Biking The Ho Chi Minh Highway
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I arrive in Vietnam with a vague plan: bike from Saigon to Hanoi.
At a Czech bar in Saigon an English expat tells me there are two possible routes: Route 1A, which follows the coast and is Vietnam’s main artery, and the Ho Chi Minh Highway, which runs up the center of the country and through the mountains.
Leaning over a row of empty Saigon beers, his friend makes the choice for me. “1A is terrible, don’t take it. All trucks, construction, and dust.” Looks like I’m taking the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
[Craig Googles “Ho Chi Minh Highway”]
This is going to be easy. Let’s go.
Vietnam is shaped much like Italy–it’s wide at the top then narrows and hooks west as it goes south. To its West, Laos and Cambodia. To its north, China’s Yunnan and Guanxi regions. And to the east, the South China Sea.
Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, is in the south. It’s about 8M people i.e. almost the same size as New York. Saigon’s population density is reported as 1/3 of NY’s but you wouldn’t guess it. The streets are absolutely packed with scooters, which, if you forget the incessant honking, flow quite peacefully through the city. As a cyclist the scooter density is intimidating but actually it’s fairly safe. Nobody can pick up speed with all the traffic.
My route out of the city would be straightforward–Ho Chi Minh Highway all the way to Hanoi. I plot my path with Strava and chose daily endpoints based on motorbike guides such as Tom’s, which is excellent.
Day 1: Saigon to Bao Loc
Saigon boots me out with 40 of the trip’s dustiest miles on the infamous Highway 1A. About 25 miles in I stop for a gigantic egg banh mi, my go-to road food, and while I wait for the sandwich one of the old men hanging around the stand decides to investigate my setup, squeezing both my tires and then my legs, which is a bit awkward. He approves and lets me continue on.
After mile 40 I cut north and follow better roads though the fun part doesn’t really start until mile 100 when, without much notice, the road pitches up and all of a sudden I’m weaving through mountains. Traffic slows and thins out. The clouds open up and soak everything, offering a small taste of what’s in store for me several hundred miles ahead.
In Bao Loc I stay in the Memories Hotel, which is fine. Tip: most “beds” in Vietnam are comically hard. The default firmness is “yoga mat on cement”, so a sleeping pad wouldn’t be a bad idea if you want a bed-like surface.
Day 2: Bao Loc to Buon Ma Thuot
Leaving Bao Loc I roll through 65 miles of unmemorable highway before climbing up to about 4,000ft then descending for 15 miles on a stretch of road that is fun in a “this entire country is an incomplete construction project” kind of way.
Tip: I very, very rarely open up the brakes and fly down hills in Vietnam. Each presents new hazards —rockslides, buses overtaking trucks on blind corners, algae on wet cement, a monkey in the lane (seriously) — and launching myself over a goat into an oncoming bus directly conflicts with my plan to finish the ride on two wheels.
Around mile 135 I catch about 30 minutes of golden light as I cut between rice fields on a flat and windy stretch. It’s one of the moments on the trip when I wish I’d not just brought my phone to take photos. But, as the sun sets and the fields lose their saturation, I switch my focus to making Buon Ma Thuot before a truck forces me off the road into a pile of burning trash.
After the day’s ride I’m wiped. I picked up a cold in Saigon and after a couple days of dusty riding it catches up to me. I decide to take an easier day tomorrow.
I stay in the Ngọc Mai Guesthouse, which is a bit dirty though the owner is a cyclist and makes energetic conversation as I pack my bike up in the morning. He invites me on a ride with his club if I stay an extra day and finds a spare bar end plug to replace the one that popped out of my bars the day before.
Day 3: Buon Ma Thuot to Ea Drang
I start late after a breakfast of egg banh mi and a pineapple, another staple. The ride passes quickly and I end at Nhà Hàng Khách Sạn Hoa Dao, the shoddiest hotel of the trip. My room is on the third floor and there’s no elevator — just an elevator shaft with furniture blocking the hole — so I have to walk through the second floor, which is both a construction site and a laundry facility, it seems. Like many of the hotels on my trip, I’m definitely the only person paying to stay here. Wouldn’t recommend this one unless you design Call of Duty maps and need some inspiration.
Tip: Before giving a hotel your passport, confirm the price of the room — usually around 200,000 VND — then ask to see it, checking if the AC and Wi-Fi actually work.
