I’ve just ridden from Dong Hoi to Khe Sanh. It was supposed to be a long hard days ride, however it turns out it was longer and harder. The destination Khe Sanh is famous for more than Jimmy Barnes singing about it. It was where the US and Australian troops got fairly kicked and resorted to using defoliating sprays, such as Agent Orange, and Napalm to clear the forest so they could find the Vietnamese supply routes. Agent Orange has led to lasting birth defects etc.
I decided to record some videos along the way. I think its pretty funny to see how my predictions change. However, I’m not clever enough to upload them. So you’ll have to believe me.
My map doesn’t show detail, so things like switch backs aren’t there. Therefore two roads the same length on the map can be hugely different in length because one goes up and down a mountain. My error was that this road went up and down a mountain, however I guessed it would be about 160km and I was pretty close, I just didn’t guess how many hills there would be.
I was aware that it was going to rain for most of the day, but there is always a hot shower at the end of it right.
But hills covered in jungle and clouds are amazingly beautiful. Better still is when the road is deserted to you can hear all the birds and insects calling.
The problem was that time was marching on faster than I was. I first started to worry at 2pm when I thought I had 80km to go and it would be moderately hilly. By 3:30pm I’d covered about 15km, half of those in the previous 20 minutes. By that stage I was getting pretty worried about how and when I was going to finish this leg. It was hill after hill, raining and isolated so there were no road side shops selling lunch.
To add to the excitement, I wore through my front brake pad. I have replacements however the tools required and the replacements involved opening and rummaging through 3 separate bags in the rain. So instead I pulled out the existing pads and proceeded with only a rear brake.
But before I make it sound all horrible. This scenery was amazing. I was at least warm despite being wet and the road was perfect without a single pothole.
At 5pm I rolled into a town 55km before Khe Sanh. I found a place selling Pho (noodle soup) and filled up. The lady at the store was trying to convince me to stay somewhere in the village, I couldn’t quite work out where, but she didn’t like the idea of me riding in the rain and dark. To add to my confusion, Khe Sanh was the destination and Khach San is the word for hotel.
Then along came a useful man that spoke English. I thought he might help clarify things. It turned out he was a Border Guard, kind of like immigration department, because the road ran only 10km from Laos. Basically, he said I couldn’t stay anywhere this side of Khe Sanh because it was a border area and dangerous. I think he was flexing muscle rather telling the truth, but it took the question out of where to stay.
So with food in my belly and bag and an hour left till total darkness I headed off, 55km to Khe Sanh.
After about 8km of mostly uphill I was stopped by a guy on a motorbike, he lived a little ways back in a village and was a local school teacher. He offered me somewhere to stay. For some reason I thought the Border Guard guy might check on me and that I shouldn’t accept the offer.
Another few km on and it was totally dark, I couldn’t see anything except the small splash from my headlight. Around a bend was a small road workers hut, basically a tarp over a bamboo structure. As I rode past the guys called me in. I needed to refil my camelback and doing it in the light seemed a good plan.
When I charaded that I was going to Khe Sanh they too offered for me to stay. This time I accepted the offer. An hour later I was wondering why I turned down an offer to stay in a house with a school teacher over a tarp hut with 5 road workers. But I’ll keep that for another blog. Lets just say Vietnamese men are special. One of them was great, 2 of them marginal and 2 had me worried all night long.
The last two images from the morning show the hut (the camera also had bleary eyes) and the mud slide they were repairing.
At first light I decided to move on as early as I could. I packed my bags, left a thank you note and was on the road, in the drizzle, by 6:20. By 6:45 I was picking myself up of it and wondering what had just happened. In my sleepy morning haze I got distracted by a pair of thongs on the road and missed a slippery mossy bit of wet road on the corner. The bike slipped out and I skidded across the road. Because it was so slippery and wet I got away with a small graze on my hip and the bike took a few scratches. I didn’t realise at the time but I also put a small hole into the bottom of my pannier that carries my map, kindle, notepad and that sort of stuff. I ate food and got moving again, I was pretty lucky. As I was picking myself up I noticed the carnage from several other crashes in the same spot.
Eventually I rolled into the town (I forget the name) 25km before Khe Sanh. I’m going to award it the title of the happiest town in Vietnam. Kids waving and saying hello. Busy market with all sorts of yummy food like pastie filling inside a steam bun, and (trythis at home some time) trashy white bread roll with butter and sweetened condensed milk. Hell yeah, I’ll have two. Maybe the sugar made people so happy despite the rain.
I got escorted out of town by kids on bikes. They’d learnt some English at school and loved the excuse to practice it.
I did have suspicions that the rain was leading to a storm. Shortly after the kids dropped off at their respective homes the lightning and thunder started. By now I had less than 10km, 20 minutes riding to go. The rain was getting heavier and the lightning more often as I went past the Forest Rangers station. The ranger on the porch called me in and I figured that James vs Rain might be okay, but James vs lightning would probably fail. I got stuck at the station for an hour, but the guy was nice and spoke some English.
When the rain stopped we both left together, he took me to a quick stop to see a taxidermy tiger that was about to go on display. He also took me through a serious puddle where the river had run up and over the road, that was about 100m long and up to the bottom bracket through a decent section in the middle and flowing. I still didn’t know about the hole in my bag.
So the moral of the story is, if you’re ever touring through Vietnam, then take the inland road of the Ho Chi Minh trail from Dong Hoi to Khe Sanh. Its amazing. Just don’t do it on a bicycle. And don’t forget to stop in the happiest little town in Vietnam.