The road to heaven is somewhere between Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang
Every rider has their poison. I’ve always been more partial to ripping through the dirt than cruising on road. And if you’ve ever glanced at the Tigit site, it’s no secret the off-road community is booming in Vietnam. Lucky me.
The one kicker to off-road riding is the need for safety in numbers. No rider with a brain under their helmet will attempt remote trails alone. Luckily I not only have friends, but friends who ride and ensure I don’t perish in the jungle.
By contrast, the beauty of a road ride is being free to travel solo, move at your own pace and on your own time. Thanks to Jon, I was blessed with a whole 5 days of peaceful alone time to research routes from Ho Chi Minh to Da Nang. And even despite my bias towards off-road, exploring on the CB500X instead of my humble XR150 was going to be quite the treat. I’m an avid fan of lonesome road trips, and up until now had not been given this much power to play with. 500cc is a waste in the city. The CB needs to be unleashed in the mountains.
The planning and preparation for the journey, or lack thereof
True to form, Jon keeps it simple. No over preparation or over planning. Here’s a bike, here’s a map. Try to stay on the bike and try to stay on the line, but if you don’t, make sure you catch it on camera. In fact, here are 3 different cameras. So I had no excuse not to document everything.
I’ll admit, I’m one to get lost in the ride, and return from a 5 day trip with less than 5 photos. This time I was determined to inspire envy with my photography. Bragging rights are always a huge motivator.
The daily distance between destinations
Ignorance is bliss. I decided not to worry about calculating the kilometers. What you don’t know, can’t hurt you. And I’ve always found myself drawn to counting down the kilometers to the destination, like a ticking time bomb to the end of the ride. I’ve lived in Vietnam a long time, I have a vague idea of distance between cities, and I felt that’s all I needed. After all, kilometers aren’t really an accurate gauge for the quality of the ride. No need for numbers, let’s see how I feel at the end. A ride by intuition.
Getting lost in the solo ride and falling in love with the CB500X
This method ended up working a little too well. Day 1 was Ho Chi Minh to Bao Loc, I ended up arriving at the hotel at 10:30am, turning back and doing another complete loop down and around again. I had found not one, but two fantastic options for routes up to Bao Loc. Ending the 400km day on this high was instantly addictive.
The goal quickly became about finishing the proposed route by midday, then leaving the afternoon open to explore. Exploration was even more heartening when the proposed route was a winner. I’d found gold in the morning, and was free to search for more in the afternoon. Watching the roads fill in colour on the geotracker also urged me forwards. I was checking off boxes of ‘every road’ in Vietnam. Some people have bucket lists, this is mine.
Whilst this success encouraged me to explore further, the failures affected me more. I could not end the day on wasted efforts. On day 2 I arrived in Buon Ma Thuot around midday. I decided to check out the QL26 heading out towards Nha Trang, then back via the QL28 in a complete loop. I rode that awfully dusty QL26 for god-knows-how long cursing at the queue of semi-trailers desperate to escape. Turning back is a sign of weakness though, and the end of the road is always just a little bit further.
It paid off like I could never have imagined. Sticking with the busy QL26 led me to a road I’ve now dubbed ‘the road to heaven’. Surely the best feature of a scenic road is the view slowly being revealed as you round the corners. Just when you thought you’d seen all it has to offer, here’s a little more. This was the road. It’s really hard to describe a view, it must be why pictures paint a thousand words. If I had to describe it in my own dramatic way, you can spread my ashes along that road.
Day 3 was by far the longest of 680kms. Covering that much distance took me through 9 police check points, 3 in which an actual check took place. It was all business as usual and went off without complications. By the third stop I was convinced they just wanted to admire the bike.
After the eventful day, typing the Quy Nhon hotel address into Google maps felt like finding the light at the end of the tunnel. In my exhaustion, I mindlessly followed the turn by turn directions without looking at the bigger picture. Google maps decided to detour me via the world’s narrowest alleyways; every corner turned into a tighter squeeze. I had a few centimeters gap on each side before I would have been scraping along the walls. I finally called it quits and sent a distress signal. In Vietnam this means knocking on a local’s front door, pointing at the bike, and shaking your head and hands. A local guy came out, happily jumped on his scooter and led me out of these alleys turn by turn. I’d found my very own complimentary tour guide, and was I ever grateful to escape the maze.
