Kings of the Road: Part 6. Surfing the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Phong Nha to Khe San) – June 2014

kings 6 - map

Another sunny day greeted us when we arose, later than we had yet on the journey. On-track and on-schedule, we took our time, breakfasting on snacks as we re-packed our bags and hauled them downstairs. Thumb was in the garage of Tranh An, washing his motorbike, still clad in the same garb as the day before. He smiled and chattered about something, offering the hose so that we might wash the road off our own bikes. We did so, blasting them spotless before drying and strapping on our luggage.

The road ahead looked easy enough, a relatively straight shot to Đà Nẵng and the coast. Instead of powering on toward our next destination, we decided to linger in the national park for an hour or so and check out the largest of the area’s caves. So, as Thumb waved four groomed and one wild nail at us, we headed out in search of Paradise Cave.

kings 6 - phong nha sign

Back-yard mowing is nho phun in Phong Nha.

Following tips from travelers at Easy Tiger the night before, we got lost amid the towering mountains and rocky trails not long after setting out. We stopped and got incomplete directions at the park’s visitor’s center and then stopped again at a juice shop to fill in the gaps. Pointed toward a shortcut, we took it, fording a boulder-pocked stream to reach the route.

As we crested the hill on the other side of the stream bed, leading back up to the road, I noticed my bike losing speed quickly. Though it was appropriately in third gear, it slowed to a dead stop in a matter of moments and refused to budge, so I switched off the ignition and dismounted to see what was wrong. I was no expert, but it looked like all the bouncing in the rocky brook had caused a bolt to break near my gear sprocket, preventing me from changing gears and locking the machine up completely.

We were in the middle of wide open, dusty grazing fields at the outskirts of the park, so I waited for some time with my immobile sled while James roared off back toward civilization in search of a mechanic. As time marched on, I wiped off the mud splotches gathered on the newly washed frame during the ill-fated jaunt in the stream bed, threw a piece of bamboo around like a spear for a while, then stretched out on the lifeless bike and plucked on my uke. Finally, I heard the rumble of a Winn and spotted James tearing down the road, followed by two men on a scooter.

The mechanics grinned at me then got to work, dismantling my gear mechanicsm and confirming my suspicion about the gear sprocket with points and other motions. They implied they’d need to take my bike back to their shop in town, so we attached it to their scooter with a rubber tube, and I hopped on the back of James’ ride.

kings 6 - mechanics.jpg

Once at the shop, they offered us tea and got to work. As we sat under a cluster of trees near the garage, looking again at the maps with this lost repair time in mind, eventually seven kids of all ages popped out of nowhere, one or two at a time, to play with James’ camera or to touch my beard, fascinated by our foreignness.

An Atlanta native also pulled up to the shop. He seemed a veteran biker of Vietnam, and this mechanic’s shop was a meeting point for him and his ex-pat crew, from which he was presently separated and with whom he had hoped to reunite at the garage. Although we were the only Westerners to be found, Atlanta stayed and chatted with us for a while.

Apparently, he had remained behind with a girl in his crew, who was laid up in a hospital, and he was trying to find the others as they kept on north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The injured girl had fallen to dehydration: Atlanta was riding beside her, the rest of the crew all around them; he looked over, and she seemed fine; when he looked back at her moments later, she teetered then tumbled with the bike suddenly to the unforgiving pavement. She’d survive with a number of broken bones, but she wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. So Atlanta figured he’d ride on ahead and inform the others, if only he could find them.

We commiserated as much as we could and told him about my snapped sprocket bolt, to which he assured us that the guy working on my bike was the best he’d found in the whole country, one of the reasons that this place was the chosen spot for his group to meet if they had any trouble. Conversation turned to the route we’d planned to the coast, toward Đà Nẵng and Huế, and he suggested alternatives. His advice was to skip Đà Nẵng, unless we were looking for “a tourist trap” of beaches and expensive accommodations, and to stick to the Ho Chi Minh Trail south for a while instead of immediately heading east as we planned – if we did this, he promised the best view in the country, which we’d know when we saw it. With this tip about changing course came a caveat: we’d need to gas up before we hit the mountains again and keep an eye out for the single fill-up station along the route he endorsed, near Long Son; if we didn’t find fuel there, we’d be dry before we made it much further. With that, we bid each other fair weather, and he zoomed off to his group’s next pre-set meeting spot.

