The Ho Chi Minh trail, a series of roads and paths stretching more than 1,000km from Hanoi to Saigon, offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity for two-wheeled adventure, says Kit Gillet
It was as I lay sprawled out in a daze on a wet concrete road in northern Vietnam that I became conscious of both the enormity of the challenges ahead and of the fact that I was seriously out of practice travelling by motorbike.
I had set out along with my companions – Jeff Lau, a colleague from Beijing, and Dang Van Diep, our mechanic and guide – just a few hours before from Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, on the back of a gas-powered relic of the Soviet Union. We were headed south, bound for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the warren of mountain paths used by the Viet Cong to transport supplies down to the guerrillas fighting in the south during the Vietnam War.
This first day was supposed to be the warm up, where the three of us would enjoy at least a semblance of paved roads before hitting the trails that we had been told might be less than a metre across in places and often run along the edges of sheer cliffs.
Yet, here I was, flat on the ground on the highway leading out of Hanoi, as battered cars and trucks slowed down to pass me. Suitably chastened, I dusted myself off, picked pieces of gravel out of my jacket and gingerly climbed back on my Minsk motorbike to set off again, this time making sure to stay focused on the task at hand. So much for the easy part of the trip.
Just a few days before, Jeff and I had landed in Hanoi, a lively city that I had visited several times previously, including during a year-long stint living in its southern cousin, Ho Chi Minh City. Back then, colleagues of mine had repeatedly brought up the idea of a motorbike journey through the heart of the country. Our scooter rides through the clogged streets of the city were to blame. They had led us to romanticise the notion of travelling rugged mountain trails and passes once frequented by the Viet Cong. The thought of taking a trip like this had never left my mind and on my latest visit to the country, I was determined to at least experience part of the legendary trail.
After loading up on supplies in Hanoi – bike helmets, heavily-padded bike jackets, maps and saddlebags – we turned in early to ensure that we’d be rested for the journey ahead. The next morning we picked up our bikes at a dusty industrial lot on the outskirts of the city and, after a few quick practice laps, headed south with our guide.
Navigating out of the city proved an adventure in itself, with Hanoi’s bike- clogged streets stretching on for what seemed like forever and the loud honking of horns threatening to drive me round the bend. At long last, the roads began to empty and a more serene atmosphere took hold – enough to lull me into a false sense of security for which I was soon to pay.
A few hours into the trip, with the shock of my fall long forgotten, I gazed for the first time upon Vietnam’s vast rural landscape, one of rolling rice fields sliced by the occasional narrow, winding road or river and dotted with tiny villages consisting of little more than a handful of wooden structures.
Such views would recur regularly over the next few days as our small convoy navigated its way along narrow mountain paths, ploughed across knee-deep rivers and passed through dozens of isolated hamlets apparently populated primarily by smiling and waving children. Seemingly all the while we were flanked by kilometre upon kilometre of muddy rice paddies dotted with women cultivating the land by hand, as their ancestors had probably done for centuries.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was once hailed by the United States’ National Security Agency as “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century”. For the most part, however, the inhabitants of the areas through which the various trails pass have always been focused mainly on meeting their everyday needs. I was surprised to find comfort in the lush but monotonous landscape. My mind tended to fall into a meditative calm during the long hours between stops, which seemed to pass in the blink of the eye. That is, when I wasn’t skidding uncontrollably down mud paths.
Even nearly four decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it’s unlikely that there has been much change in the condition of these trails. Clogged with mud, they wind their way through the mountains, linking still-isolated communities and barrelling down into the valleys through flooded rice fields. A dirt biker’s dream, but a casual rider’s uncomfortable reality.
Despite intense aerial bombing during the conflict, the weapons’ caravans continued to ply these paths for years, offering the Viet Cong the means to continue the fight and eventually overcome the south’s resistance.
Our small group spent the first night in Mai Chau, a scenic village without proper roads about 160km from Hanoi. Little known until recently, the town was starting to attract tourists in search of out-of-the- way locales. But for the moment, it was still a peaceful and quiet town that shut down as darkness descended.
As we entered town via a maze of paths that took us from the outskirts of the settlement up to where we were to spend the night, a local wedding celebration spilled out onto the streets, with participants offering smiles and free alcohol to anyone who happened to be passing by. Despite the temptation, we continued onwards towards our last stop of the day – a place where we hoped we could rest up and watch the sunset with cold beer in hand.
Accommodation came in the form of hard mattresses placed on the bare wooden floors of a family-run hostel. Tired but satisfied after eight or nine tiring hours on the road, I drifted off quickly though with some trepidation at what lay ahead.
The next morning, the second of what would be a three-day journey, we set out early as we had a long way to go through what is now the Pu Luong Nature Reserve. We’d have time enough to cover part of the northern section of the trail, though we’d be unable to complete the whole route, which takes upwards of 14 days.
