The Ho Chi Minh Road is fast becoming famous as one of the most scenic routes for a motorbike road trip in Asia. Although it will eventually stretch from the southern-most tip of the country to its northern border with China, to date (2016) the Ho Chi Minh Road has been fully paved from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north: nearly 2,000km of unbroken road, cutting through some of the most spectacular landscape in Vietnam. The best scenery can be found along the central section, where a landscape of endless limestone mountains, covered in a thick fleece of tropical rainforest and dissected by clear blue rivers, stretches to the horizon: if you only ride one part of the Ho Chi Minh Road, make sure it’s this one. Below is my full guide to the Ho Chi Minh Road, including route information, places to stay and eat, and things to see and do along the way.
GUIDE: THE HO CHI MINH ROAD
ABOUT THIS ROUTE & GUIDE:
The Ho Chi Minh Road (not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, most of which is in Laos) runs along the mountainous spine of Vietnam, known as the Trường Sơn Range. For much of its length, the road is a quiet, well-made, easily accessible, two-lane highway which sees very little traffic compared to the other major north-south road, Highway 1. In this comprehensive guide I’ve written a description – including places to stay and eat, and things to see and do – of the entire Ho Chi Minh Road from south to north; starting from Saigon and ending in Hanoi. As this is a very long guide, I’ve divided it into 3 main parts: Southern, Central, and Northern. These are then subdivided into 8 smaller sections. Note that each section does not necessarily correspond to one day on the road.
Although following the Ho Chi Minh Road all the way from south to north is a great road trip in itself, most people choose to mix it up with some coastal routes. If you only want to see the very best that the Ho Chi Minh Road has to offer, start from Kon Tum and head north all the way to Pho Chau (sections 3 to 6): this is one of the best rides in Vietnam, including the jaw-dropping Western Ho Chi Minh Road (section 5). There are now dozens of east-west roads connecting the Ho Chi Minh Road with the coast: for ideas about how to include the Ho Chi Minh Road as part of a more varied south to north road trip, take a look at my Five Suggested Routes from Saigon to Hanoi.
As the Ho Chi Minh Road runs the length of the country and is so mountainous, it’s difficult to determine the best time of year to ride it. However, weather conditions from March to September are generally the most favourable. (Refer to my Weather Guide for more information about seasons and climate in Vietnam). The total distance is 1,880km and average duration is around 2 weeks.
As this is a very long guide, I’ve divided it into 3 parts – Southern, Central, and Northern – which are sub-divided into 8 smaller sections. Click on a section below to read more about it:
- Section 1: Saigon – Dong Xoai – Gia Nghia – Buon Ma Thuot: [340km]
- Section 2: Buon Ma Thuot – Pleiku – Kon Tum: [230km]
- Section 3: Kon Tum – Kham Duc – Prao: [280km]
- Section 4: Prao – A Luoi – Khe Sanh: [210km]
- Section 5: Khe Sanh – Long Son – Phong Nha: [230km]
- Section 6: Phong Nha – Huong Khe – Pho Chau: [180km]
The Ho Chi Minh Road: from Saigon to Hanoi: [1,880km]
View in a LARGER MAP
Route: Saigon – Dong Xoai – Gia Nghia – Buon Ma Thuot | Distance: 340km [MAP]
Getting to the Ho Chi Minh Road from downtown Saigon requires a brief but nasty stretch on Highway 13, leading north over the clogged Binh Trieu Bridge and out into the smog and Mad Max-ian scrum of Saigon’s industrial belt. But, just as the appalling industrial apocalypse becomes too much to bear, new roads cut north, towards Binh Duong New City. An eerie but pleasing spectacle, these smooth boulevards run through the centre of a new urban development that’s been laid out and constructed but has yet to be filled with (too many) people. It’s a pleasant and smooth ride through this ghost city and out the other side into the cold, damp rubber plantations.
A good highway (DT741) whisks you up to Dong Xoai – don’t miss the haunting sight of an old concrete bridge that’s split in half over a jungle-clad riverbed to the east of the road. For a town whose name – as far as I can tell – means ‘Field of Mangoes’, Dong Xoai is a surprisingly big, busy, bustling and commercial city, with everything you’d expect to find in such a place: restaurants, hotels, ATMs, cafes and, of course, dust. At just over 100km from Saigon, Thanh Sang Hotel (1068 Phu Rieng Do Street: 0651 3 879 559; rates from 200,000vnd a night) is fine for a night if you’re running out of daylight.
Dong Xoai is where you first hit the Ho Chi Minh Road. It’s in great shape here and, almost immediately, one begins to get a sense of the surprising scale of Vietnam’s landmass. The big distances and horizons on this vast agricultural plateau – which essentially continues all the way north beyond Kon Tum and into Laos – and the sense of space and light, are on a grander scale than one would expect in Vietnam. The smell of the rich, red earth – the soil that makes this region the agricultural bosom of Vietnam – rises with the morning mist. Everything grows here, and it grows bigger and greener than anywhere else. The Ho Chi Minh Road – with its characteristic yellow centre-markings – glides over gentle ridges cloaked in plantations: rubber, cashew, passion fruit, jackfruit, pepper. Houses, people, vehicles, road surfaces, hillsides are all covered in a layer of red dust.
Gia Nghia is a large town alternately carved out of, and perched on top of, the red-soiled hillsides. It’s a town of red-tiled rooftops and revolutionary monuments, of steep streets and grand, empty boulevards, of official government buildings and, thanks to a mammoth hydroelectric project, water. Pleasant in the sunshine, grim in the rain, Gia Nghia is a fascinating off-the-beaten-path place to spend a night.
