First published February 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
There are many ways to ride from Saigon to Dalat; from Vietnam’s biggest city to its most popular mountain retreat. Direct but busy routes along highways, scenic but indirect routes on quiet coastal and mountain roads, meandering back-road routes through farmland, and remote but challenging dirt road routes through jungle: the list is long and the combinations are endless. Which to choose depends on your time-scale, the purpose of your trip, and your level of motorbiking experience. Personally, I loath taking the main highways (QL1A and QL20). But, if you want to reach Dalat quickly, without taking the horrible highways, there are several great alternative routes. Using a combination of brand new (but empty) roads and old (but paved) back-roads, these routes offer relatively direct, traffic-free, and scenic ways to ride from Saigon to Dalat.
SAIGON TO DALAT: THE BACK WAYS
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 380km/360km/310km
- Duration: 1-2 days
- Route: three alternative, more scenic, routes from Saigon to Dalat [MAP]
- Road Conditions: excellent new roads, older paved back-roads, rough patches
- Scenery: farmland, mountains, rivers, forest, highland towns & minority villages
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
In this guide I’ve outlined three ‘back ways’ from Saigon to Dalat. The main focus is to stay off busy roads and main highways as much as possible, while also being relatively direct and scenic ways to reach Dalat. In particular, I’ve concentrated on a 380km route (see the blue line on my map), but I’ve also included two variations of this route which are shorter: 360km (green line) and 310km (red line). These are all slightly longer than taking the main highway from Saigon to Dalat (300km), but the roads are in great condition (except for a couple of rough patches), the scenery is good, the traffic is light; it’s safer, easier, more rewarding, cleaner, healthier, and a lot more fun, than taking the highways. All the routes are rideable in a day if you start early, or just break the journey along the way with a night in either Cat Tien, Bao Loc, or Di Linh (at Juliet’s Villa). I’ve included recommendations of places to stay along the way in my description of the route below.
Saigon to Dalat: the ‘Back Ways’
Blue line: 38okm | Green line: 360km | Red line: 310km
View in a LARGER MAP
THE BACK WAYS TO DALAT:
Head southeast out of Saigon towards the Cat Lai ferry. The short river crossing over muddy, wide waters, takes you to Dong Nai Province: you’re already out of Saigon. Off the ferry, follow Road DT769 all the way along its meandering course, through industrial suburbs, to Long Thanh. It’s not a pretty route, but the road is wide, the surface is new, and the riding is easy. Wind through the urban sprawl of Long Thanh on Le Duan and Ha Ba Trung streets, until you rejoin DT769 heading east. This is another freshly laid section of smooth road curving through industrial zones and vast rubber tree plantations. Bear left onto DT25, which wiggles all the way to Dau Giay, a notoriously busy intersection of Highway QL1A (Vietnam’s main artery) and Highway QL20 (the main road to Dalat). Turn right (due east) onto Highway QL1A for a mercifully short and easy stretch to Long Khanh. Route Update: DT25 can be busy with heavy goods vehicles: an alternative and quieter route goes via DT770 and QL56 to Long Khanh (see the red line on my map). This route has recently been repaved and is now my preferred way to go.
Long Khanh is not a bad place to stop for a bite to eat and a coffee, before continuing east on the Xuan Loc-Long Khanh back-road. In excellent condition, this road follows the train line through lush farmland until it meets Road DT766. Turn left (due north) and follow this route (which turns into Road DT713) for 40km to just beyond Vo Xu. As you head further north on this road, the scenery gets greener, lusher, and brighter. Rice paddies glow in the sunshine, lotus lakes shimmer in the heat, eucalyptus trees line earthen dykes that divide the fields, and forested hills begin to appear on the horizon: the highlands are getting closer.
After Vo Xu, it’s decision time: For the shortest route to Dalat, continue straight ahead on DT713 (see the red line); for the middle distance route to Dalat, bear right onto DT717 (see the green line); or for longest but most scenic and rewarding route to Dalat – and the one that this guide continues to follow – turn left (due west) onto a small road, sometimes marked ‘Đường Đa Kai’ (see the blue line). There are a few potholes but, with the hills to the north and wide-open spaces to the south, it’s a pleasant ride across to meet Highway QL20, at Phu Lam. Turn Right onto the highway for a brief stint up to Ma Da Gui. A nice place to stop for a drink and a snack, Ma Da Gui signals your arrival in the Central Highlands. If the daylight is fading, or you’ve had enough of riding for one day, take Road 600A (just south of Ma Da Gui) to the village of Nam Cat Tien for a night in one of the good accommodation options at Cat Tien National Park. Otherwise, bear left (due northwest) at Ma Da Gui onto a new and, as yet, unnamed road towards Da Teh (also signposted to Cat Tien).
