First published February 2021 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Motocamping (‘motorbike-camping’) is one of the most rewarding and deeply satisfying travel experiences I’ve had in over a decade of travelling in Vietnam. Motocamping in Vietnam is thrilling, challenging, fulfilling, and still a fairly niche activity as not many travellers do it yet. You’ll see landscapes and natural settings, encounter people and settlements – a whole side of Vietnam – that are far off the beaten path and in most cases far more appealing, beautiful and fascinating than any place you might find on the usual must-see bucket lists. But the success and enjoyment of a motocamping trip in Vietnam depends largely on how prepared you are: this means bringing the right equipment and supplies, choosing the right locations and, crucially, the right time of year. In southern Vietnam, including the Central Highlands, the right time of year is the dry season, lasting from roughly November through April. The potential for motocamping in the south-central provinces during the dry season is limitless: all you need is some careful preparation and a sense of adventure. If you’re well-prepared, you can be almost entirely self-sufficient for many days.
GUIDE: MOTO-CAMPING IN SOUTH-CENTRAL VIETNAM
On this page I’ve written an introductory guide to motocamping in south-central Vietnam during the dry season. I’ve based this guide on eight specific locations across five provinces where I’ve camped over the years. Each location is marked on my map and I’ve written a brief description of every place followed by a collection of images from each site. In addition, I’ve included a general introduction to motocamping in Vietnam, a check-list of things to bring, and a summary of some potential hazards. Bear in mind that, apart from the locations outlined on this page, there are dozens of other great motocamping sites just waiting to be found by anyone with two wheels, a tent, and the will to do it. (For more of my camping guides, see the Related Posts.)
1. Da Nhim Pine Forests
2. Khanh Vinh Tributaries
3. Cho Mo River
4. Cai River Tributaries
5. Dalat Pine Forests
6. La Nga River & Jungle
7. Cai River Valley
8. Dong Nai River Valley
8 Locations for Motocamping in South-Central Vietnam in the Dry Season
View in a LARGER MAP
About Motocamping in Vietnam:
There’s a real thrill to motocamping: something about being outside in the big Vietnamese landscape for days, having your own means of transportation, finding your own campsites, setting up your own accommodation, preparing your own food, bathing in rivers, being self-sufficient and living entirely outdoors. Motocamping is also relatively challenging and engaging: it requires thought and preparation, a bit of determination and exploration. Motocamping is a genuine adventure and perfectly encapsulates the spirit of independent travel.
The southern dry season offers the ideal camping conditions: warm, sun-filled days, cool (sometimes cold), star-filled nights. And south-central Vietnam is the ideal camping landscape: mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, forests and jungles, farmland and plantations, back-roads and dirt tracks. It’s a wonderland of potential for motocamping. In particular the provinces of Lam Dong, Khanh Hoa, Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan and Dak Nong.
Each year I look forward to the dry season months, when I can ride off with my tent and camp without having to worry about stormy weather or treacherous, muddy road conditions. The dry season feels like a benevolent time of year: a time when everything looks its best and nature appears unthreatening, safe, and warm.
If you haven’t camped much before in Vietnam, chances are you won’t get it quite right the first time. But by putting some time and effort into planning your motocamping trip before you leave, there’s a much better chance of having a positive experience. Motocamping solo or with friends is equally rewarding.
Once you’ve invested in some basic equipment, motocamping is also a cheap way to travel. On a recent trip I was especially well-prepared and hardly spent anything. Each day I filled my tank with gas, bought a big bottle of water, and stopped by the roadside for a local rice lunch (cơm bình dân), but other than that I didn’t need anything more than what I’d brought with me on my motorbike for a week. Over the course of the trip I spent roughly 140,000vnd ($6) per day.
The ultimate goal is to find a campsite which has a great view but is also close to fresh water. Hunting for a site such as this can become an obsession: even when you find a suitable site, there’s always a chance, you think, that they’ll be an even better one around the next corner. In some cases, you might follow your ‘camping instincts’ to find the perfect site; other times, you can study Google’s satellite maps: zoom in to find tempting looking rivers with narrow dirt tracks following their course deep into the jungles and forests. The key is to get further and further off the main roads: highways turn into paved back-roads, concrete lanes to dirt roads, rocky tracks to narrow goat paths. The latter is where you’ll find the best, most undisturbed natural settings: no litter, no people, no traffic, no light pollution, no artificial sounds. In places such as this, the night sky is either a blanket of stars or illuminated by the moon; the only sounds are natural: water, wind, trees, birds, insects, animals. I find it difficult to do the experience justice in words – I hope that the images on this page will do most of the talking for me, and sufficiently convey the experience.
