“You’ve got to ride a dirt bike like you’ve stolen it” said Digby through gritted teeth, as he accelerated through a particularly gnarly section, the wheels weaving between rocks, mud spraying up from the bike in all directions. All around us was deep Southeast Asian jungle, with no form of civilization for miles. If anything happened to us out here we were in trouble; the only thing to do was to hold on and enjoy the ride.
Less than a week before I’d been sitting in an office in London when my boss turned to me and asked; “How do you feel about a little trip to Lao next week?” A few days later I was on a plane to Bangkok, bags hastily packed, a slight sense of trepidation as to what the hell I had let myself in for. My mission: to recce a 600 km section of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail for a TV programme I was producing. And since the only two people who knew the Trail well enough to act as my guides were bikers, we’d be doing the trip by the glorious medium of two-wheels.
My boyfriend Marley was less than delighted about my latest task, ‘So, let me get this straight; you’re going to be spending a week riding a motorbike through the jungle, with your thighs wrapped around another man? I’m not the jealous type but…”
“Well, it is my job” I’d replied weakly, before heading East.
The other man was Digby Greenhalgh, the Australian head honcho of Hanoi-based motorbike tour company Explore Indochina, a bike and Trail obsessive. We’d be joined by Don Duvall, equally bike and Trail obsessed. Don, dubbed The Midnight Mapper, has lived in Lao for 10 years and dedicated his life to mapping every single square inch of the country by GPS from the back of his trusty Honda XR400. 56, going on 20, and with a proclivity for frequent peals of laughter, Don’s cartographic retentiveness knows no bounds, and to date he has mapped more than 50,000 GPS points in Lao. I couldn’t have wished for two better people to be riding with.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is arguably one of the greatest feats of military engineering in history, a Goliath of ingenuity and bloody determination. At its peak this 20,000 km transport network spread like a spider’s web through Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia; an indestructible labyrinth through which the North Vietnamese fed the war in the South. Without the Trail, there could have been no war, a fact which the Americans knew only too well. In a sustained eight year campaign to destroy it they flew 580,000 bombing missions, dropped over 2 million tonnes of ordinance on neutral Lao, denuded the jungle with chemicals and seeded clouds to induce rain and floods. At one point Nixon even mooted the notion of deploying nuclear weapons.
Amazingly, considering its importance, there are very few people today who know of the whereabouts of the remaining sections of Trail. Backpackers may ride a sanitized, tourist version of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, but only a smattering of devotees make it as far as the real Trail in Lao, many of these bikers. Much of the vast network of roads and tracks has simply been lost forever to the jungle, and most sections that do remain are heavily contaminated by UXO. Even today, almost 40 years after the last bomb was dropped, UXO is a deadly legacy of the war, and still kills around 200 people a year. Since our ride would be following some of the main arteries of the Trail, UXO was something we had to be very careful of – there would be no diving off into the jungle for a wee.
The three of us set off from the village of Nongchan, a scrappy border settlement in the shadow of the Truong Son mountains. This jungle-clad spine of karst peaks stretches for around 1000 km along the Vietnam-Lao border, and would be our companion for much of the ride south. Since I’d never ridden a dirt-bike before, and now wasn’t the time to start, I’d be riding pillion with Digby on a hired Kawasaki KLX 250, with Don solo on his Honda. As I poured myself into the non-existent gap between Digby and our tower of luggage, Don let out a whoop of laughter; “Jeeeesus, you two are going to have an interesting time, this ride is hard enough alone, let alone with two of you on that bike.” By the time I’d wedged myself in there was barely room for a Higgs Boson.
Nongchan’s wooden shacks petered out into lush jungle, the morning mist hanging over jagged karst outcrops, the red dirt road cloggy from recent rain. Bomb-craters punctuated the roadside, a reminder that during the war this area, the Ban Phanop valley, had been pummelled into oblivion by the US. Forced through a natural gap in the mountains from Vietnam, all southbound traffic on the Trail was funnelled through this valley, a fact the US knew only too well. It was so heavily bombed one US pilot called it ‘the most God forsaken place on earth’. Looking at the dense, verdant jungle that flanked us as we rode, it was hard to imagine that forty years ago it would have looked like the surface of the moon.
