The Ho Chi Minh trail. The stuff of legends. Veteran American soldiers still talk about this unimaginable maze that they were tasked to bomb during the Vietnam war. Some of their stories became international best sellers. In all their stories, they describe the the Ho Chi Minh trail as a perfectly engineered route that enable soldiers to move quickly and silently under the canopy of the dense jungle. These network of paths have a life of its own, ever growing and expanding, faster than any Americans can map them out and destroy them. 6000km of backwater paths through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Four decades later, the war has ended and these trails has grown silent, but it was never once forgotten. The surroundings have recovered with time but bombs continue to lay hidden and has over time become part of the jungle. American and Russian tanks and planes lay scattered, down but not defeated, waiting eagerly to relive their missions. Bridges have been destroyed and reclaimed by the rivers, only part of their structure remains, a testament to the chaos at that time.
In Dec 2012, 4 bikes set off for an adventure down these trails. But first, Chiangmai.
The 2 beemers set off a week earlier for Northern Thailand.
Charlie's guesthouse, right in the middle of Pai Walking street, 200 baht with free Wifi and common hot shower.
Pai memorial bridge
We spent the cool night walking around Pai Walking street.
Next, off to Chiangmai via Samoeng via 1265
Haris and Mahdi finally arrived Chiangmai for the day's ride to Chaloem Prakiat of Nan province.
The fantastice curves of 1148
Chaloem Prakiat is a small border town of Huay Khon - Muang Nguen to Laos.
The 800 baht guesthouse we found. It was dark when we arrived here.
We're headed to Luang Prabang first thing in the morning
The face of dejection. We spent about an hour to convince the officials to let us pass but to no avail. To cut short, we were denied entry at this point of time. As of now, the border is still closed to 2 wheels. So we made our way South to the town of Phitsanulok.
Just for the night, 100 baht.
Route 12 for Nakhom Phanom
Nakhon Phanom guesthouse, facing Mekong River, 500 baht.
The 700km down from Nan was demoralizing due to the fact we made that trip just to get into Lao via another border crossing. The nearest entry into Laos from Nakhon Phanom is through Friendship Bridge II. Never been through this crossing before but I know that motorcycles crossings through most Friendship Bridge are prohibited. But I have a friend who did this bridge sometime back but was from the Lao side. Just kept our fingers crossed.
A friend was waiting for us in Thakek for HCM Trail but i was telling the rest if we are unsuccessful to cross, I was ready to head home.
Then the expected happened. Denied entry again and was advised to load our bikes on a pick up to get through. The officials made a few calls to arrange and at the same time he called his higher ranking officers who eventually gave the clearance for us to pass through. Very rare but grateful we were.
Thakek, Khammoune Province, Laos
And we're ready to met Steve who will lead us into Ho Chi Minh Trail.
With Steve C Corbett. I met Steve 2 years ago in Chiangmai. I was on the way home from Shangrila, he just completed Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was as excited as we were. He claimed that he has no knowledge of anything more than 400cc bikes ploughing through HCM Trail. We could probably be the first but as we found out that could not be a good thing.
So tomorrow it's off to Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We came across the Ho Chi Minh trail by chance, while researching routes in Laos. Google search gave us Luang Prabang, Vientiene, elephant rides, Vang Viang, river cruises, buegette, pubs, massages and after another 30 sites of the same stuff, the Ho Cin Minh Trail name pops up. There was no exact route or location, just an image of the map and the American bombing mission in southern Laos. The more we researched. The more intrigued we became....there is something special along those trails, one not seen or felt by many coming into Laos. We decided to take our bikes into Laos and journey through those hushed trails and come back to tell the tale.
