Ho Chi Minh Trail (Kon Tum, Buon Ma Thuot, Tay Ninh) – Pt 1: Da Nang to Mekong Delta
- Rod Page 22nd November 2011 at 9:53 am #91277
The Ho Chi Minh Trail runs from around Vinh in North Vietnam through parts of Laos & Cambodia to areas west of Saigon in South Vietnam. The trail is not a single route but a complex series of routes – truck tracks, footpaths, bicycle pathways, and river transport systems – much of which existed for centuries as primitive trade footpaths. The trail, set in sparsely-populated country amidst rugged mountain ranges & dense jungle, comprises supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command facilities, all camouflaged from airial surveilance whereby trucks can travel its length without emerging from the canopy except to cross streams sometimes using submerged bridges. During the American War the trail provided manpower and supplies to the Vietcong and the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Although estimates vary widely – from 5500 to 13000km of trails, for example – it would appear that
– the journey south undertaken initially on foot carrying supplies took around 6 months, but only 6 weeks once trucks could be used,
– at the peak of the American War some 50,000 Vietcong maintained the Trail which transported around 40,000 tons of supplies & over 100,000 troops (up to 20,000 per month at times) south annually.
The USA mounted over 500 strikes per day on the trail, dropping more ordinance than was dropped in the whole of WW11 without ever blocking the trail whilst making the area the most bombed in history. The motto of those using the trail was: “build roads to advance; fight the enemy to travel”.
According to the U.S. National Security Agency the Trail was: “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century.”
Today parts of the HCM Road run through or along sections of the famous Trail offering spectacular scenery & an insight into Vietnamese history.
Ho Chi Minh Road (south) – KON TUM
Our journey southwards would start some 80kms west of Da Nang where Hwy14B meets the Ho Chi Min Road at Thanh My (Nam Ghiang) some 250kms south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which marked the separation between North & South Vietnam. It was a Saturday morning, a morning which saw us confronted by many funeral processions. As a new-comer I was hesitant to photograph the processions but I can say that the colour of the celebrants, especially the head ‘priest’ is magical; something for which I will definitely furnish photographs in future. H14B took us across a very swollen Vu Gau River via roads much crossed by water given recent heavy rains;
From Thanh My the scenic Ho Chi Min Road (Hwy14) follows the Dakmi River where one is periodically greeted by majestic waterfalls as the road takes you through to the quite scenic Kham Duc (Phuoc Son):
It is clear that one has entered a land of hill-tribe peoples. The Kru & Trieng are prominant especially as one climbs the most scenic pass leading to Plei Kan (Ngoc Hoi). There are many rituals performed by hill-tribe peoples in the area including those marking someone’s spirit leaving the tomb, a buffalo stabbing ceremony undertaken in times of great importance (bumper crop, victory celebration, peace rituals), a festival to celebrate the new crop & another when a new water source is found:
Plei Kan is a small, simple town gripping Hwy14 as it rolls in from Khm Duc then dog-legs back towards Kon Tum with a couple of eateries & cafe bars in the middle & a market at the Kon Tum end. We would stay in Plei Kan for the night to investigate the possibility of travelling south along Hwy14C & to visit the Bo Y-Phou Keua border crossing, 119km from Attapeu & the most southern crossing between Vietnam & Laos.
A reconnaissance run out along H14C saw the road change from bitumen to dirt after only 10kms. Although it could well have returned to bitumen shortly thereafter, given it was the rainy season & that we were carrying heavily laddened panniers, we will ride this enticing route on a later occassion.
The border crossing (Bo Y-Phou Keua) was as intriguing as ever – massive highways extend from the border, more to impress those arriving than due to need; certain similarly spectacular roads run to dirt tracks through the hills along clearly pourous sections of the border. Watching arriving bikes straining under the weight of sizeable loads & loadless bikes heading the other way back to Laos brings a grin.
The run to Kon Tum was only 70 odd kms giving us plenty of time to enjoy the valleys, hills, plateaus & mountains along the way. After around 25kms you pass through Dak To, the scene of one of the last big battles in the American War before the Americans pulled out. Nearby is Charlie Hill, the scene of a major Vietcong victory in a battle largely, perhaps conveniently, forgotten by the West. Kon Tum itself saw major battles especially in 1972 when the area was bombed incessantly by B52’s.
