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Breaking Through the DMZ up to Hanoi

We waited in Da Nang for the weather to clear up for our drive to Hue. We heard the drive from Da Nang to Hue was on one of the best sections of road in all of Vietnam. As our departure to Hue rolled near the fog lifted but the sun still hid behind the clouds. We were slightly disappointed we were not given perfect weather for this portion of the drive, but what are you going to do. The Hai Van Pass connects Da Nang and Hue and is the ideal road to take between the 2 cities. As most traffic is routed through a newly built tunnel, the Hai Van Pass is a back road connecting the 2 cities. I don’t think I can say that this section of our drive had the best scenery, but it was gorgeous none the less. The pass snaked through a green jungle covered in a type of ivy with leaves the size of my head. Halfway through the pass, there were a few American military bunkers you could explore. These were cool to wander around but the most surprising aspect of these bunkers was the number of wedding photos being taken there. During our hour visit to the bunkers, 2 different Vietnamese couples got wedding photos taken on the bunkers. I still have trouble seeing the attraction for a Vietnamese citizen to have wedding photos taken atop an old American turret bunker.

We made it to Hue and stayed in the cheapest hotel we have stayed in yet. It was $2.20 each for a 3 person room. Our time in Hue was short, one night, but we were able to walk around most of the city. It was heavily bombed during the war so many of the historic structures are still being restored. The main attraction in Hue is the Imperial City. This walled fortress was the old capital of Vietnam. There were originally 160 buildings in the imperial city. However, this was reduced to 10 after bombings and a massive fire fight took place inside the walls during the war. The walls and visible structural supports inside the buildings were intricately carved with various designs. The inside of these buildings did not have much furniture or other decorations. The floor space in each building was unoccupied aside from the various table or chairs. It was odd to see such intricacies in the carvings with a lack of furniture and decorations in the rooms. Our one stand out meal in Hue was at a small food stand where we had Bun bo Hue. This food stand closed at 9AM and only served this soup for breakfast. Bun bo Hue is the main dish in Hue and is essentially a spicy beef soup. My elementary food palette couldn’t really tell the difference between this and beef pho, but still the soup was delicious.

While in Hue I witnessed one of the most frightening activities I have seen on the trip so far. The event looked almost like a field day for school children. There were about 5 groups made up of 20-30 kids all in school uniforms. The groups were all equipped with one replica grenade and a replica machine gun that looked like an AK-47 without any wood paneling. Each kid was given a turn to run around with the gun and throw the grenade as far as they could. I didn’t really know what to make of this so I took some photos and decided to revisit the situation later. I still don’t really know how to comprehend this activity, but it was a little frightening none the less.

After Hue, we headed inland to Khe Sanh and the Ho Chi Minh Trail which would eventually take us to Hanoi. The Ho Chi Minh Trail originally ran through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It connected and supplied the North Vietnamese Army in the North and South. The original supply route was mostly in Laos. This route is now called the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) and only runs in Vietnam. This supply trail is one of the key strategic components that helped the North Vietnamese win the war. We began our trip on the HCMH (QL 14 and 15 on Google Maps) just east of Dong Ha. This is right on the southern border of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) of the war. As we continued up the HCMH, I noticed various bald spots in the forest and throughout the hills. These bald spots could have been produced from slash and burn farming by the locals, but I couldn’t help but think they were leftover “dead zones” from agent orange. We followed the HCMH through the rest of the DMZ weaving through hills and forest. The jungle in this section reminded me more of a forest, as it wasn’t nearly as dense or as green as the forests we about to encounter up North. After about 4 hours on the road from Hue, we arrived in Khe Sanh. There was nothing special about this town, just another stop along the HCMH. The history of Khe Sanh is the most interesting part of the town. There was a well-known battle in this region called the Battle of Khe Sanh. It lasted for 6 months (January 21 – July 9th, 1968) although both sides claimed victory, the United States withdrew from this area some time after the battle. When that happened the North Vietnamese swooped in and took control of it. The most staggering statistics on this battle come in the form of bombings. 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped on this region during this 6-month battle. This is equivalent to the force of 5 Hiroshima atomic bombs. This is about 1,300 tons of bombs per North Vietnamese soldier. In addition to the bombing, 158,000 large caliber shells were shot into the hills. This totals 8 shells per Vietnamese soldier who was believed to be on the field. In terms of death tolls for this battle, the United States lost 274 soldiers and 2,541 were wounded. The North Vietnamese death toll is unconfirmed however, there were 1,602 bodies counted but the North Vietnamese estimates they lost 2,469 in the battle. All of these facts are based on this Wikipedia article.

