Ho Chi Minh Highway By Motorbike Part 2 The Dragons Back

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Ho Chi Minh Highway By Motorbike Part 2 The Dragons Back

Ho Chi Minh Highway By Motorbike Part 2 The Dragon’s Back – 905 kilometers

          Motorcycle traveling aficionados who enjoy long winding roads, cresting mountain peaks, and exploring the path less discovered, should hop on for the ride of a lifetime in Vietnam. The Dragon’s Back is a central highlands route that winds its way through the spiny mountains of the long central highlands up into northern Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh highway.

     For this section we will pick up from the later part of the southern HCM highway at Kon Tum and continue North up into the town of Pho Chau through central Vietnam, eventually working our way into the northern reaches of the HCM route.

Mobile Map of HCM Highway Highlights

Kon Tum to Kham Duc – 175kms

    As you’re making your way on the QL14E route from Kon Tum, you’ll eventually find yourself near the town of Dak To. In town you’ll see your first set of options, continue straight through town on the QL14E road, and it will turn into the DT672 either hitting a dead end or taking you out to the coast at some stage. Instead, make a left at the intersection with the QL14 and continue on the QL14 road towards Kham Duc. To make it easier we will mark on our map the memorial park you can use as a reference that sits near the intersection you’ll need to watch for. Continuing on that road exactly 20kms later, you’ll need to be mindful of the next turn to watch for. You’ll need to make a right turn in the center of Ngoc Hoi and continue on the QL14. Going straight will take you on the QL40 that leads down to Laos and Cambodia, as you can see there are many QL roads in Vietnam. The turn is located just before the park in Ngoc Hoi we have listed on our map. Keep those in mind, and you should ride problem free.

           During your pass through Dak To, you might be interested in swinging by one of the few not-so-touristy attractions in the area, the Phoenix airstrip and Charlie Hill. This area in November of 1967, was part of the ongoing battles between Vietnam and the U.S. The sounding area fell victim to some of the wars horrific chemical effects. Agent Orange was highly used by U.S. forces around here to kill off vegetation and help flush out the Vietnamese enemy. The ongoing effects of the Agent Orange have marred the locals with health problems, and it’s visibly noticeable on the land and vegetation that is scant at best. The airstrip is known locally as, Dak To Base Camp, can be found just on the edge of the QL14 in Dak To. Search for the ” Airport Phoenix Dak To Vietnam ” in Google Maps, or reference our map guide to find it. About all you’re going to see here now are the local farmers drying crops. You might want to take your bike for a ride down it as the airstrip motorcycling options are far between in Vietnam.

     Once you’ve navigated the mix of straight roads and quick turns on this section, you’ll eventually end up in Kham Duc. There isn’t much going on around this town, though you may need to spend the night if your day has gotten away from you. The town has plenty of accommodation options, and if you want to narrow down a few, search ” Kham Duc Homestay ” in Google maps to give you a list of options. Around the towns central park area is plenty of food and drink options to refuel you for the road ahead.  

On the road to Kham Duc

  • Watch for two important turns you need to make. One in Dak To and one in Ngoc Hoi, both noted on our map
  • Ride down the abandoned Phoenix airstrip on your motorbike in Dak To
  • Spend a night in Kham Duc if you’re running out of daylight. Food will be easy to find near the central park

 

Enjoying The Ride!

 

Kham Duc to Prao – 110kms

     Sticking to the QL14 Ho Chi Minh highway from Kham Duc to Prao, you’ll be treated to a day of twisting switchbacks that wind around the Dak Mi river. This whole area is accented by the greenery that surrounds you, and at points and you are looking down on from one mountain top to another. Enjoy the road, as it will be the primary source of entertainment for all things Prao.

     Prao itself is a rural village at the crossroads of the Ho Chi Minh road heading further north and the urban excitement of Da Nang that flickers seaside just 80kms to the East of it. If you can’t take much more natural beauty, rural isolation, and smiley minority groups. Make a sharp right onto the QL14G and prepare yourself for the beaches, party spots, and mountain top resorts in Da Nang. Much like ordering one more round at last call, I suggest you not be tempted, and continue on the QL14 to see Ho’s road to the end.