Below is a brief (far from exhaustive) equipment check-list for a motocamping trip in south-central Vietnam during the dry season. As mentioned, the success of your motocamping trip hinges to a large extent on how prepared you are. I haven’t covered everything here – just some essentials and optional extras which I personally like having with me. As you make more motocamping trips, you’ll get the equipment down to an art. It certainly isn’t necessary to have all the modern, trendy camping gadgets and accessories in order to have a highly successful motocamping trip. In fact, to some extent, you can end up making yourself too comfortable if you bring too much equipment – and then it doesn’t really feel like camping anymore. However, having the basics does make all the difference – being too cold at night, for example, is pretty miserable. The following list is rambling and in no particular order (the annotated picture below might also be helpful):
Check-List: Tent or camping hammock (I much prefer the former, but both available to buy in Vietnam; try the FanFan stores in several cities), cell phone, Viettel SIM card and data (best coverage in the boonies), pre-load Google Maps satellite view of potential camping areas before departure, USB power-bank, flashlight (with extra batteries or a USB-charged flashlight is a good option), money stashed in three different places (in your luggage, your motorbike, and about your person), a camp stove, firelighters (cồn khô in Vietnamese; available in most local countryside stores), a couple of cigarette lighters, food and snacks (dried and tinned food is easiest, but you can be surprisingly creative when it comes to camping food), big bottles of water (5-6 litre bottles are available in most stores), a water filter (optional), thermos flasks (for storing boiled water), coffee and tea, local liquor (rượu), warm clothes, socks (underrated camping asset – great for walking around your campsite without getting sandy or dirty feet), a mat for sitting on, motorbike check-up prior to departure (you don’t want to breakdown in the middle of nowhere; punctures are common – I use tubeless tyres that have served me well for years), reading material or a Kindle, long-burning candles (comforting at night, safer, less effort and less attention-drawing than a campfire), mosquito coil and bug spray, guitar/ukulele (optional), cutlery, a good knife, waterproof rain-suit (just in case), sunscreen, toothbrush, towel, GIVI box or bungees for securing your luggage, inflatable sleeping mat or yoga mat (makes all the difference if you actually want to get any sleep), sleeping bag, wet ‘baby’ tissues (great for cleaning utensils), hand sanitizer, passport, lots of common sense.
Locations & Images:
Below I’ve written brief descriptions of eight different potential sites for motocamping in the south-central provinces. Each description is followed by images of the location and they are all marked on my map. Remember that these eight areas are just a handful of examples of where I’ve camped: there are many more motocamping sites out there waiting to be found. Click a location from the list below to read more and see the images:
1. Da Nhim Pine Forests
2. Khanh Vinh Tributaries
3. Cho Mo River
4. Cai River Tributaries
5. Dalat Pine Forests
6. La Nga River & Jungle
7. Cai River Valley
8. Dong Nai River Valley
1. Da Nhim Pine Forests [MAP]
About 40km northeast of Dalat, just beyond the Da Nhim reservoir, pine forests blanket the mountains and steep valleys of a scenic region bordering three national parks and nature reserves (Bidoup Nui Ba, Phuoc Binh, and Hon Ba) near the intersection of three provinces (Lam Dong, Khanh Hoa, and Dak Lak). At 1,500m above sea-level, this area is firmly in the Central Highlands. Days are warm but nights are cold. Several clear, cold streams and rivers roll through the forests, the banks of which offer some excellent potential campsites. From the main road (QL27C), dozens of dirt tracks and narrow pathways lead deep into the pine forests and along the rivers. Spend a couple of hours exploring these until you find the ‘perfect’ site. Pine forests are ideal for camping and the highland light (particularly in the early mornings) is astonishingly clear. At night, the stars are the best I’ve seen in Vietnam.
2. Khanh Vinh Tributaries [MAP]
At the bottom of the long and spectacular Khanh Le Pass on Road QL27C, several rivers converge, gushing down from the highland forests and filling the gentle valleys of the foothills in Khanh Hoa Province. From the dusty village of Lien Sang, paved lanes head north of the main road, leading along the banks of several small rivers to isolated hamlets. Passing over narrow suspension bridges and across fords over rivers, the lanes turn to dirt tracks and eventually into sandy paths as they lead further and further upstream, away from the plantations, farms, settlements, and orchards and into the jungle. The rivers are clear, fresh, and cool with some wonderful sandy beaches that make great campsites. The high peaks of the Central Highlands loom over the valleys. At night, there’s not a single electric light visible in the dark landscape. It’s hard to believe that the sophisticated, high-rise beach town of Nha Trang is just over an hour away by road.
