If just one experience could define Southeast Asian adventures, it would be motorbiking across Vietnam. Whether north-to-south or south-to-north, a 2000 km traverse of Vietnam’s hyperkinetic highways and twisting country roads on your own two wheels is a journey that will leave you with stories to tell for years to come.
Like many travelers, a friend and I started our motorcycle expedition with only rough plans. Underfunded and pushed for time, what should have been a leisurely break in Ho Chi Minh City became a frenzied blur in our rush to hit the road for Hanoi.
But just one month later, we had experienced everything you could ever hope for in a road trip. We’d chased the horizon on razor-thin mountain passes, shared moonshine rice wine with gap-toothed villagers, and willingly got lost in the vast beauty of Vietnam’s awe-inspiring scenery.
We’d also had more than our share of roadside breakdowns, wrong turnings, and close calls with traffic! Find out how to dodge the potential pitfalls and, instead, how to make the most of the plentiful opportunities on this incredible ride.
In this article, we will cover:
- When to visit
- Getting a bike
- Licenses and essentials
- The route & itinerary
When to Visit
If possible, plan your trip between October and November or between March and April.
- The dry season runs from October to April.
- The rainy season is from May to September, with the heaviest rain during June and July.
- The dry seasons are cooler, while the rainy seasons are hotter and more humid.
- The coldest months are from December to February, with a minimum temperature of 48°F (9°C).
- It’s hottest from July to September, with a maximum temperature of 84°F (29°C).
Getting a Bike
Should I rent or buy? It’s definitely possible to rent a bike for the whole trip. Several rental companies have offices in both HCMC and Hanoi. You can collect your bike from one office and then simply hand it back at the other end.
Renting a motorbike
Pros of renting:
- If you select a reputable, well-reviewed company, the bike should be in excellent working order. That means fewer maintenance-related headaches along the way.
- Rental companies can offer up-to-the-minute advice regarding your route. This enables you to avoid roads that are difficult to ride due to maintenance or weather conditions.
- In the event of an accident with another motorist, the rental company can negotiate with the other party on your behalf.
- Eliminates the hassle of re-selling the bike.
Cons of renting:
- Potentially more expensive. A one-month rental from a reputable company costs around $250 for a 110cc semi-automatic bike or $450 for a 150cc manual transmission bike. You won’t have an asset to re-sell at the other end.
- If you’re on a flexible schedule, then renting might tie you down. Every additional day you keep the bike will add to your bill. The extra cost might discourage you from spending that extra day at the beach or taking a spontaneous side trip.
- Damage will cost you. Be sure to read your contract with the company. Damage to the bike could add a hefty premium to your bill.
Buying a motorbike
It’s worth doing some proper research and setting aside at least a couple of days to find a good machine. I say this from a bitter experience! We hurriedly bought our bikes, a Suzuki GN125 and the ubiquitous Honda Win 100cc, from fellow backpackers and hit the highway after a few basic checks.
The result? Numerous breakdowns, high repair costs, and far more time wasted than we had ever saved by hurrying.
Pros of buying:
- You can go anywhere, anytime, for however long you want. Heard about an unmissable side trip or a fascinating local festival? You can take all the time in the world to enjoy it and never worry about the rental bill.
- Potentially cheaper. I sold my bike in Hanoi for 80% of what I paid for it. Many people actually turn a profit! There is a burgeoning trade in second-hand motorcycles in both HCMC and Hanoi’s traveler communities.
- Owning your own bike. Call me sentimental, but I loved having a machine to call my own for a few weeks. It became a true travel companion!
Cons of buying:
- Buy a second-hand bike, and you are taking a leap of faith. All the repair costs (and the time it takes to fix them) will be yours.
- Buying and selling a bike takes time and can be a hassle.
- Any issues with the bike’s legal status are yours to deal with.
On the traveler circuit, there are many, many battered old bikes for sale that should have been scrapped years ago. Unless you’re a seasoned mechanic, you can easily pick a lemon! You should expect to pay around $200 – $400.
Here’s a quick checklist to get you started:
- Be extra careful when buying from travelers! A friendly smile and inspirational stories from the Hai Van Pass are no substitute for mechanical knowledge and proper maintenance.
- Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Pham Ngu Lao Street in HCMC are both backpacker districts, home to several second-hand bike shops. You will probably pay a premium, but their bikes should have at least been serviced.
- Wherever you buy, and regardless of the seller’s assurances, get a second opinion. Find a mechanic to check the bike over before handing over your money.
- Powerful lights and horns are absolutely essential.
- Be sure to get the bike’s ownership documents, called the Blue Card.
Tip: Instead of searching for a buyer once you have finished your journey, post advertisements online at least a week before you arrive. Having potential buyers lined up will make the process much easier.
Licenses and Essentials
Officially, to ride in Vietnam, you’re required to hold a motorbike license in your home country and an International Drivers Permit (IDP). In reality, most foreigners here are unlicensed, preferring to keep a few dollars at the ready for any police “fines”.
Check out our trip essentials article for more information on packing for your motorbike trip.
The Route & Itinerary
Almost every traveler chooses to start and end their journey in Hanoi and HCMC’s tourist districts (Old Quarter in Hanoi, District 1 in HCMC). Everything you could need is available here, from bikes and spare parts to delicious pho noodles and friendly advice from the hotels.
The most direct route between HCMC and Hanoi is 1700km. But it wouldn’t be an enjoyable ride. The itinerary detailed below is around 2400km and will show you the Vietnam you came here to see!
Google maps hasn’t yet caught up to Vietnamese driving conditions, so don’t trust its estimated journey times. Between traffic, poorly surfaced roads, rain, breakdowns, and stopping for photos, we regularly doubled the estimates!
The Expressways are a recent addition to Vietnam’s transport network. These multi-lane highways are off-limits to all motorcycles, so be sure to plan around them. All Expressways are labeled with a code starting with “CT”, followed by a number, i.e. CT01 or CT14.
Hitting HCMC’s infamously frenetic traffic can be intimidating, even if you have prior experience on a bike. If you’re totally new to bikes, the busy streets aren’t the place to learn! Find a quiet car park or side street and give yourself time to learn the basics. Check out our article on riding in Vietnam here.
Note: The following day-by-day itinerary accounts for riding days only. In reality, you’ll want to spend a few nights in some places to check out the local sights and give your butt a rest from the long days in the saddle!
Day 1: HCMC to Vung Tau – 105km
Time to hit the highway out of Ho Chi Minh!
The first day takes us to Vung Tau, a favorite seaside getaway for the HCMC locals. It feels great just to be out of the city and on the open road! If you’re in need of some sun, sea, and sand, then you could take the next day off and laze on the mile-long beaches. But, a better bet would be to wait for the sea at Mui Ne.
Day 2: Vung Tau to Mui Ne – 160km
Coastal riding and views over the South China Sea await!
Unfortunately, Mui Ne has gained a reputation as a hotspot for bribe-hungry police and they’re known to prey on unlicensed foreigners on motorbikes. So, if that includes you, just have a few dollars ready, be polite, and don’t speak English. They should soon let you go on your way.
If you’ve been waiting since Vung Tau to feel sand under your feet, Mui Ne won’t disappoint! It’s home to massive sand dunes and beach chalets all along the seafront.
Day 3: Mui Ne to Dai Ninh – 163km
Get ready for a stunning day’s riding!
Instead of taking the most direct route, follow the road to Phan Ri Cua before heading West toward Dai Ninh. This gorgeous coastal route passes through sand dunes and overlooks the sea. And, best of all, there is almost no traffic.
Don’t expect too much from Dai Ninh; the only reason to stay here is to break up the long journey to Da Lat. But, being almost free from tourists, you will be a local celebrity! Over dinner, we were roped into a half-serious drinking competition with six highly enthusiastic locals. We were clearly a curiosity to them, and they took great glee in our reaction to their paint stripper-grade rice wine!
Day 4: Dai Ninh to Da Lat – 42km
From here, we’re entering the coffee country. For the next few days, row upon row of coffee plants dominates the fields and hillside terraces. We were surprised to see people sun-drying coffee beans on tarps in front of their houses. Vietnamese java might be world-famous, but its production is still amazingly traditional.
