Road to Ho Chi Minh City – 2 of 4
By Mac McCall
Leaving the crowded streets of Hanoi behind us, our route south followed quiet rural roads, often interrupted by herds of inattentive water buffalo. By nightfall on day two, we arrived in the town of Thanh Hóa.
There was little in the provincial capital enticing us to linger, and a slight sense of urgency nagged at us. We had almost 1,000 miles to cover before we reached Ho Chi Minh and little more than three weeks to do it. Over fried noodles at a hotel restaurant, we surveyed the map and decided to strike 220 miles south to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, a move which would take us away from the coast and into the rural interior. Our route would follow the coastal highway, 1A, before pivoting inland and joining 1A’s shy country cousin, the Ho Chi Minh Road. This would take us through the Annamite Mountains and to our destination, the Easy Tiger Hostel, a favorite stop for travelers passing through the park.
Given traffic, stops for gas/food/water, and rougher terrain ahead, it would take most of the daylight hours to make the journey before nightfall. Waking early, we caught the waning fourth quarter minutes of the NFC Championship game just in time for Chris, a lifelong Saints fan, to witness the missed pass interference call of the century and the ensuing Saints loss. Shortly before dawn we hit 1A, making incredible time at Sean’s furious pace. Chris notched the first wreck of the expedition when a Vietnamese motorist veered abruptly across his path. Although bruises were undoubtedly already developing, his immediate injuries fortunately amounted to mere road rash. Soon after, Chris and I separated from Austin and Sean.
Joining the Ho Chi Minh Road, we raised our eyes to storm clouds brooding above the distant hills. As we climbed in elevation, the temperature plummeted and the storm’s opening salvo of rain battered our visors. Soon we were riding in a torrential downpour. The roadside villages periodically passing by through the grey rain curtain slowed, and then eventually ceased altogether as we entered the backcountry. Even the hitherto omnipresent rice paddies faltered and failed, giving way to green forests blanketing the gathering hills. Now thoroughly soaked, Chris and I stopped, changed into rain gear, and filled our tanks.
A cold, wet haul through the heart of the Annamite Range still stood between us and Phong Nha. The Annamite Cordillera runs like a scoliotic spine along the length of Vietnam and has long been remote and inaccessible. For most of the country’s history, the Vietnamese people overwhelmingly kept to the coastal lowlands and left the highlands to the mountain tribes. Due to either the sparse population or the weather, all other traffic had abandoned the road and we tore through switchbacks reminiscent of those in the Appalachians. Despite the permeating cold and unremitting rain the ride was exhilarating. Towering karst formations rose suddenly from swirling mists and then faded back into oblivion behind us like men-of-war sailing through impenetrable fog. At one point we fell in behind another motorist, obviously a local, taking his line on every turn as he navigated the winding roads with veteran speed. After following his lead for several miles, he downshifted and waved us onward, shooting us a beaming smile as he did so. He couldn’t have been more than 14 years old.
We eventually descended into flatter terrain and knocked out the remaining miles to Phong Nha, reaching the Easy Tiger around six. We remarkably arrived within five minutes of Sean and Austin, despite only seeing them once since we separated in the morning. Sean had wrecked during the assault on the Annamite Range when a steel barrier caught him riding a little above his experience level. We guzzled warm Vietnamese coffee and more than a few Tiger beers to celebrate our arrival.
We would stay a few days in Phong Nha, recuperating and exploring the surrounding countryside. We’d made great time and were ahead of where we planned to be. Nestled amidst the mountains, Phong Nha is informally known as the “Kingdom of Caves,” and for good reason. The hollow limestone surface below contains hundreds of cavernous passages including the largest cave in the world. Reflecting the lack of Vietnamese presence in the mountains, the caves were effectively unknown to the outside world until the 1990s. To this day, approximately 40 percent of the area remains unexplored and is speculated to contain remnant populations of the Indochinese Tiger.
Here, while the wounds of Vietnam’s conflicts have largely healed, their scars remain visible. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Government moved supplies and armaments south to communist insurgents (the Viet Cong) by means of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads and footpaths in the Laotian border region. U.S. aircraft frequently peppered the areas surrounding the trail with ordnance in unsuccessful attempts to stem the southward flow of supplies. Laos, just across the border, earned the dubious honor of the most bombed country in the world as a result of these sorties. Today, bomb craters remain visible throughout Phong Nha. Of more concern, vast quantities of UXO (unexploded ordnance) remain and often prove deadly to farmers. In this respect, the last casualties of the Vietnam War have yet to occur.
As we left Phong Nha and moved southward, we continued to see traces of armed conflict. We crossed the old DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the artificial border dividing North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975, and anything but demilitarized. Here, we visited the Vịnh Mốc Tunnels, where an entire village moved underground to escape incessant bombing. That evening we stopped in Huế City, where emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty held court during Vietnam’s territorial apogee in the late 1800s. The imposing moats and battlements of the surrounding citadel testify to the might of imperial Vietnam while the intricate architecture of the interior Imperial City attests to its artistic ability. These relics of a glorious past contrast vividly with the lingering evidence of 20th century conflict. After communist forces captured Huế during the 1968 Tet Offensive, U.S. artillery destroyed much of the citadel in the ensuing attempt to retake it. Today, glimpses of past grandeur are tempered by the reality of bombed-out structures and grassy thoroughfares.
After a night in Huế, we set out to conquer the Hải Vân Pass and enter central Vietnam. While riding on a beach road, Chris hit a patch of loose gravel and violently spun out of control, sending his torso over the handlebars and smashing into the ground. We quickly dragged him and his bike from the road. It was immediately apparent that his shoulder was at the very least dislocated. While I administered cigarettes and painkillers, Austin and Sean found a doctor, who advised transporting Chris to the Huế General Hospital for a full evaluation. Upon arrival, he was diagnosed with a separated shoulder. Largely unable to move his right arm, Chris bid farewell to his motorbike. We’d have to find alternative means of transportation to move him south as we continued to Ho Chi Minh.