Riding the Ho Chi Minh Highway
Your goal is to do what the Americans failed to do in 7 years. Get from one end of Vietnam to the other. For a holiday.
I’d seen the top gear episode, but I’d never even considered doing it until I was sitting in Hanoi. Which is mad, because by that point, you can see just how mad it is.
There’s not much information out there though, so I thought I’d try to help out. Here is everything I wanted.
It’s gonna be laid out as follows. Below I’ve listed quick short answers to most of the common questions. Then in the section labelled “The Meat”, I’ve given an extended guide with everything you need to know. Click here to jump to it.
How long did it take?
It took 17 days, getting stuck in Dong Hoi for two full days and spending an extra day in two places.
How far did you drive?
Just over 2000 km.
When did you go?
I left mid October and was on the road until early November.
How much did it cost?
The average cost, without repairs, for a day the road was 350,000 dong. That covered three meals (Pho Bo!), petrol and a room.
My bike was $166 (3,500,000 dong). I sold it for $225 (4,700,000 dong).
Repairs are really too variable to factor in. But I ended up spending about 1,000,000 dong. A full explanation of this is given under buying a bike in the extended section.
Which route did you take?
I drove down the Ho Chi Minh Highway for the whole trip except between Hue and Hoi An where I took Highway 1.
What bike did you drive?
A 100cc Honda Win (technically not a Honda).
Buy or rent?
I bought. It was cheaper and left me less liable.
Where did you buy your bike?
I bought and sold the bike on Craigslist.
How long did it take to sell your bike?
I sold it on the day I arrived into Ho Chi Minh City. I started advertising it two days before.
How much did you know about bikes before going?
What else did you take?
A road map, a lonely planet for more local maps, ponchos for my bag and me, bungee cords, helmet and gloves.
Did your bike break down in the middle of nowhere?
Yes, twice. The first time a Vietnamese man pushed me to a mechanic, the second time I was able to roll down a hill and walk the remainder.
Did you get lost?
Yes, we stopped in different places to accommodate being lost.
Did you crash?
Had you ever driven a bike before?
Did you have insurance?
No. See above. This was a personal risk I took. I did however do everything possible to lower the risk.
If you have enough experience to get insurance, get it.
Did you go with anyone?
I went with one other person. I met them in Hanoi Backpackers when I arrived.
Which part was the most beautiful?
Driving up to and through Phong Nha National Park and the Q14E out of Hoi An. The pictures in this post may be mis-leading as to where is the most photogenic and beautiful. Just trust me, Phong Nha & the Q14E. Immense.
How are the roads?
They vary. In general the Ho Chi Minh Highway between Hanoi and Dong Hoi was pretty good. The south was generally less good. Pleiku to Buôn Ma Thuột was truly awful.
Is it dangerous?
How was it?
One of the best things I’ve ever done.
Ok so that’s a summary. If you’ve decided you want to do it, or maybe you want to know more before going, that’s all covered below.
There are two roads which run from north to south. Highway 1 follows the coast and the Ho Chi Minh Highway runs through the highlands.
I followed the latter. The former is the countries main shipping lane, filled with trucks, pot holes and poor scenery. I had not heard good things and for the small part I drove this road I’d agree. There are two exceptions we’ll come to later.
A city to city breakdown:
1. Hanoi – Mai Chau
2. Mai Chau – Yen Cat
3. Yen Cat – Pho Chau
4. Pho Chau – Phong Nha
5. Phong Nha – Hue
6. Hue – Hoi An
7. Hoi An – Kontum
8. Kontum – Buom Ma Thuot (B.M.T)
(Optional: B.M.T – Nha Trang)
(Optional: Nha Trang – Dalat)
9. Buom Ma Thuot – Dalat
10. Dalat – Ho Chi Minh City
This was my original plan but I ended up missing Mai Chau, Pho Chau and Kontum. Because a plan rarely survives contact with a cheap bike.
There are a cornucopia of small towns from Hanoi to Phong Nha where you won’t miss anything if you’re forced to stop elsewhere. We played it by ear.
My favourite pieces of road both for scenery and driving, were Mai Chau down to Phong Nha and Hoi An to Kontum on the Q14E.
The Van Hai pass was also good (although very wet when we did it) as was Buom Ma Thuot to Dalat (occasionally bad roads).
The worst part was Pleiku to B.M.T and time spent on Highway 1. The roads are bad and the traffic is worse. If I did it again I’d try and stick my bike on a bus for Pleiku to B.M.T or Kontum to B.M.T (the first part doesn’t outweigh the pain of the second). I’ve heard stories of people doing this, but didn’t do it myself.
The three best driving roads in the south are meant to be the trio between Dalat, Nha Trang and Mui Ne. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to drive them, but everyone I met has sung their praises.
When to go?
