In March, Alex and I spent 3.5 weeks motorbiking across Vietnam from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. It was an incredible experience that cemented our love for this beautiful and fascinating country. This is part two. If you missed part one, you can catch up here.
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Our itinerary for this portion of the trip was as follows (distance in parentheses):
DAY 1: Hanoi to Tam Coc (110 km)
DAY 2: Sightseeing in Tam Coc
DAY 3: Tam Coc to Nghe An (200 km)
DAY 4: Nghe An to Ha Tinh (220 km)
DAY 5: Ha Tinh to Phong Nha National Park (80 km)
DAY 6: Sightseeing in Phong Nha
DAY 7: Phong Nha to Khe Sanh (200 km)
DAY 1 - HANOI TO TAM COC
We left Hanoi around 10am, between the morning and lunch rush hours, which helped us avoid a lot of traffic. We took the CT-08 highway west out of Hanoi and then joined the QL-21A southbound. This is the ‘scenic’ westward route out of the city, but to be honest, that first morning was anything but. It’s HOT and dusty with lots of trucks on the road and very little scenery other than dingy suburbs and the occasional farm. It was ugly, to be honest. We were so miserable that morning that frankly we second-guessed our decision to motorbike at all - we didn’t get what all the hype was about.
It didn’t help that we had a small crash about an hour from our destination - Alex overcorrected after hitting some rocks on a turn but failed to account for the extra weight from our luggage. We went down rather hard. Luckily the road was empty, and while we got scraped up it was nothing serious. It sucked to crash our first day, though, and it really rattled us - you think you’re invincible until something like this happens.
Eventually we mustered the will to get back on the bike, and we made it to Tam Coc without further incident. I’m happy to report the scenery picked up toward the end of the day too, as the limestone karsts the area is famous for began to pop up in the distance.
We arrived at Tam Coc Family Hotel, which we highly recommend, around 4pm. The family that runs the hotel welcomed us graciously and helped us get cleaned up from our road wounds. We settled in with a cold local beer (Huda Beer ftw) and ate some dinner before crashing early, exhausted from our first day on the road.
DAY 2 - TAM COC
Tam Coc is a village near the large city of Ninh Binh. It’s known as ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’ due to the limestone karsts dotting the region, plus rivers, caves, and stunning green hills for good measure. After our very meh experience at the real Ha Long Bay, we were itching for something better.
Tourism here is nature-focused with options such as boat rides, scenic viewpoints and bike tours. Since we had limited time, we opted to do the boat tour at Trang An, about 10km outside of town (we rode the bike there). There’s another boat tour in Tam Coc town, but we were told that the boat drivers sometimes scam tourists so we avoided it. The tour in Trang An takes you around parts of the region’s vast cave system. It’s cool, but some of the passages are very dark and low, so we had to really crouch down. Claustrophobes should steer clear.
For restaurants in Tam Coc we recommend Orchid Restaurant and Ninh Loan Rose which are the only two places we ate as our hotel had free breakfast. The local specialty is goat pho so make sure you try that, and Ninh Loan Rose had some of the best spring rolls we ate in all of Vietnam. We sort of wish we had stayed longer if only to be able to go to Mua Caves for the famous viewpoint, but the village does feel pretty touristy and there’s not much in the way of nightlife or anything, so we were ready to move on after two nights.
DAY 3: TAM COC TO NGHE AN
We had a hell of a time trying to figure out where to stop after Tam Coc on our way to Phong Nha National Park. I couldn’t find any info in online motorbiking blog posts and was getting VERY frustrated (hence why I created this guide). Eventually I came across Dong Du Village Farmstay in Nghe An province. We set off after breakfast with lots of hugs from the sweet family at Tam Coc Family Hotel, and took it pretty slow and steady for the first half of the day as we were still a bit shaken up from our earlier fall.
It was a relatively easy but long day of driving - we covered 200km, which as I’ve said is the most you can really hope to do in a day. The scenery really picked up - we saw everything from rice field and limestone karsts to farms with lots of happy water buffalo frolicking around, capped off with gently rolling hills in the distance.