    Despite that excellent sales pitch I just provided, Prao isn’t going to contend with hanging out at the beach resorts and other great things to do in Da Nang. Instead, you might swing by the Trung Tam Van Hoa in the town’s center, Its a pleasantly aged wooden building with impractically large pottery out front. The house and pottery backdrop makes for some cool photos, and you could tell people it’s a larger than life urn that holds Uncle Ho’s ashes inside. Just don’t share that story around a wifi connection or your facts will quickly fall apart.  After a night or quick stop in humble Prao, stock up on fuel and snacks for the day and press on for A Luoi.

Prao, a humble overview

  • The drive into Prao is exceptionally stunning, so stop and take some photos along the way
  • In Prao, you can visit the wooden Trung Tam Van Hoa building and its giant urn-looking pottery in the garden. Who knows maybe Uncle Ho’s inside
  • From here you could opt to change course onto the QL14G and drive to Da Nang. Really though the HCM Route is a fantastic drive that’s well worth seeing through until the end

 

 

A Roang Commune Map

A Roang Commune Map

Photo: Cindy Fan

 

Prao – A Roang Commune – A Luoi – Khe Sanh 210kms

    Unlike the last three relationships that you abandoned for what looked like greener grass on the other side, committing to the HCM route will be well worth it rather than changing course for happy hour in Da Nang. This next section of the HCM highway that runs from Prao to A Luoi is an impressive stretch of forest and mountains that climb up over one peak after another while dipping into small valleys and continuing to pass the landscapes you’d see in the background of a Cannon camera commercial. The views over the vibrant forest, cloud-kissing mountain tops and occasional man-made structures on this road are likely to stretch your 106km drive in hours of scenic route photo stops. As you meander towards A Luoi, you aren’t likely to have more than a handful of vehicles pass you, an almost apocalyptic sense of isolation on almost perfect roads.

    About 30-kilometers before you reach A Luoi you have the option for turning off onto the QL14 highway going East to the small A Roang Commune. Located in A Roang are the Phong Chat Waterfalls as well as river fed hot springs. The hot springs come highly recommended by the locals, and you’ll see in the above photo where they are located in reference to the town. For more accurate directions you’ll need to ask a local exactly how to get there, it won’t be too complicated there is only one hot spring. If you find that a day at the falls and relaxing in the hot spring fed cement pools have worn you out, there is a homestay in the community. Huong Danh Homestay can be found on google maps and comes with solid reviews.

 A Roang Commune Overview

  • Visit the hot springs. There are small cement pools that are fed by the natural hot springs
  • If you plan to spend the night, check out Huong Danh Homestay. The place comes with very positive reviews
  • Ask the locals where to go in town. It’s a small area, everyone around should know where to send you

 

Your Bike Might Need The Occasional Wash

   

   Once you make it to A Luoi you’ll have a few sightseeing options and things to do. The most well-known stop on this part of your Vietnam culture trip is the Hamburger Hill battle site and museum. This site was made famous by the Hollywood movie by the same name, Hamburger Hill. The area was the battle site for Operation Apache Snow, the infamous battle that occurred over eleven days in May 1969.  The catch to taking this tour is that you’d need to organize the DMZ, trekking and village excursion in advance with companies out of Hue or further north in Dong Ha. You could try asking at the local tourist office, but it’s not likely they will be of much help on this one.

       In the town, you can also visit a house that’s designed to replicate one of the ethnic minority houses of the area. At the replica house, there are some maps of the area, and they are typically stocked with English booklets and information on a nearby waterfall and other things to do. The house/information center is located just off the QL14/HCM Highway right across from the post office. You’ll see a driveway that heads up towards the mountains to follow, and the post office is located on our map. There are also a few places to stay in town if you choose to spend the night here as opposed to sleeping in earlier A Roang.

