Between Danang/Hoi An and Hanoi
The best overall motorbike riding in Vietnam
When taking into account beauty, weather and the overall thrill of driving a motorbike on a remote mountain road then this section of Vietnam is the best in the country. It is considered one of the best routes in the world and it rightfully holds its famous reputation from TV shows such as the Top Gear Vietnam special.
In terms of driving, between Danang and Hanoi is the Hai Van Pass and the Ho Chi Minh road. In terms of tourism, this section contains Hoi An which is the biggest tourist hotspot in the country, Danang which is an impressive modern city, Phong Nha with the worlds largest cave and Ninh Binh which is a river based version of Ha Long Bay.
It also contains the lesser known town of Mai Chau which is a good alternative to Ninh Binh.
The Ho Chi Minh Road
The Ho Chi Minh is the best piece of road in Vietnam for the average motorcyclist. A remarkable combination of remote driving, stunning views, deep forests and impressive open straights that connect mountains together. The road is mostly paved concrete with the dimensions to allow one car to drive down. The road is in perfect condition but the slightly unorthodox paving style and narrow width through thick and dense jungle give this road a special feel. Every so often it opens into a two lane empty highway where the throttle can be pulled to the max regardless of the motorbike model.
The incredible mix of road widths, hair pin corners and remote straights create an enormous amount of fun. For the culture seeker and the family friendly driver, then there is plenty of action to be had watching the ethnic minority villages going about their daily lives as you plod through the stunning area.
The start and finishing locations of the Ho Chi Minh road remains under debate, but from my mind it starts where the driving gets good, and ends when the driving becomes bad.
Such logic has one end of the Ho Chi Minh road in a small town called Đông Giang and the other end of the Ho Chi Minh road in the cave town of Phong Nha.
This is a road that every traveler coming to Vietnam should drive.
The Hai Van Pass
The Hai Van Pass is a piece of road that connects Hoi An to the ancient city of Hue. This is the most famous piece of road for motorbiking in Vietnam.
Pro of the Hai Van Pass
- Short and accessible (around 4 hours)
- Top Gear TV show heavily promoted the Hai Van Pass
- Very cheap rental companies specifically operating on this route
- Beautiful with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other side
Con of the Hai Van Pass
- Over rated and the alternative route (described below) is far more beautiful
- Full of travelers (and Vietnamese) that can’t drive. Combined with trucks on a mountain pass, this is a dangerous piece of road.
- Plenty of Highway to get to and from the Hai Van Pass
- It is short
When using the Hai Van pass, connect the coast to the Laos based mountains by coming down the Ql 49 which is a very nice and pleasant meandering road.
The alternative to the Hai Van Pass
Use the QL14 G to connect the Ho Chi Minh Road to Danang. Don’t bother with the Ql14 B which looks like it may provide some extra Ho Chi Minh Road gold. Unfortunately the Ql14B is rather tedious which leaves the Ql14 G as the correct coastal and mountain connector.
This sets the rider up for a deserted section that goes very close to the Laos border which is parallel to the Hai Van Pass. The road is a double paved highway and in incredible condition. Empty to the point that is possible to not see a another vehicle on the road for the entire journey. Remote, mountainous and fast paced action combined with two impressive and ancient looking tunnels that have been blasted in the mountain side. On my latest trip between Danang and Hanoi this was my favorite section of the journey. Comical that most travelers miss this section of perfection to see the very average Hai Van Pass.
Ho Chi Minh Road between Prao and Khe Sanh
This section of road needs to start/finish in either Hoi An or Hue. Either using the Ql14G or the Ql49 to connect the coast to the mountains. Whichever way is taken, it is very important to try and use Khe Sanh as the overnight base for connection to Phong Nha. Failure to use Khe Sanh and bailing out in places such as Prao or A Lưới will leave the driver with an unreasonably large connection between the major tourists town of Phong Nha and Hoi An. This section of the Ho Chi Minh road is a great and consistent ride with mostly double lane highway. The towns and villages are great to watch on this section with the football and volley ball fields being next to the road. This is one of the best roads to admire the Vietnamese countryside lifestyle.
