Together with National Highway No 1A, which more or less follows the coastline through provinces in the lowlands, the Ho Chi Minh Highway is also a lifeline connecting Vietnam’s north and south, passing largely through the mountains at a total length of more than 3,000 km.
Also known as the Truong Son Highway, named after the Truong Son (Annamite) Mountain Range, the Highway has been built on what was once the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which from 1959 to 1975 was a strategic military transport network connecting the then-divided Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, and the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam) during the country’s wars of liberation. It was used by the Vietnam People’s Army in the north to send food, weapons and personnel to the south and was heavily bombed and attacked by US armed forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and had a reputation as a deadly battlefield.
Today it is crucial to the country’s socio-economic development and has also become an attractive tourism route for local and foreign tourists alike. As well as taking in the spectacular scenery of the mighty Truong Son Mountain Range, tourists also can also visit historic sites from wartime, such as the Dong Loc T-Junction (in Ha Tinh province), the 17th Parallel (in Quang Binh province), which was the dividing line between the two Vietnam’s from 1954 to 1975, the Truong Son National Cemetery, Khe Sanh Combat Base, and Lao Bao (in Quang Tri province), and A Luoi (in Thua Thien Hue province), in which Hamburger Hill can be found, and also admire the World Heritage Sites of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (in Quang Binh province), the former imperial capital Hue, and Hoi An ancient town and My Son Sanctuary (in Quang Nam province).
It took us four days by motorbike to complete the 954-km journey along the Ho Chi Minh Highway from Hanoi to Hue.
Day 1 : Hanoi - Vinh City (385 km)
Hanoi - Cuc Phuong (110 km) - Yen Cat (110 km) - Thai Hoa (55 km) - Tan Ky (40 km) - Do Luong (20 km, following National Highway No 15) - Vinh (50 km).
We began our journey from the Xuan Mai - Mieu Mon intersection in Xuan Mai town, 33 km from the centre of Hanoi and still within the confines of the capital. On the early stretches the Highway was smoothly asphalted with painted lines, which made me feel like I was in a race. It went up hill and down dale, zigzagging through green rice fields, tea plantations, and thick forests and over rivers. Traffic was light, so it took us no time at all to pass the Cuc Phuong forest in Ninh Binh province and then the Ma River in Thanh Hoa province.
In Tan Ky, Do Luong district in Nghe An province, the Km0 milestone told us we were now on the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Nghe An is the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969). In his former home, in Kim Lien commune, Nam Dan district, visitors are introduced to the childhood life and family of Vietnam’s first President. Apart from a simple house with a thatched roof, typical of the country’s rural areas, there is also a memorial building displaying many objects depicting his revolutionary activities. After visiting Uncle Ho’s homeland we headed to Vinh, about 10 km away, spent some time in Ho Chi Minh Square, and stayed the night.
Day 2 : Vinh City - Phong Nha - Dong Hoi City (217 km)
Vinh - Dong Loc T-Junction (42 km) - Tan Son (60 km) - Phong Nha (70 km) - Dong Hoi (45 km)
On the second day we visited the Dong Loc T-Junction in Ha Tinh province, 42 km to the south of Vinh city. The T-Junction was heavily bombarded by US forces in a bid stop supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was the scene of the well-known death of ten young girls who were youth volunteers aged from 17 to 22, on July 24, 1968.
Today, the Dong Loc T-Junction is a complex of relics: next to the tombs of the ten girls is a house with a stele inside to commemorate youth volunteers around the country, an exhibition house, a victory statue, and monuments commemorating heroes and martyrs who worked in transportation during the war. Old films and other items in the exhibition house helped us to understand more about the story of the T-Junction, and there is also a diorama of the area and its military history. The local scenery was so impressive, with hills covered by blossoming purple flowers.
Back on the Ho Chi Minh Highway we continued south through Huong Khe district in Ha Tinh towards Quang Binh to visit the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Bo Trach district. The limestone mountains in the area contain gigantic networks of caves, such as Phong Nha, Vom, Tien Son, and Thien Duong, to name just a few. Son Doong, the biggest and widest cave, was only recently ‘discovered’ and mapped by the British Caving Association. Hidden and protected by tropical forests, exploring the caves is ideal for adventurous souls while visiting the surrounding area is also a treat for garden-variety tourists.
