Limestone karsts in Hoa Binh Province southwest of Hanoi. by Michael Tatarski
Having cycled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City three times, I can say from experience that riding a bike really immerses you in Vietnam, from the scenery and roads to the people and food. Along the way you’ll see major cities and tiny villages, providing the full range of Vietnamese society.
Such an undertaking isn’t for the faint of heart, or the out of shape. The two cities are separated by 2,000 km, and while not everyone will choose such a major undertaking, even shorter trips can feature intimidating mountain climbs and scorching heat.
Before deciding on a Vietnam cycling adventure, it’s important to get your route set. I’ve put in serious miles on both Highway 1, which follows the country’s coast, and the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a newer road in the interior. There is no debate over which is better: the Ho Chi Minh Highway is a marvel, an often blissfully smooth roadway that snakes through some of the most stunning parts of Vietnam. Highway 1, on the other hand, offers incessant construction and far heavier traffic. Avoid it if possible. This means you will miss the likes of Da Nang, Hoi An and Nha Trang, but there are plenty of interesting places to see away from the coast as well.
Cycling southwest out of Hanoi takes you through low, rolling hills and beautiful limestone karst formations as the highway skirts Cuc Phuong National Park. Moving south the undulating terrain hosts verdant rice paddies before the road slices into Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to Son Doong, the largest cave in the world. Accommodation in this region is sparse, and there are a handful of significant climbs, but the scenery is truly jaw dropping. Fortunately Dong Hoi, a growing hub on the coast, offers comfortable respite after you descend off the Phong Nha plateau.
Next up is Hue, and unfortunately the Ho Chi Minh Highway does not reach the city, as it meanders back towards the border with Laos and into seriously steep, remote terrain. Highway 1 goes to the old imperial capital, but beware of road works. There is a smaller, provincial road in between the highway and the coast, though it will add some time to your journey.
Once you’ve seen the citadel in Hue and rested up, it’s time to take on the mountains by cutting west across this narrow stretch of Vietnam on QL49. Completely rebuilt two years ago, this gorgeous road takes you up a valley from the coastal plain onto the spine of the peaks separating Laos and Vietnam. The ride from Hue to the town of A Luoi is tough, but it puts you back on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
From there, it’s a few days of epic climbs, followed by equally epic downhills, through the towns of P’Rao, Thanh My and Kham Duc. Make sure you stock up on water and snacks for these days, as there are few places to stop amidst the densely forested mountains. Kham Duc, in particular, is worth a visit, as the restaurant right across the street from the huge monument at the town entrance features a lake out back and great food. Resting up in Kham Duc is strongly advised, as just south of town the highway snakes its way up a nearly 20 km-long mountain pass, the most difficult climb in between Hanoi and HCMC.
Once you reach the top, you’ll blast back downhill and into the Central Highlands, leaving behind the verdant forest of central Vietnam for an arid plateau of red dirt and coffee plantations. This region is also much more urbanised, and has the heaviest traffic of any section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Large cities like Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Me Thuot attract plenty of commerce, and the road conditions can be significantly poorer than farther north. This is also where the heat really sets in, depending on the time of year.
The highlands stretch on to the pleasant city of Bao Loc, just after which you will reach an exhilarating 10 km-long downhill. This smoothly paved pass can be great fun, but it is also the main road between HCMC and Da Lat, so traffic is often heavy. Be extra vigilant around the blind corners, as drivers don’t always stay in their lane. Once you reach the end you’ll be in flat, deep south Vietnam, with a clear path to the finish line. Compared to the rest of the country, the scenery here isn’t worth noting, but the feeling when you first spot the HCMC skyline in the distance is euphoric.
There is no doubt that endurance cycling in Vietnam is challenging, but the experience is unbeatable. Plus, the next time you hear someone bragging about their motorbike trip, you can one-up them by saying you did it with your own leg power.
Buon Me Thuot