Hill-tribe culture is ever more present in the area with villages of Se Dang & Bahnar readily visible. If you keep an eye out you’ll see the traditional ‘nha rong’ of the Bahnar in isolated villages along the route, the tall tressed-roof community houses built on stilts around which village life centres. We rode into several villages much to the total dismay of inhabitants.
About 30kms from Kon Tum, however, the road deteriorated into a dangerous mixture of gravel, pot-holes, dirt & dust with trucks, buses, cars & bikes all competing for any apparent smooth section – its a dangerous cocktail!
Kon Tum, only recently opened to tourists, makes a good stop as there are a number of worthwhile things to see & do. Towards the southern end of town you’ll find a wonderful collection of hill-tribe artefacts & incredible photos from a life-style long gone at Dakblas restaurant:
There’s are plenty of new culinary tastes to be had & one should try Rouo Can, a sweet wine made from leaves, cassava roots & rice which is drunk from a communal jar by straw by all present simultaneously.
From Dakblas its but a short trip to the absolutely beautiful Nha Tho Go Kon Tum (Kon Tum Wooden Church/Cathedral) built by the French in 1913:
Behind the Cathedral lies an orphanage (& home for certain children placed there by their families due to financial constraints) for mainly hill-tribe kids. As they head off to school in the morning they deliver Kon Tum’s very own “Abbey Road”:
In the neighbouring Bahnar villages which the Cathedral serves stand two magnificent Nha Rong – the Van Hoa & the Kon Klor.Rod Page 22nd November 2011 at 10:30 am #124718
Ho Chi Min Road (south) – BUON MA THUOT
Ho Chi Min Road continues southward to Pleiku past the reportedly beautiful Lake Bien Ho which we sought but could not find (I’ve previously written about the total lack of any signage!) The terrible road conditions continued; buses in particular terrorise you.
From Pleiku its a 75km trip to the most northern crossing between Vietnam & Cambodia at Le Thanh-O’Yadow. There are J’rai in the area, a hill-tribe who bury their dead surrounded by carved wooden figures squatting in a position of mourning with hands over their faces. For 7 years family bring food to the grave before then abandoning it in the belief the spirit has departed.
The route takes us over the Dak Lak Plateau with fabulous runs along pine-clad ridges & through kilometres of rubber plantations offering glimpses of wonderful countryside. We stop for lunch road-side near a local market – 4 action filled bread rolls for 30,000 dong ($1.50)! We are soon in Buon Ma Thuot nestled on the plateau amidst clearly wonderful basalt soils; the area produces the best coffee & pepper in Vietnam. Readers may not realise that Vietnam is the world’s second biggest coffee producer behind Brazil. First introduced by the French in 1857, Vietnam now has more than 500,000ha of coffee under cultivation, exporting in excess of 900,000 tons of coffee per year to over 70 countries.
Buon Ma Thout, which fell to the North in a one day surprise attack in 1975, is a prosperous, modern city & a good place to stop. Home to Yok Don National Park – Vietnam’s largest nature reserve, Ban Don, the sensational Dray Sap & Dray Nur Falls, Lake Lak & several minority hill-tribes (M’nong & Ede), not to mention the best coffee imaginable, it offers great access to a series of HCM trails…….there’s something for everyone. We were fortunate to have a by-chance meeting with Thanh, a government control officer &, Huen, his accontant/soon to be wife both of whom spoke English & took time to show us around.
There’s a certain uneasiness about relationships between the Vietnamese & the hill-tribes which I will cover separately in a following report. The Vietnamese governments policy of assimilation saw me visit saw me visit the Ede village of Ako Dhong at the northern end of town:
The Dray Sap & Dray Nur waterfalls situated around 20kms from town are nothing short of stunning. I’ll let the photos do the talking:
I rode on to see the Gia Long Falls, running over a python, 2 metres of which were already crossing the road!
