February 20, 2013
We knew that there wasn’t much development along the stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway leading north from A Luoi to Highway 9. We planned on trying to find a place to camp before descending into the river valley where the two highways merged, though after surveying potential camping spots the night before, our plan was now a lot less certain. The air was very humid up in the mountains and our sweat soaked clothes had barely dried overnight, despite pointing the room fan directly at them. It was gross getting dressed, but we knew they would dry out some in the sun.
There was a restaurant next door to our hotel which served up some delicious fried eggs absolutely swimming in oil, along with fresh baguettes and café sua da. After the success of double breakfast yesterday, we decided to order seconds. While we ate, we were delighted to see big clouds in the sky and hoped they would remain with us the entire day. While we had a potentially big day ahead of us, we were excited because we could be on a portion of the historical Ho Chi Minh trail.
The ride started out really well. Our legs were tired but not too sore and we knew they would get warmed up soon enough. The road headed north along the floor of a valley climbing slightly to crest a pass before quickly descending around 500 meters. Chandler and I were happy to biking in the mountains, as we have noticed this is the terrain we feel most comfortable in. We passed many steep jungle covered peaks which rose out of sprawling rice fields that covered the valley bottom. We knew that these mountains were some of the most fiercely contested ground during the Vietnam War, but for all the bloodshed and strife that this area saw in the past, there was scant evidence in the landscape now. In fact, this was one of the most beautiful and serene rides we’ve had on the trip so far. Surely the lasting impacts rest mainly in the minds and bodies of the older people in the villages we passed, though they showed nothing but cautious friendless towards us, waving and smiling as we passed by.
After our big descent, we peddled up and down gently rolling hills while gradually losing the remainder of the elevation we gained the previous day. Soon, the clouds yielded to the midday sun and we were baking. I had thought my legs would eventually loosen up, but they remained tired and I was struggling to keep up with Chandler. I felt like my tank was almost empty by the time we got to the half way mark. We stopped for a snack to refuel.
Once I start to focus on any discomfort, it is really easy for me to spiral out of control into a bad mood. We still had a ways to go, so I had to consciously divert my attention from my growing misery. Luckily, it was easy at times with the amazing views, and other distractions like the small groups of goats along the road, and a couple of dams under construction which gave me a chance to take the lead from Chan while he admired them…
We passed a few decent looking campsites on the gravel bars along the river, but they were pretty far below the road and would have involved a lot of gear shuttling, so we kept cruising.
We reached the intersection of the Ho Chi Minh Highway and Highway 9 at 4pm, crossing a pretty nice suspension bridge over the Da Krong River that had supposedly been financed by the Cuban government. There wasn’t much at the crossroads, so we decided to make the push up the highway to Khe Sanh, which you might recognize from a line in “Born in the USA” by the very talented Bruce Springsteen.
We stopped for a quick caffeine fix before charging up the hill. It wasn’t too bad at first. We were able to grind out the first 4km with ease; however I began to lose it after that. We had already completed 100km and only had 10km left, but it could have been another 100 for all I was concerned. My knees were crying out with every stroke, my rear was numb and I had no energy left. I was thinking that the ride the day before was a walk in the park compared to the sufferfest I was currently enduring.
Chandler stayed just far enough in front of me, that if I stopped, he would be out of sight. This is a good tactic for moments like the one I was having. I would keep going until I caught up with him. Finally, an hour later with the sun setting, we made it to Khe Sanh. An American military base in the town was the site of a ferocious and unexpected months long assault by the Viet Cong in the late 1960’s that directly preceded the Tet offensive. The US
troops were ultimately routed ultimately abandoned the base in a controversial move that the North Vietnamese viewed as a major victory. Several billboards and monuments in the area appeared to commemorate this. Read much more about the conflict at Khe Sanh here.
The hotel pickings were slim, but I did not care at that point. We checked in and took gloriously warm showers. Finding dinner was tricky. Nothing was open, except a sandwich shop and a restaurant with entire boiled chicken on the sign. Chandler bought a cake-like pastry from the sandwhich shop which ended up being covered in dried shrimp, not coconut as he expected. We had baguettes with cheese and some oreos for dinner. Tomorrow promised to be a blissfully easy day as we would ride less than 20km to the Vietnam-Laos border town of Lao Bao to resupply and rest.