Vietnam not only has some of the best scenery in Southeast Asia, but the most lax motorbike license laws, providing the ingredients for an epic adventure.
Cheap and abundant in the big cities, classics such as the Honda Win are yo-yoed unrelentingly along the spindly country, but many riders overlook unforgettable routes to quickly reach the nation’s popular destinations.
From the mountainous north to the riparian south, there are breathtaking trips that meander through limestone karsts, pine forests, jungles and beaches.
Of course, the most exciting journeys are rarely without danger: at the bare minimum, bring sun cream, water and a poncho; never ride at night; always wear a helmet; and avoid riding solo if you’re inexperienced. When you’re ready, here are five short motorbike journeys in Vietnam that might just be the best road trips of your life.
1. The Ma Pi Leng Pass, 15 Miles
This journey begins at Dong Van Town deep within the dramatic Tolkien landscape of Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark in the frontier province of Ha Giang.
Following road QL4C from Ha Giang City, a century old H’mong king palace nestled in a valley signals that the town is near.
Once at the pass, the next 15 miles are full of jutting karst mountains, deep gorges and locals planting crops in every inch of fertile land found below the rock precipices.
Running southeast and then south, away from the border with China, the pass took 11 months to build during the 1960s and cuts precariously into the cliffside. It runs above a deep canyon of boulders colored by the blue ribbon of Nho Que River and eventually comes to the district capital of Meo Vac. Although this relatively short trip has one marked viewing point, the amount of photo opportunities and points for gawping at the beautiful, barren landscape will probably double the time your trip takes.
2. Phong Nha to Khe Sanh, 147 Miles
Often touted as the most spectacular run of the Ho Chi Minh Road, this 147-mile journey begins at Phong Nha in north central Vietnam.
The town, a base for exploring Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, is set amid karst mountains and a cave system that includes the world’s largest, Son Doong.
The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, which runs from the north to the south of the country, climbs out of the town, unfolding in tropical rainforest south to Khe Sanh.
Although the way is straightforward—one winding road—completing the journey in one day requires strapping extra water and extra fuel to the bike, as the only gas available comes from locals on the side of the road, say, every 62 miles or so. So, running out would not be fun.
On the other hand, breaks to cool off in clear rivers and admire the scenes of lush, rolling jungles from the middle of empty bridges are a blast.
Despite the lack of traffic, the corners should be taken slowly as the road is often slippery due to regular mist.
3. Di Linh to Mui Ni, 71 Miles
The cool retreat of Dalat in southern Vietnam’s central highlands is firmly on the tourist radar, however, the motorbike ride out of here can often be the highlight of a trip.
Pine forests in Prenn Pass flank the route of the city but after six miles the road becomes hectic (Highway 20). Once it hits Di Linh, a bucolic town about 33 feet above sea level, there’s a left turn (Road 28) to the coast. This is the last chance to inhale fresh highlands air, as the road winds through lush pastures, as well as tea and coffee plantations, and then lifts into jungle before descending into wooded valleys. Near the end of the 61-mile stretch, a vast, baked coastal plain appears, emerging from the Di Linh Plateau, part of the Annamese Cordillera mountain range that borders Laos.
At the end of Road 28, the road toward Phu Hai, a right to join the road running parallel to the South China Sea leads the way to the resort town of Mui Ne 10 miles away.
4. The Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, 13 Miles
Once the border between the kingdoms of Champa and Dai Viet, this legendary mountain pass has thrilled the likes of author Paul Theroux and Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear team.
Travelers who lack the time or will to conquer all of Vietnam by motorbike can have an unforgettable taste of it by renting a motorbike from Hue and dropping it off the same day south in Danang (or the other way around), while companies deliver baggage separately.
From Hue, one of the ways to the pass is via Highway 1 to Lang Co at its foot.
Steeply twisting up and down for 13 miles, the pass winds through lush jungle and eventually blends clouds, mountains and ocean together, changing climates and revealing fantastic views.
The journey is also a lot safer than a decade or so ago as the Hai Van Tunnel now channels most of the traffic.
5. Nui Sap to Tri Ton, 37 Miles
Vietnam’s “rice bowl”—the Mekong Delta—is mostly flat, which can turn off motorcyclists, but a trip through the region’s country roads, experiencing the endless rice paddies and canals, is completely worth it.
Tracks around the delta’s only hills close to Cambodia in An Giang Province give an authentic taste of life here; colorful fruits, sugar palms, pagodas and Khmer shrines dapple the scenery.
A 37-mile trip encapsulating this is the road from Nui Sap to Tri Ton via Oc Eo, a town of archeological interest due to its links with the kingdom of Funan between the first and seventh centuries.
At a modest 725 feet, a hill called Núi Ba Thê has views of the Mekong, as do Nui Co To (2014) and Tuc Dup (708 feet) further along the road before you reach the market town of Tri Ton.
Image: Davidlohr Bueso, CC-BY
Lorcan Lovett is a freelance journalist based in Vietnam.