has been driven hard
- Chain: Tighten every oil change
- Spark plug(s): Replace every 2nd oil change.
- Bearings: Will take a beating if there’s a lot of weight on the bike. Should be checked regularly and replaced when needed.
- Air filter: Replace every 1000km.
We recommend refueling every 50 to 75km for a few reasons. First is this ensures your engine is always taking in the cleanest gas possible and not the collected sediment it sucks in from a tank less than half full. Secondly, it gives both you and your engine a chance you rest, even if for a little bit. Lastly, it ensures you’ll never be stranded on an empty tank. Make sure to fill up only at official gas stations, since the homebrew fuel sold by locals is both overpriced and not the cleanest.
A useful accessory to get installed is a USB charger and phone holder (assuming you’re using your phone to navigate and don’t have/trust your passenger to do it for you).
Expected Costs & Breakdown
At our leisurely pace, it took us 21 days for 13 cities & towns between HCMC and Hanoi, though speed beasts can do it in 6 days flat. You’ll need to be prepared along the way:
- Bungee cords: The more the better to keep your bag secured.
- Bag covers & heavy duty ponchos: You’ll need them, it WILL rain at some point on your ride, dry season or not.
- Riding clothes (optional): The nylon rain pants and light jacket we opted for kept not only dust, but also the chill off you when in higher elevation areas, such as around Dalat, and Hai Van Pass (north of Danang).
- Face mask (optional): Because a mouthful of traffic exhaust or country road grit is never fun.
THE GRAND SOUTH TO NORTH JOURNEY
Keep in mind that if you start in Hanoi, simply follow this guide in reverse!
We recommend getting out of HCMC as early in the morning as possible to beat the heat and the brunt of traffic. You’ll have 2 routes to choose from:
(i) The most direct route that’s easiest to follow, but notoriously congested with heavy trucks and dusty traffic is the Highway 1. (ii) The alternate and more enjoyable route is Highway 51, then merging onto the coastal Highway 55. You have have a number of beach spots to either stop or even stay overnight at, just follow this excellent article by Vietnam Coracle –> Camping the Ocean Road: Saigon to Nha Trang
Lagi is a sleepy port town we’d personally recommend a night or two in, home to picturesque port views, a massively ornate Buddhist temple, a charming park featuring community talent shows, and the best Hieu tieu we’ve had to date. It also serves as a decent stop to break up the long trip out of Ho Chi Minh A quite new and sparkling clean hotel to stay at is the Minh Nhi Hotel.
Dragonfruit & Salt Fields
The coastal road between Lagi and Mui Ne offer some really fantastic dragonfruit fields – complete with roadside vendors offering the BEST mouthwatering dragonfruit you’ll ever have – followed by awe-inspiring salt fields. Navigate to 10.728244 107.87191 to take you to a small suspension bridge crossing a river, after which you’ll find rows and rows of deep green vines coupled with bulbous pink dragon fruits. You’ll find the salt fields stretching as far as you can see around 10.731258 107.88849 , snow white and pure.
GPS: < 10.706205 107.98727 > To keep yourself on the coastal road, navigate to this point. Once there, re-reoute yourself directly to Mui Ne.
Mui Ne is one of those places where we wish we could’ve stayed longer, as it’s one of the most attractive beach spots for Saigon residents, but it has a handful of other natural wonders to offer as well.
- White Sand Dunes: Mui Ne is unique in Vietnam by being a hotspot for desert-like sand dunes. We can’t recommend enough to wake up before dawn and arrive at 5AM, before anyone else does with their offensively noisy ATV rentals. The sky is painted in incredible hues of red, pink, orange and yellow on clear days, juxtaposed against sand dunes that seem to stretch on like a real desert. Keep in mind that these are en route to Dalat, so it’s best to hit it up when you’re leaving Mui Ne for Dalat.
- Fairy Stream (Suoi Tien): A shallow stream flows past a valley of coconut palms on one side while red while white sand dunes intermix on the other, creating a smorgasbord of colour. Early in the morning or the last hours of evening are recommended.