Vietnam has three separate climate zones. The North, the South and the Centre. It also has two separate monsoons. The south monsoon makes May to September very wet in the south. Unfortunately as soon as this monsoon stops, the Northern monsoon picks up the rest of the year.
October to a November is a good time to start your journey. The rain in the North and South is starting to slow and you catch the change between monsoons. The only real hitch with this time of year is Central Vietnam near the coast. Hue and Hoi An are particularly wet at that time of year.
It’s a small part of route we took though and we got back inland to the Ho Chi Minh Highway as soon as possible. It’s not the most beautiful part of the country to drive, so you don’t miss so much.
If you want to check yourself, look up rainfall stats for all the cities I’ve listed and try and dodge the worst of it. Because wet motorbikes are no fun.
I had a great road map. There are numerous road maps of Vietnam, however the only one of any quality I found was a hardbound book. It looked like this:
A compass is useful, often a bearing is the only indication you’re going in the wrong direction. Vietnamese sign placement is haphazard at best.
The biggest navigation issue is reaching the Ho Chi Minh Highway, once you’re on it, it’s easy going, however the map was extremely useful in getting there.
When you’re on a road there are small milestones along the side. Typically they’ll have the name of the road you’re riding on, e.g. HCMH as well as a distance to a town further down the road. E.g. 120km, Dalat. The town chosen will be totally random. Sometimes it’s the next town, other times it’s the fifth town in line. If you’re lucky it will be on your map. It probably won’t. It will drive you mad. They are however the best indication of where you are.
Getting directions off the Vietnamese is difficult. Always happy to help, any yes or no question will receive a yes. A phrase book and translation app if you have a smartphone is a great idea. You can bookmark phrases on Google translate to use them offline. I highly recommend this.
As you get more remote, a lot of the people struggled with the map. Just be aware of this as there is very little you can do about it.
What to bring?
- Good helmet
- Bag cover
- Gloves – these we’re nigh impossible to find. I ended up wearing cycling gloves
- Optional – multitool/screwdriver
There are occasions where mechanical skill is not necessary and you can solve a problem. It could be something like loose screws or, slightly more complex, you may be able to mimic an earlier mechanics fix. In this case a multitool can be useful.
e.g. My accelerator cable broke twice, the second time I was able to expose and cut the cable short. Normally it’s wrapped around throttle, but by cutting it short, pulling it has the same effect as using the throttle. This gave me enough control to drive the bike to the nearest shop.
The odds are you’ll break down. I’ve met lucky people who didn’t, but the rest of us just need to accept it.
Apart from an optional multitool, the astute may have noticed a lack of spare parts or tools in my gear.
Tools are no good if you don’t know what you’re doing and I didn’t. Ergo, no tools. My driving partner was an engineer and we picked up a multitool later, allowing us to change our fuel injection rate (I still don’t know any technical jargon. That’s probably garbage), but between us we managed to fix almost nothing. We used mechanics for every breakdown.
You will never be far from a mechanic. Even in the middle of nowhere.
There are so many mechanics in Vietnam. The average Vietnamese also knows exponentially more about motorbikes than you or I and may also be able to help out.
The following may be wrong, however it was my experience.
All of the problems we had with the exception of punctured tyres and a snapped chain, didn’t stop us instantly. For all the other problems: bad carburetor; snapped spokes; broken valves; oil leaks etc. they gave us some sort of warning and we were able to pull over in time. You don’t need mechanical experience to know what’s wrong, you’ll just recognise something is different.
Driving with someone also helps. You can keep an eye on each others bikes and help spot problems.
And in the worst case scenario that you’re stopped in the middle of nowhere? Someone will help. It happened to me twice and both times someone was helping me in five minutes.
Buy or rent?
Here are the most important arguments.
- If you have time to sell the bike at the other end, often the cost for the bike will be close to zero (minus repairs). Rental may cost the same as buying, but you will be unable to retrieve the cost.
- If you crash a rental bike be sure you will pay for every penny. It’s also likely to be newer and thus more expensive.
- Rental bikes tend to be newer, better kept and less likely to break down.
- You will often have to pay to ship the bike back at the end if you rent.
I fell firmly on the buying side despite the extra reliability. I didn’t want the liability and I had a couple days to sell it.
I drove a 100cc Honda Win. It was cheap, easy to fix, rugged enough for the roads and had good fuel efficiency. It’s also fully manual. The bike is not actually a Honda, however that’s the name you can identify it by.
Other common bikes include the Russian Minsk, Honda Dream and Honda Wave. The last two are perhaps more intercity bikes, but I met people who completed the journey on both.
It’s illegal in Vietnam to drive a bike above 125cc without a special permit, so if you want a bigger bike it may be harder to get hold of.
Buying a bike
Where? – Craigslist, travel stop, the thorn tree forums or a local shop.
How much? For the Honda Win, $200 – 250 list price. Then get your haggling shoes on.