The old town sprawls over the first hillock as you enter town from the highway, while the new town climbs up the hill behind it. The latter has an astonishing amount of government edifices and some large, decent hotels. But the old town, especially around the crumbling market, is where all the action and life is. There’s plenty of street food treats to delve into around the market and you can stay near it too, at Nhà Nghỉ Quang Phuc (176 Ton Duc Thang Street: 0168 909 3420; rates from 150,000vnd a night), or head to the new town for larger (government-scale) lodgings, such as Dak Nong Lodge Resort or Nha Khach Dak Nong (25 Le Lai Street: 0501 3 500 077; rates from $20 a night).
From Gia Nghia to Buon Ma Thuot, the Ho Chi Minh Road cuts through a bedraggled landscape: a patchwork of small-hold farms and plantations; a previously forested region that now appears to be suffering from baldness. When the road straddles the Cambodian border at Dak Mil, echoes of the American War ring out: this desolate region was heavily bombed by US aircraft to prevent supplies reaching soldiers in the south, and it’s not difficult to imagine it, even now, as dozens of plumes of smoke smudge the horizon, rising from fires in the forest, clearing the way for cultivation.
Buon Ma Thuot, coffee capital of Vietnam, is not a particularly nice place, but nor is it anything like as bad as many guidebooks suggest. It’s big, hot, and busy. But the streets around the ‘old quarter’, near the market, are shaded by low trees and full of lively commerce, interesting street food, local banter, and throbbing cafes. If this appeals to you, as it does me, stay at Nguyen Nhi Hotel (164 Ly Thuong Kiet Street: 0500 3859 868; rates from $10 a night) or opt for the large, neat, mid-range rooms at Saigon Ban Me Hotel. If you’d rather see some greenery from your window and be a little bit away from the action, try Damsan or Eden hotels on Nguyen Cong Tru Street. The latter is also a good street to try the area’s famous coffee: make sure to pick a local cafe on the south side of the street so as to get a view. Dining and drinking is also good on Nguyen Cong Tru, or there are lots of street food treats on Y Jut Street, including a night market that takes up most of the ‘old quarter’.
Route: Buon Ma Thuot – Pleiku – Kon Tum | Distance: 230km [MAP]
After negotiating through a glut of vehicles leaving Buon Ma Thuot, the Ho Chi Minh Road cuts northeast, as straight as a landing strip, over an agricultural plateau. The red soil – somehow deeper and earthier than previously – is a dusty plague of airborne particles, making the air thick and hazy, especially with the addition of smoke from burning fields and exhaust fumes from passing trucks. The red earth even appears to have changed the pigment of local people’s skin: much of the population on this plateau are ethnic minorities whose skin tone is darker and more leathery in appearance than lowland Vietnamese, as they spend much of their lives working outside on the land. Buon Ho is another dusty, busy little place with a few hotels and food stalls dotted about the high-street for anyone who needs a break from riding.
The Ho Chi Minh Road is in excellent condition all the way from Buon Ma Thuot to Pleiku. And this is a good thing, because it makes an otherwise uninspiring leg of the journey more enjoyable. Just the occasional cluster of pine trees and the vast scale of the plateau keep you engaged as the road sweeps through this desolate, bleak blanket of agricultural land. At times the land is covered in squat coffee bushes and spindly rubber trees, standing erect in neat ranks on the hillsides, like the formations of a medieval army on the battlefield, before the fighting begins.
Indeed, a battle did take place in these hills, some 50 years ago, between American forces and the North Vietnamese Army. In 1965, in the Ia Drang Valley – a name which still has a chilling ring to it – to the west of the Ho Chi Minh Road, hundreds of US troops and thousands of Vietnamese were killed fighting under a deluge of bombs from B52s, in what was the first direct conflict between the two sides of what became known, in the West, as the ‘Vietnam War’, but what is known in Vietnam as the ‘American War’. Today, the Ia Drang Valley is an especially dry place: the earth has a crisp, burnt crust to it and the colours are washed out, even the distant peaks are beige and arid. Wooden plank homes – covered in red dust – dry peppercorns in their front yards, adding spice to the hot highland air.
Pleiku emerges from the dusty highland plains, looking as if a bag of concrete has been dumped over a hillside and left to dry. As Kon Tum is only another hours’ ride north of here, there’s not much incentive to stay in Pleiku. But, although its main streets are pretty charmless, venture down some of the backstreets and you might find you come to like the rough, ready, ungentrified character of Pleiku.
There’s a great, dilapidated central market with a couple of hotels nearby (try the aging Se San Hotel or Tre San Plaza Hotel at 18 Le Lai Street). There are many more accommodation options in all ranges by the main intersection and along the highway, including lots of nhà nghỉ (local guesthouses) and the upmarket HAGL Hotel. In fact, even the city’s much-derided, Soviet-era public buildings and government edifices are, to my eyes, becoming more interesting and appealing with each passing year: I am finding that, as these buildings become rarer with all the demolition and construction in Vietnam today, what I once considered eyesores are now becoming nostalgic architectural icons.
Between Pleiku and Kon Tum, the Ho Chi Minh Road is arrow-straight and the scenery changes for the better. Rugged mountains grow up from the plains, where rivers provide enough water for rice cultivation. Kon Tum has a fabulous position: on the banks of the Dak Bla River with mountains behind. Peaceful during the day and pleasantly abuzz in the evenings, Kon Tum is a very characterful highland town: colonial buildings, riverside promenades, views of the surrounding countryside, good cafes, excellent accommodation options and delicious food are just some of its merits.
