Thursday, March 24, 2011

Motorbiking Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietnam - an unforgettable travel adventure

The 125-cubic-centimetre engine of the scooter was screaming for forgiveness, throwing off so much heat it burned through my jeans, singeing my leg hair.

All morning I'd been mercilessly holding the throttle wide open, climbing hills so steep it seemed like the bike might die any minute under the weight of my wife and me. We maneuvered around potholes the size of bomb craters at full speed (which was about 80 kilometers an hour, downhill, with no wind), just trying to keep a faint trace of our guide's rear tire in sight as he pulled ahead effortlessly on his 250-cc Suzuki dirt bike.

Children on their way to school, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh Trail.

We finally caught up to our guide, Quang, on the other side of a long tunnel at the top of a mountain pass. He pulled over for a bathroom break in the thick growth that borders the road, explaining to us that, at that moment, on that deserted mountainside road, we were neither in Vietnam nor neighboring Laos but in between them both.

Two signs confirmed this -the one behind us that read Vietnam and the one 100 meters in front of us that read Laos. The fact that it was completely unguarded speaks to its isolation. Well, that and because no matter how far I looked out into the horizon, I saw nothing but green jungle and blue sky.

I tried to remember the last car we saw on the road, which would have been just outside of Da Nang, right before we pulled off the highway and on to five hours of back roads.

Riding a motorcycle on the storied Ho Chi Minh Trail was something I said I would do given the chance -if not for the sense of adventure at least to say I did it -but until we met Quang I never gave it much more thought.

But after traveling for half a day on endless mud roads through remote villages on a scooter that was clearly not meant for it and then hearing our trusted guide, a former soldier during the Vietnam War, tell us how easy it would be to make us disappear, I was beginning to wonder if we made the best choice.

If time isn't an issue, it's possible to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail all the way from Saigon in the deep south to Hanoi in the far north (this very trail, after all, was how the North Vietnamese army covertly shipped its supplies to the south during the Vietnam War). But since time was an issue for my wife and me, we decided to take the abbreviated tour from Da Nang to Hue.

To take the scenic route, however, through villages of thatch-roofed huts, past the most vibrant green rice fields you can imagine, around the infamous Hamburger Hill, up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and then back down a winding mountain road into Hue's city centre, takes three days.

Stunning view on Ho Chi Mịnh Trail,Vietnam

A benefit to having a guide is that he or she can act as a default translator. While it's not uncommon to hear English spoken in large touristy cities, in the mountains it's an entirely different experience. Menus will only be in Vietnamese, and they won't come with pictures like they do in Ho Chi Minh City. Since my Vietnamese is limited to ordering iced coffee, this proved invaluable and I was happy to partake in the many roadside coffee stops that Quang insisted on.

Well, I did go up in the mountains for an adventure (as well as a photo beside the Ho Chi Minh Trail sign). If you can call riding down a steep mountain incline, 1,000 meters above sea level in the middle of the jungle, pulling over every few minutes to dry heave while you swat flies the size of M&Ms off the back of your neck adventurous, then I guess I accomplished my mission.



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