We made it to the farmstay by late afternoon where we tucked in to one of the most delicious meals we’ve ever had. It was a family-style feast of fresh pork, tofu, omelets, garden veggies, spring rolls, and more. We drank rice wine and beer with the family and neighbors, managing to communicate despite the fact that we didn’t share a common language. It was one of the most memorable meals of our trip and really cemented our love for the generous hospitality of the Vietnamese people.
DAY 4 - NGHE AN TO HA TINH
Once again, I had a lot of trouble finding a stopover point after Nghe An. We ultimately settled on Thanh Phat Hotel in Ha Tinh, a town over 200km away and a bit farther east than we’d wanted to go, but the ride was smooth and flat so it went by quickly. Unfortunately, we woke up to a horribly blustery and cold day which ended up being a lesson about how unpredictable Vietnam’s weather can be. Neither of us had packed warm clothes so we were freezing under our ponchos all day. The drive felt impossibly long and we stopped roughly every hour for a hot cup of coffee, shivering uncontrollably the whole time. By the time we made it to the hotel, where we got an executive suite for the princely sum of $21, I was convinced I had hypothermia. Not exactly what I expected for this sweltering hot Southeast Asian country!
The town surrounding the hotel was pretty forgettable, so we didn’t do any sightseeing and after a dinner of chicken hotpot at a local restaurant, we turned in pretty early, just happy to be wrapped in warm blankets.
DAY 5 - HA TINH TO PHONG NHA NATIONAL PARK
After ordering room service (two banh mi and coffee for $2) and resigning ourselves to another day of nasty rain, we loaded up the bike, donned our ponchos, tried to think warm thoughts, and set off. Our shoes were still soaked from yesterday, our clothes were dirty, and despite our best efforts we hadn’t been able to find any jackets for sale in town so we had yet another day of being improperly dressed for the weather. By an hour in, my feet were completely numb and my teeth were chattering so loud I could barely hear myself think.
The morning was beyond miserable - wet, rainy, and brutally windy - and our little bike was getting blown around on the road which was especially terrifying as we spent the whole morning on a busy coastal highway surrounded by trucks. Trucks are one off the worst things about the roads in Vietnam because they always drive so erratically. Being on a motorbike when two trucks are trying to pass each other on a two-lane highway is one of the more terrifying memories of our trip.
Around midmorning we left the coastal highway and began heading west, and a couple things happened then to greatly improve our situation. First, the wind and rain died down. Second, the trucks all but vanished, making us feel a little safer on the road. And third, the view became a thousand times better. We were cruising alongside beautiful lakes and hills, and as we got closer to Phong Nha things got even more epic, with limestone karsts covered in thick green jungle giving off strong Jurassic Park vibes. By the time we pulled into Phong Nha town we had nearly forgotten how miserable the morning was.
Phong Nha town comprises a low-key strip of shops, restaurants and hostels on the outskirts of the national park. The pace of life here is relaxed, and it’s surrounded on all sides by incredible scenery such that just walking out your door in the morning takes your breath away. We stayed at the infamous Easy Tiger which we highly recommend. It’s dorms only but they’re very clean and comfy. After checking in and getting changed we got back on the bike and set off to explore the national park - there’s an easy 50km loop that came highly recommended by the hostel staff.
It was incredible. This is genuinely the most breathtaking place I have ever seen with my own two eyes - perfect, pristine jungle that looks so ancient I half expected a dinosaur to burst out of the trees at any second. Kong: Skull Island was filmed here, and if you, like me, watched that movie and immediately forgot the plot but couldn’t stop thinking about the scenery, you should definitely come to Phong Nha.
Alex had a blast driving as the roads were good quality and practically empty, allowing us to pull over and shoot photos at our leisure. The final stretch of the loop took us back over the massive bridge leading into town, and we got to watch the sun go down behind the limestone karsts. As we were looping back into town a couple guys on beat-up Honda Wins pulled up to ask for directions, so we all caravanned back to the hostel just as the sun set.
