Motorbiking Vietnam Part 4: Days 17-25

Motorbiking Vietnam Part 4: Days 17-25
 

Whew. It's been a minute, guys. Our wifi connection on Gili T, Indonesia, was barely strong enough to post to Instagram, much less upload enough photos for a blog post, so we've been silent for over a month. But we're in Korea now with amazing wifi, so we have a LOT of catching up to do. So, without further ado, here's the final installment on our motorbiking trip through Vietnam!

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Cherry blossoms in bloom at the Linh Phuoc Pagoda in Da Lat.

Cherry blossoms in bloom at the Linh Phuoc Pagoda in Da Lat.

The final third of our journey took us through a diverse series of landscapes in southern Vietnam, from the beach towns of Nha Trang and Quy Nhon to the hills and valleys surrounding Da Lat and from rural farms near Kon Tum to the peaceful nature of Cat Tien National Park. Other than Da Lat, where we stayed four nights and could have done much longer, we didn’t spend more than one night anywhere. As a result, this portion of the trip absolutely flew by, and by the time we reached Saigon we were absolutely exhausted and ready to be off the bike. Still, we were sad to be done with our journey and it goes down as easily the best and most memorable thing we’ve done during our year of travels. 

ITINERARY

Our itinerary for this part of the trip was as follows (distance in parentheses): 

DAY 17: Dak Glei to Kon Tum (110 km)
DAY 18: Kon Tum to Quy Nhon (190 km)
DAY 19: Quy Nhon to Nha Trang (200 km)
DAY 20: Nha Trang to Da Lat (180 km)
DAYS 21-23: Sightseeing in Da Lat
DAY 24: Da Lat to Cat Tien (170 km)
DAY 25: Cat Tien to Saigon (150 km)

Views from our 'hike' (which lasted 20 minutes due to me being sick) in Da Lat.

Views from our 'hike' (which lasted 20 minutes due to me being sick) in Da Lat.

DAY 17: DAK GLEI TO KON TUM

We were pleased to learn that this part of Vietnam kinda looked like California wine country - we definitely felt strong Napa vibes at times as we cruised through grassy hills and farmland. Sunny warm weather, minimal traffic, less road work and beautiful scenery meant we had a near-perfect day of driving. The views may not have been as impactful as the jungle landscape near Phong Nha, but we enjoyed this day’s ride nonetheless. It was a short day, too - we left around 8:30 and made it to our accommodation by noon. 

We spent the night at Vietnam Phuot Homestay just outside Kon Tum. Though the city is fairly large, the homestay was out of the way enough to feel quiet and relaxing, and it’s run by a family who cooks all meals onsite. Food isn’t included with the price of the room but we definitely recommend getting dinner because it’s tasty and a great social experience - the guests and family all eat together so it’s a good way to meet people. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the lovely garden at the homestay and only went to town to find an ATM, so unfortunately I can’t recommend any activities in the area. 

DAY 18: KON TUM TO QUY NHON

After a huge breakfast at the homestay, we took off and made our way east to the beach town of Quy Nhon and the beginning of the second (and final) coastal segment of our journey. Today’s drive was long - 4.5 hours - but wonderfully scenic, with mostly jungles and rolling hills for the first half of the day, but as we got closer to Quy Nhon we were going through more built-up city scenery. As is common on these long days, the absence of beautiful views meant there was nothing to distract us from the discomfort of sitting on a bike for so long, and because we’d eaten such a huge breakfast we weren’t hungry enough to stop for lunch. As a result, by the time we got to Quy Nhon we were very uncomfortable and eager to get off the road. 

Quy Nhon is a smallish town and though our hostel seemed to be full, we didn’t see a whole lot of people - locals or otherwise - out and about. We stayed at John & Paul Inn, a rock music themed hostel (yes, named for the Beatles members). We were in a four-bed dorm that was spacious and had an ensuite bathroom, which was a plus, and the environment was friendly and social. 

In the afternoon we strolled along the beach and explored a few streets in town, but overall it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot to do here. Our hostel was actually the #1 rated restaurant in town on TripAdvisor but our dinner was nothing to write home about, if that’s any indication. Overall, we felt the town was not worth staying in for longer than a night, and we weren’t in a particularly beachy mood anyway. 

DAY 19: QUY NHON TO NHA TRANG

Today’s drive was easily our favorite coastal drive of the whole trip - the Hai Van Pass gets a lot of hype, but we found this to be way more scenic and less stressful. Leaving Quy Nhon we proceeded due south along the coast and pretty much kept to that road the entire day. It was a beautiful day: tons of sunshine, warm but not too humid, and there was a light ocean breeze keeping us cool. We enjoyed gorgeous ocean views complete with white sand and crashing waves, and toward the end of the day we briefly went through a winding mountain pass before arriving in the city of Nha Trang. 

We found the traffic in Nha Trang to be the worst of anywhere in Vietnam - honestly, even Ho Chi Minh City felt manageable after this, as the drivers here are utterly ruthless and everyone seems to have a death wish and a daredevil streak. If you hesitate for even a fraction of a second, 5 people will cut you off in traffic. It’s nuts. As a result, getting to our hostel was incredibly challenging and within the city there was no cool ocean breeze so we were just melting to death in our driving clothes (read: long sleeves and layers) by the end of the ride.

Nha Trang is extremely touristy and frankly we didn’t like it. There are loads of huge resorts along the beach and most restaurants and shops have signs in Vietnamese, English, and Russian to cover all their bases. Prices are higher due to the influx of tourists, and most of the food options were mediocre. Most of the backpackers who come here are looking to do two things: beach and party, and we were too wiped from several days of nonstop driving to do either.

That being said, we did enjoy our stay at iHome Nha Trang. It’s a pretty basic hostel (we stayed in a cramped 4-bed dorm) with a good rooftop chill out area and a bar/restaurant, plus free beer every night, and the location is quite good on a side street close to restaurants, shops, and the beach. For food, we really enjoyed our Indian meal at Yashoda Indian Restaurant. The food was authentic and we loved chatting with the owner about Kerala, his home state. 

For us, Nha Trang was fine for a night, and if you’re social I think it’s a good option, but the overwhelming touristy-ness of the city frustrated us, and honestly we didn’t even bother to check out the beach. We didn’t have any regrets about moving on early the next morning. 

The Crazy House is worth a visit if only for the gorgeous views of Da Lat.

The Crazy House is worth a visit if only for the gorgeous views of Da Lat.

DAY 20: NHA TRANG TO DA LAT

After a quick breakfast at our hostel, we hit some CRAZY traffic leaving Nha Trang. At one point we went through a roundabout with literally hundreds of cars, buses, scooters and all other kinds of motor vehicles going in every direction imaginable. Anytime Alex would find an opening in the traffic someone would squeeze through going the other way. It was insane! 

With our bags sticking out on the back of the bike it was quite hard to cut in and out of traffic but Alex did an amazing job. Once we made it out of the city, which took about an hour, we had an absolutely gorgeous day of driving - not quite Phong Nha but definitely similar. The morning was flat and easy for a while as we made our way through rice fields with beautiful rolling hills in the background (aka standard Vietnamese countryside), but eventually we began making our way up in elevation as we climbed up and around a series of small mountains on the westbound road to Da Lat. We saw a few serious-looking bikers on huge motorcycles zooming past us on the mountain passes and it looked like they were having a great time. 

Unfortunately the road condition was not great - there were a few stretches of gravel where it seemed like they’d half-paved the road and not actually put the tar down to glue the gravel in place, and we almost wiped out, but luckily we were going slow! Despite the challenge, the ride was stunning, and the higher we climbed the more breathtaking the views. Right outside of Da Lat we came off the final hill and coasted down into town, where we checked into our hostel. 