The first village we came to was a single dusty street of ramshackle stilted houses. A gaggle of excitable, raggedly dressed children crowded around the two bikes, curious as to the identity of these newly arrived aliens in their midst. For people who rarely, if ever, had seen foreigners before, the sight of Don clad in head to toe Robocop-like armour must have been akin to ET walking into a pub in Somerset and ordering a pint of cider. But within seconds Don was laughing with the village chief and had the ever-expanding horde of children giggling happily.
The whole village was a living war museum, and as we wandered up the street Digby pointed out the countless bits of war ephemera converted for use in everyday life. Spring onions sprouted in rusty cluster bomb casings, women leaned against ladders made of aluminium fuel rods, boys paddled in canoes fashioned from fuel canisters and a chicken nested in a missile nose-cone. Outside the small wooden temple the faded wing of a US F-4 fighter leaned against a tree, children peering at us through a large hole in the metal.
Walking past one house we noticed two large 500 lb bombs lying under the steps; “I’m sure those are still live – look, they’ve still got the fuses on” said Digby, pointing to their shiny tips. No one seemed the remotest bit concerned though, and children’s bare feet ran past inches from the fuses. We later found out from an NGO that these two bombs were indeed live, and that the man who had found them was keeping them until he could sell them for scrap metal. It highlighted what terrible risks people here would take with UXO in order to sell the valuable scrap metal and put food on their family’s table.
Every village we rode through that day, and for much of our journey, bore the same scars of war. Cows wandered along the road wearing bells made of mortar fuses, houses were held up by cluster bomb casings and schoolyards were pockmarked with bomb-craters. Often red UXO-warning markers poked out of the dust next to houses, outside schools or on the edge of the dirt track. Yet these reminders of war seemed so incongruous with the children who waved and shouted ‘Sabadee!’ as we rode past, and the shy mothers smiling down at us from their huts.
Lao is a country of a thousand rivers, and as we rode south through Khammouane, Savannakhet, Saravan, Sekong, Attapeu and Champassak provinces, we would cross what felt like a hundred of these. Methods of getting across these rivers varied, according to depth, width and how many people were watching. Generally it was a case of throttle-on-feet-up-and-ride, hoping we wouldn’t smack a large rock in the middle and get an ignominious ducking. Deeper crossings saw me being hoofed off, while Digby edged the bike across and I walked. If we were lucky there might be some sort of makeshift ‘bridge’ – a questionably stable structure made of bamboo or galvanised metal.
One river crossing was somewhat more perilous. This particular river was several hundred metres wide, and while trucks could just about drive, bikes had to make the short journey on an extremely narrow, very unstable wooden canoe, steered by a toothless old man wielding a single pole. Digby rode the bike on in front of me, the wheels wedged in the rut at the bottom of the canoe, his legs resting on the paper-thin sides for stability. “Just crouch down, sit behind me and don’t move” he said, not even daring to turn his head for fear of tipping us. I obeyed, hardly daring to breathe as the old man inched us across, so slowly that a large green lizard paddled past, eyeing us with a beady yellow eye. At one point we wobbled so violently I feared we’d be joining the lizard, and I could see Digby’s legs shaking with nerves. Once we reached the safety of the far bank we both laughed hysterically, watching as Don did the crossing with infuriating ease and gusto.
Tired, muddy, elated and in need of a Beer Lao, we rolled into Villabury at the end of the first day, 120 km on the clock. “You’re going to love tonight” Digby had said earlier, a glint of mischief in his eyes, “We’re staying at a tranny hotel.” I had visions of rolling up at a one-horse town in the jungle and finding a sequin-clad oasis of dancing ladyboys. Instead we were greeted by a rather corpulent, grumpy transvestite, whose short skirt revealed a pair of startlingly hairy legs. Nevertheless, it didn’t deter from the novelty of the situation, and the $8 rooms, cheap beer and fried rice were just what we needed.
