I’ve been so busy riding, navigating, sweating, trying not to fall off and finding enough food for myself that I haven’t had time to blog. Apologies. Here’s a brief taster of what life on the Trail is like…
I woke up yesterday at the usual hour of 06.30, stirred by the stifling heat and a blast of Lao pop music. Everyone seems to get up early here; it’s too hot not to. It was time to hit the Trail anyway -today I was heading out of Nong, into the real boonies.
Having studied some old Ho Chi Minh Trail maps and the GPS, I decided to head East, towards the mountains of the Vietnamese border, to a place called La Hap. If I had time, I’d ride on to Ta Oy. La Hap was an important staging post on the Trail and I’d heard it was an interesting ride there. So having filled the Panther with petrol and strapped a spare bottle to the front rack, we headed out of Nong, on a dusty dirt road. The first part was disappointingly easy – a straight, packed dirt track. Young banana plantations and burnt patches of forest flanked the way, the latter from the local practise of slash and burn agriculture.
Soon, the road narrowed to little more than a deeply rutted footpath, winding through a tunnel of bamboo forest. Recent rain had churned the dust into a gelatinous mess, and I wobbled along a narrow strip of dried mud, which wove tightrope-like between the puddles and crevasses. After about an hour I came to a confusing confluence of paths, and stopped in what seemed like a deserted village to get my bearings. As I was scrutinising the GPS, a young woman appeared on the path with five gourds of water strapped over her shoulders. Out of one corner of her mouth hung a blackened tobacco pipe. She looked startled when she saw me, and when I said ‘Sabadii!’ (Hello) she simply broke into a run and bolted past me into the forest. I don’t think they see many foreigners round here, I thought to myself.
Five minutes later, two more women passed me, carrying wicker baskets filled with leaves. I said ‘Sabadii! and shot them my most ‘I’m a friendly foreigner’ smile. But alas, they thought differently, and once again hitched up their sarongs and sped into the thickets of bamboo.
Somewhat amazed by the people’s reactions, I headed east again, along the most heavily bombed bit of road I’ve ridden so far. The narrow track was lined with enormous craters, and within 10 km I came across the bombed out remains of three old Ho Chi Minh Trail trucks, and numerous old Trail fuel drums. As I stopped beside the mangled, rusted remains of one truck to take a photograph, I saw a group of people walking towards me, about 50 metres away. As soon as they spotted me, the same thing happened, they all about-turned and melted into the forest. Very bizarre indeed.
Apart from these few terrified people, the track was empty, winding through dense, humid jungle. The further I went, the harder it got: steep hills, rocks, deep ruts and mud. Some hills were so steep and rocky I stopped at the top and wondered how on earth we’d get down it, but somehow we always managed. We bumped and slid down, ground and clanked up. Panther’s poor little engine strained and wheezed, and her city tyres spun in the mud. At one point going was so slow it took us three hours to go 15 km. Keep Buggering On, I thought to myself, and km by km we nosed forwards.
At the top of one particularly steep hill I turned off the engine, took off my gear and sat in the path, sweating, my head pounding from the effort. It was only now that I truly appreciated the density of the jungle, and quite how remote I was. Walls of trees hemmed me in on either side, and the only sound was the cacophony of cicadas. It struck me as odd that I couldn’t hear any monkeys or birds – did it mean there was a tiger in the area? The thought was enough to make me down some water, stuff some peanuts in my mouth, crank the kickstart and ride on.
About four hours out of Nong, I rode into my first real village, where children watched open-mouthed as I rode past. Even better, there was a shack selling a handful of drinks, and I gulped down a tepid Pepsi. Within three minutes of me pulling up outside the shack, I had an audience of at least 50. The whole village had gathered, like iron filings to a magnet, to study me drink my Pepsi. Saying hello didn’t garner much reaction at first, they simply stared in surprise at this unexpected intrusion. Then a couple of Vietnamese men appeared, and started talking to me. Since my Vietnamese is rather lacking, we didn’t get much further than the fact I was English and had ridden from Hanoi.
Emboldened by this, a few of the young men started laughing and joking. It’s amazing how much you can understand without understanding anything, and I didn’t like the gist of their jokes. At one point two of the men pointed to me and said something which caused the whole village to break into laughter. It could have been harmless, but I instinctively didn’t feel comfortable, so I said bye, waved and rode on.
Soon after the village, I came to a wide river crossing. A bare-breasted woman washed in the river, looking at me inquisitively as I rode past. I pointed to the river, and then to the bike, and gave her a thumbs up. She nodded. Well there was only one way to find out….
The first section was easy, but in the middle the river ran through a deep gulley. There was no way I’d get across there without a ducking. As I pondered my options, a man on a moped rode into the river from the other side. Seeing my predicament, he got off his bike and walked through the water towards me, picking up a large bamboo pole on the way. I pointed to the deep water, and shook my head. He got the picture. Out of nowhere appeared two boys, who the man efficiently marshalled into action. Next thing, the bamboo pole was through Panther’s front wheel and we were hoisting her over the gulley; me and two small boys holding either end of the pole, my Saviour holding her up at the back. I thanked them all profusely and off they went. Another obstacle crossed.
To my surprise, a few km later I came to a perfectly smooth ribbon of tarmac, leading south to Ta Oy. It seemed so incongruous after the rigours of the last few hours. I rode the last 20 km to Ta Oy, amazed at the road, passing line-painting teams asleep in the shade. I later learnt that it was only finished last week. I couldn’t get over the fact that less than 20 km away were villagers who have barely, if ever, encountered foreigners before, yet here was this gleaming superhighway to the Vietnamese border.
Finally, at five o’ clock, I rode into Ta Oy. I was so tired, hungry and thirsty I dived into the nearest (Vietnamese) restaurant and collapsed in a dusty mess at one of their tables. Plain rice has rarely tasted so good.
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PS Sorry no pics – my 3G dongle is way too slow! Will upload some when I get to a better connection.