A Luoi Overview

  • The major attraction here is Hamburger hill, but you’ll need to organize a tour out of Hue or Dong Ha in advance to visit it
  • Drop by the ethnic minority house/tourist office across from the post office for maps and directions
  • The town has plenty of places to sleep, eat and refuel. Spending the night shouldn’t be an issue

 

Military Plane Khe Sanh Combat Base

Military Plane Khe Sanh Combat Base

 

A Luoi to Khe Sanh 100kms

     A little over 100kms further up the road on your Honda rental, will bring you into the city of Khe Sanh that sits at the start of the western side of the HCM highway. Just before the city, you are welcomed by the rushing Da Krong river, that pours emerald colored water through the valley in past Khe Sanh. The site of what looks like entirely untouched water might be enough to get you gushing a little too, it’s a welcome and beautiful feast for the eyes.

     The other visual attraction in Khe Sanh that isn’t nearly as beautiful as the river, but interesting enough to add to your backpacking Vietnam to do list, is the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Combat Base was once home to the United States Marine Corps Outpost that first saw action in January 1966. After this, the site became home to a number of battles, including the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh. Nowadays the base sees more photo ops than Marine Ops, and you can tour around and visit the small museum. If you’ve never had your photo taken with a military helicopter, bomber plane or wondered what bunker life was like, you can do it all here!

     Once you’ve dropped all the inappropriate TheBomb.com jokes you can think of at the combat base, it might be time to brew up some more travel ideas over a cup of world-class coffee. The main variety of coffee grown in Vietnam is the Robusta bean, known to produce a better bean at lower altitudes. After the Robusta, there are some more globally popular beans making their way into production in Vietnam.   

     The Arabica variety that is usually found in regions like South America and grown in slightly higher altitudes can be found in Vietnam around Khe Sanh. The Arabica bean from this region has garnered national and international attention, and the Vietnamese have chosen Khe Sanh as the area to produce their highly sought after varieties of Arabica coffee. With exports reaching over $25-million, the little bean has become a big business for local producers and business out of Ho Chi Minh City. As a result, you can find locally sourced, premium cups of world-class coffee right here in Khe Sanh. If you see the locals lined up for a cup of local goodness, get in line! Otherwise check out a local coffee house like, Khe Sanh Coffee.  

     There are sleeping, eating, and drinking options aplenty in and around Khe Sanh. Either check your usual sources or take a drive down the main Le Duan/QL9 road the goes through the city and you’ll find some options.

Khe Sanh overview

  • Take a helicopter selfie at the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Lucky for everyone the only action this place sees now is from wandering tourists and pushy touts
  • Stop by the Da Krong river bridge and marvel at what water used to look like before it became a dumping ground for commercial and human waste the world over
  • Get to know the local Arabica bean, if you see the same beans brewing back in your home country they’ll probably cost you 5x the price!

 

Bridge On The HCM Highway

Bridge On The HCM Highway

 

Khe Sanh – Long Son – Phong Nha 230km

    This lengthy stretch of the HCM highway known on Google maps as the QL15 or Ho Chi Minh Tay road has fewer users than a Myspace account. The distances between fuel, food, and fun are long, and you are best to fill up on all of them when you have the chance. If you’re worried that your Honda Blade is going to use more fuel than average while climbing hills, fill up with fuel. As for yourself, if you tend to get a bit hungry after a couple of hours, you’re also going to want to bring some snacks or lunch. The rewards of this route are the jungle scenery, wandering rivers, waterfalls, and utter remoteness you’ll feel as you pass near Laos border.

    Start by making your way out of Khe Sanh on the Ho Chi Minh Tay road heading North. Your first fueling and food options along this route start off deceptively close to where you began under 30kms earlier. Here in Huong Phung, you should fill up with fuel, and if you’re interested, there are a couple of cafes and places to get food. From here continue on the way for roughly 40-kilometers more, and you’ll pass by the Bac Huong Hoa Nature Reserve. A few online photos and some questionable Google translations led me to believe that the reserve is a 25,000ha in size and is home to hundreds of plant and tree varieties. The wildlife is a mix of 42 species of mammals, 117 species of birds, and some species of reptiles. If you’re really keen on being one of the first to document some nature exploration for the motorcycling backpacker, please let us know if you can tour or hike the reserve. Google reviews show photos of an entrance and guards, so it appears like it could be possible.