Day 4: Ea Drang to Kon Tum
Today is uneventful. Pleiku is miserable but Kon Tum is surprisingly lively and brimming with egg banh mis. I’ve now also added nuoc mia, fresh sugar cane juice, to my ride diet. It’s made with a cart-sized juicer and can be found in almost any town. Be forewarned, the variability in nuoc mia taste and quality is wider than any food I’ve ever consumed. If you get a good batch with ice and a bit of salt it’s the perfect ride drink. If, however, you get a slightly warm batch from a bad cane it tastes like lawn trimmings steeped in greywater. And never ever accept pre-made nuoc mia no matter how much you want it. Trust me.
I stay in the Thinh Vuong Hotel, home of the trip’s hardest beds.
Day 5: Kon Tum to Kham Duc
If given the option to do Saigon to Hanoi again, any way I’d like, I’d arrange a shuttle from Saigon to 70 miles into this leg. A lot of the riding up until this point has been hard in a not fun, feels like punishment way. Around mile 70 things shift.
Traffic has been steadily decreasing since Kon Tum. Mountains appear on both sides around mile 45. The vegetation grows more dense with each mile. Then the road surface switches to a corduroyed cement, a harbinger of the little used, often damp, terrain ahead.
I climb from 2k to 3k feet fairly quickly, dropping down into a small saddle before climbing up over 3k feet again. Then, without much warning, there’s a 2k foot descent on jungle switchbacks. I see a runaway truck ramp for the first time of the trip and know that I’m in the good stuff.
By the end of the descent it’s pouring rain and I take an easy spin into Kham Duc, which is the only place on the trip where I feel unwelcome. I fear I’ve crossed a cultural dividing line between south and north Vietnam and that all future interactions will be uncomfortable. This won’t be the case at all. Kham Duc just sucks.
I stay in the Be Chau Giang Hotel, which is unwelcoming though I hear it’s the best place in town.
Day 6: Kham Duc to A Luoi
I have no qualms about rolling out of Kham Duc before anyone wakes up. Today’s ride contains some of the trip’s longest stretches without any towns so yesterday I loaded up on food and water. I grabbed packs of peanut brittle, one of Vietnam’s only pocketable snacks with decent fat and calorie density. It’s usually available in towns, especially if you have some already and can show a shop owner what you want.
I ride alongside the Thu Bon River for 40 miles. The roads are damp from yesterday’s downpours but the sky is clear as the sun rises and burns off the fog between the mountains. At mile 40 I reach Thanh My and stop for two bottle fills of nuoc mia.
In Thanh My my route forks onto a quieter road, crosses the Thu Bon River, and punches up. I climb 1,000 feet then lose it all before climbing right back up to 1,700 feet. It’s about 30 miles to Prao, which is the last stop before 50 miles of uninhabited jungle. With no banh mi in sight, I grab more peanut candy and load up on water, filling my two water bottles and jamming two 1.5L bottles in my backpack. I also have a Sawyer water filter, which, in hindsight, I should have used during remote sections instead of schlepping water.
Heading out of Prao the road just climbs and climbs. The grade is gradual and undulating so I don’t go very high but with a loaded bike it sure feels like work. At this point I really wish I could throw my gear into a SAG wagon and pick up the pace. Since I can’t, I take it easy and gratuitously stop to shoot photos that glamorize the trip for my millions of followers.
23 miles into the section I start descending and wonder if I’ve hit the top, which I haven’t. 6 miles later the road pitches up and the rain starts. It’s the kind of rain that saturates everything in 30 seconds. August thunderstorm rain. I make sure my electronics are bundled up and continue riding. On several occasions I find myself laughing at just how bad the conditions are.
I pass through a tunnel and think I’ve hit the top. I haven’t. Eventually I ride through another tunnel where motorbikers are playing cards, waiting for the rain to subside. They give me a once-over, laugh, and keep playing. The descent starts and is over much sooner than I expect. After dipping in and out of a village, I’m on a plateau. If I turn left I’ll be in Laos after just a few kilometers. Instead, I turn right and head north, following an oddly straight road into A Luoi, where I’ll spend the night.
I stay at the Thanh Quang Guest House, which has a corrugated roof that is pitched in such a way that it amplifies the downpours to apocalyptic levels of noise. It’s shockingly loud but kind of soothing.
