In 1968, at the age of 17, my father-in-law left his village outside Hanoi and climbed aboard a Russian-made truck bound for the Trường Sơn — the 12,000-mile warren of roads, paths and supply bunkers that criss-crossed the mountains of the same name.
The roughly half-million American soldiers, aid workers and military advisers in Vietnam knew it as the “The Ho Chi Minh Trail” — the logistical network that allowed North Vietnam to supply troops and materiel, via the neighboring kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia, to its army battling
the U.S. forces in the south. The fight lasted two decades and claimed around three million Vietnamese lives.
He only talks about it in odd, allusive fragments — as when I casually declared one night that I was hungry enough to eat an elephant. He scoffed: “You wouldn’t like elephant meat; it doesn’t have any flavor.”
The trail took him all the way to Siem Riep and, after the war, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where he settled and started his family.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s bloodied western flank returned to its original jungle state, occupied almost exclusively by tribal communities that subsisted, in part, by scavenging undetonated bombs for scrap.
In the year 2000, the Vietnamese government announced plans for a $2 billion two-lane highway through this forsaken part of the interior in an attempt to, among other things, encourage tourism. The Ho Chi Minh Road would one day connect the craggy Chinese border with the mud of the Mekong Delta, bisecting 10 national parks along the way.
This year, I decided to follow in his footsteps (in spirit, anyhow) and drive the road from north to south. In early March, I loaded my trusty Honda Win onto a train bound for Hanoi. I hoped to make it back down to Ho Chi Minh City before the 40th anniversary of Vietnam’s reunification on April 30th. Here’s how it went…
A TRAIN WRECK, A SURPRISE PARTY,
AND A WIN-WIN SITUATION
The journey up to Hanoi proved more eventful than expected. A train traveling in the opposite direction smashed into a truck in Quang Tri province, the dead center of the country, killing the conductor and sending four cars tumbling onto the northbound track.
That night the crew announced that there was no way to know when our train would move again. A few passengers hopped off; the rest gathered in the dining car for an unlikely bachanal. Backpackers and railway workers alike tucked into fried frogs and washed them down with warm cans of beer until the wee hours.
At some point I gave into sleep and woke shortly before we pulled into Hanoi. (The trip had taken 41 hours, ten of them taken up by the delay/party.) Doing my best to shrug off an epic hangover, I went to retrieve my motorbike.
Over the years of pulling up at stoplights on my Win, fellow riders have volunteered various pieces of more or less factual information: that it was manufactured in Japan around the time America lifted its post-war embargo, unleashing a decade of double-digit economic growth; that they used to fetch $1,000 in the Vietnamese capitol; that the mighty roar of its 100cc engine had been known to make young women swoon.
These days, the grasshopper-shaped beaters inspire little more than sneers. Old men with faces like raisins still give it the odd thumbs up, but Vespas and Harleys have captured the hearts of Vietnam’s newly moneyed consumers. Old Wins remain the bike of choice for Western backpackers, who usually acquire them for under $200.
AN OLD SOLDIER, A BONG HIT,
AND A BAMBOO BED
On day one, I tied up my gear, covered up against the dirt and sun, and drove off into the mountains.
Boredom hit me about 30 minutes outside Hanoi, so I pulled over at a little cafe under a bridge for some thuốc Lào (literally, “Lao medicine”) — a nicotine-heavy tobacco smoked out of communal bamboo bongs and chased with cups of lukewarm, diesel-flavored green tea. (If it doesn’t knock you out completely, this combination will help steel your nerves for the road.)
I was joined at the pipe by Long — a cattle farmer who spent six months marching to Saigon carrying an AK-47 and a 35lb pack. He hadn’t driven the new Ho Chi Minh Road. In fact, since the war ended, he hadn’t been farther than Mai Chau, to buy a water buffalo.
“There’s nothing beautiful about it,” he said of the village.
Just before sunset, I pulled over at a drink-stand overlooking Mai Chau to take in the jagged hills and glowing rice paddies and marvel at how wrong he’d been. The stand’s owner volunteered to close early and take me to a hamlet of stilt homes where families rented out bedrolls to tourists.
For $12, I bought myself dinner, a hot shower, and a spot in a cavernous bamboo dormitory decked out with mosquito nets and ceiling fans. As crickets roared in the background, I tried to picture my father-in-law somewhere in this valley, piling into a Soviet ZIS-5 and rumbling down a jungle road into uncertainty and danger — malarial mosquitos, 500-pound bombs and tigers.
PLANTATIONS, PIG HEARTS,
AND AN INDECENT PROPOSAL
I spent the next day getting deliberately lost on side-roads that meandered through dusty quarries and tranquil tea plantations. I planned to pick up the Ho Chi Minh Road somewhere near the town of Cam Thuy. Once I got there, a trio of tough-looking truck drivers invited me to join them for rice wine and a dinner of pig heart stir-fried in jungle herbs.
After the meal, I checked into a $10 room with a broken air conditioner and walls hung with erotic photographs.
