On the War Path in Indochina
A motorbike adventure down the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail in the backwaters of two war-torn nations, Vietnam and Laos, is not for the faint hearted, but ultimately it’s an experience like no other, writes Connla Stokes.
On his first day riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail 35-year old Swiss national Ray Schorer, more used to gliding down smooth Alpine roads on his trusty chopper, crashed crossing a dike in a paddy somewhere south of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The handlebars of his Honda XR 250 speared and broke some toes, and he also busted a rib in the fall.
“Crashing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail makes for a cool battle story now, but it was really embarrassing then,” Ray admitted.
That night Ian, one of Ray’s four travelling companions, offered some Aussie-style sympathy: “Hey, you know what you can take for that?”
Ray looked up hopefully, “No, what?”
They’d need a few cans of that to go around as the tumbles kept coming. Another rider, Bob Mason, a private detective from Seattle, US, crashed in the paddies the next day. With petrol leaking all over him, he leaped up and cut the engine. “In the sudden silence, I heard the bamboo swaying in the wind,” he recalled. “It was humming like a violin, creaking like a sailboat and strangely calming.” The same day another Aussie, Stefan Berthelot – a highly experienced motocross rider – was run over by a light tractor. He reacted by jumping up to calm down the traumatized tractor driver.
“Every time I fell, I’d spring up as quickly as possible as if it would somehow stave off any injury,” Bob said. “I’d also jump back on my bike so no one would see. At the end of the trip, everyone admitted they’d been doing it.”
But minor scrapes and bruised egos are the least of your worries riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the legendary military supply route that sustained Vietnam’s war effort against the US Army from the early 1960s through 1973. Rule number one is, “Do not stray off the path.” Here’s why: Determined to wipe the trail off the face of the earth, the US dropped more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance on Laos in 580,000 bombing missions. At least 270m cluster bomblets were dropped and approximately 80m failed to detonate. That’s why in this neck of the woods, Laotian kids learn nursery rhymes that warn against touching random metal objects (30% of victims are under the age of 12). There are official and unofficial clearance workers. International NGOs send in experts to clear unexploded ordnance, but locals also gather what they can to sell as scrap, risking their limbs and lives for a fistful of Lao kip or Vietnamese dong.
Along the trail you will also pass more photogenic and less threatening vestiges from the war: US helicopters, empty bomb shells, fuel drums and other vintage munitions, all rusting away in the wild. You might even spot a house built on cluster bomb casings or a boat made out of massive jettisoned aircraft fuel tanks. “It’s hard to put in words,” said Ray, who finished the trip in spite of his broken bones, “but the trip really put a lot of things in perspective and changed my outlook on life. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thought of this ride.”
“The ride in Laos was rugged,” Bob recalled. “There are countless steep descents into river crossings and steep ascents on the other side. It was like going cross-grain
through a corduroy landscape. Half-measures didn’t work; you needed to pin the throttle.” Or, as their tour leader, Digby Greenhalgh, always tells anyone floundering in a deep ravine, “You gotta drive it like you stole it.”
Let’s call that rule number two.
As the trail was an integral part of a secret war (neither the US or Vietnamese armies were officially in Laos), don’t expect to pick up a tourist-friendly map or see signposts along the way. This is a cloak-and-dagger jigsaw that Digby – a native of Canberra and an off-road pioneer in Vietnam – has spent years putting together through consulting military maps, books and good, old fashioned exploration. “It’s only possible in dry season (mid-November to May). Even the Vietnamese soldiers packed up their gear and went home in rainy season during the Vietnam War,” Digby said.
Don’t think of the trail as an A to B route. It was more like a series of trails that ran down the Truong Son Mountain Range in Laos with numerous infiltration points back into Vietnam. The Laos trails are the ultimate challenge but there are less demanding – and no less fascinating – routes on the Vietnamese side of the border. Driving on a 650cc Soviet era Ural through Phuong Nha Ke Bang national park toward Khe Sanh in Vietnam, Bob Mason – on his second tour of duty – didn’t see a single vehicle for 9 hours straight. “By unspoken consensus, the riders spread out until we were out of one another’s sight. It was a surreal, dream-like experience – riding seemingly alone for hours on end through endless green jungle and mountains. I can’t imagine where else in the world you could have an experience like that.”
You may ride alone, but an intense camaraderie is invariably forged on such biking adventures. Ray describes the other riders in his group as the best imaginable company: “and these were guys I’d never even met before”.
“I rode with a really great bunch of guys; there were no whiners,” said Wayne Herbert, who joined another expedition led by Digby through Laos. Canadian by birth but an American citizen during the draft, Wayne missed the war in Vietnam “by fluke” but wanted to somehow experience what the soldiers experienced, “minus the shooting, of course”.
“This is a huge challenge and it’s unscripted,” Wayne said. “But you survive, you thrive. We talked about making a movie or a picture book, but to a man all of us agree that pictures don’t do justice to what we experienced.”
He would have his first serious spill freewheeling down a mountain on the second to last day. He fractured an ankle and tore some ligaments, but while limping back towards civilization he’d never felt so alive.
Trips can be tailored to meet driving levels or time constraints.
All images courtesy of Digby Greenhalgh
Boom Magazine (Australia)