Vietnam is must-visit destination if you are planning a motorcycle trip in to South-East Asia. Vietnam is a vibrant and fascinating country and a destination that is becoming increasingly popular on a par with countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnam offers something extraordinary to those who want to explore it on the back of a motorcycle: the possibility of organizing a single, linear, long trip across the country, from north to south or vice versa, including practically all the wonders that Vietnam has to offer.
Vietnam is a long stretch of land bordering the South China Sea, approximately 1650km long and 50km wide at its narrowest point. A conformation similar to that of Norway or Chilean Patagonia which imposes only one choice when it comes to organizing a motorcycle trip: traveling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly nown as Saigon) or vice versa from the south to the north.
Planning your trip
One of the typical mistakes one can make when planning a motorcycle trip to Vietnam is underestimating the amount of time needed for one’s trip. As mentioned, the roads are generally in good condition but there are many miles to go and you generally won’t want to travel on the highway, but rather through the most scenic routes the country has to offer. Any self-respecting journey must also include stops in the numerous places worthy of a view: no one travels for the sole pleasure of riding a motorbike. Also, keep in mind that people drive slowly in Vietnam, speed limits are enforced and you will encounter a lot of police along the way. Last thing not to be underestimated is to consider the possibility of visiting regions located beyond the two capitals, such as the Mekong Delta and above all the far north of the country.
So how many days?
Da Nang is probably halfway in between Hanoi and HCMC. You will probably need 5 to 10 days to ride from Saigon to Da Nang and the same amount from Da Nang to Hanoi. Though planning to get to Da Nang in 5 days means spending most of the day, something like 8 hours riding with probably not much time for visiting. It’s a very personal stat, but I personally wouldn’t plan more than 200km per day: as mentioned above people drive very slowly in Vietnam and police is everywhere. Also, a very important aspect is there are no real highways you access with a motorbike (read below).
So my advice is to consider at least 7-8 days for each of the two routes, so at least 15 days to travel from HCMC to Hanoi. If you plan to visit the Mekong Delta and the southern part of the country (not recommended) you will need another 4 or 5 days. If you have many days on your hands, rather than touring the Delta, consider exploring the country’s deep north. The northern part of Hanoi can be divided into three quadrants: the northwest, Ha Giang north of Hanoi and Cao Bang and the northeast. Each of these is recommended around 7 days since these are rural areas, served by small and winding roads.
Roads and highways
Keep in mind that like in many other countries, especially in South East Asia, most highways are reserved to cars. Motorbikes are relegated to normal roads together with trucks and mopeds. All those roads marked in yellow on Google Maps, starting with CT are cars-only highways. All other roads, QL*, DT*, are fine. If you plan using Google Maps you have to be careful when planning a trip as there is no “motorbike” option for route planning, so Maps will often try to get you on those cars-only highways. My advice: drag the route plan out of the car highways and save it so you’ll avoid surprises when traveling.
Ho Chi Minh Road?
Sometimes you will hear about the “Ho Chi Minh road”. Let’s clarify this a bit. There are 3 roads referred to as “Ho Chi Minh”. The Ho Chi Minh highway, commonly known as QL1, it’s one of the most important communication routes in the country, running from north to south along the coast. The most famous “Ho Chi Minh Trail” is a series of trails through the forest, mainly along the Laos border, which became famous due to the war as routes used by guerrillas to penetrate the south of the country. Many of these trails still exist but are not marked on maps and are no road for a motorcycle. Then there is the “Ho Chi Minh Road”, aka QL15: this road was built after the war at the behest of the famous General to connect some towns in the interior of the country, from north to south. It’s a road paved with concrete slabs that runs through valleys and mountain villages. Although it is sometimes winding and certainly slower, it’s the most recommended route for a motorcycle trip as it’s generally in good condition and almost deserted. A good alternative to the straight but boring and very busy coastal road.
North - South or viceversa?
There’s no right or wrong way of traveling across Vietnam. Travelling north to south is not better or worst than travelling south to north. Typically, you will fly to either Hanoi or Saigon: no need to organize the return journey from the other capital. Just catch one of the many internal flights and get back right where you started. So, decide if you want to travel north or south according to your feeling and especially if you feel like visiting the far north of Vietnam, or the Mekong Delta plains, south of HCMC.
In regards to a long motorcycle trip across the country, keep in mind that being prepared to face its wild climate is essential. While it’s usually hot and quite humid in the south and along the coast as far as Nha Trang, it’s absolutely not the same in Hanoi, the far north and certain mountain cities such as Dalat. The Mekong Delta is definitely hot and humid and this is one of the reasons (along with the traffic) why a bike trip is not recommended there. In a word, be prepared for heat, mild cold and rains. The weather is often unstable in the center of the country and in its interior regions.