Ban Don to the west of Buon Ma Thout out towards Yok Don N.P. is definitely a town geared for the tourist consisting largely of shops selling trinkets. The much touted 200m bamboo suspension bridge offers little. More interesting in the area is the opportunity to visit hill-tribes living in their ‘un-assimilated’ villages. They are clearly poor. As with all villagers we visited they are absolutely stunned to see a westerner ‘ride in':
The Ede are matralineal. Woman own the land & houses & a married couple will move into the house of the wife which will be extended to accommodate them.
AnonymousAnonymous 22nd November 2011 at 10:41 am #124719
Great stuff!! Thanks. The pics of the falls are nice. No picture of the python?
marcusRod Page 22nd November 2011 at 11:03 am #124720
Ho Chi Minh Road (south) – GIA NGHIA/DONG XOAI
Heading out from Buon Ma Thuot we looked for Lake Lak, known for its stunning scenery, but once again could not find the turn-off. Another spot we will return to find. We therefore continued down the HCM Road through wonderful mountain scenery surrounding the village of Dak Mil. It was a pleasant run with noticably less traffic. Coffee in a wonderful little cafe:
South of Dak Mil various of the HCM trails branch off but we had been warned that many of these along the Cambodian border were currently being upgraded & we were counseled to ride over the Dak Nong Plateau, which proved a truly rewarding & most scenic route. We found Jesus on the move:
More pine filled ridge runs, magnificent rubber plantations & sensational views from above; good enough for a pic-nic in the pines overlooking Mt Nam Dec Bri (1580m):
We rode on past Gia Nghia & on to Dong Xoai. The approach to Gia Nghia gives a birdseye view of two substantial 4-lane dual carriageways, one leading to central Gia Nghai, the other by-passing the town…..there was not another vehicle to be found on the by-pass. I mention it only to highlight the break-neck speed at which infrastructure is being developed here; its quite mind-boggling.
The road from Gia Nghia quickly deteriorated to an absolutely abominal condition seeing us arrive in Dong Xoai covered in dust. With little going on in town other than a lively market & with only a short trip programmed for the next day, we took the opportunity to have the bikes fully serviced. (I will report separately on general matters such as these whilst touring). Dong Xoai’s lively market:
From here the HCM Trails really reflect their name-sake, branching out in all directions as they come to their logical end. The next day would see us venture out for the first time on a road less travelled, a route ‘off the beaten track’…..& we got promptly lost! Heading from Dong Xoai in the direction of Tay Ninh we erred in selecting the track to Minh Hoa in lieu of the correct path via Dau Tieng. After 20kms of rutted mud we found our path blocked by the massive Dau tieng Reservoir, the error quickly erased from our minds but the rewards of fabulous lake views over to Ba Dec Mountain towering over the waters in the distance over to our intended destination of Tay Ninh:
We backtracked to Dau Tieng then took the road that hugs the reservoir around to Duong Minh Chau & what a great choice it was! Its possible to ride along the reservoir wall for some 30kms, offering sensational views & an insight into the lives of locals including fishermen & duck breeders:
TO BE CONTINUED………………….Rod Page 23rd November 2011 at 6:32 am #124742
The Ho Chi Min Trail (south) – Tay Ninh
We reached Tay Ninh, some 100kms west of HCM City; it was an exhilarating day’s riding. Tay Ninh & surrounds mark the end goal of the HCM Trail. Here an absolute maze of trails branch out across the country, across an area extending from HCM City right across to the Cambodian border. Tay Ninh, bordered by Cambodia on three sides, represents a wonderful base from which to see the area.
There’s a most interesting & informative journey to be had to the north-west of Tay Ninh, what I’d call the “Red Pilgrimage”, a must-do for many Vietnamese. The journey is little known to westerners; the reason appearing to lie in Vietnamese protocol; it would appear the Vietnamese are concerned not to embarass/retiscent to promote to westerners, as the vanquished in the American War, those vestiges of the war marking the structure behind the communist victory, vestiges which operated in the very back-yard of the west throughout the war.
Take Hwy 22B north-west from Tay Ninh some 45kms to the border crossing at Xa Mat (but dont attempt to take photos of those pushing their bikes across the border as you’ll infuriate the military) passing a number of interesting pagodas & the VIII century Chot Mat Tower as well as the detour to the war relic Provisional Revolutionary Government Base. The border crossing is fairly basic at present but as a major thoroughfare between HCM City & Cambodia more substantial structures are nearing completion.
