If you’re visiting Vietnam for any length of time you’ve probably started looking into the possibility of buying a motorbike to spend 1 – 3 months exploring this magnificent country. If you’ve started considering it, and as long as you have experience riding a motorbike, do it. It is one of the most rewarding experiences in Southeast Asia, and I’d recommend it to anyone considering this option to just take the plunge. You can read more about motorbiking in Vietnam here.
If you’re doing the route from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi or visa versa you’ve got several options of route to take. A lot of people opt for speed and head down the Q1A which runs along the coast, as between Nha Trang and Hoi An there aren’t any major tourist destinations, however to blitz past the central highlands of Vietnam would be a mistake. Instead take the AH 17 through the center of Vietnam and experience true local culture, get lost in the mountains and be mesmerized by the thrill of the adventure.
Taking the highway will probably take you half the time and you can get to Hoi An in two days from Nha Trang whereas going through the highlands will take 3 or 4 days at a minimum. If you are in a rush to get to the north then you may feel like making the sacrifice, I’d suggest you don’t as to miss the central highlands is a shame and for me it was some of the most scenic driving in Vietnam. In fact, in my opinion driving through the highlands was even better than the famous Hai Van Pass.
I was joined by my buddy Max and his girlfriend Patricia at the start of my journey and we headed off from Nha Trang cutting across the country towards Buon Ma Thuot on our old and dishevelled bikes that we paid only $200 USD for. Clearly we had to nickname our bikes and Betty was the name for my Honda Wave. Driving through the mountains was stunning, gone were the busy streets of the cities, the boring endless journey on highways replaced by winding mountain roads surrounded by dense greenery and awesome views. In one day you can get across from Nha Trang to stay in Buon Ma Thuot overnight, that is if you don’t have any technical difficulties like I did. Unfortunately my gear sprocket went and needed to be replaced which wiped a couple of hours out of our journey, don’t worry though even in the mountains if anything goes wrong there is alway a mechanic close by to fix or troubleshoot bike problems.
In Buon ma Thuot you’ll find some pretty cool waterfalls as well as Lak Lake the largest body of water in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. From Buon ma Thuot head north towards the next major town of Pleiku. Winding through mountainvillages on pretty decent roads was an absolute treat, there were so many places to stop and interact with the locals or to just admire the natural beauty of the highlands.
From Pleiku to Hoi An is still another 7 hour drive, so it’s best split over two days. There isn’t another major town in between the two so this is where it gets a bit more adventurous as the chances are you’ll have to find a guesthouse in a small village somewhere along the road to Hoi An. From Pleiku you’ll drive through another town of Kon Tum, on the other side is a magnificent standing White Buddha on top of a hill which is well worth stopping off at.
The drive will take you through the mountains, over lakes and rivers, past small local villages with friendly children waving you through and there’ll be no traffic for miles, it really is blissful driving conditions. We stayed in Dak Glei that night, which I would not recommend, considering how friendly all of the villages were that we stopped off in this was the only one that wasn’t. I had an issue with Betty and the one mechanic in the town saw that I wasn’t a local and tried to charge me exorbitant amounts for a minor repair, sufficed to say this was the least friendly place on the route through the highlands, so try to avoid Dak Glei if you can.
The route between Dak Glei and Hoi An was my favorite part of the entire drive, don’t get me wrong the entire route is absolutely incredible but after Dak Glei it gets even better. We drove this part of the leg on Vietnamese New Year so all of the locals were in celebrating and every village we passed had some kind of party going on.
Driving through the mountains I heard some pumping music coming from somewhere so thought I’d follow the music to see what was happening, once I found it I accidentally drove past and all of the locals jumped out of their seats at the sight of a western tourist on a motorbike and ushered me over to join them. They couldn’t speak any English and my Vietnamese is limited to google translate but such is the hospitality of the Vietnamese people they cracked me open a beer, at 9am I might mention, sat me in a seat and tried their hardest to make me feel welcome. This for me was the highlight of the entire experience, sitting in the mountains listening to some hardcore trance music, with karaoke going on and thousands of photos being taken of the special western guests was a genuine experience I’ll treasure forever.
After a couple of hours partying with these guys it was time to get back on the road for the final leg of the journey to Hoi An. This part of the drive was arguably the best part of the drive in all of Vietnam, the scenery is exquisite, the roads are pretty well maintained and when we drove it there wasn’t another sole in the mountains. After another 3 or 4 hours we made it to Hoi An, at the time we were thankful to get there as we were a little battered and bruised after driving almost 1000 KM in 4 days, looking back it was an incredible adventure, not knowing where you’d sleep that night, whether the bike would make it or what was in store for you that day. In a heartbeat I’d do this again, in fact I definitely will do this route again, it may be tough at the time but for the memories it is well worth it and I couldn’t recommend taking the highlands route more highly.