Which Map to Use for a Motorbike Road Trip?

Last Updated August 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

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One of the most important resources for a motorbike road trip in Vietnam is a good, reliable map of the country’s roads. Unfortunately, this map does not exist. No online map or printed map of Vietnam has all the good roads marked on it. Because Vietnam is such a rapidly developing country, the road network is in a constant state of change: new roads are constructed, old roads are relaid; a good road this year may turn into a muddy track the next due to resurfacing, but the year after it will be a shining blade of smooth asphalt, until it’s wiped out by a landslide and has the be repaired again. No one can keep up to date with road conditions in Vietnam. After years of riding all over the country, I’ve found that the best way to get an accurate picture of the roads in Vietnam is to cross-reference three sources: online maps, printed maps, and local knowledge. By doing this, you’ll be able to find your way from the highest mountains in the north to the most secluded beaches in the south.

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GUIDE: MAPS FOR A ROAD TRIP


The maps and resources outlined on this page should be used together: don’t rely on just one of them. If a road is marked on one map, check it against the other maps before deciding to take it. Even if a road is marked on all your maps, there’s still the question of condition. Most maps do not indicate if a road is asphalt or dirt, full of potholes or smooth, a treacherous muddy track or a newly laid highway. This is where local knowledge is indispensable: ask a passerby for the most up-to-date road conditions. New roads are being built all the time in Vietnam, but it always takes a while before they show up on any map, whether online or printed: always cross-check. On this website, I encourage readers to write road updates in the comments section at the bottom of my motorbike guides so that other readers may benefit from your experience. See below for my tips and advice about which online and printed maps to use and how best to discern the quality of a road before taking it.

CONTENTS:

Cross-reference maps and local knowledge to take you places like these:

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PRINTED MAPS:


Although there are many printed maps of Vietnam available, both within Vietnam and abroad, I’m yet to come across one that is wholly accurate, reliable, and regularly and thoroughly updated. Never rely on just one printed map. In my experience, many road maps of Vietnam will not show new and scenic roads – exactly the kind of roads that you most want to be riding – even when the map in question is supposed to be a new, updated edition. On the other hand, many road maps of Vietnam will show old roads that have either fallen into complete disrepair or have never really been more than a muddy jungle track unsuitable for anything but a 4×4 vehicle or a dirt bike in the first place. However, with a bit of cross-referencing, printed maps can be still be useful. (Note: if you are planning on using either a 4×4 vehicle or a dirt bike in Vietnam, you should be able to handle any of the roads marked on any printed or online map. In this particular review of road maps I am concerned only with riders, like me, who prefer to stay on paved roads and do not have the necessary vehicles to go off-road.)

The Travel Map of Vietnam (Vietnam Publishing House of Natural Resources, Environment & Cartography) is nicely and clearly presented, conveniently packaged, and annually updated. At first glance, its lack of detail and fold-out format may seem rather elementary, but, over the years, I’ve found this map to be the only one that does actually add some (but certainly not all) new roads to its content with each new edition. The year of publication is printed in the top right corner of the cover. Other fold-out maps of Vietnam may look more ‘serious’, but in reality they lack a great many good, scenic and important roads. However, the Travel Map of Vietnam is by no means thorough. I was particularly disappointed to find that the ‘new’ 2017 edition does not include a great many new, large, scenic, and major roads, some of which have been in existence for well over a year now. But, as a general overview (particularly because of its fold-out format which makes it really fun to plan your route across the country) this is still a very good map, especially when used in conjunction with online maps. It can be difficult to find a new copy of the Travel Map of Vietnam. You can ask around in the backpacker areas of major cities, such as Saigon, Hanoi, and Nha Trang, or just go straight to the nearest branch of Fahasa Bookstores. The map costs a couple of dollars (40,000-60,000vnd).

The Road Atlas of Vietnam (also produced by Vietnam Publishing House of Natural Resources, Environment & Cartography) looks and sounds perfect; but it isn’t. A hardback map book with over 50 pages of detailed roads, all colour-coded to indicate whether a road is a national highway, provincial route, or dirt track, this should (and could) be the ultimate riders’ map of Vietnam. Unfortunately, the atlas is never updated. The first edition I bought was published in 2013, and even then it did not include some major and scenic routes. I recently checked out the ‘new’ 2017 edition: the map had not changed at all – no updates, no new roads; nothing. So, although the Road Atlas of Vietnam is still in print and still on the shelves of bookstores throughout the nation, it has not in fact been updated for at least 6 years, and that’s a long time in a country where new roads open each week. It will also set you back between 100,000-300,000vnd depending on where you buy it. Personally, I still like have a copy of the Atlas with me (and I still cling to the hope that, one day, I will pick up a new edition which will have been 100% updated), but if you rely solely on this map to plan your Vietnam road trip, you will be missing out of some of the best roads that the country has to offer.

