Posted by: Richard Marshall | July 25, 2012

Vietnam Bike Trip, Part II: The Centre

The Centre

After spending an evening in Hoi An I took a leisurely drive up to Da Nang. Da Nang has a spectacular setting, with long, white sand beaches and the Truong Son mountain range looming behind. It is also one of Vietnam’s more attractive cities – the streets are wide, tree-lined and not overwhelmingly busy and the waterfront along the Han river has been done up nicely. There is some interesting architecture and a couple of impressive bridges. I met up with my friend John for a lunch which ended up extending long and boozily into the evening.  As a result, I was unable to do a great deal the next day. I found a greasy fried breakfast in a bakery owned by some sort of religious lot – it’s called “Bread of Life” – and me sitting there with a foul hangover no doubt lowered the tone of the place. That afternoon I went to see a movie and then went to bed early. The next day John and I drove down the long beach towards Hoi An where we had lunch in a lovely, relaxed restaurant over-looking the sea. It was great being able to meet up with a friend after so many days on the road alone and with so many more ahead.

John and me by the river

John and I had a nice dinner for my last night in Da Nang and though it wasn’t excessively alcoholic, I didn’t feel up to heading back onto the Ho Chi Minh highway and taking the long route to Hue. Instead I drove over the Hai Van pass as I had with Gregor last year, but got off highway one and took the provincial road running the other side of a large lagoon almost all the way to Hue. I didn’t actually see much of the sea. The road ran through sandy country with a few villages, thickets of scraggly conifers, and huge graveyards. The tombs were large and ornate and sometimes it felt like driving through a necropolis. I love the scenery in this part of the country. The landscape is quintessential Vietnam – dark mountains, emerald rice paddies cut by broad rivers and interspersed with snug villages and coconut palms. Even the houses seem less ugly than other parts of the country. Hue is also one of my favourite places, and I stayed a day to wander round the citadel and see how much progress had been made on the reconstruction projects.

Hue

It’s possible to head west from Hue back to the HCM highway, but I decided to go north along highway one to see some of the iconic places of the American war – Quang Tri and Dong Ha – and then head west along highway 9 which runs roughly along the southern end of the DMZ. Quang Tri was a pretty dull place. It has the remains of a citadel but most of the city was flattened in 1972 and only a gate remains. Although most of the DMZ towns have been totally rebuilt there were a few buildings in Quang Tri that still had war damage and, like the church in Dong Hoi, are far more evocative war memorials than the socialist monuments manage to be. Highway 9 was a pleasant provincial road through mountains, forests and plantations. I arrived in Khe Sanh in the early afternoon and found a not excessively dismal guesthouse. I offloaded my backpack and, after some detours through coffee plantations, eventually found my way to what remains of the Khe Sanh combat base. Although the collection of rusting American tanks and helicopters and the dusty museum full of old guns and shells was standard, and the fitful efforts to rebuild bunkers to impress whatever tourists make the journey here was pretty tired, Khe Sanh did have atmosphere. It was hot and still on the dusty red airstrip and you could look up to the range of hills that so obviously dominate it and try to imagine the whole place burning with bombs and napalm. Other than an old guy trying to sell me dog-tags and two tourists who arrived as I was leaving, I had the place to myself.

War Damage in Quang Tri

Highway 9 and the DMZ

Khe Sanh

After Hue, the Ho Chi Minh City splits into two. The HCM highway east is a good, new road, intended to relieve traffic on highway one. The HCM highway west is a narrow, winding concrete road running through the mountains on the Laos border. I had been nervous about taking the western route – settlements are few and far between and my bike wasn’t wholly reliable – but in the end I decided just to go for it. The drive from Khe Sanh to Phong Nha was the high point and crowning achievement of my trip. It was simple an unbelievably, tremendously fantastic day. Initially I drove though areas that had been badly deforested, but the further I went the more remote the route became. It was overcast and mist swirled over the mountains and the forests. For long, long stretches I was utterly alone, winding up and down the concrete ribbon of the road. There were a few villages, fortunately, so I topped up with fuel and thankfully my bike held together. The last stretch of road ran through the Phong Nha – Ke Bang national park, a landscape of limestone karsts cloaked in jungle. The highway poses a terrible environmental threat to these mountains, but for now it’s still beautiful and remote.

Near the Laos border

Misty mountains

The bike and the road

More misty mountains

The jungle

After my fantastic day the town of Phong Nha was, unfortunately, something of let down. It was hopelessly dull. I checked into a very shabby guesthouse and tried to find something to eat. The long line of totally deserted  rice and noodle shops held little appeal. I had heard that there was a western-run backpackers near Phong Nha. Although I didn’t want to stay there – for ten bucks I’d sooner have a second rate room than a dorm bed – I decided to try get a meal there. After pointlessly driving around the countryside for some time I eventually phoned the place for directions. It was, as I had expected, kind of, well…douchy, but I got a backpacker-style burger, a couple of beers, and a few pissing contests with Aussies about who had been in Vietnam longest, driven furthest, traveled most etc. The next day I headed to the two large limestone caves which are Phong Nha’s main attraction and found then to be pretty underwhelming, though the karst landscape was stunning. I decided to get as far as I could up the HCM highway that afternoon. No sooner was I back in the mountains, however, than I noticed I was leaking petrol. I just couldn’t bear to return to Phong Nha so I decided to turn around and try make it the 50km south down the Ho Chi Minh highway west to Dong Hoi. My Lonely Planet claimed Dong Hoi was a pleasant beach town and so it turned out to be. It was totally destroyed by American bombing and the shattered ruins of the old church are a stark reminder. The local mechanic fixed the fuel tank with wire, superglue, ground-up incense and poly-filler, which incredibly held until I returned to HCM City. I had a nice dinner in Dong Hoi and a pleasant drive along the seafront. I was, however, only a few hundred kilometres north of Hue after three days on the road and starting to worry about time. I also didn’t want to spend any more nights inn towns like Khe Sanh or Phong Nha where I couldn’t even find a lively bar or restaurant.  The nearest town with any kind of tourist infrastructure was Ninh Binh, 400km to the north, so I decided to make a break for it.

Karst Mountains near the Laos border

Phong Nha landscape


Responses

  1. Hey Rich, this looks like an amazing trip! You are very brave! are you able to talk to the locals? I’m impressed 🙂 So… what happens next? 400kms of .. it’s a cliff hanger! Missing you! xoxoxo t


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