Arguably one of Vietnam’s most picturesque towns, Da Lat is a beautiful French colonial-style hill fort. You can easily spend a couple of days wandering around the city center, tasting the local coffee, and enjoying the early morning views over the misty, pine-clad valleys.
Day 5: Da Lat to Nha Trang – 138km
Fresh from the relaxed atmosphere of Da Lat, it’s time to head back to the coast. And the route there includes one of the most memorable roads of our entire journey: The Khanh Le Pass. An exhilarating descent through valleys and gorges down into the agricultural lowlands. It’s a biker’s dream!
In contrast to Da Lat, Nha Trang has a definite party vibe. Expect to be approached with tempting (or not so tempting) offers on cocktails and suspiciously colorful drinks buckets!
Day 6: Nha Trang to Buon Ma Thuot – 180km
Here’s an opportunity to learn from our mistakes! From Nha Trang, we headed up to Hoi An on the main highway, QL1A. On reflection, it was not the best option! QL1A (also known in some parts as AH1) is the main highway from North to South, and it attracts all the heaviest traffic.
A word of warning about Highway QL1A (AH1):
If you thought that regular Vietnamese roads were chaotic, QL1A is on another level! Some sections are modern, but others are horribly outdated. The locals’ “hope and a prayer” approach to overtaking becomes scary very quickly when you’re going head to head with trucks at highway speeds.
QL1A at night? Forget it.
One day, we’d fallen behind schedule and were left with 40km of night-time highway between us and our beds for the night. The following two hours were, without doubt, the scariest I’ve ever spent on a bike!
Trucks with full beam headlights mercilessly overtook our path, and the (frequent) obstacles were almost impossible to avoid at anything more than 20kph. Riding on the hard shoulder was the only option until my friend nearly collided with a villager who was laying their crops out to dry. Unbeknown to us, the unlit hard shoulder is, apparently, a popular location for drying crops, a night-time stroll, or even a quick sleep!
Some riding on QL1A is inevitable, but try to avoid it at all costs. There is almost always a safer and more scenic alternative.
The road to Buon Ma Thuot and up through Pleiku to Kham Duc avoids QL1A altogether. It will lead you deep into the rural coffee country and through rolling mountains, farms, and fields. There are plenty of small guesthouses to stay at and cultural sights to see. I wish we’d gone this way!
Day 7: Buon Ma Thuot to Pleiku – 175km
Pleiku is still relatively untouched by tourism, so expect a peaceful stay! It’s also home to a beautiful example of Taiwanese architecture, the Minh Thanh Pagoda. It’s well worth a visit if you have time in the afternoon.
Day 8: Pleiku to Kon Tum – 60km
The route to Kon Tum continues along narrow, winding, and incredibly picturesque country roads. It’s time to settle in for a relaxed day’s ride!
Day 9: Kon Tum to Kham Duc – 170km
A long day in the saddle! The narrow, dusty roads wind through fields and small towns, making for a beautiful journey. Just allow plenty of time to reach Kham Duc because road speeds here are low.
Day 10: Kham Duc to Da Nang or Hoi An – 127km
You can choose between staying in Da Nang or Hoi An. Da Nang is more geared for ex-pats, with numerous Westernized bars and restaurants. Hoi An, on the other hand, is definitely a tourist mecca. It is particularly famed for its insanely cheap custom-made clothes. You could easily spend weeks in the stores and markets here and still have more to see.
Try to time your trip to coincide with the monthly lantern festival. A stunning gala of light and color, it’s both dazzling and elegant. The pictures you take here might just make your top-photos-ever list!
Day 11: Da Nang or Hoi An to Hue – 91km or 120km
The Hai Van Pass!! Undoubtedly the most famous road in Vietnam and not to be missed. We spent an unforgettable day gunning our bikes over this mountainside and drinking in the cliff-edge views.
Hue is often overlooked in tourist itineraries, but it warrants more attention. The old town, in particular, is well worth taking the time to look around. It’s home to centuries of culture and history, such as the Imperial Citadel, a beautiful capital from an ancient dynasty.
