My contract with my employer expired in late October. They gave me my final paycheck, complete with severance pay, and I was free. Despite having a memorable year of employment, and spending over a year and a half in Hanoi, I decided to continue with my plan – moving to Da Nang. I boxed up most of my things and shipped them by rail to my friends in Hoi An: and with a small bag, and a not-very-detailed atlas, I readied my bike for the long trip south. I had made many friends in Hanoi, like my job, had been able to save a good amount; but the cramped city, the cold foggy winters, and the insane traffic had taken their toll. It was a decision long in the making – it was time to leave. I was going on a trip, from the Gates of Hanoi’s old quarter, to the river-front of Hoi An.
So on a Friday morning in early November, I sat with my chopper loaded-up in front of Hanoi’s old brick gates. In typical Caleb style, I really hadn’t made a comprehensive plan; I just asked people while driving through Hanoi – which road to take to get to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. An hour of insane traffic, and I was out of the city, and soon in Hoa Binh – I found the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, Vietnam’s primary inland highway. It was surprising; the road was a very well built road of two lanes that wound through the North Vietnamese countryside. The best part about it was there was almost no traffic, so I began to thrash it to 80kph, which is quite fast for Vietnam. The scenery was villages, fields, and of course the towering limestone hills that are so characteristic of that region of Vietnam, it looked like something from a classical Chinese painting. This Karst topography was particularly beautiful around Cuc Phuong National Park, but I just drove on through and only stopped for a few pictures. At about 5pm, I stopped at a small town called Tan Ky, and stayed at the Volga Hotel for the night. I could have gone further, but 8 hours on a bike in Vietnam is quite tiring.
Waking up bright and early, I found a bike mechanic to tighten my new chain, and a local Pho shop for a bite to eat. It was well after nine before I was actually back on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Already, I was noticing a different accent in the Vietnamese when I talked to people, what would it be like by the time I got to Hue? It was autumn, and this region of Vietnam is actually not quite tropical. So it was cool, dry, and not a cloud in the sky – this with the lovely pastoral scenery, the jagged limestone hills – what can I say but that it was unforgettable. I had been driving for two days, and since leaving Hanoi’s old quarter, I had neither seen any foreigners, nor had I met a person who spoke English. It was fun because I was able to use Vietnamese for whatever I needed, no problem. Additionally, it seemed that as I raced by, everyone recognized me as a foreigner, and would wave. I was wearing a full-face helmet, but everyone noticed me, maybe it was the bigger bike I drove. Although it was possible to go all the way to Hue that day, at 3pm I decided to make a stop in Phong Nha, to see a world heritage site, Paradise Cave.
Unfortunately, I didn’t actually get to the park entrance till almost 4 o clock. I bought a ticket, and walked up a paved path for what seemed like an eternity before I finally got to the entrance. Stairs led down to a small opening, but this small entrance was a portal to a massive cave, that went on for several hundred yards. It was a cornucopia of flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites of a most delicate construction; and terraced pools so perfect they looked as if they were of human design. It was an awe-inspiring cathedral of stone; but I couldn’t stay long to gawk because the cave closed at 5:30pm. Although driving further in the night was possible, it seemed best for me to just go to a hotel at the nearby town.
I hit the road at 8:30, clear skies and mild temperatures, the sun came shone on the limestone hills at an angle – creating sharp relief. The scenery was more of what I had been driving through thus far – limestone towers, flat valleys, rolling hills and rice fields. Early in the afternoon, I turned off the Ho Chi Minh Road and headed for Highway 1, the main road near the coast. The drop in altitude made things slightly warmer and I began to notice a climactic change. The skies were no longer clear, but had white patchy clouds that would dump rain in the most erratic manner. I stopped getting out my rain suit, because it wasn’t worth the hassle of taking it on and off. After lunch, I came to the Ben Hai River, the boundary line of the DMZ between the north and the south. There wasn’t too much to see, a big concrete and tile war memorial, a replica of a house that was apparently used for talks, a bridge for traffic, and a smaller footbridge that was crowned by a red banner. I took a few pictures, and drove on south.
Hue was the next town of size, and I arrived at about 3pm. In characteristic style, I had not planned my trip well, so I wasn’t sure which turn to take from the highway to get into the old city. But following a hunch, I tailed a bus full of fat white middle-aged tourists – and drove through the old city gates of Hue. After driving around the city for over 20 minutes, I finally figured out where my hotel was – across the river.
I booked a room, unloaded my bike, and then drove back to the old city for a look around. The city was first surrounded by a mote then by a brick wall about 12 feet high that had pock marks and pieces missing – scars of the 1968 battle that still remained. I parked near the main gate, and took a look around. The south gates faced the river and were guarded by a massive redoubt, and also protected another set of gates and walls which were the palace. The area around the outer walls and moat were now a massive park circumscribing the whole city, and people were out exercising in the fading light. So I went back across the river and found a most appropriately named restaurant, The DMZ.
At 8:30 in the morning I boarded a van with about 6 other people for a day tour. Our first stop was out of town, a large brick walled enclosure that was a tomb for one of the emperors. It was not just a mausoleum; it was a massive park, complete with lakes, forests, gardens, houses and temples. Apparently, the emperor would come here to relax away from the city, so it was also a vacation home I guess. Then went to another tomb that was more like a fairy-tale citadel on a hilltop; small but opulently decorated. Then we went to another massive tomb, like the first it was a get-away palace as well. I don’t give many details about these because after the first one, I got bored and was fairly tombed-out by lunch time.
Finally, we went back to Hue to see the Forbidden City. So first we drove through the gates into the Citadel, then we walked through the palace gates into the Imperial Enclosure, then we walked through an amazingly-decorated audience hall into the Forbidden City. So we were in a walled city, within a walled city, within a walled city, impressive. The inner palace itself was subdivided into several other walled quarters, but much of its area was a bare field with only foundations remaining. This had been occupied by the NVA in the 1968 offensive, and the Americans had blasted the palace flat to retake the city. But people were rebuilding it, the new buildings looking much the same as the older ones. I lost track of all the walls I went past and all the gates I went through; it was huge.
It was getting late in the day, and we went to another pagoda (oh please not another one) and finished with a short cruise down the river by boat.
It was raining when I left Hue in the morning, but my rain suit did its job and I was out of the slop within an hour. Again, the rain clouds were patchy and rain was extremely erratic. I had been on the road for many days and I was anxious to finish my final leg into Hoi An. I blasted down the highway at 80kph and crossed a small pass that was at one end of a lagoon called Vung An Cu. As soon as I came off the small pass, I took an immediate right and went down the road that led around the west side of the lagoon. On one side were the forested mountains of a national park, on the other a placid lagoon and the Hai Van Pass was ahead of me – lovely. The main road winds around the east side, but this road had almost no traffic.
In no time I was at the foot of the Hai Van Pass and stopped for a few pictures. I then flogged my bike up the old familiar pass with my exhaust pipes roaring a nice baritone. The pass was cloudy, but it didn’t rain. I took the long way to Hoi An, along Red Beach, across the big suspension bridge and down the wide palm-lined road past China Beach. I rolled into Hoi An at about lunch time, and was able to get a friend of mine to film me riding up to the finish line – the river-front. As switched off my bike and it ticked cool, I glanced at the odometer. From the gates of Hanoi’s old quarter, to Hoi An’s old river-front, it had been 1,040 kilometers in 5 days.
The air was cool, the sun was shining on the tile rooftops; I was home at last.