After my time in Phong Nha, I rejoined the Ho Chi Minh Highway West and continued north. The dramatic terrain also continued for a way, but eventually the land flattened out. In the next three days I passed up the throat of Vietnam, and into the brain stem.
It’s sometimes said among travellers in Vietnam that there isn’t much worth seeing between Huế and Hanoi. This is actually true if you’re following the coast. I met a fellow from Vinh, whom I asked about things to do there. He said there wasn’t anything, aside from Uncle Ho’s hometown nearby. That’s why he lived in Huế. However, on the western side of Vietnam you can find one of Vietnam’s greatest natural blessings: Phong Nha – Khe Bang national park, home of Vietnam’s biggest cave system, including Hang Son Doong – the biggest cave in the world.
Heading west out of Hue, I began the journey into the wilds. I was excited about my first stop – a small town called Khe Sanh. It may not ring a bell if you’re not Australian, but the song is one of our unofficial national anthems, along with Waltzing Matilda and the one about being from down under. We know more of its lyrics than of the real anthem, by which I mean about a verse and a half. Anyway, the legendary place awaited. I felt like I was on a pilgrimage.
During my stay in Da Nang I met an Englishman and we got to talking about the best sights we’d ever sightseen. His greatest view was in Bạch Mã where there is a great big waterfall. Just one of the most jaw-dropping things, apparently. So after I got to Huế, I headed out once again to follow a recommendation.
The road from Da Nang to Huế isn’t long but it’s well-known around the world. I knew it from the Top Gear special all those years ago, and I was looking forward to driving one of the greatest coastal roads – in the world.
The sun was beating down heavily once again and the road was literally melting beneath me – something I’d only seen before in Australia.
It was the 11th of April, and today my journey was very short – less than an hour away. I took a wander through Hội An’s old town once more before saying goodbye to the folks at Magnolia, getting lunch and dragging myself out of town. The weather was still very hot (40+ degrees, or more than 100 fahrenheit) but the roads were smooth and unbusy.
If you enter Vietnam through Ho Chi Minh city, you may be taken aback by all the concrete and highways, and think as I did – ‘where are all the rice fields and stuff?’ Well, there are plenty in Bình Định province. I’d spent most of the previous day driving past rice fields. I woke up in Quảng Ngãi on Saturday the 9th of April, and was still to pass quite a few fields before I arrived in Hội An.
Quảng Ngãi town wasn’t great for me – it seemed like part of the highway and not like the idyllic villages I’d been passing through. I wasn’t there long though.
My drive out of the highlands was very similar to my drive in. I actually had to leave Kon Tum on the same road I entered, as my destination was south. For the only time in my trip, I was aiming down instead of up.
Context: two very good friends of mine had ridden up Vietnam the year before, but on bicycles instead of motorbikes. One of these friends told me of this rad place that she never got to visit – ‘Life’s a Beach’ in Quy Nhơn. That’s where I was headed, because it would probably be the one thing I could say I’d done that they hadn’t.
Quy Nhơn is the capital of Bình Định province near the middle of Vietnam, about where the country’s bellybutton would be. It’s a beach city very similar to Nha Trang but without the tourists. In this province they grow a lot of rice, as you will see.
Not long after arriving in Vietnam, I met a very intrepid American lady. She had an incredible talent for travel – charming locals with ease, wandering off into the unknown and returning with all sorts of discoveries. While many expats were living in hotels or newly-built apartments, she was in a simple Vietnamese house out in the jungle, with no running water and a sub-$50 monthly rent.
The farthest she got into Vietnam was Kon Tum, in the highlands of central Vietnam, and she told me it was the highlight of her trip. She had been travelling up the country for two or three weeks before she got there, which in my eyes was an awesome feat of perseverance and boldness. I doubted that I could ever do it myself.
Vietnam is an excellent place for coffee fiends. It’s good, cheap, and can be found on practically every street in the country. It’s one of the reasons Vietnam is great for travelling. Wherever you stop, you can find the necessities -guesthouses, food, bike repair, and coffee. Hot, sticky, tired after a morning on the road? Take a break at one of the many cafe võngs that line the highways.