INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
In a country that loves a celebration, Tết (Lunar New Year) is the biggest bash of them all in Vietnam. Sounds like fun – and it is fun – but it’s not necessarily great news for travellers. In the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year, transportation is at breaking point, as millions of Vietnamese head back to their quê hương (home town) to be with their families. And, as soon as the formalities of New Year’s Day are over, the entire nation hits the road, travelling to all corners of the country for a week’s holiday. Accommodation is packed, prices are sky-high, litter is a big problem, and the roads are busy and dangerous. I love Tết and all the buzz that surrounds it, but, in recent years, I have chosen a quieter option: a meandering road trip on quiet roads, bypassing popular tourist spots, staying in small guesthouses, camping in the open, and riding through big, empty landscapes, basking in the glory of the southern dry season. I call it The Tết Classic.
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 1,230km
- Route: zigzagging between the southeast coast & the Central Highlands [MAP]
- Road Conditions: brand new coastal highways, paved mountain back-roads
- Terrain & Scenery: beaches, mountains, forests, desert, seaside/highland towns
ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:
- Day 1: Saigon to Lagi: (160km)
- Day 2: Lagi to Di Linh: (180km)
- Day 3: Di Linh to Mui Ne: (130km)
- Day 4: Mui Ne to Vinh Hy Bay: (170km)
- Day 5: Vinh Hy to Dalat: (170km)
- Day 6: Dalat to Phan Thiet: (180km)
- Day 7: Phan Thiet to Saigon: (240km)
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
As most people have at least one week of vacation during Tết, I’ve written this guide as a 7 day road trip, according to how I would personally choose to spend the Tết week. I’ve written a description of each day on the road, including recommendations for food and accommodation, and links to my other posts for more detailed information on specific areas. The average daily distance is a leisurely 150km, but of course you can easily modify this route to make the days shorter or longer. The whole point of this route is to steer clear of the crowds: although this road trip passes through some popular tourist spots, they are not intended as destinations. Note: roads are especially dangerous during Lunar New Year – drunk and reckless driving is extremely common, making Tết by far the deadliest month of the year on Vietnam’s roads. This route stays off busy highways as much as possible, but you should still be very cautious, even on small back-roads.
The Tet Classic: Lunar New Year Motorbike Loop:
Route: Saigon to Lagi| Distance: 160km [MAP]
Leaving Saigon early in the morning (I mean really early, like 5am, in order to avoid traffic and police, who are out in full force just before Tết), glide down to the Cat Lai Docks and catch the ferry across the broad sweep of the Dong Nai River. This is the ‘Back Road‘ out of Saigon, and it can be quite lovely in the mild chill of a dry season dawn, with the mist lifting off the river, and the container ships carving their paths through the black water.
After stopping in the unexpectedly clean and appealing town of Ba Ria for a bowl of breakfast noodles, it’s time to turn off the highways and head down to the Ocean Road. The first blast of salty air and the first glimpse of the East Sea near Loc An, is when you realize that you’re now far from Saigon, and that your Tết road trip has finally begun. The 80km coastal stretch – through the beach communities of Ho Tram, Ho Coc and Binh Chau – to Lagi is an exhilarating ride past windswept sand dunes, old forests, and wild beaches baking under the southern sun.
Veering inland through eucalyptus and cashew plantations, Road 55 drops steeply into the fishing town of Lagi. Small but busy and bristling with energy, Lagi is a likable place with a gigantic fleet of blue fishing boats, and a good beach just out of town. For a quiet night by the beach head to Ba That Resort or the cheaper options surrounding it. For dinner there’s plenty of good street food in Lagi during the evenings.
Route: Lagi to Di Linh | Distance: 180km [MAP]
Breakfast in Lagi is a treat at Quán Minh Ký (361 Nguyen Truong To Street): their bò kho (aromatic beef stew) is well worth waking up for. After a morning swim in the ocean, turn your back on the coast and head north from Lagi on Road 55. The arid, rugged landscape in these parts is reminiscent of southern Spain: I half expect to see the ruins of a medieval Crusader castle, perched atop a rocky cliff.
After crossing the dreaded Highway 1, Road 55 bears northeast, starting its meandering ascent from flat farmland to the coffee and tea plantations of the Central Highlands. As the road climbs towards Bao Loc, the salty, sandy, fishy tang that pervaded the air in Lagi, is replaced by the earthy, flowery, smokey tones of Vietnam’s highlands. At Bao Loc, turn right (due east) onto Highway 20. There’s hardly a tree left standing on the 30km stretch from Bao Loc to Di Linh, such is the intensity of tea and coffee farming in this area. The oddly named Bo Bla Waterfall makes a pretty stop before arriving in the unassuming town of Di Linh, at an elevation of around 3,000ft. While both Bao Loc and Di Linh have plenty of decent nhà nghỉ (local guesthouses) for the night, there’s a far better option if you turn right (due south) onto Road 28 at Di Linh (signposted to Phan Thiet). A few kilometres along Road 28 you’ll find Juliet’s Villa Resort. Several simple bungalows are spread around colourful gardens – they even have a waterfall in their backyard. It’s a peaceful and very attractive place to stay.
