After the Northern loop OCD and I headed south, in the general direction of Saigon (still well over 2000km away) and picked up the Western Ho Chi Minh Road which runs north-south down the backbone of Vietnam, twisting over the mountainous ridge which separates Vietnam and Laos. There are now essentially two roads which run down the central mountains of Vietnam; the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road and the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, the latter being a little more twisty and remote on account of being higher in the hills and further from the major towns. Fifty years ago these roads were tiny trails along which the North Vietnamese communists were moving weapons from Hanoi to Saigon to fight a guerrilla war against the Americans. The Americans decided that the best way to stop this was to carpet bomb the route, but there wasn’t just one route, the mountains along western Vietnam are full of tiny tracks and trails, hidden by impenetrable forests. The routes became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and, despite being “bombed back to the stone age” (quote the head of the US Airforce) with Napalm carpet bombing, the trails were so small, complex and difficult to find that the Americans failed to ever shut down the supply train, but they indiscriminately burned hundreds of km of forests and thousands of people with Napalm gel in the process (Napalm, invented in Harvard, is a flammable gel that sticks to your skin and burns at about 1000°C). Today, there’s no visible trace of the Napalm attacks and the tiny trails that were the Viet Cong’s Ho Chi Minh Trail are now perfect ribbons of smooth tarmac twisting their way through the forests like a never ending race-track. Back then it would have been a muddy rutted path and taken weeks to negotiate whilst dodging B-52 bombers, for us, we opened up the big bikes and raced around the tight turns dodging chickens and scooters, managing to rack up over 400km in a day - that's a long way on knotted mountain passes. The last time I really opened up the bike in the twisty stuff was back in Tamil Nadu, five months and 20,000km ago. It’s been too long since I had some proper, endorphin-making fun with the bike and it was fantastic. I love Vietnam’s mountain roads; endless fast sweeping bends and tight hair-pins, in seven hours the only time I went in a straight line was on a section of an old US army run-way which looked like a drag-race strip; it’s proper motorbike Nirvana and for me has completely justified the ridiculous expense and stress of bringing my big KTM all the way over here. Riding anything less I would be disappointed, but today I know why I’m doing this crazy journey on this huge bike, it’s cos it’s fun! The downside of riding so far and so hard is that my front tyre has worn out and is beginning to look like a racing slick. That’s all good when it’s dry and the road is good, but it’s a bit of a nightmare when it rains so I urgently need to get some fresh rubber on the front, and the problem with that is that you can’t get my type of big touring bike in Vietnam, so you can’t get my type of big touring tyre here either. So it looks like I’ll have to nurse it back to Bangkok (that’s about 1500km yet) to go to the KTM dealer, again!
Dalat is a tourist-mecca hill resort about 300km north of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We were recommended the detour to Dalat by a quartet of crazy Irish guys we met in a tiny rural town in the middle of nowhere on the Western Ho Chi Minh road. They’re on a long university holiday from Dublin having bought four half-dead scooters in Saigon from a cowboy bike dealer who has sold them a load of scrap metal masquerading as bikes. They’re trying to get to Hanoi but they break down several times a day, they can’t make it up steep hills and they’ve never ridden any kind of motorbike before now! In fact, three of them don’t even possess any kind of an Irish driving licence, let alone in International Driving Permit so they’ve already been fined by the Vietnamese police. But they’re having fun, they don’t possess a map, any protective clothing or the slightest bit of mechanical knowledge and they’re riding four rust-buckets across Vietnam – brilliant! As I lean the bike into the twists and turns of the mountain road to Dalat I can’t imagine how the Irish quartet made it up here on broken scooters, my mind tries to visualise what this looks like from above; what the American bombers would have seen from a B-52 in 1970 and now what this spectacular road to Dalat looks like from the air. I imagine seeing a looping braid of black ribbon draped haphazardly across a green baize of hills and forests with tropical mist rolling up the valleys. Dalat is a welcome break from the basic existence of rural Vietnam. Outside the tourist resorts, rural Vietnam is quite utilitarian; the cafes and eateries (I can’t call them restaurants, they’re too basic) serve a fairly meagre set of variations on a basic theme. There’s chewy beef, chewy chicken, pork fat, rice and noodles, and you can have it boiled or fried, and you can sit on the most uncomfortable plastic chairs which, having been bought from a Kindergarten school supply catalogue, are only 30cm off the ground. Your food will arrive in stages, the noodles first, 5 minutes later the fried chewy beef, 5 minutes after that the cold chewy chicken, then finally, once you’ve laboured through the previous offerings the plain rice arrives with a smile. You sit on your tiny chair, with your knees around your ears trying to pick food up with chop sticks from the tiny table at shin-height debating whether it would be more comfortable to just sit on the floor with the insects and discarded beer cans. I’m being a little harsh but it’s really not much of an exaggeration, so to have a choice restaurants in Dalat, some serving sushi, steak and wine with cushioned seating was grounds for celebration.
On the way across the Vietnamese hills Lawrence and I have had some great existential conversations over dinner on our Kindergarten furniture; discussing what makes people tick, and why we are engaged in such a crazy venture as overland motorbike travel. The conclusions are long and varied but all have a psychological leaning. And we start to discuss the concept of going back to the reality of home. This is a something which I am increasingly looking forward to; I’ve been on the road for 6 months and travelled over 30,000km so far and now, for the first time I feel like I’m starting to head home. I think it’s because Vietnam is the furthest East I’m going to get in Asia and I’m now heading back towards the relatively westernised worlds of Thailand and Malaysia with their more accommodating infrastructures. We talk at length about our fears for being back home and needing to re-engage with the world of work, houses, jobs, and all that goes with it. I don’t expect any sympathy from those who are still doing all that and have been for all the time I’ve been away, but from a personal perspective it’s already looming as a bit of a shock to the system. I’m trying to keep it in perspective and not let it concern me too much at this stage. I’ve still got 6 weeks until I’m planning on flying the bike back to London so I don’t want to start over-thinking things now, I’ll ruin the experience of the final few weeks in Asia.