If you’re looking for something a little different, check out the abandoned water park. Hidden deep in the jungle, the park is a bizarre and somewhat creepy ghost town that makes an off-beat destination for a day trip. A friend described it as the Angkor Wat of theme parks.
Sadly, Hue was also where my friend and I had to part ways. After an epic journey together, we shared some final drinks and reminisced on some of the trip’s wilder memories. There had been many! It was time to hit the road alone. But, as anyone who has traveled to Vietnam can tell you, it’s never long before you see a friendly face along the way!
Day 12: Hue to Dong Ha – 70km
A short day’s ride, taking the roads along the coast.
Dong Ha is home to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, a relic of the war with the Americans. Less famous than the Cu Chi Tunnels but equally fascinating, the Vinh Moc Tunnels housed an entire North Vietnamese village that moved underground to escape the carpet bombing.
Day 13: Dong Ha to either Dong Hoi or Khe Sanh – 105km or 61km
At Dong Ha, it’s decision time! The standard route? Or the adventurous route??
The standard way continues up the coast to Dong Hoi, a small town that boasts 12km of white sandy beaches and a scattering of traveler bars and hotels.
The adventurous way takes you onto the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail…
The Ho Chi Minh Trail has become something of a legend in traveler folklore. A secret, wartime track used by the North Vietnamese to transport soldiers, spies, and supplies, the trail attracts a steady stream of adventure-hungry wanderers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t join them; bike reliability issues kept me on the well-worn highways.
But, if you do choose this route, here’s an overview of what you can expect…
- First day: To Khe Sanh. And, by all accounts, an early night is essential because the next day is a monster!
- Second day: From Khe Sanh to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. 250km of winding, mountainous roads through some of Vietnam’s most sparsely populated countryside.
- You will have to pack food and will need to bottle up extra fuel for the bikes. There’s nowhere to refill out there!
- With between eight and ten hours of riding, it won’t be an easy day. But this is touted as one of Vietnam’s most remote and spectacular rides!
Day 14: Dong Hoi or Phong Nha to Vinh
Whether you have stayed at Phong Nha or Dong Hoi, the next day finishes back near the coast in Vinh.
If you’re on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and want to continue along the path less traveled, take the QL15. Otherwise, you can stick to the coast but almost wholly avoid the QL1A by taking the maze of far quieter and more scenic roads that run both to the left and right of it.
Day 15: Vinh to Ninh Binh – 250km
The penultimate stop and a long day’s ride! If you take the minor roads, it’s around eight hours.
Since I’d heard that Ninh Binh’s sunset was spectacular, I made an early start from Vinh. Arriving that evening, it was pretty disappointing to find a grey, modern-looking sprawl! Where’s all this natural beauty they had promised!?
Thankfully, the almost overwhelmingly polite and helpful proprietor of my guesthouse came to the rescue. The place I had heard about was called Tam Coc, a 15-minute ride away.
And trust me, it was worth the wait! Tam Coc is understandably described as Halong Bay on land. Expansive, lime-zest green paddy fields stretch into the distance, punctuated by massive rock formations that rise almost vertically out of the ground like vast, craggy tombstones.
For the last hour before sunset, it was truly stunning. And the perfect encore for Vietnam’s natural beauty before diving into the cosmopolitan bustle of Hanoi.
Day 16: Ninh Binh to Hanoi Old Quarter – 92km
The home stretch!
Inevitably, the highway gets increasingly hectic as you approach the capital, but just think of the cold beer and delicious food waiting for you at the other end! Traveling south to north in Vietnam is one of the great road trips, and you’re just a few km from the finish line!
Your Adventure Awaits
To hit these wonderfully haphazard roads on your own two wheels is to surrender to the Vietnamese experience. Events that you can’t control will happen. Characters and sights that you hadn’t imagined will become real. There is simply no better way to get up close and personal to these stunning landscapes and the people who call them home than on two wheels.
If you’re ready to throw yourself in the deep end and accept the challenges, motorbiking across Vietnam is one of the most rewarding and complete travel experiences you could ever have.
Reached Hanoi but still not had enough!?
Try the Ha Giang Loop. It’s a spectacular four-day adventure in the hills of northern Vietnam.