Ho Chi Minh City
Motorbikes, motorbikes and even more motorbikes. As you leave the airport at Ho Chi Minh City that is the first thought that enters your mind, everyone seems to own a motorbike. Apparently, it is legal for there to be 2 adults and 2 children on a bike, but that is a minimum as far as I could see.
The drive into the city, even at 06:00 in the morning, shows just how vibrant and busy a place Ho Chi Minh is. The parks were already full of locals taking exercise or just simply taking an early morning walk. The apartments in the city are generally small so people take the chance to get out at any time into one of the many green spaces available, they also escape the heat of the city which builds during the morning.
Our hotel is in a superb location, very close to our planned start venue of the Independence Palace and within walking distance of a number of restaurants and bars. A short taxi ride will take you downtown and offer even more opportunities to eat and drink.
Driving in Ho Chi Minh may be a shock to some at first, motorbikes are everywhere and come at you from all angles and on both sides of the road, but somehow it all works. No one gets stressed, everyone avoids everyone else, and you soon settle into the Vietnamese style of driving, just remember to indicate when you plan to change lanes and keep your hand close to the horn button.
You will get your first taste of the driving style when you collect your car from the warehouse, which is a 17 Km drive from the hotel.
Day 1 Ho Chi Minh to Dalat 352 Kms
Starting from the Independence Palace we work our way north, through the busy city traffic, to a race circuit where we plan to run an entertaining test section to begin the event’s competition.
From the circuit we begin to head east using a mixture of roads from wide new roads in an industrial area to quieter village roads to join the main QL20 road which joins Ho Chi Minh to Dalat, our overnight halt.
A stop for coffee has been arranged on the shores of the Dong Nai River, with lovely views over the surrounding countryside. The owner is car mad and is looking forward to welcoming everyone next January.
From the coffee halt we continue inland on country roads before emerging on the main road and turning east towards Dalat. The main road is very populated and sometimes a little slow, but there is no alternative and there is always plenty to see, as every building is a business of some sort. It is often great fun to stop and get some of the local produce, the fruit and vegetables on offer are superb and straight out of the field or garden.
Lunch today will be a very local affair at a small roadside restaurant, but with plenty of parking and some excellent local dishes to try, the food will be good.
To finish the day a short section of local tarmac and dirt roads will provide the first regularity section followed by a drive past the beautiful Edensee Lake on our approach to our overnight halt in Dalat, the largest town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for it’s temperate climate.
Day 2 Dalat to Quy Nhon 415 Kms
The hotel in Dalat is at an altitude of over 1500 metres and there are magnificent views as the road descends into the fertile valley below. Dalat is one of the main growing areas for fruit in Vietnam and the valley floor is lined with poly tunnels growing the precious crops.
Today’s first regularity section is on a section of gently downhill winding road between villages. One of the big surprises of Vietnam is how many people there are and that they all seem to live next to the road. Most villages are many kilometres long but will only be one building deep.
The region we drive through is famous for the Durian Fruit. This plant gives off an overpowering smell when first opened and is banned from being carried on public transport in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand. Apparently if you can get past the smell the fruit is delicious.
A lovely little coffee stop, well out in the country, will give crews a chance to catch their breath before another regularity.
Today’s lunch stop is very different. Just a few kilometres off the main road there is a restaurant with its own lakes. We did think about giving crews a rod each and asking them to catch their own lunch, but the owners have promised to catch lunch for us and prepare it, but only just before we arrive so the food is as fresh as it can be.
After lunch the route heads to the east to Nha Trang and the road along the coast of the South China Sea. On the way there are floating villages and huge areas of shrimp farming pens, no wonder the seafood is so fresh here.
Our hotel tonight is just outside the city of Quy Nhon and is on the beach. You can enjoy the sounds of the waves breaking on the beach as you drift off to sleep.
Day 3 Quy Nhon to Danang 323 Kms
Today we follow the coast of the South China Sea as we head north towards Danang using roads through a sandier area, giving another view on Vietnam.
Our coffee stop is in another area of shrimp farms so we will spend some kilometres driving past the tanks in the fields on either side.
Heading a little inland we will enjoy some regularity sections near the town of Phu Thu before stopping for lunch at Tan Loc. The restaurant is on the beach, so the seafood is fresh, and the view is delightful for a leisurely lunch break.
