There are some wonderful mountain rides throughout SE Asia but the northern section of Duong Ho Chi Minh (HCM Road) & in particular the section known as " DHCM Tay" or ' Western HCM Trail' is amongst the best ....... anywhere! Sensationally beautiful, bathed in history, legend & intrigue this is an unparalleled adventure ride over the towering peaks of the Truong Son Mountains offering stunning panaramas across Laos, down along long stretches of pristine rivers, through lush jungle, amidst hill-tribe communities, passing through the absolutely staggeringly beautiful Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park & its majestic karsts hiding the world's largest caves only now being discovered, the trail snakes its way up towards Vinh. Back ground information concerning the HCM Trail can be found in my report - http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/35525-Ho-Chi-Min-Trail-(Kon-Tum-Buon-Ma-Thuot-Tay-Ninh)-Pt-1-Da-Nang-to-Mekong-Delta . Today we run north from Thanh My crossing the confluence of the Dakmi, Cai & Thanh Rivers as they meet to form the Song Vu Gia which runs to the sea at Hoi An. A bridge constructed high over the waters takes you to a scintilating climb followed by an equally steep descent offering views across cloud-filled valleys deep below. There's a hydro electrical dam being constructed on the Bung River, such schemes being the centre of much debate given the associated deforestation & erosion. Hungry for electricity Vietnam now faces a moment of truth given the world's sudden found aversion to nuclear power. On to Prao where coffee shops dot this small town with its wide boulevarde; the trail runs out past several Kru villages giving a feeling of Laos where I first experienced the joy of children streaming onto the street to wave to you, to cheer, & hoping for a 'high five'. Children swim & play all around in the rivers. The villagers here are clearly poor, construction is uniquely from local forest materials, but its lifting to see them carrying their hand-made baskets into the forests & fields - the cost of mass produced Chinese equivalents remains beyond the budget of these people. The trail continues at times literally gripping the range separating Vietnam from Laos, offering glimpses of scenic, isolated villages, some delightful rises & falls, twists & turns, comforting forest cover & the odd waterfall for those seeking a dip. A couple of tunnels help one penetrate the enormity of the mountains before you before descending to a truly beautiful valley township just south of A Luoi. Its rice harvest time where a carpet of green has turned to a sea of gold & everywhere about woman carry their handmade baskets strapped to their backs laden with rice: A Luoi was the site of the battle of 'Hamburger Hill' (Ap Bia Mountain) in May 1969, & movie of the same name; a battle which shocked the American public given the number of American casualties. From 'Hamburger Hill' we would head north along the scenic Da Krong River passing through a Paco village. An impressive new concrete suspension bridge now stands in place of the original bridge made so famous during the American War where Hwy14 meets Hwy9. Highway 9 from Krong Klang (Da Krong) all the way up to Khe Sanh offers fabulous river views depicting hill-tribe life - this is camera clicking country! Khe Sanh saw the most ferocious battle of the war with as many as 500 Americans, 10,000 Vietnamese & countless civilians dieing in the battle. It appears it was a successful ploy of the Vietcong to divert American resources away from the Tet Offensive staged in Hue. The best place to stay is the Thai Ninh offering good sized, clean rooms with AC & TV starting at 290,000vnd ($15) b'fast not included. This is Bru (hill-tribe) country & you'll see many a Bru woman smoking tobacco on a handmade pipe as she works the fields or brings the rewards of the day's toil home. It is difficult for the untrained eye to differentiate between hill-tribes - the Vietnamese policy of assimilation has seen to that - & we recall with great joy the multitude of rides we took through the hills of northern Thailand to so many a hill-tribe festival where the villagers wear proudly their native costume in day to day life, where the villages are full of cultural differences to mark them apart. I do, however, get a sense of a ressurgence in hill-tribe culture in Vietnam; a recognition by the authorities that it provides an opportunity for much needed revenue via tourism. We would stay overnight at the border crossing town of Lao Bao. We were up early for the ride north along the Western HCM trail which extends north from Khe Sanh to Khe Gat running parallel to Vietnam's western border with Laos. Its around 240kms of the very best! The road climbs thrillingly to a peak near Ta Rung offering absolutely splendid views all