This loop has got a little bit of all the aspects that makes South Central Vietnam special: you’ll experience everything from highways to dirt roads, deep country to busy cities, highlands to beaches, and unbelievable heat to honest-to-god chilly breezes. Hop on and join us for our five day Southern Vietnam Motorbike Loop through Nam Cat Tien, Da Lat, Nha Trang, and Mui Ne!
This year, instead of bumming around Saigon for Hung Kings holiday and Liberation Day, I decided to get the heck out of Dodge and take to the road. Joao’s best friend from Portugal was visiting us and we set up an exciting trip (at the last minute, naturally).
We eventually settled on a path took us northeast through the central highlands to the coast of the pacific and back (I’d been rooting for the Mekong Delta, but this way we got to go somewhere chilly). We encountered a few stumbling blocks along the way, but our journey was all the richer for them! It wasn’t more than a day before our journey became the destination.
5 pairs underwear
1 pair socks
1 pair Jeans
1 pair Shorts
1 long-sleeved t-shirt
We set out about 8:15am for our first destination: Cat Tien National Park. We’d been warned that this was a brutal drive by our roommates, who’d had an… unfortunate… moto trip there last fall (in the height of the rainy season). We had no problems, however, and made great time.
We also made the discovery mid-trip that the expressway is NOT for motorbikes – google maps does not distinguish between cars and bikes! We decide to take the Bien Hoa route and press forward.
The ride becomes nicer the farther from the urban areas you go. It took us about 5 hours, with a few stops to readjust butt muscles, stretch, and take a coconut.
Our last minute booking nabbed us a room at Cat Tien Farmstay, which was very comfortable, if annoyingly unable to provide food or directions to find food, and a bit expensive ($26 USD for an extra bed!!) – however, we offset it with cheaper stays later in the trip.
It was worth it. The farmstay itself was beautiful and comfy – a large main house provides ground floor and first floor rooms, with comfortable beds and pillows, open air windows, and hanging mosquito nets. All in all, despite the absurd asking price, we absolutely loved this night of our trip. The farm is on a branch of the river, and there’s a lovely covered patio with hammocks away from the house, including a sound system and fans so we could be as Western as we wanted until late. Cicadas and the sounds of the country make sleeping here a pleasure.
The only thing to see is Nam Cat Tien, the national park located just across the peaceful Dong Nai river – but that’s enough. It’s huge. Camping (…did not know this… promise to take it on next time…), hiking, biking, and jungle treks are all available, including some seriously involved ones, 10km and longer.
If I go back, you can be SURE that I’m doing the two day one where you sleep in a hammock in the jungle overnight, ford streams, and make best friends wth weird jungle creatures. It just needs to happen. My hiking boots need a workout.
Half of this stretch was interesting back roads and unpredictable country fun – right up until the moment it lets out onto a massive highway about halfway through. Rural to Urban, BAM! Just like that! Literally, dirt road and chickens to semi-trucks in the space of half a block. It was so weird.
We completed this in about 4.5 hours, which is apparently becoming our groove at this point. No major issues, besides the fact that a great deal of the highway in the second part is both a) heavily traveled and b) under construction.
It’s especially exciting to see just how fast the climate changes – we went from 95F at one end to 76F in Da Lat, and most of the change happened within 20 km of our destination – we were regretting the lack of more shirts! Fortunately, we arrived at the Truc Lam Pagoda outside the city literally minutes before a 1.5 hour downpour.
We stayed at our only traditional’ hostel the second night: Sleep in Da Lat Hostel (…oh, Vietnam. So practical.) This was the most difficult last-minute booking: Da Lat is the center of a HUGE Liberation Day celebration involving the military, which we didn’t know about, and I would not be surprised if we got the last couple beds in the city! The entrance to the place is very hard to find, but it works out ok. Beware the dachshund – he’s a leg-humper.
As for the hostel itself, we were in dorms and they were ok. We had a group of chatty, inconsiderate young French girls staying in our wing, which was obnoxious, but I guess I’ll never see them again, so I suppose there is some justice in this world.
The breakfast was terrible. Do yourself a favor and go find something on the street. It’ll be healthier and more interesting than the exceedingly lazy options for sale here.
Da Lat Market was a blast this night! Because of the holidays (I’m guessing?) the night market was a dizzying circus of clothes sellers, street food, special gifts, and more food. It was absolutely packed, with kids, families, and couples browsing and enjoying the night air.