After lunch we continue north but break the journey to Danang by stopping at Hoi An. Google describes Hoi An as follows:
The former port city’s melting-pot history is reflected in its architecture, a mix of eras and styles from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples to colourful French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda.
From Hoi An it is just a short drive to our hotel for the next 2 nights which is on the peninsular to the northeast of Danang, but the city is close, and you will have a chance to explore it on the rest day tomorrow.
Day 4 Danang rest day
Danang is the fifth largest city in Vietnam and capital of the central region. It lies on the coast of the East Sea of Vietnam at the mouth of the Hàn River and is one of Vietnam’s most important port cities.
Trip Advisor says about Danang:
No other city represents Vietnam’s boom better than Da Nang. It’s become a gleaming, modern tourist magnet, complete with apartments, theme parks, and brand-new resorts. But the city’s earlier charm is still present, including laid-back, friendly locals and incredible street eats. After you’ve stuffed yourself with a bowl of Mi Quang and Banh Mi Ba Lan, walk it off by exploring the limestone caves and Buddhist grottos of the Marble Mountains. Make an escape to the surreal mountain resort of Ba Na Hills, where the majestic Golden Bridge welcomes you with open palms.
Day 5 Danang to Mang Den 342 Kms
We decided to break the journey to the Cambodia over 2 days, as the border crossing we are using closes late afternoon and we wanted to make sure everyone arrived in time.
Today’s route begins with a drive over the Hai Van Pass. This is the highest pass in Vietnam (500m above sea level) and is the final section of the Truong Son Range stretching to the sea. Hai Van means “Sea Clouds”, since the peak of the mountain is in the clouds while its foot is close to the sea.
The “Ho Chi Minh Trail” is currently being worked on after a number of landslides, so is not usable for the event. We will use the motorway south for 120 Kms before heading west towards the border with Cambodia. The highway runs through some typical Vietnamese countryside with some lovely views of the rice fields in this area, not at all the typical boring motorway run.
The route uses a lovely pass as we pass into the Kon Tum Province, the road has great views and will provide strength building for those crews without the luxury of power steering, before we drop down into the town of Mang Den and our hotel for tonight.
Mang Den is currently transforming itself into a second Dalat to try and attract some of the holiday business, it shares the same climate and altitude.
Day 6 Mang Den to Banglun 231 Kms
The final run to the border is over good country roads, with the usual villages for much of the way, although the final stretch is currently being repaired and may be ready in 2024.
The border post is quiet and not well used, but very efficient. There will be a check on the vehicle’s temporary import paperwork and passport control, but these should be dealt with quickly. On the event our Vietnamese agents will go ahead with all the necessary paperwork, so crews do not have to wait for too long while cars and people are cleared for exit.
The Cambodian border is only a few hundred metres further on and there we will be met by the Cambodian agent. Again, formalities will already be taken care of, all the necessary documentation will be sent to the border well in advance, and we will only need to wait a short time for the vehicle import form and visas for our passports. Just a note for those on the event, crews will be handed a white vehicle import form and each person will be given an immigration form, stamped on entry. These are vital pieces of paper and need to be kept safe until needed. You also need to make sure that the passport control has clearly stamped you IN to Cambodia.
Leaving the border post the first thing you will notice is the lack of motorcycles. There are still a lot in use, but nothing like the huge numbers seen in Vietnam.
The final run from the border to the hotel is just under 70 Kms on a decent road with the first chance to experience Cambodian villages. They seemed like those in Vietnam, but the buildings are further back from the road, and were less busy, still good to experience though.
Our plan is to eat in a local restaurant this evening, rather than the hotel, so crews can experience the local dishes. The dinner will be freshly cooked and very different in style and taste to the Vietnamese food of the last few days. I am sure everyone will enjoy the first experience of Cambodia.
Day 7 Banglun to Siam Reap 478 Kms
This region of Cambodia is much flatter than Vietnam and the roads tend to be straighter, which makes finding suitable regularity sections a little more difficult, but a nice section of smooth dirt road will give us some competition for the day.
Cambodian roads are not bad, but only two cars wide, and the local traffic is generally very slow, so progress is not always great, but it gave us a chance to look around.
