02 Aug Cycling the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Cycling the Ho Chi Minh Trail Part One: Partying with the Police
From Dong Ho it is only a short skip and a hop to reach the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Or at least one of the many former Ho Chi Minh Trails that has been converted into one of the most pleasant roads in South East Asia to cycle on. This one is going to lead us to the Phong Nha National Park.
For the next few days we will be bicycle touring where over 40 000 North Vietnamese Soldiers and farmers worked under the harshest conditions in a dense, tropical jungle. During the war it was their job to keep thousands of miles of supply roads and fake supply roads clear so weapons, supplies, and troops could be brought to Southern Vietnam. The soldiers were not allowed to return home unless they either A). won the war, or B). their bodies made it home and were buried. This philosophy made the Northern Vietnamese Army very resourceful in their tactics…because most everybody wants to go home sooner rather than later or never.
In an effort to cut the supplies and troops off from northern Vietnam the US forces decided to destroy the thick, green jungle canopy that was hiding anything on the trails. The famous Agent Orange was used to expose what ever used the trail. Although, defoliating the jungle did not win the war, it would leave its mark for generations to come.
Today, the trail is far from being a jungle-infested, war-zone-supplying, deathly battle ground.
Today it is one of the hidden gems in Vietnam and a cyclist’s paradise.
The road is fairly new and there are many signs pointing to historical points of interest along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Unfortunately the signage is all in Vietnamese and we can’t read any of the information. A little translator app would have definitely come in handy here.
There is hardly any traffic on the trail, which translates into a honk-and beep-free bicycle ride through a beautiful hilly countryside. Children and grownups wave at and greet us with big smiles as we cycle through several small villages and stop for snacks and sugarcane juice. Eventually, we encounter more rolling hills and find ourselves surrounded by more stunning mountains.
Eventually, we make it to a small town with a guesthouse. Since it is already late and getting dark, we stop and get a room. After another luke-warm shower, we head out to grab a bite to eat. Down the road is just the right place to get a good meal of rice, beef, and veggies.
“Where are you from?” A gentleman at the next table asks.
The man comes over with two beers, hands one to Ron and with a “cheers” drinks the entire beer like it is a shot of Schnapps and waits for Ron to do the same. We come to find out, he used to work in Europe for a couple of years and speaks very good English.
At the other table, a group of young men are starting their meal and they have a few boxes of beer stacked up. Looks like a party is about to happen.
Everybody is cheery, the English speaking man translates between us and the other group and before we know it, one of the young men comes over with a beer and a cup, hands Ron another beer and downs it like a shot glass…Ron follows suit.
After a few more “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo” (One, Two , Three…Vietnam Cheers), we find out the group of guys consists of off-duty policemen. Eventually, one of the guys brings over a plate with food. Since the English speaking gentleman had already left, we are playing travelers-charades, trying to figure out what’s on the plate. Ron gets waved over to the table to join the party with the policemen and gets to eat fried baby bird and squid…but who cares what’s on the table after a few more rounds of beer-shots?!
Cycling the Ho Chi Minh Trail Part Two: Extra miles to Phong Nah
Despite having a few extra beers the night before, we manage to be back on the road at a pretty decent time in the morning. With only a cup of coffee and a snack to eat, we decided to grab real food once we are back on the Ho Chi Minh. About 8 miles down the road, we find a small family restaurant that serves rice, pork, and eggs for breakfast. After our bellies are filled and we get ready to jump on the bikes again, Ron notices that his Crocks are missing.
Since lounging around in hiking boots is not his idea of comfort, he decides to ride back to the guesthouse, where he left his Crocks. Jessi and I opt to just wait at a small cafe, have a cup of delicious Vietnamese iced coffee and tea. While we are waiting, we meet two other guests. The guys are two very tall German tourists who are traveling North on motorbikes. Being tall is a rarity in the town, so there are plenty of locals that want to have a picture taken with them.
In the meantime, Ron is trying to find a shortcut back to the guesthouse. He finds one that takes him back on the busy highway. As he is climbing under a barrier to get on the road, he finds a 100 000 Dong (about $5 US) bill. At first he thought it was another “dead-people-money-bill”, but quickly confirms its authenticity and stashes it in his pocket.
As he finally makes it back to the guesthouse and asks for his Crocs, the Lady of the house has to go find them in another room. Apparently, they were already re-purposed as shower shoes for future guest. She apologizes and hands them back to Ron.
After another 8 miles of riding, he returns and proudly presents his Crocs and the bill and has a well deserved cup of coffee before we continue our bike ride along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Our path leads past many more rice fields. While there are a lot of scooters and bicycles parked on the thin strips between the fields, there is a lot of hustle and bustle going on in the rice patties. We watch the farmers skillfully place the new crop into the water-filled parcels. Hunched over with their rice-patty hats protecting them from the sun, they fill in row after row by hand. Some of them wave at us, others laugh when they see us and wave us over and invite us to help with their work. We wave back and continue our ride along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Phong Nha National Park, where we plan on spending a little extra time.
If you made it this far, you may like our other stories about cycling Vietnam. Click here