Choosing a motorcycle rental
The advice is to choose one of the larger ones that offers quality bikes and assistance. This will be the first step towards a great journey. Normally, you won’t need an offroad bike, just choose one that has an office in Hanoi, one in HCMC and offers the possibility of returning the bike in one of the two, different from where you started.
Larger motorcycle rentals have offices and workshops in major cities across the country, generally at least one location in Hanoi and one in Saigon, and offer the unique option of renting the motorcycle from the two capitals and returning it in the other. This makes the experience of planning a trip enjoyable and doable, whichever itinerary you choose will easily include most places of interest.
The rental I have chosen
I met a French guy along the way who was traveling the country on one of these city scooters. He had two huge bags strapped to his chest, one in front and one in back. Believe me, you don’t want that. So avoid the old and awful motorcycles! Avoid rentals who try to convince you they are the best way to travel in Vietnam. Although the roads are generally in good condition, you have a long journey ahead of you and you will have no problem finding authorized workshops for Honda motorcycles or any other brand. There are many dodgy rentals, stay away from them.
I chose Tigit Motorbikes, the satisfaction was full. They have an office in HCMC, one in Hanoi, one in Danang, their bikes are perfect and the guys who work there are nice and competent. I have exchanged many messages before and after the trip and have always had comprehensive replies and fast assistance. On their site you will find various guides and suggestions to better plan your trip: my trip and this post are also the result of those.
Things to know, things you will need
You will definitely need an international driving licence. This is one of the countries where the police care that you have the right credentials to drive. If you don’t have them, it will be a good excuse to try to extort you for money. So get all the documents you need to circulate. Other than that you will need nothing more than conventional equipment for this type of trip. However, keep in mind that the weather is very changeable and it is quite frequent to find rain or bad weather. And if in the south, on the coast and in the Mekong Delta region it is generally hot and muggy, the same thing cannot be said for the north and some places in the interior: Da Lat is a mountain town and in the evening it will be quite cold. So gear up for the rain and bring at least one sweater.
Off to a great start
First day of driving my Honda along one of the big roads that leave the city, when suddenly a group of policemen jumped out of their hiding behind a car and ordered me to stop. The officer who was with them explained I was going too fast: 60kph instead of 50. When he saw my brand new international driving license he pretended it wasn’t valid in Vietnam.
They confiscated my vehicle and I had to return somehow to the Tigit office. Luckily the guys in the workshop were kind enough to come with me to “recover” the vehicle, which was returned to me without too many problems by paying a bribe of around €140.
So, about Police
Those who have experience of countries like Thailand will not be surprised if I say that in Vietnam, catching tourists breaking the rules of the road is a great opportunity for policemen to supplement their meager salary. Don’t give them an excuse to kick your ass! It is easy to regularly meet patrols entering and leaving the city. Don’t get angry (lack of respect for authority is very frowned upon), ask for explanations and if so, say that in your opinion you haven’t done anything wrong. If things go wrong, try to suggest that you would like to fix the situation somehow. A “tip” of €20-40 should get you out of trouble (although of course it depends on what you did).
Hit the road
I started my journey in Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City. There wasn’t a precise reason for this, maybe the idea was to move from the more modern Vietnam to the more typically Vietnamese one, but as mentioned, in practical terms it doesn’t make much difference. Anyway, the next paragraphs follow my south to north journey.
Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta
Ho Chi Minh City is a modern and quite tidy city, the true economic heart of the country, whose center still bears many traces of its colonial past. The advice is to dedicate a day to a tour of the center and its many points of interest. The Mekong Delta with its markets certainly deserves a visit, but it is absolutely not advisable to get around there by motorbike: traffic and heat make it a difficult task. If you want to visit this area, the advice is to rely on an organized day tour, you will save yourself a lot of unnecessary pain. The same goes for Phu Quoc: if you want to spend a few days on this tourist island, take a return flight from Saigon. Although the traffic is chaotic (never as chaotic as that of Hanoi), in my opinion it’s better to head north without hesitating too much: the road is long.
On the way to Nha Trang
Probably the best place to plan your first stop is near Cat Tien. Cat Tien is a natural park that can be visited both by boat and on foot and where it’s easy to find accommodation in one of the hotels along the river. The road is pleasant and certainly the best alternative to a coastal road which, in this first stretch of coast, has no particular points of interest. The most beautiful stretches of coast are found around Mui Ne, which is a rather well-known tourist resort and in the stretch that goes from Phan Rang up towards Nha Trang.
Near Cat Tien, inside an amusement park are the Dambri waterfalls. And not far away those of Pongour which are on the way to Dalat.
