The Ho Chi Minh Trail stands out as one of the most dramatic and unique roads in all of Vietnam. For now, the road is fairly undiscovered and sparsely populated — so riders have a chance to get that wind-in-the-hair, fresh air, world exploring feel. It’s the kind of thrill that tickles something deep in the primal mind that reminds you you’re human.
The stretch of road we’re talking about specifically here runs from Khe Sanh in the south to Phong Nha / Ke Bang National Park in the north. The kilometer markers along the road will tell you that this stretch of road is 237 kilometers long. Marker 237 is in Khe Sanh itself, and they count down until the road reaches its destination in Khe Gat.
We’ll take just about any opportunity to ride this road. Whether you’re riding the road on a group tour or by yourself, it’s sure to be one of the highlights of your Vietnam motorbike trip. So, we thought we’d make this handy guide for you to help you know what you’re getting into and what to look out for.
Follow along as we cover this tasty stretch of highway and get your wanderlust revved up.
History of the Ho Chi Min Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex series of backwoods routes used during the war to move supplies from north to south. Many of these routes ran through Laos, hugging the mountainous and forested border to bypass the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Operating any sort of vehicle was a treacherous job, and drivers usually covered a mere 20-kilometer stretch of road they’d drive night after night. There was good reason for this. Trucks had to drive at night with minimal lights to avoid detection by American air units. Thus, drivers needed to know every inch of the road in order to minimize danger.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail and Ho Chi Minh Road are often confused, but they’re different. The Ho Chi Minh Road is a highway running north-south all along the mountainous interior of Vietnam. The road is often still referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. However, and for the purposes of this article, the two names are roughly interchangeable. The Ho Chi Minh Road West, the part of the road we’re discussing here, was built between 1975 and 1979.
This particular bit of road was closed to the public until roughly 2009. Before that, it was open only to the military and local hill tribes. The area is very sparsely populated unless you count trees.
The entire road is sealed and presents itself as a two-lane highway. In general, it’s in pretty good condition as are most national highways in Vietnam. Since it’s mostly concrete, the road can be very hard on tires. If you’re driving on old tires, consider changing them out before driving this road.
Unlike Highway 1, the main north-south corridor in the country, traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Road is very sparse. On the Ho Chi Minh Trail West, it’s not unusual to go for significant stretches of time without seeing another person. For those who live in large cities, this solitude can be quite refreshing.
Be sure to bring supplies with you if you’re not on a group tour. You’ll go for long distances without seeing services or anyone at all, for that matter. If your Vietnamese is lacking or nonexistent you’ll want to know some ways off of the road which head towards the coast, where civilization is more abundant.
Several cutoffs lead east, which will link up with the Ho Chi Minh Road East. If you’re in any sort of trouble — bike, health, weather, or otherwise — it may be wise to follow one of these turnoffs. The road will lead to an area where you’ll likely find help and shelter. Look for blue road signs that indicate a major intersection approaching.
Ho Chi Min Trail: Highlights Heading South to North
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be describing the road heading south to north. If you’re going the other way, then no worries: just consider the information backwards.
Khe Sanh and the Surrounding Area
The road starts in Khe Sanh, which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Not coincidentally, there is a large monument in town to celebrate the victory of the North. It’s worth seeing if you’re in town and feel like driving around — it’s not a particularly big town anyway.
Just north of town, at kilometer 233, is the former Ta Con airbase used by America during the war. Now it’s a museum complete with tanks, an old C-130 airplane, and a variety of weapons and unexploded ordnance. The English information in the museum is not entirely accurate and the English itself isn’t correctly put together. Taken for what it is, however, the museum can serve as an interesting brief stop to see what was once a crucial wartime airbase.
We recommend gassing up in Khe Sanh before heading north, but in case you forget there’s a petrol station in the small town of Huong Phung roughly twenty kilometers north of Khe Sanh. This is also a spot where you can find amenities like a mechanic, an ATM, a hotel, coffee, and food.
Heading north out of Huong Phung, you won’t see any signs of civilization for quite some time — save the road itself.
Stopping place note: at kilometer 166 is a waterfall that makes for a beautiful roadside stop for a photo, a bite to eat, or just a rest of the legs. It’s well worth your time as it’s immediately next to the road.
North of Huong Phung you’ll encounter Sa Mu Mountain. It’s the highest mountain you’ll encounter along this drive, at 1100 meters. Don’t be surprised if you run into rain or clouds when climbing uphill, since moisture in the air is plentiful at altitude.
Long Son: Halfway There
The halfway point of the drive from Khe Sanh to Khe Gat is the picturesque town of Long Son. If you choose to make this a two day trip instead of one, staying in Long Son could be an excellent choice. Nestled in a valley with a small river running through it, the village offers an opportunity to relax and forget that you’ve ever seen a big city.
The Duc Tuan hotel is the only real option for a place to spend the night. You’ll be able to find coffee and food in town as well. While there is a gas station, it’s notoriously unreliable and is frequently closed.