Day 7: A Luoi to Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh is as far as I can go today before another remote stretch so I take a slow morning. I poke around the town’s covered market, picking up any baked goods that seem appetizing. I try to buy bananas though after asking for just a couple the woman selling them laughs at me and hands me an entire bunch for free. I’m walking back to the guest house in the pouring rain when an elderly woman approaches me with an umbrella and insists on shielding me from the rain. We don’t speak each other’s language but both laugh at the image of her, at 4’6”, holding an umbrella over us while we walk down the street.
Back at the guest house I meet Kong, a Malaysian who grew up in Holland and is now teaching English in Da Nang. He’s making a visa run, taking a quick trip to Laos where he’ll have his passport stamped so he can return to work in Vietnam. He’s brought a friend along who wants to see the countryside. We sit on a stoop waiting for the rain to subside, which it sort of does, so we part ways.
At mile 13 I begin a 40 mile descent that starts with steep, misty turns before mellowing out and following a river valley north. Around mile 57 I cross a bridge and join up with a fairly major road that links Laos and Vietnam. I turn left toward Laos and climb for about 5 miles before I reach Khe Sanh where I stay in the Khanh Phuong Hotel, which is surprisingly comfortable.
During my nightly egg banh mi hunt I meet Mitch and Dave, who are traveling south by motorbike and have developed the same addiction. Laughing, they show me photos of Mitch’s scooter in pieces while it was being rebuilt at a roadside mechanic. I share my chocolate racecars as we swap info on each other’s upcoming sections. They tip me off to a hotel in Long Son, about halfway between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha. This info takes a huge stress off as I’d been mentally preparing to ride the entire 150 mile leg to Phong Nha in one day. It’s remote and I have no idea if I can get food or water on the way. More importantly, the Strava route claims 301 feet of elevation change, which is clearly wrong but I don’t know by how much. Turns out it’s off by about 13,000 feet.
Day 8: Khe Sanh to Long Son
I leave Khe Sanh loaded up with water and food for the 80 mile ride. 16 miles in I hit an unexpected town and grab two banh mis of the non-egg varietal. Obvious mistake. I continue riding but feel off for about 30 minutes.
As I leave town the road drops through farmland then climbs for about 10 miles, reaching 3,500 feet before descending into a valley. Around mile 43 the road kicks up and I’m back in the jungle, riding one switchback after the next for 40 miles. Aside from the animals and viruses that want to kill me, there ain’t much out here.
I stay in Long Son at the hotel, which looks like it could have been a car dealership in a past life. It has a huge front room with absolutely nothing in it. I can’t find anyone working or staying there so I go back onto the village’s tiny main stretch and buy a pineapple at a small shack. After sloppily peeling and eating it on the hotel stoop I investigate the single floor building again. Turns out the proprietor is sleeping in one of the rooms. I wake him up and he seems to have trouble understanding what I’m after, which is a bit odd. Eventually we sort the room out though he never seems to leave his sleepy, probably intoxicated, haze for the remainder of my stay. Also, he’s one of those Vietnamese dudes that regularly and loudly hawks up phlegm, which is particularly gross in an echoey building. Anyway, the room is fine.
Based on a comment in Tom’s guide, I eat dinner at a home near the hotel. Two huge plates of eggs, greens, and rice covered in chilis. A group of men working next door stop to investigate my bike. Throughout Vietnam people insist on grabbing the tires and knowing the price of my bike. They never approve of the 28mm tire width and are always shocked at the price, which I eventually decide is $800, an inaccurate number that’s high enough to trigger their desired response of “wow, that’s a lot” without making me look like a total moron for owning a bike worth more than their scooters.
Walking back to the hotel I’m glad to have split the trip to Phong Nha in two. It is possible to do the leg in one go but it’d be a long day with touring gear and mean passing stunning scenery in the dark.
Day 9: Long Son to Xuan Son
Today is very, very damp. Around mile 20 the day’s climb begins, about 13 miles and 2,000 feet. It’s never difficult riding but the corduroy cement on worn tires proves to be a grippy, slow combination. On several occasions I get off the bike and inspect it for brake rub, hub issues, or a trailer I didn’t realize I’m pulling. Turns out the road is just slow and after days of loaded touring and horrendous nutrition my legs don’t have much gas. I continue on, so slowly.
