In a Nutshell: In my opinion, the greatest motorcycle day trip in not just Vietnam, but South-East Asia. You’ll depart Hue city, head south through Lang Co, Hai Van Pass and Da Nang before reaching Hoi-An on a varied cultural extravaganza of authentic Vietnam you’ll never forget!
If you are visiting Vietnam, you can’t miss this motorbike day trip. It’s that simple. It certainly has my seal of approval as the best, most varied motorcycle trip of this length in Vietnam and frankly, I’d claim it’s the greatest motorcycle trip in South-East Asia! That’s a big claim.
The reason is this, nowhere else in Vietnam will offer you such a well-rounded window into the diverse local lifestyles, scenic variety and juxtaposition between modern and traditional Vietnam in another distance this short. It’s perfect for those on a tight schedule, but most importantly it gets you out of the cities and into real local life. Which, after being enticed by photos, postcards and travel guides, was the reason you got on that plane heading to glorious Vietnam. It’s straight into the deep end, but if you’re interested in a new experience, a porthole into true Vietnam relatively safely and comfortably then you can’t go past what I’m about to entice you with.
So basically the point of this is that you’re travelling by motorbike. The feeling of ultimate freedom. Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is par for the course, a bucket list item and an experience you’ll never forget. Over 95% of the traffic in Vietnam is two wheels — the country is designed for it. You’ll be joining the locals directly, exposing yourself to Vietnam’s dry heat acclimatised only by the wind in your hair. Seeing Lang Co this way beats driving past it in a stuffy van awaiting your next toilet stop at a conveniently placed souvenir shop, you’ll have to trust me on that.
Alternatively, you could be crammed like cattle into a bus of questionable structural integrity without air conditioning, pointed inland and then rattle straight down the dusty, dangerous, uninspiring AH1 highway. You’ll quickly realise this is just a boring highway. Then, you will try to sleep it off, but the incessant high-pitched sound of bus and motorbike horns, plus the way your lungs have clogged with second-hand smoke from the Vietnamese driver finishing his fourth packet of cigarettes that morning while refusing to wind the window down will prevent you from a single wink of shut-eye. This leads you to eventually reaching Hoi-An frustrated and heading straight to the bar, and, sadly, none-the-wiser to what you have missed out on. May I add, this is is disturbingly common.
I’m going to be arrogant here and you’ll thank me: If you go down AH1 you are just transiting. You are leaving heaps behind and you are completely missing out. So if you have the time, don’t go down AH1 and follow this route. There! Keep reading.
What do you see?
The route begins in Hue city on the central coast of Vietnam, and your destination is Hoi-An, about 140km to the south. You’ll head off the beaten track, down the coastal roads intersecting the tourist hubs of Lang Co and Da Nang, both conveniently linked by the stunning Hai Van Pass popularised in that Vietnam Top Gear Episode you remember.
But…it’s between these two anchor points that’s the true icing to the cake.
The fishing villages, the lush green rice fields, the water buffalo, the cone hats, the religious influence, lush flooded green rice fields, mountainous views, secluded sandy beaches; Pho as it’s meant to be made…and small town life as it’s always been. It’s all there, it’s all real and you can delve into it. All in one day.
Not even one day, actually, you can actually traverse in as little as 6 hours. At a relaxing pace too.
But hell, why limit yourself, 6 hours? Pfft. Make a two-day trip out of it, don’t rush at all and stay a night in Lang Co to break it up. Take the detours, embrace every photo opportunity, enjoy swimming an undiscovered beach while watching fisherman catch fresh seafood. Then eating it. Explore the village mazes to the novelty of the locals. Buy their genuine local products, get to know them as you eat more of their mouth-watering cuisine and don’t forget to drink their rice wine (responsibly!).
It’s very rare you’ll pay local prices in Vietnam. But, with any luck, you will at village stops such as these, tourism is an untamed beast and you’ll feel quite out of place. Which is fantastic. You’ll also feel like Brad Pitt. You’ve never quite waved at so many people.
How do you do it?
You have two options: You can either rent a motorbike to tackle it yourself (recommended!) or if that isn’t suitable, you can hire a driver. They are both great ways with their own pros and cons. If you hire a drive, he will supply the bike but the cost is considerably higher as you’d expect. Experiencing it is far better than missing out, though, remember that, so there is no shame in conceding to not riding a motorbike if you aren’t comfortable. There are many reputable operators offering drivers on customised trips out of Hue; I recommend Vietnam Motor Trail — ask for Quy, tell him I sent you, then when you visit, buy him coffee, lots of coffee as he tells you everything about Vietnam in his great English. Can’t recommend him enough.
For those undergoing it themselves: Petrol is easily obtained in villages from locals, they will sell it to you in plastic bottles in the more awkward remote spots and there are stations in all the main village/town connections. The road conditions on this route are surprisingly fantastic. For the most part, it’s better than what you think, it’s mainly paved but does have some unsealed sections but the potholes are easy to navigate without it being too rough on the bike.
