Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands

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First published 24th October, 2010

There's something undeniably sexy about seeing Vietnam by motorcycle. Regardless of your level of riding experience, a trip by motorbike is doable if you're determined and patient. The Central Highlands route is still considered way off the beaten track; you'll encounter few English speakers and will need to brush up your Vietnamese (or acquire a phrasebook). It's a rewarding experience that can astound and inspire.


Who will you ride with: are you a solo rider, will you ride in a group, or perhaps you're more inclined to ride as a passenger with a touring company? If it's the latter, you'll pay a fee of around US$70 (give or take, depending on the company) per day, and can ride as far north as you like. Routes are known in advance, hotels are taken care of, and plenty of rest stops are made. If you opt to do the trip yourself, be prepared to spend more time organising logistics, but you'll have more potential for deviating from the set paths and exploring at your own pace.


Road to Ba Trieu

In terms of route, the cities and towns in the Highlands are probably best treated as overnight stopovers, rather than as destinations themselves. Even the larger cities like Buon Ma Thuot offer little in terms of traditional tourist comforts, such as a selection of restaurants with English menus, and few sights to see around the city. These cities can easily be explored once you arrive merely by driving around and pulling over when you see an interesting church, monument, or memorial.

Along your route, if you see something eye-catching as you pass through a village, pull over and ask about it! Local industries are booming in the up-and-coming cities of this region: you'll pass rubber, pepper, tea and coffee plantations, fields of flowers set for export abroad, and much more. This area is also home to many sites of incredible national importance. Part of the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail weaves in and out of Vietnam in this region and you'll pass by Charlie Hill and other war memorial sites. Dozens of Vietnam's ethnic minority groups inhabit the Highlands, and visiting with these people is an alternative to the heavily-subscribed treks through Sapa in the north.


Road to Kon Blong

There are two ways to equip yourself for the ride, either buying your own bike, or renting one and making a big loop through the region. Bikes are inexpensive but the old adage of buyer beware applies. You should know enough about bike maintenance to get by if crisis strikes. This is where renting a bike or riding with a tour company can be advantageous; you're ultimately not responsible for the equipment, and you don't have to worry about reselling the bike at the end. The best way to transport gear is to strap everything on the back with heavy-duty bungee cords or rubber ties. Plan for possible weather fluctuations; thick plastic bags will keep everything dry, and you'll want one of those thin plastic body suits that sell in all roadside stalls. Despite their flimsy appearance, you'll be surprised at their effectiveness.

I rode as a passenger through the Central Highlands on a 6-day tour from Da Lat. For the latter half of my journey north to Hoi An, I encountered a Belgian couple who were doing the same route, sans guide. At the end of our trips we compared notes. Without wanting to toot my own horn I think I may have gained the most out of the experience—but this was because I could just sit back and absorb what was around me (my driver doubled as an excellent guide). While the others struggled to deal with tire punctures in an unfamiliar language, I learned firsthand about Vietnamese culture and life in this incredibly diverse region. The pair admitted to making no advance preparations besides buying a map.


Near Ba To, enroute to Quang Ngai

For the DIY-ers remember several key points. Get the most current map you can find; construction on new roads continues daily and these roads are smoother and less confusing than some older ones. If you've got the time, don't push too hard for daily mileage, especially when you're cruising through the tropical jungles between Kon Tum and Dak To, where you can stop and hike parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Take plenty of rest stops and discover the local markets, and eat lunches at the roadside stalls—drive through town once first if necessary to find the most popular place. Seeing the Central Highlands by motorbike is incredibly freeing, but you must remember to remain flexible and most importantly, to have the ride of your life.


On the road to Kon Blong

Da Lat and Hoi An cheat sheet

Da Lat to Lak Lake Visit the minority Ma people; ask politely to look inside their longhouses. The Lak Lake Tourist Resort (+84 (500) 358 6184) and restaurant are lake-facing and very nice.

Buon Ma Thuot The Dray Sap Waterfall offers hiking and swimming. Sleep at the San Anh guesthouse (232 Ngyen Cong Tru St), or check out the hotel listings on Travelfish. For dinner, don't miss Nem Viet on Ly Thuong Kiet St; DIY spring rolls

Pleiku Pleiku's surrounding hills are still barren and deserted, reminders of the "American War". Restaurants and food stalls are few, so arrive with enough time to go searching. Thuan Hai guesthouse (94-98 Tran Phu St) is cheap and friendly.

Kon Tum For an inexpensive stay the Family Hotel (55 & 61 Tran Hung Dao St) is comfortable if simple. For dinner cruise around on your bike, Kon Tum has a number of great restaurants.

Kham Duc Once on Ho Chi Minh Road, pull over to hike parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Kham Duc Hotel (Thong Nhat St) is very nice and the restaurant across the street has great food at reasonable prices.

About the author

You can read more of Anna Heimbichner's writings on her travel blog or follow her on Twitter.



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Read 12 comment(s)

  • We're in Dalat at the moment and heading to Kon Tum, Buon Ma Thuot etc for three days starting tomorrow....can't wait!