During a walk along the river I encountered a man wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts and a gold chain, accompanied by three dogs. I accepted an invitation to visit his “coffee shop,” where he sat me at the end of a long row of wasp-infested outdoor stalls. After he wandered off, I was joined by a barefoot woman who looked about 20 years old. My host returned to announce that the girl would spend the night with me, at which point I noticed that the crude footprint tattoo on his right arm contained the outline of a naked woman.
As soon as he left, I told the girl I had a wife and would prefer to sleep alone, at which point she politely excused herself. Shortly thereafter, I heard an eruption in the kitchen. “He said he has a wife,” she squealed, eliciting thunderous laughter from all present.
STOMACH PROBLEMS, AN INTERVENTION FROM ST. JOSEPH,
AND A SECULAR ABSOLUTION
Between Hanoi and Danang, the Ho Chi Minh Road sees almost no commercial traffic and instead feels like a 1,000-mile parade route, where every man, woman, and child has been instructed to wave and cheer you toward your goal.
Every hour or so, I’d see a fellow rider zip by. Some wore nothing but bathing suits and flip-flops. Others had covered themselves from head to toe in Lycra and Gore-Tex. All were driving Wins loaded with backpacks.
The first travelers I actually spoke to were a Dutchman and a German who’d pulled over to consult their iPhones. The 20-somethings had met five weeks before in Saigon while taking motorbike riding lessons.
Their bikes had treated them well — as had everything else, with only one exception. “It’s my stomach,” moaned the German girl. “It’s an ongoing problem. I’ve tried everything.”
The stomach is, indeed, the worst thing to have break down on this highway, where most bathrooms consist of holes in the ground.
I was soon having my own problems, having abandoned my initial safety diet (white rice and water) in favor of beer and whatever looked interesting.
My guts began to twist and turn in a valley full of pastures and paddies, forcing me to make way toward the Cathedral spire jutting out of a village called Nghia Thanh. Upon arrival, a young man welcomed me from a rectory balcony and showed me to an immaculate facility where I had what can only be described as a religious experience.
Father Hoa, the pastor, invited me to stay as long as I liked.
“A guest is a grace,” he said, before handing me the key to a tidy room where I showered, changed and ran out to catch the tail end of his homily.
Later, over a bottle of California merlot, some fried pork belly, mixed greens and fetal duck eggs, I decided to confess my agnosticism.
He didn’t seem to care.
“We’re all brothers of humankind,” he said.
After we’d made inroads into a fruit plate, Father Hoa went to find his black robe and invited me to accompany him to the neighboring cathedral for “a ceremony.” Soon, we were racing up the road in his tiny car.
Some 300 faithful had amassed in the darkness, waiting for him. The women wore flowing silk tunics, the men freshly ironed shirts. The whole village would carry a collection of electrified icons of their patron, Saint Joseph, while chanting hymns, beating drums and burning candles through the night.
As the procession wound through the darkened rice fields like an iridescent centipede, a warm, fuzzy feeling gave way to a… panicky, my-insides-are-turning-to-liquid feeling. I dropped back among a small group of boys pushing a gas-powered generator on wheels.
An excited teenager began interrogating me in broken English.
“Where are you from?” he cried, clapping me on the shoulder. “What’s your name?”
I plastered a painful grin on my face for a time. And then finally grabbed him by the collar. “Get me to a toilet,” I hissed. “Now!”
A man shot forward out of the dark, seizing me by the elbow and yanking me away from the growing crowd of good Samaritans.
“This man has diarrhea!” he announced as we barged through the gate of a nearby farm. A woman washing dishes pointed to a concrete outhouse with two bricks arranged over a hole.
“I can’t,” I said, ready to cry.
Saint Joseph himself must have relayed the urgency of my predicament, because I was wordlessly whisked to yet another farmhouse — this one with a bright, white, Western-style commode. In a matter of 30 seconds, I had broken a towel rack, but solved all my other problems. I stepped out onto the porch holding the twisted tin bar.
“No shame,” the farmer said, waving a hand from side to side. “Vietnam. No shame.”
CAVES, LEECHES AND WORLD-CLASS CARE
I was eager to get to Quang Binh Province, where limestone Karsts mark the jungle-shrouded system of caves that once sheltered North Vietnamese fighters.
These days, foreign spelunkers spend as much as $3,000 on week-long treks through Son Doong, recently designated the largest cave in the world.
All that cave cash has brought an unlikely boom to the edge of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. The Easy Tiger, the town’s towering three-story backpacking hostel, has inspired two imitators in the past year alone, and the town’s main street now abounds with signs advertising cold beer, bike rentals, rooms and cave-related adventures.
A mere $10 bought me a comfortable bunk far from the fracas, at the Lake House, where I whiled away an afternoon floating in an empty swimming pool and paddling around in a leaky canoe. Beyond the placid green waters out back lay some of the greatest natural resources Vietnam had to offer. But they had to compete with the equally world-class charm factor of the Lake House staff.
After returning, muddy and bleeding, from a rainy two-day slog into Hang En Cave — the world’s third-largest — they stopped up my leech bites with wads of tobacco and hid my laundry so I’d spend an extra day eating with them on a mat in the kitchen.
To travel properly in Vietnam you must rely on the kindness of hosts like these.