Before we even started, there were 2 worrying issues. First, there was little information on the exact location of these trails. Not the Internet, not anywhere! So we plotted according to the stories online, the pictures that we could gather and our imagination of what it could possibly be (as we later found out after the ride, our plotted route was so off the actual trail that it's embarrassing). The second worry was that no known bikes past the 400cc range has ever been recorded attempting to use this legendary trail. Those that has made it though on smaller bikes says that its a suicide mission. The bikes that we are on will never make it out in one piece. It will drown in the river, chocked in the trails by its own weight, our fancy rims will break unable to handle the stress of riding on the huge boulders and dry river beds, suspensions will fail and our bike parts will contribute to the existing war scraps. The trails have claimed many who thought that they were up for it, and we will not be the first nor will we be it's last. The message is clear, we were just fancy bike owners who bought the marketing sales pitch a little too well.
It must have been selective hearing and reading at its best (or worst) because all we heard was, Ho Chin Minh Trail....legend.....awesome....bikes....adventure. .. Spirit...bombs... Christmas...new year...adventure....campfire marshmallows?
On the 26th of December 2012. Four bikes reached southern Laos (Takek) after making the journey 3000km north from Singapore. These bikes 1200cc each, a Yamaha S10, BMW GS, BMW GSA and Triumph Explorer have done their fair share of distance riding but not against legends such the HCMT. These bikes were shinny, farkled, fancy even. They are the pride of the fleet of adventure bikes (A KTM 990 was unable to come due to work commitments). As we reached Takek, not one of us thought twice about going up against this legend..we were absolutely determined to take it on and survive to tell the tale... And so, the story between man and his machine against the perfectly engineered trails used in the Vietnam War begins....
Our 1st discovery, Russian SAM missile.
A bombed out bridge during the Vietnam War
A visit to a school.
Fast forward to day one..all hell were breaking loose...we were questioning our sanity of being there in the first place.....There was absolutely no way we could have bashed through hundreds of kilometres of trails with our imaginary route. At this juncture, i would like to introduce the fifth rider who we are ever thankful for joining us. A little humble Lifan (China made motorcycle 200cc - rider named Chris). Chris and his Lifan reminds me of Disney movies, the kings soldiers in the dark forest on a noble quest guided by magical wisps and nymphs. We were the dumb soldiers, Chris was that magical wisps... Guiding us along the relentless paths.. Ever so nimble, he is always in front of us, showing us the trail and helping us when needed..(plus there's something about the way when he says don't worry that makes it a bit comforting for us... Lols... What he actually meant was there were just 12 more rivers to cross with chest deep waters!)
The battle between man and his machine with the legendary trails over the following 4days was epic. The first for these kind of bikes in South East Asia. When trails proved too technical for the bikes, all 5 huffed and puffed to push and provide leverage and support. When rivers proved too mighty to cross, we combined our strength (literally) and use it to transport the the bikes across. When darkness falls and the last remaining lights in the sky disappear, we relied on each others tail lights and feed on each others perseverance to get out of the trails. When we got separated and lost in the trails, not one man blamed the other, instead we ride harder and searched further. When one man fall, four will come to his aid; one to pick him, another to pick his morale and two others to muscle the bike up. We shall leave no man or bike behind, there will be no casualties on the HCMT. We may take all day and night but we will get out together.
Another visit to a school
A nice capture by Omar
On that note, 13.5 hrs to clear 160km of trails on the first day (Takek to Villabury). I remember dozens of falls, flying panniers, soaked boots, bottomed out forks, rickety bridges, huge ruts, long stretches of sands, steep inclines and amazing show of character. Words fail to describe the intensity of the trails as we ride our 1200cc bikes through. This was compounded by the fact that we had all our panniers on and no off road tyres. (well I did mention that our initial plotted route was so off the mark it's embarrassing!). We drank from rivers and eat rationed biscuits to survive the trails. At night, despite being tired we could not sleep, part adrenaline from the days ride and part anxiety of what tomorrow will bring.
This particular ford took us more than 2 hours to get all bikes crossed over.