After passing through Da Teh, the road turns northwards and is marked DT725. The first half is a wonderfully smooth and curling section of brand new mountain road, winding up the hillsides, looking down over rivers, reservoirs, forests and farmland. Eventually, the road surface deteriorates and turns into a ‘normal’ road, but it’s still an easy ride: up several remote and twisting mountain passes, through bleak-looking minority villages, dusty coffee plantations, pine forests and deep, dark, dense jungle. There are a couple of local guest houses (nhà nghỉ) in Loc Bac if you need them. The road turns southeastwards and, after a while, passes by the politically and environmentally contentious bauxite (aluminium ore) mines near Bao Lam. The latter is a sizable town just north of Bao Loc. If you want to break the journey, head down to Bao Loc for a night at one of its comfortable and affordable hotels or guest houses, such as Ngoi Sao Lien Do Hotel, among others. Don’t miss the great coffee and mountain views at Photo & Bike Cafe, and a breakfast bowl of noodles at Phở Kết (376 Tran Phu Street). (Note: Bao Loc is also where the other two alternative routes meet – see the red and green lines on my map.) If you don’t need a break, continue east through Bao Lam on Le Duan Street and out the other side.
The road, unnamed once again, bears northwest from Bao Lam and gets narrower, passing through an area of intense coffee farming. Because the forests have been cleared to make way for all the coffee bushes, there are no large trees – it’s a bald landscape – which means that the views are vast but fairly featureless. The air gets cooler as the road climbs higher onto the Di Linh Plateau. Depending on the season, this region is thick with either the nutty, earthy smell of drying coffee beans, or the sweet, jasmine-like aroma of coffee blossoms. It’s an empty, windy, invigorating ride all the way to the crossroads with QL28. If you’re running out of daylight hours, turn right (due south) on QL28 to Di Linh and find a guest house for the night on the main street, (or venture a little further from town for the excellent Juliet’s Villa Resort). If time is not an issue, continue straight over the crossroads, heading east.
The first section of this road (unnamed, once again) is superb. There are several reasons for this, but first among them is the sheer riding pleasure. The asphalt is newly laid; treacle black and perfectly smooth. It’s essentially a motorcycle course in the mountains: a blend of long straights, hairpin bends, and meandering chicanes. The scenery is big: impressive for its scale and scope, if not for its natural beauty. Coffee bushes dominate the scene: it’s easy to see how Vietnam has become, in just over a generation, the second largest producer and exporter of coffee in the world. The road snakes off into the distance, up and down mountains, through valleys, bisecting the endless coffee plantations that appear to stretch westwards all the way to the Cambodian border. The tarmac bends and curls, and climbs and descends over the big, barren landscape, like a gigantic, black serpent, wriggling across the Central Highlands. After a while, the new road ends and the condition of the second half of the route, up to the junction with QL27 at Lam Ha, is only OK, so watch out for some potholes.
At Lam Ha, turn right (due east) onto Road QL27 and follow it for a few minutes before turning left (due north) onto an unmarked road towards Ta Nung Village. The Central Highlands is famous for its agricultural produce, so it’s no surprise that the landscape here is heavily farmed. It’s fun to try to identify as many crops as you can as you ride through this region: fruits, vegetables, and flowers of all varieties – some familiar, some strange and exotic – grow in abundance. Don’t forget to stop for a quick look at Elephant Waterfall, on your left, before reaching Ta Nung Village.
After Ta Nung, the road (newly resurfaced, once again) corkscrews up a cold but beautiful pass, ending in the pine trees and flower gardens of suburban Dalat. Bear right (due east) at the top onto Cam Ly Street, which then turns into Hoang Van Thu Street, taking you into Dalat city centre. My picks for places to stay in Dalat are: Budget: La Nha Homestay (a great new budget option in a refurbished French villa); Mid-range: the Du Parc Hotel (excellent mid-range value in an impressive French colonial building); High-end: Ana Mandara Villas (beautifully restored French villas on a hillside – by far the most atmospheric high-end lodgings in the Central Highlands). For many more budget options in Dalat click here; for more mid-range options click here; and for more high-end choices click here. (Please note: you can support my website by booking your hotels through the previous links: see below for details.)
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