Roughly an hour after we arrived, my broken bolt was replaced and my bike was back in working order. I paid the mechanic the $25 in dong he asked for (which is not what it sounds like), thanked him profusely, and saddled up again. We brunched on ramen with chunks of water buffalo not far down the road, and the owner joined us once we’d finished, offering – nay, forcing upon us in spite of our protests – two free beers. We downed both with a “yo!” and gratefully refused any more, already wary of breaking our bottle-to-throttle rule. Splendor without diminishment!

Even though our new route, that which Atlanta suggested, was a little longer than the one we’d originally mapped out, we were confident that we could both quickly stroll through Paradise Cave and still make it down to the coast today, if we booked it. So we rolled out and sped off to the cave, back past the site of my break-down. Following signs that pointed the way, we found the parking lot for the cavern and hiked the remaining 1.5–2 kilometers, both vertically and horizontally. Our sea-level-and-below Louisiana lungs groaned against the elevation, but it was beyond worth the effort to reach the mouth of the cavern.

kings 6 - paradise cave 1

Paradise Cave is the largest dry cave yet to be discovered in all the world, and the scope of it is incredible. Over the centuries, water has hollowed out spaces that were at least a hundred feet high, has dripped down from the ceiling to form wondrous stalactites and columns, has pooled and stretched up in beautiful, jagged stalagmites. The air in the cavernous expanse was cool, whisping through the chambers to other crevices and canyons yet to be explored by humans.

kings 6 - paradise cave 2

The son of a geologist, whose family vacations always seemed to center around some rock formation or another, I was predisposed to want to linger amid the old bones of the mountains, but we had to make up lost time and thus had to make tracks. So, having sweated out the beer on the hike up to the mouth and cooled off underground, we raced back up to the entrance/exit and returned to the bikes and, from there, to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The road wound round and round into the mountains, snaking sharply. Drainage ditches carved into the mountain-facing side of the Trail threatened to claim our bikes if we wandered from the asphalt, and sheer drops into jungle abyss loomed on the other side. And the shoulders of both sides were awash in gravel, so much gravel, that often spilled into the roadway, offering additional hazards to the two-wheeled traveler. Even experienced bikers will tell you that gravel is dangerous, as it can shift dramatically under the weight of a tire and spell disaster. Loose pebbles and death-defying twists and turns make up the Trail that the NSA called “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century,” proving that either military engineering doesn’t offer very stiff competition or else that the NSA should spend less time reading Americans’ sexts and more on gathering information on accomplishments about which it pontificates.

kings 6 - death star

 “This Death Star exhaust port is one of the great achievements of military engineering of a long, long time ago.” – The NSA

It was slow-going for the vast majority of the day’s ride, but we still sped when we could.

 For a while, we matched pace with a Western s.q.u.i.d. (stupidly quick, underdressed, imminently dead), who idiotically zoomed around the mountains outside of Phong Nha in flip-flops, shorts, and a muscle shirt. I did not envy him in the event of a fall and felt some comfort in my helmet and unexposed flesh; and I wished him well as he darted off at a fork back toward the national park.

We kept riding up and into the range. Unlike the last few days of biking, we didn’t roll through any towns but rather villages of stilted bamboo huts, simpler than those we’d seen near Mai Châu. Darker-skinned locals milled about in loincloths and rags, “mountain tribes,” as the guidebook called them, an appellation and a scene that seemed more at home in the pages of high fantasy than in the hidden recesses of reality. As we passed through one such section of huts, the entire village appeared to line the streets, smiling from ear to ear and waving hands and fabrics at us while we zoomed through the center of the crowd.

Apart from these sporadic sightings of mountain denizens, we saw few signs of human activity for much of the day. What we did see, however, was the promised stunning vista and our first glimpses of the eastern coast.

kings 6 - coast view

kings 6 - technodrome

And a cloud resembling the Technodrome.