Thinh Vuong Hotel (16 Nguyen Trai Street: 060 3914 729; rates from 200,000vnd a night) is a superb budget choice tucked down a backstreet, walking distance from the riverfront. Indochine Hotel offers good mid-range value with large river-view rooms. Nguyen Hue Street is a good place to dine: either at one of the many budget rice eateries or beer and food joints further up the street. After dinner, head to the river promenade for a walk and a coffee or beer at one of the cafes, and don’t miss the bamboo interior of Cafe Indochine, one of many new works by architect, Vo Trong Nghia, who is fast becoming Vietnam’s answer to Norman Foster. For street treats head to the market and settle down to a hearty bowl of soup and finish the night off with a sweet glass of chè.
Route: Kon Tum – Kham Duc – Prao | Distance: 280km [MAP]
Head northwest on Kon Tum’s main street (Phan Dinh Phung) towards Dak To. The first hour is along a dead straight ribbon of asphalt that bisects the Kon Tum Plateau, which is covered in plantations of towering rubber trees and coffee bushes. Silhouettes of mountains loom on the horizon and there’s a fruity, flowery smell in the air as it gets cooler and thinner. Just out of Dak Ha is the first glimpse of real, unplanted forest to the west.
Dak To is a forgettable town, but there are some hotels on the high-street if you need them. The surrounding area was the scene of some of the fiercest battles of the American War. The countryside still bears the scars of all the bombs and defoliants that were dropped on the hills and forests here during the autumn of 1967. A few kilometres after passing Dak To, look out for an old US landing strip just to the left (south) of the road. The long stretch of tarmac is still visible through the fields of cassava that have grown up around it. Today the landing strip is used by farmers to dry their crops on, and you can walk or ride along it on your bike. At Ngoc Hoi there’s a glut of hotels on the main street, although staying here is not an exciting prospect. The town is being groomed as an economic gateway between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, thanks to the opening of a triple border gate some 15km to the west.
Note: At Dak To the Ho Chi Minh Road makes a sharp turn to the left (due west) that’s quite easy to miss if you’re not careful. 20km later, there’s another sharp turn to the right (due north) at Ngoc Hoi: if you take the wrong turn here you’ll quickly end up at either the Cambodian or Lao border!
From Ngoc Hoi to Dak Glei the road follows the valley of the Dak Po Ko River, not far from the Laos border. Mountains start to close in on the road, and the peak of Ngoc Linh (2,598m), the highest mountain in central and southern Vietnam, is visible to the east. Cultivation continues right to the top of most of these mountains, giving a somewhat patchy appearance to the landscape in this area (it looks as though the trees have been vacuumed off the hillsides) and reminding you that Vietnam is still a mostly agricultural economy.
The road surface is a little rougher from Ngoc Hoi onwards, but it’s not so bad as to hinder progress. Rivers become clearer and mountains higher; the air damper. Many houses are made of packed mud and straw, with wood panel walls and tiled roofs. Several impressive rong houses (tall, thatched buildings which act as communal centres for many regional ethnic minorities) dot the countryside. Kids are everywhere: playing in the dusty front yards and waving at any foreigner that rides by. Dak Glei is a small, quiet place that’s good for a night. There are a couple of guesthouses and some decent eateries lining the road. Try Quynh Tu Guest House (090 359 8889) or Tuan Lan Hotel (090 520 2289), both on the main road.
Deforestation reaches its peak at the beginning of the pass out of Dak Glei: the scarred mountainsides are naked, save from some lonely trees that have escaped the axe. The landscape looks like the skin of a recently plucked chicken: a few tufts and clumps of feathers left on its pink, raw and exposed flesh. Is this the fate that awaits all the great stands of forest and jungle that lie on the Ho Chi Minh Road?
Thankfully, things change at the top of the pass: agriculture is pushed from the mountainsides down to the river valleys, forced there by dense tropical forests that appear to melt over the mountains like candle-wax, dripping down the steep contours and washed by relentless cascades of rain-water, draining off the mountains in gushing waterfalls, and swelling the rivers below. It’s a glorious ride all the way to Kham Duc, as the Ho Chi Minh Road – lined with cinnamon trees – twists up into the mountains, cutting a path through rock and along thickly forested river valleys with peaks bearing down from 6,000ft.
Gold has been found in these isolated mountains and rivers, and the modest town of Kham Duc has profited from it. The gold mine, deep in the mountains, has a large staff, and Kham Duc provides accommodation for some of them, so there are a few places to choose from here. Be Chau Giang Hotel is a comfortable, alpine-lodge-style place with views over the forested mountains, or try the large new Phuoc Minh Hotel near the intersection of the highway and Phan Van Dong Street. There’s something appealing about Kham Duc – perhaps it’s the scenic setting among mountains and forests – which makes it a good place to settle for a night. Phan Van Dong is the main street, where you’ll find rice eateries, cafes, shops and the town market.
Note: most people choose to drop down from the Ho Chi Minh Road at Kham Duc, heading east along Road 14E to the coast, then continuing north to Hoi An, and over the Hai Van Pass to Hue. No doubt this is partly due to the famous BBC Top Gear episode from 2007, and the popular cultural attractions in Hoi An and Hue. However, as spectacular as the Hai Van Pass is, it’s nothing compared to the passes you’ll encounter if you stay on the Ho Chi Minh Road from Kham Duc to A Luoi. (If you want to combine the Hai Van Pass and the Ho Chi Minh Road take a look at my guide to The Golden Loop).
Continuing north from Kham Duc to Thanh My, the Ho Chi Minh Road follows the Dak Mi River. This quiet stretch of road straddles the valley walls, sometimes high above the river, as it makes its slow but steady progress over the boulder-strewn riverbed. However, its flow has been significantly reduced – as have dozens of rivers in this region – since the construction of dams. Whatever your view on hydroelectricity, it’s difficult not to feel sad at the sight of a wide, rocky riverbed whose flow is reduced to a trickle of stagnant water when once – and for millions of years before – it was a roaring white torrent surging through the jungle.