We stayed at Mooka’s Home and this was easily our favorite hostel in the whole country, if not all of Southeast Asia. We had a cozy private room with our own bathroom and it felt brand new. The best part of staying at Mooka’s is the rooftop BBQ that takes place every other night. For about $5 you get all-you-can-eat meat (or tofu), veggies, baguettes and all kinds of side dishes, all self-cooked at tabletop grills placed along a table big enough to accommodate all the guests. Plus, beer and wine are dirt-cheap, so it’s easy to go nuts. The local wine, Vang Dalat, isn’t gonna win any awards for taste (it’s like Two Buck Chuck) but it pairs fine with food, and for $3 I honestly was just happy to have red wine. This meant that twice during our four night stay we got casually wine drunk over dinner with our hostelmates and I ate more baguettes than I care to admit. We were two very happy winos in Dalat, that’s for sure.

More Crazy House weirdness.

More Crazy House weirdness.

DAY 21-23: SIGHTSEEING IN DA LAT

The possibilities for activities in the area surrounding Dalat are nearly endless, and because the weather here is cooler due to the elevation, it’s actually pleasant to spend time outdoors! This is a hugely popular starting point for hiking, waterfalls, and all kinds of outdoor pursuits.  Canyoning is by far the most popular activity here, but unfortunately I was suffering from a sinus infection the whole time we were here and as a result we didn’t do as much as we’d hoped to. 

Owing to its history as a hill station for the French during the colonial period, Da Lat has a very strong French vibe, and the architecture wouldn’t be out of place in the European countryside. The town even has a replica of the Eiffel Tower!

We loved our afternoon at the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. It’s a beautiful space to walk around and entrance is free, but do note that you can’t photograph inside the main first-floor prayer room. The temple complex is huge and the details are so intricate, we loved exploring every corner of the site. Plus we were there during cherry blossom season which made everything extra atmospheric. We also visited the huge Golden Buddha which, especially compared to the pagoda, is a very quick visit - it’s really just the Buddha statue and a small garden situated on a hill, but it’s extremely peaceful up there and certainly worth a visit.

By far the weirdest attraction in Da Lat is the Crazy House which is exactly what it sounds like: a funhouse built for tourists. It’s worth a visit just to experience the bizarre atmosphere, though the vendors posted up just outside are aggressive and will try to force you to buy fruit/trinkets/whatever they’re selling. Also recommended is the Maze Bar which is the most popular nightlife option among backpackers we met. 

Dalat is the most renowned coffee and produce-growing region in the country, so it’s no surprise that 99% of our time here was spent hanging out in cafes. We particularly loved Bicycle Up Cafe, to which Alex dedicated a Roasts Around the World post. La Viet Coffee was also amazing, and the roastery/warehouse is right onsite so the interior is huge and fun to explore. For food we liked Trong Dong for affordable local food in a nice setting, Dalat Train Cafe for a cute atmosphere (you can eat in a traincar!) and yummy soups, and Vinh Loi for delicious pho (we recommend trying the spicy one).

Nectar of the gods @ Bicycle Up Cafe, Da Lat.

Nectar of the gods @ Bicycle Up Cafe, Da Lat.

 One of the joys of Da Lat is the abundance of delicious vegan/vegetarian restaurants all over the place. Our absolute favorite was Hoa Sen - the veggie banh mi is particularly good, and the menu is huge. It’s not uncommon to see big groups of monks or nuns shuffling in around lunch. 

All in all, despite the fact that we didn’t do all that much in Da Lat, and also despite the fact that I was sick as a dog literally the entire time I was there (nothing like a hefty dose of antibiotics to cramp your style), we loved this city, and I think I would go so far as to declare it our favorite overall place in Vietnam. The vibe was decidedly less touristy than other cities we’ve been to, the food and coffee were wonderful, and there was so much to do in the surrounding area. It’s a relaxed but fun city and we could have easily stayed for weeks. If we ever return to Vietnam long-term, Da Lat will definitely be our home base. 

The entrance to the mesmerizing Linh Phuoc Pagoda.

The entrance to the mesmerizing Linh Phuoc Pagoda.

