Home to the Bahn Mi sandwich, incredible jungles, Phở, the world's largest caves, outstanding coffee, and possibly the sweetest people on Earth, Vietnam is a gem of a nation. Whether you see the mainstays, or have the time to motorbike from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, the land of "independence, freedom, and happiness" will captivate you like no place else.
While the waterfalls, jungles, caves, beaches, and rice fields are nothing short of awe inspiring, the most beautiful aspect of Vietnam is the people. I have never met so many affable strangers, or seen such incredible kindness, generosity, and hospitality consistently given to foreigners. The Vietnamese are a warmhearted, communal people who will fill you with light and love. And that is why I implore you to see as much of this country as you can, the only proper way...
...by motorbike. 2,000km from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. If you have the time, this is the most bucket list worthy thing you can do. Make some fellow adventurous friends, buy a motorbike, and get a 90 day visa so that you can do this in 6-7 weeks. I rushed it in 1 month, and it wasn't enough time. But it was the greatest month of my life.
Tying your backpack to your bike every morning with bungee cords, driving for hours under the hot Vietnamese sun, taking in one of the most aesthetically pleasing regions in the world, it's sensory overload. The two decisions you need to make, Honda Winn or Honda Wave? And North to South, or South to North? The Winns do look cool...and you'll have plenty of time to look cool at every shop you stop by to have it repaired because they break down so much. And I say go Saigon to Hanoi, for Hanoi is a treat best served last.
budget and bikes
Like Cambodia, Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries in the world to travel. My daily budget was about $20, spending about 50 cents for a beer, $1 for local bus rides, $5 for dorm beds, and $1.50-2.50 for noodles on the street. To buy a motorbike, you'll see lots of ads on billboards around your hostel and others as well. Scope them out, and try and find a Honda Wave or a Honda Winn around $300. Make sure that the seller gives you the blue slip (pink slip), keys, and do NOT do this trip without a great helmet. Protect that lump 3 feet above your ass...its YOU.
- Dorm Beds: $3.00 - $9.00
- Private Room: $6.00 - $20.00
- Street Food: $1.00 - $3.00
- Western Food: $2.00 - $5.00
- Pint of Beer: $.70 - $1.30
- 2-liter Water: $1.00
- Laundry: $.65 - $.90
The Honda Winns are easier to sell, and will do better up hills than the Waves, but they do break down a lot. Do a cost benefit analysis, and choose the bike that feels right for you. Regardless of the model, always keep a large water bottle filled with gas in the event you run out in the middle of nowhere, and try to change your oil every 500km. When you sell your bike, try and sell it to a backpacker. If you sell it to a mechanic, they'll most likely rip you off, and then sell the bike to a backpacker anyway.
If you are not able to do the full road trip, most people choose to spend time in bustling Ho Chi Min, relaxing beach town Hoi An, and quaint Hanoi. You can visit those destinations, but feel free to be creative and pick another place to explore! If you do have the time to do the full motorbike trip, then below you'll find the cities I recommend hitting in order, should you go from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, South to North.
ho chi minh City/saigon
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon, is the largest city in Southern Vietnam. Populated by roughly 8 million people, Ho Chi Minh played an important role in the Vietnam War, and both the War Remnant Museum, and nearby Cu Chi Tunnels offer an introspective look into the impact the U.S. invasion had on the nation. As an American, I believe it is beyond crucial to take the time to learn about the effect of U.S. invasions from the countries who experience them first hand.
To get a truly objective understanding of any conflict, one must look and listen from multiple vantage points, not just through the lens of the country who did the invading and thus must justify being 'world police.' The War Remnant Museum is located within the city limits, and you can book a bus to take you to the Cu Chi Tunnels for a tour through the actual tunnels and traps the Vietnamese used to defend against their Western invaders.
Stay at the Vietnam Inn Saigon! It is a GIGANTIC hostel, with freezing air con, lockers for every bed, and a rooftop bar that has an amazing panoramic view of the city, as well as a pool table. The rooftop bar is a great place to find more people to start the 'Top Gear' bike trip with, or who have just completed the trip from Hanoi, who will gladly share stories and tips with you. Keep an eye out on the billboard downstairs for bikes for sale. Also, each day you stay, the front desk gives 2 free beers during happy hour! Not to mention their adventurous pub crawls through the city, free tank top included. And be sure to check out Bến Thành Market, a great tourist destination for souvenirs, textiles, and local cuisine.