- Red Sand Dunes: The Red Sand Dunes are quite popular as they have signs of civilization around them. Fantastic for sunset shots as the setting sunlight really sets the copper-coloured sand on fire.
- Where to Stay: Longson Mui Ne. This place is a crazy affordable, open concept beachfront hostel located 15km north of the main Mui Ne strip. There is a hostel dorm, but the majority of property is about tent camping! There are a limited number of tents on the sand and a fair more on grass grounds, all fitted with a mattress, pillows and blanket to keep you comfortable. A beach tent will treat you to a magnificent sunrise over the ocean, and can run you as little as $2 USD a night! They have a full restaurant with a $1 menu, a couple of bars and a game lounge. You may not want to leave!
- Crazy House: This house is wackier than if the Mad Hatter himself mashed together a playground and a house! Known locally as Mrs. Hang Nga, Crazy House is her brainchild 30 years in the making. It contains multiple buildings shaped as twisted faces, skulls or animals with winding staircases, melting windows and maze-like paths. Though it’s a bit of a safety hazard for children, you can even rent one of the several nature-themed rooms to stay in. Reservations can be made on Agoda or Booking.com – we wish we had!
- 100 Roofs Cafe: Designed by a student of Crazy House, 100 Roofs takes the twisted maze fun beyond comprehensible levels of insane fun! Over 5 floors of labyrinths are offered at this bar that whips up some really good drinks to boot. It gets pretty busy on the rooftop bar as the night wears on, so try to arrive early and have fun getting lost. TIP: If you have plans to do both this and Crazy House, do Crazy House first, since 100 Roofs takes it to the next level.
- New and Flea Market: Head into downtown by the lake to find an expansive market full of food stalls, new products and a flea market.
- Dalat’s Waterfalls: There’s several great waterfalls to catch around Dalat. Here’s Vietnam Coracle’s amazing article about Dalat’s waterfalls to catch you up: Vietnam Coracle’s Waterfall Guide for Dalat.
- Dalat Backpackers Hostel: Recommended to us by Longsan Mui Ne, and thankfully so. They hook you up with a FREE vegetarian welcome dinner the day you check-in, and free beer every night from 6:30pm to about 7:15pm. They offer both dormitories and private rooms, and we can attest that their private room was pretty good. It’s just a tad outside of the main town area on the other side of the lake, but it’s all just a 15 minute walk away. They also offer a fantastic “canyoning” daytrip, though it’s actually abseiling and all sorts of awesome fun.
From Dalat, we HIGHLY recommend taking the 723 towards Nha Trang. Gorgeous scenery along the way.
GPS: < 12.189011 108.72025 > These are the coordinates for that highway waterfall everyone has a picture in front of. Expect it to be steep going up. We crawled along in 1st or 2nd with our Win, but were rewarded with amazing views from the top.
From Dalat to Nha Trang, you absolutely cannot miss out on Highway #2. As the elevation gets higher, you can feel the botany and atmosphere changing and you’ll see layers of mountains ahead once you’re high enough. From Highway #2, you can turn onto #8b and then #8.
This a big name when it comes to Vietnam for being a big tourist destination. However, keep in mind that in recent years it has transformed into an area that caters quite largely to the overwhelming influx of Russian tourists and entrepreneurs. Both Instagram and Vietnamese locals will tell you that straight up. In addition, when we stopped for a hot minute to check out its beach, it was quite underwhelming. As a result, we decided to bypass Nha Trang altogether.
Quy Nhon was one of the absolute best spots we could have accidentally fallen in love with. Located 340km from Dalat or 215km from Nha Trang, our plan to stay one night turned into four. Its amazingly lengthy beach had neither a single person nor piece of trash on a hot afternoon, allowing us to enjoy the big (surfable) waves all to ourselves. The city itself has a fantastic communal feel, with locals rollerskating in the big public park. Movie theaters, malls and mega supermarkets, along with a lively night scene all tied in. However, it’s not a big tourist destination, as we may have seen less than 5 Westerners here in 4 nights. But, we liked that.
