HO CHI MINH ROAD, or, Hwy 1A (the coastal route) north from HCM City?

Discussion in 'Vietnam - General Discussion Forum' started by Rod Page, Nov 24, 2011.


    For many, adventuring in Vietnam starts with deciding which way to travel north from HCM City. Its generally a toss up between the coastal route & the HCM Trail; a simple choice at first glance for those who deem themselves predominantly war buffs or beach bums.

    Having ridden the southern half (Da Nang southwards) of both in the last 2 months herewith some thoughts in an endeavour to assist those contemplating making the journey in the near future - I say 'the near future' as a key ingredient in the decision making process is to recognise the staggering pace at which new roads & bridges are being constructed, &, more importantly, existing roads can be deteriorating.


    Heading up Hwy 14 via Hwys 22 & 22B is a rewarding run bordering Cambodia & embracing the unspoilt hinterland & the southern reaches of the Truong Son Range that separate Vietnam from Laos. Its a run through scenic topography varying from craggy mountains to fertile plateaus & plains. The rich soils around Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku & Kon Tum support coffee, tea, rubbber & pepper plantations while the mountains support an abundance of fauna & flora. There are some of the best waterfalls in the country. Its an area that can offer respite from soaring temperatures in other parts of the country.

    Its home to a diverse mix of ethnic ('hill-tribe') groups, & to an equally diverse number of religions, including the Cao Daism, itself founded in Vietnam. Many different architectural styles, traditional music & theatre, festivals & foods compliment the countryside. Its also a staunch reminder of the destruction of war, more particularly the American War in recent years.

    Although as recently as 2009 Hwy 14 was reportedly in relatively good shape, I found sections of the road to be in a total state of disrepair. Deep potholes & ruts, gravel & dirt made for dangerous, long & dusty runs at times & remember we were travelling outside high season. The sections north & south of Kon Tum & parts on towards Buon Ma Thuot & between Gia Nghia & Dong Xaoi were amongst the most deteriorated. The situation is worsened by the fact that all those using the road naturally seek the best going - bikes can swing out each & every way without warning, cars are constantly changing line in an attempt to minimise the bumps, trucks push you to the limit in terms of available space along the gravelled sides of roads, whilst buses simply terrorise you in a display showing a total disdain for the safety of others, including their own passengers as they charge along all over the road, their horns blarring non-stop telling you simply to 'get off the road'!

    Traffic is constant though lessens south of Buon Ma Thuot. Side-roads to avoid the carnage are few & far between (other than 14C which would see you miss most of the more interesting towns & villages). Remember also that finding anyone who speaks english is extremely rare, that signage is poor & a good map difficult to find. On a positive side there are Honda & Yamaha dealers & service centres in any town that has 'warranted a dot on the map', & in the case of a Honda there are simple general & tyre repair shops almost every kilometre along the road. Petrol stations too are everywhere.


    The coastal route offers some of the best beaches in Vietnam & some of the best preserved temple complexes in the country. It offers many of the sites for which Vietnam is internationally famous, including Nha Trang, Hoi An & several other UNESCO World heritage sites. Its the most 'westernised' part of the country (if that's the comfort level you are after).

    The scenery is mesmorising, the colours kalaidescopic, all the more-so as it changes so dramatically every 100kms or so with an associated change on its inhabitants that one could feel to have travelled to a completely different country.

    Hwy 1A is, however, as the name implies, the country's principal roadway & the traffic confirms it! Be ready for the unexpected; anything can happen. Stay right (though watch for those swinging recklessly across traffic to head left & those entering from the right without looking), give way to anything bigger.............say your prayers! Dont be over-keen in your planned daily kilometrage; given the concentration needed, this can be a tiring outing. Nothing changes with the mentality of truck & particularly bus drivers - they will simply pull out into your lane at any occassion sounding the horns to tell you to 'leave the road'.

    There are side-tracks which will take you around parts of Hwy 1A & I would strongly recommend you seek information & maps (forget signage or asking people along the route - they travel little, cant read maps & 5 different people will give you 5 different directions) & use these bypasses. They will take you to absolutely wonderful places, untouched by the stresses of the modern world, places of rare beauty & charm (& being off 1A may see you live a little longer). Dealers & service centres for Honda & Yamaha are in all major towns & cities with owner operated Honda repair tyre shops everywhere as are petrol stations.