At Thanh My (where you’ll find a guesthouse on the main street if needed and good food at Quán Ăn Bà Hai) bear left (due northwest) at the main crossroads, signposted to Prao. There’s very little traffic on this superb section of road. Mountain passes twist skyward, each hairpin bend revealing giant views over wide valleys, deep ravines, and mist-shrouded mountains. At times the jungle is so dense and lush that it appears to be uncontainable and threatens to grow over the road completely. A hypnotic rhythm is induced by the constant switch-backs – lean left, lean right – and the flashes of sunlight that pierce the thick foliage and streak the road at regular intervals. It’s an exhilarating – but also strangely soothing – two hour drive.
Prao is a very quiet, isolated little town, but it provides everything a traveller needs: a gas station, rice eateries, shops for picnic supplies, a cafe, and a few decent guesthouses. On the main road, you’ll see Dung Thuy Guest House (051 03 898 636) and Huong Dao Rest House (0976 597 836) right next door: the former is very good; the latter is pretty run down. Huyen Long Rest House (01688 205 027) is also a good option and there’s a new guest house a minute due north out of town called Chung Thuy Rest House (0988 928 920). Cafe Su Ri serves good, strong Vietnamese coffee. Even if you’re not stopping for the night here, be sure to have some lunch or buy food supplies (there’s a mini-mart behind the gas station), and fill up with gas, because there’s very little indeed for the next 100km to A Luoi.
Route: Prao – A Luoi – Khe Sanh | Distance: 210km [MAP]
From Prao to A Luoi is an isolated, sparsely populated and rarely used section of the Ho Chi Minh Road. However, it’s in great shape and passes through majestic scenery, just a stone’s throw from the Lao border. Not long after leaving Prao the road begins to climb: this is the beginning of a meandering mountain pass that doesn’t really stop for the next 80km. Each time you think you’ve reached the top, it starts to ascend again. There are moments when you can see the road winding up and down the mountains in the distance before you. At times, when the road can go no higher, it simply glides along the mountain ridge; when the slope is too sheer for the road to continue, eerie dark tunnels lead under the mountaintops to the other side.
The views just get better and better, and you’ll find this section of road takes at least a few hours because of all the photo stops you’ll want to make. Ridge after ridge of mountains, carpeted in thick forest, appear to wax and wane behind curtains of cloud, mist and rain. There’s something almost flirtatious about it; as if the elements were tempting you with just glimpses of what would be visible on a clear day.
It’s magical, and all the more so because, for the entire 100km drive to A Luoi, you can count the number of vehicles you see on one hand. There are very few man-made structures: a remote army outpost on the Lao border, temporary shelters for workman clearing landslides, and forestry protection huts. Of the latter, some are dedicated to the protection of the sao la. Also known as the Asian Unicorn, this pretty, deer-like animal wasn’t even known to science until the 1990s, and it has still never been seen in the wild by a Westerner. Very few are left, but some of the ones that are live deep in these forests.
Eventually, the road drops down into a lovely, verdant valley. Agriculture takes over once more, and villages begin to appear. The land flattens and the road continues in a straight line to A Luoi, a modest town with not much to recommend it except as a night stop on the Ho Chi Minh Road. Decent, cheap rooms can be found at either Thanh Quang Guest House (279 Ho Chi Minh Road: 054 3878 362), or Do Thanh Hotel (176 Ho Chi Minh Road: 090 501 2250), or Kieu My/Duc An Guest House (303 Ho Chi Minh Road: 0905 878 059), all on the main street for around 150-250,000vnd a night. There’s a sprinkling of food and drink outlets along the main street, or try around the market, especially for a fragrant bowl of bún bò Huế (the provincial speciality) for breakfast or cơm hến (clam rice) for dinner, which is another regional favourite. There are several gas stations in A Luoi.
The journey from A Luoi to Khe Sanh is a very pretty ride through an area that was once a conflict zone. Quang Tri Province is the most heavily bombed in all Vietnam. Even today, it’s estimated that 80% of land is still affected by UXO (unexploded ordnance). Now, however – as is the case with so many former battlefields in Vietnam – this area is most notable for its natural beauty and serenity.
From A Luoi, the road leads through a wide valley covered in tropical trees – papaya, banana, cinnamon, pineapple, teak. Mountains rise is all directions, and local children wave their arms in wild excitement as you pass through hamlets of wooden stilt houses: you’d never know that the barren, rounded mountain just to your left (due west) was the infamous Hamburger Hill. Of course, sites like this make you pause and contemplate the war but, happily, as the road continues up mountain passes, along glistening rivers, and the jagged Da Krong valley, it’s the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of local people, rather the tragedy of war, that causes you to stop and reflect.
For the last 50km the road clings to the valley walls. The water of the Da Krong River has sculpted the limestone riverbed into ruts, tubes and crevices, as rich and varied in shape, form and texture as sea coral. 90km after leaving A Luoi the Ho Chi Minh Road crosses the Da Krong Bridge and hits Highway 9. At this point the Ho Chi Minh Road splits into two branches: Eastern and Western. Many people choose to turn right (due east) on Highway 9 towards Dong Ha and then onto the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road. However, you’d be crazy to do this if you’re either a motorbiking enthusiast or a lover of nature and adventure. This is because if you turn left (due west) on Highway 9 towards Khe Sanh, it will bring you to the beginning of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, which is one of the most scenic, isolated, and heart-meltingly gorgeous stretches of road in Vietnam.
