If you missed Part 1, the background to riding across Vietnam, it explains what convinced me to take the risk in hiring a bike and ride from the north to south of Vietnam. You may also be interested in my (semi-serious) guide to road laws in Vietnam.
I am very grateful to Style Motorbikes who assisted me during this trip. I have not been paid to recommend them, however I would happily encourage anyone looking to rent a bike in Vietnam to check them out. This route was mostly their recommendation with some personal touches along the way. Accommodation is everywhere so grab a bike and get exploring!
Finally you may be wondering why I use the names Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon interchangeably, I explain this at the end.
Day 1 – Hanoi to Mai Chau – 140km
Tip: Before leaving Hanoi make sure you have explored the sites in the city and Halong Bay. I recommend visiting Halong Bay on an organised tour rather than riding there. Most operators offer free, or low cost, hotel transfer to the boats. Having watched as my bus driver fought the traffic on some rather shabby roads it would be a long and stressful first ride to meet the boat on time on your own, especially if that was your first day riding in Vietnam.
Picking up the bike and seeing my luggage strapped to the back for the very first time I felt a strange combination of the most excited, and most terrified, I had been during my whole trip so far. I hadn’t ridden in several years and the idea of being let loose on the crazy streets of Vietnam got the adrenaline pumping.
The first hurdle was finding petrol. As the bikes are all kept inside the shops overnight they have just enough fuel in them to get to the petrol station. Waving goodbye to the helpful staff I pulled onto the main road and immediately had to cross 4 lanes of traffic to get to an exit on the other side of the dual carriageway. Still wondering if I had made the right decision I quickly came across the petrol station and watched the cost tick up in the hundreds of thousands for a couple of litres of fuel, just like being at home!
Fully fuelled and having checked the map it was time for the hardest part of the next 2 weeks, escaping Hanoi. Traffic in the cities is hard to imagine. Lane markings, one way streets, traffic lights, all of these are advisory it seems as hundreds of mopeds and bikes fight for space amongst the cars, buses and trucks in an amazing ballet that leaves you mystified how there aren’t more crashes. Horns blare and lights flash as you’re passed on both sides with vehicles travelling in all directions. This is not for the faint hearted!
The best advice I heard too late is to find a Grab driver (think Uber on a bike) and ask them to lead the way out of the city so all you have to do is follow them.
Instead I slowly made my way from junction to junction, stopping every few hundred metres to check Google Maps, occasionally finding myself in a swarm of mopeds sitting perilously exposed across lanes of cross traffic and hoping the adage about safety in numbers was true.
Eventually the roads widened and the high rises fell away leaving only pot holes, the odd cow and an endless parade of street food vendors.
Here it started to become enjoyable. The average speed increased to a dizzying 40km/h (25mph!) and I was able to relax a little and appreciate the scenery.
The route to Mai Chau involves generally sticking to the main road and heading straight and there are plenty of road side huts providing food and drink if you need it.
As you get farther away from Hanoi the countryside begins to show its beauty with gigantic limestone monoliths, similar to those found in the waters of Halong Bay, surrounded by mountains and lush green forests. You could stop a hundred times to take photos on the way and still miss things.
About 100km in you’ll start heading up into the mountains themselves. The climb is quite impressive and there is a noticeable temperature drop as you rise higher and higher.
Avoid the massive diesel trucks hauling everything from coal to pigs either struggling up the steep inclines at 10km/h or barrelling down in the opposite direction hoping their brakes will work to stop them disappearing over the cliff edge.
Tip: When you stop to fill up with fuel at one of the petrol stations outside the main city grab a plastic poncho in case it rains. I had 12 days of brilliant sunshine, but the 2 days of rain really made me wish I had planned ahead!
Once you’ve reached the peak and begin descending on the other side you’ll be able to look down into the valley where endless rice fields and jungle extend into the distance. That is Mai Chau, the first overnight stop.