With a population of only 25,000, Mui Ne is a beautiful coastal fishing town that's well known for it's windsurfing, kitesurfing, sailing and other water sports. There are two main beaches, Ganh Beach and Suoi Nuoc Beach, both featuring a number of restaurants, hostels, and shops. Stay at Mui Ne Backpacker's Village to meet a ton of other backpackers, relax by the pool, enjoy an 11am - past midnight happy hour(s), projector screen showing all kinds of sports events, and a game room with a billiard table, table tennis, foosball and dart board.
For the ultimate beach view, check out the Dragon Beach Bar. This lounge is literally on the sea, and offers out of this world ocean vibes. There are a variety of places to hangout there, including actual beds, which is both hilarious and amazing. If there's a DJ, the place can get PACKED.
Check out the sand dunes, with your choice of either red or white. The white are stellar, but require 4-wheel drive vehicle to explore properly. If you book a tour, get a written itinerary to be sure your guide adheres to the terms you paid for.
An incredible place to be be submerged in nature, Dalat is surrounded by pine forests, hills, lakes, and waterfalls. The town itself is centered around a lake, and I can recommend staying at Mr. Peace's, Wolfpack, or Dalat Family hostels. Now it depends on your vibe, but for anyone who finds that they get recharged from natural beauty, this a spot to dedicate significant time to explore. You can go canyoning and trekking, and all of the hostels offer bookings through their front desk for different excursions and activities.
Nha Trang is yet another beautiful beach town, known for its scuba diving and nearby islands. Big sections of it's beach are roped off for swimmers only, which provides a refreshing break from jetskis and boats. At the top of the list of things to do here is checking out the Po Nagar Cham Towers, which are still actively used by Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists. Stay at Mojzo Inn! The staff are so warm and joyful, were some of the nicest people I met in all of Vietnam, and provide excellent advice for where to find amazing local street food. Be sure to eat at Lanterns Restaurant, and book a table in advance or be prepared to wait. `
Atop the hill in Nha Trang sits a massive white Buddha statue, resting on a lotus blossom, and visible all over the city. It's a sight to see, adorned with memorial statues dedicated to Thich Quang Duc and the buddhists who died in self-immolations in the 1960's.
Hoi An is one of the most popular destinations for tourism in Vietnam, and you'll frequently meet expats, especially Russians, who have left their home countries to become permanent fixtures of this quaint old town. There's so much to see, experience, taste, and explore that I absolutely recommend staying a week here, if you've got the time.
Stay at the Sunflower Inn for a budget experience that includes a pool and free breakfast. While a great place to party and meet people, it is a 20 minute walk to the Old Quarter. But with motorbikes, that's a nonissue. For great nightlife and parties, check out the infamous Why Not Bar, and Tiger Tiger Bar.
Hoi An is well known for its tailors, and the ability to get incredibly low priced, high quality suits, shirts, and dresses custom made. You can easily get a tailor-made suit for $100, fitted button down for $20, and a dress for $50. There are literally thousands of tailors, but the best is Miss Forget-Me-Not, located at 37 Phan Chau Trinh St. Their work is incredible, and they are wonderfully genuine people.
The culinary experience in Hoi An is like an orchestra for your taste buds. While I do encourage you to be courageous and actively explore the town to find its great tastes, I will pass on the advice of one Mr. Anthony Bourdain, which is to eat the GREATEST BAHN MI in all of Vietnam...
Bahn Mi Phuong, located at 2B Phan Chau Trinh – TP, is a national treasure. Their baguettes are crisp and warm, their meats perfectly seasoned, their vegetables, herbs, and spices pull everything together for the palate. I ate there multiple times, and met travellers from all over the world coming to enjoy the amazing explosive flavors of Phuong's Bahn Mi.
In between relaxing on the beach, getting custom threads, and strolling through the old town for souvenirs, be sure to check out the Japanese Covered Bridge, Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, and the Tan Ky House. All are beautiful representations of the diverse architecture and rich history of this town.
