With almost 1,000 miles of remote backwater paths and trails, paddy, narrow mountain passes, isolated hill tribes and dense jungle, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail is one of the most rewarding and directionally challenging rides in the country. Unless you have a penchant for getting lost somewhere near the Lao border or breaking down on the outskirts of heavily guarded forestry land sites you’ll want to take a guide and quite possibly a mechanic along for the ride. We saddled up with Hoi An Motorbike Adventures; their deal sealer was a squadron of Belorussian Minsks, also known as “Old Buffalo” by the locals — something about them being reliable old workhorses.
Personally, I’m a bit of a liability on a bike with over 49cc’s and although there is a part of me that would just love to have strapped on my helmet and barrelled down the steep, narrow zig-zagging mountain trails, I chose the backseat driving position. A good tip for the non-rider would be to travel with the guide where you get pole position for all the things worth seeing and the rider gets to rip it up a bit without fear of taking you down with them.
We took a two-day tour from Hoi An with an overnight in Ba Hom, an isolated hilltribe village inaccessible by car and inhabited by the Ca Tu, a former headhunting community of incredibly colourful villagers who speak an ancient dialect of Vietnamese. The steady ride there through paddy and tea plantations, bypassing busy A roads and thundering lorries, was breathtaking. We wove along rewarding single track roads flanked by lush steamy jungle and tiny villages oozing with culture and colour.
The feeling of riding up a steep mountain and hitting the rapid temperature drop of low hanging mountain clouds before turning a corner to a peak basked in sunshine, where the vast landscape of rural Vietnam stretches as far as the eye can see, is one of those priceless moments I’d never tire of.
And just as the symptoms of lack of blood flow to my extremities began to set in we arrived at the king of the Ca Tu tribe’s abode, where we were welcomed with green tea and invited to check out his extraordinarily detailed wood carving project (his coffin). He then sent us off to our stilted village with a twilight tipple of rice wine.
Ba Hom village has been a project in the making for several years. It’s home to a small population of Ca Tu families, and arriving there feels like taking a huge step back in time, both due to its remote location and the fact that it has somehow managed to sidestep the tourist trail. The women wear black and red hand-woven costumes as they have for generations and the men spend their days hunting. Accommodation is basic, but plans are afoot for new-year renovations in a sustainable government project. I however am a fan of basic and after a jungle-scavenged feast prepared by the villagers, I could quite happily have slept on the makeshift football pitch.
Day two of the tour is the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by the Vietcong to deliver weapons and supplies to the communist guerrillas in the south fighting against both the Southern Vietnamese and American forces during the Vietnam War. Even with the intense bombing the route suffered during the height of the war more than 40 years ago, little has changed and many of the trails are still being used today, fortunately to meet the basic living needs of remote villages rather than weaponry caravans. From the size of the spider that met us at a waterfall hidden down one of the trails, you can’t but be in awe of the Vietnamese or fail to understand why the Americans didn’t do quite so well roughing it in the jungle.
Usually I’m all for ditching the tour companies and venturing into the unknown with a good map and the spirit of adventure, but without the guys from Hoi An Motorbike Adventures we’d probably still be lost in the jungle somewhere near the Lao border. Having done a similar route with a Nha Trang-based Easy Rider on tiny Chinese fake Honda Wins, where we negotiated badly and paid $110 per day plus, plus, plus… this was actually quite reasonable, costing us about the same all in at US$185 per day for our more memorable mountain ride on the old buffalos.
Hoi An Motorbike Adventures
111 Ba Trieu St, Hoi An
T: (84) 05103 911930
Eddie Murphy Easy Rider
On a street corner in Nha Trang