around, especially those out across Laos. The colours & peaks of the mountain ranges here deserve superlatives being heaped upon them. The view from the top, looking over Laos: The view a little further down; Laos to the left, Vietnam to the right: The trail continues past several villages established overlooking rivers around which daily life revolves - teenagers fishing, children playing, woman washing clothes, crops being irrigated. Men collect materials for basket weaving - baskets to carry rice or corn, trays to seive the river for fish, smaller baskets worn in the hollow of the back in which to place the day's catch. A view either side of the Long Dai River at a village crossing almost 50kms north of Khe Sanh: Mountain scenery & glimpses of life along the rivers worthy of a photo with every blink of the eye surround you, then suddenly the stunning karst surrounded valleys near Tang Key have you in awe. Beautiful is the subsequent run along the Long Dai River north towards the Phong Nha National Park entry: Villagers fishing: Water buffalo galore enjoying the sand & the water: A word of advice - this is beautiful country; its pure, its raw. You'll perhaps see an average of 2-3 motorbikes an hour & maybe a vehicle with 4 wheels every 3 hours. Take a proper tool kit, an inner tube, water & a snack as a break-down will see you left to your own devices. If travelling on the typical Vietnamese motorcycle - that's all there is in Vietnam (!) - with a range of around 120/130kms per tank, take some fuel with you as fuel at the smaller places along the route often runs dry & you just may find that retracing your steps some 20-30kms is beyond your remaining fuel range. Finally be ready for anything to happen at any of the many park entry control points - ride up slowly to the boom-gate & pass slowly under it (often it will not be manned) & continue quietly along. On researching my own trip I was advised to take a supply of local vodka & cigarettes - 'just in case' - but I chose not to & did not have any problems. You will find it easier entering the park from the south & will be able to exit comfortably at Khe Ghat or via the control along Hwy 20 on the way to Son Trach (Xuan Son). Conversely when heading into the park from the north you will in all probability not be permitted to enter along Hwy 20, although you will gain access via Khe Gat on the basis you are entering 'to visit Paradise Cave'. There is no guarantee (although being denied is rare) that you will be permitted to exit at the control points on the park's southern perimeter, in which case you could be faced with a long ride back. Having entered the Unesco World Heritage Site of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park you'll be blown away by the sheer beauty of the place. Truly awe inspiring karsts over 400 milion year old - the oldest in Asia - jut out from the land towering into the skies above: Could that be the coast in the background.......... The park is packed with caves of extraordinary dimensions. Speleologist Howard Libert is credited with finding many of the caves - in the month (April) before we visited Libert found another 8 previously unknown caves bringing to 15 the total he discovered in the last 2 months alone. Only half have as yet been named! Libert worked in 2009 at Hang Son Dong having the cave recognised as the largest cave in the world. With a principal cavern more than 5km long, 200m high & 150m wide it is unfortunately closed to the public. You can, however, visit Paradise Cave (Dong Tien Duong) justifiably labelled by many as the world's most beautiful & magnificent cave. Only opened to the public in 2011, at 31.4km in length its said to be the world's longest dry cave. The sheer scale & volume of the cave in its cathedral-like proportions & its system of stalagmites & stalacites is simply breathtaking. There's a great wooden walkway which takes you a kilometre into the cave & offers great photo opportunities in the cleverly lit cave. For $100 you can organise for a guide to take you a further 6-7 kilometres into the cave for the 'real experience". Tip - take the ramp up & return down by the 524 steps. A great story from Dave 'Multi' at the Phong Nha Farmstay from where he often takes tours through the area - Dave recalls that on arriving home following one trip to Paradise Cave a certain middle aged Englishman descended from the van protesting : "Well that was a total f.....g waste of time"! Shocked & concerned Dave approached the Englishman to be told: "When I consider all the caves I visited over the last 35 years before seeing Paradise Cave, in thinking of those other caves I can only conclude - well, that was a total f.....g waste of time"! Climbing back out; you actually climb down into the cave: You can also visit Phong Nha Cave, a spectacular river journey starting from