3. Cho Mo River [MAP]
In the middle of Ninh Thuan Province, between Phan Rang and Cam Ranh, the Cho Mo River flows through a dry, arid landscape before being captured in one of many large reservoirs in the region. Despite the aridity, the hills surrounding the valley are cloaked in jungle and the flat river basin is dotted with ancient tamarind and mango trees. A new, concrete-slab road passes through the valley, leading from QL27B to the outskirts of Phan Rang city. This area is sparsely populated and one of the driest, sunniest regions of Vietnam (hence the multitude of solar farms in the area). Small, stony pathways lead off the concrete road, across the arid landscape, to the boulder-strewn banks of the river. Here there are some inviting grassy meadows near the shaded river which make good campgrounds.
4. Cai River Tributaries [MAP]
West of Phan Rang and Road QL27, an empty blade of new asphalt charges even further west towards the remote village of Ma Noi in the foothills of the Central Highlands, near the borders of Ninh Thuan and Lam Dong provinces. The paved road ends at the village and turns to dirt as it continues west, echoing the course of a pretty river valley and leading deep into the mountains. The landscape here is an idyllic mix of farmland and forests. Small pathways lead through cashew plantations to the riverbanks, where camping opportunities are aplenty.
5. Dalat Pine Forests [MAP]
North of Dalat, pine forests stretch as far as the eye can see. A few good, paved roads take you to the general region and then dozens of dirt tracks lead deep into the forests, over the hills, and into the valleys. There are hundreds of camping opportunities in this area and you could spend multiple days sleeping out under the pines. The soft, dry ground carpeted with pine needles is great for sleeping on and the forests are very attractive indeed, especially in the early mornings when cloud and mist often hang in the valleys. I’ve written in detail about camping in the pine forests of Dalat in this guide.
6. La Nga River & Jungle [MAP]
Flowing through a series of tight, forested valleys, and meandering across flat agricultural plains, the La Nga River can be easily accessed at a specific point on Road QL55, between Lagi on the coast and Bao Loc in the highlands. From a bridge across the river, dirt roads lead along both banks. Follow these upstream through fruit orchards and jungle and you’ll find some good campgrounds. The river is swimmable, but you need to be careful as the water flow is regulated by a dam upstream. I’ve written in detail about camping on the La Nga River in this guide.
7. Cai River Valley [MAP]
A silver seam of glistening water, the Cai River meanders through a beautiful valley in the heart of Ninh Thuan Province, skirting the edges of Phuoc Binh National Park. Road DT656 follows the river’s course for much of its length. Even from the road it’s easy to spot potential campsites, but the best sites are on the sandy banks accessed via dirt paths. Camping on the Cai River is wonderful, but it may not be possible for that much longer, because a new dam will soon open downstream which will flood the valley upstream, covering the sandy banks that are currently perfect campgrounds. I’ve written in more detail about the Cai River Valley in this guide.
8. Dong Nai River Valley [MAP]
South of Gia Nghia in the Western Highlands, a good paved road leads west off QL28 and into the lush valley of the Dong Nai River. One of Vietnam’s major waterways, the Dong Nai River at this stage in its course is surrounded by mountains and jungle. Some dirt paths lead off the road and into plantations and forests. After a bit of exploring you can find a campsite on a high ridge with a good view. Early mornings are magical here: a mist fills the bowl created by the encircling mountains, hanging above the forest so that only the tallest trees break the grey veil of vapour; birdsong fills the morning air and the canopy shimmers and shakes with avian activity. This is a good area to explore while on the Dak Nong Geopark Loop.
Warnings & Hazards:
Motocamping is a lot of fun, but there are several precautions to take and potential hazards to be aware of. Motocamping is still quite a niche activity in Vietnam and anyone who decides to try it should attempt to do so as responsibly as possible. Below are few things to be aware of when motocamping in Vietnam. Click an item from the list to read more:
- Rivers & Dams
- Trash & the Environment
- Personal Safety & Possessions
- Animals & Wildlife
- People & Authorities
- Riding Off-Road
Fires: It should go without saying that if you make a campfire you need to be extremely careful, especially in the dry season, when everything is crisp, brittle and easy to ignite. At this time of year, the forests are very arid and fire can spread quickly and easily. Be sensible: if you make a campfire, keep it small and under control, and don’t take anything for granted.
Rivers & Dams: In Vietnam, almost every river of any size is dammed at some point along its course – indeed, often at multiple points. This means that the water flow of many rivers is regulated by dams upstream. If this is the case, the water level will change dramatically whenever the sluices of the dam are opened and closed. As a result, you must be extremely careful when choosing a campsite next to water and when bathing in rivers. Make sure you pitch your tent above the high water mark, not on the beach, because the latter may be flooded under a metre of water if the sluices are opened upstream. Likewise, when swimming in rivers be careful of a sudden change in flow and volume if the dams open their gates. What’s more, if you’re camping in the rainy season (May-November in south-central Vietnam), heavy rainfall upstream will swell the rivers considerably downstream, often resulting in dangerous flash floods.