For this reason, you can even get away with making this trip on an automatic scooter. Rent one in Hue for just $10 a day including a full tank of fuel; you can drop it off in Hoi-An for a small one-way fee. Just please, not a Vespa. It’ll be rough going. Get yourself something like a Honda Airblade (very popular) and your golden. I didn’t have a problem! Some rental places don’t like you taking their city-slicker scooters out of the cities, so make sure you are clear with your intentions when renting.
Why is this route so great?
Unprecedented variety! Alright, so those large tourist hubs I mentioned, what do they offer? A lot. I’ll give you a run down.
You’ll begin in Hue City:
Hue is my favourite city in Vietnam. Much of its population lives within the historic walled bounds of the Hue Citadel. This fortress is even surrounded by a moat sourced from the Perfume River snaking through the city, there are ten gates that allow entry. Hue is a comparatively small, quiet coastal city that was once the capital. Due to its central positioning, it was unfortunately hit hard during the Vietnam War.
Lifestyles are conservative, right down to the bars and restaurants, which I find a welcome change in South-East Asia. It’s a relaxing, friendly atmosphere. The Royal Tombs of past Kings sit atop the marsh riverbanks, pagoda’s tower overhead, it’s just 8km out from the beach (unforgettable fresh seafood) and the jungle of detours take you onto scenic journeys into local life and the inland highlands are ingrained into a tour of Vietnam’s war history.
How’s that for variety. Hue is an awesome launch pad.
The street food can’t be missed either; you’ll become addicted to Bun Bo Hue (beef noodle soup – Hue style) and I ate more Banh Cuon Thit Heo (Rice paper rolled pork with peanut sauce) than I’m willing to admit. I’m not a foodie, but the cuisines impressed me here. Adventurous? Ech Xao Xa Ot. Fried Frog with Lemongrass. Tastes like chicken, kinda.
Also, I have to add this: Most tourists only spend a night in Hue. Almost all itineraries follow that recipe, but you’ll have to trust me again here, they don’t know what they are missing. For those that are willing to take some responsibility for their own travel (that’s you), Hue is a gold mine to exploration.
You’ll pass coastal villages and scenic mountain ranges into Lang Co:
A small picturesque fishing town, Lang Co is a weirdly shaped piece of land shielded by a lagoon on one side; and over 10km of white sandy beach on the other. It’s flanked by stunning mountainous Vietnam, contrasted with modern day engineering feats and traditional fishing methods. From my experience, it’s a must stop for seafood so fresh you’ve seen them catch your meal just ten metres away from the comfort of the restaurant, many of which are located physically out in the lagoon and reachable only by their own jetties.
Lang Co is still quite underdeveloped, popular with local tourists more so than foreigners. However, it’s ideal for either lunch or dinner stop-off, a swim to beat the Vietnamese heat or a stay overnight if you’re travelling north to Hue. If you’re heading south, remember it’s only another hour onto Da Nang for more abundant accommodation and city life! They’re close but they’re like chalk and cheese.
Continuing, you’ll traverse the spectacular Hai Van Pass!
The jewel of the region, one of the greatest ocean drives in the world. It’s a big claim and in this instance, I don’t need to borrow any more of your trust, as Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear was quoted as saying those exact words. Hai Van Pass or in English “Ocean Cloud Pass” is a stunningly scenic route, etching hairpin turns and long straights high into the mountain range. To say the least, it lends itself to being best enjoyed by motorbike and this alone makes it worthwhile. Late afternoon, an eerie mist joins you, adding to the aura. It’s a fun road to navigate; I’m guilty of taking joy rides across it every chance I get. Luckily for you, the pass links both Lang Co and Da Nang, you don’t even need to go out of your way. There is very little traffic, there’s usually just a handful of motorbikes because the trucks, buses and other heavy vehicles are required at Lang Co to continue down AH1 through the tunnel instead. How unfortunate.
Hai Van Pass is quiet and relaxing, so embrace it at your own pace – enjoy the postcard vistas and breathe the crisp ocean air for 21 kilometres of some of the best time you’ll ever spend on a vehicle.
Descending the other side will lead into the modern city of Da Nang:
Da Nang is different. I love it. It’s the largest city in central Vietnam, a breath of fresh air to the region providing a modern, commercial hub to the area.
Best of all, though, Da Nang avoids the tiresome commotion of Ho Chi Minh City yet still offering a charm unlike Hanoi, in the form of a coastal beach paradise. You can relax here and just five minutes inland sits a stylish, clean and organised cityscape. The nightlife is bright and active. The cuisine is spectacular. Palm trees line the far stretched white sands backed by tall, block hotels reminiscent of an early Australian Gold Coast. The 72-metre ‘Lady Buddha’ stands dominant to the peninsula, she’s visible as you take a dip in refreshing blue waters. Just ten minutes south sit religious cave systems of the limestone Marble Mountains to an otherwise flat landscape. Da Nang’s eastern backdrop of Ba Na Hills is a perfect day trip too, if not just for the 6km world record cable car.
