This morning I had jettisoned another wolfpack member and was heading out on my own to explore the area. Last night before bed, the homestay owner asked what I would like for breakfast. I pointed to omelette on the paper. He then said, “no meat?” to which I responded, “no, I want meat” He then said again, “no meat”, to which I responded, “yes meat”. Again he said “no meat”, and I gave him 2 thumbs up and said “I like meat!” I refused to pull out the google translate and just decided I was happy with whatever I got. It turned out I requested no meat.
Today I would ride the King Kong Loop. (See Description)
It was called this because they filmed one of the King Kong movies in this area about 8 years ago. Here is the track from my ride in the area.
Tomorrow, I was planning on going trekking in a cave with a local outfitter, Oxalis. The tour was set up to pick you up in Phong Nah and shuttle to their basecamp in the Tan Hoa area. I would spend the day trekking and overnight at their lodge, returning to Phong Nha via shuttle the next afternoon. This all sounded good, except I did not want to wait until the following afternoon to return to Phong Nha as I needed to get an early start that day as I made my way south on the Ho Chi Minh Road. They were resistant to let me just show up on my own at basecamp, allowing me to jet the following morning early on my motorcycle, but like the non-confrontational good little Vietnamese people that they were, they were accepting of my plan. In order to make sure I arrived on time and to put them at ease I decided to swing by there camp today during my King Kong Loop.
Even though the guide mentioned that a few sections of the KK Loop were on dirt roads, at this time all roads were paved-ish. Normally this would be no fun, but it had rained quite a bit the last couple days and that red dirt was deep mud and would easily make an off-road section virtually impassable today.
I started with a rather pedestrian ride along a reservoir
The entire day was filled with breathtaking views. Even for someone who is rarely left speechless by stunning views anymore, I was left in awe.
The village where Oxalis had their basecamp was directly in the middle of this Shangri-La. The Tan Hoa Village was actually designated as the best tourist village one year. (Read More Here)
After checking in with the tour company and giving a pinky swear I would show up the next morning by 830am, I headed back north up and over the mountain range on a very narrow “locals-only” path
I emerged on the other side and needed a coffee break
The first few times I wanted a coffee stop in Vietnam I looked for a more traditional coffee shop, but those were nowhere to be found. I had adjusted my expectations and just looked for a plastic table and some chairs. There did not even need to be people outside, as I assumed they would wake up and come out when I arrived. This held true to form.
Easily the most fun I had on the trip was just stopping at a table and watching people from the village show up to wonder what I was doing and why I stopped at their house. I imagined what would happen if someone showed up at my house in Michigan, rode their bike up onto my lawn and just sat down requesting coffee.
After receiving their generosity, I would squeeze into a plastic chair and relax. Happy to sit in silence while small children peered at me from behind a parent’s leg. Who is this white man trying to bring COVID into our village?, they must have thought.
This group asked me in broken English what I did for work. I replied that I worked in Hospital. They responded with, “Doctor?”. “No, a nurse.” They looked confused either because they did not know what nurse meant or because they did not have male nurses in Vietnam. After a couple tries, I just said, “Yes, doctor” They asked me what area of body and I pointed to my heart. Then this kid, pictured above, comes out from the house and they must have told him I was a heart surgeon or something cause he pulls up his shirt and shows a huge scar from an obvious open heart surgery. Oh Great! Here we Go! This village is going to want me to use my coffee spoon to repair a failed Mitral Valve Regurgitation operation. I quickly expressed how impressed I was with the small scar and threw a bunch of Dong there way and mounted the bike.
Rolling back into Phong Nha I passed an elementary school that was just letting out. All these kids wanted to give me a high five and tell me their name. As I rode away, a small girl held out her hand and when I tried to slap it, she pulled it away, gave me the middle finger and yelled, “fuck you!” Had to laugh at that one. She got me good. I am definitely back on the Silk Road.
I ate a late lunch at a restaurant down the street from my homestay
After having dinner with the family at my place, I sat outside with a beer and watched the traffic flow by. Just taking in the goings-on of a normal day
I stopped by the Phong Nha office for Oxalis adventure that night to say hi to the staff who had helped me make the reservation for tomorrows trip.
