Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop

First Published December 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

A meandering road trip in the cool, clear air, and vivid ‘HD’ colours of the Western Highlands, the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop is packed with natural attractions and great riding roads. A huge swathe of land stretching to the Cambodian border, Vietnam’s Western Highlands are mostly overlooked by travellers. But this region, with its rich, red soil, is an agricultural powerhouse, boasting big landscapes, wind-swept plateaus, huge skies, an excellent road network, and a real sense of scale, freedom, and adventure. The blood-red earth, nourished by ancient volcanic activity and old-growth forest, fuels the cultivation of cash crops, such as coffee, tea, cashews, and cassava, while the area’s mineral resources attract investment in gigantic bauxite (aluminium) mines. Even with the encroachment of agriculture and industry, the Western Highlands still have a wild side, in the form of thundering waterfalls, big trees in shimmering jungles, placid lakes, national parks, and the two main features of this motorbike route: the rambling Dong Nai River and the recently formed Dak Nong Geopark. This is a sensory route, full of smells, sounds, sights and tastes: coffee blossom, blue skies, damp earth, wood smoke, rain, birdsong, running water, spices, and hot cups of locally-grown coffee. 

Dak Nong Geopark-Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop, VietnamThe Western Highlands: big open spaces, huge skies, excellent riding & lots of natural attractions

[Back Top]


GUIDE: DAK NONG GEOPARKDONG NAI RIVER LOOP


This guide is a bit different from most of my other motorbike guides: Rather than writing a detailed description of the route, I’ve let my map and photos do most of the talking. However, I have written a few sections with general information about the route (see Contents below), including road conditions, weather, where to start/end, how to use the map, where to stay, and what to see. But the general idea of this guide is: trust the map, trust the route, trust the images, and trust your own sense of adventure. Do this and I’m confident the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop will be a rewarding experience, because this motorbike route is a lot of fun, easy to ride, packed with sights, and full of opportunities to get off the beaten track:

CONTENTS:


ROUTE MAP

Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop

Blue line: main route | Red lines: side routes


View in a LARGER MAP

[Back to Contents]


About this Route & Guide:

Below I’ve written a few brief paragraphs covering general details about the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop, such as road conditions, how to use the map, where to start/end the route, and how to extend it:

The Dak Nong Geopark-Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop, VietnamWeaving over mountains & plateaus, the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop covers over 1,000km


Selected Resources What’s this?


General Information: The Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop covers well over 1,000km. On my map, I’ve outlined the main route in blue. In addition, I’ve marked several good side routes in red. You can pick and choose which roads to take, but, if time allows, I’d recommend riding as many of these routes as possible. Exploring this region by motorbike is such good fun and, although it’s all fairly easy to ride and access, few other travellers bother to come here. However, note that it’s not advisable to ride the red route north of Phuoc Long and into Bu Gia Map National Park, because this is a border region with Cambodia and you’re almost certain to be stopped and turned away by officials. Also, unless you have a suitable motorbike and off-road experience, don’t attempt the red route along the north shore of Tri An Lake, because this has some awful sections of muddy road. Other than that, give yourself plenty of time – at least a few days – and get lost on this fabulous route, enjoying the wide open spaces and big skies, basking in the light and cool temperatures, and eating up the miles on the roads of the Western Highlands.

The Dak Nong Geopark-Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop, VietnamThis motorbike loop is all about being outside in the open air – feeling, seeing & smelling the highlands

[Back]


Using the Map: I realize that, at first glance, my map may appear to be too ‘busy’. But, zoom in on particular areas of the route and it will become much clearer. Or, you can control what you see on the map by choosing to hide or display different ‘layers’ of the map from the slide-out menu on the left side of the screen. For example, if you click on the layers titled ‘Routes & Side Routes’ and ‘Accommodation, Food & Drink’, then the map will only display these layers, while hiding the other layers, and so on.

Bridge over the Dong Nai River, Dak Nong Province, VietnamIf my route map appear too ‘busy’, zoom in or use the ‘layers’ function to control what you see


Selected Resources What’s this?