    After searching out newly found nature, continue up the road to your next option for both rider and motorcycle fuel in Tang Ky. This stop is roughly 90kms from your previous fuel option in Huong Phung. Just before arriving in this little village there will be a turn for the DT10 road, don’t turn there, but if you need a noodle fix, there is a small noodle shop where you can stop. Otherwise, there are a couple of food stops in town. On the sleeping side of things, you’re not likely to find much here, fuel up, check that you have the right amount of time, and keep on riding on the QL15.

 

A Little Run Off-Road

 

    As you ride along, you’ll start to get swimmingly close to the Long Dai River. If you’re up for it, pick a sweet spot and soak your feet or go for a dip. There is even a little viewpoint you can stop at for some winding river and lush jungle photos just 12-kilometers from Tang Ky. After stopping for some river selfies, it’s only 16-kilometers more to your next fuel stop in Long Son. Here your options for food could probably be counted on one hand, and your options for sleeping can be counted on one finger.

    The lovely/only hotel option between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha is the Duc Ton motel in Long Son. The chances are good that they won’t be booked out, but unless you’re packing a tent, this is it for sleeping on this particular route. If you’re looking to have a little chat, sing for your supper, or talk to one of the only people in town who could give you any information on the area in English. There is one eatery in town identifying itself as  “Restaurant and Karaoke.” More than one review notes that the lady there speaks great English and is very friendly! This might be the towns closest option for both food and tourist information. Get it while you can!

Khe Sanh to Long Son Overview

  • Stop along the way and get your feet wet in the Long Dai river, there’s also a viewpoint we’ve noted along the way
  • Long Son has the only sleeping option on this drive, the Duc Ton mo
  • Likely to be ley the only English speaking restaurant anywhere close by, is the “Restaurant and Karaoke” in Long Son

 

     From Long Son to Phong Nha is roughly 100kms, again make sure you’ve got a full tank and ample daylight before setting off. If you don’t want to overnight here in Long Son, you’ll need to start your day as early in the morning as possible to make it the 230kms or so. There are plenty of photo options along the way and you’ll still need to make it to Phong Nha before dark.

 

Hang Son Doong Cave

Hang Son Doong Cave

Photo: @laurentius_yudi_mulyadi

 

         After riding down what feels like a desolate trail for days, the scenery is about to change. As you putter your way closer to Phong Nha, your Saigon to Hanoi two-wheeled adventure is about to explode with exploration options. You’ll start to pass through the stunning Ke Bang National Park, whose menu of viewing options reads off like top-shelf liquor menu at the Four Seasons. The parks 885sq kms of jungle are home to the oldest karst limestone mountains in Asia, dating back somewhere around 400-million years, give or take a few birthdays. Coveted by the 400-million-year-old mountains is some unimaginable underground rivers and caves that are big enough to arrange boat tours into. If age and beauty weren’t sufficient enough to put the area on the map, a 2009 discovery in this immaculate UNESCO park uncovered what is the largest cave on the planet. The Hang Son Doong or Son Doong cave is about 150-meters wide, 200-meters high, about 9-kilometers deep and cooler than the Hai Van Pass. To get yourself on a five-day excursion into the caves you’ll just need to arrange the top-shelf cover charge of $3000!

    Not to worry, if you don’t think you’re up for the five-day, $3000 hike, you can either come back once they’ve built the cable-car that’s planned for the future. Or you can arrange a trip to several nearby caves that don’t come with the, one arm and one leg price tag. Phong Nha, for example, can be accessed from the town of Phong Nha via a nifty little Dragon boat ride. Up the road, Dark Cave is more of the adventure option that includes some kayaking, a muddy trek, some zip lining, and a little swim in the bone-chilling waters. Depending on your budget and time frame, there are other less popular caving options in the area. You’re better off to research and book these options before setting off on your road trip, during the high season the tours can get pretty busy.

 

Dark Cave Zip Line Entrance

Dark Cave Zip Line Entrance

Photo: phongnhatourism.com.vn

 

Self Guided Tour of the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park 55kms

    You can also take yourself on a self-guided Vietnam motorbike rental tour of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. For the journey you don’t require a guide and it’s totally free, you just pay for any of the activities you might want to stop and do along the way. The entire route is marked out on our map, but overall it’s not very confusing to figure out. Start off from the National Park entrance then head out on the DT20 road as though you are heading towards Laos. It’s about 7kms from the park entrance to your first stop, the Botanical Gardens. The gardens offer up a couple of hike options that can include fabulous flora, take you in a loop, or out to a waterfall. The trails are well marked, and you can get information at the sign-in in station when you arrive.