- Where to Stay: Thanh Tung Hotel is just a few blocks from the beach and offered a brand spanking new double room for just 200,000 VND (nine USD) in cash. The English speaking manager – the owners’ son – was so nice, he escorted us personally to three different mechanics two days in a row to both negotiate prices and translate for us.
The Scenic Backroads to Hoi An
Hoi An was the next big stop on our route, and quite frankly, one of the most famous small towns in Vietnam. But avoiding homicidal trucks and buses to get there was a pretty big priority. Since Google Maps will try to get you there via the shortest route possible, here are coordinates to plug in to keep you on quieter backroads.
1) < 14.160988, 109.150243 >
2) < 14.564286, 109.064956 >
From plot #2, you don’t really have a choice but to merge onto the highway. You could then take the highway directly into Hoi An, particularly if you’re in a rush. Or, punch in the following GPS coordinates for a scenic adventure.
3) < 15.556351, 108.541350 >
4) < 15.594258, 108.549091 >
These will veer you off the highway and onto a dirt road that will rumble you through picturesque rice fields before getting you to bizarrely unique raising bridge made ONLY for 2 wheelers and pedestrians. Neither of us have ever seen anything like it. After the bridge, the road cuts past peaceful villages with trees hanging overhead like a canopy.
5) < 15.887951, 108.374210 >
(Choose the alternate route that takes you in a straight line, not the original route that puts you back on the highway).
This will turn you onto a pretty fantastic ride on a brand new and nearly empty backroad highway that runs a straight line into Hoi An. Once you cross the big bridge, route yourself to wherever your lodging is in Hoi An and you’ve arrived!
Hoi An is a tourist favourite, and for many reasons, most of which can widely be found via Trip Advisor and more popular online sources. Our pro tip recommendations:
- Cheaper laundry and drinks are on the north side of the river, across the “Old Town.”
- Do NOT get any mechanical work done in Hoi An. It is well-known for being rip-off central for anything related to motorbike mechanics.
- Felina Cantina: Who knew one of the BEST Tex-Mex we’ve had to date outside of the Western hemisphere would be in Hoi An, Vietnam of all places. For a mere 75,000 VND (3.37USD) we devoured the veggie burrito with 15,000 VND extra “wet” option of cheese and enchilada sauce (wouldn’t have been nearly as good without the wet option) was delicious and very filling. Bonus is it’s close to the beach (but far from the rest of town) but definitely worth checking out.
- Reaching Out Cafe: With golden tea sets fit for Persian royalty, come to truly enjoy the silence at a place where the employees are hearing and/or speech impaired. You communicate using blocks with words imprinted on them, or via a notepad rather than vocally. A truly unique experience.
- The Marble Mountains: This is found just off the main highway on the 20 minute ride north to Da Nang. Legend has it that these five limestone mountains jutted into the sky from the fragments of a dragon’s egg. We only visited one but it featured an internal spiral staircase leading to a view from the summit, as well as an underground labyrinth with ominous lighting. If you plan on exploring all five mountains, you reportedly need four hours and a pair of comfortable footwear for the inclines.
Da Nang is well worth a stay if you enjoy having a mix of metropolis and the beach life. Direct flights into Da Nang from local powerhouses like South Korea have brought in a pile of tourists. During the day, lounge on the expansive beach lined with palm trees. At night, many of the tourists flock to the downtown core that has been designed to resemble a pseudo-Singapore, with a waterfront boardwalk and a ripoff of the Merlion to boot.
- Dragon Bridge: One of the main attractions of Da Nang, this massive bridge is designed as life-size dragon that breathes fire at 9:00PM everyday!
- Asia Park: This is an amusement park nearby with a decent offering of thrill rides and home of the 13th tallest ferris wheel in the world, all for 200,000 VND per person.
Hai Van Pass
GPS: < 16.352342, 107.922512 >
Famous for a reputation as a treacherous high elevation mountain pass, thanks to Top Gear.
