Our man extols the unexpected wonders of a highway less traveled while confronting some ghosts of the past
The author ran out of gas, seconds before this picture was taken, in Quang Binh Province on the last leg of the Ho Chi Minh Highway West. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
In many ways, the Ho Chi Minh Highway feels like a portal to an entirely different country.
After a few days of fighting through the dreary outskirts of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, you find yourself rolling through low hills on virtual autopilot. You no longer brace yourself for patches of gravel and deep pot holes or the heart-stopping bleat of trucks overtaking you with savage abandon.
Even the dust that once snuck into your eyeballs no matter what you do to keep it out has been replaced by a cool mist.
Stop for a second and you’re arrested by the sound of birds (free birds, mind you) and insects calling back and forth to one another in the heavy perfumed moisture of jungle—real jungle, not the depleted steppes and rubber plantations you’ve hyped up to friends back home.
Fourteen years ago, work began again on cutting the road straight through the middle of nowhere. An estimated US$2.6 billion was spent employing crews of men who made little more than $100 a month. They’re still working, splattering boiling tar on patches of gravel to make sure it remains absolutely perfect for European university dropouts and burned-out expats (ahem) looking to achieve self knowledge by destroying a 100cc engine.
Just North of Khe Sanh, the road inexplicably splits into eastern and western legs. I opted to stay west because it looked longer and more remote on the map. Indeed, for hundreds of kilometers I found myself fantasizing about the restaurants and hotels I’d find at destinations which always turned out to be nothing but forks in the road.
But rather than feel menacing and wild, the backwoods of the poor central provinces feels positively Edenic. The only real threat to your life are the clueless water buffalo loping in and out of traffic or the piles of fallen rock that occasionally push the road to the width of a tire.
Once you’ve entered this anxiety-free space it only grows more and more beautiful.
I suppose it would be impossible to make the trip if I believed in ghosts. My parents’ generation crushed, burned and shredded thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese in this space while they pushed overloaded bicycles and brokedown Soviet trucks through mountain passes and submerged bridges. Others died from malaria, wild animal attacks and dysentery.
Today, few of the locals living here seem to bother even with the precaution of a mosquito net.
At times, the solitude and silence of Western Central Vietnam feels haunting enough. At one point along the road, I came to an entire government outpost that had been abandoned to goats who stared out at me from open windows. Many more abandoned outposts would follow.
And the rotting concrete wasn’t all that felt eaten at.
The rolling hills of northern Thua Thien-Hue Province and the sharp, misty switchbacks in Quang Nam seemed addled by logging projects (legal and otherwise) and some sort of invasive vine that has devoured huge portions of forrest and left nothing but a blanket of heart-shaped leaves.
Ironically, the heavily bombed mountains and valleys of Quang Tri and Quang Binh provinces feel flush with trees I never knew existed—whole forests of them.
In these sparse places, the highway takes on the feeling of a verdant slalom or some sort of outdoor funhouse full of endless sharp turns and pristine waterfalls. At high altitude, it all disappears into freezing fog with the consistency of marshmallow fluff.
Quang Binh Province, in particular, feels as though it might go on forever. I spent hundreds of kilometers reading strange names on concrete roadmarkers and fantasizing about the hot showers that might await—only to find that they only referred to a village without so much as a gas station.
“What would you do,” the very-American part of my brain began to ask, “if your little motorbike just stopped going out here?”
It was in this fashion, 26 kilometers south of Khe Gat (where the East and West highways merge again) that I ran out of gas just as the sun had disappeared behind thick jungle and rigid karsts. Minutes before, it had been the most beautiful part of Vietnam I’d ever seen. Now it was the most terrifying on earth. The air warmed with fear and the hum of insects. My Vietnamese traveling companion dismounted and looked at me with a deep hatred as he shook the last bit of petrol into the reserve tank and walked past a snapping dog into a ranger station while I waited safely out on the road.
He ran back toward the bike with the dog in full pursuit saying we’d have to go another three kilometers toward a temple set up to honor eight women who died after being buried alive by an American bombing run in 1966.
“We’re in a very dark place on a dark night in the middle of nowhere,” my companion muttered as we sputtered to a stop before a contingent of men in varying degrees of uniformed dress.
No one said a word as a half-dozen dogs raced up to our bike and menaced us as we shuffled toward the table where men sat smoking and drinking tea.
An awkward silence hung heavy over the table. A forest ranger with a thin mustache piped up that we had entered the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park and would have to buy tickets for VND80,000.
When we reminded him that we’d simply run out of gas on a national highway, the table went quiet again.
“We don’t have any gas,” someone muttered.
At this point, I began blathering in my terrible Vietnamese about how old I was and how no woman wanted to marry me and wasn’t that funny?
Everyone laughed and poured us some beer. Someone quietly got up and drove down the road.
We spent the next twenty minutes smoking cigarettes and guessing each others’ ages until the silent man returned to the table with two water bottles filled with bright green gas. After paying $1 for the gas, we all sat down on a mat in their barracks and shared a pot of a braised pig head, cut into buttery chunks and made glorious by fish sauce and dried pulverized chilies.
Our hosts spoke candidly about the dangers of defoliants in the water and bomblets in the hillsides that continued to maim and kill people today. But they also lived in a place that contained brilliant blue underwater rivers and dry caves that could easily hold an entire New York City block.
It was in this way that we came to know we’d found ourselves in the most beautiful, unspoiled stretch of the most beautiful unspoiled road in all of Vietnam.