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ONLINE MAPS:


Online maps have, of course, changed the way we travel forever. Google Maps, among others, is an incredibly useful tool to have on a road trip in Vietnam. WiFi and 4G is readily available all over Vietnam, making access to online maps relatively easy. Regardless of connectivity, many of these maps are now available offline too. However, as with printed maps, online maps are not infallible, and even satellite images can’t keep up with the pace of Vietnam’s road building. The same rule apply to online maps as to printed maps: always cross-reference with the other sources. The advent of online maps has made many travellers ‘map lazy’, leading people put all their trust in, for example, Google Maps, ignoring their own common sense and losing any sense of direction they may have once had. This is not a smart thing to do, at least in Vietnam.

Google Maps is the obvious and most popular choice for online maps. It’s a fantastic resource for motorbike riders in Vietnam. Many roads that aren’t marked on printed maps are clearly visible of Google Maps, and the GPS function is a great help when you’re on the road. However, Google Maps does not work offline in Vietnam (I am not certain what the reason for this is, but the offline function will not operate within the country). This means that, when you’re out of range of data or WiFi, you can’t follow your route. Also, relying on Google Maps as your sole resource is unwise. Google cannot keep up with the pace of change in Vietnam: I regularly have to manually draw roads onto the Google Maps that I create for my motorbike guides on this website because, according to Google, they do not exist. Eventually, Google updates its data to include these roads, but the point is that Google does not have all the answers all the time. What’s more, using the ‘Directions’ function on Google Maps in order to find a route between A and B is absurd: in most cases Google will send you on the most direct route, regardless of the condition of the roads or the scenery they pass through. This defeats the whole point of a motorbike road trip through Vietnam: to use good, quiet, scenic roads as much as possible, stay off the main highways and see Vietnam at its best. I use Google Maps to create the route maps for my motorbike guides on this site, and I am in awe of what it does and what it has allowed me to do. But it must still be used in conjunction with other sources of information, including other online maps, printed maps, and local knowledge.

OpenStreetMap has been gaining popularity in recent years, and is looking to rival Google Maps as the world’s go-to online map. Inspired by Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap is crowdsourced, meaning that it can be updated by any of its users at any time. This is perfect for a country like Vietnam, where roads are in a constant state of change. Indeed, OpenStreetMap is largely accurate in mapping Vietnam’s road network, especially when it comes to newly opened roads. Of course, like all other maps listed on this page, it does not have all roads marked on it, and it is only as good, up-to-date, and accurate as the people who contribute information to it. Indeed, we can all help OpenStreetMap to be as good as possible by uploading any new roads to its database. Finally, Maps.me is a mobile app that uses the data collected by OpenStreetMap to create a map that’s available offline, so no matter where you are in Vietnam, you’ll have access to it. A note on my own maps how to use them and how accurate and exporting them to use offline.

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LOCAL KNOWLEDGE:


No map of Vietnam is 100% reliable. As I mentioned above, road conditions are constantly changing: a quiet, one-lane paved road in the countryside one year, might be a building site full of dust and mud the next year, and a brand new six-lane highway the next. On top of this, severe weather regularly affects Vietnam’s roads: heavy monsoon rains can cause landslides that block and damage roads, and newly laid surfaces can quickly deteriorate into potholed nightmares. Although cross-referencing different printed and online maps will help you establish which roads exist, they will not give you any idea of the current condition of those roads. For this, your best bet is to rely on local knowledge.

Before deciding to take a road that you are unsure of, ask local people for their opinion on the current condition of that route. If you are only in Vietnam for a matter of weeks, the chances are that you won’t speak any Vietnamese. But, you’d be surprised how widespread English is in Vietnam these days. What’s more, Vietnamese people (especially in the countryside) will often go out of their way to help a foreign traveller. Even if the local you are asking does not speak English, they will likely go and fetch a friend who does. Even without any shared language, communication is still possible. As an independent traveller, you’ll no doubt be well-versed in the ways of ‘International Travellers’ Sign Language’, which will help you communicate ‘is this road bumpy and dangerous, or smooth and safe?’ by way of gesticulation and body language. If you want to try practicing your Vietnamese, the following phrases should be useful:

Đường này đẹp hay xấu? (Literally, ‘Is this road beautiful or ugly?’, but the meaning is more like, ‘Is this road in good or bad condition?’)

Đường này đi thoải mái không? | Đường này đi được không? (Is this road comfortable/easy to ride? | Is it possible to take this road?)

Đường này đi đâu? | Đường này đi (place name) không? (Where does this road go to? | Does this road go to [place name]?)

However, the same goes for people as for maps: cross-check the information you receive. For example, before taking a road I’m not sure about, I’ll first consult all of my printed and online maps, then I’ll ask a good percentage of the population of the local village for their opinion, in order to get a general consensus about its current condition. In general, this technique has served me well over the years. Not only have local people been able to inform me of road closures due to landslides or major roadworks ahead, they’ve also told me about brand new roads, recently completed and not yet marked on any maps. And, above all, I’ve met some extremely hospitable people in this way.

