It started off as a road trip just for two; Ben Mitchell from Phong Nha Farmstay and I. Yet by the time we departed Phong Nha in Quang Binh early one August morning, our ranks had swollen to eight.
Three Australians, two Brits, one German, one Irishman and one Vietnamese. I’d like to flatter myself that this sudden interest was because of the company. Perhaps it was partly so.
The other was definitely the journey itself, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail West now known as Highway 15. While Ha Giang is hands down the most beautiful province in Vietnam, when it comes to roads, the drive from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh in the next province down, Quang Tri, has to be the most stunning.
According to the United States National Security Agency's version of the war, the system of paths that made up the Ho Chi Minh Trail was “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century”. Used to transport both soldiers and supplies from north to south, look at the terrain that Highway 15, paved in the early 2000s, weaves through and you’ll understand the accolade.
Vietnam has over 90 million people, of whom the majority are squeezed into approximately 20 percent of the country’s land area. This means large swathes of this country are sparsely inhabited. But here, even sparse doesn’t describe what you see. For the first 80km there is not one house along the road. Not one ranger station, not one shop, café or gas station.
This is unadulterated countryside, a rural form of Vietnam made up of limestone mountains carpeted with green jungle, all but untouched. The hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers who would have plied this route would have found it treacherous.
The road, too, is representative of the terrain. Up and down, pass after pass, hairpin bend after ever-more-challenging hairpin bend, the going is slow. Yet riding a motorbike through the cool air of the mountain valleys with a backdrop of a world untouched by man is difficult to beat. It’s exhilarating.
The first sign of human life is at the junction with provincial highway TL563 at an area known as Rinh Rinh. Suddenly there is a trickle of motorbikes travelling the opposite way. Ten kilometres further on, the houses begin to appear, the ethnic minority stilt houses of the Van Kieu. And then after another 10km a village, Long Son. Yet almost as quickly as the presence of civilization appears, it disappears again, not re-emerging until we are 50km or so from Khe Sanh. This time it comes with livestock — buffalo, cows, goats, chickens and even pigs wandering along the road.
And finally Khe Sanh, the first real town in 240km. Located just 15km from the border with Laos, this dusty, end-of-the-road conglomeration of houses is best known for its wartime air base, Ta Con, which we plan to visit the next day.
Diary Entry #1: Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
We’ve been talking about heading to this waterfall we’ve been told about and now the three guys, including the midget, are heading off the road to the Promised Land. I’ll follow them, I tell everyone, and I get on my bike and drive down the track. But 1km in and my path is blocked so I park my bike and go on by foot. They show me the waterfall — tuyet voi, says one, amazing. But when I get there it’s just rocks jutting out of a flowing river. So I head back to the ranger station, but when I arrive, everyone else has left, also in search of the waterfall. I wait, wait and wait. They will be disappointed.
Day 2: Khe Sanh, Lao Bao, Dong Ha and Hue
There is an abandoned church in Quang Tri on the main road from Dong Ha to Hue. When we arrive, my memory is of the photos taken three years ago by our then staff photographer, Francis Roux. Bullet holes rip through the side of the church’s ornate walls and decorative carvings, and the building has lost its roof; today it’s at the mercy of the elements.
This for me is war; its ability to destroy all that’s good and beautiful. Even places of God get caught up in the carnage. And in this part of Vietnam, the strip of land north and south of the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), today the monstrous acts of more than 40 years ago continue to affect its people. There is so much unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the area that, for fear of digging up dangerous explosives, farmers only practice light farming — the main crop is acacia trees. And every year, while the numbers of fatalities are declining and organisations like MAG and Project Renew work to clear the land of munitions, scores of people either die or get injured through accidental contact with the UXO.
We start our second day on the road with another reminder of the past, this time the
brutality of colonisation. At Lao Bao on the border with Laos is a French-built prison that is off most tourist itineraries. The penitentiary is mainly in ruins now, but three of the old blocks remain, including the solitary confinement area. Most striking is a tree with thorns, a bit like a rose bush but with the spikes climbing up the trunk.
“Prisoners were made to climb up this tree as a form of punishment,” says our guide. I wince at the savagery.
Our next stop — with our numbers whittled down from eight to five, and later just two — is the former US Air Base at Ta Con in Khe Sanh. Filled with rusting tanks, helicopters, people carriers, munitions, an air carrier and a reconstructed bunker system, last time I visited there was a freshness to the place. Even the museum, with its photo imagery, models, maps and weapons, felt alive with history. Yet now the place is staid. No upgrades. No care. A bunker system overgrown with weeds. This should be one of the key war sites in the country, but it isn’t. It needs an overhaul.
And then, via the road to Dong Ha and an ethnic minority village given an NGO makeover that had failed to bring in tourists — even the hot spring baths, a key part of any visit, were cracked and out of use. Now lunch and then the church, Long Hung. Finally, in late afternoon, to Hue and into the Imperial citadel for dinner at Les Jardins de la Carambole. As I sit with my one remaining travel companion, Ben, we go over again and again the journey of the past two days. There are some road trips that lodge in your memory, some that you will hope to forget. Surrounded by the spectre of the past, this is one that will remain fresh.
Diary Entry #2: Speak Vietnamese, Why Don't You?
The receptionist in Khe Sanh just refuses to speak to me in Vietnamese, and every time I say something she replies in bad English. Terrible English. I know she wants to practice her language skills, but please, all we’re trying to do is arrange dinner. Please! Let’s just arrange it, okay? Don’t you get it? There’s a reason why so many foreigners have problems speaking your language. It’s because you make it so difficult for them. But no, she continues on.
Diary Entry #3: Pig Ears and Chao
The suckling pig arrives on the table, all skin, fat, bone and only a little meat. We start eating, then suddenly I realise I’m eating the ear. No, can’t do that one. For a second I want to retch and I subtly put the piece with ear it on it back on the sharing plate. I don’t want anyone to notice. Then the chao arrives, chao with seaweed, my saviour. But this is the Quang Tri version and instead of rice congee it comes with little, one-inch long pieces of oblong shaped, glutinous noodles. A bit like banh canh. We dig in. It’s delicious! I forget about the ear.
To read more articles in this story, please click on the following links:
The Motorcycle Diaries
The Far North
The Northern Loop
South of Hanoi
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Central Highlands
Into the Mekong
The Deep South