How to buy a bike?
Aside from the bike itself the only crucial item to get with it is the blue registration card. This is the equivalent to owning the motorbike. It won’t be in your name, which is standard, but without it the bike can be confiscated should the police happen to pull you over.
You have two goals:
1. To make sure the bike will get you down Vietnam, i.e. it actually works.
2. To find things you can haggle over.
Checklist: Visual Inspection
- Starting – Button or kick is fine but make sure it starts when the bike is cold (i.e. hasn’t been running). There might be a knack to it, the owner can show you, but make them show you when it’s cold. (A button is more likely to break than a kick in my experience.)
- Rust – Shine a torch in the petrol tank, there should be no rust.
- Check the rest of the bike for rust: handlebars, bike stand etc. I missed rusty handlebars with a small crack when buying my bike and was forced to buy a new pair of handlebars as it got worse. That and a poor piece of haggling took up 400,000 dong to repair.
- Loose parts – Try and see if anything is loose. Loose is never good. Headlights, exhaust, wheels, handlebars etc. You will often be able to hear loose parts when driving it.
- Do the lights work? If the lights work when the bike is going, but don’t when standing still and the button start doesn’t function either, the battery may be shot. A new one is around 300,000 dong.
- Does it have a solid bike rack? If not you’re going to need one.
Visual inspection over. Time to drive it.
- Are the handlebars straight? When you’re pointed forward does the bike go forward.
- Are the breaks loose? Does the bike break as soon as you pull/push the front/rear breaks or is there give at first.
- Do the lights and speedometer work?
- Is the acceleration steady? You might find it quite fast if you’re unused to riding bikes, so go gently.
- Does the engine sound ok? You probably have no idea what it should sound like. Smooth. It can roar but it shouldn’t rattle. Look up an engine test on youtube.
This is from 110cc Honda Win in Vietnam. Your’s should sound something like this.
Caveat. If you’ve never driven before this part is going to scare you. Ideally take a driving lesson before buying a bike so you’re more comfortable driving it. Otherwise it will be difficult to focus on anything other than killing yourself.
- Change the oil every roughly every 500km. Oil is about 50,000 dong for bog standard oil from a gas station. It works fine.
- Keep your chain tight.
- Bring it in at night to keep it dry, or poncho it up.
Learning to Ride
Riding a bike with no experience in Vietnam is a dangerous thing, lets not pretend otherwise.
The first couple hours are the most dangerous. You’ll jolt on the acceleration and may accidentally pull the throttle when you use the front break. This is the biggest pain in the ass.
If you’re riding a manual bike, use the rear break (the foot pedal on the right hand side). Try and keep off the front break due to the problem above. This will be hard, because if you’re anything like me you’re trying to shut off twenty years of riding pedal bikes.
Ideally learn somewhere with no people. But chances are you’re starting in a city and this isn’t an option. In that case, get a lesson. Because however good you think you are, you’re going to trouble at first.
If you’re starting in Hanoi the highway out of Hanoi is an excellent place to get your legs. It’s huge, flat and relatively empty.
To get there you have to get out of Hanoi. I would recommend paying a motorbike taxi to take you there and follow them. Try and avoid rush hour :)
The same principle applies in Ho Chi Minh however the road I came in on, the Highway 1 (QL1) was far busier, although the city was easier to get out of.
Driving in Vietnam
Driving in Vietnam is not like driving back home.
Trucks and buses are terrifying. They will overtake anyone and everything, including other buses. Keep out of their way.
Honk to warn people of your presence. Especially in the mountains.
In general riding at night is a bad idea. Whether you have lights or not, your visibility will be limited by your visor, bugs if you don’t have one and the fact no one in Vietnam understands the concept of half beam. I found myself almost totally blind at night from headlights. It was terrifying. Don’t do it.
I also wore long sleeved clothes and bought gloves. The heat is only a problem when stopped, otherwise a jumper is comfortable at 70-80 kmph. The only gloves I could find were in a cycle shop in Hanoi. A friend managed to find body armour in an outdoor shop, probably not a bad idea, although he did then spend three weeks looking like judge dredd.
We didn’t plan at all, we just turned up and looked for it. If we hadn’t reached our goal, when it got dark we just started searching for hotels or guest houses. Hotel in Vietnamese is Khách Sạn and it’s often plastered all over a hotel.
The most we paid for accommodation outside of the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh was 200,000 dong a night and that got a fairly decent double room (two single beds) with air con and TV.
That’s all from me. It’s an amazing adventure. If you’ve got other questions or tips put them in the comments!
(Actually not quite all. If for some reason you’re thinking about teaching English either in Vietnam or elsewhere I run a job site – teflSearch.com. It’s a modern EFL/ESL job site with a really good search and lots of useful information. If you’re interested in that sort of thing it’s worth checking out.)