Vietnam…an exotic country of breathtaking natural beauty with a unique heritage, where travel quickly becomes addictive. I’m truly grateful that I got to see it. You have beautiful nature, nice people, good food, and a culture much different from our own.
First off we took a flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi. We didn’t spend too much time in Hanoi, the capital city, because we really wanted to see the rural side of Vietnam. The plan was to reach South Vietnam and from there cross the border to Cambodia. We had a pretty good idea of how to travel after we had been in China and experienced traveling there, and figured out that doing so on our own was the best way to go. Renting a car isn’t cheap, so we decided to buy motorbikes instead. In the end it was actually the best idea.
We heard that the mountain paths of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail offer visitors of Vietnam a much better alternative to the well-worn coastal route – especially if you’re traveling on the back of a motorbike. This added to our other reasons: it isn’t as populated and full of tourists like the coastal way, the traffic isn’t so heavy, the scenery should be amazing, there are more opportunities to be in contact with the locals of Vietnam, and of course, it would be a fun challenge.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail has always been the stuff of legends, a seemingly endless number of backwater paths and trails that started near Hanoi and ran almost 2300 Kilometers down the length of the country, crossing into Laos at several points, and ending near Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) where it deposited weapons into the hands of the communist guerrillas fighting against US and Southern Vietnamese forces.
Despite intense aerial bombing the weapon caravans continued for years, and gave the Vietcong the means to continue the fight and eventually overcome the south’s resistance.
Neither Alina or I had ever driven a bike before. Most of the time we were driving so slowly and carefully that we couldn’t do more than 120 km per day.
We reached our first destination, Cuc Phuong (a national park), during the rainy season, so we didn’t manage to see any wildlife. However, we did get a glimpse into the life of the Vietnamese people. No matter how heavy the rain was, they carried on with their jobs. They had created water pipe systems made of bamboo and used the rain water in their kitchens and bathrooms.
In places like Hanoi they have their own culture, but it’s molded around tourists, so taking a less touristic route allowed us to see “the real Vietnam”. On our way to the South, we stopped in many places where they didn’t speak any English and the food we received was always a surprise. Our only concern was trying to avoid dog meat in our meals… but in the end everything was really tasty and healthy.
In the west part of Vietnam there are many national parks, so our next destination was Phong Nha. This place was a little touristy because of the cave systems there. A few years ago the biggest cave in the world was discovered in this park and according to some people, you could fit the entire Empire State Building inside it. You also need to have $3000 and book at least one year in advance if you wish to see it. Some other “smaller” caves are open for the people though, so we were fortunate to be able to see some.
From Phonm Nha we decided that we should check out the coastal part to see what it looks like. We started on our way to Hoi An and chose the Ho Chi Minh Highway West route.
The Quang Tri and Quang Binh provinces of Vietnam are the narrowest sections of the country. It is here where the Ho Chi Minh Trails were the most remote, the jungle was most dense, and also the most heavily bombed. Three important routes diverged just outside of the town of Phong Nha – Ho Chi Minh Highway East, Ho Chi Minh Highway West and Victory Road 20. Now that the days of heavy bombing are gone (but not forgotten), these are becoming popular and relatively safe paths to follow for travelers who want to ride motorbikes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, or vice versa.
Ho Chi Minh Highway West runs for 240km from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh, through one of the most dramatic and captivating regions of the country. The road bends and twists past steep karst mountains rising impossibly skywards. Raging torrents of water flow parallel to the well-maintained pavement. Every banked corner presents a different perspective on what beauty truly is. Riding the Western Ho Chi Minh Highway is not something that should be taken lightly. There is only one small village located along the entire route, meaning you will be a long way from help if something goes wrong. It takes one full day to ride the Ho Chi Minh Highway West and you will meet little or no traffic on the road, so we took extra diesel with us and the hope that our bikes wouldn’t break down.
40km before Khe Shan my bike got a flat tire and a storm was close around the corner. We stopped in an abandoned outpost from the war times and Memo left to look for a mechanic (that would hopefully be able to speak English). We had already settled our tent and made peace with the idea that we would sleep there for the night when finally the mechanic arrived and started fixing the flat tire. He didn’t agree with us spending the night alone in the jungle so with basically just hand gestures, he invited us to spend the night in his house. Little did we know what this would mean.
We ended up sleeping in his house/general store/workshop together with him, his family and 5 dogs. In the morning we thanked him, said our goodbyes and off we went in the South direction. One of the true pleasures of this route was having the chance to meet so many kind and generous Vietnamese people on our way.
Every city on our way to the South was more or less a traditional Vietnamese town. Some of the houses had a shop inside and were selling everything from coffee to gas. Alina and I fell in love with Vietnamese coffee. The taste of dark chocolate in it was amazing, and on top of that they mix it with condensed milk. It was a small bit of happiness on the rainy days.
Our last stop was Ho Chi Minh City, which was previously called Saigon. This city is quite a bit bigger than Hanoi and a little more modern. The metropolitan area, which consists of Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding towns, is populated by more than 9 million people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in Vietnam.
We spent our last 4 days in Vietnam there, and although we met many tourists we still found it charming.
On the fifth morning we headed to the border with Cambodia to try our luck crossing the bikes into the neighbouring country.
But I’ll get to that in the next post…
Gina – September Team 2014