At Long Son, also true to Atlanta’s words, we found a single open shop that offered a hand-pump full of the precious fuel our bikes would need if we were to make it all the way through the mountains and back east to the coast. After gassing up, we Kings rolled out, farther and farther into the uncivilized, jungle-draped peaks.

At a vacated military checkpoint station tucked into the mountainside, we ducked under a bamboo pole that spanned the road and repeated the motion to clear a second pole miles away at another abandoned checkpoint. If the road was closed, we ignored it, as we’d learned to do with all roadblocks in Vietnam – slip through and fit in however you can.

A third military outpost, likewise devoid of people, was, however, populated by two unfriendly dogs, seemingly some breed of large Shepherd mutts, who yapped and ran at us from the shoulder. James, in the lead, alerted the pair to our presence, and they sprinted to close in on me, as I braked to accommodate the sharp turn that I and the dogs were collapsing in on. My reduced speed gave the lead cur an opportunity to nip at my foot, a chance the animal took without a thought. In a moment of likewise unthinking reflex, I raised my endangered right leg from harm and kicked out, connecting with canine cranium. Off-balance, I wobbled back into alignment and zoomed on, leaving the defeated dogs to eat my dust rather than flesh. And, in a country that is rumored to dine on dog meat, they could have faired far worse.

But, perhaps, Anubis or some other doggy deity growled down on me then, for the road was about to get ruff. Somewhere between Làng Cát and A Xóc, at the crossroads of nothing and nowhere, I bodysurfed the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

kings 6 - spill map.png

A stupidly twisty road to me. The quickest way from A to B to Michael J. Fox.

 Heading steeply down from a peak, at a particularly stark left turn – mountain wall and ditch on one side, nothing at all on the other –  I was caught unawares by a large patch of gravel covering the right half of the road. Gently braking as much as I could while in a turn at this speed, I skidded slightly onto the shoulder and somehow managed to correct my off-kilter course. As luck would have it (or not), the Vietnamese powers-that-be thought this turn harrowing enough to warrant one of the few guard-rails found along this stretch of the Trail, and the seeming safety net of the solid metal hunk may have been my undoing.

As the back-end of my bike whipped around, pointed back onto the road, the hard iron corner of my right-side saddle-bag holster brushed the guardrail, ever so slightly. Time slowed to a Matrix-esque slow-motion crawl, and I heard the soft metallic “thunk” of the impact, a sound that echoed louder and louder as the next seconds played out. I bounced off the rail with a jerk, which sent me left, in the direction of the drainage trench. In a split second, I overcorrected back to the right, and heard a crunch before I really was aware of what had happened.

The next thing I knew, I was face-down on the hot, sun-beaten pavement, laid out across the road like so many pieces of stupid gravel. The guardrail was back some distance behind me, and my bike was on its side a few hundred feet in front of me. My sight was hazy. My helmet muffled all sound. My nerves couldn’t feel a thing due to shock. But I could taste and smell blood. Blood and gas.

Throwing off my helmet, the visor of which hung loose from the impact, I followed my first instinct and ran numbly to my fallen beast. Precious fuel leaked from the prostrate monster’s belly, pooling out from the cracked latch atop the tank. Grimacing from the pain that quickly registered with the return of sensation, I yanked the monster back to its feet, stemming the tide of spilled fuel. I ignored the needles stabbing into the nerves of the right side of my body and scanned the bike for damage. Other than the total loss of the electronics, the bike looked to still be in working condition. Even the Joker and the Suicide King remained snug on their perches atop the handlebars. The sun was beginning to set, and I was not thrilled by the idea of being stranded atop a deserted mountain; as long as I could ride, whatever injuries I’d collected in the wipeout could wait.

But the prospect of getting the bike to budge at all was grim upon initial prognosis. Besides the clearly mangled front fender, it was immediate obvious that all the electronics on the bike were shot, as fried wires dangled lifelessly from the broken dash. The push-to-start ignition, the odometer, the speedometer, the fuel gage, the cracked headlight, the digital indicator of what gear I was in, the all-important and ever-communicative horn – all were dead, and the bike sat motionless.