A resort overlooking the mighty Mekong River at Stung Treng will provide the mid-morning coffee and snack stop and although we won’t have too long to sit and enjoy the views there will be time enough to get a flavour and enjoy something to eat and drink.
Apparently, Cambodia still has both Tigers and Elephants, and although unlikely to see a Tiger, the countryside was perfect Elephant territory so you may get lucky.
A second coffee and snack stop in the town of Preah Vihear, with a good quality fuel station close by, will break the journey, but the stop will not be too long as we want to get to Siam Reap before darkness falls.
The final run in to Siam Reap took us close to Angkor Wat, the world-famous temple site which crews will have the opportunity to visit on their rest day.
Day 8 Siam Reap Rest Day
Angkor Wat is considered to be the world’s largest religious structure and was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II and is dedicated to the god Vishnu.
Time should be found in the rest day by everyone to take a visit.
Day 9 Siam Reap to Nakhon Ratchasima 441 Kms
Today is a border day so an early start will be needed, but breakfast will be ready at the hotel before we leave.
Our route takes us north to the border crossing into Thailand at O Smach, through the area where the infamous Khmer Rouge retreated to as their regime began to crumble.
One feature of the past is a large man-made lake at Chog Kal which was constructed by the Khmer Rouge to try and ensure sufficient water for three rice harvests a year.
The border at O Smach is quiet and the agents on both sides will help crews look after the vehicle paperwork. Everyone will need to have their fingerprints taken at the Thai entry point, but otherwise immigration should be quick and easy.
One thing that can cause a delay is finding the chassis and engine numbers on the vehicle, something for crews to remember for next year, know where they are or make up a metal plate showing the details. One other thing to remember is that Thailand drives on the left, as in the UK and it will take a few kilometres to get used to the change.
Once through the border and into Thailand the change from Cambodia is clear. Thailand seems far more “westernised” than either Vietnam or Cambodia, with instantly recognisable brand names, huge petrol stations and very wide main roads.
This area of Thailand is very flat, so the roads are straight and wide, which makes progress much faster than in the previous countries.
We plan is to use some of the facilities at the Chang International Circuit in Buri Ram for a test section, together with a lunch stop in the main grandstand. The circuit is amazing and there is also a great Kart track and drift facility on site.
After fun at the track and a nice Thai style lunch we will head for our overnight halt in Nakhon Ratchasima, following the fast straight roads in this area, to get ready for another long day heading north to Mae Sot.
Day 10 Nakhon Ratchasima to Mae Sot 574 Kms
Leaving Nakhon Ratchasima, we head west across the flat straight roads. Corners and junctions are rare in this area, but there will be a nice mixed surface section through a sugar cane plantation to begin the day.
A stop for coffee and the toilets at a PTT fuel station is next on the agenda, we will use these service stations on the event as Passage Controls as they all feature good quality fuel, the ability to pay by credit card, a coffee shop and a 7-11 store to stock up on everything you shouldn’t eat in the car. The toilets are also very good, an important feature on long distance events.
Our next regularity section will be in a quiet area with concrete roads which will make a fun section.
Heading towards the city of Nakhon Sawan, you pass a number of roadside stalls selling sticky rice in bamboo tubes, which is popular with local farmers and truck drivers. The sticky rice is mixed with other sweet ingredients and is known as Thai Valium due to its ability to make you sleep after eating it. Apparently, the farmers eat it so they can sleep in the afternoon then continue work in the evening when the heat has gone. It may be best not to try it as there is still half a day driving ahead of us.
Lunch will be in a quirky café near Nakhon Sawan, before we head into more hilly country on the run in to our overnight halt in Mae Sot, close to the border with Myanmar.
The road into Mae Sot was very slow due to roadworks, but these should be completed shortly and the run in was the first experience of twists and turns in Thailand.
The hotel in Mae Sot was in the city centre and enjoying a walk around the town before dinner should be a nice way to unwind.
Day 11 Mae Sot to Chiang Mai 449 Kms
The route for today uses the road running alongside the border with Myanmar, so expect to see a more visible army presence.
Farmland close to Mae Sot will provide a nice little section on a variety of road surfaces, but the landscape changes as we head north and the roads away from the main road are far too rough and rocky for anything but a 4×4 vehicle. However, the main road is quiet and traffic-free and a really great drive.