Truc Lam Pagoda. Honestly, I’ve been here so many times I could care less at this point about this particular place… but it is really beautiful.
Da Lat Crazy House. On the other hand, I will never, ever, ever get tired of poking around this fantastical art project/hotel/attraction – I love seeing how much they’ve completed and what they’ve started between visits.
Absolutely DO buy one of Da Lat’s street food specialties – my favorite itrice paper pizza, or banh trang nuong! This is a sheet of rice paper topped with egg, sausages, veggies, sauces, then bbq’ed until crispy, rolled up, and devoured! Nem Nuong is also delicious. If you’re vegetarian, there’s an excellent veg place in the food court above the second market building (second floor, the building behind the main one on the roundabout).
The Da Lat Graveyard – I loooooove graveyards, and, although I’ve visited both of these before, they’re big and interesting places to poke around. Remember not to do anything that might be construed as desecration (just be your normal awesome self, in other words). At the top of the other graveyard there are hiking trails.
Learn to ride a motorbike – the hills and lakes surrounding Da Lat are PERFECT for getting the hang of the weight and feel of a bike, and how to accelarate around obstacles, turns, and manage in light traffic.. I did, way back when, and look at me now!
BEST DRIVE of my LIFE!
Not only was this the shortest drive of our trip (only 3 hours!), it was also the most beautiful for me. My family lives in Northern Wisconsin, which dosn’t really look all that different from the rural central highlands: pine trees, bluffs, lakes, and red, iron-rich soil. Zooming through the foothills on a gradual descent to the Pacific Ocean was absolutely the best I’ve personally felt in ages.
Along the way, you’ll be treated to a ridiculous number of spectacular photo moments – from misty, pine-filled vistas, to entire farms located on the sides of mountains, to meandering waterfalls and gorges so deep you’ll be amazed you could ever have gotten so high above sea level without realizing it… until your ears pop as you near Nha Trang
Remember to fill your tank before leaving Da Lat – there are some small towns along the way, especially closer to Da Lat, but much of this is mountainous, rugged beauty – and that means not a lot of civilization (yaaayyyy!). Also, beware cars and busses, especially when passing – buses, especially, will barrel along the sides of these mountains with impunity, and there are often precipitous drops on the other side of the guard rail, sometimes 100’s of meters. This did not stop me from fully enjoying this ride, and I have to say we made excellent time, because I like to go around hairpin turns at high speeds, apparently.
Phu Quy 2 Hotel was our last-minute choice for Nha Trang, and it was a cool 500k for a two-bed room with no outside window (confusingly, the jargon for this on booking sites is apparently “internal window,” FYI, WTF). It was decently comfortable, although the wifi was terrible. It did come with breakfast, which was edible. One major point in its favor was the inclusion of a separate shower in the bathroom – a fun luxury here in Vietnam.
BEACH! The beach at Nha Trang is enormous and beautiful (although we can say what we want about the scads of scantily clad Russian men)! There were a lot of families enjoying the holiday and the abundant seafood, including grilling fresh fish on the beach – which I now must try sometime… it looked, and smelled, amazing. The entire beach is public, but, just as at most VN beaches, you have to pay for the chairs. Don’t worry… they’ll come find you, just find a chair you like. 🙂
Buddha! Nha Trang hosts an enormous buddha carving, and it’s worth a visit.
Ritzy food! We also had our ‘fancy’ dinner of the trip – seafood hot pot at Nha Trang’s Lanterns restaurant! The hot pot wasn’t the star though… that was up to the seafood bruschetta. *OMNOMNOM*Beer! Being a popular getaway for Russians (who don’t need a visa to enter Vietnam), there’s touristy beer and food places everywhere. This was the only night on our trip we got properly sloshed, which probably set the mood for Day 4’s wretched 8 hour ride south… Still, super fun. And I had to use the bar wifi to update my instagram, so, obviously, we had no choice.
We are in full-on vacation mode at this point. We’re so relaxed we can’t even move faster than a kind of half-hearted shuffle. The simplest decisions take 10’s of minutes. I love it.
This was the day it all caught up to us.
To be fair, there were several mitigating factors: The length was longer than anything we’d tried so far. A lot of the highway was being seriously upgraded – more than 120km of on-and-off gravel, dust, and heavy machinery (if you’ve never tried driving a motorbike in very loose gravel… it sucks). Because we were traveling near the coast for much of it, there was a helluva wind, which didn’t make either driving or the dust any better. AND… they were harvesting a grassy grain that created a pollen storm, which Joao was allergic to.