While I was there a group was prepping for the Son Doong Expedition Tour. This was no joke. It was a 6 days excursion into the largest caves in the world. It cost $3k and was taken very seriously by the team. This wasn’t some local Vietnam Bungee jump you see on Youtube where the rubberband breaks halfway down, or better yet, it doesn’t break because they forgot the tie the other end to the bridge. Might be something to try in the future...the tour, not the bungee.
The next morning I had breakfast early and said goodbye to Tam and his family. A beautiful morning ride through the mist.
Well, there was a little issue with the mist. I could not see a thing and my googles kept fogging up. After almost careening off a guardrail-less cliff, I took the goggles off and took it slow. I arrived well before the other customers, giving me time to repack my gear and enjoy a few cups of coffee.
Myself, and 2 young guys were doing the Hang Tien Discovery tour. Normally this is an overnight in the jungle but they also had an option that comes back to basecamp and overnights in the swanky lodge and even includes a local meal.
We took a bus 20 minutes to get to the trailhead and hiked with a local guide about 1 hour to get to the cave entrance. Oxalis, in addition to providing jobs for local people, also enlisted the help of local loggers. The idea here was to outlaw logging in these protected areas and put the recently out-of-work loggers on the payroll dragging schleps like me through the jungle. A version of what I saw in Thailand where they were cracking down on farmers growing Opium, transitioning them over to coffee and tea, or at least attempting to.
The cave was fascinating. Years of limestone deposits from an ancient seafloor. Shells still littered the ground
I thought the above picture of erosion on the ceiling was interesting. It was formed as the water formed an eddy where a wall existed, slowly grinding down the limestone in this swirl pattern
After leaving the cave, we had lunch and then scrambled back to base for beers
After cleaning up we took some bicycles out for dinner
Phi, our guide, showed us how high the water levels reached during flood season
In fact, they reached about 15 feet above where we were standing. He showed how the houses were built with empty 55gallon drums under their floors, allowing them to float up with the rising water. Each house was tethered to a steel pole to keep from floating away. Much of the house was still on a concrete foundation, but during high water this one room was a sort of life raft the family and livestock could survive in for a few weeks until the water receded.
A local family showed us how they ground corn into cakes and served us a tremendous feast.
We were served some potent drinks, reminding me of the snake wine I had last time in Vietnam. One of the young guys with me, when asked if he would try it replied, “Why would I refuse anything on this adventure?”
We rode back to the lodge. There seem to be some sort of adult rave going on in the village that night
I convinced the 2 guys to walk down with me to check it out. I told them if they did not want us there, we would just walk back to bed. Maybe we just sit on the outskirts of the party and watch politely. Once the locals saw us, all hell broke loose.
You know when you go out to a bar or to a tailgate at a football game and there is that one person who is so drunk they can barely stand or complete a sentence, now just imagine that everyone is like that, except you. It was crazy. I felt like we showed up just after the whole village decided to take acid. They were going nuts. Some guy kept trying to put his tounge in my ear. The long-haired kid from Germany with me was mobbed by locals, like zombies clamoring for his flesh. at one point he yelled at me, “They all want me to fuck this lady!” He pointed to an a inebriated woman in a yellow dress surrounded by all these guys sweating, trying to push the two of them together, and making slapping sounds with their hands. It was almost tribal. I looked at him and said, “You said you were not going to refuse anything…you have to do it brother.” We sang songs and danced for a while. Everyone just kept yelling, “Vietnam Ok!, Ok Vietnam!” All while dancing like Elaine from Seinfeld with their thumbs sticking out in all directions
Eventually the party wound down and we went upstairs. Our guide Phi, called us over to the bar for a drink with his friends. He had been paranoid about us getting into trouble after the dinner. Truth be told, he steered us away from the rave a few times, but it was just too tempting and we kept going back. I think Phi was concerned that if he lost his Western clients(us) in this village, he would end up getting his hands cut off or something.
