Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Ho Chi Minh Trail (July 11-12, 2011)

The rain came in waves, blowing across the highway.  Lightning flashed around us and the thunder clap was heard just moments later.  Rubber and cinnamon trees waved wildly while leaves blew across our path. Toan slowed the bike down in order to maintain control. We could hardly see and although we were both wearing full rain suits, we weren’t exactly dry.  But for the first time since leaving my air conditioned room in Hoi An, I wasn’t hot.  With the wind and the speed of the bike, the rain was quite chilly. 
We were traveling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail when the storm hit.  Vietnam 14, the official name for the road that is called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, runs just east of the Laos border in the steep mountains of western Vietnam.  The original Ho Chi Minh Trail was a web of dirt paths (with bomb craters) that crept down both sides of the border, but road that bears the trail’s name is now paved.  At least that’s the intention, but with the mountains being so steep and there’s always a few sections “washed out.”
 Growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s, I’d never dreamed that one day I’d be traveling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  These mountains were a thorn in the side of the American forces in Vietnam, who certainly weren’t welcomed in these hills at the time.  Trying everything to block the flow of weapons and supplies to the communist forces fighting in the south, the American military dropped an unimaginable tonnage of bombs on these mountains.  It’s amazing that the place isn’t flat, but having seen what they were bombing, I can see why the bombing was so ineffective.  These are steep hills.  The region is still sparsely populated, mostly by ethnic minorities who eke out a poverty existence by farming the hillsides and grazing cattle (like the American West, this is open range country) and a handful of government and military personnel who are stationed along the border.
I’d met Toan through a Vietnamese Presbyterian pastor that a friend of mine at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary had introduced (via email) to me.  This pastor also manages a Vietnamese “Easy Rider”company that takes tourist on motorcycle trips around the countryside.  When I realized that I wasn’t going to get a ticket for Hanoi for a few days (the trains are all filled due to Vietnamese vacationers), I decided to check into the possibility of such a trip.  Toan had just finished taking someone through the Central Highlands, from DeLat to De Nang.  As he had planned to be at his mother’s home north of Hue in a few days (his family was gathering on the one year anniversary of his father’s death), it worked out for him to pick up a couple more days of work.  Essentially he was taking me from Hoi An to Hue in a “roundabout way” as we easily tripled the distance map quest would have plotted (a fact of which my butt continually reminded me). 
By Vietnamese standards, Toan’s bike was big.  It was a 150 cc Taiwanese bike.  Many of the bikes in Vietnam are Russian or Chinese.  Toan complained that they were always breaking down and were not as powerful as the Taiwanese bike, although he had his eye on a 175 cc Japanese bike.   Even though it was big for Vietnam, with two riders and gear, it struggled up the mountain roads with grades often greater than 10 percent (one sign indicated a 16% grade)

Toan met me at the hotel a little after 8 AM on July 11th (my brother’s birthday).  We packed up the bike, which didn’t look quite so large with all our packs strapped on.  Along the way, Toan stopped at a pottery and tile factory (more like a home workshop).  They weren’t doing any work with the clay, but the kilns were being fired (with wood) and it was interesting.  Then we headed on to a Cham temple that was built in the 11th Century, when the Cham people were still Hindu.  They later converted to Islam.  This brick temple showed signs of the war with chunks of it having been taken out by bullets.  Next we stopped by a place where they made rice paper.  A soupy rice batter is made and then is steamed over boiling water, and then it’s transferred to a screen where it dries.  The “paper” is used in making wrappings for spring rolls.     
I want to go out in a hearse like this!
Our final stop for the morning, as we headed toward the mountains, was at a Cao Dai temple.  This relatively new religion was founded in the Mekong delta in the 1920s by a civil servant working for the French.  However, the religion was anti-colonial even though one of their “saints” is the French novelist Victor Hugo and they also adore Joan of Arc, another French icon.  Early in their history, they struggled with their colonial rulers but after the Second World War, they broke with the communist and, with their own army, fought with the French.  Ngo Van Chieu, who founded the faith, sought to blend a number of faiths and draws heavily upon Buddhism, Taoism, Spiritualism and Confucius with elements borrowed from Christianity and Islam.  The structure of their faith is adapted from the Catholic Church and the leader of the faith is known as a pope.  The all-seeing eye (like that on the American dollar) distinguishes their temples.  Graham Greene has them mentioned in a conversation between Fowler and Pyle in his novel, A Quiet American.  The temple is rather gaudy as one might expect with such a blend of faiths and there is no one around to explain anything.  We wander through the temple by ourselves, then Toan (who wants to keep an eye on the bike and our gear) leaves me to explore on my own.  The most interesting sight is the hearse I found sitting in a shed next to the temple and the caskets they have for sale.  For between 50 and 350 dollars, one can get a nice carved wood casket.  Even adding shipping, they’d undercut the prices of the American funeral home industry.

We ate lunch at a road side café next to the road and then gassed up the bike (it only took 5 quarts but Toan said they’re be no gas for a long while).  Afterwards, we took off into the mountains.  As we climbed, the clouds began to build and soon we could hear distant thunder.  For the next hour, somehow we missed the storms, but then, when we were feeling lucky, our luck changed.  Pulling over to the side, we quickly got all our gear covered up, then pulled on our rain suits and set off as rain pellet us.   It would rain for the next couple of hours.  Occasionally there would be downpours; at other times, the skies would let up to a drizzle. 