Coming back down the other side of the mountains I was very conscious of the unknown history of the bike I was on and the constant warnings about 10%+ declines. Rather than risk falling off a mountain on my first day I erred on the side of caution and made steady progress in 2nd gear engine braking all the way down! Eventually I made it to the valley floor and the beautiful village of Mai Chau, a place I imagine that is only going to get more popular with tourists but for now is just hard enough to get to that it limits the numbers, helping it retain the authentic feel.
Day 2 – Mai Chau to Pu Luong – 110km
Waking up early I first set off in the wrong direction. Just north of Mai Chau is a tiny village and hidden behind some houses is Go Lao Waterfall.
Surprisingly busy with a steady stream of visitors, despite the early hour, it has avoided most of the commercialisation that other waterfalls, especially those further south in Da Lat, have suffered.
Instead you leave your bike at one of the houses where they’ll keep it and your luggage safe for 10,000 VND (35p) whilst you descend the makeshift stairs cut into the mud of the hillside to the base of the falls.
There are reviews of people swimming in the water, and it looked generally clean, but one of the groups I passed said they had been told there were bugs in there best left alone. Deciding discretion was the better choice when I planned to be on the road alone for the next 2 weeks I resigned to just sitting in the shade and enjoying the view for a short while.
After this it was back on the bike to start southwards again and into Pu Luong Nature Reserve.
If you were amazed by the scenery of Day 1 then you’ll love Day 2 as you ride up and down mountains with views across a valley full of jungles and terraced rice fields, passing through little villages as children run along the road waving and shouting “HELLO!”
If you have extra days available then it is well worth staying at one of the guest houses, nha nghi, in the reserve itself and spending some time on the various hikes. If you’re on a time limit then I recommend PuLuong Hostel which is on the otherside of the reserve and puts you in the best position to start Day 3. When I stayed there I was the only guest and had the entire hostel to myself, perfect when I just wanted somewhere to eat and sleep before heading off again.
Despite a similar distance to yesterday the better roads mean you’ll make faster progress and less pot holes mean a less bumpy experience!
Day 3 – Pu Luong to Ha Tinh – 275km
The first super long riding day. The goal of today and tomorrow is to get 500km towards Phong Nha* so Ha Tinh is not the place to be you’ll want to make as much progress as possible to reduce the distance needed tomorrow.
Even so the roads here were in much better condition and I was able to make decent progress and by this point I was really getting back into riding and feeling confident on the bike. It was only when I remembered the only safety gear I had on was a helmet and gloves that I slowed back down to a more Vietnamese pace!
*The original plan from Style Bikes was to head to Ke Bong National Park and Phong Nha which is apparently beautiful and potentially worth spending a couple of days if you have time. Due to increased police checks and risk of the bike being confiscated or heavy fines/bribes I decided to skip Phong Nha and to head more towards the coast.
Day 4 – Ha Tinh to Dong Hoi – 220km
Trying to avoid the police checks of Phong Nha I picked a random city on the coast as my destination as I was hoping to meet some friends I had made in Hanoi the next day in Hue.
By a stroke of good fortune I found Dong Hoi, a beach town which a sandy beach that stretched far into the distance but was completely empty on my arrival. The only company I had whilst swimming in the sea was a herd of cows who migrated across the sand seeking greener pastures.
The roads in Vietnam seem to be focused on getting people north and south and the road conditions change dramatically as you head east or west. The ride today was therefore somewhat less enjoyable than previous days with many pot holes and unpaved roads but this was made easier by the even friendlier welcome I received from locals as I passed through who seemed completely surprised to see a foreigner in their villages, being well off the normal backpacker route.
This surprise stop provided a much needed rest as the effects of long distance riding began to appear in various aches and pains in my back and the accommodation here was unbelievably cheap. There were signs of huge modern hotels being constructed as large concrete frames and tall cranes filled the skyline suggesting this would be another place that whilst relatively untouched by tourism currently expected a surge in visitors in the years ahead. Having experienced the warm seas, clean beach and cheap hostels I can fully believe they’ll be right.
Day 5 – Dong Hoi to Hue – 170km
A very easy ride compared to yesterday, back onto paved roads which, in some cases, rivalled those back in the UK.
This was the first day I got caught in a rain storm and after taking shelter under a petrol station roof I struck up a conversation via Google Translate with a local taxi driver.