On the way north we pass a large Burmese refugee village, populated by people who have fled the regime over the border and co-exist very happily alongside their Thai neighbours.
Our lunch stop today is in a lovely riverside restaurant in the town of Mae Hong Son before we head east towards our next overnight halt in the city of Chiang Mai.
The road from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai has been much improved and is nice fast sweeping road for much of the distance until the outskirts of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand, and the second largest in the country. It is home to a famous night market, a short distance from the hotel and a large number of Buddhist temples for those wanting something more spiritual.
A rest day tomorrow will give crews the opportunity to explore the city and visit the night market to secure a few bargains to take home with them.
Day 13 Chiang Mai to Nan 354 Kms
Leaving the hotel we will navigate the early morning traffic, which should be not too bad as we are heading out of the city, to a Sports Stadium where we plan to have a test section to start the day.
From the Sports Stadium we head east around the top of the city on fast roads before heading into the Thai countryside again. This area produces rice, garlic and pepper in large quantities, it seems that anything grows in Thailand as the soil is so fertile.
We now head away from the normal tourist routes into some really interesting and challenging roads for some short regularity sections to keep crews on their toes.
One downside of being away from the tourist area is the lack of potential coffee stops, but we found one which was just opening and are willing to cater for the group. However, there is a lot of medicinal cannabis grown and sold in this area, so you may decide to avoid the brownies just in case.
There will be another short regularity section before lunch in the town of Phayao. The area around Phayao is known in Thailand for the dinosaur remains found here, but we didn’t see any as we headed into the town.
Lunch will be taken in a restaurant on the side of a large lake and in February, when the event will be here, the sky is clear, and the views will be lovely.
A final section through rubber trees, with changing surfaces and many junctions should test crews feeling sleepy after their lunch.
We will break the afternoon up by stopping for coffee at a great little roadside kiosk. A short chat with the owner produced a promise of more staff on the day to speed things along. The coffee was really good though.
The final run in to Nan was along good main roads to our hotel for the night, a recently opened hotel with helpful and friendly staff and a large restaurant for the group dinner.
Day 14 Nan to Loei 383 Kms
Today our route will be away from the fast main roads and follow the border with Laos. This area is more remote and should be almost traffic-free and a really enjoyable and entertaining drive on good tarmac roads.
Being a border area there are a number of police/border patrol checkpoints, but these are normally friendly, and the police seem very happy to pose for pictures with the car, probably broke up a fairly quiet day for them.
Being traffic-free and challenging the roads were perfect for some regularity sections and several short sections were chosen.
Once again, being remote and away from the tourist routes and towns meant finding a coffee stop was a challenge, but we will stop at a viewpoint area where the park rangers were happy for everyone to park and enjoy the view into Laos while having a well-deserved break.
Lunch today will be something very different. We will eat at a small local restaurant with a pathway to its own waterfall. The plan is to serve the local delicacy, an amazing dish of chicken, salad and sticky rice, but the owner will produce dishes to serve all tastes and diets.
The afternoon route continues to track the border with Laos, at one point we pass a village half of which is in Thailand and the other in Laos, and through villages, almost all of which had a checkpoint which was not manned.
One feature of the afternoon drive is the number of Dragon Fruit trees, apparently these are easy to grow and produce a profitable crop for many local farmers.
Today finishes in town of Loei with time to enjoy our last night in Thailand.
Day 15 Loei to Vientiane 190 Kms
We want to make sure everyone enjoys the last kilometres in Thailand, so instead of taking a main road route to the border we will head across country to enjoy a last look at this amazing country. Thailand is a real surprise and so different to images conjured up by holidays in Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket.
After an enjoyable run through empty roads, we emerge on the banks of the Mekong and head east looking over at Laos as we cover the last few kilometres to the border post.
The border is much larger and busier than any we have used before but is very efficient. After having your passports stamped for exit, don’t forget the white immigration slip handed to you as you entered Thailand, then a visit to the customs to have the vehicle paperwork checked and we will be on our way to Laos.
Our next team of agents will meet us at the border and help crews through the process. Although most people will apply for an e-visa before leaving home you will we still need to queue and have your fingerprints taken and an ‘entry permission’ sticker to be added to our passports. Unfortunately, no amount of pre-arrival preparation will shorten this process, but it was, once again, very efficient.