Route: Di Linh to Mui Ne | Distance: 130km [MAP]
Continuing south on Road 28 from Juliet’s Villa Resort, the route climbs into dense jungle as it crawls up and over the Di Linh Plateau. From the dusty, red-dirt streets of Gia Bac village, there are grand views over the blue foothills of the Central Highlands, down into the plains and, in the far distance, the East Sea. The road narrows as it curls down the mountain, folding back on itself a dozen times, before leveling out and passing through acres of rice fields.
Phan Thiet is a great place for lunch and a quick stroll along the riverfront, where hundreds of fishing boats jostle for space. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with the Tết boat races on the Ca Ty River. Races are run in many different categories according to the vessel used – from longboats to coracles. A large crowd lines the river banks, cheering on the participants.
However, as much as I love Phan Thiet, accommodation can be busy and pricey during Tết, so I choose to ride east, beyond the resort-clogged sands of Mui Ne and out the other side to Long Son Campgrounds. With lots of space, a large beachfront, watersports, different camping options, and cheap food and drink, this is quite possibly the best campgrounds on the southern coast. Pitch your tent, sit back with a gin and tonic ($1) and watch the stars rise over the ocean.
Route: Mui Ne to Vinh Hy Bay | Distance: 170km [MAP]
Rise early because today is a long but exceptionally beautiful ride along excellent new coast roads. Exiting Long Son Campgrounds, the road hugs the coast along 5 kilometres of empty sands, where cows roam in the surf and fishermen throw their lines. After a sharp rise through a vast cassava plantation, take a right (due east) onto the brand new White Sand Dune Highway. The dunes rise to your left and continue in the form of smaller drifts of white sand all the way to the fishing town of Phan Ri Cua.
A small, salty and slightly rough settlement, Phan Ri Cua is way off the beaten path. But, thanks to the new White Sand Dune Highway, it’s starting to see a trickle of foreign travellers. Street food lunches can be found on the main street here, after which you’ll need to weave through town until you hit another new coastal strip towards Lien Huong. The stretch of road between Phan Ri Cua and Lien Huong is very attractive, but it’s totally ruined during Tết holidays by a constant stream of merry picnickers, most of whom leave a pile of trash behind them: it’s a great shame. (Read more about this issue here)
If you’re short on time, Lien Huong has a good guesthouse called Nhà Nghỉ Hương Nam (062 3851 286) on Vo Thi Sau Street. Otherwise, continue heading northeast, by joining the heated tarmac of Highway 1, for a brief spell of 25km to Ca Na. The Ca Na Hotel (068 3760 922) has decent rooms right on the beach, but if you’ve got time, keep going because the best is yet to come. A right turn (due east) at Ca Na fishing port leads to an ambitious new road that has only recently opened. After passing mountains of freshly harvested sea salt, the new road climbs around the boulder-strewn promontory of Mui Dinh. There’s a stark beauty to this area, characterized by large rocks, cacti, deep blue seas and blue skies.
At the end of the Mui Dinh road, a new bridge crosses the Cai River and onto the arcing beach of Ninh Chu Bay. Vastly underrated by travellers, Ninh Chu is essentially Phan Rang’s beach. It’s big, quiet and beautiful. A particularly nice place to stay is Bau Truc Resort for those on a mid-range budget. For a cheaper option, the camping and food at Ninh Chu Bay Beach Club is fantastic value.
However, if time allows, continue east from Ninh Chu Beach towards Vinh Hy Bay. This is yet another stunning new coast road around a mountainous promontory. The mountains here are densely forested and belong to the Nui Chua National Park – black Asian bears still roam the forests here. After 25km of winding tarmac through wooded hillsides, the road drops into a perfect little cove, hemmed in by high hills, with a small fishing fleet in the middle. This is Vinh Hy Bay. It’s a magical location and there’s good-value accommodation right in the middle of it at Vinh Hy Resort. They also serve good food here, which you can eat on the terrace, next to the pool, overlooking the harbour.
