5 motorbikes, 12 days, 2000 kilometres and one of Asia’s most legendary journeys; Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Ho Chi Minh trail was the hidden supply route used the North Vietnamese during the ‘American War’ (as it’s known locally). Actually series of hidden routes straddling the Vietnam-Laos border , the Trail remains the stuff of military legend; it’s exact location eluding American forces for much of the 10-year campaign.
I hopped on a motorbike and took on this incredible road trip for Jetstar magazine.
"A deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads in the world..."
These are the sort of words you'd expect for roads around the French Riviera, or even Australia's Great Ocean Road. But Vietnam's Hai Van Pass, a 21km over-mountain stretch that just 10 years ago was considered one of the most dangerous roads in Asia? Even more oddly, these words didn't come from a guidebook or a tourist brochure, but from the notoriously grumpy TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, who rode the Hai Van Pass on a scooter during the BBC series' Vietnam Special in 2008.
Furthermore, prior to riding this stretch, Clarkson had nothing but snide remarks to say about motorbikes. Clearly the Hai Van Pass changed all that. I know the feeling; riding a motorbike in Vietnam does that.
Yet if first impressions are anything to go by, then "perfection" is probably not the first word that comes to most people's minds when describing motorbiking in Vietnam. For many, "chaos" would most likely be their first choice. Almost anything goes on these roads. Ten-tonne trucks happily overtake on blind turns, motorbikes tottering with everything from entire families, mattresses and pigs to trays of drinks dart around each other with seemingly no awareness of lanes, let alone road rules.
Fortunately the motorbike journey two mates and I have come to Vietnam to tackle allows us to avoid most of the country's busiest roads. Instead our 12-day, 2,000km trip down the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail takes us into rural landscapes, along many empty mountain roads. The trail has existed in some form since the late 1950s, and during the Vietnam War it was the hidden supply route used by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (known informally as the Viet Cong).
More a frequently changing series of paths along the Lao-Vietnamese border, the trail became synonymous with the skill and tenacity of the North Vietnamese, its exact location eluding American intelligence for much of the 20-year campaign.
Our first moments of this 12-day journey are hardly a display of riding excellence. When our group proudly kickstart our engines and begin rolling out on to Hanoi's chaotic streets, a seemingly never-ending pack of 10-deep riders rolls past us. Realising that waiting for a break in the traffic is pointless, I breathe in, hit the throttle and, just like a fish joining a moving school of hundreds of my own species, I'm swallowed up and carried along by the teeming traffic. A few minutes later, just as I'm feeling a little more confident, a truck passes me with a burst of its horn, and I cop a face full of black smoke that forces me to pull over to wipe a pile of soot from my eyes.
We reach the outskirts of Hanoi and the waves of motorbikes are reduced to just a few, with the first of thousands of bright green rice fields that we'll see over the coming days suddenly looming into view. Within a few hours, we're rolling through small villages. The roads become smoother, longer and steeper, the views all the more spectacular. Everyone sits in happy silence as we pull up to take in the view across the Cun Pass into the valleys below. This "serenity stop" is only broken by our leader Ngoc's declaration to the group: "Just wait, it gets better...".
The following day, after a quick ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee served with sweetened condensed milk), we head off early on one of the longest rides of the trip -- the 290km stretch to the town of Tan Ky. We begin slowly, navigating our bikes between rice paddies, before hitting three hours of winding dirt road alongside the Da River. It's glorious fun, and by the time we arrive at the "official" start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the town of Pho Chau the next day, it takes the town's monolithic North Vietnamese Victory Monument to remind us that this was the scene of some of the Vietnam War's toughest fighting.
Riding steadily south, over the course of the next few days we take in another startling legacy of the war: the underground cave and tunnel systems at Phong Nha and Vinh Moc, the former De-Militarized Zone. We take Highway 9 to the town immortalised in song, Khe Sanh, the scene of a seven-month slog that saw over 8,000 killed. We continue south, and after eight days and well over 1,100km, the mountains of the Annamite Range and the Hai Van Pass lie in front of us. Sensing our anticipation, Ngoc pulls us over at the base of the hill and buys us all a quick round of super-strong Vietnamese coffee, before slapping us each on the back and shouting "Enjoy!".
And enjoy it we most certainly do. The Hai Van Pass has gone from being one of the most feared bottlenecks in the country to a rare treat for those seeking the scenic route. The thousands of cars and trucks that make the journey between the cities of Hue and Da Nang each day are now passing under the mountains, leaving the Pass and its astonishing cliff-top views exclusively for two-wheeled travellers. It's spectacular riding, and as the city of Da Nang begins to come into view, I find myself wishing that the Ho Chi Minh Trail would never end.
Four days later, having made it to the World Heritage-listed town of Hoi An and then through the rainy Central Highlands, we finish the 12-day journey with a final ride into the port of Nha Trang. With a tinge of sadness I hop off my (now beloved) Honda for the last time at Nha Trang train station and give the front wheel a pat of appreciation, before it's packed onto the train for the journey back to Hanoi.
As if to rub salt into the wounds of our post-ride gloom, we're left to hail a taxi to the Nha Trang Yacht Club for a celebratory beer. But despite the taxi's air conditioning providing relief from the heat, we feel nothing but lifelessness all around us. Suddenly the prospect of one more faceful of black soot doesn't seem so bad.