The real crux of our ride was a 60 km section between Nong and Ta Oy; “the boonies” as the boys called it – dense jungle inhabited by remote tribes, elephants and the odd tiger. “No one’s ever ridden this section two-up” warned Digby, as we filled up at a petrol shack in Nong where part of a tank languished outside, “I’m not even sure it’s possible.” The ride was every bit as hard as Digby and Don had warned, a thrilling cocktail of river crossings, mud, rocks and steep hills, the tree canopy enveloping the track in a green womb. Only one hill managed to get the better of us, the bike sliding over in the mud, caking us both in a sticky layer of Trail dirt.
The few villages we did ride through in this area were home to some of Lao’s fifty different ethnic groups; animists who speak no Lao and have few ties with the central government. Pot-bellied pigs, skinny dogs and chickens scrapped in the dust, and no one seemed to be doing much. It was as if achievement was measured by who could do as little as possible, for as long as possible, in as much shade as possible. There were no schools, no temples, no electricity, and by the looks of the swollen stomachs of many of the children who ran after us, not enough food. It was so remote here we didn’t even pass the ubiquitous, overloaded mopeds, which frequently trundled past us during the rest of our ride, weighed down by anything from bananas to saucepans, logs and even live pigs. The only traffic we saw on this section was a handful of women walking barefoot along the track, large bamboo tobacco bongs slung round their necks. Amazingly, two of them fled into the jungle in terror at the mere sight of us – evidence of the rarity of foreigners in these parts.
At Ta Oy we emerged from the crepuscular darkness of the jungle onto the packed dirt of a new road, a row of parked up diggers and width of which suggested this was destined to be a major highway. It was a bizarre juxtaposition to the remoteness of the jungle. Aching and adrenalized, we checked in to the only ‘hotel’ and celebrated our victory over the crux by getting utterly inebriated on Lao Lao, a potent local moonshine which should only be imbibed in the absence of anything else. Since Ta Oy was, as Digby so eloquently put it, ‘a shithole’ and our hotel was a plywood, mosquito infested dive, getting drunk was an exceptionally good idea.
The accommodation may not have been high luxury, but one of the many wonderful things about this ride was our ever evolving environment. We breezed along sections of graded red dirt, spun through glutinous mud, sped along the occasional winding ribbon of tarmac and bumped over original Ho Chi Minh Trail cobblestones. And as we pushed south, the topography changed entirely, morphing from jungle to strange pine-clad plateaus, redolent of Greece or Turkey. At Chavan, a parched plateau used by the French as an airstrip in the Indochina War, we ate a picnic lunch in an old bomb-crater, then spent an exhilarating few hours trailing Don’s bike through the pines, leaves eddying up behind his wheels. Later that day the land changed again, the beautiful Bolaven plateau rising to our right, Truong Son mountains to our left, blue sky and ochre dirt completing the picture. Dipping down towards Attapeu as dusk fell, we passed the rusting hulk of a tank, abandoned in some distant battle, every ounce of removable metal stripped from it for scrap.
Our last stretch was 200 km of surprisingly smooth tarmac between Attapeu and Pakse, a final dash before I had to cross the border to Thailand and catch a flight home. The ride had been such a blast, and Digby and Don such excellent companions, I wasn’t relishing the thought of being catapulted back to the normality of an English winter. With barely a moment to spare before I had to leave for the airport, we skidded into Pakse, a backpacker haunt on the Mekong, and after a hasty goodbye to the boys it was all over. Much to the disgust of my neighbour on the long flight home, I hadn’t even had time to wash or change, and travelled the whole way to England covered in a thick layer of Trail mud. It was a strangely satisfying end to a truly marvellous adventure.
To join a small group ride down the Ho Chi Minh Trail contact Digby through www.exploreindochina.com. Prices depend on group size and length of the ride.
To buy Don’s marvellous map go to Laogpsmap.com. The map costs a bargainous $50.
This article first appeared in Motorcycle Monthly’s June edition.