We spent 10 minutes finding out about each other’s respective lives before he began his sales pitch on me to sell me a Vietnamese girl, only $10. Despite my attempts to steer the conversation away he persisted and in the end I decided the rain was now more appealing than this conversation and wrapping myself up in a coat I had carried since leaving England and only worn once I was incredibly grateful I had not left it in America like I had originally planned.
Only a mile down the road the blue skies returned and in no time at all I was completely dry again and able to continue on to Hue without further issues.
Hue is a bustling tourist city with roadside peddlers offering everything from Banh Mi to Marijuana (I skipped this as well if you’re wondering!) and constant attempts by people to strike up conversations with you only to try and sell you something.
One of the perks of being a tourist city though was the higher standard in accommodation than the more rural places I had been staying. I was very happy to sink into a hot bath and ease my tired muscles from the riding.
Day 6 I spent in Hue itself, exploring the Imperial Citadel and usual tourist spots, before getting a relatively early night for the ride tomorrow.
Day 7 – Hue to Hoi An (and the Hai Van Pass) – 130km
Tip: If you have extra time in your schedule consider stopping at Da Nang on the way, unfortunately I didn’t have time but those I have met along the way enjoyed a day or two here.
The Hai Van Pass was made famous by Top Gear on their motorcycle ride when they went in the opposite direction from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. This mountain pass has been bypassed by a highway tunnel for those short on time but the original road takes you on a journey up and over the mountains whilst riding parallel to the sea and beaches.
There are some amazing views and the road is well maintained as a now popular tourist attraction, however still keep an eye out for the odd truck avoiding the tolls of the newer road as it comes round a blind bend on the wrong side of the road overtaking the group of tourists on bikes paying more attention to the scenery than where they’re going!
On the other side you’ll head down into Da Nang before enjoying some of the best maintained roads in Vietnam as you wind through the countryside to Hoi An, a location famous for its Ancient Town and lantern shows at night.
I took the opportunity to get the bike serviced in Hoi An at one of the branches of Style Bikes and was even offered a free beer whilst I waited, that’s good customer service!
Day 8 was spent in Hoi An visiting the Ancient Town and My Son ruins. You can either ride your bike 40km to My Son or hire a driver who’ll take you in an air conditioned car and wait in the car park until you’re done and take you back to your hotel. I recommend the car for this one.
Day 9 – Hoi An to Kon Tum – 290km
There are two main options for getting to Ho Chi Minh City from Hoi An, you can either stick to the coast or head back into the mountains. Having had my fill of tourists in Hue and Hoi An I decided to retreat back to my mountain villages.
This was a very long ride, nearly 8 hours, and you’ll want to leave early to get there before the sun sets. Like the journey to Dong Hoi it takes you on the east-west roads which suffer from a lack of investment.
The poorly maintained roads are made up for though with the stunning views as you pass by mountains, lakes and forests. There are also incredible man made structures like huge bridges and dams and I wish I’d had more time to stop and take photos but I was conscious that it was a long drive and Google’s time estimates are not so accurate on Vietnamese roads.
Day 10 – Kon Tum to Pleiku – 60km
After the long ride of yesterday this day allows a lay in and proper rest in the morning before setting off a short distance to the town of Pleiku.
On the way is Sea Lake which apparently has some wonderful views and photo opportunities. Unfortunately I couldn’t find these before it started to rain again and I decided to continue into town to seek shelter.
Day 11 – Pleiku to Buon Ma Thuot – 160km
After the easy day of riding yesterday it is time to put some proper KM’s under the wheels again.
The views in this part aren’t quite as good as the first few days but they are still miles away from the scenery along the M25 in the UK.
There isn’t a lot I saw to do around here and these stops were more about finding somewhere to rest along the way.
Day 12 – Buon Ma Thuot to Da Lat – 210km
Another east-west road day with the variable conditions that brings with it! Roads can change from immaculate asphalt to unpaved mud and stone without warning, regardless if its a dual carriageway or village back road.
At a few points I got stuck in the mud and had to keep an eye out for hidden pot holes in puddles from rainwater which had collected overnight.
