Even at its narrowest point, just 50 kilometers across, Vietnam is an extraordinary place to explore by bicycle, with one dazzling view after another. Sprawling rice terraces and limestone peaks dominate the north, while to the south mist-shrouded mountains give way to tropical white- sand beaches lapped by the warm waters of the South China Sea.
Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail – damn!
I just could not get that irritating yet amusing Robin Williams line from his classic movie Good Morning Vietnam out of my head.
It was somewhere approaching mid-day and I was wrestling with my granny gear on the lower slopes of the Hai Van Pass. This was a place I’d been reading of for a decade or so, and it had long been on my wish list of places to ride; although I have to say with a whole lot of guidebook trepidation attached.
Reports of wild weather and death-defying tour buses had me constantly glancing over my shoulder. In reality, the traffic situation is at its worst on the urban and suburban roads. Yes, absolutely every single YouTube video you see of motorbike riders hurling themselves headlong towards each other like crazed hornets is true, and often terrifyingly so. But, miraculously, mysteriously, nobody ever seems to have an accident…
And I’d seen it at its worst. Earlier that same morning I’d pedaled through Danang at rush hour. A seaside city made famous by debauched and thrill-seeking GIs during the Vietnam War, Danang is, to be honest, far from the sweetest dish in Vietnam. But that’s all a part of the experience.
The traffic was in full fury with swarms of motorbikes seemingly hurtling at full speed into throngs of traffic. It was mesmerizing to watch, as traffic lights, road signs and whatever passes for a highway code in these parts were gleefully ignored.
It was intimidating but I was here to ride my bike and I soon realized that – in one way or another -1 had to cycle across the road in front of me, and then across the one after that, and the one after that. By now I’d seen more dodges and swerves than in a fly weight boxing match – but all without a single blow ever being struck. So, I just went for it. Head down, hands on the tops, away from the brakes, full speed ahead.
Even now it brings a nervous grin to my face just thinking about it. Having ridden in numerous other parts of Southeast Asia for many years now, I can confidently say that had I tried this anywhere else, it’s doubtful I’d still be alive. In Vietnam, though, somehow it’s just how it is, the everyday road madness is just part of life here. And it’s kind of fun, too. Once you accept it, that is.
Within minutes of leaving the urban chaos behind, though, I’d escaped into an entirely different world and soon found myself sweeping along a sweet coastal road, with the dreaded slopes of Hai Van Pass pinching at the distant horizon. All in, the climb tops out at a humble snip under 460m (1,500 feet). This may sound like a ride in the park but it proved to be anything but, setting a challenge that truly lives up to its hefty reputation.
From end to end, the climb (and following descent) is just short of 25km (15 miles) long, with roughly half of that being up, and half down. This is the old Highway 1, the famous north-south road that links Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it’s still commonly called). At this point, you’re roughly halfway down the long and thin length of Vietnam, and the pass effectively divides the north from the south, with the wartime demilitarized zone (DMZ) close by.
The divide also marks a dramatic change of climate, which had I not witnessed for myself would have been almost impossible to believe. To the south it was hot and sunny, having not seen rain in months. The mountainous coastal outcrop that the road straddles, however, breaks that weather up and on the northern side, the weather turns suddenly wet and cool. It was a shock to the system.
Ahead and above me loomed a dark, imposing cloud, almost put there to prove that this dramatic climate split exists. By the time I reached the cloud line, the scorch of the southern slopes had transformed into a chilly and mist-shrouded alpine-like world.
The early slopes were steep and relentless, although the coastal vistas from here remained gulp-inducing. I was carrying a backpack full of cameras, which drew clatters of applause from passing tourists, and slowed me to an intimidating pace that had roadside refreshment vendors on aggressive form, protesting madly at my lack of interest in stopping to buy one of their ruthlessly overpriced cans of Coke every 200 meters or so. By the time I neared the final summit bends of the climb, the mist had chilled my sweat-basted jersey so much that it felt like my back had been dunked in an ice bath.
Then unbelievably, as I was looking for a quiet spot to grab five minutes, and maybe even a photo or two, I came across a guy with a fully loaded touring bike with a Bob trailer hitched behind. He was flaked out at the roadside and despite my friendliest efforts didn’t seem to be in the most communicative mood. Given that he’d just hauled his load up that pretty constant 8% gradient, his taciturnity was perhaps understandable. So I carried on riding into the gloom of the increasingly dense mist alone.
By the time I finally summited and hauled up, visibility was down to just in front of my nose. This curious environment had left me both physically fried and chilled to the bone. Climbing that pass, though, turned out to be the highlight of an astonishing trip – although carting a hefty camera bag over it definitely isn’t something I’d rush to do again!
Insight & Tips
By the time I’d conquered the Hai Van Pass and had begun my rapid dive back towards the coast, I’d already been in Vietnam a week. I’d acclimatised myself by riding on the flatter roads between Danang and Hoi An, mostly hitting the back routes and dirt trails.