Dalat, located in the central highlands of Vietnam, is a beautiful mountain city, with beautiful scenery and rich cultural heritage. I personally recommend you stop here. If your schedule allows, this is a good opportunity to take a break and spend a day without a bike doing some trekking or visiting its many attractions, such as the Mad House, the Valley of Love, the night market, the temple of Truc Lam or the flower park of Dalat. If you’re feeling in the mood, hike Lang Biang Mountain or visit one of the many coffee plantations. Oh and by the way, coffee is pretty awesome in Vietnam!
Mui Ne, Nha Trang and the coast
One of the stretches of coast that is worth visiting is certainly the one between Mui Ne and Nha Trang. And if you want, it can also be an opportunity to be a tourist and do a bit of beach life. After Dalat you will have three options: head directly to Nha Trang skipping the coastal road – it’s the shortest route and goes through a nice pass. Or you can choose to head south towards the coast and drive a shorter or longer distance. You can head to Mui Ne, then turn north along the beautiful coast, or if you don’t have a lot of time, head to Phan Rang. Legend has it that in Mui Ne, a well-known tourist resort, the police are particularly nasty. There are many foreign tourists, especially Russians, whom the police tend to target for the aforementioned reasons. If you go towards Mui Ne watch out for the speed limits.
The stretch of coastal road from Mui Ne to Nha Trang, passing through Ca Na and Phan Rang is certainly one of the best, because it takes you very close to the sea with a slow but scenic route. I’m talking about DT-716, DT-704 and DT-702, those roads that appear white on google maps, right next to the busier QL-1A.
Nha Trang itself is a modern and touristy city, with a decent nightlife, cute little islands and beautiful beaches in the surrounding area. So plan a longer stay if you are interested in the sea and nightlife.
After Nha Trang, which route?
After Nha Trang you will most likely need to plan at least one stop before you get to Da Nang and Hoi An. And you have two (or three) options: the coastal QL-1, an inland route, or the so-called “coffee trail” along the Cambodian border. As for the latter, I didn’t even consider it feasible as the road along the Cambodian border is far away and would have made my journey much longer. Running along the coastal QL-1 is certainly faster, there are hotels and beautiful beaches. But. The road is busy, there are police here and there and it will be stressful.
The road through the midlands is certainly better but much longer to travel: you won’t find many hotels along the roads and in some areas there won’t even be mobile signal. So, my suggestion is, go for this one if you are in a group and have the time. If you’re short on time, head to the coast or do a mix of the two. I remember spending an evening trying to plan the route and looking for a hotel on the inner route, then gave up and went for the QL-1. For this part I highly recommend taking a look at the related page on Tigit’s blog. I’m sharing their useful map here.
Da Nang, Hue and the Heaven Pass
Da Nang is almost exactly half way in between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The city is large but definitely more spacious and less chaotic than many others. Spending a few days here is certainly a good idea. The long, sandy beach of My Khe is certainly a good place where to relax for a day. There’s a lot to see in the surroundings, lie the Marble Mountains, the Ba Na hills, the Son Tra mountain.
Most of all, you can get to the most famous Hoi An village and the old capital Hue driving through the Hai Van pass. Both are a must see for Vietnam. You’ll find pages about Hoi An and Hue in any guidebook, but what’s important as far as our trip is concerned is that they’re both close enough to Da Nang to be visited in a day.
Heading North, Phong Nha, Mai Chau, Ninh Binh
If you’re traveling north, like I did, it’s time to tackle the second half of the journey to Hanoi. Just beyond Da Nang you enter what is historically known as the North Vietnam. Contraryly to the previous stage, it’s easier to choose which route to take: the best one is the aforementioned Ho Chi Minh Road, the QL-15. A road built inland by the famous general that stretches for a few hundred kilometers among the hills and the rainforest connecting remote mountain villages.
Crossing the old border
Near Dong Ha, the road crosses the old border and the DMZ between the two Vietnams, and it is possible to visit some war museums, including Camp Carroll. After that, the road ventures into the mountains between remote villages of farmers. One peculiar thing about crossing these remote locations is the number of children who, whether you greet them or not, look at you with a hostile expression and show you the middle finger. While passing through a village, I turned towards a farmer’s house just in time to see a girl who was probably no more than 4 years old running towards me, waving her middle finger in a perfect alternating up-and-down motion.
Whether you are coming from Hue or Da Da Nang, you can take the QL-14 and then the QL-15 in the direction of Phong Nha, a small mountain town on the edge of a natural park where I recommend you stop to see the splendid and very long caves. The caves are in my opinion a must see of Vietnam. Seventeen kilometers long diving underneath the mountains to emerge in Laos.
