Motorcycle Diaries: Offbeat Vietnam

Riding through gorgeous Central highlands of Vietnam
Riding through gorgeous Central highlands of Vietnam

People travel to get away from the daily grind or to experience something new to enrich their lives. Travelling for me other than exploring a new place is a journey where I can be more than myself, living my dreams & challenges. After my first motorbike trip to Ladakh, I often fantasized about riding through high mountain roads, gorgeous valleys and rivers. This summer while planning our trip V & I decided to do something interesting; we chose an offbeat route, decided to hire motorbikes and ride through Vietnam!

Bridge downslope from Hai Van pass on the way to Hue

Vietnam has been on our travel-list since a long time, and from what I read on the Internet its a biking country with several kinds of bikes available on rent, and every few kilometers there is a service center or a bike mechanic! So we landed in Ho Chi Minh City with all the biking & rain gear, got ourselves semi-automatic bikes and headed on our journey on the road for the next two weeks exploring Vietnam.

The Route : We started our road-trip from Ho Chi Minh City where we picked up our rented motorbikes and practiced our driving skills in the city for two days exploring museums and rooftop restaurants. Even though it looks chaotic with a swarm of motorbikes on the road, it’s organized chaos where you just go with the traffic flow at 20-30 kmph. From the city we took a ferry with our bikes at Cat Lai and headed to Dalat, a hill station with a night’s stop at Cat Tien National park. From Dalat via Ho Lak, joined the Old Ho Chi Minh Highway to the Central Highlands of Kon Tum and Quang Nam provinces. Last leg of our trip was the historical and touristy cities of Hoi An & Hue on the coastal side of the country. At Da Nang we handed over the bikes and took a flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. We took the Old Ho Chi Minh Road and rode for more than 1300 kilometers through half of the country! We planned our trip in July-August in monsoons and followed the old Ho Chi Minh highway from Buon Ma Thot till Kham Duc in the Central highlands of Vietnam. The places we stayed at during the 2-week trip in Vietnam below with distances between them, and the route on Google maps.

  1. A – Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon (bustling city, museums, food, rooftop bars)
  2. B – Cat Tien National Park (150 kms)
  3. C – Da Lat (190 Kms) (Hill station 1500 mtrs)
  4. D – Ho Lak (160 Kms) (Lak lake)
  5. E – Pleiku (265 Kms) (Industrial town)
  6. F – Dak Glei (165 Kms) (district bordering Laos)
  7. G – Hoi An (170 Kms) (UNESCO site, Picturesque, great food, touristy)
  8. H – Hue via Hai Van Pass (130 Kms) (UNESCO site, tombs, former Imperial capital)
  9. I – Da Nang (100 Kms) (Vietnam’s most modern city with an impressive skyline & long beaches)

Motorbike & Gear : It’s easy to rent, or outright buy a bike in the bigger cities of Vietnam based on your budget. We rented our bikes (Honda Blade 110 CC ) for a refundable deposit and 10 US$ a day for 14 days from Tigit Bikes here. The bikes were well-maintained and the only time we went looking for a mechanic was to fill oil after completing 1000 kilometers on the road. We bought our helmets from them too and got them back home as souvenirs. We looked like brand ambassadors of Decathlon, as most of our gear including biking gloves, rain gear, all-weather boots and rucksack was from there. 😉 The smallest thing I bought for the trip was a torch key-chain, which was really helpful to untie the bungee cords and remove our bags from the bike in the dark.

On the RoadGoogle Translate was quite helpful to communicate with the locals in non-touristy places during our travels. This website was of most help on our travels with detailed routes and information. We booked our stays for a first few days till Da Lat after which we booked on the go or found a place after we got there.

Vietnam is a long S-shaped country with a gorgeous blue coast on one side and lush green hills on the other. Covering the entire length of the country from north to south, the main Highway 1 runs along the coast and gets a lot of traffic, so we decided to take the alternate route from the Old historic highway which passes through the highlands of Vietnam – the Ho Chi Minh Road named after Ho Chi Minh, the great leader & father of Vietnam. West of Highway 1, it’s a 2 lane highway with almost no traffic passing through small towns and panoramic scenery with emerald lakes, lush green paddy fields and rivers surrounded by cloud kissed mountains!

Riding to Hai Van pass with a view of Da Nang city at the background.

The speed limit in Vietnam is 60 kmph and the roads are generally in excellent condition with precise road signage throughout. Before every turn, slope, bridge or fork ahead there is a road sign with proper info for you to ride safely. It’s quite easy & fun to ride a semi-automatic motorbike specially cruising at a slow pace appreciating the landscape. But what really made it easier was that there is a separate lane for two-wheelers! We decided to go in the monsoon season so it was mostly cloudy with passing showers, but we also got caught in a few thunderstorms on the way. The raincoats and waterproof rucksacks that we bought helped but when it became difficult to ride we would stop at a roadside Ca-Phe to take shelter and drink some hot ca-phe or Vietnamese coffee. Most places on the highway have hammocks to relax and take a break, It reminded me of the dhabas on the highways in India and the hot masala chai.