[Back]


Road Conditions: In general, road conditions on the main route (the blue line) are very good: the vast majority of roads are paved; some are in excellent condition, others are a bit worn but are no hindrance to riders, while others are undergoing repairs in parts, but still pose no significant obstacle. On the side routes (the red lines), however, there are a few dirt sections, rough patches, and severely potholed parts. I’ve marked these as best I can on my map. But even these sections should be perfectly passable for most riders on most bikes, unless the weather has been particularly wet, in which case they may be best avoided. (As mentioned, don’t attempt the red route along the north shore of Tri An Lake unless you have a suitable dirt bike, and don’t ride the red route north of Phuoc Long into Bu Gia Map National Park, because the border police will likely turn you back.)

Road DT684 through Dak Nong Geopark, VietnamRoad conditions on the loop are very good, but some sections are rough: I’ve marked these on my map

[Back]


Where to Start/End: This route can be ridden either as a loop or as a meandering one-way ride from A to B. There are several potential start/end points for the route. For example, you could start/end from Saigon, or Buon Ma Thuot, or Dalat. All of these are fine and all have good bus and air connections with most major domestic hubs. But, personally, I think the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River route is best if you start from Saigon and follow it all the way to Buon Ma Thuot or Dalat, from where you can either put your motorbike on one of the many ‘VIP’ limousine buses back to Saigon (try Long Van for Buon Ma Thuot or Thanh Buoi for Dalat) or continue riding through the Central Highlands by connecting with the amazing Truong Son Dong Road heading north.


Selected Resources What’s this?

You can ride the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River route in any direction and in whichever order you choose: there’s no standard way to do it. However, part of the fun of this route is seeing, feeling, and smelling the changes as you ride from the big city (Saigon), into the industrial suburbs (Bien Hoa), out to the agricultural belt (Binh Duong Province), then the midlands (Binh Phuoc and Dong Nai provinces), and finally reaching the big landscapes of the highlands (Dak Nong, Dak Lak and Lam Dong provinces). It’s a joy.

The Dak Nong Geopark-Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop, VietnamThere are 3 main options for start/end points for the loop: Saigon, Buon Ma Thuot or Dalat

[Back]


Connecting Routes: The Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop overlaps with several other routes that I’ve written guides to, and can be extended in various ways by connecting with other great roads in the area. In particular, the following guides are good extensions to the east of this route: Back Ways to Dalat | La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall | Binh Thuan Back-Roads. While the following guides make excellent extensions to the north of this route: Truong Son Dong Road | Ho Chi Minh Road (section 2 onwards). See Related Posts for more.

Road around Ta Dung Lake, Dak Nong Province, VietnamThe Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop can be connected & extended via these related routes


Selected Resources What’s this?

[Back to Contents]


What to See & Do:

This route passes through a host of national parks, nature reserves, lakes, rivers, forests, archaeological sites, and extensive agricultural plantations, including cashew, coffee, tea, rubber, and passionfruit. I’ve marked many of these sights on my map. Of particular interest is the Dak Nong Geopark, which has only recently been created, and which is hoping to become part of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network. This is an exciting development, since it could open Dak Nong Province (previously overlooked by the majority of travellers) to tourism. Local authorities have put a lot of thought into its development, including three routes through the region, all on good roads, all with good signage and information boards, all passing through volcanic landscape of geological importance and natural beauty, such as extinct volcanoes, rain-filled calderas, lava fields and lava tubes. Many of the points of interest in the Dak Nong Geopark are marked on my map, but if you’d like more details – including multiple pamphlets and maps – drop into the Dak Nong Geopark Information Centre in Gia Nghia.