A final visit to the customs window to check the vehicle paperwork and you will enter Laos, the fourth country on this amazing trip.
A short run from the border along one main road will take us to our hotel in Vientiane and the chance to enjoy an early finish and lunch before a chance to explore the city in the afternoon. Tonight there will be a chance to have dinner in one of the many restaurants along the Mekong overlooking Thailand.
Day 16 Vientiane to Vang Vieng 278 Kms
Leaving the hotel this morning the first thing to remember is to ‘Drive on the Right’ after a few days driving on the left in Thailand.
We are planning to have at least one test section close to the city at the start of our journey today before heading out into the countryside around Vientiane.
The region surrounding Vientiane is one of the few areas of Laos that is not mountainous and has a selection of roads, unfortunately many are too rough for anything but a 4×4 vehicle, but there will be a coffee stop in a resort overlooking the Nam Ngum River.
Leaving coffee, we cross the river then head west through rice fields waiting for the rainy season. This part of Laos is dry and has only one harvest a year, so the rains are vital as is the preparation of the fields before they arrive.
We pass by the first dam built in Laos to our lunch halt at a resort currently being re-developed overlooking the reservoir created by the dam. The views are wonderful, and lunch will be some great fresh local dishes. The re-development will be finished later this year and the resort will make a great lunch stop for the event.
For the run in to our hotel there was a choice of two routes, the new Laos-China Expressway, the first part of this road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng having recently been completed, or the old road and enjoy some more scenery. The old road was chosen.
With most of the truck traffic now using the Expressway this is a much nicer approach to Vang Vieng and a chance to take in more that the Laos countryside has to offer.
Our overnight hotel is in the town of Vang Vieng, where an early finish will give crews the chance to have a wander through the town, there is a large market close to the hotel, and a number of ‘Walking Streets’ where no cars are allowed.
Vang Vieng is fast becoming a backpacker’s destination, so the main street has many bars and restaurants worth exploring before dinner.
Day 17 Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang 187 Kms
A later start this morning will allow a more leisurely breakfast before beginning our drive to tonight’s destination, Luang Prabang.
The choice of route today was simple, either the main road number 13, very interesting and challenging but with a lot of slow-moving Chinese trucks, or a road opened in 2014 and currently being renovated, which leaves the main road at the town of Kasi and re-joins shortly before Luang Prabang.
Although the main road looked superb, we do not want the event to get stuck in truck traffic, so we will use the road currently under renovation.
After leaving the main road at Kasi the road heads into the hills and through some amazing terrain, with fantastic views across the valley and beyond. The road is challenging and great to drive, although there were a lot of roadworks which are due to be completed before the end of the year. Some parts will make for a challenging regularity section, and these were duly noted.
A viewpoint at the summit will provide a great location for a coffee stop and a chance to catch your breath and use the facilities, before continuing along the downhill sections of this wonderful road and then joining a road coming from the southwest where it becomes faster.
Just after joining the faster main road, we travel through a village where they are still using Elephants for working in the forests, far more environmentally friendly than a tractor and much better at the job.
Re-joining road 13 just before Luang Prabang takes us through a pineapple growing area before reaching our hotel for the evening, a lovely resort on the edge of the town with a range of activities available for our rest day.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site It was listed in 1995 for its “unique and remarkably well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage, a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries including French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries”. The town also features some great restaurants, bars, markets and a number of attractions for visitors.
Day 19 Luang Prabang to Oudomxay 212 Kms
On our way out of Luang Prabang we plan to use a driver training centre for a short test section to start the day.
The road out of town has some potholes, but this changed as we moved into the countryside and by Laos standards this is a good road.
As this is a mountainous area there are few roads other than the main one, side roads being almost exclusively very rough and water damaged to use, so we need to stay on the main road through some lovely scenery.
After 100 Kms the character of the road changed as we turned onto a Chinese built road which will take us to our lunch stop in a small local restaurant overlooking a valley.
The afternoon route stays on the same main road before arriving at our overnight halt and something very different.
