First published February 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
A romp through the Central Highlands, the Truong Son Dong Road is a ride to be savoured, both for scenery and for sheer riding pleasure. Many sections are brand new: in excellent condition as they pass through dense jungle, cutting dangerous passes along steep ravines, meandering, like a river of asphalt, through rolling farmland. And yet, traffic is light and the land sparsely populated, with minority towns with strange and exotic sounding names, like Ayun Pa, K’Bang, and Ea Ly. The name of the road in Vietnamese, Đường Trường Sơn Đông, has romantic connotations: literally ‘Road to the East of the Long Mountains’. Historical, poetic, and mystical overtones run throughout this journey: the Central Highlands has long been a place of spirits and ghosts, of myths and fairy tales, of unknown peoples and wild animals, and of war. The geographical ‘abdomen’ of the nation, control of the Central Highlands has always been strategically important: to the Vietnamese, the French, the Americans. As such, there’s a military undercurrent to this route which, at times, feels like a highway built to aid guerrilla warfare. This is my guide to The Road East of the Long Mountains.
*Special thanks to Vietnam Back Roads Facebook group for posting about parts of this route
GUIDE: THE ROAD EAST OF THE LONG MOUNTAINS
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 725km
- Duration: 3-6 days
- Route: the heart of the Central Highlands on the Eastern Mountain Road [MAP]
- Road Conditions: excellent new roads, light traffic, a few bumpy patches
- Scenery: mountains, lakes, rivers, forest, farmland, highland villages & towns
ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:
- SECTION 1: Dalat to Lake Lak: 160km
- SECTION 2: Lake Lak to M’Drak: 130km
- SECTION 3: M’Drak to Ayun Pa (via Ea Ly): 115km
- SECTION 4: Ayun Pa to K’Bang (via Dak Po): 110km
- SECTION 5: K’Bang to Quang Ngai (via Son Tay): 210km
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
I’ve written this guide in 5 sections, all of which are relatively short and can be comfortably completed in a day. The main purpose of this guide is to ride the length of the Truong Son Dong Road. Although the southern and northern parts are still under construction, the central section (which this guide focuses on) is in pristine condition. It’s possible to join the Truong Son Dong Road at several points along its length (see the red east-west lines on my map), but I’ve chosen to write this guide starting from Dalat, because this is where the road will eventually reach, and it seems fitting to begin this crawl through the Central Highlands from the hub for travel in the region. When it’s finished, the Truong Son Dong Road will link up with the Pine Tree Road (just north of Dalat) and run all the way north to Thanh My (60km west of Danang) on the Ho Chi Minh Road. Currently, the Truong Son Dong Road is complete from M’Drak to Son Tay, all of which is covered in this guide. There are also some fully complete sections of the road which do not yet link up with the rest of the route: I’ve marked some of these short but impressive stretches in red on my map, but at present they are dead ends. Although parts of this route are quite remote and see very little traffic, there are gas stations and villages at fairly regular intervals, and in my guide I’ve included suggestions of places to stay and eat along the way. The best time of year is spring or summer (March-July), but weather is always unpredictable in this mountainous region, so be prepared for sun, rain, cold, and heat.
Through the Central Highlands on the Eastern Mountain Road
View in a LARGER MAP
Route: Dalat to Lake Lak | Distance: 160km [MAP]
Head west out of Dalat on Cam Ly Street, leaving the greenhouses, tourists, and increasingly heavy traffic of this mountain city behind. Hang a left (due southwest) on the road down the mountain to Ta Nung Village. Recently upgraded, this mountain pass zigzags through pine trees and mist to a heavily cultivated valley. Continue south through Ta Nung, perhaps stopping for a look at the impressive Elephant Falls and snapping a few photos of the coffee plantations (although there are plenty more of those to come on this road trip), all the way down to the intersection with Route QL27. Bear right (due northwest) onto QL27 and follow it through a featureless, farmed valley, until the road begins to climb.
Stop for a look at the impressive Elephant Waterfall on the way south from Dalat to join Road QL27
Two consecutive passes (the first quite slow and bumpy; the second very smooth and great for riding) take you around the western edge of the Lang Bian Plateau. It’s quite a scenic ride, with jungled mountains broken by coffee, banana and corn plantations. This is coffee country, and, depending on which season it is, the cool mountain air is either heavy with the nutty, earthy aroma of the coffee bean, or the sweet, flowery fragrance of the coffee blossom. Vietnam is currently the second largest producer of coffee in the world: cultivation of the bean is on a massive scale in this region. It provides an income to millions of Vietnamese, but it also comes at huge cost to the forests. Much of the landscape you see on Route QL27 was primary forest not long ago, but now, in some areas, there’s barely a tree left standing for all the hundreds of thousands of coffee bushes that have been planted. It’s a plundered but productive landscape as you ride northwards on QL27: up and down more mountains passes, over valleys flooded for hydroelectricity projects, past minority hamlets of wooden longhouses choked by smoke from the hearths, on an excellent, meandering, tarmac road all the way to Lake Lak.