Lieng Nung Waterfall, Dak Nong Province, VietnamThere are many natural attractions on the route, including Lieng Nung Waterfall, in Dak Nong Geopark

There are good waterfalls throughout the loop, many of which I’ve marked on my map. Perhaps the most impressive is Lieng Nung, near Gia Nghia. The Dong Nai River (which, at nearly 600km, is the longest river to be entirely located within Vietnam’s borders) is a constant feature on this route. From the industrial sprawl of Bien Hoa (where its muddy waters flow wide and slow, with the consistency and colour of melted chocolate) to the gigantic dams in the highlands near the border of Dak Nong Province (where it runs swift and cold, the color of steel), the Dong Nai River curves its course through jungles and mountains, often intersecting and following this route. Ta Dung Lake, created by dams on the Dong Nai River, is an enormous body of water dotted with green islands. It’s best seen from the cafes on the hill at the north of the lake, which boast spectacular views. Finally, Cat Tien National Park has long been a popular destination, with several hikes and wildlife viewing opportunities.


Selected Resources What’s this?

Ta Dung Lake, Dak Nong Province, VietnamTa Dung Lake is one of many reservoirs on the route, created by dams on the Dong Nai River

[Back to Contents]


Where to Stay, Eat & Drink:

Hotels, Guest Houses, Resorts & Camping: Throughout this route there are, as always, decent and inexpensive nhà nghỉ (local guest houses). Most of the villages, towns and cities marked on my map with a red pin have at least one or more nhà nghỉ. But there are also several excellent places to stay which are essentially destinations in themselves, worthy of a full day and a night. These include, Lak Tented Camp, Freedom Green Village, Ta Dung Top View Homestay, Forest Floor Lodge, Ivory Falls Villa, and Ba Dat Eco Homestay among others. I’ve marked all of these and many more accommodation options on my map with orange bed icons. There’s also ample opportunity for ‘wild camping’ along this route, but, of course, you’d need to bring your own equipment with you and be sensible when choosing your campsite. Some official campgrounds, including around Ta Dung Lake, can be found here and there. [As always, you can support this website by booking your accommodation through the links provided in this guide and on my map.]

Camping near the Dong Nai River, Dak Nong Province, VietnamThere’re guest houses throughout the route, some excellent homestays & resorts & camping is also great


Selected Resources What’s this?

Food & Drink: There are good street food stalls, rice eateries, noodle shops, and local restaurants in all the villages, towns and cities throughout this loop. As ever, eating is a highlight of travelling in this region, and you certainly won’t go hungry. If you’re looking for cheap snacks, head to the markets: I’ve marked several on my map. Because most of this route is on the ‘coffee belt’, you’ll find cafes everywhere you go. This is especially true the further north you travel on the route, as it enters the coffee growing plateaus where the lion’s share of Vietnam’s coffee is grown. Coffee culture is rich in Vietnam, but in the Tây Nguyên (Western Highlands) it’s on another scale. These days, almost all villages have coffee shops with espresso machines using locally grown beans, and offering Vietnamese- or Italian-style brews. I was on a constant caffeine high while researching this route. Local beer can be found anywhere, but for cocktails and a more eclectic range of booze, you’ll need to hit the bigger cities on the route: Buon Ma Thuot, for example, is hopping with hipster-style craft beer bars and cafes.

A bowl of noodle soup & fresh coffee, Dak Nong Province, VietnamFood in the Western Highlands is fresh & hearty; coffee is locally sourced, strong & always available

[Back to Contents]


Weather & When to Go:

The Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop is great to ride at any time of year, but by far the best months are November to March. This is dry season, when the skies are blue, the air clear (warm during the days, cool during the nights), the light extraordinarily sharp, the coffee harvest in full swing, and the coffee blossoms in full bloom. It’s magical. Other months are great too, but, if you’re unlucky, rain and grey skies can really take the shine off any trip to the Western Highlands. Before setting off on this route, it’s wise to check the forecast for the coming few days (the rain & thunder satellite view on Windy.com is a good resource).


Selected Resources What’s this?

Bear in mind that, because most of this route is in the Central Highlands (particularly the high plateaus of the Western Highlands), temperatures are generally 10-15°C cooler than in lowland and coastal regions of Vietnam. Add some rain and the windchill factor on a motorbike, and it can feel pretty cold at times. Come prepared: a pair of long pants, a sweater, a pair of trainers, and a rain suit should be enough for most people.