The worst road we came across during our entire ride in Vietnam!

Most people cover their faces while riding, especially women are all covered up top to toe, and it is quite common to see two riders chatting and riding along oblivious to the traffic! It’s quite fun to watch the locals pass by on motorbikes, some with a huge sack of hay tied behind the bike or a bunch of chickens tied with a string to the bike handles and most are accompanied with kids who stand in front of the bike, if there’s no space at the back! I saw these kids playing by the riverside and stopped to take a photo, but by the time I shut my bike engine and took my phone out, they were all surrounding me, butt naked! 😀

A Vietnamese couple gets their picture clicked with a colorful background of lanterns and by the river as the full moon shines bright, at Hoi An in Vietnam. The people we came across were very friendly and inquisitive, and once they knew we came from An Do ( India as they call it), they would ask more! For most of them it came as a surprise that we were on a road trip on our motorbikes, and that we came riding from Ho Chi Minh City through smaller non-touristy parts of the country. It was a bit of a challenge to communicate with the locals at smaller towns but that’s the fun of it!

A Banh Mi stall on the street

The food in Vietnam is varied, flavourful and delicious and the street-side Banh Mi (baguette sandwich) is one of the best sandwiches I’ve had on the go! At most Banh Mi road-side stalls, there are choices of meat, dressing and veggies like in a Subway restaurant! Introduced by the French, baguette and ca phe is available almost everywhere in Vietnam. Even though deep-fried is not my kind of food, I found the crispy Banh Xeo (a savoury fried pancake made of rice flour & egg with a filling of veggies, meat and sprouts) and Cha gio (deep-fried spring rolls) quite tasteful! My favorite among all the food I tasted were the fresh DIY Vietnamese Spring Rolls – Rice paper, meat, rice noodles & greens (basil & coriander) garnished with roasted peanuts, roll it all up as per your liking in the rice paper & dip in the sweet-spicy-tangy sauce… Yum!

Fresh Vietnamese Spring Rolls with shrimp mousse on sugarcane sticks

Starting from bustling Ho Chi Minh City in the South to riding through the Vietnamese countryside with gorgeous landscapes of the Central highlands and paddy fields, rivers and emerald lakes, cruising through the misty cloud covered hills at Hai Van pass to the historic UNESCO cities of Hoi An & Hue in Central Vietnam, with excellent roads & amenities, delicious flavorful food, fresh Ca-Phe (coffee) and friendly Vietnamese people, it was an awesome experience to ride through half of Vietnam and experience the local way of life.

Picturesque Hoi An ancient town, a UNESCO world Heritage site

I look forward to wandering around a place doing photography while travelling, composing landscapes and looking for newer perspectives. Even though on this road-trip I didn’t get to do much photography with my DSLR, the thrill of riding a motorbike and the freedom of going anywhere, was a dream realized… leaving me with yet another reverie, of the higher mountains of North Vietnam!

5 dogs at the back of a motorbike, balancing & enjoying the ride : that’s a picture that sums up our bike ride – challenging, but great fun! 😉
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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Leya says:

    Thank you for an interesting trip! Lovely shots from a beautiful country!

    1. Ritu Saini says:

      Thanks Christine! 🙂

  2. Bama says:

    What an adventure, Ritu! I went to Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hue a few months ago and loved each of them — I took the easier way though as opposed to riding a motorbike. 🙂 Isn’t Vietnamese food amazing? I felt so healthy after eating those fresh vegetables and herbs for days. Your beautiful shots bring back some fond memories and make me want to go back to Vietnam sooner than later.

    1. Ritu Saini says:

      Thanks Bama 🙂 Oh yes! Vietnamese food is ah-mazing!! I couldn’t get over the herbs and greens too! I’m definitely going back maybe with a lighter camera this time so I can take photos as I ride! 😉 My DSLR didn’t come out unless we were staying more than a day at a place!

  3. arv! says:

    Enjoyed this write-up Ritu. Riding through Vietnam sounds exciting. I have a fresh perspective towards this country. I believe vegetarian food will be a big issue though.

    1. Ritu Saini says:

      Thanks Arv 🙂 Vietnam is so much more than the touristy places it’s famous for! On the contrary, there is a separate page in the menu for vegetarian dishes in most restaurants in cities. Yes, maybe on the road or in smaller towns it would be a bit difficult to get pure vegetarian food, but herbs & greens are a major part of their diet, and rice!

      1. arv! says:

        Thanks for the input, Ritu! I guess despite vegetarian food availability, taste might be an issue for Indian taste buds! But I’m supposing there will be good availability of fruits though! 🙂

  4. Dev D says:

    I didn’t know you are interesting story teller about real travelling experience, though i know you more than a decade but today I’ll get time to read…..keep it up

    1. Ritu Saini says:

      Thankyou Dev! And cheers To more trips together! 😀

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