The Ho Chi Minh mountain road
After Phong Nha there is a long stretch of road which offers no particular places of interest other than the road itself: a long road made of concrete slabs which snakes between the mountains and where it is not difficult to travel for long periods without encountering living soul. In contrast to the QL-1 highway it was a pleasure to travel for hours on this deserted and scenic route.
Hanoi, Halong Bay and the North
The best thing you can do coming from the Ho Chi Minh road is to continue avoiding the QL-1, which becomes increasingly busy as you head north. Before reaching Hanoi, two places are definitely worth a visit: Mai Chau and Ninh Binh. Although the latter is a very popular destination, both places are quite similar to each other.
Ninh Binh is an area which is popular for its stunning natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and unique attractions. From the towering limestone cliffs of Tam Coc, the Trang An complex of caves, mountains, and waterways to the ancient temples of Hoa Lu, it’s another must-visit corner of Vietnam.
Although Ninh Binh is very popular, the district of Mai Chau is no less beautiful. Mai Chau is located in the stunning Mai Chau Valley, surrounded by towering mountains, rice paddies, and picturesque villages. The Pu Luong Nature Reserve, the village of Lac and the Mo Luong Cave are some of most interesting places to visit. My suggestion is to continue along QL-15 as much as possible and stop in Mai Chau, as an alternative or as the first stop before visiting Ninh Binh. This way you will avoid a good part of the highway traffic towards Hanoi.
Once you arrive in Hanoi, you immediately realize how different it is from its cousin, Saigon. While Ho Chi Minh City is a chaotic, modern city with a certain international vibe, Hanoi is traditional in every way: traditional architecture, incredibly narrow streets crowded with people, sidewalks overflowing with goods, motorbikes, stools, and tables filled with people sitting and eating at all hours of the day. The streets are so narrow and crowded that even riding a motorcycle becomes a drama, so the advice is to park it somewhere (the hotel lobby was offered to me) and enjoy the city on foot.
The last of the places I visited is also one of the most well-known and appreciated: Halong Bay. Since it is not far from Hanoi, it could be a feasible destination by motorcycle, but the provincial road that leads there is very busy, making it another destination to avoid for a motorcycle excursion. The advice is to rely on one of the many private tours that depart directly from Hanoi.
The Far North
Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to venture into the far north. And there is a very valid reason for that: just to visit the Ha Giang region, it would have taken at least an extra week. But north of Hanoi, Vietnam opens up into a fan-shaped array of regions that can be divided into three main quadrants, for each of which it is a good idea to plan at least one additional week: the north (Ha Giang), the North-West (Sa Pa and Lao Cai), and the North-East (Cao Bang). Not that the south isn’t worth it, in hindsight it would probably have been a good idea to dedicate part of my trip to at least one of these areas, perhaps ending the trip in Da Nang. The north is certainly one of the most authentic places in Vietnam, due to its remote valleys, unspoiled nature, and a strong cultural component linked to the numerous ethnic minorities that live in these remote areas. If you are considering these regions in your travel plans, I recommend reading Jon’s post on the Tigit blog.
Vietnam is a splendid nation to visit, offering unique opportunities, especially for a motorcycle trip. In particular:
- It’s easy to travel around Vietnam. Unlike many countries in the Southeast Asian region, the roads in Vietnam are generally well-maintained, except in more rural areas, of course. But in most cases, you won’t need an off-road motorcycle. Hotels can be found everywhere, crime rates are generally low, and people are generally friendly.
- There are reliable motorcycle rentals throughout the country, and it’s possible to return the motorcycle in a different city, making a ‘one-way’ trip possible.
- Vietnam is a long country, and any itinerary you have in mind will require a significant amount of time.
- If time is an issue, consider visiting only the north or the south, leaving the motorcycle in Da Nang. The other half can be explored another time.
- There are many places to visit and points of interest, but they are often far apart. Unlike some places I’ve visited (such as Iceland, Morocco, Chile, to name a few), many roads in Vietnam don’t offer scenic views, except for certain areas like the valleys in the north or certain stretches of coastline in the south. Often, you’ll find yourself traveling for hundreds of kilometers through traffic without significant scenic attractions.
- Speaking of traffic, on the QL-1 (National Highway 1), near major cities and within big cities, traffic can be horrible, especially in Hanoi. Vietnamese people drive quite slowly, so forget about racing at speeds over 70 km/h, whether you’re in a city or on a major highway.
- The police often pay attention to tourists but don’t hesitate to come up with reasons to extort money from you. Don’t give them a reason to do so.
- The food in Vietnam was a bit disappointing for me. However, the coffee is exceptional.
- The weather varies throughout the year and can differ significantly from one region to another, so pack something for the beach and for colder weather.