From the Da Krong Bridge to Khe Sanh it’s a lovely climb towards the Lao border. Khe Sanh is a dusty market town with plenty of trucks passing through on their way to and from Laos. Pretty good rooms are available at the big Thai Ninh Hotel, or the relatively new Khanh Phuong Hotel, and Hai Dang Hotel, as well as other mini-hotels on the town’s main street (try to book in advance, because these hotels often host large groups of riders). Khanh Phuong Hotel also has a rooftop breakfast cafe. There are plenty of places to eat on the main streets in Khe Sanh, and the local market is interesting to wander around and eat in the mornings. Khe Sanh coffee is, in my opinion, the best in Vietnam. Recently, several cafes have sprung up in and around town, serving the excellent local arabica beans: either Italian-style espresso-based coffees, or Vietnamese-style iced coffees. Mộc Coffee, just out of town on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is a good place to try Khe Sanh coffee. However, in general, Khe Sanh is just a place to get some rest and stock up on supplies before the next day’s ride into Wonderland.
Route: Khe Sanh – Long Son – Phong Nha | Distance: 230km [MAP]
Khe Sanh to Phong Nha (also known as Xuan Son and Son Trach) or Khe Gat is 230km/240km of winding road through incredible mountains, forests, and river valleys. It’s one of the best rides in Vietnam. There is only one hotel, hardly any shops, and just three gas stations on this entire stretch. There are very few settlements, vehicles or people. One local in Khe Sanh described it as vắng người, meaning there’s ‘nobody there’.
Until recently, there were no gas stations for over 200km, so it was necessary to fill up at Khe Sanh and take a spare bottle of gas with you to refill on the road. Now days, there are three gas stations on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road (all of which are marked on my map). However, there’s no guarantee that they will be open when you pass by. Therefore, it’s still a good idea to be cautious and carry a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of petrol with you, just in case, especially if your bike only averages 100km or so per tank, because the gas stations are located pretty far from one another. Also, buy some food and drink to keep you going, as there’s precious little in the way of dining options on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road: you’ll definitely want to stop at some point for a picnic and a swim in a scenic location.
With the opening of a new guesthouse in Long Son (roughly halfway between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha), it’s now possible to ride this section over two days, or you can camp along the way, which is very nice indeed if you’ve got the equipment. If neither of these options appeal to you, you will need to ride the full distance in one day. This means starting early in the morning: 240km is a long way on winding roads, especially when there’s so much fantastic scenery to stop and admire.
Find the start of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road at a turning on Le Duan Street (this is the name that Highway 9 assumes when it passes through Khe Sanh) by a big, Soviet-style, sculpted war memorial. At this memorial turn onto Hồ Chí Minh Tây Street (Western Ho Chi Minh Road) heading northwest. Khe Sanh is famous for the North Vietnamese siege and bombardment of the US airbase here in 1968. Ta Con air base and museum can be visited just to the right (due east) a few minutes after turning onto the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. Several kilometres out of Khe Sanh, the road turns into large rectangular concrete slabs, which defines the Western Ho Chi Minh Road all the way to Khe Gat.
After 25km the road passes through the small village of Huong Phung. This is the first of the three gas stations between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha, so fill up if you need to. There’s also a guesthouse (Hoang Phi: 0982 036 555), excellent coffee at B-Wild Cafe, and an ATM. From here it’s just a matter of letting the scenery wash over you: bend after bend, pass after pass, the landscape folds you in its peaks and valleys, rivers and forests. Jungles get denser, rivers clearer, mountains higher, colours become more intense, as you ride deeper into this remote area along the Lao border. Stop to shower under waterfalls, bathe in rivers, and gaze out over vast vistas as you picnic by the roadside.
After 100km, you pass through Tang Ky which, although marked on milestones for hundreds of kilometres, is nothing more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet. This is where the second gas station is located. Roughly 30km beyond Tang Ky, after a beautiful stretch along a blue river, is the small settlement of Long Son (also marked as Truong Son). This pretty little place, in a stunning location surrounded by limestone crags, jungles and rivers, offers the only accommodation on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. Duc Tuan Hotel (0949 522 331; rates from 200,000vnd a night) has sparse but clean rooms. There’s wifi here, a shop or two, a cafe, a few rice eateries nearby, and the third and final gas station on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road has recently opened here just south of town.
The village is lovely: wood and tile homes, stone courtyards with vegetables drying outside, incense burning on family altars, children playing in the empty streets and in the river, where you can bathe and swim. This is the only place to break the journey (unless you camp) between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha. Staying at Duc Tuan Hotel in Long Son village means you can get a night’s rest on the road and therefore have more time to take it all in. 5-10 minutes’ ride due north of town, there’s a picturesque suspension bridge high above the Long Dai River. It’s a great photo opportunity and, if you scramble down to the riverbank, an excellent swimming spot.
After a couple hours on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it can’t get any better: but it does. Once the road enters the confines of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, the strange shapes of forested limestone mountains come into view. Eroded by the elements over millions of years, these mountains have been formed into soaring pillars and pinnacles, many of them resembling the crooked pointiness of wizard’s and witches’ hats. Just as a palm tree leaning out over a white sand beach has come to represent ‘tropical paradise’, so these limestone karsts have come to symbolize ‘exotic Asia’. Forget about Ha Long Bay or Ninh Binh in northern Vietnam, or Guilin in China, this is where to come for some limestone magic.