From Khe Sanh, we embarked on the most beautiful part of the drive yet. Our destination on this leg was the Phong Nha National Park. We also added another member to our throttle jockey gang for this leg of the journey. Her name was Martina and she was from Holland but has lived in Italy and Berlin. She was on vacation as well, participating in the same motorcycle trip we were. We originally met her in Da Nang and reconnected with her over Facebook, as we were all in Khe Sanh at the same time. The weather through this 150-mile section varied depending what elevation we were at. There were 2 high passes we drove over where fog reduced visibility to 20 feet. I had never been in denser fog in my life. There were other sections below the fog where we could see the road, but the low clouds blocked all the peaks and limited our vision to about a mile. The general landscape through this stretch was unlike anything I have ever seen. The jungle was the densest jungle I have ever witnessed. The plants in the jungles seemed to be 5 times as big as any other plants I have seen. Some fern leaves stretched to over 8ft long and massive ivy entangled the entire forest. Throughout the mountains limestone cliffs were able to squeeze their way through the jungle brush adding a bright white and gray contrast to the dark green jungle. The best way I can describe the mountains here is to imagine a flat valley then just add tall rocks throughout it. There doesn’t seem to be a gradual rise in elevation like the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges in Washington. The landscape is flat then boom — giant 2,000-foot rock.

When we arrived in Phong Nha it was obvious the city has experienced rapid growth. Hotels and tourist-tailored restaurants littered the city and were the only current buildings in the town. Squeezed between these new accommodations were local shops and houses. Finding decent, cheap, local food here was difficult. We managed to stumble upon another banh xao food shack which, proved to be cheap and delicious. Banh xao, is again, a Vietnamese style crepe with meat and veggies cooked into it. It is rolled in rice paper with veggies and dipped in a sweet sauce. The more and more I eat this dish the higher and higher it moves on my “top Vietnamese food” list. The national park is home to many recently discovered caves which, is the sole reason for its growth. The best known cave in this area is the Son Doong cave. The Son Doong cave was discovered in 1991 but wasn’t explored until 2009, as the descent into the cave is very difficult. As badly as we wanted to explore this cave the only possible way to get inside is with a tour agency. The tour last for 5 days and costs $3000. Having walked away from restaurants that didn’t offer meals for under $1.00, $3000 was out of our price range. Not to mention that access is heavily restricted and something like 10 people are allowed on these tours per week. Our next option was the Thien Duong Cave also known as Paradise Cave. The cost of this cave was $11.00 and, although expensive for Vietnam, was well worth the price. Paradise Cave was discovered by a local man in 2005. I have no idea how he discovered it. The cave entrance was a small hole in the middle of the jungle, and measured 4 feet tall and maybe 20 feet wide. Place this in the densest jungle you have ever seen. I still have no idea how the local man stumbled across it. After being fully explored shortly after its discovery, researchers measured the cave to be a little over 19 miles long. The cave can reach heights of 100 meters and 150 meters in width (Source). The lighting in the cave was perfect. The back and under lit cave features highlighted every crack, crevis, and speleothem (limestone mineral deposit). We were lucky to arrive at the cave between tours and had the cave to ourselves for at least 30 minutes. The silence half a mile in the cave was a nice calming break from the roar of our road hogs. In total, I spent at least 2 hours inside the cave taking photos and trying to absorb the sheer size of the cave. Although my photos will not do the cave justice, they certainly will show more than my words can describe. 