In the last 2 hours of this day I was hit by an incredible thunderstorm. Lightning flashes lit up the entire sky as more rain than I have ever seen seemed to aim directly for me.
The ride takes you up and down mountains and sadly I did not get to see the views which I am sure would have been spectacular as I focused on trying to see the road itself through the rain and spray of vehicles passing.
Da Lat is another place that people recommend spending more time at if you can however my research showed it was more commercialised than I like and I was also on a more restrictive schedule having planned to meet someone in Ho Chi Minh. I am told it is a beautiful city but sadly all I saw were rivers of water streaming through the streets.
I was so drenched by the rain that when I turned my boots upside down at the end of the day enough water poured out to fill up a glass.
If anyone decides to follow this itinerary I hope they have better weather, and remember to buy a plastic poncho before the rain comes!
Day 13 – Da Lat to Cat Tien National Park – 165km
Making a hasty get away first thing in the morning due to another forecast thunderstorm I set out towards Cat Tien National Park. This preserved jungle is the final stop before the chaos of Saigon.
Again this place is well worth exploring for longer if you have the time to take a guided hike through the park and truly appreciate the natural surroundings.
As I neared Saigon the roads kept improving and thankfully the forecast storms did not appear until I was safely in my hotel for the night.
Day 14 – Cat Tien to Saigon – 140km
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon – What’s in a name? From Hanoi you’ll see signs for Ho Chi Minh City and there is a clear reverence for Ho Chi Minh himself, the man who lead the revolution and known affectionately as Uncle Ho.
As you near the city itself though, the road signs change to Saigon and there is a clear preference with the locals to still use the original French name.
The war with America saw North and South Vietnamese fighting against each other and it seems there is still a desire to retain a sense of southern identity in the use of Saigon in the region. You’ll find hotels, restaurants, tourist companies and beers proudly using the Saigon name.
Although only 140km this ride was one of the longest. The closer you get to Saigon the more traffic appears and the more chaotic the roads became.
I thought I had seen all the crazy that Vietnamese drivers had to offer however nothing had prepared me for the experience of riding into the final city. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to ride through Vietnam if I had started here instead!
Thankfully nearly 2 weeks of riding the bike had given me enough confidence and refreshed my skills enough that I was able to weave between thousands of bikes and mopeds that flow like schools of fish over roads, pavements and any spare inch of space they can find.
City planners have kindly separated much of the two wheeled traffic from the bigger vehicles with bike lanes however these are also shared with some of the largest of Saigon’s road users – city buses. They pull into the separated bike lanes to make their stops causing a ripple effect in clusters of mopeds who split and dodge around the new obstruction.
Taking twice as long as I thought it would I finally made it to the drop off point for my bike. A bike I had grown very fond off over the previous 2000km and was now sad to give back. However I had managed to avoid any accidents and there was a little bit of me relieved to have that pressure now gone!
Overall I am so glad I chose to rent a bike rather than use other means of transport to explore the country. I saw a side of Vietnam which many miss and I lost count in the first day at how many children had run alongside the bike waving and shouting “HELLO” with huge smiles on their faces.
It is also worth saying that I never felt unsafe in any place I went. I received nothing but warmth and welcome from those I met and I have completely fallen in love with Vietnam and its people.
I encourage anyone thinking about hiring a bike to explore this great country to do it!
Bike rental: 14 days at $17 a day – $238
Helmet rental: 14 days at $1/day – $14
Oil change: $4
Total: $300 (Average $22/day)
A Note on Tolls
Shortly after leaving Hanoi I came across my first toll booth. Fortunately there were bikes ahead of me and I watched with a smile on my face as I saw them use a small filter lane, which I initially thought was a pedestrian path, to avoid the barriers and any charges.
Mopeds, motorbikes and anything apparently small enough to fit in the filter lane to the far right hand side can skip the toll for free. And this was the case throughout my journey. In fact some tolls have a No Motorbikes sign on the charging lanes.
Bearing in mind the country has almost as many mopeds and motorbikes as people this was a really nice sign of a concession to the general population, and a welcome relief for my wallet!