Day 4 and 5 definitely became the days of mental battles. Escaping Quy Nhon on day 4 took longer than expected, once I found the twisty mountain roads it was already 1pm. The views were beyond breathtaking and they need to be seen to be believed, but in actual honesty I felt the CB was a little big for these very tight turns. After a few hours, constantly tipping the bike left and right was quite literally weighing on me. The road was also not in the greatest of conditions, so leaning into gravelly corners wasn’t an option. Instead an awkward and clunky ‘left right left right’ up the mountain.
It was on this road however, I found some inner peace. I found hour long stretches where I didn’t have a single thought in my skull. Perhaps because I also found hour long stretches where I did not see another soul on the roads. It felt like a private pilgrimage at times.
Day 5 I hit peak exhaustion and made it til about 4pm before giving up, and headed to Hoi An for a beer or three. I managed to do 2 laps of the Hai Van pass before admitting defeat. I’d forgotten how intense the heat can be in central Vietnam, hours of having hot air blown into your eyeballs can put you to sleep at the bars. I ended on the high of Hai Van pass instead.
A 5 day zig-zag from South to Central Vietnam
The trip’s final score totaled over 2,500 kilometers of riding. I’m happy to say the majority of the kilometers were more than worthwhile. I’m not sure exactly how I managed. It’s not something I would recommend but it is one way to ride. It is not the definition of fun, it becomes a competition against your limits. Each day, I was tempted to push it more and more to up the ante. I’d consider myself pretty physically fit, this had nothing to do with physical fitness. It’s a mental challenge, I was battling my brain.
Testing some off-road trails around the Vietnamese countryside
I started the ride completely unaware there would be any off-road sections and I started the ride feeling like a big, grown-up girl on a big, grown-up bike. In reality, I swapped out higher cc for adventure. 500cc on the roads is a dream but 200kg on the trails is a nightmare. I don’t consider myself weak or unfit, and I’ve seen monstrous men struggle with these bikes in awkward positions. The CB is almost four times my body weight. Fortunately, the trails on these routes were open dirt roads and they hadn’t seen rain in a while. It wasn’t a challenge by any means. But when it came to exploring, that was impossible.
My favourite thing about a small dual sport is you can turn down any trail to explore and find a better view. And with little planning or preparation. With the CB, every trail that caught my curiosity involved long-winded ‘research’ which consisted of walking the trail first. Well known fact: MX boots are indeed not made for walking.
The obvious answer is ‘don’t try the off-road trails and stick to the road’. Easier said than done. I would only have to look at the trail then suddenly find myself on it. Roads wind around the beautiful views, but trails give you an up close and personal look at the views. I couldn’t stay away.
Traveling alone on a motorbike
This paragraph is somewhat directed towards my dear mother who worries endlessly about me riding alone in a foreign country. Let me put her mind at ease with this story.
I saw a stunning lookout point over a lake but it was located inside a local’s private tree house next to their home. You know what that means, time to make friends and ask the owners if I can hang out and take a few photos. I wouldn’t dare be this cheeky in my own country. In my experience, Vietnamese people are filled with immense pride of this country’s beauty and seem very eager to share it.
I’ve never felt unsafe traveling alone as a woman, as long as I keep my wits about me. The atmosphere is very easy to read if there is any ill intent. I do have to admit; the bike and the body armour might not place me as an easy target.
The local reception in remote and rural areas
The more rural you get, the wider the smiles. But first, there is shock.
The levels of astonishment will go thusly;
– foreigner traveling VN
– foreigner traveling VN alone
– female foreigner traveling VN alone
– female foreigner traveling VN alone on a bike
– female foreigner traveling VN alone on a bigger motorbike. Minds are blown.
Never mistake this aforementioned astonishment as hostility, locals wear their emotions on their faces and aren’t shy to point and yell. The pointing and yelling is good old local hospitality. If you get a laugh thrown in, consider yourself royalty.
I am now far more nervous around quiet people than those who scream hello from afar. Vietnamese people make their intentions known, and it’s mostly friendly curiosity.
The end of a motorbike adventure in Vietnam (actually, it never ends)
It’s near impossible to give an objective perspective when it comes to riding. I find it hard to judge a trip through my rose-tinted glasses of motorbike obsession. I can say after 8 years in Vietnam I have not tired of exploring, and probably won’t in another 8 years. There are endless travel blogs and articles written about Vietnam, yet I found roads on this trip I’ve never heard mentioned before. This country is an endless gift of exploration.
One Reply to “Finding the Road to Heaven in Vietnam”
Great post Sam. Thank you!