Nam Kat Yorla Pa is a protected forest region along the Nam Pien River and features luxury accommodation in a natural setting with large windows looking out into the wilderness, but a great restaurant and bar to while away the evening. Everyone should arrive early enough to enjoy a walk in the area or enjoy a Spa or relax by the pool.
Day 20 Oudomxay to Dien Bien Phu 215 Kms
Although this is a border day and usually reserved for transit, we couldn’t resist using the road from the resort for a short regularity section before joining the road towards the border and the final border crossing for the event.
The road to the border is an interesting drive, twisty and hilly as expected in a mountain area, but often narrow in places, particularly in villages.
The locals seem to treat the road as their front room as the houses are built almost onto the road and the families then sit, work, cook and play on the very edge, and sometimes even into, the road.
As we drive along the top of the river valley, we could see below floating bridges connecting one village to another and locals panning for gold, no doubt hoping for the big nugget that would change their lives.
A recently opened guest house by the Nam Ou River will be our coffee stop for the morning, the owners are currently building a restaurant on the opposite side of the road which is due to open later this year. They were really excited at the thought of the classic and vintage cars arriving, something very unusual for this area.
However good the coffee is we will need to move on and try to reach the border before they close for lunch around 12:00. Hopefully, the border closing will soon be a thing of the past as the Vietnam border is remaining open which will put pressure on the Laos side to do the same.
When the border is open the process seems quick and efficient, and we left our Laos agents behind and headed to Vietnam.
The 5 Kilometres between the Laos and Vietnam border is interesting, there are houses and also trucks that have clearly been parked for a while as they had strung up makeshift washing lines for their cabs and their clothes were drying well in the sun.
Once we reach the Vietnam border, we will be reunited with our Vietnam contacts who will be there to help crews through the border process. Once across the border we will head to the town of Dien Bien Phu. On the road into the town, we pass rice fields which grow a very famous type of rice, people from as far afield as Ho Chi Minh City travel just to buy bags of the local delicacy.
The name Dien Bien Phu may seem familiar to many people as it was the site of an epic and heroic battle between the French Colonial forces and the North Vietnamese Army. We should have time to visit an excellent museum on our way to the hotel. The museum tells the tale of the battle and features a fantastic diorama of the battlefield and many artifacts, well worth a visit.
Our hotel for the evening is close to the city centre so there will be a chance to explore and enjoy a nice cold beer before dinner. We have an earlier start in the morning.
Day 21 Dien Bien Phu to Sa Pa 318 Kms
Getting out of Bien Dien Phu should be easy with little traffic, but it might take a while to readjust to the number of motorbikes and the rather eccentric driving of the locals.
A nice quiet backroad away from the main road will be the site of our first competition of the day, it is also a great drive out into the countryside of Northern Vietnam, and you will experience real life as we drive past villages and schools.
A quick coffee and fuel stop is next on the agenda and a new coffee shop with nice views was found. Unfortunately, their coffee machine was away being mended but they promise it will be back in time for the event. If not then try an excellent Mango Smoothie instead and some sunflower seeds, which seemed to be a local speciality.
The local ethnic Thai population settled in the area some generations ago, and the women wear their hair in a bun on top when they are married, a clear sign to any potential suitors. They also wear their crash helmets over this bun, which is a very strange sight indeed.
The rest of the day I can only describe as a truly epic drive through some amazing scenery, past tea plantations and over twisting, winding, wonderful roads.
At the end of such and epic day it is only right that we should end it in an epic hotel, and we did. The town of Sa Pa is vibrant and colourful and will be a great base for the next two nights.
Day 23 Sa Pa to Ha Giang 295 Kms
Leaving the splendour of the Sa Pa hotel behind we will head once again into the countryside of Northern Vietnam.
In the middle of the town of Lao Cai we turned right at some traffic lights, had we turned left we would have been at the Chinese border, and then use a road along the river the other side of which is China. You can see stretches of wire fencing, but whether that is to keep the Vietnamese out or the Chinese in is a good question.
Having cleared Lao Cai we will drive some more regularity sections. The second is over narrow concrete roads through a plantation and is very different to anything we had driven on before.
A short break and a chance to get a cup of coffee will be provided by a local garden centre, a chance to look at some exotic plants and maybe arrange delivery back home.
The maps for this area show a series of roads, but these are either very rough dirt or narrow concrete roads with big unguarded drops, neither of which are suitable to use.
