Motorbiking the Ho Chi Minh Trail West
We travel the winding mountain roads of the West Ho Chi Minh Trail by motorbike. Four Honda Wins in a row, cruising at a modest pace of 40 km per hour.
From the mountains we have a panorama view of karst limestone cliffs, snaking rivers and the intermingled rice fields far below. I’m in a constant state of wanderlust. This is the most beautiful part of Vietnam I’ve seen yet.
It has been six weeks since our departure from the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. That is where we had picked up our small 110cc motorbikes at a street-side mechanic for under $300 a piece.
Over the past six weeks, our journey has been north from Ho Chi Minh to Sapa. In that time we have traveled across a country far more diverse than I had ever imagined.
From the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh to the French chalets of Dalat, the coffee fields of Kon Tum and now the emptiness of the West Ho Chi Minh Trail by motorbike. Get my full Vietnam motorbike itinerary here.
The hectic streets of the big city are almost a distant memory. Out on the West Ho Chi Minh Trail, it is just us and the road. There has not been another vehicle in sight for the past 4 hours.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is the 750km western route connecting Khe Sanh and Ninh Binh. The route runs up through the mountains where we are surrounded by dense jungle in every direction.
Our long ride through the Vietnamese mountains is broken up by a planned 3 night stop at Phong Nha Khe Bang National Park. Located at the 250 km mark this national park is home to the world’s largest caves and is a must-see destination in Vietnam.
Riding Khe Sanh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Day one of the Ho Chi Minh Trail by motorbike sets out early. There is a total of 250 km to be covered in one day. This trip will take at least 8 hours allowing for a few stops along the way.
We wake up early at 5am and head down to the Pho noodle street vendor. The early morning air is still rather cool and the bowl of hot Pho noodle soup steams up into my face carrying the scents of Vietnamese flavors. Pho noodles are one of the staple dishes of Vietnam, served widely around the country whether city or rural.
After breakfast, we fill the motorbike tanks and a spare 1.5L bottle of fuel each. One full tank on the Honda Win gets us just over 200 km. There are no fuel stations between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, therefore, it is essential to carry additional fuel.
Finally, before departing we do a once over check on the bikes. This daily routine check is to ensure that we don’t break down in the middle of nowhere. It covers simple things like checking tire pressure, chain tension, and chain grease.
By 6.30am the motorbike engines fire up and we depart the city of Khe Sanh in a single file bound for the mountains. It only takes 5 minutes of riding from Khe Sanh for the road to transform into a mountain back road.
Quickly the houses become sparsely distributed and the sealed two-lane road is replaced by a single lane concrete track similar to motorbiking the backs roads out to Ban Gioc Waterfall.
By mid-morning we come by a small river where children from a village are playing. Our hot and sweaty clothes and sunburnt faces beckon us in for a dip.
While taking our motorbikes down to the river the locals quickly spread the word of the visiting westerners. As we quickly become celebrities it seems quite apparent that not many westerners make it out this far.
Back on the road, we head further up into the mountains. It is here that the landscape opens up below us. From here the clouds hang around the peaks of limestone karst cliffs, rivers snake through the agricultural lands and small villages intermingle with the sprawling rice fields.
The view looking down from the Ho Chi Minh Trail by motorbike is an image of Vietnam I will forever remember. It goes down as equal first with the steep rice terraces of Ha Giang.
Read: Motorbike Ha Giang in Far North Vietnam (coming soon)
Hailstorms and Thunder on the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorbike
By early afternoon the conditions take a turn. What was a clear blue sky has turned into a thick blanket of clouds. First the cold rain, then comes the hail. This is my first ever experience of riding a motorbike in a hail storm. When it seems to reach its peak intensity the thunder and lightning come down on us too.
Motorbiking through the cold rain in the mountains is exceptionally uncomfortable. I throw on my only jacket while soaked and shivering with the cold. Looking for a place to rest and wait out the rain is unsuccessful, the jungle gives no comforts.
For more disaster travel read: Surviving the Thakhek Motorbike Loop in Laos
Hail beating down on the fuel tank and rain drenching all the possessions in my backpack we push on through the storm. After another hour the sky finally starts to clear up and the visibility reaches beyond 20 meters again.
Over the next hour, the jungle warms under the tropical sun. As the rain evaporates the jungle releases clouds from down below. It is yet another amazing sight in Vietnam.
Just after 6pm we pull into the town of Phong Nha drenched, sunburnt, tired and hungry. By this time the sun is well on its way down and riding becomes increasingly dangerous. It is a relief to pull up at our small hotel for a shower and a cold beer.
The next few days in Phong Nha are planned around visiting the numerous caves in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. Some of the most impressive caves include; Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave, and Hong Son Doong Cave.
There are also some great little farming villages to explore around the park much like the amazing area on the outskirts of Hue.
Ho Chi Minh Trail West vs Hai Vann Pass
Since the 2013 Top Gear episode featuring the Hai Van Pass from Danang to Hue, tourists have flocked to the small stretch of the Vietnamese coast. Pick up a small motorbike in Danang and ride the mountain route, laden with traffic of all sorts.
Sure the route offers great panoramic views and long sweeping curves, but the traffic isn’t my ideal motorbike ride. However, head west and you can have everything the Hai Vann Pas offers but without the traffic.
Hai Van Pass: 6/10
Ho Chi Minh Trail West: 9.5/10
How to Prepare for the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorbike
- Bring spare fuel in a bottle
- Do a proper maintenance check on your motorbike first
- Allow at least 2 full days for riding from Khe Sanh to Ninh Binh
- Bring wet weather gear if you plan to stay dry
- Bring a road map to know your route, don’t reply on GPS with the lack of signal
Have any tips on traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail by motorbike? Leave a comment!