A Day on the Ho Chi Minh Highway West (Ho Chi Minh Tay) – Khe Sanh to Phong Nha

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Travelers, especially the ones with motorbikes, are familiar with the Ho Chi Minh trail that connects North, Central, and South Vietnam. But little do they know that there is a part of that marvelous trail, hidden in the West of the gigantic Truong Son mountain range, called Ho Chi Minh Tay. To me, this is the most breathtaking, unbelievable, and spectacular trail that I’ve ever been on.

In 1959, with an eye to breaking the exclusive use of the Ho Chi Minh Dong trail (Ho Chi Minh Highway East) to support the South, Vietnam co-operated with Laos to construct a new road, later known as Ho Chi Minh Tay (Ho Chi Minh Highway West). The trail succeeded in its mission as an arterial road during the Vietnam War and helped transport all the main necessities between the two countries. Nowadays, 250 kilometers long from Khe Sanh town to Phong Nha national park, this trail is just as exhilarating as it was then.

ho chi minh tay
If you need a dose of adrenaline, come here.

I decided to discover this trail after some research and consideration. When I first Googled the trail, the results weren’t positive. Some Vietnamese travelers said the trail was too isolated, there were some occurrences of wild animals. Meanwhile, others insisted that robbers dominated the road. Some backpackers even confirmed that you couldn’t find any gas stations. Especially of note, is there were no electric lines on the street, so at night, the motorbike headlight and your eyes are the only things that you can count on to survive. I wasn’t sure if any of this was true, but my desire to conquer this trail was too high, I simply ignored many of the warnings.

Since I knew this undertaking was risky, I carefully prepared. Before I left, I checked my gears, carried some repair tools, bought extra gas, and asked for advice from the local people. You can tell that the trail is challenging from what you see on Google Maps. Endless winding paths and sudden curves, what else was waiting for me?

ho chi minh trail
What else was waiting for me?

Finally, the day arrived. I started the ride with a couple I met the day before. My first 40 kilometers looked easier than what I thought. In the morning, there were people riding back and forth, some aunties gathering at a small spot to buy food, and children playing on the ground. “There is a gas station here, and it doesn’t look isolated like what people said,” I thought. I felt much more confident. But then the first challenge presented itself. As soon as I overcame the steep loops, the temperature decreased, and the fog surrounded me.

Yes, I just got into the 18-kilometer-long Sa Mu mountain pass, known for its dense fog at all times of the year. In English, “Sa Mu” means if you enter it, you cannot see anything. And it was literally true. Although it was in the morning, I had to turn on my headlight with my eyes wide open.

ho chi minh highway west khe san to phong nha
With dense fog, you cannot see this beauty.

Now thinking back, there was a reason for the fog. Maybe the pass was testing those brave enough. Was the mountain pass hiding something behind it, something beautiful, mysterious, that only brave travelers can discover? As soon as you have conquered the mountain pass, you will understand why I affirm that this is the best trail of my life. The scenery is mind-blowing, breathtaking, and jaw-dropping. Vast forests appeared on gigantic mountain ranges, unlimited marvelous hills, along with fresh-as-a-daisy air and various kinds of plants growing on both sides of the trail. Can you hear the sound of a nearby stream? This is what it means to travel untouched Vietnam.

ho chi minh tay trail
The sound of the stream is so relaxing and inviting.

The view was serene. Not only that, but I also love the people, especially the children here. Every time I went by a group of kids, they always waved at me! What impressed me was that they didn’t ask for candies or money like some touristy places in Northern Vietnam. Instead, they were so well-behaved, polite, and welcoming. I stopped by Ta Puong village where some families gathered to build houses, raise buffalo, and start a family. Unlike houses in the city which are built directly on the ground, the traditional houses here were built on long pillars, which, I believe, were used to prevent water from surging in.

west ho chi minh highway trail
A remote village near the mountains.

The first 100 kilometers were the best part of the trail. In my entire life, I’ve never seen such a blue and green river like this before. And on that summer day, honestly, if I didn’t mind my companion, I might have jumped into that seductive cool water. The longer you drive, the more waterfalls you will discover. It may be a small fall heading towards the trail, but it can also be a ginormous masterpiece trying to lure you.

phong nha to ke san ho chi minh trail
A perfect waterfall stream, hidden in the woods.

The landscape was out of this world, but I have to admit that after over four hours biking on the trail, I was starving. But could I really find a place to eat? I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but mountains. Luckily, after more than a hundred kilometers, I found a place to eat. They even sold bun bo hue (Vietnamese beef noodles), one of my all-time favorite dishes. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. However, the broth was strong, meaty, and flavorful. The noodles, of course, were smooth and chewy. And I could never forget the beef and the pork, completely delectable. After hours burning under the sunlight, had a decent place to rest and enjoy the food.

ho chi minh trail motorbike
A bowl of bun bo hue in the middle of nowhere? Literally, a dream come true!

After having a big bowl of bun bo hue, the rest of the trail looked so much easier. As you get closer to the national park, you will see more people growing crops on the two sides of the trail. Before I got on the trail, I thought that it would be rocky and really hard to ride.

But this wasn’t true. Although there were countless winding paths, the trail was very nice. As long as you ride carefully, nothing bad will happen. And you know what, the obstacle you need to be most vigilant of is the animal poop. One more thing was that I didn’t have to buy extra gas. There were at least three gas stations on the trail! But make sure that your gas is full before hopping on the trail since the distance between the three stations is far away.

khe san to phong nha motorbike trail
Well, even if there is poop, nature saved the photo!

Around 6 PM, I arrived in Phong Nha. If I had changed something, maybe I would have started the trail earlier, like 8 to 9 AM so I could get to Phong Nha before sunset. One tip is that you should check your bike before you go and bring bike repair tools. Because even if you don’t know how to fix the bike, you can ask locals for help. There weren’t many people on the trail, but somebody is always willing to help. Just patiently wait for them and they will help you out. Another tip is that you should bring along some snacks in case you can’t find (or maybe you passed by) a store. It’s always a good idea to have something to recharge your energy.

Read more: Where to stay in Phong Nha

If you’re reading this, I believe you’re ready to go!

This adventure will be worth every second of your time, so it will be a huge miss if you don’t visit it. To read more about traveling in Vietnam, please visit our 4U Trip. Here are some recommended articles for you:

From Hue to Khe Sanh – A Ride Through History

A Full Phong Nha Ke Bang Guide For Every Budget

Da Lat to Hoi An: 3-day Itinerary on the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorbike

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