Making the most of Vietnam’s spectacular coastline, this route hugs the shore for much of the time and is bookended by the country’s two greatest cities. You’ll have ample opportunity to indulge in some serious beach time, and be able to hit the cultural sights and explore two national parks en route.
The adventure begins in the cauldron of commerce that is Ho Chi Minh City. Spend three days hitting the markets, browsing museums and eating some of the globe’s best cuisine. Take a day trip to discover wartime history at the Cu Chi Tunnels. Head north into the central highlands via Cat Tien National Park, home to gibbons, crocodiles and bountiful birdlife. Next up is the romantic hill station of Dalat for a tour of its quirky sights, and the opportunity to get stuck into some adventure sports such as canyoning, mountain biking of kayaking.
Then it’s a stunning road trip down to the beach at Mui Ne, a tropical idyll with towering dunes and crazy kitesurfing. Continue up the coast to the big brash resort of Nha Trang, where party people will love the hedonistic bar scene. On the way, be sure to explore the largely undeveloped coastline, perhaps stopping at Doc Let Beach, Whale Island and the moving war memorial at Son My.
Cultured charmer and culinary mecca Hoi Anis the next essential stop. This town certainly warrants three days, such is its allure. Then it’s a quick look at booming Danang and on to the old imperial capital of Hue and its citadel, tombs and pagodas. From here pause to tour the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) and its famous war sites before hitting the truly remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the world’s greatest caving region, with towering limestone mountains and cobalt jungle rivers.
Next it’s a long journey by road or train towards Halong Bay, with more than 2000 limestone outcrops dotting the ocean. Stop for a couple of days on rugged Cat Ba Island, an important adventure-sports centre, before heading to the capital. Budget for at least a couple of days in Hanoi to sample its evocative Old Quarter and to view the city’s elegant architecture and memorable museums. Make the most of your last day, perhaps munching street food and sampling bia hoi (fresh draught beer).
Northern Vietnam is a world unto itself: a land of brooding mountains, overwhelming beauty and a mosaic of ethnic minorities. It’s ideal terrain to cover on two wheels, with light traffic and breathtaking views, though most of the region can be tackled by public transport with a patient attitude.
Visit Hanoi to explore its Old Quarter and visit the museums. Then head west to Mai Chau, home to the White Thai people, for your first two nights; it’s a perfect introduction to ethnic minority life. Northwest where the road begins to climb into the Tonkinese Alps, a logical overnight stop is Son La.
Continue on for two nights at Dien Bien Phu, a name that resonates with history as it was here that the French colonial story ended with defeat. Tour the military sights and then continue north through stunning scenery up the Tram Ton Pass.
Sapa is the premier destination in the northwest, thanks to the infinite views (on a clear day!), and an amazing array of minority peoples. Explore the area on two feet of two wheels for around four days before heading to Bac Ha for three nights to experience the best of the region’s markets. Most colourful are the Flower H’mong people.
From Bac Ha move east to Ha Giang province, taking it slowly through stunning scenery and towns including Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac. Explore remote destinations like the Lung Cu flag tower amd the Vuong Palace from Dong Van, before negotiating the vertiginous Mai Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac. From Meo Vac, there’s no public transport further south, so you’ll need to hire a xe om (motorbike taxi) or car to get to the riverside junction town of Bao Lac.
Local buses run from Bao Lac to Cao Bang and on to Ba Be National Park. Spend about three nights around Ba Be, staying at local Tay ethnic minority homestays, and exploring the park by trekking or kayaking. From Ba Be travel back to Cao Bang for the trip south to Hanoi.