Does Da Nang sound like nowhere else in Vietnam? Certainly. A no-brainer to check out and visit? You’d be surprised. Da Nang is often overlooked or completely missed by tourists, in part because it’s outshined due to its proximity to the tourist haven of Hoi-An.
But you now know better, integrate Da Nang into your itinerary, please.
The final stretch passing beach front resorts into Hoi-An!
Hoi-An. The Vietnam tourist favourite that needs no introduction, but I’ll give you one anyway. It’s a mecca really, for good reason, I haven’t yet met anybody that disliked Hoi An. The ancient town and the focus of the tourist masses is a world heritage UNESCO site and seen as one of the best examples of 15-19th century Chinese and Japanese trading influences in Vietnam. If this means nothing to you, don’t fret; the old buildings that are set amidst lively, colourful, and mazey walking streets of food, shopping and culture give Hoi-An a unique feel I haven’t otherwise experienced in South-East Asia. You’ll take a lot of photos here. You’ll also eat a lot of that food.
The riverfront is lined with a myriad of culinary options, your daily struggle here will be making a decision. It’s tough. If you like fresh beer, it’s 3000 VND a glass ($0.14 USD), which is the cheapest I’ve seen in the country. One of the best parts about Hoi-An is that transportation is primarily push bike, a relaxing back pedal (pun absolutely intended) from the noise pollution you’ll be exposed to elsewhere. It’ll allow a peaceful discovery of the markets, locally made handicrafts and tailor-made silk clothing Hoi-An is so well known for. If you’ve been hustled for ‘tailored’ suits in Thailand, don’t let that shy you from getting one done in Hoi An, most of them are quality, it’s an institution here. If the owners of these stores don’t find you first (they will) then just ask around.
Accommodation options in Hoi-An are generally cheap and comfortable ‘home stay’ accommodations. While you’re here, don’t forget the opportunity to take cooking and handicraft lessons with the locals. Although touristy, these lessons are incredibly popular and for once, it’s because the Vietnamese here do an excellent job.
So, you said ‘relative safety’? Please elaborate…
Alright, something to consider. I’m going to play the role of your mother.
Riding a motorbike in South-East Asia is dangerous. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Heed this advice: If you’ve never ridden a motorbike or scooter before, Vietnam is not the place to learn.
Country-wide, there are an estimated 40 road deaths a day. The majority occur on the highways, where high speed, neglected vehicle maintenance, poor road conditions and careless driving take their toll. I’ve witnessed countless accidents, some quite horrific; foreigners regularly wear their story physically. It’s not a joke, guys, neither you nor I are invincible.
If anything terrible was to happen on this route, you could be about two hours away from the nearest hospital in Hue or Da Nang. Ambulance response times are not like London. Keep this in mind when those locals offer you that potent jungle juice halfway between Hue and Lang Co.
Anyway, enough disclaimer.
When you visit Vietnam, you’ll quickly realise traffic in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is insane. You’re easily bottlenecked into it whenever you are on the road. Luckily, this route from Hue avoids having others breathing down your neck, you also avoid the dangerous highways and instead hug the quiet, safe coastal roads dissecting villages and farmland which are populated only by those that live there. They’re more of single-lane paved paths than sealed roads; very little traffic, glorious riding.
You aren’t entirely safe, though. There’s water buffalo to dodge, cows to weave between and from Vietnamese testimony, the rogue pigs are prime offenders at lunging into traffic. Apparently they are as solid as a rock and become more aggressive when hit. I don’t recommend investigating.
So, what do you think?
Chances are, if you’re visiting Vietnam you’ll cross through Hue city. After enjoying the itinerary favourites in Hue of the Imperial City, Thien Mu Pagoda and all of the Royal Tombs, you’ll likely be pressed into a tourist bus the following day off to Hoi-An on the advice of travellers around you or your hotel’s reception. It’s the ‘done’ thing.
But, don’t do that.
If you’re open to some self-directed adventure, game enough to embrace the Vietnamese roads and have an insatiable appetite for seeing Vietnamese culture as it was, is, and likely will be into the future, you’ll be suitably rewarded with this short motorcycle trip encapsulating authentic Vietnamese lifestyle, stunning countryside scenery and everything in between. This is usually unheard of in just one to two days. But, now you know, and whether you’re in Vietnam for one week, two weeks or three months, this motorbike journey is for you and one of the best in South-East Asia.
Oh and I know, yes, it’s extra effort. It’ll require a bit of organisation and maybe a step outside your comfort zone, but I promise you’ll get out what you put into it.
This is what travel is about.
Put it on your list!
P.S If you have done this trip, or one similar within South-East Asia I’d love to hear your thoughts. So share it with me in the comments below!