BANDITS, AN ELEPHANT AND A GLASS OR TWO OF BIRD WINE
South of the national park, the Ho Chi Minh Road road splits in two.
The Eastern leg runs close to Dong Hoi, the provincial capital on the coast, and is replete with luxuries. The lonesome Western stretch cuts a slow meandering path to Khe Sanh through 150 miles of waterfalls, mist-covered landscapes, and once-remote ethnic minority communities where children now grasp for 35kph high-fives.
Fog cascades down these mountains like hot marshmallow fluff and a damp mist always finds its way through your zippers and button holes.
Things tend to get weird on this stretch.
At one point, a group of naked children wielding bamboo pop guns blocked my way.
“Give us money!” they barked in Vietnamese. “Give us candy!”
After I’d relinquished $3, they waved me on. “Đi đi,” the ringleader said, using the Vietnamese equivalent for “fuck off.”
Later, I stopped to watch an elephant loaded with chains being chased down the road by a man armed with nothing but a vaudeville-worthy hook. An old woman selling petrol from a giant plastic jerry can just rolled her eyes.
My odyssey ended in the moody hilltop town of Khe Sanh.
Around the time my father-in-law enlisted in the army, the US dropped over 100,000 tons of explosives — equivalent to five Hiroshima-sized A-bombs — during a campaign to preserve a Marine base here that it abandoned a month later.
When Fidel Castro held a press conference in Khe Sanh in 1973, the Vietnamese papers reported that he saved a woman’s life by volunteering his personal vehicle to take her to a hospital after she stepped on an undetonated cluster bomb. (They still go off today.)
In spite of all that, I’d submit Khe San for friendliest small town in the world — the kind of place where, in the same afternoon, I had tea with a 100-year-old French legionnaire and drank rice wine infused with dead birds with a uniformed officer of the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam).
The next morning, I popped into the local bakery for what I consider the best banh mi in the entire country before riding off into the stunning river valley to its south.
RUNNING FROM DOGS AND DRINKING IN DANANG
The road proceeded along dramatic ridges and through primeval forests where lonesome military and ranger bases were guarded by dogs that chased me as far as their underfed legs could carry them.
For long stretches, they were my only company.
Finally, after weeks of shuffling through bad motel rooms in flimsy flip-flops, I decided to plunge down the twisting Bana Hill road to Danang — Vietnam’s fastest-growing city.
Danang was re-captured about a month before Saigon and I arrived the day after its 40th anniversary celebration.
Local beauties and old men in full military dress had turned out to have their pictures taken in view of the town’s Dragon Bridge — an internationally acclaimed construction that literally breathes fire from gas jets.
After shoveling down a bowl of the province’s namesake kitchen-sink noodle dish, I treated myself to a divine deep-tissue massage.
Then, that night, I moved from a Tapas bar, to an Izakaya, to a foosball pub opened by a cross-country motorcycle racer with a tattoo of Che Guevara on his right arm.
Things concluded at the Golden Pine, where what seemed like the entirety of the town’s under-40 population had gathered to imbibe pitchers of melted Jello shots.
The following morning, I ascended to the Ho Chi Minh Road feeling like a happy Humpty Dumpty — all put back together again.
TRAFFIC, ENVIRONMENTAL TRAGEDY AND HOME AT LAST
After nearly three weeks in the saddle, the mountains began to shrink into hills. The pristine double lane I’d come to love degenerated into a dilapidated highway where trucks, buses and steam rollers seemed locked in competition to pave and drive the same stretch simultaneously.
Though the road theoretically extends all the way to Saigon, the words “Ho Chi Minh” vanished from the yellow line I’d been following on my phone. It seems the second, southern phase of “building” the road involves little more than expanding and renaming the highways built by the French colonists to exploit a lush triple-canopy rainforest.
Their project continues in earnest.
Scientists are racing to discover species here faster than poachers can wipe them out. Rubber plantations and low-quality coffee farms abound. Ethnic minority communities which have been reshuffled more times than casino cards now cling to the edge of the region’s growing cities. Despite the dearth of standing trees, tractor after tractor loaded with timber continued to pass me.
In the town of Kon Tum, a recalcitrant American veteran who had returned to provide humanitarian assistance shook his head glumly.
“Every year I come back and tell myself they can’t possibly cut down any more. Then I come back the next year and say well, goddamn, they sure did.”
Later that night, we dined on forest herbs and fermented river fish.
And for the second time, my stomach rose up in revolt. Determined to push on, I got back on the bike the next day and sped further south along bumpy paths, clutching my insides for dear life.
Wedding parties beckoned me to eat, drink and be merry. But I couldn’t do any of those things.
I practically burst into tears when I reached a wooden bridge and saw clumps of water hyacinth floating down the chocolate milk-colored Saigon River — a sign that I was close to my home in Ho Chi Minh City.
An hour later, my father-in-law pulled open the front door and smiled at the sight of me — covered in dirt, oil and peeling sunburns that had formed on my wrists and neck.
“My God,” he said when I pulled off my helmet to reveal cheeks hollowed out by weeks of internal distress. “You look like an American who lost the battlefield.”
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