Vietnam is a long-shaped country with varied climate and landscape that differ greatly from North to South. Whether it is high mountain, jungle, desert, ocean, the country has it all to offer. Taking a road trip across Vietnam has been my dream trip for ages, but I only got the chance to realize it late last year (Nov-Dec 2017), when I finally had a career break to be free for a long holiday.
Actually what I really wanted was a full motorbike road trip on the Ho Chi Minh trail from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, but stormy weather stopped me in Dong Hoi (Central Vietnam). Thus, from Dong Hoi southwards, I had to take buses and trains and then rented motorbikes from time to time. My trip was generally relaxing as I was not in haste. I skipped most big cities (except for Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang) and spent time in smaller cities and towns that I hadn’t been to before. It was a memorable 6 weeks on motorbikes, trains and buses from North down South and then South up North – the definite epic trip of my life thus far!
• 700 km driving the motorbike from Hanoi to Dong Hoi on the Ho Chi Minh trail, in which I had to drive 2 days under heavy rain and grey windy sky.
• The gorgeous views of Hai Van Pass on the train from Da Nang to Dong Hoi! So beautiful I was stunned! The only trouble is that it was so cold (as I was on the non-AC hard seating class) that I didn’t bother moving my frozen hands to take some nice photos.
• That one lazy week enjoying great coffee and peaceful atmosphere in Buon Ma Thuot, my absolute ‘highly-recommended’ destination for international and domestic tourists alike.
Preparation before the road trip:
• Weather: Best is to avoid the tropical stormy season (which may last from June till mid-December). Also consider if you would like cold weather as the North of Vietnam has a cold winter spanning from November till early March. Consider this seriously especially if you decide to do a motorbike road trip. That leaves the best time to do a motorbike road trip across Vietnam, in my opinion, April and May.
• Motorbike Route: If you drive motorbike, there are two routes to consider – the Ho Chi Minh trail running along Truong Son mountain range (West of Vietnam), and 1A National Road. The Ho Chi Minh trail offers stunning natural beauty and little traffic. However, as it doesn’t run through big cities, there might be a lack of guest houses and food shops; also, the road can be quite unbuilt and confusing. Whereas, 1A National Road is easy, straight, short, but heavily trafficked and not very scenic. However, the part from Hai Van Pass southwards is prettier as it runs along the coast line.
• Train: Train is quite comfy (well, not the European standard of “comfy”, but considerably not bad at all) and the ticketing system is very convenient. All tickets can be booked online at dsvn.vn, e-ticket can be downloaded to your phone to show at train stations. Also, most train stations have free wifi if you need to check your confirmation email. It is recommended to take the train from Da Nang to Hue. The views of Hai Van Pass from the train is a lot more impressive than from the road.
• Bus: Buses in Vietnam are generally fine and there are plenty of options. I would recommend Phuong Trang bus company. They are more popular in the South than in the North or Central Vietnam though, and tickets can be booked online at futabus.vn.
• Food: street food is available everywhere so there’s no need to pack food with you. If you’re vegetarian there might be trouble as Vietnamese food is mostly meat-based (especially pork). If you type “nhà hàng chay” (vegetarian restaurant) into Google map you might have more local suggestions. In Vietnam we don’t have the term “vegetarian” and “vegan” as in Western culture, we have only one word for it – “chay” – which is closest to vegan. People will mostly be confused if you eat “chay” but still order eggs. Vegan backpackers might have a hard time in small towns, but vegetarians should be fine – just stick with fried eggs(!)
• Guest house: If you feel like going local and tired of dorm rooms, type “nhà nghỉ ở [name of the city]” into Google map, you’ll have a lot more choices for affordable guest houses and motels in the cities or towns that you’re driving to (especially if you’re a motorbiker). In local guest houses or motels you can get private rooms for 150-200k.
Below are some places that I spent quite a bit of time in and would recommend:
Thanh Hoa is a large province with lots of beautiful natural reserves, the two most popular of which are Pu Luong (Pù Luông) and Ben En (Bến En).
Pu Luong is highly recommended by most tourists to Thanh Hoa, international and domestic alike. As of Feb 2018, it tops the list of things to do in Thanh Hoa on Tripadvisor. I shall have a separate blog for Pu Luong later on.
Ben En comes third in the same Tripadvisor list, but to me it was a bit disappointing. Apart from poor services, there is actually not much to discover. The road to Ben En is quite pretty, though can’t compare to the route to Pu Luong.
Dong Hoi is quite under-rated as far as I’m concerned. This is a little peaceful beach city in Quang Binh province (Central Vietnam), between Ha Tinh and Hue. I imagine Dong Hoi would be a lovely destination for summer vacationers with its Nhat Le beach and nearby Phong Nha cave. Winter is chilly and rainy though.
Transportation from Hanoi to Dong Hoi is convenient either by bus or train, and takes about 10 hours. Travel to Dong Hoi by air is also possible. There are public buses from the city center to Phong Nha.
My recommendations for guests houses include:
• Thai An Hostel: situated in an alley opposite no. 83, Truong Chinh road, near the high way with affordable food options close by, this place is my definite thumbs-up for all motorbikers. Also, Thai An’s owner is one of the nicest I have met, and the room rate here must be the best in the city.
• Buffalo Pub & Hostel: very centralized, close to Nhat Le river and Nhat Le beach, they provide free bicycles and superb food, and of course friendly and helpful staff.
BUON MA THUOT
Buon Ma Thuot is the capital city of Dak Lak province in the central highlands. The combination of scenic nature, peaceful urban life, excellent coffee and great veggie options makes Buon Ma Thuot my favourite destination of the whole trip. I will soon publish a separate blog for it with more photos and travel tips.
PHAN RANG – THAP CHAM
Situated between two popular touristy beach towns (Nha Trang and Phan Thiet), Phan Rang – Thap Cham is often overlooked, but I would say I highly recommend it. I spent quite a few days here and would have another separate blog post for it, too.
A small city located between Ho Chi Minh and Cambodia border, Tay Ninh is famous for its great Cao Dai Temple (Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh), Black Virgin Moutain (Núi Bà Đen), Dau Tieng Lake (Hồ Dầu Tiếng). As I will be based here in the next 2 years (at least) with my new job at Teach For Vietnam, a social enterprise striving to ensure education equity for all children of Vietnam, do expect more blogs about this small lovely city and its kind people.
As a travel enthusiast, I realize after this road trip that I really need to spend more time discovering my own country. I might have been to faraway places, but still know so little about motherland. And my motherland is gorgeous, its beauty deserves to be respected and adored. And I want to tell everybody how beautiful it is.
Bonus: Below is a video capturing “Vietnam from above” by Vietnamese photographer Le The Thang: