INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Central Vietnam has got it all: temples, beaches, mountains, jungle, historic old cities, dynamic new cities, tropical islands, and delicious regional cuisine. Such is its appeal to travellers, that the area between Hue, Hoi An and My Son is often dubbed The Golden Triangle. Many people choose to travel by motorbike between Hoi An and Hue, via the scenic Hai Van Pass. The popularity of this route is largely thanks to the 2008 Top Gear Vietnam Special episode. But there is an extension of this road trip which takes the ride, quite literally, to another level. I call it The Golden Loop.
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Route: connecting Hoi An, Danang & Hue via Ho Chi Minh Road & Hai Van Pass [MAP]
- Total Distance: 440km
- Road Conditions: paved mountain roads, decent quality secondary roads, highways
- Terrain & Scenery: mountains, jungle, verdant valleys, cities, cultural & historical sites
ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:
- Section 1: Hoi An to Prao (via Thanh My): 120km
- Section 2: Prao to Hue (via A Luoi): 160km
- Section 3: Hue to Danang (via Hai Van Pass): 160km
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
You can start this road trip from any of the three main cities on the coast: Hoi An, Danang, Hue. It doesn’t matter which direction you ride the loop, but below I’ve written my guide going clockwise, starting in Hoi An. Motorbikes are available to rent from hotels and guesthouses for $7-10 per day, or from Rent a Bike Vietnam’s Danang office (4 An Thuong 16 Street). Because this road trip is a loop, you don’t need to worry about bike collection or return. The route is fairly easy to navigate, road conditions are good, and the scenery is fabulous. You can comfortably complete this loop in 2 days, but with 3 or 4 days you’ll have time to really soak it up. I’ve written this guide in 3 sections, each of which could (but certainly doesn’t need to) correspond to a day on the road. I’ve also included places to stay and eat. The best time of year to ride the Golden Loop is late spring/early summer.
The Golden Loop: Central Vietnam by Motorbike:
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Route: Hoi An to Prao (via Thanh My) | Distance: 120km [MAP]
Get an early start and weave your way out of the echoey, ancient streets of Hoi An at dawn. Hung Vuong Street rides atop flood dykes through glittering rice paddies, before leading to the non-descript town of Vinh Dien and across the roaring asphalt of Highway 1. Heading west on Highway 14B, it’s not long before the road is folded into the green valleys of Central Vietnam. The farmland here is always crisp and shimmering, as if a light spring shower had recently passed over it: these valleys are constantly fed by fresh water running off the Truong Son Mountains to the west. Buffalo work and wade in the wet fields. There’s a sense of timelessness to this landscape, underlined by the presence of the ancient Cham ruins of My Son, just a few kilometres south of here, in the shadow of the unmistakable Cat’s Tooth Mountain.
After a pleasant hour’s ride, Highway 14B meets the Ho Chi Minh Road at Thanh My. There are snacks, refreshments and a couple of guesthouses here should you need them. Bearing right (due northwest) on the Ho Chi Minh Road, the town of Thanh My is soon no more than a speck in the valley, as the road climbs sharply and dramatically into the mountains. Forested limestone ridges rear up, towering over deep crevices with sky-blue torrents at the bottom. There are very few buildings, people or vehicles: it’s difficult to believe that Danang, Vietnam’s fifth most populous city, is only 70km away. But this is by no means an undisturbed landscape: huge swathes of forest have been chopped and burned, and giant hydroelectric dams are being constructed on the mountain rivers. It’s very sobering to see the ‘development’ or ‘deterioration’ (depending on your view) of this area each time I pass through. Illegal logging is still a huge problem here, and the dams are attempting to keep up with the demand for power from Vietnam’s burgeoning population.
