The Golden Loop: Central Vietnam by Motorbike

First published January 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Central Vietnam has got it all: temples, beaches, mountains, jungle, historic old cities, dynamic new cities, tropical islands, and delicious regional cuisine. Such is its appeal to travellers, that the area between Hue, Hoi An and My Son is often dubbed The Golden Triangle. Many people choose to travel by motorbike between Hoi An and Hue, via the scenic Hai Van Pass. The popularity of this route is largely thanks to the 2008 Top Gear Vietnam Special episode. But there is an extension of this road trip which takes the ride, quite literally, to another level. I call it The Golden Loop.

The Golden Loop, Central Vietnam by MotorbikeThe Golden Loop: connecting Hoi An, Hue & Danang via the Ho Chi Minh Road & the Hai Van Pass

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MOTORBIKE GUIDE:


 ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Route: connecting Hoi An, Danang & Hue via Ho Chi Minh Road & Hai Van Pass [MAP]
  • Total Distance: 440km
  • Road Conditions: paved mountain roads, decent quality secondary roads, highways
  • Terrain & Scenery: mountains, jungle, verdant valleys, cities, cultural & historical sites

ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:

  • Section 1Hoi An to Prao (via Thanh My): 120km
  • Section 2Prao to Hue (via A Luoi): 160km
  • Section 3: Hue to Danang (via Hai Van Pass): 160km

ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

You can start this road trip from any of the three main cities on the coast: Hoi An, Danang, Hue. It doesn’t matter which direction you ride the loop, but below I’ve written my guide going clockwise, starting in Hoi An. Motorbikes are available to rent from hotels and guesthouses for $7-10 per day, or from Rent a Bike Vietnam’s Danang office (131 Lê Đình Lý Street). Because this road trip is a loop, you don’t need to worry about bike collection or return. The route is fairly easy to navigate, road conditions are good, and the scenery is fabulous. You can comfortably complete this loop in 2 days, but with 3 or 4 days you’ll have time to really soak it up. I’ve written this guide in 3 sections, each of which could (but certainly doesn’t need to) correspond to a day on the road. I’ve also included places to stay and eat. The best time of year to ride the Golden Loop is late spring/early summer.

The Golden Loop, Central Vietnam by MotorbikeClouds bubble up over the Ho Chi Minh Road: late spring/early summer is the best time to ride the loop


ROUTE MAP:

The Golden Loop: Central Vietnam by Motorbike:

View in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 1:

Route: Hoi An to Prao (via Thanh My) Distance: 120km [MAP]

Get an early start and weave your way out of the echoey, ancient streets of Hoi An at dawn. Hung Vuong Street rides atop flood dykes through glittering rice paddies, before leading to the non-descript town of Vinh Dien and across the roaring asphalt of Highway 1. Heading west on Highway 14B, it’s not long before the road is folded into the green valleys of Central Vietnam. The farmland here is always crisp and shimmering, as if a light spring shower had recently passed over it: these valleys are constantly fed by fresh water running off the Truong Son Mountains to the west. Buffalo work and wade in the wet fields. There’s a sense of timelessness to this landscape, underlined by the presence of the ancient Cham ruins of My Son, just a few kilometres south of here, in the shadow of the unmistakable Cat’s Tooth Mountain.

Cinnamon tree lining a river in Central Vietnam, near Hoi AnThe lush, damp valleys of Central Vietnam, just west of Hoi An

After a pleasant hour’s ride, Highway 14B meets the Ho Chi Minh Road at Thanh My. There are snacks, refreshments and a couple of guesthouses here should you need them. Bearing right (due northwest) on the Ho Chi Minh Road, the town of Thanh My is soon no more than a speck in the valley, as the road climbs sharply and dramatically into the mountains. Forested limestone ridges rear up, towering over deep crevices with sky-blue torrents at the bottom. There are very few buildings, people or vehicles: it’s difficult to believe that Danang, Vietnam’s fifth most populous city, is only 70km away. But this is by no means an undisturbed landscape: huge swathes of forest have been chopped and burned, and giant hydroelectric dams are being constructed on the mountain rivers. It’s very sobering to see the ‘development’ or ‘deterioration’ (depending on your view) of this area each time I pass through. Illegal logging is still a huge problem here, and the dams are attempting to keep up with the demand for power from Vietnam’s burgeoning population.

