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 three. If you missed parts one and two, you can catch up here and here.
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During the middle portion of our motorbike journey we drastically slowed our pace, stopping in Hue and Hoi An for several days each and allowing ourselves time to slow down and really take in the sights around us. As a result, this post is largely going to be a travel guide to those two places.
We didn’t really intend to slow down quite so drastically, but it just ended up happening that way. In Hue we enjoyed the local vibe and the amazing food available at dirt-cheap prices. And in Hoi An we loved our homestay so much we had a hard time tearing ourselves away, even if the town itself was a little too touristy for us. Above all, we were suffering from a bit of burnout, which should come as no surprise if you read our blog regularly! We love a slow pace of travel, and being in a new city each day after a long and grueling ride on the motorbike got old fast.
That’s part of the reason I strongly recommend allowing yourself more time than you think you’ll need when motorbiking through Vietnam. You’ll always miss out on some things - there’s just too much to see here - but if you have a limited amount of time you not only risk missing out on even more, but you’re not giving yourself any breathing room in case you get sick of driving day in and day out.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get into the journey!
Our itinerary for this part of the trip was as follows (distance in parentheses):
DAY 8: Khe Sanh to Hue (180 km)
DAY 9-10: Sightseeing in Hue
DAY 11: Hue to Hoi An + Hai Van Pass (120 km)
DAY 12-15: Sightseeing in Hoi An
DAY 16: Hoi An to Dak Glei (170 km)
DAY 8: KHE SANH TO HUE
Before leaving Khe Sanh, we stopped at the Combat Base, which is now home to a small museum and some American helicopters. Khe Sanh was a U.S. military outpost during the war, just south of the DMZ, and the area was the site of a huge battle during a critical phase of the Tet Offensive. Like in Phong Nha, this whole area still has a huge number of unexploded ordinances just lying in the jungle. It’s mind-boggling to think of the sheer amount of destruction that took place here during the war, especially compared to how normal and calm it seems now.
Craig and Ken, who we’d convoyed with from Phong Nha, met up with us at the combat base and from there we took off toward the city of Hue. I think if we were forced to a favorite driving day, it would be this one. Not only because it was easier and shorter than the previous day, (where we rode from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh in a beautiful but endless marathon) but also because it was blissfully scenic in its own right. Occasionally Craig or Ken would pass us to take the lead and they’d both have the hugest smiles plastered on their faces. They told us later this was the best single day of riding they’ve ever had, and these are two guys who’ve been taking extended motorcycle trips their whole lives!
Once we left Khe Sanh we proceeded due south on the Ho Chi Minh Road, not far from the Laotian border. Like the previous couple of days, we were treated to bountiful jungle scenery, rolling green hills, frolicking water buffalo, rice paddies, and even a rushing river. The roads were winding but the curves were perfect for motorcycles - according to the guys, you could really lean into the turns and enjoy the ride. There was almost no traffic to worry about, gas stations were well-placed, and the roads were extremely well-maintained, all making for a perfect day’s ride. We stopped quite often to check out the view and rest our butts, letting ourselves relax a bit because today’s 180km ride was going much faster than the previous day.
Unfortunately, taking our sweet time on the road meant that we arrived in Hue right at the start of rush hour around 4:30 pm, which we had NOT anticipated, and discovered that it was not the quaint old citadel town we imagined but rather a chaotic and bustling metropolis! I don’t think I’ll ever forget Alex fearlessly leading our convoy into Vietnamese traffic and plowing through intersections like a local as schoolchildren on electric bikes cruised next to us and tourists on the street filmed the chaos. I’d occasionally turn my head to check on Craig and Ken, and they kept up with us but they looked so utterly bewildered I couldn’t help but burst into hysterical laughter, which I’m sure alarmed more than a few passersby.
After dropping the lads at a hostel we cruised on to our own hotel, located across the river from the tourist area. As I’ve said before, hotels in Vietnam are usually an incredible value and totally affordable on a backpacker’s budget. We stayed at the Charming Riverside Hotel, which has a sister property just called the Charming Hotel that’s located within the main tourist area if you want to be closer to the action. Charming Riverside offered free breakfast, and the hot water, AC and wifi were all stellar which are the three most important things to us.
After dinner (see our Hue recommendations below), we grabbed drinks with Craig and Ken one last time - they were plowing on to Hoi An the following day, so this was farewell. Being able to spend two days riding with new friends was a real highlight of the trip and we will always cherish those memories - it added a new level of fun to the whole experience and made for some fantastic stories. We were able to learn a lot from them as experienced motorcyclists, and we left feeling newly inspired to take risks and have adventures. If you’re reading this, Craig and Ken, we love you guys!
DAYS 9-10: SIGHTSEEING IN HUE
Our time in Hue was fairly predictable if you know us at all: we hung out in cafes, caught up on work, and ate as much local food as we could stuff in our tummies. The city’s main tourist point of interest is the ancient Imperial Citadel north of the Perfume River, which we spent an afternoon exploring. This is the site of the ancient capital of Vietnam. It’s well preserved in parts and absolutely huge, so we enjoyed learning about Vietnam’s imperial history. Be forewarned that it does get very warm and there isn’t a ton of shade, so pack water and a hat.
Other than the citadel we spent most of our time wandering and restaurant-hopping in the area south of the river. The city itself, particularly the area with most of the hotels and restaurants, is pretty compact, so we actually didn’t use the motorbike within the city.
Our favorite restaurants in the city included Serene Cuisine which is in the lobby of a hotel but has an incredible tasting menu of local food for around $5/person, Madam Thu which is extremely affordable and has a hip atmosphere, and Golden Rice which despite being full of tour groups is genuinely delicious. For cafes, Cay Coffee has amazing coconut coffee, TA Coffee which has good espresso and a nice balcony to people-watch from, and Nook Cafe which is on a quiet side street. The tourist district turns lively after dark and hostel bars are the place to go. DMZ Bar and Why Not Bar, both weirdly well-themed, are good places to meet other travelers, and most are motorbiking through Vietnam in one direction or the other.
The most famous local dish here is bun bo Hue, so make sure to eat as much of that as you can. Most tourist restaurants serve it but, as is the case with much of Vietnam, the best bun bo comes from the random hole-in-the-wall open-air restaurants. Pop into one that looks good, and you’re sure to find a decent meal. The local pomelo salad is also worth trying.
Despite the fact that we didn’t do or see that much, we enjoyed our time in Hue. It doesn’t feel ultra-touristy, but it’s a relatively populous city with lots of activity around every corner, so it felt lively and fast-paced.
DAY 11: HUE TO HOI AN (HAI VAN PASS)
We were so pumped for today’s ride because we would be cruising the Hai Van Pass, the mountain pass made famous on Top Gear that put motorbiking Vietnam on the map. People rave about it. But to be honest, we left feeling pretty underwhelmed.
The road quality is poor compared to the ones up north, and that’s probably because there are WAY more people on this pass. A lot of people seemed to be doing Easy Rider (local driver, tourist in back) motorbike tours, making the route very congested. It didn’t help that the weather was poor - the ride is famous for its coastal vistas, but with rain in the forecast, the visibility was bad and it was fairly cold.
The Hai Van Pass itself only takes like 45 minutes, and after that we came down out of the mountain and onto the coastal road from Da Nang to Hoi An, which was frankly not great. Da Nang just isn’t a scenic town to drive around. It was flat and industrial and there was no good scenery, so we had nothing to distract us from the miserable pain in our butts. Since the day was very short - only 120km - we hadn’t stopped for lunch or any coffee breaks, and our butts were FURIOUS about it. We were shifting uncomfortably on the seat, trying to ease the horrible pain, and it got so bad that we had to stop for a 20-minute break less than 10 kilometers from our destination.
Finally we made it to our wonderful accommodation, Lila Homestay. It’s situated in the rice terraces surrounding Hoi An and run by an incredibly warm, kind woman who cooks the yummiest breakfast in town. I seriously cannot recommend this place enough - it’s clean and cozy, an amazing breakfast is included, and the owner and her sister are seriously the most lovely people in all of Vietnam. They always made sure we had lots of water whenever we’d head off into town, and gave us lots of advice about what to do each day. It was because of Lila Homestay that we wound up spending five full days in Hoi An, and even so it was hard to leave.
Our homestay provided free bikes - most guesthouses here do - and it took about 15 minutes to reach the ancient town. As you’ll read below, we found the town center to be quite intense and were glad to be staying a bit away from it all.
DAYS 12-15: SIGHTSEEING IN HOI AN
Hoi An is really hyped up on the tourist trail, and it seems like everyone has wonderful things to say about this small, quaint ancient town. We were really looking forward to our time here, but to be completely honest we found it overwhelming. Hoi An is, by far, the most touristy place we visited during our five weeks in Vietnam, and because the city is so compact there’s no escaping the pervasive feeling of touristy-ness. There are literally hundreds of tailors, souvenir shops, coffee shops and pricey (for Vietnam) restaurants lining the streets and it all feels designed for the sole purpose of raking in those sweet sweet tourist dollars. Touts and shopkeepers here are really aggressive, and I actually got dragged into a tailor shop literally the second I stepped into the ancient town! I hate being put in those kinds of situations, and it made me really stressed.
Now, I’m not knocking the enterprising people of Hoi An for responding to tourist demands. Nor am I saying Hoi An sucks. By the end we thoroughly enjoyed our time here, and the city has many redeeming qualities. I’m just saying that if you’re looking for a local, authentic Vietnamese experience, you should stick to the nearby city of Da Nang. But if you’re content to explore an admittedly charming old town, shop for knickknacks, get clothing made, and enjoy some Western food or a wine bar for once during your trip through Vietnam, then by all means you should visit Hoi An.
The most popular thing to do in the city center is simply stroll around the Ancient Town. Most of it is painted a lovely bright yellow hue and the buildings are well-preserved, and though these days most have been turned into shops there are still a few temples and historic sites scattered throughout. You can buy a ticket for 120,000 VND that gives you access to all the temples and the Japanese Walking Bridge for the duration of your stay, but it really felt like a money grab to us so we didn’t buy the ticket. Just to the left of the Japanese bridge there’s a separate footpath that you can access for free, so definitely don’t buy the ticket just to reach the part of town across the bridge.
