Riding from Saigon to Hanoi by motorbike is probably the most popular road trip in Vietnam, and it’s unquestionably one of the best ways to experience the country. For years, travellers simply took the most obvious route: Highway 1. Today, however, thanks to ambitious road building programs, there are far more scenic, pleasant and less trodden ways to ride between the country’s two main cities. Having ridden south to north on numerous occasions (the first time, predictably, on Highway 1), I’ve put together the following 5 suggested motorbike routes from Saigon to Hanoi, so that travellers who are planning this road trip have more of an idea of the kind of options available to them.

1. THE CLASSIC:

  • Total Distance: 2,770km
  • Average Duration: 2-4 weeks
  • Road Conditions: paved rural & coastal back-roads, new & old highways
  • Navigation: mostly simple, some tricky bits in central areas
  • Scenery: coast, highlands, mountains, limestone, cities, villages, cultural sites
  • DESCRIPTION: Weaving a course between coast and highlands, The Classic route is equal parts beach and mountain. Quiet, stunning coastal roads in the south and central provinces yield to a mighty landscape of limestone karsts on the Ho Chi Minh Road in the north-central region. Popular towns and sights, such as Mui Ne, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, the Hai Van Pass, Phong Nha Caves and Ninh Binh are all covered; but so too are off the beaten path areas, such as the beaches around Quy Nhon, the coastal back-roads north of Hue, and the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. It’s the perfect balance of must-see sights and hidden gems.  Enjoy the ride!

2. THE BEACH BUM:

  • Total Distance: 2,050km
  • Average Duration: 10 days-3 weeks
  • Road Conditions: new coastal highways, paved rural back-roads
  • Navigation: fairly simple, some tricky bits on the central coast
  • Scenery: coast, beaches, fishing villages, farmland, beach towns, cultural sites
  • DESCRIPTION: Echoing Vietnam’s curving coastline for nearly 1,300km, this is the route to choose if you enjoy sand between your toes, playing in the surf, and the sound of the sea at night. Avoiding Highway 1 for most of its course, The Beach Bum route uses jaw-dropping new coast roads and rarely-ridden coastal back-roads to take you to countless deserted beaches, sleepy fishing villages and hedonistic beach towns. Calling in at established beaches, such as Mui Ne and Nha Trang, this route also covers up-and-coming coastal regions, such as Phan Rang, Cam Ranh and Quy Nhon, where the sand and sea are almost completely undisturbed. When the beaches lose their gloss in the north-central provinces, this route takes to the hills along the Ho Chi Minh Road, for a good dose of limestone magic, including the caves at Phong Nha. Enjoy the ride! 

3. UNCLE HO’S ROAD:

  • Total Distance: 1,880km
  • Average Duration: 10 days-2 weeks
  • Road Conditions: highways & paved mountain roads
  • Navigation: simple & straightforward for the majority of the route
  • Scenery: agricultural plateaus, mountains, limestone, minority villages, war vestiges
  • DESCRIPTION: Surely one of the most evocative road names in the world, The Ho Chi Minh Road is now a fully paved passage from the south of Vietnam to the north. Uncle Ho’s Road might be the shortest route in this list, but it’s also the most mountainous; following the Truong Son Range, which forms the jagged, high-peaked spine of Vietnam. From vast agricultural plateaus, where tea and timber grow in equal number, to the ragged edge of the frontier lands along the border with Laos; from teetering passes above roaring rivers on the western branch-road, to the limestone wonderland at its northern ‘neck’: you’ll bear witness to some of the most dramatic scenery Vietnam has to offer. Sparsely populated for much of the route, some thriving cities (such as Buon Ma Thuot) and charming towns (such as Kon Tum) offer human interaction, as do the multitude of ethnic minority hamlets lining the way. Geological wonders abound, punctuated by war vestiges with hauntingly familiar names, like Khe Sanh. Enjoy the ride!  

4. THE BIG ONE:

  • Total Distance: 4,180km
  • Average Duration: 3-6 weeks
  • Road Conditions: highways, new coast & mountain roads, paved back-roads
  • Navigation: requires regular map checks & occasionally asking locals
  • Scenery: coast, rivers, limestone, mountains, minority villages, cities, cultural sites 
  • DESCRIPTION: If time is no object, and you want to see everything there is to see between Saigon and Hanoi, both on and off the beaten path, The Big One has it covered. This meandering route zigzags up the country on mountain passes, coastal back-roads, the Ho Chi Minh Road, and new national highways, to create a road trip of epic proportions. Takin
  • g in all the best beaches in southern and central Vietnam, twisting through remote valleys in the Central Highlands, corkscrewing through limestone forests on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, and following shimmering rivers from source to mouth; this is the definitive south to north route. Major towns and tourist hotspots, such as Nha Trang, Dalat, Hoi An, Phong Nha Caves and Ninh Binh, are woven into this itinerary to balance all the off-the-grid exploration. Enjoy the ride!

5. THE EASY RIDER:

  • Total Distance: 2,230km
  • Average Duration: 2-4 weeks
  • Road Conditions: good highways, some back-roads
  • Navigation: easy to follow, a couple of tricky bits on the central coast
  • Scenery: mountains, farmland, coast, cities, fishing villages, cultural sites
  • DESCRIPTION: Specifically designed for travellers who want a less complicated (but no less scenic) passage from south to north, The Easy Rider route sticks to good-quality roads on a relatively direct route from Saigon to Hanoi which is easily navigated. Switching from coast to highlands on several occasions, this route threads an arcing path through some of Vietnam’s most attractive eye candy: Dip your toes in the southern waters of Mui Ne, Nha Trang and Quy Nhon; escape to the cooler climes of mountain towns such as Dalat and Kon Tum; enjoy the cultural delights of Hoi An and Hue, connected by the Hai Van Pass; and gaze in awe at the limestone dreamscape of the Phong Nha Cave system and along the Ho Chi Minh Road. This is a good, time-saving alternative to The Classic route. Enjoy the ride!