Well, 630am came early the next morning for me. I was up and on the road before everyone was awake. It was time to head south along the Ho Chi Minh Road. This a road that ran down the Western side of the country, along the border with Laos. Not traveled by many. The plan was to take this South for a few hundred KMs and then as soon as I got to the same latitude as Da Nang, I would cut back across the country and fly out.
This was a very remote stretch of the road I was starting out on. I actually was encouraged to carry extra fuel. So I borrowed a few government approved fuel canisters (water bottles) and headed out.
While I was filling up just North of Phong Nha, a car ran over some guys rooster. All hell broke loose, people yelling at each other. I guess I knew what they were having for breakfast. As soon as I got onto the HCMR it quickly became remote. I was the only one around. I did not see another person or building for an hour. I was hesitant to stop for any pictures. If I did stop, I never turned off the motorcycle in fear I might not be able to get it started again. I watched the road like a hawk for anything that could puncture my tires. If I got stranded out here I have no clue what I would have done. I guess just sit there and hope that someone came buy within the next 24 to 48 hours.
About 3 hours in I passed through a village. It was intended to be my Gas fill-up. The gas station was under construction. The next village the “gas shack” was closed. A “gas shack” is much like a Vietnam Coffee Shop, but instead of a plastic table and some chairs in a person front yard, there is an old-school gas pump from the 1920s (see example in picture below) sitting inside a structure that is cross between a child’s lemonade stand and a boy’s tree fort.
I stopped anyway at a “Coffee Shop” as it had been 3 hours of endless hairpin turns up and down mountains.
They thought it was another 4 hours until I reached Khe Sanh, my destination for the night.
Outside of this village, I ran into 4 Brits on Scooters headed in the opposite direction. I stopped. They had 2 bars of fuel left on the gauge. I told them they better turn around as you wont make it the 3 hours to the next gas station in Phong Nha. I suggested going the next 5 minutes to the town I had coffee in and see if you could pay 1M Dong to buy up all of someone's gas to fill your scooters. If not turn around, but I was not even sure they would make it back as they said they filled up 2 hours ago. I would have given them my extra fuel but none of us were sure where the last gas source was. My hope was that in the town I just came from, there is a truck that comes through each week and people fill up their 10 gallon containers and fill their scooters from that until the truck returns. Maybe they could pay a king’s ransom for that weekly ration.
I moved on. I was stopped by a tree in the road. While the guys were cutting it up I decided to refill my tank with the 5 quarts of petrol I had strapped to the back. Not only did it feel good to see my gas gauge climb, but it also was a load off my mind to see the Napalm bombs I had strapped to my bike unloaded. I still kept one liter as an emergency, but it was actually in a metal canister I brought from home.
I eventually made it into Khe Sanh in late afternoon. It is a transit hub. Semis were blasting up and down the roads. It was a dangerous place and not that appealing. It was also the site of a major American airbase from the war. I believe it was the site of a battle during the Tet offensive of ’68 but I can’t be bothered right now to google it.
I found a place to sleep. The Green Hotel. It was rough. The swimming pool was just a swamp. And my room had window into the bathroom. I left a crumb on the dresser and within 5 minutes every ant within 2 floors had showed up. Throw in the lack of hot water and I knew this would be a challenging night.
I tried to stay out of my room until I had to go to sleep. I hung out at a coffee shop and restaurant for a few hours. I even played volleyball with some local women to pass the time
Walking back to my hotel after a couple of beers I was feeling good. You know this place is not so bad. I had a spring in my step and then looked up saw the hammer and sickle illuminated in neon. Nothing like communism to jolt you back into reality.
I ran into 3 guys from the states looking for a bite to eat. I was in no hurry, so I escorted them back to the place I just left and shared a beer. They also were coming from Da Nang and had rented smaller motorcycles from the same shop as me. They were headed North, flying out of Hanoi, while I was doing a big loop. I told them about the shortage of fuel on their ride tomorrow and suggested they should carry a few liters. They said that their bikes got 300 km to the tank and it was 270km to Phong Nha, and that they felt it would be fine. I tried to explain that the bike may get 300km/tank but these were not highway miles. You were going to get nowhere close to that on these roads. They were not concerned. I left it at that, but did not understand why you would risk it. Even if you made it, the last hour would be the most stressful of your lives and you would be in the most remote section at that time. Maybe they did make it, but I was not even close to making it myself.