My initial plan had been to ride and bus- hop my way south from here to the hilltop town of Dalat, a place reputed for its chilled, spring-like climate and good riding. Given that much of this ride would be along the busy Highway l, I decided to take a short flight south to allow more time on the best roads and trails of Dalat, rather than enduring the long and flat, traffic-heavy transfer stages. This proved to be a smart move.
I’d heard big and tall tales of all-day downhill rides and climbs from the coast to and from Dalat, which had me in a cold sweat just thinking about them. Having now ridden around here, and having traversed many sections of the routes, I’d have to say that many tour schedules and guidebooks do gloss over things somewhat, such as heavy traffic, and lengthy transfers around busy and steep sections between Dalat and the coast, although it’s still a great ride.
Dalat is also a popular destination for Vietnamese road and mountain bikers, who come to train at this relatively high altitude (1,400m/4,500 feet) and on comparatively quiet mountain roads surrounding this ‘City of Eternal Spring’ as it’s known. Dalat is a much toned-down version of the bigger cities, and within 2O-minutes or so of riding in most directions, you’ll and quiet country roads. These are mostly through pine forests, and come flanked by numerous lakes that are tucked away between the mountains.
It’d taken me a long time to Anally get around to making this trip, largely due to a lack of available detail, and it was most certainly an eye opener on many levels. Vietnam is a huge country, and from a cycling point of view, this midway cut-through and the far north are the prime destinations, both worlds apart in character and terrain.
Even in the mid-section of the country, the variation of the flatlands around Hoi An, the dramatic Hai Van Pass and the sweet pine forest roads of Dalat had been a welcome surprise. I can’t say that it’s the most relaxed of countries to travel in compared to others in Southeast Asia, although it’s certainly a thrilling place for a great ride. And despite my fears about the chaotic traffic which I’d read and heard so much about, I didn’t even come close to a skirmish during my entire time riding in this fabulous part of the world.
- Getting to this region of Vietnam is relatively easy, and is best done via Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, with connecting flights to Danang.
- Many UK -based airlines operate on these routes, and some even fly direct from neighboring countries, making it both a cheap and easy add-on if you’re passing through the region. Flights from the UK typically cost from around £380 return. Check out the free app Last Minute for the cheapest flight deals.
- Travelling between the mid-section and Dalat is best done by flight. You can take a bus, but it’s an arduous and long journey – unless you want to spend some time in the coastal resorts further south, that is.
- From Dalat, you can fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and elsewhere, or you can take a bus. To Ho Chi Minh City this takes around six hours. There are several long-haul bus companies operating all of these routes. Be sure to check the situation with carrying a bike before you book, as some carry luggage in a separate truck, which isn’t a great option. Always buy your bus ticket from the bus company offices as some drivers are known to overcharge tourists. Two companies worth investigating are The Sinh Tourist and Mai Linh Express.
When to Go
- Weather conditions and seasons vary significantly along this coastline. The prime time to ride is between February and May, after that it gets really hot until October, which is when the rains begin. The rains last until November-December, and longer in the south.
- August-October is also typhoon season, so is best avoided.
Where to Ride
- There are some really great and small back roads and trails around Hoi An. Most are flat and make for a great few days of acclimatization and discovery. Hoi An is a fascinating old town, famous for its historic center.
- The coastal road between Hoi An and Danang is relatively busy but is good to ride. Danang city itself has nice beaches, but can be a little lacklustre. There are a few decent day rides from here, such as the ride around the bay to the top of the mountain above the city, ora flat ride to My Son – home to a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples built between the 4th and 14th centuries.
- The Hai Van Pass is between Danang and Hue, along the old coastal section of Highway 1. This is a great place to explore. South from here, along HW1, is one of the most popular bike touring routes in Asia, although unless you want to do it all by bike consider skipping this busy sector and spending time in the locations listed, which do have better riding.
- Dalat is a surprisingly busy mountain town, but once you get away from the main roads there’s a lot of decent mountain riding to be found.
- The coastal link roads to and from Dalat do make for a challenge, but even if you are descending you will face a long and steep climb to start the day, plus a very busy section of road along the coast.
- The road towards Ho Chi Minh City is quite spectacular to start with, but is very busy. Once you drop down from the mountains it is quite chaotic and riding here isn’t advisable.
Eating and Sleeping
- Finding decent budget accommodation all over Vietnam is easy, but definitely book your first night in any new town in advance through a site such as trivago.co.uk.
- Try to get rooms away from busy roads, as the use of horns here is excessive, and may well drive you crazy at dawn.
- Good street food can be found all over the country, and is generally safe and cheap to eat, and compared to neighboring countries isn’t particularly spicy. Pho is a basic noodle soup that’s widely available, as are fresh baguettes – a legacy of Vietnam’s days as a French colony.
- Hoi An has a great selection of restaurants, too, and the beer is also about half the cost of elsewhere in the country!
- At present British passport holders are given 15 days visa- free entry to Vietnam (via international airports).
- Be sure to check this out though, as the regulations can and do change frequently. You can also get visas in advance from Vietnamese embassies, or apply for an online visa approval letter (see myvietnamvisa.co.uk) at short notice, which gives you longer on the ground if needed.