Posted by: Richard Marshall | June 24, 2012

Vietnam Bike Trip, Part I: The South

The South

After a year of planning and dreaming about my bike trip through Vietnam I have finally done it. I bought a motorcycle, did a driving test to get a Vietnamese license, planned a month off work and was finally ready to go.  I’m going to write up the trip in three parts, starting with the the south – Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An.

I left Ho Chi Minh City at four thirty in the morning.  Much as I dislike getting up in the dark and gulping down a cup of horrible instant coffee,  I needed to escape the city before the morning rush. The town immediately outside of HCMC, Bien Hoa, is a traffic-choked industrial eyesore and I certainly didn’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam there. Even at 5am highway 1A was full of trucks and buses kicking up huge clouds of dust and smoke. The one remarkable feature of Bien Hoa is the number of enormous, incredibly ugly Catholic churches, a result of a large Catholic influx into the town after 1954. Otherwise I was glad to get through the place as quickly as possible. Initially I missed the turn-off to highway 20, but after only a small detour I was on the road to Da Lat. I had a quick bowl of pho and was on my way. Although quite an important road, highway 20 was one of the worst roads I drove on. Most of Dong Nai province seems pretty dismal, though Cat Tien National Park is just off the main road so it can’t all be rubber plantations interspersed with dusty, crowded towns with pot-holed streets. Eventually the road wound into Lam Dong province and the highlands. The most interesting stretch of road was the Bao Loc pass into the mountains. When I went up in the bus two years ago there were a lot of road works, but now the road is in good condition and the steepness of the surrounding hills means they are still well forested.

Bao Loc Pass

After Bao Loc the stretch to Da Lat is mostly vast areas of coffee plantation which isn’t very interesting. Despite having gained quite a lot of altitude it was still incredibly hot, and it was the first and last day I forgot to smother my hands and face with sun-screen. Just outside of Da Lat I got onto one of those inexplicable four-lane highways with no traffic in the middle of nowhere that seems to be a feature of the Vietnamese countryside. Finally I rolled into Da Lat after 12 hours and 350km. I checked into the same hotel I’d stayed in two years ago and went down to the same restaurant to have a beer while a cool breeze blew in from the lake. Even after driving all over the country Da Lat remains my favorite place – the wide, leafy streets, the beautiful French architecture, the cool air and the pine-clad hills are utterly unlike anywhere else in Vietnam. I hung around the town for a day looking for French villas – I downloaded a history of the town on my kindle which had interesting chapters on the town’s architecture – and, after spending my last evening having a few drinks in a tourist cafe with a passable Filipino singer, headed towards Nha Trang on the coast.  Provincial road 723 between Da Lat and Nha Trang is brand new and mostly in excellent condition. North of Da Lat the landscape is hilly with small villages in the pine forests, but the winding pass down from the highlands into Khanh Hoa province passed through thick, dramatic jungle.

North of Da Lat

The last stretch was through dried out rice paddies, blast-furnace heat and blinding glare. Nha Trang is an easy town to get around – I found a cheap hotel without trouble and headed to the very comfortable sailing club for a couple of beers by the beach. Although Nha Trang is a pleasant town I’d only intended to spend a night there – it’s a bit of a party town which is a drag when you’re on your own. Bike troubles the next day, though, meant another afternoon drinking at the sailing club before heading back to the hills the next day. The drive to Buon Ma Thuot was another day of steep curves heading upwards through patches of forest and coffee plantations. The central highlands is famously the centre of coffee production in Vietnam and even the roadside cafes had truly fabulous ca phe sua da – something which became almost impossible to find the further north I went. Buon Ma Thuot itself was a cool, leafy but thoroughly dull town to the visitor. Finding a decent dinner wasn’t easy and I ended up watching endless TV in the hotel room. By the end of the trip I must have seen Bear Grylls kill the same damn pig about ten times! After some more bike hassles I pushed northwards along highway 14.

Buon Ma Thuot coffee

New Brake Pads, Buon Ma Thuot

Highway 14 between Buon Ma Thuot to Kon Tum was actually quite a tough drive. Passing through three provinces – Dak Lak, Gia Lia and Kon Tum, the road is busy and potholed and mostly flat. The only major town on the route – Pleiku – was unremarkable, but Kon Tum town itself was actually very pleasant. Along a road running alongside the river were a number of outdoor cafes with a view of the mountains where I sat and had a couple of beers. A little wooden church and some minority villages completed Kon Tum’s attractions but were interesting enough for an afternoon stroll. I met up with a couple of British doctors also doing the trip and we had a pleasant dinner together.

Kon Tum Church

Riverside Cafe

The drive north from Kon Tum was one of the best days on the road. Highway 14 turned north-west towards the Lao border before becoming the Ho Chi Minh highway proper. At Plei Kan, where I stopped for a bowl of bun bo for breakfast, the owner of the street-side restaurant gave me a shot of rice wine which isn’t my usual start to the day but was immensely amusing to everyone else in the restaurant. After that I often saw men in the highlands whiling away the day drinking rice wine. As the highway turned north again it passed through dishearteningly deforested hills, coffee, and minority villages with characteristic, steep roofed meeting halls. It was depressing to see how much of the forest was being nibbled away at, but eventually I did drive through large areas that were protected and mostly intact. I even saw a couple of monkeys and a huge snake crossed the road in front of me. Towards the turn-off at a dismal small town called Thanh My the mountains began to be more impressive and the forest more impenetrable. I reached Thanh My where I had a horrible lunch of pork ribs and rice and turned once more towards the coast. As the terrain flattened out I returned to the usual coast landscape of paddies, palms, dusty villages and fearsome heat. I headed towards Hoi An and  stayed in a hotel I knew from before. It was one of the most expensive of the trip but after 320km and a stunning drive I felt like splashing out. I ate as much fantastic Hoi An food as I could and wandered around for an afternoon through the really very pretty old town. The next morning I took a leisurely drive up to Da Nang, 30km to the north.

Ho Chi Minh Highway

Mountain Scenery

More mountains

Road through the mountains

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