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:


In addition to printed maps, online maps, and asking locals, there are several websites that are helpful to determine where the best roads are and what condition they are in. Of course, I recommend using my own extensive guides and maps to motorbike routes across the country. Each guide includes a detailed map (designed using Google Maps), on which I’ve marked all roads (even ones which Google has missed), places of interest, food and accommodation. I try to keep my maps and guides as accurate and up-to-date as possible. I do this by travelling along my routes regularly and updating information as I go. But I also rely on readers, such as yourselves, to keep me informed of road conditions and anything that you think is relevant. You can do this either by writing a comment at the bottom of the guide you’re referring to, or by emailing me at [email protected]. Your contribution is a great help to me and to other readers. You can browse all of my motorbike guides in this archive. (Note: if you are using any of my guides and maps to navigate around Vietnam, always check the comment section at the bottom of the guide to check if readers have written any important updates that may affect the route.)

The Vietnam Back Roads Facebook group is a good source of updated information. Many of the people in this group are seasoned riders living in Vietnam with good knowledge of the country’s roads. Either search the group for a particular topic, or post a question to the group to see what help people can offer. Also, popular travel forums, such as the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, or Travelfish can be good sources of information.


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30 Responses to Which Map to Use for a Motorbike Road Trip?

  1. Tom says:

    Hello Tom, thanks for the great website. I’m planning to cycle some of the northern provences after crossing the border at Lao Cai and was wondering if you know of anywhere in Lao Cai to buy these maps?

  2. WOOKK says:

    Hi tom.
    I’m WOOKK.
    I work and live in HCM.
    anyway… When I was searching “Vietnam Pitch tent avaliable” in Google, I found Your site.

    Thank you for Your map “SGN-NHA camping site” It was very helpful post to me.

    And I have some question for you.

    1. Is it pitching tent in any place(like some beach or forest) possible?
    2. Do you have any information camping site from NHA-HAN?
    3. How do you think 1 people camping In Your camping sait map?

    thank you~have a good day.

  3. Chris Sables says:

    Hi,

    The two maps recommended can you please give me the ISBN number? I live in Thailand and presume they are available here.

    I am planning a trip later this year or maybe early next year touring alone the whole country, it would be nice to have maps to route plan alongside your routes.

    Many thanks

    Chris

    Many t

  4. Neil R says:

    Hi Tom,

    just back from a 3 weeks trip from Saigon to Hanoi.
    A map I would recommend is the International Travel Maps Vietnam. I compared it with the map that you recommend in your blog and it seemed pretty much identical.
    The great thing about this map is I was able to buy it before my holiday, so I could mark hotels and routes on it.
    Make sure you get the latest edition, which at the moment can be found by googling “ITMB Vietnam 2015″

    Thanks for your blog. I loved travelling along the “Best section” from Kon Tum to Pho Chau. Other highlights were; the smiling, incredibly freindly Vietnamese people and on our first night off the plane, we did the “Vietnam Vespa Adventures Saigon After Dark Tour”.

    Enjoy :) Neil R

  5. Heather says:

    Cheers Tom

  6. Heather says:

    Hi Tom,
    On arrival in HCMC yesterday I proceeded to Fagasa bookstore to purchase the road atlas that you recommend. Unfortunately they didn’t have any in stock. Can you suggest other bookstores I could try to purchase one.
    Thanks Heather.

  7. Nate says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks so much for this article! About how much time do you need to motorbike through vietnam? My allotted time is about 4 weeks and I’m unsure if this is enough. I know it can vary by distance, but if I start in Hanoi, how far down do you think I can go while still being able to enjoy each location without having to zoom through it? Thanks!

  8. Kristian says:

    Hi,
    Im planning to do the mototbike trip in April, which route is the most common? North to south or south to North?

  9. Hieu Dovan says:

    Hi Tom,

    I just saw that you had visited Dien Bien Phu on your 2-month trip. We plan to ride out bikes from Ha Noi to DBP before heading south to join the HCM Road that you had recommended. Looking at the maps, we don’t know if we can go from Ha Noi to DBP then “turn south” without having to retrace your steps. We would prefer to not backtrack as it would save us time and also not to travel the same road again. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again for being a great resource.

    Hieu

  10. Pingback: Two Months on a Motorbike » Vietnam Coracle

  11. Alan Murray says:

    Hi Tom

    On a recent trip to Dalat I ran out of 3G on most of the route so could see only major roads.
    Is it possible to save areas of google maps beforehand in .pdf or whatever?
    The alternative is to take prints of your proposed route at an internet cafe before you set off.
    Another option is to download the Vietnam map from MAP.me

    Cheers

    Alan

  12. Kez says:

    Hi Tom,
    As at 24 March, Road Atlas of Vietnam (Tập Bản Đồ Giao Thông Đường Bộ Việt Nam) was easy to find but we couldn’t find the red and yellow Travel Map of Vietnam anywhere in either HCMC or Hanoi.

    The Road Atlas along with google maps and the National Geographic Adventure series map of north Vietnam, all used together worked fine.

    You’re definitely right – no one map source is perfect.

    However the blue and white road signs as you ride out of a town we found to be accurate.

    As you ride, the white, rounded concrete roadside distance markers painted with town name and kms are also very useful.

  13. Neville foley says:

    Thanks for a informative read I will be travelling south to north by motorbike on my own. All info will be greatly appreciated.

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