The Dong Nai River, near Cat Tien Village, VietnamThis motorbike route is good year-round, but by far the best weather is November to March

[Back to Contents]


Image Gallery:

Below is a gallery with some 60 images from the Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Loop. I’ve captioned each image, including links to my map, in order to show which part of the route the photo was taken:

Walking into the rice fields at dawn on the edges of Lak Lake in Dak Lak Province


Riding off the Buon M’Lieng Ferry on a wooden gangplank, north of Lak Lake, Dak Lak Province


Gia Long Falls, named by the last of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors of Vietnam, in honour of the first


Road DT684 ploughing straight across agricultural plateaus northeast of Gia Nghia, Dak Nong Province


The thundering braid of white water at Lieng Nung Falls, east of Gia Nghia, Dak Nong Province


A peaceful evening light falls on the Dong Nai River, near Cat Tien Village, DongNai Province


Sunset from my tent on a ridge above the Dong Nai River Hydroelectric Dam No.5


Camping on high ground in the forests on the Dong Nai Dam No.5 Road, Lam Dong Province


One of the many impressive dams on the Dong Nai River, Road QL28, Dak Nong Province


A wooden skiff on the calm waters of Ta Dung Lake, Dak Nong Province


Buying & selling at Lien Son Market, near Lak Lake, where many different ethnic minority groups live


Beautiful paved back-roads leading west of Lak Lake through farmland


Coffee berries in one of the many thousands of small-hold plantations in the Western Highlands


Looking from a viewing platform across flooded rice fields towards Chu B’luk Volcano


A giant old ficus tree growing on the hill above Ta Dung Lake


A spacious, cheap & bright room at the Sai Gon-Dak Nong Hotel, in Gia Nghia City


Road QL28 winding through coffee, tea, pepper & cashew plantations around Ta Dung Lake


The forests around the edges of Lua Waterfall, in Dak Lak Province


Bowl of phoA hot, hearty bowl of phở bò (beef noodle soup) on a cold highland morning, near Buon Ma Thuot


Looking up the path to Nam Kar Volcano, Dak Nong Province


Multiple (free) information pamphlets & maps at the Dak Nong Geopark information centre, Gia Nghia


Waiting for the boat at the Hieu Liem-Binh Duong ferry crossing on the Dong Nai River


Rubber tree plantations on Road HL416, in Binh Duong Province


My tent & camping ‘luxuries’ on a ridge in the forests above the Dong Nai River, Lam Dong Province


Crossing the Dong Nai River on Road QL28 near Dam No.4, Dak Nong Province


A lonely corrugated iron shack above Road QL28, looking over Ta Dung Lake, Dak Nong Province


Muddy conditions on the roads around the north shore of Tri An Lake (the red line on my map)


Tri An Lake is an enormous reservoir created by yet another series of dams on the Dong Nai River


Looking down at my motorbike (Stavros) from the top of a forest look-out tower


View from the top of the forest look-out tower down over the Dong Nai River Valley, Dak Nong Province


Lak Lake at dusk, seen from Road QL27, Dak Lak Province


Buffalo wade in the shallow water of Lak Lake at the end of the rainy season, Dak Lak Province


Dray Sap Waterfall has long been one of the most popular natural sights in the Western Highlands


Take your time & take in the views over Ta Dung Lake from Freedom Green Village Farmstay


Get off the asphalt & onto the red dirt, exploring the pathways through coffee bushes


This newly paved road through pine trees improves access to a massive bauxite (aluminium) mine


Tea plantations north of Bao Loc, near Bao Lam on Road DT725, Lam Dong Province


The Dak Nong Geopark-Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop, VietnamLooking out over old-growth forest from my campsite in the mountains along the Dong Nai River Valley


Under a canopy of giant trees in a stand of old forest slowly being felled for cultivation of cash crops


One of the many massive hydroelectric dams on the Dong Nai River, Dak Nong Province


The large & controversial bauxite (aluminium) mine near Bao Lam, Lam Dong Province


Herding cattle along Road QL27 near Lien Son, Dak Lak Province


A bowl of mì quảng noodles for breakfast on a cold, bright morning in Gia Nghia, Dak Nong Province


Viewing platform, cafe & restaurant at Freedom Green Village, above Ta Dung Lake, Dak Nong Province


Coffee drying in the noon sun on a bright day in November, Dak Nong Province


The trunk of an old banyan tree on a hill above Ta Dung Lake, Dak Nong Province


Opening the windows to another clear, dry-season day at the Sai Gon-Dak Nong Hotel


Getting into to local cafe scene at Enjoy Coffee in Gia Nghia City, Dak Nong Province


Tackling a rough (but very short) section of road crossing the Dong Nai River at Dam No.5


Back roads through coffee & tea plantations, Lam Dong Province, VietnamExploring some scenic back-roads through tea & coffee plantations, near Bao Lam, off Road DT725


Jungle growing up around a dried-up tributary of the Dong Nai River, near Dam No.4 on Road QL28


Thick forest near the Dong Nai River Valley: each time I visit, there are fewer trees on the mountainsides


A look-out tower on a reservoir near Nam Cat Tien, on the Dong Nai-Lam Dong provincial border


My motorbike, Stavros, enjoys a rest-stop on a red-dirt road in the coffee plantations near Ta Dung Lake


Road QL27 ploughs through a gaping valley beneath mountains, near Lak Lake, Dak Lak Province


Getting ready for the long bus ride back from Buon Ma Thuot to Saigon on Long Van Limousine Buslines


A section of Road DT725 through pines trees near Di Linh, Lam Dong Province


Volcanic rocks in the foliage, part of a lava field site in Dak Nong Geopark, Dak Nong Province


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free & independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this motorbike route & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

[Back Top]

RELATED POSTS:


Related Posts

[Back Top]


Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats:  What's this?

This entry was posted in ALL, Central, Dalat Motorbike Routes, MOTORBIKE GUIDES, Mountains and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Dak Nong Geopark↔Dong Nai River Motorbike Loop

  1. Lauren says:

    Hi, is the red route okay to take to Buon Ma thuot?

    • Hi Lauren,

      It’s highly likely that you will be stopped by border police on that route, around the area that I’ve marked with a red police icon on my map. Your passports will probably be checked, you may be fined, but probably they will escort you to the main road. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the hassle – the road and the scenery aren’t good enough to justify the inconvenience/risk.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom
      Tom

  2. Benjamin Knight says:

    Hey Tom, I just used this guide to do a 3-day trip starting in Saigon and ending in Buon Ma Thuot with my girlfriend. We shared a 110cc Honda Vision which, although I feared would be a bit small for 2, was quite comfortable and negotiated the meandering mountain roads without any issues. Here’s a summary of the trip:

    * Day 1 left from Saigon at 6am, following the blue route north and out of the city towards Bien Hoa. By 6am Saigon was already basking in morning sunlight and the highways are buzzing with traffic. Traffic however was manageable with perhaps the worst part being around the industrial complex north of Bien Hoa around 7am as workers in green shirts commuted en masse to the factories. We arrived in Dong Xoai for an early lunch/late breakfast of pho, and later arrived in Cat Tien around 3pm, for a total of 9 hours and 273km on the road. It was a long arduous and tiring day to say the least, with the most rewarding stretch being heading east from Dong Xoai. There were a number of unpleasant sections of rode riddled with potholes, and one long stretch of dusty road work. In Cat Tien, We stayed at the Green Bamboo Lodge, and found it quite nice and refreshingly minimal. The food however was pretty subpar but luckily we found a small restaurant in the main town called Quan Hanh. Cat Tien itself was far less touristy than I expected. I had something like Phong Nha in mind, but in reality tourism numbers are quite low, prices are cheap, and the village itself is quite small and walkable.

