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My route North - The central section

Updated: Jan 31

The southern coast had been great but I was longing for some nature.  Back inland I go to Pleiku, the central highlands. This was more like it! Despite some great days in the south, I had a feeling that I’d not yet seen the real Vietnam.  I’d been riding busy roads, littered with buses and trucks kicking up dust and sand, with fairly mediocre views for the most part.


As I rode towards Pleiku, there was a very distinct feeling that this is what I’d been searching for, open roads, little traffic and a rural sense of freedom.  Pleiku itself struck me as a reasonably large city, I drove around for a few hours and stopped for some food but it didn’t resonate with me, so I figured I’d push on to Kon Tum and make a base there for a while.


Kon Tum is a charming little town, nestled on the Dak Bla river, cute, sleepy, quiet and very relaxing.  It was here I had the most incredible ‘Nem Thit Nuong’, pork kebabs on a lemon grass skewer, rice paper, salad and fruits with a peanut dipping sauce.  It was phenomenal and a large portion.  My Vietnamese was pretty much nonexistent back then, as I went to pay the woman held 4 fingers up….I’d had a beer and the most amazing meal I’d had in Vietnam… 400k seemed quite expensive but I was happy and full.  The woman laughed and shook her head as I handed her a 500k note, she opened a little wooden drawer and returned 460k to me.  Wow! It was 40k!  I went back the next evening, had 2 portions, 4 or 5 beers and watched Kon Tum life.  This time I gave her 200k, as she reached for the drawer, I said “khong cam on” – with terrible pronunciation but she seemed to understand, she said something to one of the other staff who then did a Thai style bow and said “Thank you!”


I figured it was time to have a look around, there’s 2 large connecting lakes to the south and north of Kon Tum, well lets go check them out! Incredible red clay dirt roads and trails everywhere, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the air was clean – I was having a blast, I got a little lost but I didn’t care….I could always turn around!


Well it was time for some beach again – next stop Da Nang. I would make this my base for a while and explore north and south before heading back inland.  It was a decent 300km along the incredible AH17 but alas it rained a fair bit and the last hour into Da Nag was Faily dull.  But wow! What a contrast, bright lights, shiny metal and glass – worlds away from where I started in the morning.  I immediately went to Circle K and bought load of junk food. I hadn’t booked anywhere so I had a quick look on Booking and settled for Ron Casa.  An excellent choice that was!  Made out of old shipping containers with a pool to boot – super cool hostel. It was walking distance to the beach and just down the road was a mini night food hall, like 10 or so little stalls – some foreigner run. 


Da Nang is a fabulous city, it has great clean beaches, a modern city with the likes of Dunkin Donuts, cool bars, fun pubs, high end restaurant and great street food.  To top it off there’s Son Tra peninsula, a mini mountain range with epic 360 degree views across both bays, monkeys, temples and Asia’s tallest standing buddha.


I was in no rush to leave Da Nang, it was genuinely the first place id been to in Vietnam where I though…” I could live here”.  After a week or so at Ron Casa I moved north towards Son Tra – the beach here is less attractive and has a strong smell of fish but the area is significantly more local and chilled. I still rode into the city for food and beach days and hit up Son Tra a few times.  I was becoming comfortable in Da Nang, perhaps too much.  Hoi An was only 40 minutes away so I decided id ride back on myself and check it out.

 

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t a massive fan….sure it’s pretty and has great beaches but it’s incredibly touristy and feels a little fake.  Anyways I booked a couple of nights at a party hostel – Kiki house, nice place, converted hotel with a pool but a real party hostel, fun but after 2 nights I needed some peace.  I headed out towards An Bang beach, staying at Paradise bungalows – beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. Top tip: head to Hidden Beach! I realised I’m not a beach person and once again found myself longing for the countryside, nature and the open road.


But first I have to do this Hai Van Pass thing – made famous by Top Gear! Hmmm, we’ll get back to this.  Just outside Da Nang lies Hon Son Cha – a tiny little island, on the peninsula is a web of dirt roads leading to some pristine beaches, let’s go have a look. I aimed for the easterly beach, it started out okay, a pretty horrendous trail of large rocks that eventually turned into a sandy path and then, boom thick jungle, there was a path but no way the bike would get through.  I locked the bike and headed in on foot, following the pointer on google maps, the trail became thin to the point I wasn’t sure I was even on it anymore, clambering over rocks and down little streams, I wasn’t going straight but overall in the general direction of the beach.  It took forever, what looked very close on the maps was taking ages through the jungle…. But then I popped out on a picture postcard beach.  Not a single person, building, boat, nothing but white sand and turquoise water – wow, incredible!  My phone now on 4% and unable to load the camera, shit I need to get back.  I soon lost google maps, it took me 2.5 hours to get back and the sun was dropping, I missed where I parked the bike and had to re-trace the rail to find it, it was now proper dark, okay back to Da Nang for the night. But boy what a day!


Okay Hai Van Pass time, I’m gonna be honest an entirely average riding road with a few decent views, the last section into Hue is monotonous and rather annoying.  Having ridden half the country already I was massively disappointed.  Well, let’s see what Hue has to offer.


Sadly another big disappointment.  The citadel is probably the most boring, uninspiring attraction in VN.  A bunch of ruined walls spread over a huge area, a restaurant and gift shop.  The best thing was the video introduction at the entrance showing what it used to look like!  Hot as hell, traipsing around all day looking at broken walls – what a rip off! 


There’s a lot of history to Hue, not really my bag but maybe yours.  The main area is just 2 streets centered around drinking beer, food is good, incredible in fact but the city itself is nothing special.  There’s 7 tombs around Hue, of old Emperors, I visited all of them in 1 day (big day), only 1 is actually worth going to, the rest are just gardens and an average temple structure.  The tomb of Khai Dinh is well worth it and puts all others to shame! The abandoned waterpark is cool for the novelty factor, fun too as I entered through the forest on the bike – there was no one there to say I couldn’t. So long Hue!


Phong Nha – an absolute diamond of a place.  It was gonna be a big day, having experience the HW1 (the coast road), I was determined not to repeat the experience! Inland via the QL49 to the legendary QL14/15 (The Ho Chi Minh Road), a former trail, made in to a concrete slab road by the government, largely for tourists.


WARNING!  This was a huge day 400km plus.  As it turns into the QL15 and you enter Ke Bang National park it becomes incredibly remote, nothing and I do mean nothing.  No gas, no shops, no villages and no-one on the road.  There were times when I though “Fuck, if something goes wrong here, I’m goosed”.  With that however, comes a supreme feeling of genuine adventure, here I am riding my bike through the VN jungle, the sun shining, tunes in my ear without a care in the world.  Fate, inevitability, confidence, tiredness, you choose… I was approaching a hairpin uphill, with a big wash of gravel on the outer corner, I’ve seen it in good time but it didn’t matter, I hit it, stood on the rear brake and the back swung around, shit, into the ditch I went, a concrete drain channel probably 2 feet deep.  My heart is pounding, my head dripping with sweat – “is the bike oaky???” I managed to pick her up and flick the stand down, still in the ditch! My right knee is dripping blood with gravel embedded in it, I’ve banged my elbow and hip but overall I’m good.  The bike starts – wuhoooo! But I couldn’t get it out of this drainage channel, the engine wouldn’t clear the trough.  I shut the fuel tap and laid her down, pulling her from front to back on to the road.  Time for a cigarette!  No-one, not a soul, but I’m okay and the bike runs.  I’d lost a bit of fuel and was starting to wonder if the full tank would make it.  It did, I arrived in Phong Nha as the sun was setting.  An absolutely awesome moment of elation…..civilization, I took a beer from a road side shop and just sat for a while.


I checked into a homestay along the river, a little weird with no English spoken, but a comfortable modern room and a rooftop with views to die for – the sun had set and the whole sky was now filled with auburn clouds – what a day!  Breakfast was interesting, a random tour guide showed up and was insistent on selling me a cave tour.  I declined, finished brekkie and moved to Hugo Homestay, further down the river, closer to the town. Fabulous modern room, swimming pool and an adorable family, the most delicious family diner with a few other travelers.


Phong Nha is one of those genuinely vindicating destinations – its remote, difficult to get to and well off the tourist trail but oh my god, so worth it – it would be in my top 3 places in Vietnam!  The town itself is nothing – just one street of restaurants and hostels but the area is epic.  Dirt trails, rivers, stream crossings, rice paddies, mountains oh and the world’s largest cave!  Paradise cave, the Dark Cave and Phong Nha cave are all accessible by yourself, the botanical garden are worth a visit.  The duck stop is the most fun you can have in a day without being arrested and The Pub with Cold Beer is a great outing.  I stayed maybe 16 days or so at various places from the River, to the town, to out at Eco Shack in the sticks.  I did get Dengue but hey..... shit happens!


And so, the Northern section begins……..



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