After a full day of exploring the Paradise Cave and driving around the National Park, we continued our journey north towards Hanoi. We weaved through more jungle engulfed limestone cliffs until we slowly made our way out of the mountains to the flat farmland. There were still miscellaneous limestone rocks that sprouted out of the ground. They were less frequent and therefore, gave the region a less mountainous look. Our original plan was to stop in Pho Chau and spend the night there. However, after arriving at noon we decided to continue up another to Tan Ky for an extra 60 miles. There is nothing exciting in this region besides the dog smuggling operations that run through it. This is because of its close proximity to the Laos border. Dogs are stolen and smuggled in from Laos bound for dinner tables in Hanoi. Lucky for me, during our lunch stop in Pho Chau, I was slapped with migraine. After a 2 hour nap at our table in a street food stall, the migraine had died down enough for me to continue on the bike. I’m sure the owners of the food stand were just as happy as I was that my migraine has passed. Being the only white people in the town, I’m sure the passed out American on their table was quite the site for the town locals. The excitement continued on this last stretch when we were given the opportunity to practice driving in the rain. To help put this into context I am going to explain the current condition of our bikes. All of our wires are exposed and our electrical system is anything but waterproof. Both Alex and I have pulled nails out of our tires, Alex got a new tire mine didn’t puncture the inner tube. Alex’s gas tank was leaking, my back shock is broken, and Taylor’s entire bike frame is bent. Every raindrop felt like a pellet trying to rip a hole in my rain jacket and snuck into every nook and cranny of my helmet until we were completely soaked to the bone. On top of this Martina’s helmet didn’t have a face visor and her $2 aviators didn’t serve as much protection. They were designed to be cheap, and that’s about it. But this is just part of the adventure and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. We all made it safely to Tan Ky and that’s all that matters. Well, Taylors bike didn’t start the next day because the rain did fry his electrical system, but one stop at the mechanic fixed that.

 The next day we said goodbye to Martina as she was going to Son La which is just east of Hanoi. Our destination for the day was Cuc Phuong National Park. This 141-mile drive was uneventful. We stopped on the side of the road in front of a giant sugarcane market and chewed on that for a break. Sugarcane tastes much different than I expected. While expecting it to taste like a spoonful of white sugar, it has a slight citrus taste to it. The sweetness is not overwhelming by any means. I don’t know if I was eating it right, but I chewed on a small section of the cane until it was a dry pulpy stick. Cuc Phuong was very gray and covered in jungles foliage. They were nice but did not match up to the jungles of Phong Nha. We found a hotel, cuddled up in wet beds with our moist down blankets we were graciously given. That night I attempted to sleep without thinking of all the critters that lived in our bedding.

Cuc Phuong was the first national park in Vietnam and is home to a monkey and turtle conservatory. We didn’t make it to the conservatory but we did go to the Cave of Prehistoric Man (Dong Nguoi Xua). The cave gets its name from 7,500-year-old human remains that were discovered inside it. There were no lights in the cave and, forgetting my headlamp, my iPhone served as my light. We walked through the cave and exited out the back end of it over slippery muddy rocks. This took us on a small jungle adventure until we found where we parked our bikes. Hoping on our bikes we prepared ourselves for another four journey and a major milestone in our trip, Hanoi.

Just outside Cuc Phuong, we were greeted with massive semi and dump trucks. Weaving through those 8-ton death machines is always exciting and falling asleep at the wheel is never a fear. On high alert, we noticed traffic increasing each mile we gained on Hanoi. Eventually, we were smack dab in the middle of Hanoi rush hour. Weaving in a sea of scooters, buses, and cars, I noticed a staggering number of locals on scooters texting or talking on the phone and driving. Realizing the extreme stupidity of texting and driving on a scooter in Hanoi, I was very impressed the locals here could even do it. I would be dead in less than a minute if I had my phone out in that traffic. Drivers in Hanoi follow the same rules of all Vietnamese drivers, never look left, honk, and assume you are the most important person on the road. Through all of this, we successfully made it to Hanoi where we can fix up our bikes, relax, eat, and drink $0.20 beers. After Hanoi our plans are to loop up around the north end of Vietnam, travel into Laos, and end back in Hanoi. As with this whole trip, these plans could easily change. Most of it depends on our Honda Wins. Hopefully, they can survive the rest of our trip. They have taken us over 1,300 miles, so whats a few more?

AJ

AJ

Software developer, kiteboarding instructor, and world traveler. Always having the best day ever and on the constant pursuit of the endless summer.

1 Comment

  • Bonnie Delight

    You guys rock!!!! What great experiences and stories you are making. Thanks for sharing them! Safe travels!

    April 17, 2016 at 8:07 pm

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