To get to Hue, you'll ride across the infamous Hai Van Pass, which deserves it's name; a trek through the heavens. You'll experience incredible views at incredible elevations, surrounded by green mountains, and bright blue waters. And if you get lucky, you'll get caught in the mist that made our ride surreal.
Home to the magical Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Hue is absolute heaven for those who find nature to have healing properties. In addition to some of the largest caves in the world, the park also contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Stay at the Easy Tiger Hostel for great atmosphere, chill vibes, live music, and big lockers.
Although touristy, the boat trip through the Phong Nha Cave is very enjoyable. The boat is a fixed price, and can fit up to 14 people, so its a great way to make friends by combining your group of friends with other groups there trying to lower the price.
The boat goes into the cave, and docks so that you can explore the extensive cave system on foot. Adding to the spectacle is the knowledge that this cave was also used as a hospital and ammunition depot during the American War, and was heavily bombed during that time. In addition to the Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave is skippable but still very cool, and the Dark Cave (Hang Toi) is AMAZAZAZING.
Hang Toi is by far the most adventurous cave experience in the park. You'll zip line above the water, swim in the cave, and explore pitch-black passages, wading through huge puddles of mud. After the adventure, a kayak trip back to the jetty leads to more water zip line fun.
Ninh Binh was one of the cities I regrettably did not spend enough time in, due to the rushed schedule of our 'Top Gear' road trip. Like so many other places in Vietnam, it is surrounded with picturesque rural beauty. Boat tours through the river are essential, as well seeing the vast Tam Coc rice fields. Rent a bicycle, and get lost in this nourishing city!
Its been said so many times, and for good reason; HANOI ROCKS. Vietnam's capital city is home to 7 million inhabitants, and over 5 million registered motorbikes, so if you've made the trip from Ho Chi Minh, maneuvering through it's streets will be the final test of your skills! Hanoi is a charming city, with one foot planted firmly in the past through it's colonial architecture, and one foot in the future with innovation and modern developments.
Central Backpackers Hostel is the best spot to stay for backpackers, hands down. Free breakfast, lockers, freezing air con, and a great common area. Finish off your bike journey by checking out Hoan Kiem Lake, Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, and eating delicious street food, like the Bahn Mi's we bought from this woman 3 times a day. This Aunty is the Hanoi Bahn Mi QUEEN!
While exploring Hanoi, make flyers advertising your bikes that are now for sale, and post them in EVERY hostel you see. Once you've sold your bikes, celebrate by booking the Halong Bay Tour to Castaway Island, which is a fitting booze cruise to cap off the road trip of a life time! Halong Bay is an incredible region in Northeast Vietnam, saturated with thousands of limestone islands adorned with rainforests, and given quirky names based on their shapes. It's an exquisite place for a retreat, and one of the most unique experiences in the country.
If you have the time before your visa expires, Sapa is a place worthy of exploration. A rural valley surrounded by mountains on every side, the agricultural town has recently experienced a boom in tourism. It now serves as a launch pad for backpackers to trek through the endless rice terraces and tiny tribal villages surrounding the area.
I recommend arranging a homestay, where you can get to know a family who lives in one of the villages. The experience that comes with this will allow you to capture the pulse of a world lightyears away from wherever it is you call home, and prove to be one of the most enriching times you'll have in your life. Hike through Muong Hoa Valley, see the Love Waterfall, climb the Ham Rong Mountain, people watch in Quang Truong Square, buy/sell/trade at Can Cau Market, and pat yourself on the back for making the effort in getting to know beautiful Vietnam.
- Take the time to learn how traffic flows before starting your road trip. Get an understanding of how to be a cohesive part of the chaotic ballet of motorbikes.
- When you refuel, fill a large empty water bottle with gas/petrol to keep with you in case you run out.
- Vietnam has some of the best street food in all of Southeast Asia! Be adventurous, and to be safe, eat at places that are already crowded with locals.
- Right of way is given to the largest vehicle. Be prepared for oncoming trucks to turn against your lane of traffic, even on the highway.
- Make sure your bike's headlight, as well as both rear and front brakes work when going on a test drive.