Enjoy it now, while you still have it all to yourself, because big things are bound to happen here in the near future. In such a remote and geologically fascinating place as this, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was holding a very big secret. It turns out that the marvels of this national park continue under the mountains: In 2009, it was announced that the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, had been discovered here. (Find out more about Son Doong Cave in this excellent National Geographic article). Oxalis Tours now offers a genuine ‘trip of a lifetime’ with a multi-day trek through the cave, including camping inside the cave. It looks and sounds extraordinary, but you’ll have to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. You can, however, hike a little while on the trail to Son Doong Cave: the trailhead starts from the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, marked by a concrete pavilion on the roadside.
However, sections of other equally impressive caves in the area (such as Paradise Cave, Dark Cave, and Phong Nha Cave) have been open to the public for years now, and they are wildly popular. These are wonderful places to visit, but try to come on a weekday (not a weekend or holiday) when the caves are less crowded. Another relatively new addition to the ever-growing caving scene in Phong Nha is Hang En, which is sort of billed as a poorer man’s Son Doong. Jungle Boss Tours and Oxalis both organize shorter and less expensive tours to this stunning, ethereal cavern, and plenty more besides.
As the road passes through Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, the air is damp, perfumed and crisp. If you’re a city dweller, like me, then it’s moments like this when you realize what breathing should be like. Despite the extremely significant natural wonders here, there’s still concern over environmental protection in the national park. At my last visit, huge tree trunks lying by the roadside and dirt logging channels on the hillsides – where trees have been felled and slid down the slope – didn’t bode well for the future of this vast but delicate stand of old-growth primary forest.
As the Western Ho Chi Minh Road soars over limestone monoliths, there are sweeping views to the east, down towards the coast and the provincial capital, Dong Hoi. The closest city to the caves, Dong Hoi, is yet another hidden gem of the area. A clean, relatively peaceful city on a pretty river and a great beach, Dong Hoi is like a miniature Danang. With direct flights to Saigon and Hanoi, Dong Hoi’s star is on the rise. Flattened by US bombing 50 years ago, today this entire area – Quang Binh Province – has all the makings of a future tourist hotspot: I’d visit now so that, in 10 years’ time, you can say you saw Quang Binh before the crowds arrived.
215km after leaving Khe Sanh there’s a bridge over a river before Tra Ang crossroads. If you continue straight ahead here (due north) it takes you to Paradise and Dark caves, and along a beautiful river before joining the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road at Khe Gat. Alternatively, turn right (due east) towards Phong Nha (also known as Xuan Son and Son Trach). After 15km the road meets a blue river lined with limestone karsts: this is the town of Phong Nha, gateway to the caves. As grand as it sounds and as pretty as the surrounding scenery is, the town is not a particularly attractive place. It’s a work in progress; somewhere between its serene past as a small village in the countryside, and its future as the resort town for the largest cave system in the world. Dust, construction, rip-offs, and Western food joints abound. However, there’s a decent range of accommodation (see below), and the limestone Wonderland you passed through during the day can still be glimpsed from your balcony.
The town of Phong Nha is chock-full of mini-hotels and backpacker hostels. Popular budget digs on the main drag include, Easy Tiger Hostel, Nguyen Shack, and Gecko Hostel. Pricier but more comfortable and atmospheric options are located further down the road along the river, such as Jungle Boss Homestay, Phong Nha River House, and Ho Khanh’s Homestay. However, it’s much nicer and more peaceful to stay in the rural homestays located in the serene countryside on the northern side of the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL16) rather than in Phong Nha town itself. Sy’s Homestay and Greenfield Ecostay are good examples of this. Even further east of Phong Nha along the Ho Chi Minh Road there are more excellent mid-range accommodations: Phong Nha Farmstay, Phong Nha Lake House Resort or Pepper House Homestay are all very good. Phong Nha’s main street has an increasing number of backpacker-oriented bars, diners, and English-speaking mechanics if your bike needs maintenance. Most of the homestays provide delicious home-cooked food. There’s a brilliant, informal, local BBQ spot just north of town called Quán Bình Hoa. Go around dusk and feast on spit-roasted pork ribs and duck. High quality Vietnamese coffee is available at Phong Nha Coffee Station, and it’s hard to beat a gin and tonic at the Bomb Crater Bar by the river. There’s a gas station in Phong Nha town, on the left just before joining the Ho Chi Minh Road.
Route: Phong Nha – Huong Khe – Pho Chau | Distance: 180km [MAP]
Head east on Phong Nha’s high-street for a couple of kilometres until it meets the Ho Chi Minh Road. Turn left (due northwest) to begin the journey to Huong Khe and Pho Chau. Almost immediately, there’s a great view over the river back towards Phong Nha town, which looks better from afar than it does when you’re actually in it.
The 100km stretch from Phong Nha to Pheo (Tan Ap) continues in much the same way as the previous couple of sections: more jagged, jungle-clad limestone forests stretching to the horizon; more majestic mountain passes climbing above the dense, shimmering jungle canopy; more clear blue rivers cutting valleys through the limestone; and more small villages where everyone comes out to wave as you ride by. In fact, many people I ride with consider this to be the most scenic section of the entire Ho Chi Minh Road.
There are numerous places to stop and gaze in awe at the limestone landscape and, if you’ve got time to do some exploring, there are dozens of small paved lanes leading off the highway through idyllic-looking hamlets of wood and thatch houses, and terrific swimming spots in aquamarine rivers below jungle-clad limestone cliffs. Sadly, freight traffic has started to increase on this bit of the highway. This, I suspect, will only get worse, as truck drivers realize that the Ho Chi Minh Road from Hanoi all the way down to Dong Ha is a much better alternative to taking Highway 1. However, it’s still nowhere near busy….yet.