At mile 41 the most grin-inducing descent of the entire trip begins. It’s only 6 miles and 1,500 feet but after miles and miles of sticky cement it’s perfect. When I reach the end I can either turn right and go into Xuan Son or continue straight and visit one of Phong Nha’s famous caves. I opt to check out Thien Duong aka Paradise Cave. I’m not sure if something called Paradise Cave will be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced or actually cool. Turns out it’s really neat. I’m there on a weekday during the off season so it’s nearly empty. After an hour or so inside the cave I hop back on the bike and ride the 15 miles into town.
I stay in the Heritage by Night Hotel, which is overpriced (350,000 VND vs the normal 200–250k) and has terrible Wi-Fi. That said, it is distinctly without any of the backpackers that seem to fuel Xuan Son’s downtown of overpriced food and loud hostels. I heard the Phong Nha Farmstay is a nice option but their only available rooms were over 1M VND so I decide to pass.
Day 10: Xuan Son to Pho Chau
Before seeing the backpacker wasteland of Xuan Son I considered spending a second day around Phong Nha so I could check out another cave. I can’t stomach another day near that town so I hit the road.
After about 10 miles the day’s only climb starts, ascending 1,500 feet over 10 miles. During the descent my Revelate Sweetroll slips and starts lightly rubbing on my front wheel. I have headphones in and can’t hear it. By the end of the hill there’s a quarter-sized hole in the bag and a tire-shaped divot in the plastic coating on my u-lock inside the bag. Exasperated, I curse the thing for the 50th time of the trip and cinch things up as best I can.
Around mile 63 the road turns left and straightens out. I have the distinct sense that the fun, scenic part of the trip is over. I am right.
I reach Pho Chau and enter the only hotel of the trip that’s too dirty for even me, Khach san Ngan Pho. On seeing the cell they graciously allow me to pay for, I turn around and walk out. I find a perfectly nice room at the Ly Ha Hotel down the block. At the time I have no clue how fortunate that choice will be. I’ll be spending a few nights in Pho Chau after an unwise dinner decision.
Once I finish cleaning off my bike, a mandatory daily task to prevent drivetrain implosion, I set out to find food. My banh mi search is unsuccessful but I see a restaurant with people eating it, which is a good sign. I order the plainest thing I can with some nutritional value: rice and eggs. After my first plateful I order a second, doubling down on my demise. I pay my bill, walk back to the hotel, and go to sleep.
Day 11: Pho Chau to Toilet
Around midnight I wake up. Things are not well. I have a stomachache unlike one I’ve had in years. I think I’m going to throw up. Yup, I’m throwing up… now. My ungraceful and complete purge will continue for the next nine hours. I won’t be riding bikes today.
Around noon I trudge downstairs in zombie mode and show the hotel owner’s daughter a picture of Pedialyte. She laughs. I will not be getting Pedialyte in Pho Chau.
But I’m determined to not die. My day will end in a better state than it began. I throw a leg over my bike and head toward the central market. Surely someone has to sell some kind of concoction that will help me not die. Where are the elixirs made from endangered species I’ve heard about?
I find a window that looks like a pharmacy thing. I show the women inside a picture of Pedialyte. They take my phone, look at more pictures of Pedialyte, then say no without offering any other information. Dealing with people in Vietnam often unfolds this way. It’s like interacting with your computer terminal. “Do you have this?” “No.” And that’s it. No suggestions as to alternatives. No ideas as to where you might find it. It’s annoying.
Anyway, I see another pharmacy window thing and show the pharmacist the same photo. I get the same response, a hand gesture that means “I don’t have the thing you want.” At this point I’ve reached the edge of town so I’m ready to be a bit more creative. After a dozen translations via Google Translate — tip: only use it to translate nouns, full sentences seem to come out as incomprehensible — she decides to dig around her stores and unearths something called Oresol, which upon shaking the tube sounds like tablets. Maybe it’s similar to Alka-Seltzer? Good enough. I buy two tubes.
Feeling like I’m on a roll, I wonder if she has anything like Emergen-C, which might mix nicely with whatever this Oresol is. No luck with Google Translate. I start to point at stuff behind the counter. We find some packets that have pictures of oranges on them, they feel hard but look good enough. I’ll take ten. Back at the hotel I discover I’ve purchased ten packets of Flintstone-like vitamins. One out of two ain’t bad though.
