History and culture of Vietnam on two wheels

Nga Do
Have you ever explored Vietnam with a motorcycle? It's really great! Travel the long way connecting cities with agricultural villages, connecting majestic mountains with beautiful beaches. The journey below will be an example of that excellence:

Vietnam's majestic north

Offering an idyllic farming lifestyle, peaceful Mai Chau is an enchanting first stop on the northern loop before continuing towards the golden rice terraces in Sapa. Home to the country's highest summit and gateway to the Hoàng Liên Son mountain range, Sapa has been a tourist hotspot for years.

Most riders find themselves here for at least a night to experience cultural home stays with the Hmong people. Farther north, the real adventure begins, with a ride to Ha Giang via the ethnic markets in Bac Ha. Sizable Ha Giang is the entrance to the Dong Van Karst Geopark, a mountainous landscape on the border of China that requires special permits to visit.

Arguably the most exquisite terrain in the entire country, the drive to Dong Van and onwards to Bao Lac is home to 17 minority groups, beehive-like peaks and the deepest canyon in Southeast Asia, Ma Pi Leng.

Temperatures can plummet in these mountains and the rough roads can leave the body bruised and shaken, but the discomfort is canceled out by the thrill of experiencing Vietnam's most epic panoramas.

Beyond the caves of Phong Nha

Some 560 kilometers south of Hanoi lies a cave system that has kick-started the development of tourism in a region that was once one of the poorest in the nation. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is best known for the recent discovery of the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, and adventurers have since been flocking to the park and its bucolic village Phong Nha in droves.

But there is more to the town than just the colossal caves. Set between glorious rice paddies and stunning karst mountains, Phong Nha and its amicable locals are so captivating that I decided to hang up my helmet and call it home for three months after first riding through.

The "Cave Kingdom" has gone from relative obscurity to being one of the most visited tourist destinations in all of Southeast Asia. Enterprising locals have capitalized on Phong Nha's newfound fame and created a slew of fascinating excursions. Beyond the caves, Phong Nha is a blissful oasis, tranquil without being sleepy, and destined to be the real highlight of any Vietnam journey.

Navigating the Ho Chi Minh Trail

One of the greatest military achievements of the 20th century winds its way through the dense forests of Central Vietnam. During the Indochina and Vietnam Wars a series of paths connected the powers in the north with the soldiers in south. Collectively known as the Ho Chi Minh Trails, they were an entire system of hidden transport routes that crossed through the jungles, over borders and even out to sea. Today, the sealed Ho Chi Minh Highway follows the inland passage through some of the country's deepest jungle.

Most motorcyclists choose to follow this route, and the Western Ho Chi Minh Highway is the most fabled section of all. From Phong Nha, the road cuts through the canopy, offering 240 kilometers of twisting, narrow pavement. Only a handful of settlements are scattered along the way, making this one of the most remote trips in the country.

The highway ends at historic Khe Sanh, the location of an infamous battle during the Vietnam War. A visit to the open-air museum, scattered with tanks, vehicles and aircraft from the war is an integral part of the journey. This day's ride requires extra concentration and preparation. A breakdown or accident here could result in hours without seeing another person. But, ultimately, that just adds to the appeal. 

Fishing villages and coastal delights

A first-timer to Vietnam can be forgiven for looking at a map and assuming the best scenery will be found on Highway 1. While appearing to hug the coast, the reality is that this road is treacherous and in constant disrepair. However, there are stretches of coastal splendor that can be enjoyed with enough research.

The renowned Hai Van Pass, made famous in an episode of "Top Gear," winds between the cities of Hue and Da Nang, with pillboxes giving a historical element to complement the ocean vistas. To avoid the stream of tourists plying this pass, venture farther south to Chi Thanh. Here lies Ganh Da Dia, Vietnam's own Giant's Causeway, and an extraordinary ocean ride that ends in Quy Nhon.

Riders rarely traverse these paved roads that connect fishing villages with rice fields. Highway 1 roars only kilometers farther inland, but here wandering buffalo will be your main hazard. A few days of palm-shade repose at the legendary Jungle Beach will prepare the body for the final stretch.

Floating Markets of the Mekong Delta

The Mekong River flows 4,350 kilometers from its origins in the Himalayas through seven different countries, eventually spilling into the South China Sea. Riding south from Ho Chi Minh City leads to the pulsating Mekong Delta. Teeming with wildlife and lush mangroves, here the locals live in harmony with the mighty river.

The delta forms a labyrinth of narrow alleys that are best explored by boat. In the larger sections vendors sell fresh produce and fish from their vessels in charismatic floating markets. A loop back towards Saigon signs off the final chapter of this motorcycle journey.

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