Jungle-clad mountains on the Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamThe Ho Chi Minh Road soars into jungle-clad mountains from Thanh My

The second half of the 60km stretch from Thanh My to Prao is a helter-skelter of hairpin bends, curling up and down mountains that are so lush they appear to spray foliage over the road. This is an excellent riding road. After a dizzying descent, the small town of Prao appears in the middle of a tight valley. Tiny and remote, Prao offers a couple of decent guesthouses and a few food shacks. On the main road, just after passing the gas station, you’ll see Dung Thuy Rest House (051 03 898 636) and Huong Dao Rest House (051 03 898 264) right next door. Nhà Nghỉ Huyền Long (tel: 0510 6545 099) is a local guesthouse in a green building on the corner near the centre of town. Nearby, Quán Quỳnh Trang, on the main street, has excellent food in a rustic environment (if it’s open), but there are other quán cơm (rice eateries in the back streets too). I love the rough edge of this town, but I’ve also bumped into one or two drunk, xenophobic local men here, so it’s a good idea to keep your wits about you.

The Ho Chi Minh Road to Prao, VietnamStopping on the winding decent to Prao (photo by Samuel Mather Photography)

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SECTION 2:

Route: Prao to Hue (via A Luoi) | Distance: 160km [MAP]

From Prao, the Ho Chi Minh Road follows a series of rivers along steep valleys. Eventually, the road leaves the valleys and heads up…..and up and up, in a series of looping switchbacks which curve around the contours until, when there’s no mountain left to climb, it glides along the highest ridge around. It’s an extraordinary ride and the views over unbroken jungle canopy are stunning. Even the road, when you look back at all the twists and turns, is a majestic sight: a Jackson Pollock in tarmac. The best thing about this 100km ride from Prao to A Luoi is that you have it all to yourself. You could spend the whole day on this section of road and count the number of other vehicles (or even people) on one hand.

The Ho Chi Minh Road between Prao and A Luoi, VietnamMisty mountains at the top of an endless pass on the Ho Chi Minh Road between Prao and A Luoi

This is a remote and pristine corner of Vietnam, right on the border with Laos. One gets the feeling, when looking out over the misty mountains blanketed in wet tropical foliage, that this is a special, somehow magical, place. Indeed, it is home to a semi-mythical creature: the sao la, or as it’s also known, Asian Unicorn. Only known to science since the 1990s, this elegant, deer-like animal, has yet to be seen live in the wild by any Westerner (trip cameras in the forest prove its exstence). But there are forestry cabins along this road for the conservation of the sao la, reminding you that, somewhere out there, the Asian Unicorn still wanders.

The Ho Chi Minh Road between Prao and A Luoi, VietnamThe Asian Unicorn is hiding somewhere in these forest along the border with Laos

There’s a marvellous sense of nature, space and isolation up here: quiet, still and fresh. The only man-made structures are occasional wooden homes, remote military outposts and, of course, the Ho Chi Minh Road. Before starting its long decent to A Luoi, the road carves two tunnels under two rocky peaks, coming out the other side to wonderful views down over a flat, fertile, farmed valley. Once at the bottom, it’s a straight ride to A Luoi, where Nhà Nghỉ Thanh Quang (tel: 0543 878 362) is a good place for a night’s rest (it’s on the right side of the main high street as you come in to town). There are several places to eat on A Luoi’s main street, most offering pretty average fare.

Tunnel, Ho Chi Minh Road between Prao and A Luoi, VietnamThe first of two spooky tunnels on the Ho Chi Minh Road before the decent to A Luoi

A few kilometres before entering A Luoi, there’s a right turn (due east) signposted to Hue. This is Highway 49, which meanders down a mountain pass through a lovely landscape of fruit and spice trees – cinnamon, lemongrass, pineapple, mango, cashew, jackfruit – to the Perfume River Valley. This lush, peaceful valley is where the emperors of the Imperial Nguyen Dynasty were laid to rest, in elaborate tombs along the river banks. One of the most impressive is Emperor Minh Mang’s tomb, which is on the right, just before Highway 49 crosses the Perfume River. There’s superb accommodation in this area at The Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort: perfect after a couple of nights ‘roughing it’ in the mountains, and also ideally located if you want to do some more ‘tomb-hopping’ the next day.

Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, Hue, VietnamThe tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, on the banks of the Perfume River near Hue

If tombs aren’t your thing, then weave your way into the bustling streets of Hue City, where my favourite places for a night are: Jade Hotel (budget), Moonlight Hotel (mid-range), La Residence (luxury). Food in Hue is outstanding: try to hit the street food carts around the Dong Ba Market, and look out for cơm hến (rice with tiny clams cooked in lemongrass) and bún bò Huế (spicy, aromatic beef noodle soup), both of which are Hue specialities.

