The Ho Chi Minh Road: Motorbike Guide
The Ho Chi Minh Road is fast becoming famous as one of the most scenic routes for a motorbike trip in Asia. To date (2014) the vast majority of the highway between Hanoi in the north and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south has been completed. Over 1,700km (more than 1,000 miles) of well-made, paved road cuts through some spectacular landscape. The best scenery can be found along the central section, where a landscape of endless limestone mountains, covered in a thick fleece of tropical rainforest and dissected by clear blue rivers, stretches to the horizon. This 900km section is the highlight of the entire highway; if you only ride one bit of the Ho Chi Minh Road, make sure it’s this one. Below is my guide to this fantastic road trip.
The Ho Chi Minh Road (not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, most of which is in Laos) runs along the mountainous ‘spine’ of Vietnam, the Trường Sơn Mountain Range. Eventually the road will stretch from Vietnam’s northern border with China, to the southernmost tip of the country, in the Gulf of Thailand, bringing its total length to 3,167km (nearly 2,000 miles). Today the road is a quiet, two-lane highway, but by 2020 it will be an eight-lane giant. For now, this is a well-made, easily accessible route, which sees very little traffic compared to the other major north-south road, Highway 1. Some of the landscape is superb. But, it’s not all sublime; some stretches lasting hours pass along dull, monotonous, over-farmed plateaus and plains. If you only want to see the very best that the Ho Chi Minh Road has to offer, start from Kon Tum and head north all the way to Phố Châu: 900km of meandering mountain road through jaw-dropping highland scenery. This is one of the best rides in Vietnam.
I’ve written this guide in 5 sections, from south to north; each section corresponds to one day on the road:
DAY 1: Kon Tum to Khâm Đức: 170km
n Tum is the capital of Kon Tum Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It’s a quiet town with a relatively cool mountain climate. Spend a day and a night here at Thịnh Vượng Hotel (16 Nguyễn Trãi; +84 60 3914 729; $10) to see some of the sights, before hitting the road the next morning. The Ho Chi Minh Road is also Kon Tum’s high-street. Head northwest towards Đắk Tô. The first hour is along a dead-straight ribbon of asphalt that bisects the Kon Tum Plateau; silhouettes of high mountains loom on the horizon. The area around Đắk Tô was the scene of some of the fiercest battles of the ‘American War’ (as the Vietnam War is referred to here). The surrounding countryside still bears the scars of all the bombs and defoliants that were dropped on the hills and forests here, more than 40 years ago. A few kilometres after passing Đắk Tô look out for an old US landing strip just to the left (south) of the road. The long stretch of tarmac is still just about visible through the fields of cassava that have grown up around it; today the landing strip is used by farmers to dry their crops on.
Note: At Đak Tô the Ho Chi Minh Road makes a sharp turn to the left (west) that’s quite easy to miss if you’re not careful. 20km later, there’s another sharp turn to the right (north) at Ngọc Hồi: if you take the wrong turn here you’ll quickly end up at either the Cambodian or Lao border!
From Ngọc Hồi to Đắk Glei (50km) the road follows the valley of the Đăk Pô Kô River, not far from the Laos border. Mountains start to close in on the road, and the peak of Ngọc Linh (2,598m), the highest mountain in central and southern Vietnam, is visible to the east. Cultivation continues right to the top of most of these mountains, giving a somewhat ‘patchy’ appearance to the landscape in this area, and reminding you that Vietnam is still a mostly agricultural economy.
Scenery gets dramatic after Đắk GleiAfter the small town of Đắk Glei the landscape begins to change: agriculture is pushed from the mountainsides down to the river valleys, forced there by dense tropical forests that appear to melt over the mountains like candle-wax, dripping down the steep contours and washed by relentless cascades of rain-water, draining off the mountains in gushing waterfalls, and swelling the rivers below. Between Đắk Glei and Khâm Đức (67km) the Ho Chi Minh Road twists up into the mountains, cutting a path through rock and jungle. Gold has been found in these isolated mountains and rivers, and the modest town of Khâm Đức is beginning to profit from it. The Canadian-run gold mine deep in the mountains is staffed by an international crew; from Filipino labourers to American security guards. Khâm Đức provides accommodation for some of them and so there are a few places to choose from here. The best is Be Chau Giang Hotel (www.bechaugianghotel.com.vn), a comfortable, alpine-lodge style place with views over the forested mountains. Plenty of food is available on the main street of Khâm Đức.