No problem for the Lifan
The GSA was next
Slow and steady
Sigh of relief when it touched the bank across
The next bike totally sank the boat after 1st paddle. Took 30 minutes to get the bike off the bank. So we pushed across.
Finally but ...
More rivers to cross along.
Even at night.
That bottle was the best I've tasted that day. Dead beat with pure exhaustion. We spent the night laughing away with the day's event.
The next morning was drying up time. Also a chance to take a good look at our bike which left quite a bit of mark in Ho Chi Minh trail.
Afternoon was an easy ride to Dong.
Another bombed out bridge in Savanakhet.
Found time to check out a nearby border crossing of Lao - Vietnam
War scraps put to good use ..
Checked into a nearby guesthouse
And made our way to a nearby museum where they housed treasures of Vietnam war.
We headed to a nearby temple heavily attacked.
Lots of them
Locals giving history lesson.
More discoveries at night
The second part of the HCMT (from Dong to Salavan) was only 100km but it was the hardest bit of all. The long stretches of sand and inclines on the first day is now replaced with technical jungle trail and boulders from dry river beds. The trails are narrower and much steeper. The jungles much closer to the trails. The ruts are sharper and the remaining cobblestones from the HCMT rattles the bike for long stretches. My biggest challenge was getting the GSA over slippery boulders and on dry river beds with where there is just no best line to ride. Often I find myself in gear two and throttling through. No one can be completely in control of their bikes under those conditions. The front wheel bounces and flaps but you just got to trust yourself and look at the trail ahead . It is impossible even to sit and rest. The river crossing were relentless and I find myself flying off the bike three times on day two. Of course, Chris and his magical Lifan was ever ready to give me that boost up a slippery slope and to share with me his water (I made the mistake of not topping up my water supply before hitting the trails, our drinking water runs out faster than we know and before long we were drinking from the river using Chris water filter pump. Best water we ever drank!). In those trails, I could feel every single kilo of the GSA 300kg. Lifting the bike up after a spectacular dive is impossible without at least another person around. I find myself asking Chris how far more to the next town after every fall..... The bike is not gona ride by itself and I was just finding a reason to get up and continue the journey....
As I write this tale of ours, our bikes and us have survived the HCMT in one piece. Even though we covered the major routes, we barely scratched the surface of the 6000km long network of trails. The HCMT did not let us go easily. We left the trail with bruises on our arms and duct tapes and cable ties on our bikes.
Our bodies will heal overtime but our souls have forever been touched by the legendary tales of the Ho Chi Minh. We will forever remember those moments where all of our bikes seems impossible to ride but we managed to came out in one piece (man and machine) together. We went into the trails chasing the promise of legends and were left humbled by the intense terrain and a glimpse reflection of life back in time.
Throughout history, critics sold out magazines comparing our bike models side by side debating on its weight, power, handling ability, price and even luggage space. Each point acted as leverage in its claim as king of Enduro and Adventure bikes. They were all wrong.... There was not one bike that can claim king.... There were four plus the additional China Lifan.
Rider verdict:Lifan - not a single fall or damage. Absolutely patient with the 4 lumbering beasts. full marks 10/10
GSA - made the mistake of hitting the trails with full 33l tank. Damaged panniers. Nearly sunk the boat during river crossing.
GS - Rider had super long legs. Can waddle out of sticky situations easily. Bottomed out forks. Hates soft sand trails
S10- Nearly became part of the river bank. Sank the boat completely. Rider was a survivor.. Suggested camping out when it was dark and we were still in the trails with some 30km to go.. We got no tent and he got no sleeping bags
Triumph Explorer- Battle harden rider let down by his panniers. It did a huge full slow motion flip some 5 meters away when he bottomed out in a huge rut. He also claim he had the least no of falls among the beasts in the trails...
We were glad to do what we did. We have called the HCMT our own no matter how brief and we want to thank you for reading this story of ours.
* Author, Umar Ngalim, rides R 1200 GSA