And then there were our twin motorbike issues, of course.
Now, a Yamaha Nouvo is NOT the world’s best country-trekkin’ bike, but it’s what we had. It’s finnicky, gets terrible mileage, and are relatively prone to breaking down. On this leg of our trip, we had two minor problems, which probably ate up about 1 hour or a bit more total. First, I got a flat tire. (TO BE FAIR… I’ve been expecting this flat tire for 2 months now, so I wasn’t really surprised when the other shoe finally dropped). That was relatively easy – we only had to scout about half a km before we found a family that was (oh sweet lord, thank you) home for the holiday (most families are traveling at this time). It cost about 4x what it would in HCMC, but we were mobile again.
It wasn’t long before Joao’s bike (also a Nouvo) broke down – this time the culprit was his belt… ittotally shredded. Another half km of searching (with the help of some friendly locals) we found a shack that could do the job.
Both times we were very lucky, but I also feel that these would not have been insurmountable problems even if the circumstances were a little bit different. I have enough Vietnamese language skills now that I feel well-armed against many possible crises, and Southern Vietnamese might be the most friendly, helpful people I’ve ever met.
As it was, we arrived, disgruntled and exhausted, at our hotel near Mui Ne, a crazy 8.25 hours after departing Nha Trang.
My second favorite hotel of the trip, Cocosand Hotel in between Mui Ne and Phan Thiet proved to be a low-key, affordable, and relaxing finale for us. The accommodations are cheap and bare bones, but very clean and spacious. The family members we interacted with were so friendly and helpful, and even spoke a lot of English (a relief, after that Ride From One of Hell’s Suburbs). I WILL be staying here next time I come – for my money, the beautiful, sandy courtyard garden full of plants, coconut trees, and hammocks is the best place to get some reading and napping done.
Public Beach: I didn’t check this out (I’m not much of a beach person, generally speaking), but Joao and Jorge couldn’tshut up about how magical the water was, and how much better it was than Nha Trang. So there you have it, straight from their Portuguese mouths.
Red Dunes: Just north of Mui Ne proper, there’s a landscape that looks like it escaped from the Star Wars cutting room floor: red dunes as far as you could possible walk. There are also white dunes, but dunes are dunes when it’s 100F out, you know? I was so sweaty that going out to the dunes left me coated in fine, red sand in about five minutes.
There’s a bit to see in Mui Ne itself. There are some minor foreigner clubs on the strip between Mui Ne and Phan Thiet, and the fishing port is so picturesque that it practically begs to be waterpainted by lounging artists in berets on cool mornings.
Phan Thiet is the major economic power in this area, and is worth a stop for some fresh seafood, especially fresh squid! And I mean fresh, like, “still twitching” fresh.
Leaving Jorge behind in Mui Ne for one extra night (lucky guy), Joao and I packed it in after sleeping in, skyping with parents, and visiting the beach for a morning dip.
We didn’t even get through Phan Theit before being sidelined for 45 minutes – Joao had a flat inner tube and an absolutely decimated rear tire – they demanded immediate attention. I, on the other hand, demanded banh mi que and iced tea, and had a great conversation with a tattoo artist that was waiting to get his haircut next door.
The distance was slightly less than Day 4, but as we approached HCMC, the roads continued to get better and better… and eventually busier and busier. We made great time at first, only to lose serious momentum in the final stretch. The last 80 km through Bien Hoa and home into the heart of HCMC were the busiest I have EVER seen roads here – imagine: an entire population, returning from holiday in the country, all at once – and I feel lucky I only lost Joao once, and close to the city.
The ride today was about 5.5 hours long, which was less brutal than it sounds. Anyway, you know how it is with horses, right? When they know they’re headed home to the stable, they acquire a newfound intensity and focus – the same happened with us. It was drive, drive, drive!
We arrived home Sunday night at 7:30pm, and ready to do it all again soon!This was an incredible adventure. We took challenges one at a time and stayed positive for almost the whole trip, a few minutes on that horrible coastal ride excepted. I learned so much, and got to practice so much Vietnamese.
As we move into June, I’m putting the final touches on my Northern Mountain motorbike loop vacation that I’m taking with my cousin Chris, so if this interests you, please stay tuned