DAY 2: Khâm Đức to A Lưới: 215km
Most people choose to drop down from the Ho Chi Minh Road at Khâm Đức, heading east along Road 14 to join Highway 1, then continuing north to Hội An, and over the Hải Vân Pass to Huế. No doubt this is partly due to the, by now famous, motorbike trip taken by the BBC Top Gear team in 2007, and the popular cultural attractions in Hội An and Huế. However, as spectacular as the Hải Vân Pass is, it’s nothing compared to the passes you’ll encounter if you stay on the Ho Chi Minh Road from Khâm Đức to A Lưới. Click HERE to find out more about the Hải Vân Pass and the Top Gear Vietnam T.V show, or read on to find out just how good the Ho Chi Minh Road gets after Khâm Đức.
Meandering roads; meandering riversContinuing north from Khâm Đức to Thạnh Mỹ (60km) the Ho Chi Minh Road follows the Đak Mi River. This quiet stretch of road straddles the valley walls, sometimes high above the brown river, as it makes its slow but steady progress over the boulder-strewn riverbed.
Bear left (northwest) at the main crossroads at Thạnh Mỹ, heading towards Prao (50km). There’s very little traffic on this superb section of road. Mountain passes twist skyward, each hairpin bend revealing giant views over wide valleys, deep ravines, and mist-shrouded mountains. At times the jungle is so dense and lush that it appears to be uncontainable and threatens to grow over the road completely. A hypnotic rhythm is induced by the constant switch-backs – lean left, lean right – and the flashes of sunlight that pierce the thick foliage and streak the road at regular intervals. It’s an exhilarating but also strangely soothing two hour drive.
When the road drops down into Prao be sure to have some lunch or buy supplies for a picnic, and fill up with gas, because there’s very little indeed for the next 100km to A Lưới. This is an isolated, sparsely populated and rarely used section of the Ho Chi Minh Road. However, it’s in great shape and passes through majestic scenery, just a stone’s throw from the Lao border. Not long after leaving Prao the road begins to climb again; this is the beginning of a meandering mountain pass that doesn’t really stop for the next 80km! Each time you think you’ve reached the top, it starts to ascend again. There are moments when you can see the road winding up and down the mountains in the distance before you. At times, when the road can go no higher, it simply glides along the mountain ridge; when the slope is too sheer for the road to continue, eerie, dark tunnels lead under the mountaintops to the other side. The views just get better and better, and you’ll find this section of road takes at least a few hours because of all the photo stops you’ll want to make. Ridge after ridge of mountains carpeted in thick forest appear to wax and wane behind curtains of cloud, mist and rain. There’s something almost flirtatious about it; as if the elements were tempting you with just glimpses of what would be visible on a clear day.
The ‘Asian Unicorn’ is somewhere in these forests!It’s magical, and all the more so because for the entire 100km drive you can count the number of vehicles you see on one hand. There are very few man-made structures: a remote army outpost on the Lao border, temporary shelters for workman clearing landslides, and forestry protection huts. Of the latter, some are dedicated to the protection of the saola. Also known as the ‘Asian Unicorn’, this pretty, deer-like animal wasn’t even known to science until the 1990s, and it has still never been seen in the wild by a westerner. Very few are left, but some of the ones that are live deep in these forests.
Eventually the road drops down into a lovely, verdant valley. Agriculture takes over once more, and villages begin to appear. The land flattens and the road continues in a straight line to A Lưới, a modest town with not much to recommend it except as a night stop on the Ho Chi Minh Road. Stay at the cheap and cheerful Thanh Quang Guest House, on the right (east) side of the road just after the war cemetery
DAY 3: A Lưới to Khe Sanh: 108km
The journey from A Lưới to Khe Sanh is a relatively short but very pretty ride through an area that was once at the centre of the ‘American War’. Quảng Trị province is the most heavily bombed in all Vietnam. Even today, it’s estimated that 80% of land is still affected by UXO (unexploded ordinance). Now however – as is the case with so many former battlefields in Vietnam – this area is most notable for its natural beauty and serenity.