DAY 24: DA LAT TO CAT TIEN

I still had not recovered from my sinus infection by the time we left Da Lat, but unfortunately we had to keep moving as we were due to return our bike in Saigon in just a couple days. As a result, the day was pretty rough on me, although Alex enjoyed himself. The weather was reasonably cool and we hardly encountered anyone else on the road for the whole 4.5 hour drive. 

I had some difficulty identifying a good stopping point for our final night on the road. Eventually I landed on Spirit Garden Guesthouse after stumbling around on Google Maps for a while, and it ended up being one of our favorite stays of the whole trip. It’s located close to Cat Tien National Park, which is renowned for its diverse animal population (lots of monkeys!) and the guesthouse was near a small village but secluded enough to feel very quiet and private. 

Our private bungalow overlooked the river and it could not have been more perfect for us. It was really basic - fan-only, wooden slats for floors, and lots of nature and wildlife around (the cicadas were particularly raucous), but despite being in the middle of nowhere the wifi was strong! The vibe was relaxed and peaceful, and there was nothing to do but enjoy the peace and quiet. We had home-cooked dinner that night at the guesthouse with fresh veggies picked from the garden and the whole experience could not have been better. Our only regret was not arriving sooner so we could have stayed another night. 

The view from our bungalow porch. Not pictured: a water buffalo just out of frame frolicking in the river.

The view from our bungalow porch. Not pictured: a water buffalo just out of frame frolicking in the river.

DAY 25: CAT TIEN TO SAIGON

The final day of our long journey through Vietnam brought us one final test: survive an ugly, hot, miserable drive to Ho Chi Minh City and then brave the city’s infamous traffic to return the bike and make it to our hostel in one piece. I’m happy to report that Alex passed the test with flying colors. I mean, I survived too, but I can’t exactly take any credit since I was just sitting on the back of the bike. 

After a truly delicious breakfast of fresh fruits from the farm (mango, papaya, banana and pineapple, all home grown), we took off for the home stretch. Remember how I mentioned that our first day on the road from Hanoi was ugly, dusty, and made us question our decision to undertake this journey at all? Well, the ride to Saigon was just as bad if not worse. The first hour was decent, but after that we started making our way through the sprawl of the outer reaches of Saigon, and it was nothing but exhaust fumes and traffic for the rest of the day. 

Things only got worse once we made our way into the city proper. At this point Alex is basically an honorary Vietnamese and handled the traffic like a local but even so, this was the most intense experience we’ve ever had on a bike. There are more motorbikes than you could possibly imagine zooming in every direction at once, weaving in and out of traffic and occasionally even using sidewalks as a shortcut! It should go without saying that no one follows traffic lights here, so we found the best strategy was just to follow the lead of other scooters around us.

Still, against all odds we made it to our hostel around 2pm, but we were right across the street from a crowded market and there was no parking within several blocks, which is absolutely unheard of in Vietnam. Feeling discouraged, we opted to return the bike earlier than planned, which meant we had to ride around in Saigon rush hour traffic!

Mercifully, it was a hell of a lot easier to navigate the crowded streets without the burden of our luggage weighing us down, and we dropped off our beloved Honda Blade without incident. We even got the full security deposit back! See Mom and Dad? I told you we’d be fine!

It was very sad to drop off the bike so abruptly - after spending 25 days with Stormy, we’d grown very fond of her, but  as it turned out, we got along just fine in Saigon with walking or Grab/Grab Moto. I’ll share more details of our eight night stay in Saigon in an upcoming blog post, including hostel details and a gazillion food recommendations. For now, though, that’s a wrap!

SAIGON! Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on this incredible city.

SAIGON! Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on this incredible city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our journey through Vietnam as much as we enjoyed taking it. This was one of the most intense and rewarding experiences we’ve ever had. In a year full of incredible experiences and wonderful places, this journey will go down as the number one highlight and something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. 

If you’re considering a similar trip, or even just wondering whether Vietnam is worth a visit, I wholeheartedly encourage you to add it to your itinerary! Vietnam is an incredibly special place and you won’t regret going. We’re already fiercely nostalgic for the 5 weeks we spent in the country, and I know we’ll be back someday soon. 

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