The Oresol mix goes down fairly well and I slowly eat some bread, which also goes down ok. I feel pretty exhausted but desperately want to leave Pho Chau. I’ll head out tomorrow.
Day 12: Pho Chau to Thai Hoa
This is not a fun ride. I throw up once and don’t want to eat at all, which compounds my fatigue. The highlight of the day is reaching the end and seeing a kid power washing a bus. I pull over and ask if we can clean my bike. We take turns blasting the hell out of it, which is fun. I should end more rides with power tools.
I stay in the Ngoc Ha Hotel. It’s fine.
Day 13: Thai Hoa to Hanoi
Today I have to make a choice: buckle down and make Hanoi or split the leg in two days. I leave early and punt the decision to mile 82, where there’s a homestay option. There are some scenic-ish bits along the way but I’ve lost interest.
At mile 82 I feel tired but know I can finish the ride without much trouble so I make the call for Hanoi. Entering the city isn’t fun but not nearly as bad as leaving Saigon.
I end the ride at the Nova Hotel, an expensive (600,000 VND) though very pleasant option with a comfortable bed and great shower.
I’m tired and the bike is in rough shape but we made it. 2,000km of occasionally scenic roads in the books. Now for some cultural meat and a beer.
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Here are the tips that didn’t make it into the report.
1. I wouldn’t recommend someone else do this ride. However, a very fun trip would be from Day 5, Mile 70 to Day 10, Mile 64. Better still would be doing that stretch with a SAG wagon carrying all your stuff and plenty of high quality food. Nutrition was a big problem for me.
2. You must be able to fix everything on your bike. I got zero, yes zero, flats on this ride but did have to deal with a loosening rear hub, a left crank trying to unscrew itself, and a front derailleur shifting horribly from unending dirt exposure.
3. These roads are very dirty. You’ll need to clean your bike every day to keep it moderately functional.
4. The Kryptonite U-Lock I brought was totally overkill. In Vietnamese cities there are security guards to watch over scooters and bikes at almost every shop. In the countryside my bike never left my sight. Also, people here want scooters more than your silly bicycle. A simple cable lock would be fine.
5. When planning daily miles, be conservative. Keep in mind that you’ll need to do the miles even when it’s pouring rain and you have several mechanicals.
6. I didn’t bring camping gear because I knew hotels would be super cheap. It’s obviously possible to camp but I wouldn’t recommend it. I saw very few attractive roadside options and think the language barrier with farmers would prove to be a real challenge. There’s also unexploded ordnance littered all over Vietnam from the war so…
Selected Gear Notes
Rapha Classic Jersey — Mine’s seen a ton of use and is ready to be retired but I’ll be replacing it with the same thing. This is the only jersey I brought.
Shimano SH-M163 Shoes — These were the perfect choice. Stiff enough to ride long days but totally comfortable when walking. They’re the only shoes I brought.
Cuben Fiber Electronics Sleeves — I had extra CF lying around so I made sleeves for my phone and laptop. They were a nice precaution when the rain was really coming down.
Clement Strada LGG 28mm Tires — Great choice for questionably-paved roads. That said, they aren’t the longest lasting tire so you might want to consider alternatives for touring.
Revelate Tangle Frame Bag — Got the job done but it’s not great. One thing in particular is super annoying. The lefthand pocket has an internal sleeve whose top is at the exact height of the outer zipper. It gets caught in the zipper often enough for it to be an issue.
Lezyne Road Drive Pump — Works but also ripped the valve out of the stem on two occasions. It’s probable that this was user error but in my mind that’s a bad design.
Rapha Backpack — I decided to bring my laptop so that meant either panniers or a backpack. I opted for the backpack. This bag’s build materials, especially the zippers, aren’t nearly as nice as what I’ve come to expect from Rapha.
iPhone 6S — Great GPS with a mediocre camera.
Garmin 510 —Buggy routing and clumsy touchscreen but good ride tracking with a long battery life.
Revelate Sweet Roll — Doesn’t work well on a road bike with any substantial weight. Always slipping down into the tire. Would not recommend.
ProLink Chain Lube— Lube works but the bottle is prone to leaking so it’s a poor choice for touring.