A Minsk Motorbike Adventure, on a clear day (or 4) in Vietnam
There is no better way to explore rural Vietnam than to do as the vast majority of the locals do and get on the back of a motorbike. Preferably a noisy Soviet-era Minsk motorbike (even if the locals, who prefer more modern bikes, do look at you a little bemused). So we booked ourselves onto a 'DMZ Adventure Loop' tour of the central highlands and coastline of Vietnam, in and around the former de-militarised zone (DMZ) from the time of the American War.
And so began a 4 day adventure of a lifetime! Something this 4 minute helmet-cam video tries its best to capture...
Our journey on the first day took us out into the countryside, through fields and remote villages, past ancient Cham ruins and into jungle hill tribe territory, where we stopped for lunch with the chief of the Ka Tu tribe (who tried his very best to ply us with his homemade rice wine, with some success). In the afternoon we hit the historic Ho Chi Minh Highway, a glorious road that hair-pins its way through the hills and valleys, loosely following the infamous war-time Ho Chi Minh Trail. What made it truly spectacular though was the fact that we were virtually the only people on it, as it doesn't really connect any of the major towns and most traffic uses the far straighter coastal Highway 1, giving us the chance to really put our bikes through their paces.
Day two saw us back traversing the Ho Chi Minh Highway, through lush rainforests and over magnificent mountain passes, stopping for a refreshing dip in a mountain waterfall at lunchtime. In the afternoon we wound our way through the A Shau valley, a ruggedly-beautiful valley that became famous during the American War (as it's referred to in South-East Asia) as the site of many battles - the most famous being at Khe Sanh, a former American combat base which was under siege from the North Vietnamese for 67 days in 1968. A few bunkers and some aircraft and tanks that the Americans left behind are still there to bear witness.
By day three we had firmly bonded with our bikes as we flew along Highway 9, passing other famous American War sites like the Rock Pile and Camp Carol, before crossing the former border between North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel and heading to the Vinh Moc tunnels. This was where an entire village went underground in the 1960s to survive the American bombing, constructing a network of tunnels at depths of up to 30m which housed around 60 families and included wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare.
Our final day kicked off in Hue and took us back to Hoi An by a different route, trading in the mountains for Vietnam’s stunning and largely untouched coastline. Travelling parallel to the sea, we passed through fishing villages, alongside sandy beaches and through rice paddies for the first part of the drive, stopping along the way for a swim in the sea and a lunch of freshly caught crab, squid and clams. We then joined Highway 1 so we could travel up to its highest point, the dramatic Hai Van Pass where panoramic views of the coast are all around, and then carried on down to the coast again and through Danang and back to Hoi An.
Needless to say the experience was INCREDIBLE, and we can't recommend it enough. The only shame was that our guide was a massive tool who unwittingly did his best to spoil it whenever he opened his mouth. Thankfully he failed.