      Next up head further down the DT20 about 9kms, and it will turn into the DT562 just after the intersection with the HCM highway. This stop will be to the Eight Ladies Cave and memorial, known locally as Hang Tam Co. You can’t actually go in the cave, the stop here is more about the temple and memorial that pays tribute to a group of eight ladies who became trapped during a bombing on the area on November 14, 1972. Rescue efforts failed, and all eight women trapped inside died. You’ll need to wear respectful attire including shirt and pants, or shorts long enough to cover your knees. Check and see if this attire made it into your what to bring and wear bag. Expect it to be a quite and highly respectful stop.

    Paradise cave is next on the park loop. An impressive 31km long, and up to 72-meters high and 150-meters wide. Paradise cave is roughly 11kms from the eight ladies stop. Turn back towards the HCM road then turn left and make your next left on the unnamed road out to the cave, it won’t be hard to find. The parking area is a little over a kilometer from the actual cave, and if you’re not up for the walk, you can get a ride to the entrance. Once you’ve paid to be a guest on the inside you’re only allowed to walk about a kilometer of the cave, but the views are impressive, and the beauty of the spectacular stalactites and stalagmites are said to be some of the most stunning of all the caves. It’ll be fun to ask how many of your friends googled the words “stalactites and stalagmites” on your post.

 

Paradise Cave Vietnam

Paradise Cave Vietnam. Photo: @_17.05c

 

      After the optional stop at Paradise Cave, head back towards the HCM highway and follow it to the Nuoc Mooc Springs Eco Trail, roughly 5kms start to finish. This purpose built park was designed to help aid with the extraction of Dong from the pockets of a large number of tourists that now frequent the area. If you like busy tourist stops, this is for you! Here you can kayak, explore the forest, walk the rope bridge, swim in the unnaturally vibrant turquoise waters that flow from the waterfall, and enjoy a deliciously overpriced lunch. All in it’s said to be fun, but you’re likely to be made to wear a life-jacket to go in the water, and unless you’re turning up mid-week, it’ll probably be crammed. All in, it’s a good time. Just don’t expect to run around in pure freedom and cannonball your heart out.  

    If the swimming stop isn’t on your list or once you’re done with the rope bridge, you can venture off into Dark Cave. Just under 3kms staying on the same route up the HCM highway will take you to fun without sun and one of those amazing things to do in Vietnam. Welcome to Dark Cave! Hang Toi as it’s known in Vietnamese, is the answer to all your cave fantasies. Dubbed Dark Cave as there are no artificial lights inside the cave, you’ll need to strap a torch to your head to see further than the end of your nose. To access the cave, you’ll be hanging from the longest zip-line in Vietnam. A zippy 400-meter double line will take you screaming from daylight to darkness and eventually drop you off to negotiate a muddy track through the cave. The eventual end to this hike is met by a mud pit that could rival chocolate pudding, too dense to sink in, yet just thick enough to allow you to hobble through it. Once you’ve stained your favorite Saigon Beer shirt beyond recognition, you can rinse off in the river and kayak out, play in the water obstacle course, or have a go at the flying fox. At the end of the day, you’ll either be ready for a celebratory beer or a celebratory nap! Prices vary drastically depending on what you want to do there. If your parents are funding your fun, just go right for the 450,000vnd all-inclusive package.

    The Dark Cave stop is likely to take the last of your energy reserves as well as the last of your Dong. To get back for a rest, an ATM, or a beer, just head back out on the HCM highway 10kms or so until it reaches the turn for the QL16. Follow the QL16 another 10kms back to Phong Nha. Here in Phong Nha you’ll feel right at home where places have cheesy tourist names like Easy Tiger Hostel Jungle Bar and Magic Fingers Massage, that will trade your restocked Dong for late night delight.  The whole loop should run you around 55kms and depending on activities, could take a few hours or a full day.