The next day I went up to the rooftop for breakfast. There were 2 guys up there offering to make me whatever they had around. Honestly, this hotel seemed like it was condemned 5 years ago, and these 2 guys moved in as squatters and just kept charging people for empty rooms. The same 2 guys ran the front desk, cleaned the rooms and served food. Actually, I am pretty sure that was exactly the situation here. I tried to pay for breakfast and the rooms with a large bill, but they complained of no change. I said just keep it. So instead of paying $10, I think I paid $20.
It was a foggy morning. Here is a video looking down on the road from my bathroom/living room
I worked my way down HCMR to the turn off towards Da Nang at the town of Prao. I stopped for coffee in these guys living room
The stretch from Prao to Da Nang was awesome. No traffic lights, no sharp turns, just rolling roads along rivers and through towns. Able to just cruise at an even 35 mph, sitting back and leaning into those undulating turns that feels so good on a motorcycle. It is the same feeling as hitting a golf ball solid after duffing it for the last 4 holes. I did stop once when 4 bikes were parked in the road with a group of men standing around. I try to ask if everyone was ok, assuming an accident just happened. They just looked at me and walked in 4 different directions and proceeded to take a piss. Only in Vietnam would people abandon their motorcycles in the middle of a “highway” to go relieve themselves.
I did have a couple close calls. In a land where driving is extremely dangerous, if I say “close calls” then you can interpret that to mean near-death experiences. Normally, I might pass a semi going the other way and as long as they were at least 2 feet from me I considered it par for the course. In one instances I was coming into a blind corner and the semi emerged completely in my lane. If I was not riding on the far edge of my lane I would have been plastered. Fortunately, when riding in SE Asia I live by the philosophy that you always expect a freight train to emerge from your next blind spot. Whether that spot be 400 ft down the road or 4 ft. So you always ride like that is an expectation and put yourself in a position to deal with it. In some cases that means slowing down to decrease your braking distance, but in others it means coming up with a safety valve for where you will go if that train appears. In the other near-death instance of the day, I was passing a semi and as I started to pass him he cut me off. And then he did it again. I felt like I was in a Nascar race. Did I need to give this guy a fake pass to the other side before accelerating to cut inside him? Bad enough that people drive in my lane to pass and then honk at me like I have the nerve to drive in my own lane, but now they were pinching me off the road.
I survived and pulled into the Hyatt Da Nang Resort and Spa. At the front gate, they just looked at me and asked what they could do for me. I told them I have a reservation. They responded, “A room reservation?”. “Yep”. Wait till they get a load of me here, I thought.
I checked in and needed to get some clothes washed. For the last few days I was rotating between my only 2 shirts and socks and I just couldn’t deal with the smell anymore.
After getting my suit steam cleaned and collars starched, I caught a taxi into Da Nang. This place was big with Korean tourists. I was amazed at these fish restaurants
You literally picked your dinner out of an aquarium and they cooked it for you. We had this in Thailand, but it was just a few buckets with hose running to it.
I had a few beers and found dinner and called it a night. The next day I returned the bike to the shop, lounged around the resort for the afternoon and flew out the next morning
The airport went smooth with the exception that while waiting at the gate, I heard my name called over the intercom. They escorted me back through security and into a private room. I was slightly concerned I would say. They opened my bag and pulled out the CO2 canisters I had in case I needed to re-inflate my tire and my battery pump went bad. I told them to just keep it as with all the tape I had wrapped around it I could not blame them for thinking it was a pipe bomb.
The trip was an overwhelming success. I thought how far I had come since that snot-nosed kid landing in Hanoi 7 years ago, learning to ride a motorcycle, and how much I wished I could go back to harness some of that virgin excitement.
Until Next Time