The second half of the 60km stretch from Thanh My to Prao is a helter-skelter of hairpin bends, curling up and down mountains that are so lush they appear to spray foliage over the road. This is an excellent riding road. After a dizzying descent, the small town of Prao appears in the middle of a tight valley. Tiny and remote, Prao offers a couple of decent guesthouses and a few food shacks. On the main road, just after passing the gas station, you’ll see Dung Thuy Rest House (051 03 898 636) and Huong Dao Rest House (051 03 898 264) right next door. Nhà Nghỉ Huyền Long (tel: 0510 6545 099) is a local guesthouse in a green building on the corner near the centre of town. Nearby, Quán Quỳnh Trang, on the main street, has excellent food in a rustic environment (if it’s open), but there are other quán cơm (rice eateries in the back streets too). I love the rough edge of this town, but I’ve also bumped into one or two drunk, xenophobic local men here, so it’s a good idea to keep your wits about you.
Stopping on the winding decent to Prao (photo by Samuel Mather Photography)
Route: Prao to Hue (via A Luoi) | Distance: 160km [MAP]
From Prao, the Ho Chi Minh Road follows a series of rivers along steep valleys. Eventually, the road leaves the valleys and heads up…..and up and up, in a series of looping switchbacks which curve around the contours until, when there’s no mountain left to climb, it glides along the highest ridge around. It’s an extraordinary ride and the views over unbroken jungle canopy are stunning. Even the road, when you look back at all the twists and turns, is a majestic sight: a Jackson Pollock in tarmac. The best thing about this 100km ride from Prao to A Luoi is that you have it all to yourself. You could spend the whole day on this section of road and count the number of other vehicles (or even people) on one hand.
This is a remote and pristine corner of Vietnam, right on the border with Laos. One gets the feeling, when looking out over the misty mountains blanketed in wet tropical foliage, that this is a special, somehow magical, place. Indeed, it is home to a semi-mythical creature: the sao la, or as it’s also known, Asian Unicorn. Only known to science since the 1990s, this elegant, deer-like animal, has yet to be seen live in the wild by any Westerner (trip cameras in the forest prove its exstence). But there are forestry cabins along this road for the conservation of the sao la, reminding you that, somewhere out there, the Asian Unicorn still wanders.
There’s a marvellous sense of nature, space and isolation up here: quiet, still and fresh. The only man-made structures are occasional wooden homes, remote military outposts and, of course, the Ho Chi Minh Road. Before starting its long decent to A Luoi, the road carves two tunnels under two rocky peaks, coming out the other side to wonderful views down over a flat, fertile, farmed valley. Once at the bottom, it’s a straight ride to A Luoi, where Nhà Nghỉ Thanh Quang (tel: 0543 878 362) is a good place for a night’s rest (it’s on the right side of the main high street as you come in to town). There are several places to eat on A Luoi’s main street, most offering pretty average fare.
A few kilometres before entering A Luoi, there’s a right turn (due east) signposted to Hue. This is Highway 49, which meanders down a mountain pass through a lovely landscape of fruit and spice trees – cinnamon, lemongrass, pineapple, mango, cashew, jackfruit – to the Perfume River Valley. This lush, peaceful valley is where the emperors of the Imperial Nguyen Dynasty were laid to rest, in elaborate tombs along the river banks. One of the most impressive is Emperor Minh Mang’s tomb, which is on the right, just before Highway 49 crosses the Perfume River. There’s superb accommodation in this area at The Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort: perfect after a couple of nights ‘roughing it’ in the mountains, and also ideally located if you want to do some more ‘tomb-hopping’ the next day.
If tombs aren’t your thing, then weave your way into the bustling streets of Hue City, where my favourite places for a night are: Jade Hotel (budget), Moonlight Hotel (mid-range), La Residence (luxury). Food in Hue is outstanding: try to hit the street food carts around the Dong Ba Market, and look out for cơm hến (rice with tiny clams cooked in lemongrass) and bún bò Huế (spicy, aromatic beef noodle soup), both of which are Hue specialities.
