Vietnam Motorbike Tour Day 2: Phong Nha to Khe Sanh

This article is the second in a 3-part series.  Read about Day 1 here.

Starting at the end: I finished day two of our three-day motorbike tour with knees aching, face coated with gritty grime, and butt sore, chafed, and bruised in twin lines tracing the outline of my underwear (!). It took almost 10 hours to travel the 145 miles from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh, often at speeds of just 20 mi/hr climbing and dipping through winding mountain roads. I was so creaky and wrung out by day’s end it begs the question: Would I do it again? Absolutely, yes, in a heartbeat. It was a BEAUTIFUL ride - my eyes should have been sore from popping out of my head a gazillion times - and worth every ounce of discomfort to experience the metered transition from dense mountain rainforest to lush river valley to gently rolling farmland. I tell ya, I’m a sucker for a good valley and today’s were epic.

Partial view of the main street running through Phong Nha town. This was taken early morning as I sat on my hotel balcony and watched school kids stop by the street vendor to pick up banh mi and a juice boxes for breakfast before school.

Backing up: I started the day early, parked at a table on our shared third floor balcony at the Thành Phát Hotel, uploading photos, jotting trip notes, and watching the town slowly awaken. The quiet gradually gave way to town loudspeakers blaring music and elementary school kids picking up bánh mì from the corner street cart on the way to school. Aside: The Thành Phát was pretty basic, arranged by the tour; the Oxalis website has helpful descriptions of other accommodation in Phong Nha including hostels, farmstays, and higher-end hotels.

When Chris roused, we strolled Phong Nha’s main drag hunting for coffee, preferably Vietnamese drip. Little was open at 6:45am - this town gets a lazy start! - and most cafes seemed reserved for their adjacent hotel/hostel, but we eventually prevailed. After breakfast and bike maintenance, we hit the road at 8:20, stopped briefly for gas and snacks, then cruised south out of town on a quiet country road with dappled shade and scattered homes.

Leaving Phong Nha town. Sad to say goodbye to this gorgeous park with never-ending rice paddies surrounding rugged karst hills.

The ride picked up steam when we joined the DT20 which hugs the eastern edge of Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Forest.  Once on the DT20 the landscape felt primeval, hills weighed down and positively dripping with layered greenery. If we stood still too long I swear we’d be claimed by the rainforest, slowly enveloped.

Along the DT20. One benefit of traveling on winding mountain roads: very little traffic. We mostly had the road to ourselves.

The DT20 ended in a T-junction where hung a left, dismounted on a bridge, and Bằng announced that we were now joining the Ho Chi Minh Trail which we’d take all the way to Khe Sanh.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail! We were attracted to this motorbike tour in large part to see this iconic trail (read remarkable facts here) and to visit military sites from the American war. Incredibly, the topic of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its actual path has dogged me since the day we stepped foot on it. The central question: Did we really travel on the Ho Chi Minh Trail?

Looking into Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park at the junction of the DT20 and the QL15, aka the Ho Chi Minh Highway.

We definitely rode on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a paved road that according to Wikipedia “roughly coincides with the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.” But how could it? Didn’t the trail run through Laos?? A little history helps here: The trail wasn’t one trail but rather a series of trails built and used by the North Vietnamese to move troops, equipment, weapons, and food to support the fight in the south. From 1959 to 1975, footpaths once used for trade grew and expanded (through incredible grit and ingenuity) to become the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route, dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail by the Americans.

Passing a zebu; one of a dozen times or more that we dodged cattle on the road.

Most maps of the trail look like this one, depicting the main trail running through Laos and Cambodia, paralleling the western Vietnamese border, with small offshoots reaching into central Vietnam. This map gives a more detailed and accurate representation, showing an extensive web of trails (an estimated 10,000–12,000 total miles) that stymied American forces. The trail’s rainforest canopy provided excellent protection, and by 1973, trucks could drive almost the entire length under cover. The United States used Agent Orange and other defoliants to kill greenery and expose forces, and carried out myriad bombing campaigns attempting to disrupt supply lines. One unintended side effect of American actions: the bombing along Cambodia’s border killed civilians, angered and alienated the population, and ultimately helped the Khmer Rouge recruit supporters.

A lush river valley with water buffalo swimming in the river and lounging on the sand bar.

I think my confusion stems from using maps that depict the Ho Chi Minh Trail as it looked during the bulk of the American War when it ran through Laos. But in May 1972, about 10 months before the last US forces departed in March 1973, the North Vietnamese seized territory in the south. From Wikipedia “The seizure of territory within South Vietnam itself allowed Hanoi to extend the trail across the border with Laos and into that country….By 1973, the PAVN logistical system consisted of a two-lane paved (with crushed limestone and gravel) highway that ran from the mountain passes of North Vietnam to the Chu Pong Massif in South Vietnam.” From this I’m guessing that the road we traveled, now improved and named the Ho Chi Minh Highway, was built around 1972–73.

What a relief - I’ve chewed on this for weeks! Final note before moving on: The Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) splits into two roads, HCMH East and HCMH West, through four provinces in central Vietnam. We followed HCMH West (Đường Hồ Chí Minh Tây).

Another stunning river valley on the way from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

We rode for five hours before breaking for lunch, stopping to stretch legs, snap photos, search for monkeys (Chris and Bằng saw a flash they swear was a monkey tail), and generally goof around. There were precious few gas stations between Phong Nha and Khe Sanh so Bằng made sure to top off mid-day (remember that - it becomes important later). The whole morning ride was stunning but those river valleys…I was never happier to be a passenger, free to stare and soak in the majesty.

Bằng tried so hard to find us a good lunch, but pickings were slim to begin with in tiny towns that see little tourist activity, and we came through at 1:30 when restaurants typically shut down for the afternoon. We had to settle for a package of ramen-type noodles stir fried with egg. It wasn’t fancy, but we needed fuel and it did the job.

Having a quick snack of One-One, lightly sweet crispy rice wafers. I didn't know it at the time, but Bang bought two large bags of these treats for us to hand out to local village kids.

The afternoon brought visits to two different ethnic minority villages. There are 54 recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam, with the Kinh (Viet) being the majority at about 86% of the population. This website shares an origin legend: “…the Dragon King of the south married Au Co, a beautiful northern princess, and at first they lived in the mountains where she gave birth to a hundred strong, handsome boys. After a while, however, the Dragon King missed his watery, lowland home and decamped with half his sons, leaving fifty behind in the mountains – the ancestors of the ethnic minorities.”

Traditional dress of the Pa Then. Magnificent! This photo was taken in the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum in Hoi An, opened by French photographer Rehahn who spent five years traveling Vietnam, building relationships with minority groups, learning cultures, and gathering traditional costumes. The museum shares it all.

Most of the minority tribes have a rural, agricultural lifestyle and are scattered in the hills along the northern and western edges of Vietnam bordering China, Laos, and Cambodia. Due to dwindling numbers and increased Western influence, their cultures and traditions are largely dying out, and full traditional garb is rarely worn. There are exceptions: the Flower Hmong of northern Vietnam have managed to retain their cultural identity, still wear traditional costumes, and are even supported by an NGO to preserve traditions, learn business skills, and introduce products to new markets.

We were biking through central Vietnam, and though the tour website said we’d visit the Pa Co (who belong to the Ta Oi ethnic group), I think we stopped a bit too far north to find them. Bằng said both tribes were Bru-Van Kieu which jibes with their location in the Quang Binh Province.

In a village hut. Just moments before this shot, a two year old sat playing with the machete in his hand and that dead chicken at his feet. Color me surprised.

Each stop was within five miles of the Laos border and we immediately suspected we’d entered a minority village due to different hut construction and clothing (the women wore long, straight, dark blue skirts shot through with colored bands). The poverty was also immediately evident; this article from the Economist points out that although minority groups make up 13% of Vietnam’s population, they account for 40% of the poor.

I was eager to learn more about these unique communities, but truthfully, both stops were a bit uncomfortable. In the first village there were few people about and Bằng led us into a hut to look around and give rice treats to the children. We had no common language so silence stretched and quickly grew heavy. Though the visit was brief, it felt intrusive and I was relieved to move on.

Chris handing out treats to some of the village kids. He ran out right before the little guy in red ran up. The boy turned away, face crumpled and tears starting to flow when Bang discovered a lone moon pie tucked away in his bags. Crisis averted!

At the second village, we were hailed by a chorus of children running to the road. We pulled over, stayed at the roadside, and handed out more rice cakes. Bằng was able to talk to just one of the villagers, a middle aged man. The rest spoke an unknown (to us) tribal language. If they were indeed Bru-Van Kieu, their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer culture. I wish I’d known! We could have tried a few words of Khmer (the Cambodian language). What am I saying…if Cambodians couldn’t understand my Khmer, how could Bru-Van Kieu?? Anyway, the village man said tree farming brings their main income, but they don’t have enough land for good rotation and the long growth cycle leads to lean times between harvests.

Kids from a minority tribe eating One-One snacks Bang bought for us to hand out.

This stop wasn’t as awkward as the first, but with no common language, we eventually found ourselves simply staring at one another. Both visits provided food for thought: How did the villagers feel about visitors? Was it ok to give treats to the children? Were we a welcome distraction or a disruption? How could we interact in a more appropriate (and helpful) way? It’s something to research before our next trip to Vietnam when we plan to explore the far north. Many companies up there offer chances to interact with hill tribes, but do they do so responsibly?

To the rescue! Bang is draining fuel into empty water bottles to help out this stranded traveler.

The afternoon still held delights with a misty mountain pass and a raucous chorus of cicadas (loudest I’ve ever heard!), and just when I started to think this motorbiking thing was easy peasy, a couple sobering lessons presented themselves. First, we talked with a guy who was motorbiking from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An who had broken down on an isolated stretch and feared he’d have to spend the night on the road. He was rescued by a series of helpful locals, but it was a near thing. Second, a French guy flagged us down, his bike parked on the shoulder. He was surprised by the dearth of gas stations and ran out! Bằng sprang into action, siphoning gas from his tank. Two lessons for the little-traveled Ho Chi Minh Highway West: 1) Always carry the 10 essentials; and 2) never pass a gas station without topping off.

Near Khe Sanh. This was the first time on our trip that we'd seen back baskets, commonly used by hill tribe villagers.

Our good deed done for the day, we rolled towards Khe Sanh at a rapid clip. Past the final mountain pass the road gradually straightened and leveled, and landscape transitioned to low hills and coffee bean fields. The setting sun cast a golden yellow glow that mellowed to a pinkly-purple for our last stop-n-stretch at a lake outside the city.

Chris and Bang playing foosball in a corner of the Khe Sanh outdoor roller rink and rec area.

We arrived at the Khánh Phương hotel at 6:20pm, took 45 minutes to clean up, and met Bằng for dinner. Other bikers (with the same tour company) were headed out at the same time, but Bằng had a series of experiences lined up and led us the other direction. Dinner was average - we tried a new place Bằng hadn't been before - but the fried street snacks after were delish, one had savory mushroom filling and the other a lightly sweet potato and banana mix. We finished the evening at a local outdoor roller rink where Bằng shellacked Chris in foosball.

Two more evening highlights: 1) when I tried to get money from the ATM my card was nowhere to be found - I must have left it in the machine in Dong Hoi!; and 2) as I was on the phone canceling that card, a huge cockroach scuttled through the room, up the bed frame, and disappeared under the mattress. I hate cockroaches with the heat of a thousand suns. Chris, my hero, patiently hunted him down.

And with that we called it a day, exhausted but excited for day three.

Bonus shots:

Bang encourage me to sample a local wild mushroom. Kidding! That's moon pie - Bang loved to set up silly photos!

A drainage collection point along the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Also the only place that offered privacy to take care of business (!).

Standing in a coffee field outside Khe Sanh, taking pictures of each other taking pictures :)