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.