During one of the drizzles, we stopped at a Ktu Village, one of the many mountain ethnic groups found in this region.  A woman who was building a fire to cook dinner, on a stone hearth that sat on her bamboo floor (the floor was raised) invited us to come in, but we were dripping wet and refused.  The tribe had cows, sheep and goats, grew corn, rice, tapioca, and harvested cinnamon.  Along the edge of the road, they’d laid out pieces of cinnamon to dry (the drying would have to wait another day).  “Cinnamon,” Toan explained, “takes ten years to grow as a tree.  When the tree is cut, they peel the bark, dry it and sell it to dealers; the wood of the cinnamon tree is burned for fuel.”   Most of their rice was grown by “dry farming,” which Toan explained to be a bad practice as they would burn a hillside, stripping it of vegetation and then plant the rice without terracing the hill.  When the rains came, after the rice was harvested, the hillside would erode away.
After visiting the village, we crossed a river and as we climbed out of the valley, we stopped at a Ktu burial site.  They build miniature houses for the remains of their dead and then place inside all sorts of gifts for their ancestors (beer, sodas, cigarettes, fruit and rice).  I’d wondered if I was in the Southwest and, except for the greenery, this place could have been the background for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting as each burial house was adorn with the skull of a cow (actually, a water buffalo).   
Leaving the valley, the trail climbed higher in the mountains and a sign indicated we were in a frontier area.  Laos was just a few kilometers to our left.  The mountains were beautiful and the clouds, which shrouded parts of the mountains, created a mystical feel.  We rode a long ways on a crooked road that hugged the steep mountainside.  At several places mud covered the roadway and once we had to get off and push the bike.  Finally, as the sunset, we dropped out of the mountains and into a beautiful valley , where rice was again grown in paddies.  We left the mountains and drove to the valley town of A loui, where we stayed for the night.   After cleaning up, we headed out for dinner in a local restaurant (rice, vegetables, morning glory, pork chops and fish) along with a Huda beer.  Huda, Toan explains, means “made in Hue.”  For a long time, we talked about Vietnam. Toan, as did many on my trip, expressed concern for China and how they are dominating the sea right off Vietnam’s shores. 

 I was tired and went to sleep shortly after dinner.  The next morning, I am up early and slip out the room at about 5:30 AM, walking through town.  The town isn’t very large, taking me maybe 15 minutes to walk the length of it, but it boosts at least six cell phone stores!  The population has a mix of Viet people along with those of the Ktu and Paco tribes.  I came across several women smoking a small silver pipe, a custom of some of the ethnic minorities.  Almost all the men smoke in Vietnam (and almost always cigarettes), but these were the first women I’d seen lighting up.   In the middle of the town, they were sitting up market and I walked through sampling the wares.  There were all kind of produce for sale as well as bananas and pineapples, ducks and chickens (live, of course), vegetables and household products.  The women came to market with woven packs on their backs which they used to transport their wares for sale or to take their recent purchases back home.

I got back to the hotel around 7:30.  Toan was just getting up.  After catching up with my journal, we went out to breakfast and then loaded the bike for the ride to Hue.  It was only a 65 or so kilometer trip, but it took us all morning as there was lots of road construction where we’d have to wait for machinery to get out of the way.  Along the way, we stopped at a bee farm.  It was amazing that there were 100s of hives in an acre or so, set underneath trees that were being grown for pulp wood.  Three guys were working with the bees.  They used a sugar cane by-product, which they cooked into a paste and then fed to the bees so they didn’t even have to leave their hives to make honey.  I found the honey to be weak and without much flavor.  It was interested in how we could walk through the bee hives without being stung (the guys working there did so without shirts).  We also stopped at a rubber plantation, to see the harvesting of rubber.  It was noon when we got to the outskirts of Hue.  We stopped for lunch, and then rode on into the formerly royal city.

Waiting for a road crew on the way to Hue


  1. Women lighting up, a colorful hearse, all that rice...I may have to move there, my friend. :)

    Seriously, it's all fascinating and I thank you for sharing your stories. To think how much we heard about Vietnam growing up and then to have you visit like this...on that trail...I can't imagine the thrill.

  2. now, that's the way to travel, on the back of a motorcycle! Of course, I've never done that

  3. Thank so much Sir Jeff for sharing your diary of that trip we did, I'm really interesting with evrything you've wrote here Sir. The God looked you and care your life, traveling safe and have a good time Sir
    Best Regard
    The easy rider from Viet Nam Mr Toan Le

  4. Very cool. Imagine taking a big Harley over there. The reaction of the locals would be worth it, methinks. They'd swear off Taiwanese bikes for good.


  5. What an awesome trip! The ride sounds treacherous to me...but it's probably a great one if you're comfortable on a bike. You never cease to amaze there nothing you won't try?

    Lovely to catch up with you a safe, my cyber-friend!

  6. Another name fraught with exotica for me. Yeah, hard to have imagined back in the 70s that any westerner would be traveling that trail except possibly as a prisoner.

  7. These are just all so fascinating. I don't know if I've said this before, but thanks for sharing and giving me a glimpse of places I'll likely never visit.

  8. That must be so much fun to ride through that country on a motorcycle. I have often wondered if the effects of all that bombing is still evident.

  9. Although many things have changed, I can see that one thing remains constant. Motorcycles EVERYWHERE! Just the thought of being in the area you traveled though during this post, gives me the chills...
    Great post!