One important feature Long Son offers is a bus station that heads to Dong Hoi. If your bike is in bad shape and you can’t get it fixed there, or if you’ve become sick or injured, you can put your bike on the bus and head towards the coast where services are more available.
Long Son to Phong Nha
Around 20 kilometers north of Long Son is Rinh Rinh (pronounced Zin Zin) bridge, where you’ll find a crossroads as well. This is a beautiful spot to stop for some photos or a picnic. Note that there’s a ranger station nearby where you can ask for help if you’re in real trouble — hopefully you won’t be. There’s a crossroads here that leads down to the coast if you need to get off the highway for any reason.
Heading north from here the landscape gets even more sparsely populated and remote feeling. You’ll start to see the iconic limestone karst mountains that make Phong Nha so iconic. These towering, weathered pillars are covered in jungle and thrust themselves into the sky in an otherworldly fashion. They’re the result of countless years of erosion, and no matter how many times a person sees them they’ll still have a wild, exotic look to them. Expect no services on this stretch, so be prepared with supplies like gas, food, tools, or spare parts.
The road snakes through hills and forest as you cross into the U Bo mountains, with more bends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s one of the most exciting parts of this already exciting road. U Bo is not far from the southern end of Phong Nha, where this stretch of road ends.
Approaching Phong Nha
Afterwards you’ll arrive at Tra Ang crossroads. Here you can choose to take either the DT20 or the QL15 to get to Son Trach, the main town of Phong Nha. For reference, most people traveling through simply call the town Phong Nha.
An interesting note on the DT20/DT562: this road was known as the “Victory Road” during the war since so many supplies came across the Laotian border on it. As the story goes, the majority of those who built it were college student volunteers with an average age of 20.
Towards the south of the Phong Nha / Ke Bang National Park you can find some spectacular sites. Notably, Paradise Cave and Dark Cave can be found in this area, as well as Nuoc Muoc, an underground river that surfaces here. No one is exactly sure how long the river is but it certainly travels underground all the way from Laos.
What to Look Out For
Since this road is so remote in many places, a breakdown can be more than just a pain in the rear: it can be a serious problem. If you break down at night far from a town, for example, the odds are low that someone will drive by. Even then, they’re under no obligation to help you or may not be able to.
Similarly, if you get minor injuries along the way, you’ll likely have to take care of it yourself. Any reasonable medical facilities will be towards the coast in bigger towns, or on either end of the road in Khe Sanh or Phong Nha.
You will need a license to legally ride in Vietnam. If you’re riding without a license and get into an accident, your insurance won’t cover you. Bear that in mind when traveling anywhere.
Because of this remoteness, we recommend bringing just-in-case supplies. That means, at minimum, a first aid kit, a toolkit, and a spare inner tube in case you blow out a tire. Be sure to also carry a phone with a local sim card. Viettel, Mobifone, Vinaphone, or any other major national carrier is fine. You’ll need to be able to make a phone call or use 3G/4G if it’s available. You’ll want at least a translation app, especially if your Vietnamese is limited.
Additionally, you may consider bringing along an extra bit of fuel. Even a liter water bottle filled at a petrol station can get you out of a jam since you certainly don’t want to be pushing your bike through the wilderness.
It’s also reasonable to bring some food and water along. If you get hungry in the middle of the jungle you’re better off eating a sandwich you brought rather than looking for a wild banana tree.
Another consideration is the weather. Rain is quite common in the area, especially at higher elevations. A sunny day can turn into a rainstorm in the blink of an eye, so always keep wet weather gear handy.
At the End of the Road
The kilometer markers end at 0 in Khe Gat. There’s nothing particularly worth seeing at this last kilometer marker, so we recommend not wasting your time trying to find it.
However, if you’ve begun this ride in the south and ended in Phong Nha / Ke Bang in the north, congratulations, you’ve found one of the best national parks in the country. It’s an outdoorsman’s paradise. With countless caves and grottoes (including the world’s largest cave), river kayaking, rafting, hiking, jungle trekking, and ziplining, it’s difficult to be bored.
If you’re in the mood to just relax after a long day’s drive, that’s quite possible as well. Guesthouses line the river, where you can plop yourself in a hammock and enjoy the sunset.
Some of our favourite partners operate in this area: Jungle Boss and Phong Nha Farmstay, to name a couple. Both offer high-quality furnishings and outdoor activities and are well worth a stay.
Of course, Phong Nha boasts some spectacular smaller backroads that are well worth exploring on the correct bike. Just ask around and your local gearhead will be able to point you in some fun directions. Or, check out our guide here to motorbike routes and activities in the area.
Onyabike Adventures’ Thoughts
We absolutely love this road, and make sure to include it in quite a few of our tours. Hell, we also ride it for fun just about any opportunity we get.
For now and the foreseeable future, this is one of the best adventure roads in Asia. Its lack of traffic, exotic scenery, and still-not-quite-discovered cool factor make it one of our all time favourites. Whether you’re traveling with us, another group, or on your own, we reckon it’ll be one of the highlights of your Vietnam motorbike adventure as well.
Check out some of our tours that include the Ho Chi Minh West: