Easy Rider II – The Ho Chi Minh Trail

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There’s a magical feel when you climb on to a bike. You give her a nice kick-start, turn the throttle slightly and feel her purr to life, you release the break and burst forward. As the speed increases, you feel the bike getting louder when you shift up to the next gear, smoothly transitioning to greater speeds. The wind pushes against you like a physical force, whistling as it rushes through your helmet. You can feel and smell all the changes in the air as you ride through the country. Your clothes get coated in dust, pollen, and whatever else happens to be floating by. You can feel the temperature and humidity in the air. There’s no hiding in climate control, you are one with the environment and the sites you see. I feel when you are in the safety of a car it’s a little bit like T.V., you see stuff going on but you are a passive participant. On the bike though, you have a 360 degree view of the world. It’s the best way to truly see the country.

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Day 6 – Prao
260 km
Up bright and early, at 7 AM, and we meet our first westerner in a few days. He was from Canada, and had bought an old beat up motorcycle for two hundred bucks, and just hit the road. This was his third month in Vietnam, and was ready to try a new country. He was hoping to get across the border in Laos, even though he knew that his bike would not be legal there. He had forty U.S. dollars that he hoped would smooth the transition on the border. That is the way it’s done here, a bribe here, tip there. I love meeting people like this, makes my trip feel like a Caribbean Cruise, or Vietnam Cruise to be more specific.

We drove past our restaurant from the night before and pulled over to the side of the road. This was the official starting place of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but of course, we know that’s not really true. The trail system, not trail, was the main supply route in the Vietnam war for the North, going through parts of Cambodia and Laos. The trail was constantly changing, with new routes being created and dummy routes set up to confuse the Americans. Originally it was used by foot or by elephants, but near the end of the war they were using trucks. The jungle in this area had three layers of canopy, making it impossible for planes to see what was going on the ground. The only time that a truck would be in the open was when it crossed rivers. They even devised a system of bridges that were under the water, so no one could tell they were there.

Of course those hidden roads are now nicely paved roads, going through terraced rice paddies and mountainous jungles, perfect for the bike. Not only were we rising in altitude, but the scenery was so much more lush. Giant ferns began to appear, arching to the road, vines of all sorts were climbing every direction, reaching into the canopy of towering trees. It all made for an excellent ride, though exhausting. We passed many water falls, some small to little trickles to towering cascades. A river ran along the road for miles, tumbling down through numerous waterfalls and rapids. Spanning the river were more suspension bridges, some were beyond dodgy. Two woman were pushing a wheel barrow across a large span, and the wheels were constantly getting stuck in places the boards had gone missing. Two scooters were waiting to cross the same span, but the woman was really having a hard time. So finally one of the drivers went over to help. It took all three of them to get the wagon across the bridge. On the far side there were three of four little children waiting for their mother. Once clear, one of the scooters revved up and shot across the bridge as quick as he could, probably out of fear that the whole thing might break apart in pieces. The second scooter did it a different way, inching across the span, walking the bike. His face was very pale when he got across, and he probably does this twice a day. Well there was no chance I was taking my motorcycle over that.

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Mr. Chau brought us over some samples of Jack fruit to try. Jack fruit is similar to durian, one of my favorite snacks. Just kidding. It’s bigger by far than durian, some getting to be the size of a truck wheel. The taste is sweeter and not so obnoxious either, though there is a definite durian like taste too it and aftertaste. I could taste if for miles later.

After a few hours of riding on paved and partially finished roads, we pulled over to stretch our legs and have a coke. It was a small roadside business, really just a shack with some hammocks tied up in front under some trees. Nothing better than putting your feet up after a long day on the bike. The hammock was black and frayed, questionable for sure. I slowly sank into it, tensing for a rip, but nothing happened. So with a sigh, I closed my eyes and settled in. SNAP! Umphh! Like that, and I was sprawled out on the ground. No apologies from the owners, but a good laugh for all around. I guess it was not made for a fat American.

Evening came on us quickly, and I was getting run down. We were at a crossroads, and I thought he was trying to decide where we were going to go. Mr. Chau was walking really funny at this point, because he had been to riding frog like all day with the bags, and it was cramping him up badly. I insisted on taking one of the bags for safety issues, and he finally agreed. He had the cowboy walk down now for sure. I was certain that we were about to find our hotel, but Mr. Chau had other ideas. He knew a great village about fifty kilometers away, really beautiful. Well, he was our guide, so off we went. I had already started layering up because it was getting chilly in the mountains, and my new gloves were essential.

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We crosses a large damn, and started going straight up. There was some road construction going on, and we had to drive on deep gravel past all the equipment. There was a large transition from pavement to gravel, and as my bike switched surfaces, I lost my balance. We were not going fast, walking the bike really, but we went down anyway. Yvonne was able to hop off the bike, but I grabbed the throttle on accident, spinning the wheels and kicking up more gravel while we were on the ground, spinning the bike. The construction crew came and helped me get the bike up and Yvonne walked to where the road restarted. As Ewan McGregor says in Long Way Round, deep gravel can be the most dangerous thing to ride on, because of how unpredictable it is. If you like adventure stories, I highly recommend it or the DVD series.