From here take the 792 as it grips the border with Cambodia; you’ll quickly arrive at the monument to the Southern Central Security Department Base (all signs & information are in Vietnamese but I’ll use English equivalents in an endeavour to give some understanding to anyone passing that way) which ensured the safety & security of nerve-centre organisations of the Southern Revolution:
This wonderfully wooded road takes you past numerous roadside memorial monuments which celebrate those who have given their lives in numerous cross-border battles as well as the American War:
Continue further along 792 to the Base of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, a political organisation with the purpose of uniting the south against the Americans. Set in wonderful forrest & jungle one can get a good feel for life in those days & what the USA & its allies faced in trying to flush out the Vietcong – the difficulties in penetrating the jungle & in aerial observation, the tiny tunnel structures which served their occupants so well, day-to-day routines. The more complex tunnel systems, all constructed by hand, could be up to 3 levels & 10m deep. Entrances were tiny, exceptionally well camouflaged & heavily booby trapped for the unwary; where possible the entrance was reached underwater. Tunnels were constructed in such a way as to make it exceptionally difficult for larger (American) soldiers to pass. Highly creative mechanisms were used to prevent kitchen smoke reaching the surface. Firing posts were designed to permit firing on the enemy before quickly & totally disappearing. There were air-raid shelters, infirmaries, command posts & so on:
The road continues to the Southern Central Base, an especially important relic for Vietnamese. It was here that the strategies of the Southern Revolution were prepared & applied to defeat the Americans & to reunite the country. This is an incredible place to visit, to walk amongst the barracks of Vietnam’s greatest war heroes, to see the destruction of the defoliants, the craters only metres from key barracks caused by B52 bombers…….
The road continues up to the Chang Riec border gate, un-maned at the time we visited:
A number of wonderful dirt tracks run back along the Cambodian border through plantations of manioc, sugar cane & corn. The loop can be completed by continuing on to the 785 at Vac Sa & another isolated border crossing, on through Ka Tum where we took what we now find quite delictable VN Ca Phe:
Continuing to Tan Chau past sugar factories & rubber plantations we arrive back alongside the 27,000 hectare Dau Tieng Lake before returning to Tay Ninh past the ever-present Ba Den mountain which dominates the plains of Tay Ninh. Its pleasant to be touring the countryside where the well-known images of Vietnam remain ever present:Rod Page 23rd November 2011 at 7:43 am #124743
Ho Chi Min Trail (south) – Tay Ninh (continued)
Ba Den (Black Lady Mountain) at 986m is the highest mountain in Southern Vietnam. A beautiful spot with cultural & historical significance, specatacular views, an extensive system of caves & several temples, access is by cable-car – with stirring revolutionary music playing – for those not wishing to slug it out on foot. Take ‘the luge’ for the return to base!
A key strategic position in times of conflict the summit was used by the USA as a relay base but was ironically destroyed by the Americans themselves in a defoliation & accidental bombing attack. The summit boasts stunning views & a shrine to the Black Lady, a pious woman named Huong, who died by throwing herself from a mountainside cliff to defend her honor.
The main temple:
A temple in caves atop the mountain:
Monks tend to the gong on every occassion someone enters into prayers:
Fabulous views from every angle:Rod Page 23rd November 2011 at 8:21 am #124745
Ho Chi Min Trail (south) – Tay Ninh (continued)
Dawn found us motoring out to the Cao Dai Great Temple for the 6am service. The Temple, built between 1933 & 1955 is one of the most striking in all Asia:
Cao Daism is an intriquing indiginous religion combining elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism & local Vietnamese spiritualism. The Great Temple represents the Holy See; its Vietnam’s Vatican. The religion at one time was a major political force with its own army.