Distraught, I checked a shattered mirror and saw the baby blue cloth case of my ukulele laying on the road behind me. When I collected the instrument that had previously survived a collision with a semi-truck on the outskirts of Cuenca, Ecuador, one shake of the case confirmed my fears, for I could hear the broken bits rattling inside. I returned it to the saddle bag, retrieved my tobacco, and rolled a cigarette, examining my wounds.

Instinctively, I’d curled into a ball once airborne, cradling my head with my arms. Because I’d spilled to the right, that side of my body was the more badly banged up. The right knee of my jeans was torn away, exposing bright pink and bloodied flesh, and my patella pain brought tears to my narrowed eyes. My right arm was similarly wounded near the elbow, and the corresponding part of my rain jacket had rubbed off somewhere on the road as I’d skidded along the pavement. My right hand wouldn’t close into a fist, and I was certain it was fractured – a suspicion I would not have confirmed until I’d meet a Dutch nurse two months later in India.

I ran through scenarios of surviving the night as I picked out bits of gravel from tender dermis. If James didn’t notice in time, what parts of clothing and luggage and jungle could I use as bedding and shelter? If he did, would he get help and leave me here for God-knows-how-long until he found the next town? Or would we be forced to leave some of our stuff to make room for two on his bike for the rest of the journey? For that matter, how would we complete our trip? Would we be forced to abandon the bikes and complete our south-bound travels by bus or train? How would I get my bike back to the rental offices?

As I contemplated, James came running around a bend ahead, shouting my name, his shadow long in the waning sunlight. I waved through a grimace, tossing the butt. Apparently, he’d heard the crash and yelled for me, getting no response and fearing the worst, and not realizing that his own helmet had muffled his voice beyond earshot. First making sure that I would live, he inspected the bike. Still dead. Still hopeless.

A flash of inspiration struck my mind suddenly as I watched him jamming the ignition button to no avail. Our balcony voyeurism of Siem Reap’s motorists had taught us much about gear-shifting, but I also remembered seeing many people having to kick-start older models that weren’t equipped with the ignition button. A glimmer of optimism shone through the dying sunlight as it blanketed the peaks and tree-tops; however, as first time bikers, we knew that kick-starting is a thing but had no idea how it actually works.

We took turns trying every gear setting with every combination of braking and revving we could think of, and all that happened was the loss of valuable sunlight. Because the digital gear indicator went the way of all the other electronics on the bike, and because we were still getting the whole putting-the-bike-in-neutral thing down, it was difficult to tell what gear it was in. But we gave it our all.

When James finished up a round of useless kicks at the lever and revs on the throttle, he sat next to me on the quiet road. The air noticeably grew colder as we talked through our options. James narrowed them down some by declaring that the Kings would stick together one way or another, which meant that, tonight anyway, we’d either be leaving some of our belongings behind – and almost certainly not come back for them – with us both on one bike, or else we’d be sleeping shelter-less in the chilly open air ’til the morning. As he smoked a cigarette in thought, I struggled to my feet on stiff, aching joints, determined to force the pain into the back of my mind and keep trying to start the bike until I died or it lived.

kings 6 - potato salad           kings 6 - lionel

Stranger things have been successfully kick-started.

I felt terribly, thinking my incautious racing around and reckless steering had brought a sudden end to what had started to become and what had promised to continue being a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience. Guilt set in, remorse about the fact that I was to blame. So I set my jaw, which the helmet had thankfully kept in one piece, and straddled the lifeless beast once more. It rocked as I ran through every gear setting again, wanting to be sure I hadn’t missed neutral. Nothing. But, again, either I was going to seriously break my hand on the throttle or I would break this bike to my will.

So I kicked and kicked and revved and changed gears in sheer frustration, jerking my whole body around like a madman, yelling and spitting froth, until, finally, a faint rumble echoed from the belly of the beast. I laughed barbarically and hammered the throttle before the rattle died, and the rumbling gained strength as the engine audibly struggled to turn over. James shot up and was standing beside me when a second such attempt found the engine sputtering, sputtering, sputtering, then turning over at long last, and staying on. I was afraid of it dying again, for good, and I asked James to hold the clutch as I strapped my helmet back into place. As the last few rays of sunset splashed across the green tips of the mountains, the Kings set off again.