Hamburger HillAfter A Lưới, the road leads through a wide valley covered in tropical trees and plants – papaya, banana, cinnamon, pineapple, teak. Mountains rise is all directions, and local children wave their arms in wild excitement as you pass through hamlets of wooden stilt houses: you’d never know that the barren, rounded mountain just to your left (west) was the infamous ‘Hamburger Hill’. Of course, sites like this make you pause and contemplate the war, but happily, as the road continues up mountain passes, along glistening rivers, and the jagged Đa Krông valley, it’s the beauty of the landscape rather the tragedy of war that causes you to stop and reflect
Friendly locals along the Đa Krông valley90km after leaving A Lưới the Ho Chi Minh Road crosses the Đa Krông Bridge and hits Highway 9. At this point the Ho Chi Minh Road splits into two branches: Eastern and Western. Many people choose to turn right (east) on Highway 9 towards Đông Hà and then onto the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road. However, you’d be crazy to do this if you’re either a motorbiking enthusiast or a lover of adventure. This is because if you turn left (west) on Highway 9 towards Khe Sanh, it will bring you to the beginning of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, which is one of the most scenic, isolated, and heart-meltingly gorgeous stretches of road in Vietnam. From the Đa Krông Bridge to Khe Sanh (10km) it’s a lovely climb towards the Lao border. Stop in Khe Sanh for the night at the big but miserable Thái Ninh Hotel (170 Lê Duẩn Street; $15) and get some rest before the next day’s ride into Wonderland.
DAY 4: Khe Sanh to Xuân Sơn: 240km
Khe Sanh to Xuan Sơn is 240km of winding road through incredible mountains, forests, and river valleys. There are no hotels, hardly any shops, and just one gas station on this entire stretch. There are very few settlements, vehicles or people. One local in Khe Sanh, bewildered at why anyone would want to go on such a road, described it as vắng người, meaning there’s ‘nobody there’. By the time you’re here you should know your motorbike well enough to know if it’ll make the whole 240km on one full tank of gas. If not (which will be the case with most bikes) you’ll need to stock up on gas in Khe Sanh. Take a couple of big empty water bottles to a gas station, fill them up, and strap them to your bike. Buy some food and drink to keep you going too, as there’s precious little in the way of dining options on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. Unless you intend to camp – which is very nice indeed, if you’ve got the equipment – you’ll have to make it all the way to Xuan Sơn to find accommodation. This means starting early in the morning: 240km is a long way on winding roads, especially when there’s so much fantastic scenery to stop and admire.
Find the start of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road at a turning on Lê Duẩn Street (this is the name that Highway 9 assumes when it passes through Khe Sanh) by a big, Soviet-style, sculpted war memorial. At this memorial turn onto Hồ Chí Minh Tây Street (Western Ho Chi Minh Road) heading northwest. Khe Sanh is famous for the North Vietnamese siege and bombardment of the US base here in 1968. The base and a museum can be seen just to the right (east) a few minutes after turning onto the Western Ho Chi Minh Road.
Enjoy the scenery on the Western Ho Chi Minh RoadFrom here it’s just a matter of letting the scenery wash over you: bend after bend, pass after pass, the landscape folds you in its peaks and valleys, rivers and forests. Jungles get denser, rivers clearer, mountains higher, colours become more intense as you drive deeper into this remote area along the Lao border. Stop to shower under waterfalls, bathe in rivers, and gaze out over vast vistas as you picnic by the roadside.
After a couple hours you’d be forgiven for thinking that it can’t get any better; but it does. Once the road enters the confines of Phong Nha Kẻ Bàng National Park the strange shapes of forested limestone mountains come into view. Eroded by the elements over millions of years, these mountains have been formed into soaring pillars and pinnacles, many of them resembling the ‘crooked pointiness’ of wizard’s and witches’ hats. Just as a palm tree leaning out over a white sand beach represents ‘tropical paradise’, so these limestone karsts have come to symbolize ‘exotic Asia’. Forget about Ha Long Bay in the north of Vietnam, or Guilin in China, this is where to come for some ‘limestone magic’.