Route: Vinh Hy to Dalat | Distance: 170km [MAP]
After breakfast, watching the sun rise over the bay, it’s time to continue north on the coast road. Snaking up a steep hill behind Vinh Hy Bay, the road skates along the top of a ridge before plunging down the other side to Cam Ranh Bay. The views over beaches and islands dotted in the bay are fantastic. When the road hits sea-level again, there are dozens of empty stretches of white sand to stop and enjoy the surf. At the northernmost tip of this promontory, a finger of land points into the bay, this is Cam Lap Promontory. Covered in mango trees, ringed with powdery beaches, and with views over the serene waters of Cam Ranh Bay, this is a wonderful place to camp.
When the coast road meets Highway 1, turn right (due north) for a few kilometres before taking a left (due west) onto Road 27B. I call this The Burnt Road because it passes through one of the driest areas in Vietnam. With dried-up lakes, thirsty trees standing on cracked earth, arid mountains and a wild west feel, this is Vietnam’s desert. Under the relentless sun of the dry season, it’s a desolate but fascinating 50km ride. Not long before the road joins Highway 27 towards Dalat, it crosses a couple of very inviting clear rivers. With a bit of searching, it’s possible to find a nice camping spot on a secluded river bank for a night in the wild.
Turning right (due northwest) at Tan Son, the road meets the mountains once again. The newly resurfaced Ngoan Muc Pass is now in excellent condition as it winds up the mountains in a series of majestic twists and turns. The views down over the arid plains and foothills of the Central Highlands are marvellous.
Once at the top of the pass, all the smells of the highlands – coffee blossom, wood smoke, pine trees – come flooding back. The road surface deteriorates slightly, but it’s a steady and pretty climb all the way to Dalat. This mountain city is one of the most popular destinations during Tết holiday – even in a city that’s full of hotels, it can be hard to find a room here. Instead, I choose to make a brief stop in Dalat for a coffee and a meal, before continuing half an hour north of town to Hồ Suối Vàng Lake. This lake is surrounded by pine forests which are perfect for camping. The dry season weather is ideal for a night under the stars. But come prepared because, at an elevation of over 5,000ft, temperatures at night in January can reach as low as 7°C.
Route: Dalat to Phan Thiet | Distance: 180km [MAP]
The early morning is chilly in the pine forests, so it’s a good idea to pack up your tent and start heading downhill to some warmer weather. Make a quick stop in Dalat for a nice warming breakfast, then start the long descent back to sea-level, beginning with the Prenn Pass. Winding through pine forests with a few abandoned (and apparently haunted) French colonial villas lining the road, this is a pretty pass, but it can be treacherously busy during Tết, so take care.
At the bottom of the pass, the temperature is already beginning to rise, as Highway 20 ploughs through rather cluttered farmland to Ninh Gia. Blink and you’ll miss it, Ninh Gia is a small village on the highway, and this is where you turn left (due south) for the small mountain road down to Mui Ne. It’s a nice route (although a bit battered in parts) through fruit plantations and cash crops, such as tea, coffee, mulberry, and banana. If you’ve got time, make a small detour to Bao Dai Waterfall. Just before the final descent to the plains, there’s a superb vista down towards the East Sea, from where you can see the road meandering down the mountains like a varicose vein on the landscape.
After join Highway 1 at Luong Son for a couple hundred metres, turn left (due south) towards Mui Ne. This takes you back past the White Sand Dunes and back along the coast road to Mui Ne. As accommodation is difficult to find on Mui Ne beach during the holidays, I prefer to continue on to Phan Thiet and find a local guesthouse near the municipal beach there. There are lots of nhả nghỉ (guesthouses) on Le Loi Street, just to the west of the beach. One of the best things about a night in Phan Thiet is the food. For a seafood feast and a raucous ambience, check out the restaurants lining the harbourfront on Pham Van Dong Street, particularly Quán Hải Sản Thuận Phát.
Route: Phan Thiet to Saigon | Distance: 240km [MAP]
The final leg is a long but peaceful ride along the Ocean Road from Phan Thiet all the way back to Saigon. If you have time, you could easily spend several days beach hopping on this road. Leaving the bustle of Phan Thiet behind, head southwest along a great stretch of coast to the lighthouse at Ke Ga. Built in 1899, when Vietnam was under French colonial rule, this was one of first (or possibly the first) lighthouse in the country. It’s an impressive, sturdy structure with panoramic views from the top. The lighthouse is on an islet just off the coast. At low tide you can wade out to it, alternatively you can arrange a boat from one of the cafes at Ke Ga hamlet.
The road heads inland until Lagi – which makes a convenient lunch stop – from where it’s just a matter of retracing your steps from Day 1, but in the opposite direction. I like to take the ride from Lagi to Ba Ria very slowly, soaking up as much of the light, space and salty air as I can, before hitting Highway 51 back into the pollution, noise, and humidity of Saigon.