    Both are great routes & a decision depends very much on the individual/s concerned. Road conditions should, however, play an important role in the process - you truly need up to date information on new roads & bridges, road upgrades & particularly on the condition of the existing road, in particular details of any parts that have deteriorated substantially. (In what I feel would assist others, maybe those that find this post useful could update the information as they ride either road).
  2. Thanks Rod - this is invaluable. Is the route that you took along Highway 14 the primary route to take if travelling along the Ho Chi Minh trail?
  3. Knowing the condition of Hwy 14 as it is today if I were looking for a comfortable hassle-free ride up or down I'd probably take the coast. That said, roadworks proceed at such a pace here that one must check before making any decision....that's the point of the post, what underlies the request seeking constant updating of road condition information.

    In my recent GTR post I covered the southern section of what's known as the HCM Trail, officially the HCM Road or Hwy 14. The 'Trail' or trails actually split off from Hwy 14 in all directions. Some can still be found & travelled but many of these lie south of Buon Ma Thuot heading down to the area between Saigon & the Cambodian border. At present there are substantial roadworks being conducted along the relevant roads alongside the Cambodian border. This means dust & police &, alas, that many 'trails' will disappear. North of Buon Ma Thuot Hwy 14 is the principle route though Hwy 14C presents an alternative - you may not get the sensation of an 'actual trail' but certainly a feel for the conditions & countryside through which they travelled.

    Dont forget the trail north - sensational.
  4. Rod
    Thanks indeed for this contribution. It certainly will be a help to newcomers considering which way to go & road to take.
    If anyone else has any tips on roads & routes to take, please let us know.
  5. That our map man, Dfl, should furnish the last post prompts me to add an important piece of information omitted from my original report.

    There are very few maps for VN & even fewer containing substantial detail & information. On touring through VN I use the "Travel Map of Vietnam. Map Vietnam 2011 Yearly Updated" map, published by Vietnam Publishing house Of Natural Resources Enviroment And Cartography". On a scale of 1:1,250,000 the current edition - 2011 - yellow & purple in colour is available in most major cities. (Its also the map used by the Easy Riders, perhaps the best way to determine 'what's currently best'. These guides, by the way, are great guides offering great trips).

    Whilst touring I supplement this map through buying the "Vietnam; The Hidden charm" regional map for each province through which I pass. This map should be available in any major bookshop in the province's major city & is often available at the city's major hotels.
  6. A big thanks for the map info, because I've been having trouble following your Vietnam exploits without a decent map to look at & relate to all the towns & attractions you have visited.
    I'm sure quite a few others will appreciate the map tips.
  7. With the death toll in Vietnam having reached around 37,000 per year, the Prime Minister has highlighted the need to reduce traffic accidents & conjestion in urging the transport sector to take the necessary efforts to reduce accidents by 5%-10% in 2012 which has been named 'Traffic Safety Year', to build on the year-on-year decrease of 9.8% in road accidents in 2011.

    Highway 1 is to be focussed upon with significant upgrades of links between Hanoi & Lao Cai, Hai Phong & Thai Nguyen; the intention being to ultimately turn Hwy 1 into a 4-lane highway with 2 separate motorcycle lanes throughout its entire length.

    $US2billion will be spent this year, an increase of 31% over last year.

    Highway 1 is for reasons explained elsewhere in this forum the principal route taken by travellers visiting Vietnam.
    I'm in Ninh Binh - Hwy 1A south from Ninh Binh is severely potholed to around half way to Vinh. Trucks & buses blowing tyres everywhere. Vehicles veering all over the road looking for better surfaces. The first 25kms north of Ninh Binh heading to Hanoi is a total mess with potholes, gravel & mud (2.5hr trip).
    Two Greek engineers that I have met here in Ninh Binh just rode up from HCMC to Hue taking in the HCM Road in between. The road has been resealed & is in excellent condition.
    Safe riding.
  9. Rod,

    Thanks for the heads up, we will now avoid the 1A to Hue. Will be there with another rider April 4-24 and trying to plan itineraries/loops now. A bit more challenging than the GT but fun too! Are there any other "must avoid" areas you are aware of at present? General plan is to spend 10 days North of Hanoi going as far as Dien Bien Phu, then 10 days South as far as DaNang/Hoi An.