The roads within the nature reserve seemed little different from those outside it, narrow enough that our bikes couldn’t help but kick up dust at those working in the paddy fields alongside. The terrain was, however, a lot more mountainous, leaving us doing what felt like an endless series of ascents and descents. I had brought along a map in hopes of tracing our route as we went but found it impossible to pinpoint our locations. I finally gave up and left it to our ever-smiling guide Diep to point the way.
Upon reaching the top of a particularly large hill, we were forced to seek shelter from an afternoon rain shower. We hunkered down in a large wooden house, eating the fruit offered by the house’s friendly owner. Outside, the paths grew increasingly muddy and we could only wait and watch as our difficult route become virtually impassable.
Once the rain let up, we managed to ride off the hill. Soon we were back on safer, or at least drier, ground and able to continue on our way. More mountains beckoned and we took advantage of the occasional fuel stop to stretch our tired limbs, photograph the scenery and keep our energy up with liberal doses of bottled water and simple snacks.
By the end of our longest day on the road – 10 hours all told – the strain of holding firm to the throttles as the bikes bounced over rock and skidded through mud had taken its toll. We were exhausted. We spent the night in the village of Ban Hieu, accessible only by bike or on foot up a long, steep and winding 2m-wide dirt path flanked on one side by a sheer drop into the paddy fields.
Not daring to think about the descent we’d have to make the following morning, I staggered off my bike. A piece of cut bamboo – normally used as part of a complex rice-paddy irrigation system – served as a makeshift shower. By the time I had cooled down and collected myself, the family we were to stay with had prepared hot tea and were gesturing for me to join them.
Despite the language barrier, we smiled and laughed while looking at photos showing members of the previous generation – who would’ve been alive at the height of the Vietnam War when the Ho Chi Minh Trail was much travelled. Like us, guerrillas may have stopped here for the night, staying in homes not all that different from this one.
This village of just a few dozen families, located an hour by motorbike from the nearest community with a shop, felt like a forgotten realm. Kilometres of open land spread out before us, with no settlement or human dwelling in sight other than the handful of stilted wooden houses perched on the side of a mountain that made up the rest of the village. Even after a long and tiring day on the back of a motorbike, this isolated area’s beauty in the twilight was breathtaking. As daylight vanished, the little energy we had disappeared with it, and soon our hard mattresses beckoned.
The following day at dawn we were forced to start our return journey, which would have us back on the noisy and crowded streets of Hanoi by nightfall. Despite one bad fall, aching limbs and a tally of almost 450km of dirt trails on the back of a relic of the Soviet Union, it was tempting to keep following the trail southwards, retracing the route that the guerrillas took all the way down to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.
EXPERIENCING THE TRAIL
Trips along the Ho Chi Minh Trail can be organised by tour operators like Explore Indochina (www.exploreindochina.com) and Ride Ho Chi Minh Trail (www.ridehochiminhtrail.com). Prices start at around S$124/ A$97 per person per day, complete with equipment, guides, accommodation and food.
Some riders choose to go it alone, buying bikes in Hanoi (prices range from about S$600-$900/A$500- 700) and then selling them at the end of the journey for a few hundred dollars less. Those keen to make the trip on their own will also need to purchase waterproof clothing, saddlebags, maps and helmets, and would do well to buy padded bike gloves and jackets in case of accidents.
The whole route can be done from north to south or vice versa, with around 14 days needed to do the entire trip, though smaller sections of the trail can be done in just a few days.
Northern Vietnam can be cool and damp during the winter months – November to April – with temperatures in and around Hanoi falling to about 15°C. The same months are probably the best time to visit the south, with drier weather and temperatures averaging 25-30°C. Those travelling the whole route are likely to experience diverse weather conditions and should prepare for most eventualities.
Bike helmets, jackets, water- proofs and warm clothes are recommended as conditions vary greatly. Basic medical supplies are also recommended as even without falls, riders are likely to experience blisters, mosquito bites and other minor annoyances. Food and water can be purchased along the trail.
Hanoi has plenty of places – regardless of the size of your budget – with prices starting at about S$6/A$5 per night at hostels in the Old Quarter. At the Sofitel Legend Metropole, located in a French colonial- style building on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, rates start at S$299/A$235 per night. www.sofitel.com
Mai Chau is home to many guesthouses, with villagers seeing the benefit of offering rooms to those who make the challenging journey here. Simple beds can be had for S$6/A$5 per night and most places will have vacancies for walk-ins. For those looking for a more upmarket option, the Mai Chau Lodge offers stylish rooms with great views starting at S$118/A$92 per night. www.maichaulodge.com
Once you leave Mai Chau, the accommodation options are more limited, which means it’s best to plan your trip with a tour company if you aim to stay in smaller villages like Ban Hieu.
Tiger Trails magazine (Singapore)