The ride from Da Nang to Khe Sanh had been an incredibly satisfying journey, but the most anticipated part of my tour was still to come: The Ho Chi Minh Trail. My plan for the Trail would cover three days and carry me more than 240 kilometers before turning off onto a different highway for the final 85 kilometers back to Da Nang. Not quite the 2000 kilometers that I would like, but we take what we can get, don’t we?
The first day out of Khe Sanh was a 95 kilometer trek to A Rong Tren, a small crossroads town in the mountains a few kilometers from the Laos border. The sky was cloudless and temperatures were pushing well into the 20’s by breakfast time so I knew that, like yesterday, it was going to be a hot day. Hot sunny days are the most challenging days because they tend to drain your energy. Proper hydration and regular rest stops are key to conserving energy, but no matter what you do, 30+ degree days under the glaring sun are going to suck a lot of life out of you. This difficulty was compounded by the residue of an unexpectedly long and alcohol filled evening the previous night in Khe Sanh wherein myself and others were kidnapped and dragged smiling into a street side karaoke party by some horribly friendly Vietnamese people celebrating the Tet holiday and forced by the twisting of our rubber arms to drink large quantities of beer! Anyway, the results of that long and wonderful night were going to make for an even more difficult day. But as the folks I worked with on pipeline in Alberta used to say, don’t stay out late with the boys if you can’t get up with the men. Onward I trudge!
After a quick stop at the morning market for supplies I hit the road. The first 8 kilometers were the same 8 kilometers that I climbed at the end of the previous day and were straight down hill. This easy cruise provided a more relaxing opportunity to soak in the scenery of deep river valleys coursing around the tall jungle coated mountains than the strenuous ride up the hill the previous day had provided. At the 8 k mark I took a sharp right turn and came to a bridge. I was on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I stopped for a moment to check my gear and equipment and take a moment to reflect and then struck out south bound along the Trail. It struck me as odd, but after that hundred meters or so of bridge, it felt like I had arrived in a different world, and in some ways I had. Life here was a quieter life, a simpler life. The further down the road I got the less heavy vehicles passed and the slower and easier the pace of life seemed to become. There were times when I went long stretches without hearing any motorized vehicle at all, not even a scooter or small motorbike. It was so peaceful that often the only sounds I could hear were my bike, my breath, and the wind in my ears. The lush green canopy of the jungle shimmered in the tropical sun. It was so dense that it looked impossible for water to penetrate it. At times, the song of countless cicadas was the only sound I heard as it washed over the jungle from left to right and back again, volume rising in the middle and falling off to a whisper at either end of the production, like a gentle wave whooshing up a sandy beach and falling away again, pulling whispering sand in it’s wake.
I arrived in A Rong Tren late in the afternoon after a beautiful 92 kilometer ride up and down the rolling hills of central Vietnam. I checked into the one motel in town with it’s windowless rooms, washed and found some delicious dinner. I was the only one at the restaurant and when I inquired if they were serving dinner the young man took me into the kitchen at the back where I chose my food right off the stove as his mother plated it for me. The food was delicious and I savored every bite as I watched the sun set below the high mountains to the west marking the border with Laos. After dinner I topped up my supplies, did a little reading, and went to bed early. It was a great ride but I was worn out from the hot temperatures. The next day was promising to hotter again.
I got an early start the next day and before long I was zipping down the highway fully refreshed by some great food and a great night’s sleep. As I worked my way down the Trail I made a few stops here and there to say hello to some friendly mountain people and take a few photos. One young village girl that I met spoke some basic English and got so excited by speaking that she would jump up and down, squeal, clap her hands, and spin in circles. She was such a joy. It was easy to tell that she was taking great pride in being able to conduct a basic conversation with me as others from the village looked on. The people seemed quite happy to have me there in their midst except the English speaking girls’ younger sister who stared at me intently with two of the most intensely beautiful eyes I have ever seen the entire time I was there. She never as much as cracked a smile. Like the others, she did wave goodbye as I left that little village with precious memories that will last me a lifetime. Or at least until senility steals them. And then came a big hill. Well, mountain, actually.
The temperature was already pushing into the high 20’s on it’s way to a high of 38 and it wasn’t long before I was drenched in sweat as I pushed up the mountain. For much of the climb fortune shone upon me as the mountain cast it’s shadow over me, helping me to conserve some energy and making the hot and difficult climb somewhat less onerous. As I neared the top, however, the shade dropped by the way side and I was soon baking in the most intense heat I had felt since the last time I stuck my head too far into the oven to check on a roast. I couldn’t believe it was possible to sweat so much! I carried 6 litres of water in my pack that morning as I left A Rong Tren, but if I had put water into me nearly as fast as it was coming out I would have exhausted my supply in no time. I wasn’t sweating. I was leaking! I think my fingernails were sweating! As my dear departed grandmother and grandfather Ryan would say, it was as hot as the hobs of hell.
About the same time I thought I must be running out of sweat to donate to the searing hot pavement, I reached the acme of the sweltering beast of a mountain. The next 12 to 15 kilometers of the trail were swift and twisty as I barreled down the mountain and onto the flat plain that would bring me to A Luoi. The high speeds of the descent coupled with a minimum of humidity had me pretty well dried off by the time I reached the bottom of the mountain, but it didn’t take long for the cruel late morning sun to bathe me in sweat again. The temperature was a wicked 38 as I pulled into town about noon time. I had only traveled 40 kilometers for the day but the next room was in Prau, 105 kilometers away. There was no way I was attempting to make it to Prau through the most difficult and mountainous part of my journey in this heat. So, I soon found a beautiful hotel for the night with a massive room that cost me $10. My room had a doorway to a semi private balcony. I immediately imagined an afternoon of lounging on the chairs there and reading my book under the comfortable shade in the cooling breeze. And that is exactly what I did… for about 20 minutes. And then I fell asleep for over 2 hours. After shaking the cobwebs, I went and had a look around town and soon bumped into a couple of high school students who turned the rest of my afternoon into an impromptu photo shoot. I took a few photos of them but I have no idea how many they took of me and with me. I can tell you it was a hell of a lot but it would be difficult to be more precise. We drank some tea and chatted for a while as they excitedly took advantage of the opportunity to practice the little English they had learned in school.
After tea we said our goodbye’s and I went in search of dinner, supplies, and a cold drink to enjoy while reading on the balcony before bed. Today was a short day kilometer wise, but plenty long enough given the heat. The forecast for the next day was once again sunny. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t break my heart if tomorrow were overcast. In the morning I was soon reminded to be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.