    Also to my surprise, my Garmin microSD SEA Version 3 map does NOT include Vietnam. Have to buy the Version 7.6. Do you have any experience with this one regarding the quality of detail/coverage?


  10. Eric,

    I cant help you with the road between Hanoi & DBP - would actually have riden it only 2-3 days ago but busted an ankle in a planned skid just north of Vinh.

    I see you plan to ride down as far as Hoi An - all roads south of Vinh on Hwy1A are in good shape. (Given my accident I'm not returning - Hanoi-Da Nang -as planned via HCM Road).

    I'm not sure what your plans are - are you looking to hire bikes, looking at having an agent/a 'fairy god-mother' looking over you?
    Flamingo Travel have the best prepared bikes & can assist with up-to-date information on current road conditions especially in the north of Hanoi. In my case with an accident they were tremendously helpful to me in terms of the police at the skid, retreaving my (not their) bike after the accident, talking with doctors, getting me into hospitals.... I keep saying it but in VN its wise to have an agent in place (not necessarily travelling with you).

    Let me know your planned trip by PM & I'll give you my thoughts.

  11. Rod,

    Sorry to hear about the ankle. Hope it is a clean break and heals up quick and proper. We are hiring bikes and going out on our own without agent/guide etc. PM sent with initial plans.
  12. Busted an ankle Rod? Its OK, you have got a spare on the other foot and with a application of a bit of gaffer tape, you will be right as rain.
  13. I am verry sorry for Rod (unlike collar bones, ankles seem indispensable to bikers). I am also sorry for us, as we are missing a part of the Vietnam story. I am sure, however, that Rod will soon be back on two wheels.

    It is also recomforting to hear that everything was well handled for the accident. We can never totally avoid risks and an efficient rescue is worth a lot.

    Best wishes for a fast healing Rod.
  14. Tks for well wishes chaps. All's well.

    Eric/feejer (& others) - when I talk of agent its not in the sense of someone who goes caution for you here, a 'sponsor' or a guide; this situation is more applicable to the needs of/requirements for someone who brings in their own motor-bike.

    When I talk about 'agent' it is not in the sense of someone who meets you at the border is supposed to accompany your every move. Quite the contrary - I am talking of someone who certainly assists with bike issues (rent or, in my case, purchase), but also assists with visas, accommodation options, bookings, but is also readily available by telephone for those moments when you are truly cornered, blocked by language problems, by administrative issues & so on.

    My own experience has been that their choice of accommodation options is excellent, they are extremely useful when you need technical matters with your bike attended to en route, they know where to go & who to see in times of emergency.....a willing assistant in a moment of need. Be aware that problems WILL happen in Vietnam - stories of traffic volumes & the lack of any effectively followed road regulations are legendary. I've just had an accident necessitating hospitalisation - although breaking my ankle whilst in a remote area my 'agent' was able to talk with the police on-site (important in terms of retreaving your bike), speak to the non english speaking doctor at the hospital closest to the accident & via a conference call get me taken immediately to the best ortho hospital in VN (all the more impressive when you realise the hospital does not normally take foreigners). My agent/'guardian angel' even came to the hospital at 12.30am, organised my admission, clarified hospital proceedures to me & so on - I'll post details later but the system in VN is VERY different & if you do not understand & dont have someone who speaks VN with you then you are truly 'up the creek without a paddle'!

    If there is any one thing that stands out as a 'must do' in VN it is to understand the above! I can not stress it enough.
  15. Rod,

    Thanks for the reality check. It certainly does seem VN is a totally different animal to the GT or anywhere in Thailand for that matter. The language barrier first and foremost. I have ALWAYS been able to find an English speaker anywhere in Thailand regardless of how remote I was. Usually it has been the school aged kids that have rescued me from sleeping in the rough by pointing me in the right direction for a roof over my head. Seems I may need a crash course in basic Vietnamese prior to departure :)
  16. Whoa. Sorry to hear about your spill & broken ankle Rod. Flamingo Travel still keep coming up trumps eh when you use their service; top guys alright.
    Take care & get well soon.

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