Despite all the hype, it wasn’t nearly as treacherous as people made it out to be. As a comparison, the mountainous Highway #2 out of Dalat was steeper. With that said, it was incredibly blustery and entirely enveloped by clouds, so suit up, hold on tight, and ride cautiously! Once you come back down the other side, you’ll be treated to legions of flatlands all the way to Hué, with rice fields and crops as far as the eye can see, dotted with the occasional mountain range.
Hue is most famous for its Purple Forbidden City, a historic citadel modeled after Beijing’s own Forbidden City. There’s a ton of history to explore here, both within the paid section of the citadel and outside of the paid section. Since Barun had already been to the actual Forbidden City, and admission to Hue’s Purple version was a bit steep for our budget, we skipped the paid section. We made up for it by exploring several different historical exhibitions free of charge within the citadel (the walled ancient city) itself. We also took it upon ourselves to walk into the citadel’s guard towers for free, which were completely devoid of tourists, or anyone else for that matter, which gave us an uninterrupted bird’s eye view of the city from above.
GPS: < 17.074671 107.112799 >
With enough ancient history to last us a while, we got an early start out of Hue and rocketed towards one of the most unique sites to be found in the land of pho and ban mi – the legendary Vietnam War era tunnels of Vinh Moc.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without wandering one of the underground tunnel systems used by entire Vietnamese villages to survive the US-led bombings during the Vietnam War. Cuci Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh city are the most famous ones, thanks to their proximity to a major city, but this also makes them oversaturated with tourists. The Vinh Moc tunnels and their somewhat random location in the middle of the country means they’re often empty, making making for an eerily fascinating experience to explore them in person. While the southern Cuci Tunnels were used as a bunker for active fighters, Vinh Moc was primarily used as living quarters for 60 families totaling up to 300 people for six long years. To make life underground a little more bearable, the corridors are less claustrophobic than those of Cuci by reaching heights of up to 1.8 meters in some areas and never reaching shorter than 1.5 meters. At just 150cm tall, Jen never had to duck once but taller Barun came out with a sore back! Vinh Moc also enjoys better air circulation thanks to the beach and coast being next door. The two kilometer network is split into 3 stories, with the shallowest being for living quarters, the middle level for munition storage, and the deepest as refuge during bombings. A museum offers English documentary screenings about the tunnels. Though there is supposed to be a on-site English guide, there wasn’t one when we arrived, but we were lucky enough to tag along with a solo traveler who hired one from the nearest town. We’d suggest hiring a guide ahead of time to make the best of the experience.
GPS: < 16.352342, 107.922512 >
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has earned itself the title of a UNESCO World Heritage with it’s larger-than-life caves and all-green beauty. So if you’re down for some adventure, plot your
Advice from a friend:
“I would highly recommend the west part of Ho Chih Min highway, especially south of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. I just rode around the park and the mountain view was amazing. However, for going south (from Phong Nha to Hue), I chose the east part of Ho Chih Min highway instead of the more beautiful west part because of safety issue — the west part is much longer, no mechanics on the way, and I was alone, not familiar with fixing any bike problem…Anyway, you could still try if you have other friends driving together or you feel confident to fix some small problems.”
Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park
You’ll be able to spot it by the massive grouping of limestone cliffs huddled together amongst rice fields adorned with a massive Phong Nha-Ke Bang sign that glows into the night. The village – that’s how small it is – is a one road affair, lined exclusively with lodging, restaurants and tour agencies catering entirely to tourists looking to take on the national park. The big attractions include:
- Hang Son Doong: The largest cave in the entire world, confirmed in 2009. Tours are coordinated exclusively through Oxalis Adventure Tours with a $3000 US pricetag and a 2-3 year wait list.
- Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave): If you’re ever seen the Notre Dame Basilica of Montréal, you’ll have an idea of the glowing multi-coloured splendor you can expect to see inside Paradise Cave. Most visitors gawk at the first kilometer of magnificent blue, yellow and gray cave formations illuminated by spotlights. Alternatively, you can take on a special 7km excursion of Paradise Cave for 2,650,000 VND, which includes swimming in the cave and lunch under sunlight streaming through a natural cave sunroof.