Slowly, as the day goes on, settlements get bigger, concrete houses replace wooden huts, agriculture swallows up the forests, mountains give way to flat valleys, and traffic increases slightly. There’s still some great scenery – rubber, tea and cinnamon plantations, and the misty, forested slopes of Vu Quang National Park to the west – but when compared to the dramatic landscapes of the previous few days, it seems tame and tainted.
Huong Khe is a surprisingly big and lively settlement with a large lake, lots of food and accommodation, and a deafening chorus of cicadas in the evenings. Huong Khe’s high street runs parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Road, so you have to take one of many connecting streets between the two. Son Ha Hotel and Hoang Ngoc Hotel both have good rooms by the lake, where there’s lots of beer and food stalls at night. For breakfast, head to the market and try the fresh, thick, doughy bánh canh noodles at 406 Tran Phu Street, near the corner with Nguyen Hue Street.
From Huong Khe to Pho Chau it’s easy to make a wrong turn onto Highway 15 towards Ha Tinh City: at the junction make sure you bear left, signposted to Vu Quang. It’s a very green ride to Pho Chau, and the Ho Chi Minh Highway is incongruous to the life and landscape surrounding it, which seems to belong to another century; a time when people used buffaloes not cars, and bamboo not plastic. The lush and seductive slopes of Vu Quang National Park abut the road, where some of the last remaining wild Indochinese tigers roam. These forests are also where Phan Dinh Phung fled, to muster a resistance force against the colonial ambitions of the French, in the 1880s.
At the crossroads with Highway 8 turn left (due west) for the small town of Pho Chau. This is a dusty, off-the-beaten-path place to spend a night. The town centre is at the crossroads before crossing a bridge. Here you’ll find a couple of OK hotels for a cheap night’s rest: Bach Dai Dung Hotel (039 3875 490; rates from 150,000vnd a night) and Ngan Pho Hotel (039 3516 678; rates from 200,000vnd a night). There are food stalls around the market. However, if you stay on the Ho Chi Minh Road past the Pho Chau intersection, there’s a new hotel (with a swimming pool!) just five minutes up the hill. Minh Tu Hotel (rates from 250,000vnd a night) is more comfortable and better value than staying in the town. Pho Chau is on the road to a remote border crossing with Laos, and the only bit of notable information about the town that I’m aware of, is that it’s the first stop in Vietnam for all the trucks full of dogs that have been illegally smuggled in from Thailand via Laos, and destined for the tables of restaurants in Hanoi.
Route: Pho Chau – Tan Ky – Cam Thuy | Distance: 250km [MAP]
This is a ride through the neck of Vietnam or, as I like to think of it, the throat of the dragon. The Ho Chi Minh Road spears its way through Ha Tinh and Nghe An – vast provinces of forests, fields, farming and rivers – following the railroad north. These wide agricultural expanses hold little interest to most foreign travellers, but this is the revolutionary heartland of Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail – the wartime supply route from north to south – started from Nghe An Province, before plunging into the jungles and mountains of Laos. This section is easy, swift riding, making it possible to cover large distances in just a day or two. On the way, you’ll notice several roads spreading west of the Ho Chi Minh Road. If you have time, follow some of these Laos-bound routes, as they offer some of the most isolated and beautiful scenery in Vietnam.
Not far out of Pho Chau town, the road passes a Vinamilk dairy farm. Milk and yogurt are hugely popular in Vietnam, which has made Vinamilk one of the biggest companies in the country. (Rather worrying, there’s not a cow in sight.) Wending its way through a rolling landscape – blanketed in eucalyptus, lemongrass, sweetcorn, cassava, cinnamon and tea – the Ho Chi Minh Road leaves Ha Tinh (the Province of Rivers and Peace) and enters Nghe An, the largest province in Vietnam, but one of the least visited by foreign travellers. Known as ‘Nghe An Buffaloes’ (because of the hard labour involved in working the land and the harsh climate they must endure throughout the year – massive heat and typhoons in the summer; cold and bleak days in the winter), the people of Nghe An are known for their resilience. Indeed, this province has produced some of the biggest names in the Vietnamese history of revolution and resistance, chief among them being a certain Ho Chi Minh, whose childhood home is a short ride to the east of his namesake’s road.
It’s a big province, and the journey across Nghe An’s vast agricultural landmass can be long and monotonous, but the road is in great shape and traffic is light. You’ll find hotels, food, gas and supplies at fairly regular intervals. Tan Ky is a good place to break the journey if you need a lunch stop or to spend the night. There are lots of nhà nghỉ (local guesthouses) signposted from the road here, but by far the best accommodation is the KM0 Hotel (038 3979 888; rates from 300,000vnd a night) at the main intersection. This smart place seems a bit out of place here, but it’s a welcome oddity. Next door, the Truong Son Hotel (038 3882 457; rates from 200,000vnd a night) offers cheaper rooms. There’s lots of rice and noodle eateries lining the road. Tan Ky is notable as the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail: there’s a monument and small museum across from the KM0 Hotel. There are also guesthouses and hotels at Khai Son, Thai Hoa, and Yen Cat.
North of Tan Ky, the Ho Chi Minh Road is in a bad state. Expect fairly frequent but minor roadworks for about an hour on this section. Coupled with the roadworks, brick factories, trucks and dust make this little stretch a bit unpleasant. But, when the Ho Chi Minh Road enters Thanh Hoa Province, limestone karsts appear on the horizon, bamboo grows on the hillsides and the road is smooth once again. A good little place for a night is Lan Anh Hotel (037 8996 886; rates from 250,000vnd a night). The hotel is located a short way from the birthplace of another hero in the Vietnamese pantheon, Le Loi. Born in 1384, Le Loi led the uprising (1418-27) that expelled the Ming Dynasty Chinese from Vietnam, and established Le Loi as the first emperor of the Later Le Dynasty. He achieved this with the help of a special sword which, after the Chinese had been defeated and the sword had done its work, a turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi took back from Le Loi: this is where the lake gets its name, Lake of the Returned Sword. Le Loi’s home citadel and temple can be visited in Lam Son, near the Lan Anh Hotel.