If time is an issue it’s recommended you take a boat along the Son River to discover Phong Nha cave. Thien Duong cave is only 4 km away on the western branch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway (the highway becomes two branches - West and East - in Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, and Quang Nam provinces) in Son Trach commune. This is the largest and longest dry cave system in Asia, and is popular among tourists. You must take around 600 steps to reach the cave’s entrance, and while this may make you feel hot, inside the cave can be quite cool.
Dong Hoi city in Quang Binh province is 45 km from Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and a nice stop, with Nhat Le Beach, Tam Toa Church, and Mother Suot Statue. At night the city centre around Nhat Le Bridge and Quang Binh Quan is lit up.
Day 3: Dong Hoi City - Lao Bao - Dong Ha City (275 km)
Dong Hoi City - Truong Son National Cemetery (80 km on Ho Chi Minh Highway) - Hien Luong Bridge (30 km on National Highway No 1A) - Khe Sanh Combat Base and Lao Bao (100 km on National Highway No 9) - Dong Ha City (65 km).
In the morning we left Dong Hoi, driving along the East Ho Chi Minh Highway to visit the Truong Son National Cemetery in Quang Tri. This part of the Highway was deserted, with splendid sunlight shining on forests of acacia and pine trees.
The National Cemetery is the largest in the country; a resting place for soldiers who died in Vietnam’s wars. It has over 10,000 graves, many of which have headstones with little or no information. There is a large area with groups of statues that recall victorious days of fighting. The graves are divided into different zones, spread out on hills. Each zone has a memorial house, expressing the different characteristics of each region of the country. In the middle of these zones are trees and a stone path lined by blooming flowers. You can drive your motorbike to each hill along asphalted roads.
Leaving the cemetery, we drove along Provincial Road No 75 to National Highway No 1A, reaching Doc Mieu, Hien Luong Bridge, the 17th Parallel, and the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Under the Geneva Accords signed in 1954, Hien Luong Bridge, spanning the Ben Hai River in Quang Tri province, was the (supposedly temporary) border separating the two Vietnam’s. There are now two bridges over the river, in which the newer concrete bridge is used for transport and the old iron bridge has been restored as a site of historical interest.
Relics on both sides of the river have been restored or built, including the old bridge, a flag pole, a museum, a frontier police station, and a group of statues entitled ‘Desire for Reunification’.
In the early afternoon we followed Provincial Road No 74, over Duoi Bridge to the Cam Lo T-Junction. From there we took National Highway No 9 to Lao Bao, the border gate between Vietnam and Laos and where Lao Bao Prison can be found. National Highway No 9 was a key route during the US War, linking the coast with Khe Sanh Combat Base, the site of a famous major battle from January to July 1968.
It was a long day and we decided to return to Dong Ha city for the night. It’s possible to stay in Lao Bao, but guesthouses are few and far between.
Day 4: Dong Ha - Hue (77 km)
Hue is the centre of the central region in terms of culture, education and tourism. With the Huong (Perfume) River and heritage sites from feudalism times, as it was the national capital under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), it’s been frequently referenced in the country’s literature and music.
The city has many things to offer, from the Imperial Citadel and the Royal Tombs of Emperors Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, Tu Duc, Dong Khanh and Khai Dinh, to pagodas such as Thien Mu, Huyen Khong, Tu Dam, and Thien Lam. If you wish to add a rural element to your trip, Tam Giang Lagoon, Cau Hai Lagoon, Thanh Lam Lagoon, Lap An Lagoon and Thuan An Beach are all places where you can mingle with nature. Lang Co, Hai Van Pass, Da Nang and Hoi An are also not too far from Hue and well worth a visit.
The Ho Chi Minh Highway is very long, stretching more than 3,000 km in total, but the 1,000 km from Hanoi to the mountains near Hue feature more relics and monuments than elsewhere. Construction of this section is reasonably complete and there are not many houses along the Highway.
* If you don’t mind the sun, the wind and the dust, travelling on a motorbike affords the chance to experience the Highway and its beautiful scenery.
* Those doing a round-trip from Hanoi to Hue should consider taking the Highway on the southerly route and National Highway No 1A on the return leg. If you’re tired of motorbike riding by the time you get to Hue you can arrange to have it sent back to the capital by train.
* The Highway is quite deserted, so it’s a good idea to check your motorbike or motor car carefully prior to setting out and take some tools for basic repairs.
* When visiting historic sites such as cemeteries and relics, please dress and act appropriately.