By Robert T. Lewis
When I found out from Neil Mishalov that Rick Bauman of Cycle Vietnam was offering a Mountain Bike Tour of the Ho Chi Minh Trail my instant reaction was “WOW! I’ve got to do that”. I signed up immediately on hearing I could be in the first group leaving Jan 1, ’95.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads, trails and paths through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, existed before but was greatly expanded during the Vietnam War and played a very significant role as the main supply route for the North Vietnamese Army. In spite of great effort the US was unable to disrupt it.
The original itinerary was to take us from Danang north along the coast to Dong Ha then inland on highway 9 into Laos. We would then go south through the center of Laos and back into Vietnam at Kon Tum.
However, there were so many last minute dropouts that Rick offered an alternate itinerary; start in Hanoi with his road tour down the coast but split inland at Danang through Kon Tum, Play Cu and Buon Ma Thuot. This left out Laos, and therefore most of the Trail, but would allow me to visit North Vietnam as well so I agreed to the change.
After touring Hanoi and environs, 22 of us headed south January 18th on Vietnam’s main road, national highway 1, a narrow two lane bumpy road mostly paved and marked every kilometer with a stone giving the distance from China. If you don’t see these stones you’ve missed a turn. Rick used them to locate water stops, lunch etc. Actually food and water were never a problem. Every other structure seems to be a small shop selling water, beer, fruit, and crackers. The people seem to eat well, as all kinds of food were available in abundance.
The ride out of Hanoi was a double rush, fast (avg. about 22 mph) with lots of motorbikes, buses and trucks. Most drive on the right but, as Bruce Weber the New York Times reporter along on the trip remarked “unlike Americans they are not fanatical about it”, many coming at you from all directions, particularly at intersections. You quickly learn; don’t be tentative yet yield to faster vehicles. Your dead if you stop. Somehow it seems to happen. I kept asking myself “am I really doing this?”
As an American in lycra shorts and bright shirt on a fancy bike, you are constantly the center of attention. Fortunately, the Vietnamese proved to be very friendly, forward yet not aggressive, with no evidence of hostility from the war. Surprising, since we dropped some millions of tons of bombs on them. The Vietnamese feel the war was over a long time ago. There are dogs everywhere and may run across the road at anytime. When they get hit there is an argument about who gets the body, the guy who killed it or the owner. Fortunately I never hit one. In fact somehow I managed not to crash or fall during the whole trip.
Just north of the former demilitarized zone I took a side trip to the tunnels of Vinh Moc. I rode in alone on a packed but rutted dirt road about 10 miles, not knowing for sure just where I was going or how I would recognize these “concealed” tunnels when I got there. At intersections I would ask a local “Vinh Moc?” One would point one way, another would say “no no” and point to the other.
Vinh Moc, a primitive village opposite Con Co Island in the South China Sea used to land supplies from China, was so heavily bombed that the Vietnamese rebuilt it underground. For years up to 1200 lived in these 4 1/2 ft tunnels. Women and children were never allowed out. They were safe from ordinary bombs but dreaded the drilling bomb. The only direct hit fortunately was a dud but I could still see its remains in a side tunnel when I took the 30 minute flashlight tour guided by Nguyen Quang Chuc, a slight gentle man who lived in the tunnels when he was a child. The land above is littered with bomb craters.
Because of this side trip, I arrived in Dong Ha after dark and couldn’t find the hotel but on asking some kids where it was they said “oh we’ll show you” and led me there. I had the only bike with a light.
At Danang the Ho Chi Minh Trail group, now expanded to thirteen as some of the roadies decided to join in, left the road group and headed inland on highway 14, part of the Trail during the war. The first few miles are paved but on crossing a river, it turned to rocks, mud and puddles. This proved to be the hardest riding of the trip. There was always the choice, the rocks or the puddle? At first, not knowing the depth, puddles were taken slowly but before long it was charge right through. Fortunately no problems, even though I was riding slick Fat Boy tires.
After about a mile of rocks, two rider’s on Bike Fridays had enough because their drive trains were constantly bottoming. This type of bicycle, while easy to travel with and ok on paved road, proved unsuitable here. This left eleven hardy souls to continue along with two land cruisers and a truck for gear.
That afternoon I had my only uncomfortable experience when some drunken teenagers celebrating Tet grabbed me and tried to get me to drink with them. Fortunately, I was able to convince them to let me go. Occasionally someone would ride by on a motorbike carrying an AK-47, presumably used for hunting. I found it could be a little scary alone in the jungle there and was glad when I came upon our truck about an hour later. Since I still had 15 miles to go and it was now 4 PM, I realized that, at the rate I was going, I would not reach the guest house before dark. I definitely did not want to be out there alone after dark so I stayed with the truck.
At Play Cu, there is a paved road back to highway 1, so five more said “enough” and hired their own vehicle back to the coast. It was too bad for them because the best jungle lay a couple of days ahead. This left six, including Rick and myself, to continue.
The road from Play Cu to Buon Ma Thuot is good smooth pavement over rolling hills and it was a pleasure to be able to get up some speed again.
From Buon Ma Thuot we headed south to Lak and Dong Krola though extraordinary bamboo jungle. Unfortunately, the distance we had to cover was so long that we ended up riding in the land cruisers through the best part, a section we nicknamed the bamboo tunnels, in some places so thick we had to cut away bamboo with machetes to get the vehicles through.
Overall, it was an intense, demanding trip both physically and mentally. There were many 100 mile days. I’ve mostly recovered, but my right hand still doesn’t quite function properly, I guess from nerve damage. It’s not too bad considering the epic experience. At the least, I can still ride my bike.