    * Day 2 left from Cat Tien around 9am and continued following the blue line north. It was at this point that we truly felt like we were in the highlands as we climbed in elevation and the agricultural activity became overwhelmingly coffee, and being the harvest season, many farmers were even using the road to sun-dry their harvested cherries, bottlenecking traffic into one lane, which can be a bit hectic. The roads on this day would also go between smooth newly paved asphalt, and long rough stretches of pavement with hard-to-spot potholes. Towards the end of the day as we crossed into Dak Nong province, the scenery became splendid as we spotted the first dam on the Dong Nai river, and made our way eventually arriving at Freedom Green Village around 2pm, for a total of 5 hours and 134km on the road. Freedom Green Village itself is possible the single most beautifully situated piece of property I’ve seen in Vietnam or the whole world. This is not an ordinary homestay or hotel, not only because the views and the property are spectacular, but there is an expectation that you will participate in the daily routines of the farm workers, including cooking and eating with the other guests and staff, and harvesting and eating only among the many crops they have (no outside food or single-use plastics allowed inside). There are no services provided for guests. It’s only been open for about 6 months, but I have no doubts that this place is going to rise to fame quickly.

    * Day 3 we left from Freedom Green Village at 9am and continued following the blue route, taking QL28 north until Lake Lak. We only made one stop at Thac Lieng Nung waterfall. The waterfall was a bit hard to find as the whole area is under construction, opening it up to mass tourism access in the future, but after trying all possible routes down the hill, we eventually found the right one, where you eventually come to a concrete “walking path” which you can easily drive down and brings you to the base of the waterfall. The waterfall itself is dramatic in scale and stunningly beautiful. If only it weren’t for all the plastic waste strewn about, which is a sad but common sight unfortunately. The rest of the drive to Lake Lak was amazing. As we climbed even more in elevation, the air felt crisp as we crested pine tree covered hills, reminding me much of Dalat. The roads were in good condition and there was very little traffic. We arrived in Lake Lak at 2pm, for a total of 5 hours and 142km on the road. We stayed at Lak Tented Camp which although couldn’t match Freedom Green Village’s spectacular views, was the overall most peaceful and relaxing destination of the trip.

    * Day 4 we had an easy 1-hour drive to Buon Ma Thuot where we dropped off the motorbike to send back to Saigon (bus company: Nhà Xe Tiến Oanh, 350k VND) and walked an easy 2km to the airport and boarded a 1pm flight back to Saigon. Very easy and convenient to do this as a one-way trip, allowing us to cover a lot of ground in only 3 days.

    All in all, the highlands are just a magical place to be and this trip has almost convinced me it’s time to move there. The only thing I would have done differently is taken the most direct route to Cat Tien on Day 1, as it was a long, arduous, tiring day with some nice scenery but not worth it when comparing the shorter distance 148km versus the 273km on the blue route, which had a lot of bad roads. The highlight of the trip by far was the driving from Cat Tien until Buon Ma Thuot.

    It was overall an a fantastic trip as the weather in mid-December is ideal.

    • Hey Ben,

      Thanks for the trip report. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.

      Yes, I’m sure Freedom Village will become a big deal, and it’s very refreshing compared to the other selfie-orientated accommodations up there above Ta Dung Lake.

      The idea of taking that detouring loop west of Tri An Lake and back around to Cat Tien is to see utilize different roads in that area: the QL20 to Cat Tien, although direct, is fairly dull and overused. And I’ve covered other alternative routes to Cat Tien in my Dalat Back Roads guide. But the blue route to Cat Tien is a lot to ride in a day, and is perhaps better with a night stop in Tri An (at Ba Dat Homestay) or Dong Xoai or with an extension on one of the red routes up to Phuoc Long, around the reservoir and back down to meet the blue route again to cross back over to Cat Tien.

      Three days isn’t long for this route, but it sounds like it went well.

      Tom

  3. Marc Hastenteufel says:

    Hi!
    there is some content missing under one picture

    Gia Long Falls, named by the last of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors of Vietnam, in honour of the first

    and it stops….

    • Hi Marc,

      Yes, I see what you mean, but that’s how it’s supposed to read.The end of the sentence is implied:’Gia Long Falls, named by the last of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors of Vietnam, in honour of the first (of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors).

      Tom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *