If you’re looking for a road trip within reach of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) that takes you to beaches and mountains, but stays off busy main roads; this is it. The beach retreat of Mũi Né and the mountain town of Dalat are both popular tourist destinations, connected to Saigon by busy, dirty and unpleasant highways. But, both Mũi Né and Dalat can also be accessed on quiet, scenic back-roads, passing along empty stretches of coastline and up lofty mountain passes. By staying on these back-roads it’s possible to make a loop from Saigon to Mũi Né, up to Dalat, and back down along the coast to Saigon. This route is 750km and it’s the perfect antidote to the noise, pollution and endless concrete of Saigon. I call it the ‘Saigon Escape Loop’, and below is my motorbike guide.
SAIGON ESCAPE LOOP: MOTORBIKE GUIDE
I’ve written this motorbike guide in 4 sections; each one corresponding to a day on the road. However, if you have time, it’s much better to spend 5 days to a week on this route. I’ve included my favourite places to stop, sleep and eat in this guide. (A more detailed account of Section 1 can be found in my article ‘The Ocean Road’).
SECTION 1: Saigon to Mũi Né: 220km [MAP]
The first couple hours of any road trip from Saigon are rather busy and dirty. However, you can avoid the horrible Highway 1 out of the city by taking the ‘Back Road’ instead, via the Cát Lái ferry. This is shorter in both time and distance. (For detailed directions for the ‘Back Road’ from Saigon click HERE).
The ‘Back Road’ ends when it meets Highway 51. Turn right (south) towards Bà Rịa Town (40km). After Bà Rịa turn onto Road 44B, through a gentle landscape of rice fields and rocks, and make your way to Lộc An. This is the beginning of a long stretch of coastal road that goes all the way to Mũi Né. I call it the ‘Ocean Road’.
It takes 2-3 hours to reach Lộc An from Saigon, and this is the point at which you feel you’ve finally arrived in rural Vietnam: gone are the traffic, dust and industrial estates of the last couple hours; ahead of you lie beaches, forests and mountains.
The road winds through dense mangrove and meandering muddy rivers before passing the discreet entrance to one of the classiest resorts in the area, Hồ Tràm Beach Resort & Spa (www.hotramresort.com). Stop here for a coffee at the beach bar, or, if you’ve had enough driving for one day, stay the night in one of the luxurious yet tasteful thatched bungalows here.
For cheaper, guesthouse accommodation head to Hồ Tràm crossroads. There’s also a superb, cheap and informal seafood market/restaurant here, where you can dine on a kilo of grilled oysters for 50,000VNĐ ($2.50). For more details about this restaurant and the surrounding guesthouses click HERE.
As the road continues towards Hồ Cốc beach you’ll see the new, brash Grand Casino & Resort (www.thegrandhotramstrip.com). This is the first development of what will become a string of high-end, extravagant gambling complexes in the style of Las Vegas and Macau, which, for better or worse, will transform this area.
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A couple minutes from The Grand, at the Hồ Cốc crossroads, is the Vên Vên Hotel (www.venvenhotel.com). Set in the shade of big tropical trees, the restaurant here is perfect for a lunch stop. Try the grilled tamarind shrimp and steamed mustard leaf with ginger. (For more details about Vên Vên Hotel & Restaurant click HERE).
After Hồ Cốc the road hugs the coast: on one side is dense forest, on the other a long, empty beach dotted with wandering cattle.
Take a right at the intersection with Highway 55, heading towards the fishing town of Lagi (25km). There’s a good beach just a few minutes from town which is slowly seeing more development. Stop for a drink and a swim (or stay the night) at Ba Thật Resort (www.bathatresort.com). I’ve always had a soft spot for this bustling little seaside town. Although the town itself isn’t particularly pretty, it’s surrounded by rice fields and beaches, and there’s a huge fleet of wooden boats that squeeze into the harbour during the day. In the evenings there’s a cool, salty breeze that seems to cleanse the town of the day’s fierce heat. Good street food is available on the high-street, and there’s an unusual, youthful buzz for such a small place. If you’re looking for a ‘genuine’ Vietnamese beach that’s not on the tourist trail, Lagi fits the bill nicely. (If you decide to stay the night in Lagi, don’t miss the best breakfast in town: click HERE for details)
The stretch of road from Lagi to Kê Gà Hamlet (30km) goes through the kind of rural Vietnam that most travellers don’t see. The road narrows and potholes puncture the surface. The landscape isn’t so much beautiful as it is fascinating. All around are crops and smells that are typical of the area: bright pink dragon fruit, white salt flats, luminous rice fields, mango trees, papaya, ponds of lotus flowers, coconut palms, cashew trees, wooden trestles in the sun laden with drying fish, and ox-drawn carts full of hay. Life seems to move at a different pace here; it feels a long way from the rapidly growing, industrializing cities.
Eventually, the road widens again just before reaching Kê Gà hamlet. This area is receiving a trickle of tourists these days, who make a day trip down from Mũi Né to visit the French-built Kê Gà Lighthouse. The lighthouse (constructed in 1899) is on a small island just a few hundred metres from Kê Gà beach. You can take a small boat and climb to the top of the lighthouse for amazing views back over the beaches and ocean. The boat ride is 200,000VNĐ ($10) for up to 4 passengers, and 50,000VNĐ ($2.50) for each additional passenger after that. Many informal ‘boat operators’ offer the trip, but the best option is Sóng Biển Café (0942 336 316), which is right on the seafront, down a sandy road at Kê Gà hamlet. Even if you don’t take the boat trip, Sóng Biển Café is a good spot for a coffee with views towards the lighthouse island.
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The next 30km from Kê Gà to Phan Thiết is a beautiful drive along the coast. This area is fast becoming a southern extension of the resort-studded Mũi Né: each time I pass through there are new beachfront developments here. For the time being, it’s still very quiet and relaxed along this beach. Almost all the accommodation here is tasteful and mid to high-end. If you want to stay in a comfortable resort away from the tourists of Mũi Né, any of these resorts will do.
The road climbs up a steep incline (known, for some reason, as ‘Cambodia Slope’) and heads inland before dropping down into Phan Thiết, a large seaside town just 10km south of Mũi Né. I like Phan Thiết – it’s full of good street food and has a lively, local atmosphere – and I often choose to stay here rather than Mũi Né. However, most people prefer to weave their way through Phan Thiết and continue to the famous beach retreat of Mũi Né. Despite being one of the most popular beach destinations in Vietnam, Mũi Né still retains a calm, laid-back atmosphere. For cheap digs on the beach, head to Hồng Di (70 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street). For style, taste and comfort try the ever-popular Mia Resort (formerly the ‘Sailing Club Resort’): www.miamuine.com. The latter also serves excellent western food; for local food head to the Bờ Kè area, where informal restaurants set up each night selling fresh seafood by the ocean.
SECTION 2: Mũi Né to Dalat: 150km [MAP]
The ride from Mũi Né to Dalat is beautiful and quiet: it takes you from sea level to 1,500 feet; from empty beaches to forested mountains; from the scorching coastal plains to the cool, damp highlands. A lot of changes take place in just 150km of driving.
Take the seafront road in Mũi Né due east, past all the resorts and round the peninsular, towards the famous red and white sand dunes. This is a well-made, empty and spectacular road cutting along two long, undeveloped beaches. After passing the white sand dunes on your right the landscape becomes increasingly desert-like. Only one crop seems to grow here: cassava plantations stretch as far as you can see.
After an hour (50km) the road drops down to meet Highway 1, at which point there’s an enticing view north towards the foothills of the Annamite Mountains, which is where you’re headed. Turn right onto Highway 1 and immediately left onto the Lương Sơn-Đại Ninh road.
Suddenly, the scenery becomes lusher, and hills cloaked in eucalyptus trees grow up around the road, their scent perfuming the air. As you drive deeper along the plains, the mountains loom larger, clouds often bubbling up behind them. You can even feel the fresh mountain air coming down from the highlands, mingling with the heat of the plains, and cooling the oppressive temperature slightly. It’s no surprise that the weather can change very rapidly on this route, especially after the road snakes around the Đại Ninh reservoir and very abruptly starts its meandering ascent up to the highlands. The switchbacks on the Đại Ninh Pass are sharp and steep. It doesn’t take long before immense views open up: looking back south you can see the burning plains, crisscrossed by rivers winding all the way to the desolate sand dunes and hot beaches of Mũi Né; to the east and west the jungled ridges of the Annamite Mountains rise diagonally, before disappearing into clouds.
The moment of transition between hot, coastal lowlands and cool highlands never fails to excite me. Visually and climatically the changes are obvious: beaches to mountains; rice fields to forests; hot to cool. But it’s the smell more than anything else that announces your arrival in the central highlands: damp earth, drying coffee, wood smoke, pine needles, coffee blossom, and tea leaves. And then there’s the light; luminous and sharp with the distinctive purple ‘Annamite tinge’. It’s enough to inspire the romantic in anyone, even in the mist and rain; but only if you avoid the dust and trucks of the main Dalat highway, by staying on these back-roads.
Once at the top of the pass the road heads over a heavily cultivated plateau, where you’ll see the first coffee plantations on this route. Sadly, at Ninh Gia there’s no choice but to join Highway 20, the main road to Dalat. Although it’s only 40km, I hate this stretch of road: it can get busy with trucks carrying heavy loads of agricultural goods, tourist coaches and minivans driving like lunatics, and parts of the road are in awful condition. It’s dangerous and unpleasant, but it only takes an hour before you hit the Prenn Pass, which leads 10km up through pine forests to Dalat.
The charms of Dalat may not at first seem obvious, especially to a traveller from Western Europe looking to escape to some tropical sunshine. But, it’s the cooler climate here that’s made Dalat famous: the colonial French used to come to Dalat to escape the heat of the lowlands, and today, Vietnamese tourists and foreign expats do the same. To ‘get’ Dalat you have to ‘get’ this extreme change and the affect it has on you: it seems extraordinary that just two hours ago you were applying sunscreen to your red forearms, but now you’re shivering in your jeans and jacket. Dalat is not a particularly pretty city or one with many worthy sights, so it’s precisely this ‘air’ that is the main ‘attraction’. Sleeping without air-con or a fan, wearing clothes other than T-shirts and shorts, not constantly perspiring, eating hot food to keep warm, drinking hot coffee instead of iced coffee, hot artichoke tea instead of cold jasmine tea, feeling cosy – these are all ‘highlights’ of Dalat. Strange as it may seem, these are the main reasons (or mine, at least) for visiting Dalat, and, having driven up from the baking coastal lowlands, you should be in a good position to appreciate the cool Dalat air.
Dalat is full of hotels: for a cheaper room try Phương Vy (Lô 4, Phạm Ngũ Lão Street: 063 6539 739). For those who want to experience colonial luxury, the French villas at Anna Mandara (www.anamandara-resort.com) are among the best, most atmospheric luxury accommodations in Vietnam. Don’t miss nem nướng, a Dalat speciality of roll-your-own rice paper wraps: try the popular Bà Hùng Restaurant at D51-52 Hoàng Văn Thụ Street. The central highlands is the coffee belt of Vietnam; try Windmills Coffee Shop (www.facebook.com/Windmills.vn) for a young, ‘cutesy’ cup of Joe and cakes, or head to Bà Năm Café (13 Phan Bội Châu Street) for a classic, old-style local coffee house, where wise old men stoop over tiny glasses of hot coffee and tea throughout the day.
SECTION 3: Dalat to Phan Thiết: 180km [MAP]
The route from Dalat back down to the coast at Phan Thiết can be broken down into two very different halves. The first is the 80km drive southwest to Di Linh Town, on Highway 20, the main Dalat road. As I mentioned before, this is rather unpleasant due to traffic and road conditions. There are occasional glimpses of interesting highland landscape, but the entire area is so heavily cultivated that there’s very little forest left to see.
After a couple hours you’ll reach Di Linh, which is a nice enough town for a lunch stop and a taste of oolong tea – which grows locally – at the Tâm Châu Restaurant (521 Hùng Vương Street). Good, cheap rooms are available at Mai Khanh Guesthouse (530 Hùng Vương Street) if you arrive late and need a place to stay. There’s also a fantastic place to eat nem nướng that’s even better that what you get in Dalat: Nem Nướng My is at 896 Hùng Vương, Di Linh’s main street.
At a crossroads in Di Linh there’s a left (south) turn signposted to Phan Thiết: this is Road 28, the beginning of the second half of the ride back to the coast. From here to the sea it’s 100km of gorgeous, winding mountain road, with hardly any traffic.
The first section of this road goes through a lovely farmed landscape of coffee, tea and pine plantations. Terraced rice fields climb up the contours of the gentle valleys, the curving terraces echoing each other and fanning out, getting wider towards the valley floor, like ripples on the surface of still water. In the middle of this bucolic area there’s a new resort – far off the beaten path – which is well-worth stopping at for a night or two. Juliet’s Villa Resort (www.1Ajulietsvillaresort.com) is signposted to the right 10km after leaving Di Linh. It’s run by a friendly Vietnamese-Korean couple who have put a lot of time and care into this mini-resort. There’s a handful of villa-style rooms dotted around a pool in a beautifully landscaped garden. Prices are reasonable and they even have a private waterfall, with a walkway leading behind the cascade.
Not long after passing Juliet’s Villa Resort the road begins to climb up the jungled slopes of the Di Linh Plateau. Once at the top there are marvelous views, glimpsed through the trees, down into densely wooded valleys. The grim, very poor-looking village of Gia Bắc sits atop the crest of the last mountain, before the beginning of the descent to the lowlands and coastal plains. On a clear day you can see all the way to the East (South China) Sea as you glide through the hairpin bends, avoiding the arcing branches of bamboo, that appear to have broken free from the rest of the jungle.
It’s not until the bottom of this pass that you become aware of the dramatic change in temperature once more: the sun regains its sting, and a sticky humidity fills the air. The next 30km to Phan Thiết is flat and relatively unremarkable. When Road 28 hits Highway 1, you can choose whether to continue straight on to Phan Thiết and Mũi Né and spend the night there, or turn right towards the beaches around Kê Gà Lighthouse and Lagi (as mentioned in Section 1).
SECTION 4: The Beach to Saigon: 220km or less [MAP]
After a night or two by the beach, it’s just a matter of retracing the ‘Ocean Road’ and the ‘Back Road’ all the way back into Saigon. See Section 1 of this guide to remind yourself of the route, or have a look at my ‘Ocean Road’ article for more detailed information about the beaches, sights, and road south of Mũi Né to Saigon.
The weather is always unpredictable when you’re driving from the coast to the mountains. However, the peak dry season months from December to February is by far the best time to visit for both the beaches and the mountains. Most other times of year the weather will be a mixed bag: generally, the tropical downpours on the coast don’t last long enough to ruin your day, but the light rain in the mountains can be more persistent. However, there’s something atmospheric about the rain, mist and vapour hanging over the ridges and peaks in the central highlands.
Motorbike hire in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is fairly straight forward. The backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao has plenty of signs advertising ‘bikes for rent’. Most reputable in this area is Chi’s Café (www.chiscafe.com). Tucked down an alleyway, Chi has been renting bikes to expats for years. Saigon Scooter Rental (www.saigonscooterrental.com) has a good website which tells you everything you need to know about renting from them. The similarly named Saigon Scooter Centre (www.saigonscootercentre.com) is another well-established place to buy or rent a bike.
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