    Posted by Poi on 29th October, 2010

  • Is it possible to do this sort of trip on a scooter? It sound wonderful but I got no motorbike experience what so ever and I'm planning on heading to Vietnam in about a month.

    Posted by akirafro on 31st October, 2010

  • We're doing our tour with the local easy riders - been on a day tour with them and were very happy so now doing the central highlands and then down to Saigon with them. They allow you to chose either motorbike or car. If your interested I could give you the details of our guide.

    We usually avoid tours but it's just us and the easy rider, he stops whenever we ask questions (even walked us into someones house to show us when we asked about it - unplanned)and we're learning so much from him - very good english and good fun.

    Posted by Poi on 31st October, 2010

  • you have great pics,

    If your in for another motorbike adventure i would suggest hitting the mountain roads of Chiang Rai,

    take a look :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3Iu2OXdYjU

    Posted by backpackmaniac on 6th November, 2010


  • By far the best way to see the real Vietnam in on a motorbike. for anyone wanting to buy a bike and do it themselves. beware of the many bikes on offer that are nothing but junk!. like the Russian Mink . most built in the 1950s these things are like tractors to ride and fall to bits. scooters would make a better option as you would have less trouble with them, but the wheels are small and makes it hard to ride on bumpy roads.. couple of good tours companies . for the very north try Off Road Vietnam .. and for the south Vietnam Motorbike Tours. located on the coast in Nha Trang .. which backs onto the Central Highlands with a good selection of bikes they are not the cheapest but offer the best bikes and service. they run private custom adventure rides covering the Highlands, HCM trail and coastal roads. make sure you book you trip in advance..
    road speeds in general for motorbikes are low only around 40-60kph .. so riding you have the time to take in the view and enjoy . most people ride without a local license. most of the country has no license. if your wanting a local license it takes some paperwork and 3 weeks to process. so best you do before you get there. places like the major cities HCMC and Hanoi are the only places you might strike any trouble form the local law .. which is a small fine.
    handy to have a english speaking guide. you get far more out of your trip ..
    email vietnammotorbiketours@gmail.com

    Posted by Jason on 15th December, 2010

  • hello everybody,

    I am a dutch guy (27 yr) who is going to buy a motorbike in Vietnam and I am going to drive from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Hanoi. If you would like to join me please e-mail me on mpvanhalteren@gmail.com. I will arrive in Ho Chi Minh on 14 june. Hope to hear from you!

    Posted by mvanhalteren on 11th June, 2011

  • Earlier this year my wife and I decided that we would like to travel through the central highland area of Vietnam by bike. We hired two drivers based in Nha Trang prior to arriving in Vietnam. Our guide called Hai from Mr Hai Adventure Tours took us on a 6 day trip from Nha Trang to Hoi An visting locations such as Boun Ma Thout, Pleiku. Kon Tum and Kham Duc. Traveling by bike is a rewarding experience and dont let the traffic in the main cities put you off. We felt very safe on the motorbikes.

    When we first arrived in HCMC we were a bit concerned about traveling by motorbike but we decided to go ahead with our original plan to travel to Hoi An by motorbike. This was definatley the best way to experience the central highlands and more pleasnt than being stuck in a cramped mini bus, particularly when you are 6"5. By bike you have complete freedom and can regularly stop and many points of interest.

    I highly recommend our guide Hai and can be contacted at motorcyclememory@hotmail.com or 0905116221. Our guide was very felxible and organised everything. At less than $70/d including accommodation this was a good deal. If anyone who reads this post and contacts Hai, please say that Jarrod recommended his services.

    Hope this post helps other people who are considering traveling through Vietnam by bike. My wife and I often reflect back on our experience and we will be back in Vietnam next year to do another longer bike trip from Nha Trang to the Mekong Delta.

    Posted by Jarrod32 on 16th August, 2011

  • Hi great article, how did you find the guide to take you on this trip and do you have any conact detaisl for them? reall interested in doing this :)

    Also as an aside, does anyone have any reccomendations for traveling the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Mingh to Phonm Penh which isnt touristy and well polished?

    Posted by Nic on 11th February, 2013

  • Hi Nic,

    Try contacting Hai at motorcyclememory@hotmail.com - I have recommended his services to several other people who have always provided good feedback. They will tailor a trip to your needs and are very flexible and trustworthy. I can't wait to get back to Vietnam sometime soon.

    Jarrod

    Posted by Jarrod32 on 12th February, 2013

  • Hi Jarrod, thanks for the info - can't wait to try it out! Will make sure to post my experience on here after :)

    Posted by Nic on 25th February, 2013

  • Hi Nic,

    Great to hear that you are going on a trip. if you decide to use Hai please say hello from Jarrod and Anita. Look forward to your reply and do you know which way you will go? I'm assuming that you are starting in Nha Trang?

    Cheers,

    Jarrod

    Posted by Jarrod32 on 4th March, 2013

  • Great article, did a 3 weeks motorbike trip in Feb/Mar this year through the central highlands; Ho Chi Minh, Binh Chau, Mui Ne, Da lat, Nha Trang, Buon Ma Thuot, Gia Nghia, Phuoc Long & Ho Chi Minh, all up about 1500kms... awesome experience!

    Posted by gecktrek on 4th August, 2013

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