Route: Hue to Danang (via Hai Van Pass) | Distance: 160km [MAP]
Head north from the Imperial Palace in Hue to the Thuan An Peninsular. This long finger of land is essentially Hue’s beach. However, the 40km promontory is not all sand and sea; it’s also a cemetery. Anyone who rides along this stretch of road can’t fail to notice the astonishing amount (and variety) of tombs by the roadside. Vietnamese burial grounds are traditionally determined by the principles of phong thủy or feng shui: the two words literally mean ‘wind and water’, plenty of which you’ll find by the beach on Thuan An Peninsular. It’s an intriguing (if slow) ride down the promontory on Road 49B, until a new bridge crosses the mouth of Cau Hai Lagoon, the largest in Southeast Asia. On a clear day, this serene, almost ghostly, body of water is a wonderful sight. However, I’ve only ever had my camera with me on days like this:
Road 49B veers south, skirting the eastern edge of the lagoon, before hitting Highway 1 at Phu Loc. However, if the weather is good and the beauty of the lagoon has cast its spell on you, consider a night at Verdana Lagoon Resort: an isolated place with cabins jutting out into the lagoon: very romantic. Having avoided Highway 1 for the entire loop so far, it comes as something of a disappointed that the last 50km to Danang is all on this main artery. However, this is without doubt the most scenic section on the whole length of Vietnam’s busiest national highway. Dwarfed to the south and east by the mountains of Bach Ma National Park, the highway clings to a narrow ribbon of flat land next to the coast. At Lang Co, it crosses a beautiful lagoon, around which there are lots of ‘rest stops’ for a meal with a view (either of the lagoon or the ocean, depending on which side of the road you choose). There are also plenty of hotels and resorts in this area.
When there’s no more flat land left and the mountains meet the sea, the highway goes under them, creating Southeast Asia’s longest tunnel. But motorbikes aren’t allowed through the tunnel. And that’s a good thing because, instead, they must take the original route: the Hai Van Pass. Famous through the centuries as a difficult and dangerous pass that once divided kingdoms, today, the Hai Van Pass is one of Vietnam’s best-known ‘joy rides’. Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear team did wonders for motorcycle tourism in Vietnam when, in 2008, he declared this pass ‘one of the best coast roads [pause for effect] in the world.’ On a clear day, it’s hard to argue with him. However, as the name suggests (Hai Van means ‘ocean mist’) you may well find the incredible ocean views obscured by cloud. Either way, it’s a superb ride. Read my full guide to the Hai Van Pass HERE.
“One of the best coast roads in the world”: stopping to admire the view at the top of the Hai Van Pass
Dropping down from the Hai Van Pass, you’ll see Danang sprawling along the coast in the distance. Not long ago, Danang was considered a grim city, best avoided. But today, it’s no exaggeration to say, that Danang is one of the most exciting, up and coming, hip and happening cities in Vietnam. It’s in a fabulous natural position, with the curvaceous Bay of Danang to the north and Danang Municipal Beach (formerly known as China Beach) to the east; the Han River cutting a north-south line through the city; and the lush Son Tra Peninsular at its northern tip. The latter has recently been made accessible to motorbikes, thanks to a new road that spirals up and over this knobbly headland. Taking this road is a great way to end the Golden Loop. There are stupendous city and sea views from the top, and you can even celebrate with an expensive cocktail at the new, secluded, and extremely posh Intercontinental Resort here.
There are lots of good places to stay in Danang, including Sion Hotel (budget), Sun River Hotel (mid-range), and Novotel Han River (high-end). Look out for bún cá (a fiery fish noodle soup) and mì quảng (thick noodles in a shallow broth) while you’re in town. To complete the loop proper, take Vo Nguyen Giap Street along Danang’s municipal beach, past the rows of international resorts, casinos and golf courses, beyond the Marble Mountains, turn right after An Bang Beach and roll back into Hoi An. Massive competition means that accommodation here is among the best-value in Vietnam: I like Nhi Trung Hotel (budget), Pho Hoi Riverside Resort (mid-range), and Anantara Resort (high-end). Don’t forget to try a bowl of cao lầu (thick, doughy, rough-textured noodles with pork) while in Hoi An, although it’s best to head out of the tourist centre to find good quality.
THE HO CHI MINH ROAD:
My guide to the best section of Uncle Ho’s highway……read more
SAPA-SIN HO SCENIC LOOP:
A stunning, mountainous circuit on the roof on Indochina……read more
HA GIANG EXTREME NORTH LOOP:
One of the most thrilling road trips you’ll ever do……read more
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