Ho Chi Minh Road between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha
This is a large drive of around 8 hours and 220km. There are no sleeping points on this route and the driver must commit to the big and tiring day. The reward however, is successfully driving one of the best roads on the planet. The single track meandering road of beauty is definitely for the adventure traveler. Hundreds if not thousands of corners that will leave even the seasoned motorcyclists with tired arm muscles by the end of the day.
My trip up the Ho Chi Minh road in March 2020 partially came about because I was expecting drastic change in the last five years, and so my material needed updating. The popularity and fame of the road suggested that it was now busy and to the point of being called “touristy”. However much to my surprise very little had changed and the white foreigner rolling through on a motorbike was still rare enough to get an enthusiastic wave by the locals. My conclusion, is that people talk about the road, but few actually have the willpower to complete it. Most must be failing and backing off to the coast and highway which is a nearby and small leap.
This road needs to be treated with respect and I recommend a good early start and to keep the average pace up throughout the day. It is easy to get side tracked into picture taking, but this road is a marvel from start to finish and it deserves to be completed.
The Road Between Phong Nha and Hanoi
This section remains to be the worst piece of driving in Vietnam. There is unfortunately no magic fix to the problem and my recent trip in March 2020 was specifically aimed at finding a solution to the problem. A solution wasn’t found, but a compromise was reached.
This section is incredibly open and flat fast paced highway. It remains to be relatively empty and is actually a fairly easy drive. There are not many locals and animals jumping all over the road which puts the driver in a position of a style of riding that may be found in most countries around the world. A very simple, boring and long cruise down a highway.
There are moments of glory when calving through lovely rice paddy fields. The primary problem with the route is the sheer length and simplicity of it.
Phonh Nha <–> Ninh Binh <–> Hanoi OR Phong Nha <–> Mai Chai <–> Hanoi
The correct way to tackle this section is to stay on the QL roads (the name changes as you go up/down) on the Laos side of Vietnam. Basically keep as far left and close to Laos as possible and you are on the right roads. This means skipping out the famous town of Ninh Binh and instead throwing in the new tourist town of Mai Chai instead.
To reach Ninh Binh Requires two brutal days of traffic. The drive into and out of Hanoi which includes Ninh Binh is one of the busiest and worst driving in the country. The sacrifice of Ninh Binh to avoid this traffic is well worth it.
Keeping along the Laos border will instead keep the driver on quiet and open highway. The entrance/exit to Hanoi on the CT 08 is the easiest to handle city road across the country. A very reasonable way to leave or arrive in Hanoi city.
The CT 08 also leads the driver into the stunning town of Mai Chau which is mostly off the tourist circuit and an under-rated place. However, an even more under-rated and a real secret is the area of Pu Luong which I would put into the top areas of beauty that I have ever witnessed. If you have read this far, then congrats on finding one of the best kept kept secrets in Vietnam.
Between Mai Chau and Phong Nha is around two short half days of driving. It is not possible to complete in one big day. The objective is to try and stay sane on the boring highway and to find a bed when your attention span and concentration begins to drop. There is no right or wrong town to stay in on this section.
This section shouldn’t be considered “bad”, it is still Vietnam after all, and Vietnam is pretty. It may be “the worst” section of Vietnam, but most travelers will still be suitably satisfied by the road.
Danang to Hanoi is the section of Vietnam that gets hits by cyclones the most frequently. Cyclone season is September through to December. There are no conditions (including cyclone conditions) that should stop a traveler completing this section. Rain can come down hard, and this is a great shame but the Vietnamese clean up floods and damages quickly and the maximum delay in driving it likely to be two days.
It is possible to run into rain every day of the trip and this can be considered very unlucky. However the tropical and remote damp driving should be entertaining enough providing the drivers have the right rain gear.
This section is mountainous enough to never really be “hot”, and most of the time it stays firmly in a jeans and t-shirt range of temperature. I have never known this area to be too hot or too cold for normal driving.
Read here for a detailed article on the weather in Vietnam.