Now thoroughly shaken by my little mishap, I was even more cautious driving. I was all tensed up, and night was coming. I did not even know how to get the lights working on the bike, and I was exhausted. As we were zipping up and down beautiful twisty roads, two tourists flew past me on their bikes. They were going at least twice my speed, on roads they did not know. I think this is dangerous and stupid.

Well we arrived in town after dark, and of course, the two hotrods got the last room in the hotel, so we were forced to stay in a boarding house clean enough with a family living there. The little girl was so funny, all of three years old and already speaking enough English to demand attention. The town was completely dead, with only two streets to the whole thing. We barely got dinner that night cause everything closed early.

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Day 7
170 km
In the middle of the night the worst sound imaginable started blasting into our room, Vietnamese political propaganda. Not sure why in the middle of the night it was so loud, or even on, but my ears were hurting and my head ready to explode. To say I was on the edge of an explosion my self would be an understatement. Then an hour later it stopped, only to start-up again. It sounded like a mix of an exercise video with a totalitarian back ground to it. How on earth any one gets sleep here I do not know, so I was happy to get an early start and get the hell out of there. I would say at this point I was in need of a break, so I was excited this was the final bike day. Plus that cheeky little three-year old demanded a tip from us. Oh so very glad to put this town to my back.

What a surprising day it turned out to be, with a rough start, with some of the most lush beautiful vegetation yet, not to mention secluded small villages. It was all rolling hills with rice paddies and jungle vegetation, thatch roofed huts and water buffalo tilling the ground. We passed numerous villages with large traditional long houses at the center.

We stopped at a school and were instantly surrounded by a gaggle of girls taking pictures of us, posing with Yvonne, and practicing their english. It was such a nice feeling to be so welcomed. We never found out for sure, but it seemed like this school was an orphanage, with hundreds of kids living in thatched huts. They had a ball court in the middle, craft stations, and were in the middle of a big picnic when we stopped by. It was all very clean and orderly.

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After visiting the school we were off again, riding close behind Mr. Chau’s bike. A man was walking his cow down the road like we had seen dozens of times before when the cow just goes ape shit, charging across the road in front of Mr. Chau’s bike. The shepherd tried pulling back on the rope attached to the cows nose, but this actually made the cow flip over, almost knocking Mr. Chau off his bike. At the last-minute the cow got back under control, and out-of-the-way. Mr chau turned back to us looking pretty ashen and did the crazy cow signal when we both shouted for him to watch out as the road did a hard turn there. Mr. Chau drove off the road and into the bushes a bit but was able to get his bike back under control. A really close call that we all laughed at later.

After all the excitement we decided breakfast was in order, even though it was closer to lunch. We stopped at a small hole in the wall shop with plywood floors, beat up table with plastic chairs and one woman working in the back. We ordered a phô, which is a Vietnamese soup, and a warm coke. This soup was just amazing, the best we had gotten so far. Not sure what was in it, seeing how a lot of the ingredients were unrecognisable, but it was amazing.

We drove through a few more villages with kids running around, when a ball came rolling out. Me being the hot shot, I thought it was a good idea to swerve the bike and kick the ball back to the kid. What I ended up doing was nearly dropping the bike and Yvonne. It took some creative maneuvering to get the bike back under control. Yvonne gave me a wack to the back of my helmeted head and told me to not kill her messing around. Humph.

A little farther down the road, passing some picture perfect settings, a loud clanking noise emits from my bike. The clanking gets louder and all thrust disappears. We beep repeatedly for Mr. Chau, who continues on his merry way. I get off and see that the chain had broken off. Great! After a few minutes Mr. chau comes back to take a look. He then takes off again to go get help while we sit on the side of the road. Ten minutes later he returns with a mechanic on the back of his bike. How’s that for service. While the mechanic goes to work on my bike, Mr. Chau’s bike falls over breaking off a foot pad. What next? Well with a hammer, a screw driver, and a lot of banging the mechanic gets my bike back in working order. A very old lady walks past us all hunched over with a clutch of firewood on her back. She says something to the mechanic in Vietnamese then points to us. He then tells Yvonne and I not to sit in the grass cause parasites will borrow into our skin from the ground. Yep, time to go. By the way, it only cost us five bucks for the mechanic.DSC05595_2 SONY DSC

Sometimes, you just know it’s time to finish the trip, and now was that time. We drove a few more hours to Hoi An, a town which I did not have high hopes for, but was more than happy to get to. From what I had heard from other travelers, it was going to be dirty, dingy, too touristy, and expensive. How wrong I turned out to be.

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