Men enter the Temple on the right & proceed in an anti-clockwise direction; women from the left moving clock-wise, passing a mural depicting the three signatories to the “Third Alliance Between God & Man” – the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem & French author Victor Hugo:
At the rear of the sanctaury stands a statue of the medium Phan Cong Tac, seen here in the middle:
The Temple is built over 9 levels representing the 9 steps to heaven. The dome at the far end of the sanctuary represents the heavens under which the “Divine Eye” representing supreme knowledge & wisdom is situated. Seven chairs are placed before the Divine Eye, the largest of which & closest to the dome being reserved for the Cao Dai Pope (vacant since 1933). The next 3 chairs seat those responsible for the religion’s law books whilst the remaining chairs are for the leaders of the 3 branches of Cao Daism represented by the wearing of red, yellow & blue. During festivals several thousand priests attend:
Sect members live by the ideal of ‘the good person’ trying to escape reincarnation by refraining from killing, lying, sensuality, stealing or a luxurious lifestyle. Members believe history is divided into 3 major periods of divine revelation – a period of God’s revelation through Buddhism, Conficianism & Taoism, the 2nd period of revelation through Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Jesus & Moses, & the final period of the ‘Third Alliance”.
With our most informative, exciting & scenic trip down the HCM Trail over & with already over 1,500kms in the saddle we’d earned a massage.
When 2 stunners in red, with plunging necklines & the briefest of skirts entered the room………………… it would be my last massage!
POSTSCRIPT: For those wishing to do the HCM Trail in its entirety this report should be read in conjunction with: http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/36515-HO-CHI-MINH-TRAIL-ROAD-WEST-(Duong-HCM-Tay)-Khe-Sanh-Phong-Nha
DavidFLKeymasterDavidFL 23rd November 2011 at 11:34 am #124759
Wow! Sensational report Rod. It certainly looks like you’ve already come to grips with riding & touring in Vietnam. There’s no doubt too that you’ve done your usual meticulous research to guide you & Myriama on your way. Well done. I cant wait for the other rides & reports to come.
Keep the power on
AnonymousAnonymous 23rd November 2011 at 1:21 pm #124763
Yes good photos and fantastic reporting as usual Rod, it looks you you are definitely enjoying yourselves there
Kiwi CruiserParticipantKiwi Cruiser 28th November 2011 at 11:00 am #124918
To say that I am envious would be an understatement… your photographs are stunning! I can appreciate the many hours of “homework” that’s gone into preparing the accompanying texts, and assembling and posting the completed content.
If you’ve ever wondered if its all worth it – take it from me, there are many people reading and inwardly digesting your words and images! Some are sure to be so motivated by what you’ve portrayed in this series of reports, they will be compelled to follow in your footsteps! :clap:
JurgenParticipantJurgen 29th November 2011 at 8:01 am #124942
Bis repetita … everything has been said Rod, about your wonderful illustrations, the depth of your useful information, and time consuming write up. I have only traveled Vietnam in « business suit » and on main roads, but I am very happy to reconnect with some places and refresh memories through your pictures.
I can not resist (again) to squat your post with a Cao Dai picture. I followed Graham Green’s « Quiet American » trail to their temple, and discovered that I had, at least, one Saint in common with them : Victor Hugo. There is still a write-up about it in my wish list, but would be outside GT-Rider.
For the rest, I am also envious, and hoping that we could soon get easy access to Vietnam from Laos. I know that it is not impossible, but for the time being, there are too many question marks that I could consider a solo ride.
Thank you again for these contributions to the biking stories in the region.
"These roads are made for travelling"
JurgenParticipantJurgen 16th December 2011 at 3:31 am #125388
The picture of the Cao Dai temple is recent, taken during my last trip top Vietnam, in September 2008.
I came back from Halong bay, hit by the storm Hagupit. The posted picture was not taken during the higth of the storm, as the road from Hanoi was closed, but a day later. (Published informations : the flooding left behind by the typhoon left 41 people dead, and at least 60 injured. Damages exceeded 1 trillion (US 72.49 million), 1,300 houses were completely destroyed with about 10,000 more damaged).
The coast of Vietnam lies in the typhoon belt, and heavy storms are part of the meteorological menu!
On the way back I visited Bai Dinh, a pagoda under construction on a hill in the « Terrestrial Halong Bay » of Hoa Lu. Buddhist caves, a huge metal Sakyamuni and 500 (all different) Buddha images will make this temple a important attraction … I am longing to visit it again.
Rod’s story is fostering great interest int the with GT-Riders community and I am sure that ther will be a bunch more visitors, next year, … on bikes
"These roads are made for travelling"
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