A natural lake in a wide valley ringed by mountains, Hồ lắk (Lake Lak) has long been touted as a tourist attraction. It’s a very pretty place with a friendly little town (called Lien Son), a large ethnic minority population, and several accommodation options. But, although there’s something magical about the silence here and the pink sunsets over the placid waters, Lake Lak has yet to grow into a destination in its own right. Rather, it’s perfect for a stop on a road trip to somewhere else, as in this case. Stop early in the afternoon so as to have time to soak up the atmosphere here and choose from several accommodation options: Try the clean, simple and friendly Moi Truong Hotel (40 Au Co Street; 200,000vnd), or one of several roadside nhà nghỉ (local guest houses), such as Nha Nghi Ho Lak (201 Nguyen Tat Thanh Street; 200,000vnd), or get a lakeside cabin at Lak Resort ($25), or splash out on the new, very atmospheric, lake-view wood-and-canvas longhouses at Lak Tented Camp ($90). Good street food, including noodle soups and bánh xèo (Vietnamese savoury pancakes) can be found on the high street near the local market in the mornings and evenings.
Route: Lake Lak to M’Drak | Distance: 130km [MAP]
Continue north from Lake Lak on Route QL27, passed shimmering rice paddies, grazing cattle and a backdrop of mountains, to the junction with Road TL12. Now, it’s decision time: from here there are two options to get to M’Drak, both of which are 130km. Option 1 is slower because of some rough road conditions, but more scenic; Option 2 is quicker because it uses highways, but less interesting.
OPTION 1: (Marked in grey on my map.) If the weather is good and you have some time to spare, turn right (due east) on Road TL12 and follow it all the way around until it hits Highway QL26. Turn left (due north) onto QL26 and head up to M’Drak. This route leads around the northern edge of Chu Yang Sin National Park, including some good scenery from Cu Dram (about midway on TL12) until Highway QL26. But Road TL12 is only in OK condition: the second half is the worst, and if it’s been raining it can be very slow going. However, if weather conditions are good, the potholes and scarred road surface will still slow you down but won’t spoil your enjoyment. If you run out of time, there are a couple of local guest houses (nhà nghỉ) at Cu Dram. Once you meet Highway QL26, it’s a smooth, fun, meandering ride up swirling passes to M’Drak. It’s interesting to note that, just south on Cu Dram on Road TL12, is a small village called Yang Mao, where there’s an isolated and beautiful section on the Truong Son Dong Road. For several kilometres south of Yang Mao this brand new road (see the red line on my map) weaves along a pretty and remote valley, until it ends at a construction site, where they are continuing to carve the road into the mountains. When it’s finished, this road will go over the mountains and meet the Pine Tree Road and then on to Dalat, thus completing the southern extent of the Truong Son Dong Road. But, for now, it’s a dead end.
OPTION 2: (Marked in blue on my map.) If the weather has been wet, or if your time is limited and you want to get to the beginning of the Truong Son Dong Road (at M’Drak) as soon as possible, simply continue north on QL27 to the intersection with QL26. Turn right (due east) and take QL26 to M’Drak. It’s an easy, fairly scenic, but not particularly exciting, ride. (Note: although it looks like there are more direct routes between QL27 and QL26 [like DT9, for example] these roads are often in bad condition and not worth the risk of getting stuck.)
M’Drak has a couple of decent guest houses, including Yen Nhi (0984 351 578) with simple but clean rooms for around 200,000vnd and a friendly owner (Nha Nghi Yen Nhi is signposted off the main road opposite the large Honda garage, down an alley). There are plenty of food and drink options on the highway as it passes through town (don’t forget to try the excellent local coffee). Just south of M’Drak there’s another dead-end section of the Truong Son Dong Road (see the red line on my map). It’s in perfect condition, including a surreal stretch where it widens into a airstrip before coming to an abrupt stop, ending in a muddy lane. This will eventually continue south to Yang Mao (near Cu Dram) where it will meet the section of road that is already completed over there (as mentioned in Option 1). But it will be a long time before this is completed.