After lunch at the Panorama Restaurant, well named for the spectacular views from the terrace, we continue around a long loop through the countryside which includes another one or two regularity sections before crossing a Bailey Bridge for the final few kilometres to the main road.
The road is currently under repair, and we had a slow and challenging few kilometres before finding good tarmac again, things should be much better next year.
The time spent driving slowly was not entirely wasted as we were able to watch the locals collect and stack large sheets of very thin wood into neat piles. We asked a local what they were used for, but all he could tell us was that they were destined for China but had no idea what they were used for.
Having finally re-joined the main road and good tarmac the run in to Lang Son for the hotel went quickly, with just a stop at a police checkpoint on the way, and a chance to refuel before an early start in the morning.
Day 24 Ha Giang to Lang Son 377 Kms
Today we were faced with a simple choice of routes. Go via the expressway and Hanoi or the shorter, slower but far more interesting countryside route. There was really only one decision to make, the countryside won.
The QL34 road is just over 200 kilometres of good tarmac that twists and turns its way through the northern Vietnamese countryside, with amazing views and plenty of villages to see the locals at work.
The town of Cao Bang marks the end of the QL34 and it will feel strange to join a huge 8 lane straight road after so many kilometres of twists and turns.
Our agent had recommended a buffet restaurant which had recently opened in the outskirts of the town, and we will stop there for lunch, what an amazing place. Each table has its own built in BBQ in the centre, and diners help themselves to raw seafood and meat to cook themselves, or they can choose from some cooked dishes if they prefer. After the long drive it is a great place to enjoy a leisurely lunch before the final run to Lang Son.
After the twists and turns of the QL34 it will be nice to join a faster main road for the final part of today’s journey to our overnight hotel in the city of Lang Son.
On our route to the overnight hotel, we drive through the town of Dong Dang, which is the gateway from Vietnam to China for goods in this region. The queue of trucks stretches for many kilometres, thankfully in the other direction to the one we are heading in, but you do wonder just how long some of the drivers must have to wait to get across the border.
Our hotel for tonight was a lovely colonial style building in the centre of Lang Son and with a shorter day tomorrow a chance to have a later start will be very welcome.
Day 25 Lang Son to Halong Bay 221 Kms
Our final competitive day of the event and much studying of maps, Google Earth and local advice was used to try and give a final “sting in the tail” to the event.
We are now out of the mountains and into the flatter country close to Hanoi, so the number of people and villages has increased making it difficult to find suitable roads for competition.
We found a really wonderful concrete road, which will be a challenge for all after which a coffee stop would have been a good idea. Unfortunately, there were no sensible options available so we will use a filling station with decent toilets and will think of a way to provide crews with some refreshments.
Google Earth suggested trying a small road running through the hills towards the coast and the first part was superb. A lovely concrete road, made a little muddy and slippery by recent rains, was a great reward before finishing the section before a village. After the village the road changes and is currently being upgraded. The road WILL be good, when they finish rebuilding it, which is due for completion at the end of August, the amount of machinery and people working on the road would suggest that this timeframe is correct.
The road will make a great final section of the event as it heads through the hills before reaching the main road and a final run to the coast.
Our home for the next two nights is the resort town of Halong Bay, used by many Hanoi residents for both weekend and annual holidays. One highlight will be a boat trip around the many islands in the bay and a chance to swim, go kayaking or just relax with a drink on the boat.
Enjoy the rest day before our final run in to the finish in Hanoi.
Day 27 Halong Bay to Hanoi 153 Kms
We wanted to make sure the final days driving was as easy as possible so crews could get to the finish, drop their cars off at the shippers and be in the hotel with plenty of time to get ready for the prize giving dinner in the evening. The only sensible option is to use the expressway.
Although we had seen many motorbikes in other towns and the countryside it was still a bit of a shock to see so many in one city, a reminder of how it had been at the start of the event in Ho Chi Minh City. Once again, however, everyone avoids everyone else and the system seems to work, you just need a little patience and a working horn.
We have looked at a number of options for the finish venue and our agent is working hard on these, more news to follow.
It will be a truly memorable journey lasting 27 days, covering 4 countries and 7,000 kilometres, but thankfully only one time zone. Let us all look forward to January 2024.