Son Trach along the Con River which ultimately runs some 55 km into the cave. The main cavern of the cave is some 8kms deep with several other caves clustered around. The Americans once flew a night mission over the area during the American War launching phosphorous lights from parachutes before filming the area. They were staggered to find evidence of the Song Son crossing over the Con River & to see barges moored in the area ready to transport goods & ammunition down to Phong Nha for storage & subsequent transport south. Its this same route you'll take by boat to see the cave. I spoke with a woman during my trip who worked from bunkers built either side of the river from which a rope holding metal drums was dragged by hand to explode mines dropped into the river by the Americans. It was at this same time that the Americans were able to determine that all goods being shipped south were passing through Khe Sanh - when they built the garrison to block such transport the Vietcong built Hwy 20 in its 54km entirety across to the Laos border in only 5 weeks (night shift only!). On the cliff-side above the entrance to Phong Nha Cave there's a steep climb past several 'snacks' to reach Tien Son Cave with inscriptions dating back to the 9th century. The cave was used as a hospital & ammunition depot during the American War & craters from American bombing are apparent in the surrounding countryside. The Song Son crossing, right alongside where the sanpans leave for Pong Nha Cave: Its possible to reach (but not enter) Phong Nha Cave in taking the small & sometimes bumpy road that follows the Con River. En route we encountered bulls fighting over a herd which was clearly attractive to them. At one stage as I jockeyed closer to the action to get a better photo the fight moved my way & I had only inches to push my bike to safety: Nuoc Mooc is another spot well worth the walk in if time permits. The turquoise waters set amidst limestone karsts is a great spot for a swim. We would exit the park via Hwy 20. The kilometrage markers here are marked "Pha X Son" which is one & the same place as Son Trach, Phong Nha, Xuan Son & Pha Xuan Son! You can see the countryside in which the road is constructed & in one photo below even see the road gripping the foot of the escarpment. Its all the more reason to marvel at the construction of this road during the nights of only 5 weeks: Hwy 20 runs through to the beautifully situated & clearly photogenic Con River: Phong Nha Farmstay is the place to stay. A larger french provincial construction - the white building in the background in the photo below - with a swimming pool, it offers sensational views over the surrounding rice-fields ringed by mountains. Amazingly flood waters some 18 months ago almost reached the top floor of the construction! Run by Australian Ben & his Vietnamese wife Bich it offers great rooms - all reasonably priced - in a magic setting, a first class restaurant and an abundance of local knowledge. With a background in building Ben has managed to get the balance right where people of all nationalities, all walks of life, mingle freely, happily chatting away. Ben has a wealth of knowledge about the area - he can arrange for a trek to take you out past the TOTALLY isolated Ban Doong hill-tribe village with a sleep over in the caves, if extreme tours are your interest. Ask Ben also about 'The Pub with Cold Beer' for a great trip down unsealed roads & across rivers to find a pub at the end of the line in the valley of Bong Lai miles removed from everywhere. Ben's foresight & desire to see that the community around him prospers saw him having a local mechanic trained on larger (than the small typical Vietnamese) bikes - great news for anyone riding through the area. The run out to 'The Pub With Cold Beer', the pub itself & the view from the public bar: Some shots showing life surrounding the farmstay - Buffalo soccer: Heading home having fed in the mud-pond: We would run home via the Eastern HCM Road which although not part of the HCM trail offers a well surfaced, steady paced route southwards for those wishing to avoid Hwy1A. Avoid the Hue bypass to Da Nang; there is presently no major road in worse condition in Vietnam! A reminder of a broken ankle: We would leave the farmstay with around 800,000vnd. After 20kms we stopped for fuel leaving us with 400,000vnd. Another 20kms & it was 'jackpot time' - we were flagged down by police, told we were speeding (no radar present at what operated as a truck checking point) & advised the fine would be 400,000vnd/bike.........fortunately when the good officer saw I had only 412,000vnd in my wallet, he relieved me of 400,000vnd only whilst remarking that the nearest ATM was some 90kms on! So with no breakfast & only 12,000vnd (60cents) we rode on to Cam Lo to find the ATM broken down! You have to laugh!