Trash & the Environment: Sadly, litter is a huge problem in the Vietnamese countryside, especially ‘casual items’, such as instant noodle packages, soft drink cans, water bottles, candy wrappers, and little sachets of shampoo. Trash is not only discarded by people living locally but also by travelling visitors: indeed, some of the worst-affected areas in Vietnam are the most-popular tourist destinations, including popular camping spots. Set an example by making sure you leave your campsite spotless. Try to limit the amount of single-use plastic you consume while camping by bringing along items such as flasks, reusable food containers, and a water filter. Any litter you do generate, tie up in a bag and dispose of properly in the nearest town the next day. (I’ve written more about reusable travel items on this page.) When going to the toilet outside, dig a little hole in the ground and cover it up again.
Personal Safety & Possessions: Vietnam is generally a very safe country in which to travel. But it’s still wise to be careful with your most valuable possessions. At night, lock the wheel of your motorbike and keep it close to your tent. I also leave my bike facing in the direction of ‘escape’, if for some reason I need to make a quick exit during the night (bad weather, perhaps, or some unforeseen circumstance). When you go to sleep, make sure you have all of your most important and valuable possessions with you inside the tent, such as money, passport, phone etc. I also keep my knife at arm’s reach in the tent at night. UXO (unexploded ordnance) leftover from the wars of the last century is still a danger in Vietnam. Use your common sense: don’t forge a path into untrodden jungle, don’t dig deep holes in the ground, and don’t touch any metallic object you see in the earth.
Animals & Wildlife: Most of the big animals and predators that used to roam this region – tigers, white rhino, elephants, black bears – are now long gone: hunted and poached to near extinction. Nonetheless, nighttime can still be a scary and sobering experience: the darkness belongs to animals, not humans. You get a real sense of this as you lie in your tent, listening to the chorus of animals and insects outside in the big, black landscape. Don’t leave food outside your tent at night: clean your utensils, stash your food in a container, and tie up your litter in a bag. Snakes and mosquitoes are probably the most dangerous animals you’re likely to encounter, neither of which like fire. Snakes, apparently, don’t like heavy footfall and are unlikely to seek out a place of human activity. (I’ve seen many snakes in Vietnam, but none when I’ve camped.) For mosquitoes, burn a coil throughout the evening and night, and bring bug spray if you need it. In the night, there are occasional howlings, animal calls, and rustling in the trees and brush. It takes some getting used to, but after a few camping trips, these nighttime sounds become a comfort rather than a concern.
People & Authorities: I’ve camped dozens of times all over Vietnam: I’ve never been told not to camp and I’ve never had a problem with people or local authorities. However, as a general rule, try not to draw attention to yourself: wild camping is still quite unusual in Vietnam, so anyone who sees a traveller (especially a foreign one) setting up their tent in the middle of nowhere will naturally be curious or even, in some cases, suspicious. Try to be as inconspicuous as possible: it’s best to make sure no one sees you setting up camp and that you aren’t visible from any road, lane or pathway. This is because you don’t want to attract the curiosity of any passersby. If you do encounter anybody, the right thing to do is to ask permission to camp: in almost every situation in my experience, people will be happy to let you (albeit confused as to why you’d want to). And, obviously, pay attention to your surroundings: make sure you’re not camping on someone’s farmland or close to a military post or a national border.
Riding Off-Road: In order to find the best possible motocamping spots, it will almost certainly be necessary to ride off-road for some distance. Paved back-roads turn into pot-holed lanes, dirt roads into rocky goat paths. Riding off-road can be tough, slow and dangerous, especially if, like me, your motorbike wasn’t designed for such use. However, with care and patience even an old automatic like my motorbike can do it. Ride slowly and carefully, because punctures and falls are highly likely if you ride recklessly off-road. Also, riding on dirt roads is much easier in the dry season: the same roads when wet can be extremely difficult and treacherous.
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 enjoy motocamping & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here
A great guide, thanks! Having been hassled by local police (Lam Dong, too close to a road, and soon after the pandemic hit) for not registering our location, I second the “off the beaten path; down a goat track” camping locations. If you do get a visit from the police, be courteous, plead ignorance, and promise to leave at first light if they want you gone now. Our site was a treacherous decent to the main road, so we managed to convince them it was too dangerous in the dark. An officer even showed up at 6:30 a.m. to make sure we were leaving.
Thanks. Yes, I think the general rule of thumb is to try to be as inconspicuous (and responsible, of course) as possible, and if you encounter anybody at all (whether authorities or locals) be polite and ask permission to camp.
On every occasion that I’ve asked to camp I have been allowed. If not, then no big deal, just pack up and leave.
I hope you’re doing well,