“vắng người” – there’s ‘nobody there’
The Ho Chi Minh Road (HCMR) is an important and beautiful road connecting the two metropolitan cities of Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. During the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War) between 1955 – 1975, the road played an integral role in transporting soldiers, weapons and ammunition from the communist north, to fight in the capitalist south.
As the war became more and more bloody, the USA started huge bombing runs known as “operation rolling thunder” right along the HCMR to effectively wipe out the road and therefore the growing threat from the militant north. During this time, the US Army dropped 19.3 million (yes, million) bombs on this part of Vietnam. As the bombings waged on, the Vietnamese created alternate routes, dissecting the HCMR into Laos & Cambodia. These routes would then go on to be referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
This post will cover our time cycling from Khe Sanh to Phong Nha National Park, through dense jungle road, incredible mountains, forests and valleys. On this 240km route, there’s only one hotel, hardly any shops and only a few roadside restaurants. Camping opportunities are bountiful, the landscape you’ll pedal through will blow your socks off and best of all? – There’s hardly any traffic at all.
This route was our favorite ride in the 3 months we spent in Vietnam and we would highly, highly recommend it…
*Special thanks to Matt & Becky from twobiketo for the tip!
- Total distance of our ride – 230km
- Average daily distance – 58km
- Elevation – 4,530 meters of climbing / 4,940 meters of descending
- 3-6 days (depending on riding style)
- We completed the ride in 4 days
- We didn’t have a rest day, but we did have one smaller 40km day
- Limestone mountains
- Remote ethnic villages
- Blue mineral rivers
- David Attenborough-esque documentary feelings
- Mostly well paved roads
- Smooth but hilly sections
- 10-22% gradients
- Some muddy section due to landslides, but nothing major & quite fun!
- A tent is essential for this ride. We camped every night
- Bring a water filter or stove to boil water as stops are few & far between
- There are ranger stations sporadically throughout the park. They will always give you water, but it might taste a bit smokey!
- Pack your own food. Shops may or may not be open even if they’re on your map
- Pack food that’ll stand alone well. Think packet noodles, oats, rice, snack bars, lentils, dried fruit, pasta, pesto etc. We basically survived on oats, raisins & veggie noodles! Fresh vegetables can be hard to find…
- Stop at every shop/restaurant to check you’ve got enough food & water.
- It’s pretty hilly at times with some steep 15% – 20% grades, but it’s generally 8-10% and very doable fully loaded.
We headed towards Khe Sahn from the coast, following AH16 from Dong Ha. The itself was actually really nice as the Laoation vibes from the border start to become more and more visible.
Below, you’ll see our route for the ride we did, complete with annotated markers showing some of the most important and fun spots on the route.
Our thoughts & reflections
To be honest, it’s hard to split the Ha Giang Loop into succinct highlights as it’s all just so beautiful. But, below we’ve written a few words on what we absolutely loved and what we hope you will too…
- David Attenbrough-esque Scenery
Imagine watching the film Tarzan… but then you realise you’re actually cycling through it. This is no joke, we saw large trees that looked like they had been there for thousands of years, cycled around bends that casually had lush flowing waterfalls around each corner, and we even saw some monkeys run across the road at the top of one of the peaks.
The scenery was so incredible it made the hills feel easy. The roads here are also well paved so it made for smooth cycling, other than the occasional landslide which got us a little muddy. We did most of our cycling in the mornings which we recommend as it is usually misty, and adds to the magic and mystical nature of this route.
During this route we were often alone, with no cars or people in sight. There was the occasional village, but they were almost tribal – unlike anything we had seen in any other part of Asia. The remoteness meant we could zig-zag to our hearts content, ride side by side and just really enjoy our surroundings.
Descending to Phong Nha
Our last day of the route was the incredible descent into Phong Nha. Think of karst mountains, exotic jungle, no cars or motorbikes and the pure bliss of going downhill for over an hour. There was a cheeky uphill section just after the descent, which after a long day of cycling, and the sun going down, was a bit tough. But the magic of our ride and the cheeky burger in Phong Nha fixed us up real good.
This part of the ride was so good we decided to hire a motorbike in Phong Nha and go back and see the last part of the cycle again, because we felt like it all happened too fast. If that doesn’t tell you how much we liked it I don’t know what will.
Honestly we don’t have a single lowlight for this route. We loved every minute and would highly recommend it to everyone.
- Overall, I think we planned our time on the HCMR well. We were fortunate that the guys at twobiketwo had told us a lot of info and what to pack etc.
- The only thing we would have done differently is to go slower and take more time on the road exploring, going off into the forest and getting lost more…
Can I go fast & light?
Whilst our recommendation is to pack enough food to last the time you’re on the route. I think that if you wanted to go fast & light (and have the right bike/setup for that) you could *in theory* only pack a little food and time your food breaks in accordance to the restaurants you pass.
The problem with this tactic is that many of the shops and restaurants are closed at random times throughout the day. So whilst it could be done, you’d want to be pretty seasoned in this type of cycling style and have a plan b, just in case…
Don’t stop ’till you get enough
This amazing road connects Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City remember? We only cycled this section because it’s all we knew at the time. But, now you’re an expert and hopefully you trust our guide, you could absolutely follow it all the way to Hanoi or HCMC depending on what way you’re going?
The only thing is, if you do… You have to write to us and fill the rest of the route recommendation if it’s as awesome as this section. Deal? – Okay awesome, get riding then!!!