Self Guided Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park

  • Start from the park entrance and then make your way to the Botanical Gardens
  • Stop at the Eight Ladies Cave and Memorial and pay your respects
  • Paradise cave is next on the park loop. 31km long, and up to 72-meters high and 150-meters wide. Paradise cave is roughly 11kms from the eight ladies stop
  • For purpose-built family fun, check out Nuoc Mooc Springs Eco Trail just 5kms from the Eight Ladies
  • 3kms from Nuoc Mooc Springs is Dark Cave. The adventure thrillers answer to caving excitement

 

 

Hai Thuong Eco Resort Pool

Hai Thuong Eco Resort Pool

Photo: Hai Thuong Eco Resort

 

Phong Nha – Huong Khe – Pho Chau 185kmm

     Leaving behind the zip-lines and caving adventures of Phong Nha, your next possible stop for services is going to be the town of Huong Khe. Make your way out of Phong Nha on the QL16 until it quickly joins back up with the QL15/HCM Highway. It’s roughly 125kms to Huong Khe, so fuel up, pack some drinks and snacks, and settle in for a Vietnam road-trip through the mountains. There are some villages you’ll pass along the way that could probably cover your needs, but the trip will be more relaxing if you’re not thinking about your next meal or your next fuel stop the whole time. This section of highway is going to have all the pretty scenery as the roads you’ve been riding, but traffic is going to become more noticeable as vehicles and transport trucks utilize this road too.

     On this section of the drive, the area will turn from standing wood to laid concrete and eventually take you into the sprawling town of Huong Khe. Huong Khe will have all your basic sleeping, eating and drinking needs covered, as well as mechanics for issues like a flat tire. To make your search simple, head for the Ho Uy Ban lake in the center of the town. It has food and accommodation surrounding it and is easy to access, will mark it on the map at a little Banh Mi sub shop near the water. From the sub shop, follow the road around it to find everything else.

      If you don’t do the night in Huong Khe, head towards Pho Chau past the Vu Quang National Park on the HCM highway. The 550sq km park is comprised of dense, remote forest that is often unexplored. The isolation this area provides lead to some newly found species like the Saola and Giant muntjac, a type of deer. These were only discovered in the ’90s, and other species are still being discovered as of late. You’re not likely to make your way into the park, but that might help the wildlife as its also difficult for hunters and poachers to access.

     Once in Pho Chau a little over 50kms later, you’ll be greeted with all amenities again. It won’t contend with Dragon boat rides, and stalagmite photos of days gone by, but you’ll be well looked after. You can find hotels pretty easy, and one well-reviewed hotel on booking.com is the Ly Ha hotel. For something to do, you can take a quick drive with views of the surrounding area out to the Tuong dai Hai Thuong Lan Ong monument. The monument is of a famous Vietnamese Doctor, and it won’t garner top marks for entertainment, but can give you something to do. If the weather is good, there is also an overpriced hotel just outside of town that has a pool. The Hai Thuong Eco Resort will let you pay a small fee to use the pool if you’re not staying at the hotel. The hotel is home to a five-lane set of waterslides, a great place to race locals to the bottom. In addition to these short waterslides, they also have a couple of small tube-style slides. Don’t expect an all-encompassing theme park, but it should be cheap fun for the day.

Huong Kha and Pho Chau Overview

  • In Huong Kha look for Ho Uy Ban Lake in the center of town. Around here are some sleeping and eating options
  • Pho Chau Ly Ha Hotel comes well reviewed for a nights stay
  • A quick drive to the monument of a Doctor outside Pho Chau will give a pleasant view of the area
  • For a day of family-style water fun, check out the Hai Thuong Eco Resort. Here you can pay to play for the day

 

    The Dragons Back is a vast stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway that reaches over 900-kilometers across the Central Highlands region of Vietnam. The drive will take you from complete isolation, into bustling cities, and across some of the most beautiful sections of Vietnam.

For some of the trip you’ll need to be prepared for long distances between fuel and food, but you’ll also be rewarded with options to see highly unexplored areas, as well as visit some of the most sought after caves on the planet.

The final section of this cross-country adventure can be explored in our related post. HCM Highway Part 3, The Adventure To Historical Hanoi.

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