By Robert T. Lewis
A tribal village on the way to the Central Highlands.
Returned Veterans playing frisbee on a part of the former Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A rest stop on a bridge crossing the "Trail." The man in the white tee shirt is a returned Veteran telling us about some of his experiences and how it felt to be back. The man in the purple on the right is Bruce Weber, a reporter for the N.Y. Times. His article appeared in the Times on March 1, 1995.
When I found out that 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 upon hearing I could be in the first group leaving January 1, 1995.
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 U.S. was unable to disrupt it.
The original itinerary was to take us from Da Nang 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 Da Nang through Kon Tum, Pleiku, 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 18, 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 foods were available in abundance.
The ride out of Hanoi was a double rush, fast (averaging 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 vehicles came at you from all directions, particularly at intersections. You quickly learn: don't be tentative, yet yield to faster vehicles. You're dead if you stop. Somehow it seemed 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 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 any time. 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, I managed somehow 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 for 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 the locals "Vinh Moc?" One would point one way, another would say "No, no" and point another.
Vinh Moc, a primitive village opposite Con Co Island in the South China Sea where supplies were landed from China, was so heavily bombed that the Vietnamese rebuilt it underground. For years, up to 1200 lived in 4 1/2 foot tunnels. Women and children were never allowed out. They were safe from ordinary bombs but dreaded the drilling bomb. Fortunately, the only direct hit 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 gentleman 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 Da Nang, 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, after crossing a river, it turns 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 depths, puddles were taken slowly; but, before long, it was charge right through. Fortunately, I had no problems, even though I was riding slick Fat Boy tires.
After about a mile of rocks, two riders 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. 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 p.m., 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 alone after dark; so, I stayed with the truck.
At Pleiku, there is a paved road back to Highway 1, so five more said "enough" and hired their own vehicle back to the coast. 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 Pleiku 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. Not too bad considering. Anyway, I can still ride my bike.
I plan to go back, not on Highway 1 again, but through the remote sections of Laos that formed the main parts of the Trail. Please contact me if you'd like to go along:
Robert T. Lewis
1046 Stannage Ave
Albany, CA 94706
By Bruce Weber