Photo by Christian Berg
Famed for the steamy swamps of the Mekong Delta, sweeping plains and humid jungle roads, South Vietnam is also home to the crisp mountain air of the south central highlands as well as a nearby desert-like coastline where asphalt slowly melts beneath dusty tires. In the course of just a few days on a bike, you can experience a medley of landscapes rarely found in such close quarters.
Avoiding the dusty, busy and frankly dangerous Highway One is key—immerse yourself in the Vietnamese countryside as early as possible to really get a sense of being on the road. Leave Ho Chi Minh City via the massive Phu My Bridge and the Cat Lai ferry before heading for Ba Ria. The air is already cleaner and the roads quieter as you zoom past farms and makeshift football pitches on scrubbish greenery. Linear rubber tree plantations offer shade and pyjama-clad ladies flog refreshments and even hammocks for weary, city bound travellers.
Bikers with time on their hands might want to follow the road all the way south to Vung Tau and spend the night by the sea before following the coast to Mui Ne. If not, exit the highway at Ba Ria and head east for La Gi—taking either QL55 through lush farmland or Ven Biển along the coast, past the glistening sands of Hồ Cóc beach.
After La Gi, veer east again onto DT 719 where you bounce and bump your way through dragon fruit plantations before the road spits you out again by the ocean. You approach Mui Ne from the south as the ocean winks at you through the trees on your right and the first signs of the white sand dunes announce themselves through the greenery on your left.
QL 28 from Mui Ne to the south central highland city of Da Lat is one of the best and most dramatically changing rides in the country. For maximum impact, hit the road early as the rising sun dyes the ocean gold and the Martian red sand dunes rear up to the west, then through expansive fields, stretching as far as the eye can see. Red dust blown miles over from the dunes scatters itself over the scorched grass, where the silhouettes of barren trees cast lonesome shadows and the road meanders lazily for miles ahead of you, a glistening black ribbon weaving its way through the colour. After this bizarre dreamscape, you careen through jungle before reaching the mountain pass. It’s slow going; less hardy engines call for a thrashing just to amble up the steep slope and riders need be wary of the loose gravel laying on the periphery of the increasingly frequent 180-degree switchbacks.
After the severe climb, it’s tempting to freewheel all the way downhill again before taking QL 20 north another busy main road through one horse towns before you begin a leisurely climb into the cool, refreshing air and verdant forests of Da Lat. Set in a valley, you approach Da Lat from on high where a quaint, European looking scene unveils itself. On every side hills, pine forests and plateau fields overlook the city, which centres itself around a lake filled with swan-themed pedal boats.
Leaving the pine forests and heading into jungle again, the mountain pass downhill from Da Lat towards the coastal hotspot of Nha Trang is sensational. Navigate swooping switchbacks and take in the awe-inspiring waterfalls and valleys before tearing through plains of farmland on your approach to the ocean.
A few extra days north of Nha Trang along the coast can take you as far as Da Nang, marking the halfway point between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, while you can also head inland for the cities of Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku—linking up with the revered Ho Chi Minh Highway. However, an equally stunning coastline stretches out to the south again as far as Mui Ne—completing a southern loop.
Between Cam Ranh and Phan Rang lies a lesser known road by the name of TL 702— in this writer’s opinion the greatest road in south Vietnam. While it’s prone to rockfall in the depths of the rainy season, this road is usually smooth and devoid of traffic. Wedged between the steely ocean to the east and Nui Chua National Park to the west, it leads riders through some of the most spectacular views in the south and is home to a number of secluded beaches, while it’s crown jewel, the tropical Vinh Hy bay, is well worth a night’s stay.
From Phan Rang, Ho Chi Minh City is just a comfortable two days ride away. The coastal road via Ca Na is all about bright blue seas, dusty arid land, scorching heat, huge boulders—this part of the south central coast is the desert not foretold in the Vietnam guidebooks.
Past Ca Na, keep hugging the coastline along Phan Ri Bay and the stony beaches of Bai Da Bay Mau before blazing a path between the ocean and the incredible white sand dunes hailing your final approach to Mui Ne.
The final stretch home to Saigon offers up three options: take the road mentioned at the beginning of this article, mainline it up the dreaded Highway One, or even cut out the traffic and stress by putting both yourself and your bike on the Reunification Express, which will have you back in the city in about three hours.
Whatever way you choose to complete your trip, you’re guaranteed to be blown away by the generous diversity of South Vietnam and the magic it offers two-wheeled travellers.