We still had miles and miles to go before we slept. The one option we had both discussed and finalized while stranded on the Trail involved where we’d go if my bike miraculously started working. A miracle had happened, we were making tracks again, and we were now moving toward the town of Khe Sanh – much closer than our original coastal destination for the day but still hours away.

As night enveloped us, my headlight, unlike all the other wiring, did appear functional, even if it was knocked askew by the impact and shone into the tree tops rather than on the road ahead. So I kept close behind James, using his light to guide my trajectory, noting rocks and bumps and dips and avoiding them in advance. Besides the night ride before leaving Hanoi, we’d not biked after sunset before, and the endless array of unfamiliar constellations in the black skies of the mountains, free of light, pollution, and light pollution, was distracting. Although I’d just wiped out, it was difficult to train my eyes ahead of me and not above and beyond me.

Fortunately, the Trail evened out considerably the more we snaked down from the mountain range. We passed other motorists for the first time in hours and shot through towns of concrete and brick buildings instead of through villages of bamboo and stick dwellings.

While we were more cautious in our riding, we still opened the throttles to make good time. We needed to make it to Khe Sanh in time to secure a room and a meal, and we needed gas. Soon. My fuel gage was still dead and would remain so for the remainder of my time on the Winn, but I knew in my gut. I’d timed out the hours between stops at filling stations, and, even compensating for the time lost in my spill, we were overdue for a refuel. Way overdue. With a gnawing trepidation, I scanned every building we came across in what light was available, spotting no trace of gas in any form, be it automatic pump, hand pump, or little glass bottle.

In a town some twenty minutes outside of Khe Sanh, we finally saw the welcoming marquis of a gas station. It seems we barely made it, as James was running on fumes, and my tank was so dry thanks to the loss of gas in the wipeout that it was using up the reserves. Thirsty bikes satiated, my bike kick-started almost effortlessly this time, and we covered the last stretch to the place we’d rest our helmets for the night.

Once in Khe Sanh, we rolled down what appeared to be the main street and checked into the first guest house we came to, eager to unpack, eat, and wash off the road. I ate ravenously, feeling a new lease on life. I also still felt shaken, massively sore, and somewhat at fault for two delays, one mechanical and one snafu, and I hoped to discuss our options for moving forward over our dinner of rice, pork, and bok choi. James thought it best to save such talk for the morning and instead simply celebrate the fact that, despite the day’s setbacks, especially the snafu one, we were still relatively whole.

So, after filling our bellies, we broke out the last two Burmese cigars we’d acquired in Bangkok, and puffed them on a street corner on the main drag. Khe Sahn was mentioned by fictional Vietnam vets Walter in The Big Lebowski and Pappas in Point Break, likely because it hosted one of the real War’s bloodiest battles, a campaign that lasted over six months and saw more than 100,000 tons of American bombs dropped over the area.

kings 6 - khe sahn marine

I wiped my own blood leaking down my leg as teenagers milled about the street, shouting “Hello”s. I honestly don’t remember much about the look of the town, whether the damage was still apparent, nor what we chatted about, for my mind was still spinning from the day’s events.

We took turns showering. I took longer, scrubbing infection gingerly from tender pink wounds. Once I’d bandaged up my arm and leg with disinfectant and gauze, I limped out with James through a trap door in the wall of our room leading to the roof, where we stargazed and talked briefly about the next day’s route.

Returning to the warmth of the room, I once more examined my ukulele’s cloth case, shaking it and hearing the same disconcerting rattle as before. When I freed the instrument, however, I was pleasantly shocked to learn that it remained in one piece, bearing only a surface-deep gash from hitting the Trail. The rattle was the result of a few small chunks of gravel, the culprit and cause of my downfall, forced through the cloth during the spill, taunting me from beyond the incident. Though it hurt to laugh, I guffawed and fell into a deep and fitful sleep. Disaster without diminishment!

When you hear this sound, turn the page.


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