But, enjoy it now, while you still have it all to yourself, because big things are bound to happen here in the near future. In such a remote and geologically fascinating place as this, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was holding a very big secret. It turns out that the marvels of this national park even continue under the mountains: in 2009 it was announced that the largest cave in the world had been discovered here. (Find out more about Sơn Đoòng Cave in this excellent National Geographic article). Oxalis Tours (www.oxalis.com.vn/son-doong-cave) now offers a genuine ‘trip of a lifetime’ with a multi-day trek through the cave, including camping in the cave. It looks and sounds extraordinary, but you’ll have to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. However, sections of other equally impressive caves in the area have been open to the public for a few years now and are wildly popular. These are wonderful places to visit, but try to come on a weekday (not a weekend or holiday) when the caves are less crowded. (More information about visiting can be found on RustyCompass.com). The closest city to the caves, Đồng Hới, is yet another hidden gem of the area. A clean, relatively peaceful city on a pretty river and a great beach, Đồng Hới is like a miniature Danang. With direct flights to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi, Đồng Hới’s star is on the rise. This area – Quảng Bình Province – has all the makings of a future tourist hotspot; I’d visit now so that in 10 years’ time you can say you saw Quảng Bình before the crowds arrived.
Quảng Bình Province: bright future215km after leaving Khe Sanh there’s a bridge over a river before a crossroads. Turn right (east) towards Xuân Sơn (also known as Sơn Trạch). After 22km the road meets a beautiful river lined with limestone karsts, this is the town of Xuân Sơn, gateway to the caves. As grand as it sounds and as pretty as the surrounding scenery is, the town itself is a bit of a dump. It’s a work in pro
DAY 5: Xuân Sơn to Phố Châu: 176km
Head east on Xuan Sơn’s high-street for a couple of kilometres until it meets the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road. Turn left (north) and start the last leg of this road trip, to Phố Châu (176km).
Regular river swimming on the Ho Chi Minh RoadThe first couple of hours continue in much the same way as the previous day: more jagged, jungle-clad limestone forests stretching to the horizon; more majestic mountain passes climbing above the dense, shimmering jungle canopy; more clear blue rivers cutting valleys through the limestone; and more small villages where everyone comes out to wave as you drive by.
Slowly, as the day goes on, settlements get bigger, concrete houses replace wooden huts, agriculture swallows up the forests, and traffic increases slightly. There’s still some great scenery for the next 100km or so to Phố Châu, but compared to the dramatic landscapes of the previous few days, it seems tame and tainted.
At the crossroads with Highway 8 turn left (west) for the small town of Phố Châu. This is a dusty, unattractive place to spend a night, but there are cheap, clean rooms at the hotels at the intersection with Đường 71 (71 Street), and lots of local restaurants with ‘exotic’ food nearby. Phố Châu is on the road to a remote Lao border crossing, and the only bit of notable information about the town, that I’m aware of, is that it’s the first stop in Vietnam for all the trucks full of dogs that have been illegally smuggled in from Thailand via Laos, and destined for the tables of restaurants in Hanoi.
Weather: Because the Ho Chi Minh Road is so mountainous and long it’s difficult to generalize about weather conditions on this route. However, this central section is usually best from spring to summer: visit anytime between March and September and you should find it mostly bright, sunny and dry.
Bike Hire: It’s best to rent a motorbike from one of the reputable places in the big cities; Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi have a couple of good outlets. Rent A Bike Hanoi (www.rentabikehanoi.com) is reliable and efficient, and, if you’re not starting in Hanoi, they can even arrange to send your bike to meet you somewhere else in Vietnam. Check their website for prices and information.
Getting to the Ho Chi Minh Road: There are now dozens of east-west roads connecting the coastal Highway 1 with the Ho Chi Minh Road. The most scenic route to Kon Tum (the southern starting point for this road trip) is on Highway 24 from Quảng Ngãi (190km). The nearest city and transport hub to Phố Châu (the northern end point for this road trip) is Vinh. Highway 8 connects Vinh with Phố Châu (50km).
As I mentioned earlier, many people choose to drive the entire Ho Chi Minh Road south to north; from Saigon to Hanoi. Personally, if I’m driving Saigon to Hanoi I prefer to mix it up: taking the coastal back-roads in the south and then heading up into the mountains from Quảng Ngãi to meet the Ho Chi Minh Road at Kon Tum. Find out more about this route
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