Note: M’Drak, on Highway QL26, is where you will join this route if you are starting from Nha Trang (see the east-west red line on my map).
Route: M’Drak to Ayun Pa (via Ea Ly) | Distance: 115km [MAP]
Just north of M’Drak turn right (due northeast) onto an new but unmarked road which quickly joins up with Road DT693 (also marked as QL19C). After a couple of minutes, bear left (due north) at Ea Lai fork. This incongruous turning is the beginning of the central section of the Truong Son Dong Road. From this point on it will lead you across plateaus, over mountains, and through jungles for nearly 400km, and most of it will be deserted: a whole new road through the middle of the Central Highlands almost all to yourself. In its current state it’s about 70% complete: from M’Drak to beyond Son Tay. But, when it’s finished, it will lead from Dalat all the way to Thanh My, on the Ho Chi Minh Road. Bits of it are not yet marked on any maps, including Google Maps (although I’m sure this will change very soon). This is the case with the middle of the first section, from the Ea Lai fork north to the junction with Route QL29. I’ve drawn the route as I best I can on my map (see the red line), so it should be pretty easy to follow.
Parts of the first first section of the Truong Son Dong Road, from Ea Lai to QL29, are made of large concrete slabs (much like the Western Ho Chi Minh Road), but other parts are smooth tarmac. It’s a rolling route up and down steep slopes covered in coffee, sugar cane, eucalyptus and rubber plantations. The riding is excellent and the scenery is very pretty as the road ploughs through Ea So Nature Reserve, with large stands of jungle and mountain rivers – great for a dip if the weather’s warm. Even in bad weather, it’s a thrilling stretch of road.
Note: despite Google Maps showing the route of the Truong Son Dong Road from M’Drak to QL29 running due west, parallel to the course of the road I’ve marked on my map, in reality there was no evidence of this at all. I was constantly reassured by locals that the road I was riding on – the one marked on my map – was, indeed, the Truong Son Dong. I made two separate passes over two weeks to make sure of this, and, at the very least, can guarantee that the road marked on my map exists, is in good condition, and passes good scenery.
Turn right (due east) at the junction with Highway QL29 and follow the latter for a few minutes to Ea Ly village. Turn left (due north) onto a road that’s all but a white line on Google Maps, but in reality it’s the continuation of the Truong Son Dong Road. Switching from freshly laid asphalt to large concrete slabs, the road blazes up hillsides, across farmland, over rivers and lakes until it hits Route QL25 at the Cau Le Bac junction. Mango, cashew, and cassava plantations decorate a flat basin, surrounded on all sides by forested mountains. There’s hardly any traffic: goats, cattle, pigs, and chickens own the roads here. Minority villages, consisting of wooden plank homes raised on stilts a metre above the dirt, are scattered across the landscape. Many of the women and girls wear their colourful, highly decorative, traditional dress. Adults have handsome faces, big smiles, and their kids are playful when you stop by the road. But it looks like a rough, tough life here: the daily work is physically demanding and starts from a very early age: young girls carry wicker baskets full of wood on their backs, the same labour that has bent their grandparents double.
At the Cau Le Bac intersection, turn left (due north) for a brief stint on Highway QL25 up to the exotic sounding town of Ayun Pa. It’s a good 25km ride, including a lush, wide pass, but even this short stretch can be blighted by trucks and dust: if anything this serves to remind you how lucky you are to be riding the empty tarmac of the Truong Son Dong Road. Ayun Pa makes a good lunch stop, and there’s a guest house (Nha Nghi Hoang Lan; 43a Tran Hung Dao; 059 3852 180) as the road enters town, if you need it. Otherwise, you can bypass the town altogether by bearing right before the high street along a fabulous dyke road above a sea of rice paddy.
Note: the Cau Le Bac intersection on Highway QL25 is where you will join this route if you are starting from Tuy Hoa (see the east-west red line on my map).
Route: Ayun Pa to K’Bang (via Dak Po) | Distance: 110km [MAP]
Ride out of Ayun Pa on Road DT622, heading north. After a bumpy and busy beginning, the road smooths out, and it’s an easy, unimpeded ride for 80km all the way to the intersection with Highway QL19 at the Dak Po crossroads. Characterized by an enormous agricultural plateau that the region is famous for, this is a relatively boring but quick ride across a patchwork quilt of large, windswept fields, past minority villages which either look grim and bleak in the grey highlands drizzle, or warm and attractive in the sharp light of a good highlands day. The road is arrow-straight as it crosses the wide, treeless plain, ringed by distant mountains: it feels like riding across a vast crater. A small pass leads over a forested ridge, after which the terrain is undulating, and the Truong Son Mountains – the jagged spine of Vietnam – rise tall and menacing, covered in cloud, to the north and west.
If you’re short on time, turn right at the crossroads onto QL19, where there’s a guest house (Nha Nghi Thuy Chung; 0168 9013 435) on the left side of the road after a couple kilometres, in Dak Po. But, if time is no concern, it’s best to continue straight over the crossroads, heading north towards K’Bang. This is a pleasant and easy stretch of road through a rolling, rural landscape dotted with red-tile-roofed farmhouses. The lower slopes are cultivated with banana, sugar cane, eucalyptus and cassava, but the higher ground is still cloaked in dark green jungle. It’s a peaceful, bright and warm valley. Traffic is light, the tarmac is freshly laid, and the riding is good as the road weaves across this agricultural landscape.
Note: the Dak Po crossroads is where you will join this route if starting from Quy Nhon on Highway QL19 (see the east-west red line on my map).
Buffalo wade through streams and bathe in muddy puddles, children play in the red dirt of dusty front yards or herd cattle, while their parents cook, clean, hoe and harvest the fields. This is a gentler version of the Central Highlands: not overly farmed or exploited on an industrial scale like some parts of the region are. But, in a country like Vietnam, where almost any crop can be cultivated, and with a rapidly increasingly population and a growing economy, the pressure on land is huge, both for agriculture and for urbanization. Land is precious and must be made the most of, which, for now, means farming and building. In a few years, the forests on the high ground here will surely be replaced by crop fields.
After 25km the road drops into the likable town of K’Bang (which sounds like the onomatopoei used in comic books when a superhero punches a villain: K-Bang!). A friendly place with several decent guest houses and food joints along its main street (Quang Trung), K’Bang makes a good night stop. Try Nha Nghi Ly Kinh (468 Quang Trung Street; 0963 223 244; 150,000-200,000vnd) at the northern end of town, or Nha Nghi Xuan Hoa (235 Quang Trung Street; 0982 034 274; 200,000vnd) in the middle of town. If you’re not staying in K’Bang, continue straight on the road as it bypasses town and heads northwards, into the jungle.
Route: K’Bang to Quang Ngai (via Son Tay) | Distance: 210km [MAP]
North of K’bang is where the wilderness begins. Not 10 minutes out of town, the Truong Son Dong Road (marked as DT669) turns into concrete slabs, like a giant pack of dominoes laid on their sides on a rolling path through thick jungle. The scruffy patchwork of highland farmland fades away, as towering tropical trees close in on the road. Coffee plantations threaten the forests here – an environmental hazard made worse by the easy access which this road affords – despite signs in the local ethnic minority dialect promoting the protection of the jungle canopy. Not long after leaving K’Bang, the road widens into a 6-lane, dead-straight, utterly deserted highway in the middle of the remote jungle. This is known as the ‘airstrip‘. Initially, I had assumed it was an old US air base, a relic of the ‘Vietnam War’. But locals tell me it’s new, just a few years old, constructed at the same time as the Truong Son Dong Road . It’s a surreal and strangely haunting sight.
After the ‘airstrip’, all people and traffic disappear as the road plugs you deeper and deeper into a rich seam of highland forest. The riding is excellent: the road is in good condition with multiple switch-backs, long meandering stretches, and fast straights. For pure riding sensation and pleasure, it’s on a par with the passes between Thanh My and Prao on the Ho Chi Minh Road. It’s as if a Moto GP race track had been laid in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. Stop to wash in mountain streams and gaze over the endless canopy of trees – echoing to the strange sounds of unknown animals – and enjoy the peace and absolute quiet of this place. But remember to fill up with gas in K’Bang, because there’s precious little available on this stretch of road, or indeed, on the next. (If you really do get stuck for gas, some of the local wooden homes should be able to supply you with some: just ask for xăng).
At the remote Xa Hieu crossroads with Road QL24 (also marked AH132), you could choose to turn left (due west) to Kon Tum and the Ho Chi Minh Road, or right (due east) to Ba To and Highway 1 on the coast. But the wildest and most scenic option is to continue straight on (due north), following the Truong Son Dong Road on a death-defying pass, crawling along a mountainside draped in dense jungle, high above a raging river. In bad weather, when visibility is sometimes less than a few feet, this can be a terrifying ride, with landslides, mudslides and rockfalls sending whole trees tumbling down the cliffside and, in some cases, sections of road plunging into the valley. But, in good weather, it’s an extremely beautiful section of mountain road through alpine scenery laced with pretty rivers and waterfalls. Either way, it’s important to ride carefully, and make sure you bring a jacket, because it can get chilly up on this pass.
Waterfalls crash down the sides of mountains, roaring as they pass under the road. Next to one of the cascades a bold, proud sign reads Đường Trường Sơn Đông – The Road East of the Long Mountains: a monument to this (ongoing) feat of engineering. Slowly, the road helter-skelters down the mountainside and brushes the banks of a cold river. The peaks looming in the distance become higher as the road nears the foothills of Ngoc Linh, the highest mountain in all of central and southern Vietnam (2,598m). The air is cooler here and the valleys tighter, planted with cinnamon and eucalyptus trees.
The town of Son Tay (Western Mountain) clings to the banks of a great river, tamed by a hydroelectric dam. A small, quiet place in a magical position, Son Tay is, for the time being, the end of the Truong Son Dong Road. It makes sense to stay here a night, after the long crawl through the mountains. There are a couple of nhà nghỉ (local guest houses): try Nhà Nghỉ Châu Phong Diễm Châu (091 412 0145; 200,000vnd), on the edge of town before crossing a small bridge over the river. Rooms are simple but clean and the family are hospitable. The high-street has several cơm phở (rice and noodle) places for meals: try to find one selling mì quảng, a delicious and much-loved noodle dish, famous in this area.
Although the Truong Son Dong Road does continue north from Son Tay (marked as Road 623 – see the red line on my map), at the time of writing it was impassable due to ongoing construction and landslides. This section of road will eventually lead over the mountains to Kham Duc and Thanh My, where it will join up with the Ho Chi Minh Road. Currently, some short and scenic sections of this part of the Truong Son Dong Road are complete, but they do not yet link together. However, it’s well worth asking for the local opinion on the road north when you are in Son Tay, because the next section is bound to be a spectacular ride (and it would be a very neat link with the Ho Chi Minh Road continuing northwards). But, for the time being, in order to continue this road trip, head east out of Son Tay, on Road DT630, towards Son Ha (also known as Di Lang). This is another wonderful ride over mountains bursting with tropical foliage and fruits, and heart-melting views over valleys and villages tucked into the folds of misty hills. Son Ha (Mountain River) is a surprisingly large town and a very likable place. There are several guest houses (Nhà Nghỉ Duy Nghĩa is a good option; 0169 356 9176; 200,000vnd), lots of cafes (try the strong brew at Monaco Coffee), and plenty of informal places to eat.
There’s an enticing mountain road north of Son Ha (Road DT626), but again I was informed that its current condition is bad. So continue east from Son Ha on Road QL24B, along the lush valley of the wide, fast-flowing Tra Khuc River. This road is fine but rather beaten, so watch out for potholes. Quang Ngai is a seldom visited city on Vietnam’s main artery, Highway 1. A medium sized city, its back-streets are tree-lined and its riverfront roads, along the Tra Khuc River, are a great place for a late afternoon stroll. There are lots of accommodation options: $25 gets you a river-view room and a large swimming pool at the My Tra Riverside Hotel, or $10-$15 will get you a decent, clean room at Dong Khanh Hotel. There are good food stalls along the waterfront on Ton Duc Thang Street, or look out for signs in town for cơm gà (chicken and rice) for which this province is famous: try it at Cơm Gà Nhung (136 Phan Dinh Phung Street). On the north bank of the river, an enormous new cafe and entertainment complex has recently opened. Coffee Ocean Blue is a fabulous place to watch the sun set over the river behind Ngoc Linh Mountain. On the opposite side of the street, the incongruous bar/club would be more at home on one of the Mediterranean ‘clubbing islands’. But it’s extremely well done and the only place in town to get a good cocktail and party all night (well, until around 11:30pm). Think stone dance floor, bamboo bar, soft seating chill-out area, laser shows, live DJs and, erm, pole-dancing. A fun and slightly surreal night is guaranteed.
From Quang Ngai there are several options for continuing your road trip. Heading North: continue along the coastal back roads to Hoi An and Danang (see the map in my Beach Bum route), or link up with the Ho Chi Minh Road at either Kon Tum (connecting via Road QL24) or Kham Duc (connecting via Road QL14E). Heading South: loop back on coastal back roads to Nha Trang (see the map in my Beach Bum route), or loop back to Dalat by linking up with the Ho Chi Minh Road at Kon Tum (connecting via Road QL24). Another option is to put your bike on the train at Quang Ngai station and send it on to any of the mainline stations, north or south, along the coast.
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