Bún bò Huế, spicy beef noodle soup, VietnamFood in Hue is fantastic: this is bún bò Huế – spicy, aromatic beef noodle soup

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SECTION 3:

Route: Hue to Danang (via Hai Van Pass) | Distance: 160km [MAP]

Head north from the Imperial Palace in Hue to the Thuan An Peninsular. This long finger of land is essentially Hue’s beach. However, the 40km promontory is not all sand and sea; it’s also a cemetery. Anyone who rides along this stretch of road can’t fail to notice the astonishing amount (and variety) of tombs by the roadside. Vietnamese burial grounds are traditionally determined by the principles of phong thủy or feng shui: the two words literally mean ‘wind and water’, plenty of which you’ll find by the beach on Thuan An Peninsular. It’s an intriguing (if slow) ride down the promontory on Road 49B, until a new bridge crosses the mouth of Cau Hai Lagoon, the largest in Southeast Asia. On a clear day, this serene, almost ghostly, body of water is a wonderful sight. However, I’ve only ever had my camera with me on days like this:

Storm over Cau Hai Lagoon, the largest in Southeast AsiaA storm hangs over Cau Hai Lagoon, the largest in Southeast Asia

Road 49B veers south, skirting the eastern edge of the lagoon, before hitting Highway 1 at Phu Loc. However, if the weather is good and the beauty of the lagoon has cast its spell on you, consider a night at Verdana Lagoon Resort: an isolated place with cabins jutting out into the lagoon: very romantic. Having avoided Highway 1 for the entire loop so far, it comes as something of a disappointed that the last 50km to Danang is all on this main artery. However, this is without doubt the most scenic section on the whole length of Vietnam’s busiest national highway. Dwarfed to the south and east by the mountains of Bach Ma National Park, the highway clings to a narrow ribbon of flat land next to the coast. At Lang Co, it crosses a beautiful lagoon, around which there are lots of ‘rest stops’ for a meal with a view (either of the lagoon or the ocean, depending on which side of the road you choose). There are also plenty of hotels and resorts in this area.

Lang Co, near the Hai Van Pass, VietnamLagoons, mountains and ocean near Lang Co, on a scenic stretch of Highway 1

When there’s no more flat land left and the mountains meet the sea, the highway goes under them, creating Southeast Asia’s longest tunnel. But motorbikes aren’t allowed through the tunnel. And that’s a good thing because, instead, they must take the original route: the Hai Van Pass. Famous through the centuries as a difficult and dangerous pass that once divided kingdoms, today, the Hai Van Pass is one of Vietnam’s best-known ‘joy rides’. Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear team did wonders for motorcycle tourism in Vietnam when, in 2008, he declared this pass ‘one of the best coast roads [pause for effect] in the world.’ On a clear day, it’s hard to argue with him. However, as the name suggests (Hai Van means ‘ocean mist’) you may well find the incredible ocean views obscured by cloud. Either way, it’s a superb ride. Read my full guide to the Hai Van Pass HERE.

View from the top of the Hai Van Pass, Vietnam“One of the best coast roads in the world”: stopping to admire the view at the top of the Hai Van Pass

Dropping down from the Hai Van Pass, you’ll see Danang sprawling along the coast in the distance. Not long ago, Danang was considered a grim city, best avoided. But today, it’s no exaggeration to say, that Danang is one of the most exciting, up and coming, hip and happening cities in Vietnam. It’s in a fabulous natural position, with the curvaceous Bay of Danang to the north and Danang Municipal Beach (formerly known as China Beach) to the east; the Han River cutting a north-south line through the city; and the lush Son Tra Peninsular at its northern tip. The latter has recently been made accessible to motorbikes, thanks to a new road that spirals up and over this knobbly headland. Taking this road is a great way to end the Golden Loop. There are stupendous city and sea views from the top, and you can even celebrate with an expensive cocktail at the new, secluded, and extremely posh Intercontinental Resort here.

Dusk on the Han River, Danang, VietnamDusk falls over the Han River in Danang, one of Vietnam’s most exciting cities

There are lots of good places to stay in Danang, including Sion Hotel (budget), Sun River Hotel (mid-range), and Novotel Han River (high-end). Look out for bún cá (a fiery fish noodle soup) and mì quảng (thick noodles in a shallow broth) while you’re in town. To complete the loop proper, take Vo Nguyen Giap Street along Danang’s municipal beach, past the rows of international resorts, casinos and golf courses, beyond the Marble Mountains, turn right after An Bang Beach and roll back into Hoi An. Massive competition means that accommodation here is among the best-value in Vietnam: I like Nhi Trung Hotel (budget), Pho Hoi Riverside Resort (mid-range), and Anantara Resort (high-end). Don’t forget to try a bowl of cao lầu (thick, doughy, rough-textured noodles with pork) while in Hoi An, although it’s best to head out of the tourist centre to find good quality.