- Dark Cave (Hong Tai): While Paradise Cave was about seeing something amazing, Dark Cave was all about doing something pretty amazing! You can choose to explore the national park either with a group tour or on your own. The price of 450,000 VND will hook you up with ziplining across a river, swimming to the mouth of the cave, exploring in the pitch black darkness with headlamps, jumping into giant mud pits, kayaking out, taking on the river obstacle course, and floating in the river on tubes. You absolutely can’t miss out on this!
- Paradise & Dark Cave Group Tour: The latter two caves above can be done on your own for less than 800,000 VND all in, but we signed up for a group trip to get the full experience with transportation, lunch, tour guide, and to meet new people. As of May 2016, it’ll cost you 1,350,000 VND per person for the most popular package of Paradise Cave & Dark Cave, which is offered by all the tour agencies, but Easy Tiger and Phongnha Discovery offer the best customer service & people to meet. Our calculations showed us that you receive more than what you pay for, including one of the most epic lunches ever, and several glasses of local rum along with an acoustic performance before heading home.
- Where to Stay: Easy Tiger Hostel is where just about everybody stays. It has all the fixings of a great hostel, including a live music scene at night, though the singer when we were there was devoid of any ‘talent’ (yikes!).
- Where to Stay: Phong Nha Farm Stay is an affiliate of Easy Tiger and highly reviewed by the customers we ran into, but with the downside (or upside, depending on your perspective) of being secluded from everything else. Otherwise, there are several old and new hotels up and down the street that you can shop around at, where we decided to settle on a newly built establishment with a great room but lackluster staff.
After Phong Nha, most people heading north stop for a night in the large city of Vinh to break up their journey to Ninh Binh. Running short on time, we chose to burn through all 400km between Phong-Nha and Ninh Binh in one day, which took us about 10 hours with minimal stops along the way.
Ninh Binh and its surrounds, such as Tam Coc to the south, is an area rich with river channels that cut right through the countless jagged karsts (limestone mountains) dotting the horizon.There’s a plethora of pagodas, national parks and even a floating village to explore (see map).
- Boat Tours: The most popular activity in Ninh Binh is to hop on a 3-hour paddleboat trip down the river channels and through the caves. There are two different boat trips you can take in the area, but our insider recommendation is to do Trang An and NOT Tam Coc. Trang An is aimed at Vietnamese and other ASEAN tourists, therefore it’s not infested with atmosphere-killing pushy vendors that the Westerner-catered Tam Coc boat tour is. Make sure to watch your head and be ready to duck when you enter the caves, the ceiling gets pretty low at times! The views from the open rivers are to die for and you’ll definitely want to have an extra phone or camera battery on hand. The whole trip is paddle-powered by a local man or woman, and every passenger will have their own paddle available to get their hands wet and paddle along too, if you so desire. We’ll point out that you are NOT required to tip even though they may ask mid-boat ride; Non-Vietnamese customers have to pay nearly double for admission anyways, so your 150,000 VND ticket covers extra costs that the Vietnamese admission of 80,000 VND may not. Also, bring water and a snack to avoid the inflated prices and limited selection for both along the way.
- Bái Đính Pagoda will be a place that will keep you walking, and walking and walking some more for good measure. It is by far the largest temple/pagoda we have ever visited. Ever. Peaceful to no bounds and lined with a neverending statue army of Buddhist monks, devote an hour or two for some downtown and peaceful inflection at this attraction.
- Where to Stay: Tam Coc Bamboo Homestay. Located 7.5km south of Ninh Binh, we enjoyed our stay here with just a couple of reservations. First off, it’s wedged between lush rice fields and magnificent limestone cliffs at the edge of the ghost town that is Tam Coc. That also means it’s isolated with few people or alternate food sources around. Luckily, the warm and friendly female owner with very limited English cooks some of the best dishes we had on our whole trip So, if you’re okay with the isolated peace and quiet in exchange for amazing food and environment, this is the place to stay.