It is not down in any map; true places never are.Herman Melville
Feb 23-Mar 5 2017
As we continued our motorbike trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, the second half of the route would take us along the Central Coast to the cities of Hoi An and Hue, then inland once again along the Ho Chi Minh Road from Phong Nha and finally into Hanoi. Along the way we would pass through some of the most breathtaking landscapes either of us had ever seen.
Our first stop after descending from the central mountains was to the popular destination of Hoi An. It was fairly smooth sailing along the way, stopping for lunch in a small village where several locals came by and introduced themselves and wished us a safe journey. A little further outside of Hoi An, we ended up on a single lane road that was under some heavy construction we had to navigate, then onto to some narrow paths along the coast and through plantations, we eventually made it though after a very scenic detour. We would stay for several nights at a wonderful guest house on one of the many islands in the delta of the Thu Bon river, just a few minutes ride outside of Hoi An, and not far from the nearby beaches.
Hoi An is famous for it’s Old Town, which has many preserved historic buildings on narrow, pedestrian only streets, set among an island in the river as well as the mainland with many bridges connecting. The city is also adorned with lanterns everywhere, and at night the site is quite magical. During the days while Maggie worked I would explore the nearby coconut palm plantations and various country hamlets surrounded by vegetable gardens and rice fields. At night we would both head into the city for drinks and dinner. While Hoi An is historic, the shops are anything but authentic and is definitely a tourist oriented place. None the less, we enjoyed a break from Vietnamese and had some fantastic tacos one night, and an excellent Greek grill platter for another. Our last day in Hoi An was spent on the beach, soaking in the rays and enjoying the warm water.
Following Hoi An, we headed for Hue, the old capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. Along the way we crossed the coastal Hai Van Pass, passing through the clouds and mist as we zig-zagged up and back down the scenic stretch of road. Once in Hue we would stay for a few days much like we did in Hoi An. It ended up raining each day we were there, so we mostly relaxed and rested, but on our last day we ventured out for one of the highlights of the trip, a visit to the 19th century Citadel surrounded by a moat and thick walls, home to the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines, and the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home. It was an immense and beautiful complex, partly restored following damage during the Vietnam war. I did have a minor mishap, standing on a step and slipping into one of the many ponds within the Imperial City, but since it was already raining I was able to laugh it off and continue with only minor discomfort, mainly wet feet. Hue ended up being a a lot less touristy then Hoi An, mainly skipped by Westerners but still popular with the Vietnamese as it is full of important historic sites, playing a large role in Vietnam’s history.
From Hue we traveled onward to Phong Nha, a town within a national park by the same name. The journey there would be our longest day of riding so far, about 5 hours, including passing through the DMZ, the old boundary between North & South Vietnam. The extra travel time was worth it as we would spend the next week staying put while exploring the area. The journey would also be our first encounter riding in the rain thus far. Luckily, it wasn’t too heavy and all but disappeared about halfway through the rather uneventful journey. We decided to take a more direct route then planned since the weather wasn’t the best, an easy decision to make. The landscape of Phong Nha was out of this world, consisting of Asia’s oldest karst rock formations, full of caves to explore, and surrounded by beautiful turquoise and emerald rivers. We visited three caves while we were there. The first and most spectacular was Paradise Cave, reached following a short hike and a lot of stairs. It is the largest cave in the world that can be explored without a guide. We also visited the 8 Ladies Cave, which we couldn’t actually enter as it was more of a shrine to a group of young girls who died hiding in it during the war. Lastly, was the Phong Nha Cave, a water cave only reachable by boat. The other days were spent riding around the National Park and taking in the amazing scenery.
Next up we would travel for the final two days of our epic journey along the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, staying in a small town and another national park along the way. Leaving Phong Nha was more spectacular scenery, with very little traffic and good roads, so we were able to make good time. We would leave the mountains of Phong Nha and enter into more flat agricultural land where we spent the night in the small town of Tan Ky, a place definitely not used to seeing visitors. We got started the next day fairly early and headed for our final stop which would be a guest house in Cuc Phurong National Park, where we stayed on the second floor of a traditional stilt house with a local family. Since we arrived early we took the opportunity to visit a nearby waterfall, down a 10 mile winding dirt road along a scenic river passing through many small villages.
The following day and another early start we set off for the final stretch to Hanoi. The last day of riding was short, the landscape quickly changing from rural towns to the suburbs and large highways of the city. Entering Hanoi, it felt much larger than Ho Chi Minh City, although Ho Chi Minh City is actually bigger. Navigating the streets of Hanoi to our hotel, through the dense motorbike traffic like fish in a river, we had finally arrived. After nearly 1,500 miles and almost one full month traveling, we would successfully complete our journey across Vietnam.
Some stats from our travels include taking 27 days to complete the journey, traveling on 14 of them, experiencing 1 flat tire, 1 minor fall, and 18 tanks (4.5l) of gas for each of us. The motorbiking journey wasn’t quite over yet though. Even though we covered almost all of Vietnam, there was still some areas further north that we just had to see. We would take a train from Hanoi with our bikes to the Chinese border and head for Sapa to start a 3 day loop. While we thought the scenery couldn’t get any better then the landscape around Phong Nha, it actually did. You can read about it in the post Motorbiking Vietnam Part III. You can also learn about how we planned the journey and purchased the bikes, as well as the adventures during the first leg of our journey in the post Motorbiking Vietnam Part I.