At night most of the Ancient Town turns into a walking street and motorized traffic is ostensibly banned (though in reality motorbikes will still plow through randomly). This is the most popular time to explore the city because thousands of lanterns are lit up all throughout the ancient town. You’ll have to be patient if you want to take decent photos, though, since everyone has the same idea.
If you come to Hoi An, you’ll likely end up getting at least one article of clothing made. I went to two different tailors, one (Bao Diep Tailors) on recommendation from an acquaintance and one (Surprise Tailors) that I found via TripAdvisor. Finding a decent tailor was honestly way more stressful than I expected it to be: there are literally hundreds in business and it’s really hard to know what a fair price is. A lot of places advertise super cheap prices but you definitely get what you pay for, and pricing depends on what you’re looking to have made.
Most places are adept at working from photos and will expect you to have some of whatever you want made, so come prepared. You are expected to bargain a bit and will likely get a discount for having multiple pieces made. I wound up paying an average of $50 per item, not bad! I had a jumpsuit made at Bao Diep and a sundress + a formal dress made at Surprise, and all three pieces turned out beautifully, though I felt I had a more personal experience at Surprise. At both shops I had three fittings to ensure the clothes turned out exactly the way I wanted them.
I suggest visiting multiple places with your ideas/photos in hand to get a few estimates. You want to feel comfortable voicing your opinion and asking for changes, not getting talked into something you’re not 100% happy with, so go with your gut when choosing a tailor, not just the cheapest offer.
One great thing about Hoi An, regardless of crowds, is the food. Because this place is so popular with international tourists, you can find everything from wine bars to Mediterranean to vegan, and of course plenty of tasty Vietnamese cuisine. The local specialty here is cao lau, a noodle dish with pork, fried lard, and local herbs, all in a delicious sweet-and-savory sauce. It’s only found in Hoi An - the noodles, chewy and wheat-y, are a closely guarded local secret utterly different from the pho and bun rice noodles of mainstream Vietnamese cuisine. It’s also probably my single most favorite Vietnamese food of all. Seriously, this stuff is like crack to me. I could eat it every day. You can get a bowl from any street vendor for 20,000 VND ($0.80) but our absolute favorite version can be found at Restaurant 339 Tra Que. You’ll need a bicycle or scooter to reach it, but I promise it’s worth it! Other local favorites include white rose dumplings, com ga (chicken rice) and banh beo (rice ‘pancakes’). At our homestay, we got to try a different local food each day for breakfast and it was universally delicious.
Other restaurants we loved include Phi Banh Mi for the best banh mi in Vietnam (no exaggeration), The Hoianian Wine Bar for a more upscale dinner, White Marble Wine Bar if one wine bar isn’t enough, and Samurai Kitchen for tasty Japanese. For cafes, we loved Phinh Coffee (try the lime cold brew, I cannot emphasize this enough!) and Mia Coffee which has nice upstairs seating. The Central Market in Ancient Town is a great option for cheap eats. It’s not a relaxing experience: workers will literally drag you to their stalls and throw menus at you, and every stall kinda looks the same, but prices are cheap and the quality is decent. We liked Mrs. Thu here for good cao lau.
DAY 16: HOI AN TO DAK GLEI
We were so sad to leave our lovely homestay - after a breakfast of homemade cao lau and lots of hugs, we finally said goodbye. Leaving Hoi An on the coastal road, we enjoyed reasonably warm and clear weather, but as soon as we got out of Hoi An and started heading west, our luck changed. As is almost always the case in Vietnam, the weather is completely unpredictable and an hour into our trip it suddenly began to pour without warning. In the few minutes between pulling the bike over and getting the ponchos out and over our heads, we managed to get completely soaked and our sneaker-clad feet remained wet for the remainder of the 4-hour drive. I don’t really have any tips on how to avoid this, but be aware that at some point during your motorbiking journey you will be uncomfortably damp for extended periods of time, and, if you’re like us, you may spook yourself with google searches of the term ‘trench foot.’
On a more positive note, the drive was stunning - heading west we eventually rejoined the HCM Road and got some more scenic mountain views, plus a waterfall, a river, and lots of gorgeous hills and valleys. Unfortunately there was a lot of construction and a fair amount of sleeper buses on the road, so that plus the rain made things a little stressful. It wasn’t a particularly long day, though, and we found a nha nghi right on the highway called Thanh Binh Mini Hotel. We couldn’t find a room in this area on any booking engines, but I found this one while perusing the area on Google Maps and we just showed up and got a room. It was shabby but reasonably clean and comfortable, so for $10 USD we couldn’t complain.
No one in this area spoke a lick of English and we were clearly the only tourists for miles, but we managed to find a quick dinner of stir-fried beef at a com (rice) restaurant across the street from the hotel and crashed early, ready to begin the following day’s journey to the province of Kon Tum.