Over 37 million scooters snake their way from the Mekong Delta in the south to the snow-dusted peaks on the Chinese border. It’s the favored mode of transport for the 90 million people that call Vietnam home, and tourists are catching on.
The country sees almost 8 million visitors every year, and recently a new type of traveler has started arriving — motorcyclists. A popular tourist route connecting Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City has developed, with riders seeking history and culture to accompany adventure. Mechanic shops and backpacker hostels now fix and flip bikes by the hundreds to fearless foreigners.
Intrigued, I ended up in Vietnam with my own two wheels. With no time frame and a curious desire to explore, I rode 10,000 kilometers. Here are a few of the highlights I experienced along the way.
In search of the perfect ride
Hanoi, the bustling capital, is the beginning for most motorcyclists in Vietnam.
Some riders seek out the services of reputable companies like Flamingo Travel, Cuong’s Motorcycle Adventures and FlipSide Tours, while young backpackers scour the streets in search of cheap, Chinese-built bikes. But while many purchase a motorcycle and head directly south, those in the know head north, aiming for Vietnam’s majestic mountains.
Vietnam’s majestic north
Offering an idyllic farming lifestyle, peaceful Mai Chau is an enchanting first stop on the northern loop before continuing towards the golden rice terraces in Nghia Loa, Than Uyen and Sapa.
Home to the country’s highest summit and gateway to the Hoàng Liên Son mountain range, Sapa has been a tourist hotspot for years.
Most riders find themselves here for at least a night to experience cultural home stays with the Hmong people.
Beyond the caves of Phong Nha
Some 560 kilometers south of Hanoi lies a cave system that has kick-started the development of tourism in a region that was once one of the poorest in the nation.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is best known for the recent discovery of the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, and adventurers have since been flocking to the park and its bucolic village Phong Nha in droves. But there is more to the town than just the colossal caves.
Set between glorious rice paddies and stunning karst mountains, Phong Nha and its amicable locals are so captivating that I decided to hang up my helmet and call it home for three months after first riding through. The “Cave Kingdom” has gone from relative obscurity to being one of the most visited tourist destinations in all of Southeast Asia. Enterprising locals have capitalized on Phong Nha’s newfound fame and created a slew of fascinating excursions. Passionate local and community manager Dzung Le has set up new trekking and camping tours that highlight the best Phong Nha has to offer. Hai Nguyen, owner of the popular Bamboo Café, runs an excellent eco tour. “Conservation is not just about raising awareness to protect the forest,” says Hai .
“It is also about creating new long-term opportunities for the villagers. With more people showing an interest in the tour and the environment, more jobs are being created for the local people.”
Beyond the caves, Phong Nha is a blissful oasis, tranquil without being sleepy, and destined to be the real highlight of any Vietnam journey.
One of the greatest military achievements of the 20th century winds its way through the dense forests of Central Vietnam. During the Indochina and Vietnam Wars a series of paths connected the powers in the north with the soldiers in south. Collectively known as the Ho Chi Minh Trails, they were an entire system of hidden transport routes that crossed through the jungles, over borders and even out to sea. Today, the sealed Ho Chi Minh Highway follows the inland passage through some of the country’s deepest jungle. Most motorcyclists choose to follow this route, and the Western Ho Chi Minh Highway is the most fabled section of all.
From Phong Nha, the road cuts through the canopy, offering 240 kilometers of twisting, narrow pavement. Only a handful of settlements are scattered along the way, making this one of the most remote trips in the country. The highway ends at historic Khe Sanh, the location of an infamous battle during the Vietnam War. A visit to the open-air museum, scattered with tanks, vehicles and aircraft from the war is an integral part of the journey. This day’s ride requires extra concentration and preparation. A breakdown or accident here could result in hours without seeing another person. But, ultimately, that just adds to the appeal.
Fishing villages and coastal delights
To avoid the stream of tourists plying this pass, venture farther south to Chi Thanh. Here lies Ganh Da Dia, Vietnam’s own Giant’s Causeway, and an extraordinary ocean ride that ends in Quy Nhon. Riders rarely traverse these paved roads that connect fishing villages with rice fields. Highway 1 roars only kilometers farther inland, but here wandering buffalo will be your main hazard.
A few days of palm-shade repose at the legendary Jungle Beach will prepare the body for the final stretch.
Floating Markets of the Mekong Delta
The city is filled with a new batch of eager motorcyclists, also searching for their perfect ride. Over pho and iced coffee, stories are traded and keys exchanged. Soon they, too, are ready to head north and discover the wonders that make up this magnificent country.
Report by CNN