A wall of limestone karsts greets you as the Ho Chi Minh Road reaches Ngoc Lac, hinting at what lies beyond to the west, on the Limestone Loop and in Pu Luong Nature Reserve. There are lots of nhà nghỉ and hotels lining the road around Ngoc Lac if you need somewhere to stay. Thanh Hoa Province is also the home of the Dong Son civilization, a bronze age culture dating back nearly 3,000 years. The Dong Son centred around the Ma River, a mystical body of water snaking sluggishly through limestone outcrops, in whose caves the Dong Son lived. At Cam Thuy, there are great views of the Ma River from the bridge. This is also a good place to spend a night. Try Thanh Nhan Hotel (037 3280 555; rates from 250,000vnd a night), on the right just before crossing the bridge. Rooms are good and the hotel is set around a pleasant courtyard. If you prefer to be in town proper, there are some hotels and guesthouses lining Cam Thuy’s high-street, where there’s also plenty of food. For breakfast, try to find Ms Thai’s bánh cuốn shop (steamed rice flour rolls): it’s near the centre of the main street, opposite Phuong Spa and next to a big red shopfront for Tiem Vang Hai Ngoan.
Route: Cam Thuy – Cuc Phuong – Hanoi | Distance: 150km [MAP]
Leave Cam Thuy on the Ho Chi Minh Road heading north. Just after the bridge, Thanh Nha Ho is signposted to the right (due south-east). Thanh Nha Ho is an ancient citadel dating to the early 15th century. The citadel walls are imposing and in an attractive state of decay among farmland. It’s an interesting 25km side trip if you’re in need of some history and culture (read my guide to Ho Citadel here). While riding through Thanh Hoa Province, make sure to stop and pick up some nem chua Thanh Hóa. These are delicious pork salamis wrapped in banana leaves with garlic and chilli. They are sold in bunches of about a dozen by the roadside. Several places all over Vietnam specialize in nem chua but these, in my opinion, are the best.
Not ten minutes out of Cam Thuy, the Ho Chi Minh Road plunges into what appears to be the set of Jurassic Park. This is Cuc Phuong, declared Vietnam’s first national park by Ho Chi Minh himself, in 1962. Characterized by forested limestone cones, the Ho Chi Minh Road cuts straight through the park, following the course of the turquoise Buoi River, as it swerves between rocky peaks. Although the park entrance is some 50km to the east, you can get a good taste of Cuc Phuong by staying at Quang Duc Homestay (70,000vnd per person per night), on the left just after crossing the first bridge. Sleeping is on mattresses on the wooden floor under mosquito nets in a stilt house. The food is also excellent here and staff are hospitable. The only problem is that passing trucks during the night slightly spoil the ambience.
The homestay is near several swimming spots. The first is down the dirt road (soon to be paved) just beside the homestay. After a couple hundred metres there’s a weir where you can swim lengths or jump off rocks and branches into the water. A good 10-15km further up this road, there’s a makeshift sign for ‘Thác mây‘, Cloud Waterfall. Up a steep and slippery slope, these falls are a terraced cascade of gin-clear water, creating perfect bathing pools. It’s a special place and, if you come during the daytime on a weekday, you may have it to yourself.
Continuing north from Quang Duc Homestay, the Ho Chi Minh Road glides through the jungled hills of Cuc Phuong on an impressive elevated roadway. The procession of limestone hills continues on both sides of the road for a long time after passing through the park. To the east is Ninh Binh. Famous for its mysterious landscapes that have recently been used in Hollywood movies (such as Kong: Skull Island, which is to be released in 2017), Ninh Binh is connected to the Ho Chi Minh Road by several potholed back-roads. Although the scenery remains good, it’s blighted by many large brick and cement factories, which are destroying the landscape by quarrying deeper and deeper into the hills. There are also minor roadworks and rough patches, largely due to all the trucks that ply to and from the quarries and the factories. Settlements get larger, soot and dust hang in the air, and it’s not long before the inevitable march of trucks clog the road around the industrial suburbs of Hanoi. The last 50km to Xuan Mai and Hoa Lac can be a very nasty, dirty ride indeed.
There are plenty of nhà nghỉ guest houses by the road in Xuan Mai if, for some reason, you had to stay there. At Hoa Lac, the end of the Ho Chi Minh Road, turn right (due east) onto the Thang Long Expressway towards the capital. (Avoid taking Highway 13 from Xuan Mai to Hanoi, it’s nasty). The expressway is in excellent shape and, if you were feeling depressed by the slow crawl through the industrial outskirts, the sight of central Hanoi is certain to lift your spirits. The serene waters of Hoan Kiem Lake signifies the end of a memorable 2,000km road trip from south to north Vietnam. For great value flashpacker beds try Hanoi Impressive Hotel, where rooms with balconies sometimes go for $35; for chic, boutique mid-range rooms try Silk Path Hotel; or reward yourself with a night in a lake-view room at the new Apricot Hotel.
• Saigon to Hanoi: Suggested Routes: Five fantastic routes from south to north
• The Golden Loop: Central Vietnam: A classic ride from coast to mountains
• The Ha Giang Extreme North Loop: The most thrilling ride in Vietnam
• Expenses for a Road Trip in Vietnam: How to budget while on the road