Gazing over the Marble Mountains, Danang, VietnamEnd of the loop: sunset seen from the top of the Marble Mountains, between Danang and Hoi An

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RELATED POSTS:


THE HO CHI MINH ROAD:
My guide to the best section of Uncle Ho’s highway……read more

The Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam


SAPA-SIN HO SCENIC LOOP:
A stunning, mountainous circuit on the roof on Indochina……read more

Sapa-Sin Ho scenic motorbike loop


HA GIANG EXTREME NORTH LOOP:
One of the most thrilling road trips you’ll ever do……read more

Ha Giang Extreme North motorbike loop

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61 Responses to The Golden Loop: Central Vietnam by Motorbike

  1. Tara says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks so much for this helpful info! Some friends and I are planning to do this loop this weekend/first part of next week. I was wondering whether in light of the roads this loop is do-able on an automatic bike, or whether you would really recommend semi-automatics?

    Thanks,
    Tara

  2. Andy says:

    Thank you for what you are doing!
    Your guides encouraged me to give it a try and it was simply the most beautiful ride of my life! Thank you!

  3. Francois says:

    Hi Tom,
    I have driven all the way from HCMC to Hoi An following your guides and it has been a real pleasure. Heading west tomorrow to have a shot at the A Luoi – Prao stretch of road. Thank you so much for your guides it has been really precious , everything I need to know is in here. I’m sure I will continue coming here for the rest of my trip.
    Quick question : Should I stock up on gas to do Hoi An -> Prao ? It seems pretty remote and i am not sure on the availability of fuel on this road ? Thank you again so much for this resource.

  4. Sam Whelan says:

    Hi Tom
    Thanks for the indispensable blog as always!
    I’m planning on doing an extended version of this loop in two weeks time.
    We will keep going past A Luoi and all the way up to Phong Nha, following your western HCM road guide.
    After a rest day (and cave tour!) we will ride back down to Hue before finishing with the Hai Van pass and onward to Hoi An.
    My question is this: Is there a route you would recommend from Phong Nha to Hue which avoids the main roads, other than back down the HCM road? ie. we want to do a loop and head down the east coast if possible.
    I have checked the map and see a couple of potential routes but would be interested to know if there’s any roads you would or would not recommend.
    Thanks in advance if you have time to reply.
    Cheers
    Sam

  5. Matthew King says:

    Hi Tom,

    Just a quick one – can you buy gas in Prao? Are there gas stations or can you buy it in bottles?

    We’re heading hp there from A. Luoi today.

    Thanks again,

    Matt

  6. Chris Nicoletti says:

    I was looking on Google Earth while in my living room in Boulder, Colorado and this loop looked amazing. I have been exploring the internet putting together little bits of information from different sections of this loop and then I stumbled across this post! So very helpful! My wife and I are leaving Phu Quoc tomorrow and will be spending a few days in Hue before heading out on this adventure. Quick question: is Prao the best place to stay along the way between Hoi An and Hue? Or, are there other options?

    Thanks so much for the helpful information. This is awesome.

  7. Paul Nelson says:

    hi tom,

    my partner and i are visiting vietnam for the first time in a couple weeks. and after reading some of you bike tour routes i’m totally keen to try a couple. regarding motorbikes in general and carrying a passenger….. are most rentals basically automatic ‘scooters’ instead of actual motorcycles? and can you rent ones with panniers to help with baggage or do they have racks for bungies and etc? are they grunty enough to carry a passenger? my partner has driven scooters before, but i’m a bit wary of her on any high mountain roads without guard rails or something to keep her flying off the road in case of mishap. what’s the typical speed for travel on most roads?
    thanks for the help and keep up the good work.
    cheers mate!

    paul

  8. Natalie B. says:

    Hi Tom!
    First of all thank you so much for sharing such comprehensive and inspiring stories and infos about this beautiful country! We were inspired by your Golden Loop motorbiking guide and we are so glad we followed the advice. We just completed it yesterday (we started in Hoi An and drove counterclockwise). We did it in 3 days with 2 nights in Hue (as I wanted to visit the Imperial Palace and look around a bit) an 1 night in Prao. Stunning views and so peaceful (when up in the mountains).

