First published September 2022 | Words by Vietnam Coracle
Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.
Published in September, 2022, I contributed an article entitled ‘Motorbiking Vietnam’ for the new Lonely Planet Experience Vietnam book. My brief was to explore the history and practicality of a motorbike road trip in Vietnam. Using the famous Hai Van Pass as the hook, I was to outline the rewards and risks of motorbiking Vietnam, and which routes riders might want to consider.
Like millions of independent travellers of my generation, I grew up reading and using Lonely Planet guides for my travels all over the world. From my mid-teens to my late twenties, it was difficult to conceive of undertaking a solo adventure to a foreign country without a Lonely Planet guide in my backpack. Travel publishing has changed enormously since the rise of the Internet, and Lonely Planet – like the rest of the industry – is having to adapt. The Experience series in one way in which they are doing so. Thank you to my friend, Josh Zukas (a major contributor to the book), for suggesting to Lonely Planet that I write this article. And thanks to my commissioning editor, Sandie Kestell, and editor, Brana Vladisavljevic, for their constructive feedback.
LONELY PLANET ARTICLE
The Joys, History & Practicality of Motorbiking Vietnam
Below is a photo of my ‘Motorbiking Vietnam’ article in the Lonely Planet Experience Vietnam book. Click the image and zoom in to read it. However, as the text in the photo may be too small or hard to read, I’ve also written the article in full beneath the photo. (Indeed, this is the original, unedited version of the article.) Despite the broad scope of my brief, I had a strict limit of 680 words. As such, I couldn’t possibly include everything I wanted, or get bogged down in detail, or mention all the resources I would have liked to. My own edit was brutal: I cut the article from 3,000 words to just 700. Ultimately, the aim is to inspire readers to take an independent motorbike road trip in Vietnam via evocative descriptions while also providing practical information and advice about routes, rental and safety. Above all, I’ve attempted to do the experience justice.
For links relating to roads, places and resources mentioned in the article, see Related Posts. Note that the images in the published article are not my own, nor are they ones I would have personally chosen to illustrate the text. You can buy the Lonely Planet Experience Vietnam book and the newest (2021) edition of the Lonely Planet Vietnam Guidebook at these links or in all good bookshops.
CREATE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Few travel experiences offer the same independence as a motorbike road trip. Free from the constraints of public transportation and tours, you’re the architect of your own itinerary. With planning, awareness of risks and attention to safety, motorbiking Vietnam will likely be your most memorable journey.
A Brief History
Since the 1990s, the motorbike has been the nation’s primary mode of transport. As international visitors increased toward the turn of the millennium, independent road trips gained popularity. In 2008, the profile of motorbiking Vietnam was boosted when BBC’s Top Gear filmed a road trip episode. Today, what was once the preserve of an intrepid few, has become an iconic travel highlight.
A self-drive road trip is an ‘open world’ adventure, allowing travellers the freedom to choose their own path, stop when and where they like, and explore any region. Riders enjoy unparalleled access to Vietnam’s landscapes and cities.
The ‘Golden Loop’
Traversing the rugged geological divide between Vietnam’s central cities, two roads run parallel at the nation’s narrow ‘waist’. Scenic and historic, both roads can be combined to form a round trip known as the ‘Golden Loop’.
Straddling the coast, the Hai Van Pass curls around a mountainous spur that’s served as a boundary of kingdoms, cultures and climate for centuries. “Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur?”, wrote Paul Theroux as he gazed from the pass in 1973. Thirty five years later, Jeremy Clarkson swept up the hairpin bends on an old Vespa, declaring it “one of the best coast roads in the world”. Many thousands followed in his tyre tracks. Today, the pass is the most popular ride in the country.
Inland, a thread of asphalt winds into the distance with such organic grace that it appears part of the natural landscape. ‘Ho Chi Minh Road’ is a name redolent of war, but for those who ride it, their lasting impression is of the majesty of nature. Jungles coat mountains like melted wax, rivers fill valleys like veins of cobalt, and limestone pillars rise like crenellated fortifications.
Bookending these roads, Danang, Hoi An and Hue are hubs for motorbike rental, offering convenient one-way pickup and drop-off. While the ‘Golden Loop’ is an ideal entry point for riders, other outstanding routes, such as Ha Giang, Phong Nha and the Truong Son Dong Road, beckon further afield.
Riding legally, responsibly and with insurance are minimum requirements. Common sense, respect for the risks, extra safety gear, acceptance of personal responsibility and a grasp of local driving culture are essential. In Vietnam, there’s a discrepancy between official road rules and the reality of driving practices. Before setting out, riders need an awareness of the rhythm, flow, speed, general conduct and hierarchies of priority on the nation’s roads.
Motorbike rental is sophisticated, efficient and reliable. Good companies maintain their motorbikes and provide quality safety equipment, mechanical support and assistance obtaining licenses. It’s in their interest to keep their motorbikes and customers safe and road legal.
Regardless of location, motorbiking has certain innate dangers. Travellers should only undertake a self-drive road trip if they’re prepared to accept the risks and responsibility.