Vietnam is not short of spectacular landscapes – up in the north (Sapa, Ha Giang), the gorgeous mountainous terrain is home to cascading rice terraces dotted with tribal villages. You will find Ban Gioc in the northeast, the world’s fourth largest waterfall along a national border, and also Halong Bay, Vietnam’s quintessential must-visit destination, composed of thousands of limestone monoliths jutting out of the emerald water.
In the south, we have a beautiful maze of rivers in the agricultural capital, the Mekong Delta, and who can forget the silky-smooth red and white sand dunes of Mui Ne? Then there is central Vietnam, known for its pristine beaches and mysterious caves. The world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong is found in Phong Nha.
Plan your trip
Riding from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, or vice versa, by motorbike or by overnight bus is the most popular road trip in Vietnam, and undoubtedly the best way to experience everything the country has to offer. For years, the most trodden route was Highway 1, but today thanks to ambitious road building programs, there are far more scenic and adrenaline-inducing roads that connect the two main cities.
These roads essentially make up two major routes: the coastal route and the mountainous route, and new roads are still being constructed on a tangent, improving journey time and also allowing access to more parts of the country.
Before you decide on which way you want to go, do some research about Vietnam and figure out which cities suit your travel style. Once you really dig in, you will realize that there is quite a lot to cover. You can then map these cities out and create a route for yourself. Most probably your preferred destinations will fall on parts of both routes.
Pro tip: Don’t spend any less than a month traveling the country. If you cannot spare a whole month, break your journey into two trips of two weeks each. One trip in the north and a part of the center and another trip in the rest of the country. Also, remember to check what the weather is like during the time of your visit. Vietnam spans numerous climate zones, so when it’s hot and sticky in one region, it may be freezing in the other.
Beach bums, follow this road
The beach bum route is ideal if you enjoy sand between your toes, tackling the waves with your surfboard, and falling asleep to the sound of the sea at night. This route avoids Highway 1 for most of its course, and in the aforementioned cities, you will find countless deserted beaches, sleepy fishing villages like Mui Ne, and hedonistic beach towns (Nha Trang, for example) where you can treat yourself at a luxury beach resort, with expensive cocktails and rejuvenating spa treatments. Some of these cities are extremely off the beaten track that you will most likely find a beach all to yourself.
The best way to tackle this is to head from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Take an overnight cruise there and from there catch the bus to Hue. Spend a day exploring the Imperial Tombs, where the emperors from the Nguyen Dynasty lie. Then, take the Hai Van Pass to Da Nang and enjoy the sandy beaches. Perhaps even try your luck at some diving and definitely don’t miss out on the fresh seafood.
From Da Nang, head to Hoi An for a few nights. Explore this city painted in a golden color by foot or by bicycle. Try some tea at ancient tea houses and pose for a picture by the Japanese Covered Bridge. Try a cooking class at Tra Que gardens. Leaving Hoi An will be an impossible mission, but to continue your journey, Nha Trang would be the logical next destination, and don’t forget to pass by Quy Nhon, Phu Yen, Phan Rang and Cam Ranh on your way. Nha Trang is known for its fancy resorts, so be sure to spend a few days treating yourself to some luxury experiences here. After Nha Trang, head to Mui Ne, explore the sand dunes, and then Vung Tau before you head back to civilization in Ho Chi Minh City.
If you’re a mountain person…
If you’re into mountains – follow the simple and straightforward Ho Chi Minh Road – now a fully paved passage from the south to the north that reaches a total length of about 1,880km. This route follows the Truong Son mountain range that forms the jagged, high-peaked spine of Vietnam. Reward yourself with dramatic scenery and an even more dramatic drive through serpentine roads. Not for the faint of heart – you’ll need to be an experienced driver to tackle this one. The cities on this route are quite off-the-beaten-track, such as Buon Ma Thuot, Kon Tum, and Khe San, each with a story to tell.
Start your journey by using Hanoi as a base to explore the regions around. Make sure you head to Sapa, Ha Giang and Cao Bang and spend at least a week traveling through these mountainous areas, exploring the tribal villages, and trying ethnic food such as horse meat hotpot and stolen armpit pork (we’re completely serious about the name. It’s called “stolen armpit pork” because the pig is small and can be easily stolen and carried under the armpit.)
Once you’re done with the north, begin your trip towards the south. Head to Ninh Binh first, and then to Phong Nha, where you can explore the wondrous caves. Then head through Khe Sanh and Buon Ma Thuot to Da Lat, where you’ll be welcomed with coffee and beautiful waterfalls. Spend a few days up here – you can even try your luck with canyoning! From there it’s only another 5 or so hours to Ho Chi Minh City.
Mix and match
Of course, you could always do a little bit of both. This iconic route is equal parts beach and mountains – you can begin with the mighty karst landscape in the north in cities such as Sapa, Ha Giang, Halong Bay, and Phong Nha, and from there head into the coast to tackle cities like Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Mui Ne. Don’t forget to head back inland at Nha Trang to Da Lat and from there head back to the spectacular sand dunes of Mui Ne. Once you reach Ho Chi Minh City, take a two day trip to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. This will the perfect balance of must-see sights and hidden gems.
Tackle these routes in various ways…
The ideal way to tackle these routes is by driving a motorbike. You will have the freedom to do it at your own pace, stop where ever you like, and experience a lot more than you would if you were taking an alternate means of transport. The downside though is that a lot of time is spent on transit, it gets uncomfortable and you have to time yourself well so you do not end up driving late at night. If you do opt for a motorbike, rentals come cheap. However, remember to have insurance.
The overnight bus system in Vietnam is also extremely convenient and comfortable. The seats are designed in a way that will allow you to recline far back and sleep. Since these buses operate at night, you won’t be wasting your day on transit, and you’ll wake up fresh in a new city. A ride will cost you about $10 USD from one city to the next, depending on the distance.
The train is also great. The Reunification Express connects Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and runs along the spine of the country, allowing you to drop by most cities on the beach route. The train takes about 30 hours to run down the length of Vietnam, and there are four trains that depart daily from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. You don’t have to do the whole journey in one go though.
When it comes to seating, you can choose one of five options: Hard Seat (chair without cushioning), Soft Seat (chair with plush), Hard Berth (a bed without padding or sheets in a 6-bed compartment), Soft Berth (with padding and sheets in a 4-bed compartment), and VIP cabin for two people. Remember to book the tickets in advance if you’re looking for a comfortable journey. Bear in mind, you will not be able to visit the mountainous provinces via train – so if you plan to do a mix and match route, then you will have to mix and match your transport as well.
When it comes to booking accommodations, it is generally recommended to book ahead of time. This way you can have a known point of arrival rather than drive around aimlessly in a city looking for a place to stay. While there are many hotels, hostels and home stays scattered around the major cities, as you head off-the-beaten-track, spaces to stay become sparse. Moreover, if you are traveling during high season, your options might be fully booked, so if you’re looking to spend your nights comfortably, book ahead.
If, by any chance, you do not book ahead and it is difficult for you to find a place, then don’t be too scared to talk to a local and ask for help. They will point the way or even let you sleep on their floor. The Vietnamese are extremely kind and welcoming.
Both the beach route and mountain route has its own perks. While the coastal cities are more tourist-friendly, the cities on the highland route offer more culture and beauty, but are less trodden. The perfect solution is to tackle a bit of both. This way, you’ll get the best of what Vietnam has to offer.