DAY 6 - PHONG NHA NATIONAL PARK
We did not spend close to enough time in Phong Nha. Tourism here revolves around the incredible jungle and massive cave network of the National Park, with activities like jungle trekking, kayaking, extreme spelunking, bird watching, bike riding, and more. You could probably spend months here and still only see a fraction of what this area has to offer. As it was, we only had one full day, so we had to make some hard choices.
By far the most popular option is the Dark Cave tour, where you kayak into a cave and can spend the afternoon on a beach within a cave or visit a natural mud bath. Alex and I are both slightly claustrophobic, so as cool as it sounded we opted not to do it. We didn’t have the budget or the time for some of the more serious cave treks or jungle hikes, as those need to be planned in advance. As a result, we spent the day doing what we do best: cruising around on the motorbike, snapping photos, and taking lots of coffee breaks. We also visited the aptly named Pub With Cold Beer, located outside of town, down an excruciatingly bumpy and very muddy dirt road. It's worth the visit (the views are great), but drive carefully!
In the evening we had drinks at our hostel, where we re-encountered the guys we’d given directions to the previous day. Turns out Craig and Ken were two old friends on vacation together and were doing the Hanoi-Saigon route same as us, but using only paper maps. How badass is that? That night we all wound up making plans to convoy to Khe Sanh, the next stopover on our trip, together.
DAY 7 - PHONG NHA TO KHE SANH
The further south we’ve gone in Vietnam the more we’ve noticed that distance is not the best estimate of how long a drive will take. This day was the perfect example of that. Google Maps told us it would be a hair over 200km to our destination, which we thought would be fine as we’ve covered that much in a day before with relative ease. Unfortunately, we didn’t take into account the winding roads and elevation gain, meaning that ‘easy’ 200km distance wound up taking us almost nine hours!
Looking back, I wish we’d left earlier and maybe even split up the drive over two days, because that was one of the most scenic drives we did the entire trip. We felt rushed because of the great distance ahead of us, so unfortunately we were not able to stop and enjoy the views as much as we’d have liked. As it was, it was tough to find decent info on where to stop between Phong Nha and Hue, our next major destination, so I was hesitant to plan any more stops.
As a side note, this drive goes through some very remote areas, so I strongly recommend bringing an extra liter of gas to tide you over between Phong Nha and Khe Sanh. We almost ran out of gas at one point, and luckily we found a station in the nick of time but we hated cutting it close like that.
The first part of the journey took us through the national park before turning south, so we got to revisit some of the beautiful views from our joyride. The weather wasn’t great - it was foggy and misty, and the further we climbed up the mountains the mistier it got - so visibility was awful but luckily there was almost zero traffic on the road.
Once we were clear of the national park we kept going through jungle hills and valleys - pure untamed wilderness interspersed with the occasional village full of stilt houses and waving children and herds of cows and buffalo. What impressed us the most was the quality of the roads - zero potholes, and the asphalt seemed new. That combined with the low traffic and stunning views made for a blissful day’s driving.
The day did feel eternal, though. We kept seeing signs for Khe Sanh but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and we kept passing small villages interspersed with vast stretches of wilderness as the sun sank farther down on the horizon. Suddenly it was pitch black and we were in the middle of nowhere, still an hour away from our destination, with only our feeble headlights for visibility. Now, driving a motorbike in Vietnam is terrifying under the best conditions but do it at night and it’s a million times scarier. We were dodging dogs, buffalo, and the occasional person as well as passing motorbikes, and it was raining and cold and windy - just a really unpleasant experience and one I would definitely NOT recommend to any sane person.
When we reached Khe Sanh and checked into our $12 hotel room run by a kind family, we practically wept with joy. After a dinner at the only place we could find still open (a pizza restaurant), we curled up in bed just happy to have survived.
Thanks for reading Part 2 of our series on motorbiking Vietnam! Stay tuned for upcoming posts by following us on Instagram @screwtheitinerary or liking us on Facebook.