    We are soon heading to Nha Trang and would love to take another motorbike ride for a few days. Is there a ride that you would recommend that would hit Dalat and possibly Mui Ne? Either one-way (if we can find a place where we can rent the bikes one-way and they transfer our bags) or as a loop back to Nha Trang. In looking at Google Maps there seems to be some options but I am curious if you drove it before and what are your thoughts.
    Thank you for your help,
    Natalie

  9. Ilana says:

    Hi Tom
    great blog :)
    The ‘Golden loop rout’ looks great. We’ll be in Vietnam in mid April and we only have 13 days that we want to split between the Hanoi area and Hoi An area. Are two days enough for this rout?
    Thanx Ilana

  10. Emily says:

    Hi Tom-
    Thanks for all of the info! We are heading to Vietnam in late March. We’d like to do Hoi An-Prao-Hue (280km) all in one day as we have a tight schedule and want to be able to stay in both of these towns. I know this equates to about 6-6.5 hours on the bike at 50km/h. Would you say this is doable given the terrain/road conditions etc? We’ll be able to leave Hoi An at day light so we’d have plenty of time in terms of light but wanted to make sure we aren’t over doing it. Any insight would be appreciated. Thanks!

  11. Ricardo Mesquita says:

    Hi Tom,
    Love your website and the way you live & ride Vietnam. We are traveling through the country this week.
    Tomorrow morning we will be in Hue for the day and the following day (Sat) we are planning to take a motorbike from Hue to Hoi An following your coast map. Any specific recommendations for the road in this time of the year? Or where we can rent a bike in Hue and drop it in Hoi An? Appreciate you thoughts on this. Thank you!
    Ricardo

  12. marc says:

    Hi there,
    thanks for sharing your experience. I follow the the Golden loop’s path, but from Da Nang to Hoi An. And i must say was fantastic. I enjoy every single part of it, overall 4 days. Such an experience. Love it!

    Just one advice for people which ride a small bike (Honda Wave or similar): carry with you 1L of petrol because you might need to refill your tank.

    Thanks a lot for building this website full of good tips.
    Best,
    M

  13. Paul says:

    Hi Tom, awesome guides and cool information thanks.
    Last year I spent three weeks on a motorbike in the north and it was wicked!, love the people, food, scenery etc.
    Heading back in a couple of weeks with my mountain bike and after a week in Hcmc city/Dalat I will ride through the central section and pop down at A Luoi to Hue, Danang and finish in Hoi an :-)
    Keep up the great work…….it helps a lot.
    Mountain biking Kiwi

  14. dubdub says:

    Great work Tom, love the detail. Me and girlfriend are planning to do the golden loop (the same route mentioned by you) this month. We however, would like to start all the way from HCMC. Could you suggest a route off the Highway. We have about 2 weeks in hand!
    Thanks

  15. Pingback: The Golden Loop – sidney on the road

  16. Sidney Hug says:

    Just got back to Hoi An. The Golden Loop was amazing. Did it in 2 days. Day One up to Hue. Day two was exhausting. Hue to Hoi An. 7 hours of driving. About 275km. But amazing roads. Like you said you almost have them by yourself. Loved it.

    Cheers,
    Sidney

  17. Tyler says:

    For anyone considering this loop and want to include My Son.

    I made a side trip to My Son from this loop. I discovered that they are currently building a bridge over the Thu Bon River near My Son. It might be complete in 2017 or 2018. When complete, this bridge will take you directly back to the golden loop without having to back track to Hoi An. Though the bridge is not yet complete, there is a ferry running that will take you and motorbike across the river. I was charged 20,000 VND. Here is the exact of the ferry.

  18. Arnaud says:

    Hi Tom,

    Another nice loop that I did during my current trip in Vietnam, starting from Hoi An and doing the loop clockwise in two days. The highlights of this loop are of course the 150km on the Ho Chi Minh road (I saw more cows on the roads than vehicles, that’s nearly scarry) and Hai Van pass, especially for going up, with a sunny blue sky. As compared to Northern vietnam roads, those roads are much esasier, however the section between A Luoi and Hue is quite bumpy except the first ten km when you leave A Luoi.

    This loop is a great way to explore the region beyond the touristy, but beautiful cities of Hoi An and Hue.

    Thanks again for your website

    Cheers,
    Arnaud

  19. Chris says:

    I’m really enjoying your website.

    I arrive in June and am considering buying a motorbike at tigit. I’ll have the motorbike for about 45 days. I was very curious about the coastal area and your site has given me a great feel for what to expect.

    I may spend more time in the south/central than I had originally planned.

  20. James says:

    I just want to mention that when I tried spending the night in Prao all 3 hotels there refused me. I’m not sure why because they looked empty.

    Excellent route BTW I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  21. Thanks for putting the information for this trip out to the public. We have just arrived home from The Golden Loop trip and have been so impressed that we are planning the next trip, using your guides. Unfortunately, it was very misty when we traveled so the photos did not do justice. Next trip is further on to Khe Sahn.

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