This post series was contributed by Lost Cartographer. Part 1 can be read here.
Disclaimer: The following article is brought to you by a sarcastic, pessimistic and opinionated bastard who likes motorcycles, beer, spicy food, and not much else. Assume everything you read here is completely wrong. Enjoy.
Who What When Where Why How —-
Q: When is the best time to go to Vietnam?
A: That is easy; don’t go during the rainy season. Unfortunately the rainy season varies by region throughout the country. If you are doing The Sampler Platter you’re probably going to get wet at some point.
That being said, experiencing the rainy season is part of experiencing Vietnam. Life goes on, rain or shine. Here’s a good article arguing FOR going to Vietnam in the rainy season.
Personally I hate traveling on rainy days, especially on 2 wheels, doubly so when I’m on vacation. Therefore I go out of my way to time trips for the dry season.
I use these websites for regional weather patterns when planning my trips:
Here’s the short summary:
- Go to Saigon in the winter. It will still be insanely hot, but at least it won’t be insanely hot AND raining.
- Go to Da Nang and the Central Highlands in February/March time frame. There will be minimal rain and moderate temperatures.
- Go to Hanoi and Northern Vietnam in the spring or the fall, as the wet season in Northern Vietnam falls in the middle of the summer.
- Note: I toured Northern Vietnam in the spring due to other constraints, but if I could recommend a specific time it would be the fall so you can experience the rice harvest.
Do your homework when timing your trip. You don’t want to show up and spend the whole time with wet feet.
—- Who What When Where Why How —-
As stated in earlier posts, tourism is booming in Vietnam. The money pouring into the country is a double-edged sword that is helping many fiscally, but it comes at a cultural cost.
The major tourist destinations have already gone corporate and, as roads are improving, the tour bus routes are getting to the more rural areas of the country. For example, to reach Sapa in 2013 tourists would take an overnight train and then transfer to a bus to climb the grade to the city. In 2014 the new Hanoi-Lao Cai freeway opened up; now tourists can get picked up at their hotel in downtown Hanoi and be in Sapa less than 5 hours later. Now is the time to get on your bike and experience those remote places before the tour bus routes expand and completely kill the local culture.
This statement may offend some, but there are a few areas in Vietnam that I would consider to be already “ruined” by mass tourism: Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Sapa.
- I’ll give you workarounds for enjoying Ha Long Bay and Hoi An.
- There are many alternatives to Sapa; my recommendation is Bac Ha market and the Ha Giang Loop.
Q: Where are the “good” moto roads?
A: Almost everywhere. Take a look at a topographic map of SE Asia:
See those green bumpy parts? Those are mountains. Those are where the good roads are. As an added bonus Vietnam Coracle has done all the mapping work already:
Here’s a direct link to his route maps
— Northern Vietnam —
Let’s now zoom northern Vietnam:
Hanoi is located on a large plain that extends South and East to the sea. There are mountains to the West and to the North. The northern mountains arc towards the sea and where they enter the Gulf of Tonkin they become the iconic Ha Long Bay.
The majority of the Northern Vietnamese population lives on this plain, the great riding roads are in the mountains, and the tourists are all in Ha Long Bay and Sapa.
Here are my “must sees” in Northern Vietnam. Keep in mind my “must sees” are from the viewpoint of a gearhead and history buff. This is by no means a comprehensive list, it’s just places that I have been to and can recommend checking out.
Hanoi Area – The Must See List:
- The Hanoi Citadel (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- The Hanoi Hilton
- Vietnam Military History Museum
- Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
- This one is about 6km west of downtown, but is worth the ride / Grab fare.
- B52 Victory Museum
- B52 in the Lake
- Hanoi Street Murals
- Hanoi Train Street (supposed to be closed, but like most things in VN your results may vary)
- This street in Hanoi has trains, not cars. The train passes through approximately twice per day.
- Living right on the tracks seems crazy at first, but you quickly realize that this is one of quietest places around; Vietnamese cities are LOUD places.
- The best time to go is when the train IS NOT running. When the train is scheduled all of the instagramers show up. When there is no train it is a nice quiet place to relax and have a beer.
In Oct 2019 the cafes alongside the tracks were closed down, but there are lots of reviews on tripadvisor showing workarounds.
Hanoi Area, if you have more time:
- National Museum of Vietnamese History
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
- Similar to a US Presidential Library, but on propaganda steroids.
- Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum
- Bac Ha Sunday Morning Market
- This market is one of my top 5 best memories of Vietnam. It is a true rural market, locals come in from the countryside with crops and animals to sell, and others come in to stock up on supplies for the week.
- What was a relatively isolated market is now within striking distance of tour buses from Sapa. If for no other reason, this is why you need to get to Vietnam sooner rather than later.
- Buses start arriving from Sapa/Lao Cai around 815am or so. You’ll want to be out wandering the market around 6-6:30am if you want to experience the locals chatting, haggling, and living life undisturbed by the unwashed masses.
- Being out and about at 630am means that you are going to need to spend the night in Bac Ha. I have no hotel recommendations because there is no way I’d recommend the place we stayed at.
- Ha Giang Loop:
- Google it. This entire region is brilliant. Take as many days as you possibly can to explore the area.
- There are a lot of backpackers (bike-packers?) in this area, they have definitely gotten here first.
- Most bikepackers stay on the main loop, but there are miles of backroads and dozens of villages to explore.
- It is possible to take a bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang city and rent a bike there, but I recommend taking a couple of days to ride there from Hanoi.
- You’ll need a $10 permit to travel North of Ha Giang. There is a checkpoint where you will need to show your permit and possibly your International Driving Permit.
- Here is a good article on how to get a permit, but the address in the article is now incorrect, the article lists the OLD immigration office.
- The correct address to get your permit is the New Immigration Office at this government building in Ha Giang: 292 Trần Phú, P. Trần Phú, Hà Giang, Vietnam.
- In Ha Giang we stayed at the Hotel Phoenix (Khách sạn Phoenix) on the south side of town. It was REALLY nice with an awesome breakfast. Highly recommended.
To be continued….
Part 3 is coming soon with more escapades, including:
- Ha Long Bay
- Central Vietnam
- Southern Vietnam
Part 4 will be about the:
- Driving Insanity
- Getting a Visa
- Finding hotels
- All sorts of other logistics