Today we are going to tell about the most adventurous and fun part of our trip so far: we spent a week exploring the central part of Vietnam on a motorbike. We were driving empty mountain roads, enjoying amazing views and feeling completely free. Our trip turned out to be almost 650 km long.
We came to the central Vietnam after we went to Hanoi, Sapa and Halong bay. We took a train from Hanoi to Hue and spent 12 hours on third level hard berths — it turns out that they are much more comfortable than they seem. Plus these tickets are the cheapest.
Hue was the capital of Nguen dynasty, and there are many interesting historic sites like the Imperial city and numerous tombs. The atmosphere here is very different from Hanoi: the pace of life is much slower, and it even seems that the time has stopped here. That felt nice for us after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Today we are telling about our motorbike trip, so we won’t write too much about the cities where we stopped.
After a few days in Hue we wanted to go to Da Nang and Hoi An which both lay to the south of Hue. At first we weren’t sure which transport is the most convenient, cheap and fun — a train, a bus, a taxi or a motorbike. After reading some reviews, we decided that motorbike was the best option, although we weren’t sure that we could all the way on a scooter, especially with all the rainy weather.
During our research we found out that many tourist companies offer motorbike tours. A guide shows you the road and some interesting spots, and you either drive the motorbike yourself or sit behind the driver. These tours became popular after Top Gear made an episode about Vietnam. The hosts especially admired the Haivan pass that lays between Hue and Da Nang.
We didn’t like that option — we wanted to stop whenever we’d like and decide by ourselves where to go next. Also, the price of these tours is unexplainably high: about 200 dollars for one person for a two days trip, although you can rent a bike by yourself for 5-10 dollars per day. And as you can guess, this is exactly what we did. We came to the nearest motorbike rent shop and rented a bike for 5 dollars a day. (By the way, the owner didn’t take the money upfront or make any kind of receipt).
As it turned out, our motorbike was pretty old, and the helmets were not good. But we understood it only when we rented a nice scooter in Mui Ne. But as long as we thought that our bike was fine and it doesnt’ get any better, we liked it and had no serious problems with it during our travels in central Vietnam.
One more thing: you need Vietnamese driver’s license to drive a motorbike in Vietnam — the international license is not enough. But it isn’t a very strict rule, really — police pay much more attention to whether the driver and the passenger are wearing helmets. Also you need to go in the speed limit which is usually 40 km/h. We drove by police officers about 4 times, but they didn’t stop us.
The traffic on the Vietnamese roads is pretty chaotic, especially in the big cities. There are hundreds of motorbikes, and everybody goes wherever they want. For example, if a person doesn’t feel like crossing the road and getting to the right line, he will just drive on the wrong lane facing the flow.
But when you’re actually driving a motorbike, you start getting the logic of the traffic. You just need to be careful. Andrei was usually driving the motorbike, but Natasha also learned to drive it. It is not that hard, especially if the motorbike has automatic gear. Outside the cities the traffic is usually much more relaxed for the exception of highways with big trucks and higher speed limits. So to feel more confident, try choosing the smaller roads. If you ever have a chance, try driving a scooter, it’s fun!
The fuel costs about 1 dollar per liter, and there are many gas stations on the way. We never found ourselves in the middle of nowhere without fuel, but we did pierce our wheel once. We fixed it for 2 dollars in a motorbike shop nearby.
So we took one of our backpacks and left the second one in our hotel in Hue (which was returned to us safe and sound in a week) — it would be difficult to drive with two backpacks on one motorbike.
We only had one problem with our plan: rain. It is wet season in November in the center of Vietnam, and it was raining every single day in Hue. The receptionists in our hotel (which we highly recommend, by the way) looked at us with worry while we were getting on our bike under the rain, but nothing could stop us at that point!
Hue-Da Nang (130 km)
On the first day we were supposed to drive 130 km from Hue to Da Nang. We chose to go via a small road instead of a highway, and it turned out that it runs through numerous tombs. It was raining the first 40 km — so hard that we were almost alone on the road. We didn’t even think about taking out our cameras. Our waterproof coats helped a little (all Vietnamese motorbikers have those), but in the end we were completely wet anyway. Later we started wearing our waterproof jackets under the coats — it may get hot, but you won’t get wet for sure.
The rain ended at some point, and although there were dark clouds on the horizon, we didn’t get any more wet that day. (We have to say that driving under the rain was kind of fun). The views started getting beautiful about 10 km away from the Hai Van pass.
The road leading to the pass is very picturesque.
You can see the Lang Co village at the beginning of the pass.
There is a railroad along the seashore — this part of the train route is popular among tourists.
Today there is almost no traffic at the Hai Van pass: not so long ago a tunnel was built here, so there are only motorbikes at the pass, rarely — big trucks. The road has many turns, but it isn’t too difficult, and the pass itself is not very long. So the difficulty of this road is a bit exaggerated in Top Gear.
We weren’t very lucky with the weather – we had yet another trip through the clouds. But the pass was beautiful anyway. We have to say that there are many beautiful mountain roads in Vietnam that tourists don’t get to see — we saw some of them a few days later.
At the top of the pass was a large black cloud, so we could’t take any photos. On the other side, 30 km away was Da Nang.
Da Nang-Hoi An (30 km)
Da Nang is a big coastal city that, according to the guides, is not very interesting.
There are a lot of tourists in the high seasons, and many hotels are being built along the sea. But in November there are typhoons in the center of Vietnam, so when we came to Da Nang, the city beach was empty.
We liked Da Nang: although the city is big, it has a relaxed vibe and it was nice to spend a few days there. We also found a great Japanese restaurant (Andrei is seriously considering moving to Da Nang because of its delicious food).
We went to Hoi An from Da Nang. This part of the trip was easy: 30 km on a straight wide road along the sea.
Hoi An-Da Nang-Prao (112 km)
Hoi An is an incredibly picturesque city that used to be an important port. The center of the city is well-preserved and there are a lot of ancient buildings, temples and shops. Hoi An is a very touristy town, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful. We will show more photos of it in another post.
We spent a few days in Hoi An, and after that we needed to head back to Hue, to take our backpacks and leave the motorbike. We could go the same way that we came, but we decided to do something different: take another road, leading to the border with Laos and then to Hue.
We wanted to make a stop on the way and decided to spend a night in Prao — after all, it is the capital of the province. We didn’t find any information about the hotels in Prao (or, in fact, any other information about the city except that it exists), but we decided that we will find some place to sleep at and got on the road.
We made a stop in Da Nang — we wanted to spend some more time in the city and go to our favorite restaurant, of course. Then we went to Prao. The road to Prao is very beautiful: green mountains, large rocks and rivers. There was almost no traffic on the way, and the road is a small one, not a highway.
The further we went, the more surprised people looked at us. A lot of Vietnamese people said “Hello” when they saw us, and the children were always excited to see us.
130 km to Prao were not easy, but we went all the way. We found an empty guesthouse in Prao and stayed there for the night. Although Prao is the capital of the province, it is really a quiet rural village.
Prao-Hue (165 km)
The next day we had to go the longest part of the way — 165 km to Hue, our desination. A part of our route ran through the Ho Chi Minh trail — a sophisticated system of roads that connected northern and southern Vietnam through the territories of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnamese war. Americans consider this trail one of the main reasons of the victory of the Northern Vietnam: American aviation did not fully cease the transfer of the troops and the supplies from the north to the south.
The part of the trail that we were driving was a nice road that was almost empty. The views here are amazing. Laos’ border is just a few kilometers away.
While we were driving, we often smelled cinnamon. It turned out that people here collect and dry cinnamon tree bark.
The mountains here are super green and beautiful.
We saw more cows on the Ho Chi Minh trail than cars.
At some point we started seeing villages and the weather changed — the sun came out. Because of the fresh air and bright sun we had a feeling that we were driving in a Russian village in summer.
The road to Hue after the villages was kind of bad in the beginning and the end (by high Vietnamese standards — we could only dream about such road in rural areas of Russia), but in the middle there is a great new highway.
We came to Hue before the sunset with numb body parts, but happy. The next day we took a train to Mui Ne, a village near the sea to rest for a little while.
Overall, although sometimes it was not too comfortable to drive long distances on a motorbike (rain and numb legs and back are the main problems) and sometimes it can be scary (because of the chaotic traffic), it is so much more fun than just taking a bus. Motorbikes make you completely free, and the feeling of being able to go wherever you want and drive forgotten roads with breathtaking views in priceless.