Vietnam Road Trip – Part 1: Driving to Dalat

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At the peak of the dry season, the best place for Saigoneers to escape isn’t the beaches. The hills of the highlands are much cooler, and the pine-smelling air is fresh. After 6 months of sweltering heat and no rain, Sara and I decided enough was enough. It was time to head to the hills. We packed up the motorcycle and drove to Dalat.

We had a 10 day holiday, so the plan was to take our time driving to Da Lat, and after spending a few days in “Little Paris”, we would head to the coast and make our way home. Out of respect for our butts, we limited our riding to only 4 hours a day.

Our chariot was Hank McCoy – the blue beast – a Lifan 150CC motorcycle. Hank is heavy, a bit fragile, not exactly fast, but we love him for his comfortableness. When you’re on the road there are a few things that can turn a ride sour. Being uncomfortable is at the top of that list.

Driving to Dalat, Vietnam
Hank McCoy fully loaded and ready to ride.

To soften up our seat, and cut back on ass-sweat, we bought a couple bathmats to use as seat covers. We packed our clothes in the two saddle bags — we could leave them on the bike on short breaks, and we packed all of our valuables into a backpack, strapping it onto the back for easy removal.

Since we are taking our time driving to Dalat, we took the most scenic route possible. Here’s my recommended directions:

Directions: Saigon to Dalat in 3 days (PDF)

The directions include stops that help to break-up the drive. I recommend having a phone with GPS, Google Maps, and a data plan. The roads are often unmarked, so the written directions might occasionally need help from a smartphone.

Driving to Dalat

Day 1: Saigon to Cat Tien

riding to dalat, Vietnam
Make sure you leave Saigon early. We managed to be on the road by 6AM. The ride out of the city might be the worst part of the whole trip. Once you get past Bien Hoa, it’s much more pleasant. In Vinh An, you can take a detour to Tri An lake — a water reserve created by the Dong Nai river.

When you hit the QL20, it gets a bit frustrating again. Large trucks fly-by. Buses barrel down the highway. Motorbike drivers will drive the wrong way down the street. You’ll be glad to get off at the junction to Cat Tien Park, which is a really nice ride.

We stayed at Bird Song Lodge (about $20/night). It was relaxing and conveniently located within walking distance to the park. The food was good and the rooms were rustic.
Bird watching at Cat Tien Park
That evening we did a boat tour on the Dong Nai river. It was nice to get out on the river, but we didn’t really see any animals — just some birds and a quick glimpse of a monkey. I expected this, but I didn’t factor in the uncomfortableness of the boat’s seats. Perhaps a hike through the national park would have been a better way to rest our asses.

Day 2: Cat Tien to Di Linh

Since we only had a couple hours of driving, we didn’t rush to leave in the morning. The road going back to the QL20 is really beautiful. When you’re back on the highway it’s only 7 km to Madagui Forest City.

There’s quite a bit to do at this nature park. You can horseback ride, zip-line, fish, hike, feed crocs, shoot guns… Yes, they have a shooting range, so don’t expect to see any wild animals on your hike. We did a short canopy walk, which was pleasant but very hot. Perhaps we should have found a place to change out of our bike gear.

After the hike, you can relax at the restaurant and have lunch. The food was really good. As was the view.
The view from the Madagui Rest stop restaurant
Right after Madagui, you’ll hit your first big hill. With our big bike, we had to drop down to 3rd gear to make it up. The views were amazing and the ride got my heart pumping.

On the other side of the hill is Bao Loc, a nice quiet town with a plethora of coffee shops. Head down to the man-made lakes and find a cafe for an excellent cup of Vietnamese coffee. If you prefer it, there are also a few places around that do espresso.

About an hour past Bao Loc is Di Linh, where you’ll find a turn off to the QL28. At this point we were pretty sore, and anxious to get off the bike, but the scenery was incredible and it was only about 6 km until we got to Juliets Villa Resort.

The stress of the road floats away at Juliet’s. Sitting on a hill that is filled with coffee plants, our villa was the perfect place to unwind. I could picture myself living in a place like this when I’m older, but for now it’s one night and were back on the road.

Juliets Villa Resort terrace and view
Sara enjoys the view from our villa’s terrace.

Day 3: Di Linh to Dalat

We got back to the QL20 and almost immediately ran into construction. It was dusty, slow-moving, and required a lot of concentration. The roads were torn up — our riding surface went from pavement, to gravel, to dirt. Impatient vehicles flew-by leaving a cloud of un-breathable air. Not a lot of fun, but after around 25 km we escaped it and we started making our last ascent to Dalat.
Driving to Dalat, Vietnam
I think we only rode for about 2.5 hours that day, but half of it was strenuous, which made our arrival in Dalat that much better. The air was cool. It smelled like pine. And… what’s this? It’s raining!! Never has a motorcyclist been happier to see rain.

Our trip continues with a stay in Dalat, followed by some amazing coastal roads, so stay tuned by subscribing to our newsletter.