Day 22 Rest Day in Khe Sanh
We ended up taking another rest day in Khe Sanh. With most of the tourist attractions of the town exhausted, we decided to spend the day having a picnic on the river. In Da Lat we had purchased a one burner portable stove. In Hue we then picked up a pot, plates, and spoons. We hadn’t gotten around to using any of them, so this seemed to be the perfect opportunity.
Before setting off we grabbed some fresh pork, veggies, and a 24 pack of Bia Saigon from the local market. Condiments had been purchased in Hue, and beans and rice had been soaking in water bottles for two days.
Daniel and Benny scouted out the perfect cooking spot in the morning. It was on the river, there was a little rock bridge built up by locals to get our bikes across, and the water nearby was moving quick enough to be clean and clear. Locals passed by with goats and cows, came to bathe and swim, and the same guys kept driving back and forth with a dump truck. Everyone happily waved at us, but seemed to find our cooking setup a little strange.
James, our personal chef from the UK, set to work preparing all the meat and veggies upon our arrival. Greg did some veggie cutting, I stirred, and Daniel and Benny started a fire. We had a terrific stew with beans rice, veggies and pork, and we also all had a hunk of pork cooked over the fire. It was awesome. After so much Vietnamese food it was a real treat to eat something that tasted like home.
In addition to all the cooking and eating we did, we also all took a dip in the river. The water was refreshing and clean. I can see why the locals use it as a bathing spot. It’s very possible that it was cleaner than the water coming out of our shower at the hotel.
On our way back to the hotel, Greg jumped on the back of James’ bike, and I drove our bike home. After only practicing on a back road it was a little intimidating, but overall went quite well. I made it up the big hills and skillfully dodged a cow, making up for almost hitting one the previous day. By skillfully dodge I mean that I just slowed down enough to avoid hitting it while it walked across the road… But either way the cow made it across unscathed!
Day 23 Khe Sanh to Dong Hoi via the Ho Chi Minh Highway West
Roughly 240 km traveled in about 8 hours
The day of the famous Ho Chi Minh Highway. We planned to leave at 7 am to tackle the long drive, but due to another back tire malfunction on our bike, we didn’t get away until 9. Luckily, the drive was easy. The road was not quite as good as it had been on our way to Khe Sanh, but was still much better than some roads we have driven.
The blog community absolutely gushes about this road online, so I was a little surprised when I wasn’t immediately wowed. The first few hours were pretty plain. Eventually we started to come into a nice mountain road that presented some of the views I was hoping for. On the other side of that pass, we drove through a number of small villages. The kids would come running out to give us high fives. As we would get away from the villages, we could really see the setting they were in with beautiful surrounding mountains and greenery. It was lovely.
After a few villages, we came into an area with enormous karst mountains and rice paddy fields everywhere. I’m assuming this is what everyone in the blogger community was raving about. We managed to find some lunch (pho bo- the only food we know how to say) and gas for those of us who needed it, in the town right as you start to see the karst mountains. We also spotted what looks like a hotel being built, so in the future it may be possible to stay halfway through the Ho Chi Minh Highway West, rather than being forced to drive a full 240 km.
We ended up getting off the highway early to make the shortest path to Dong Hoi. At this point the driving was easy, so Greg and I switched it up, and I drove for a little while. It was nice to get a chance to practice taking corners and driving with a passenger. We arrived in Dong Hoi around 4. It’s a decent sized city. We found a nice hostel where the boys could have burgers and play pool for the evening.
Day 24 Dong Hoi to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
40 km traveled in an hour
We left Dong Hoi around 11 in the morning for Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park. This National Park is very famous for its caves and karst mountains. It is home to the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, which was discovered in 2009. That cave is only open to trekking tours that are in the $2,000-$3,000 range, so we opted to check out some of the smaller caves.
The four other guys checked out two caves by boat (Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave), while Greg and I drove the 40 km to the Paradise Cave. Before Son Doong was discovered, Paradise Cave was the largest in the park at 31 km long. A 1.1 km wooden boardwalk was recently put in. This makes it really easy to explore the cave. It takes almost no effort to walk it, so we were able to focus on all the rock formations. It was stunning.
We were lucky enough to arrive when the majority of people were leaving. This definitely added to our experience. It gave the cave an abandoned peaceful feel. When we arrived at the end of the boardwalk we were by ourselves and could hear water dripping. I’m not usually a big cave person, but the massive size, amazing formations, and the lack of people made it a really cool experience.
Day 25 Rest Day in Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park
120 km round trip to drive the missed portion of the Ho Chi Minh Highway West
As I mentioned earlier, we had missed the last part of the Ho Chi Minh Highway West on our way into Dong Hoi. Greg and I had driven a small portion of it on our way to the Paradise Cave, which made us realized we had missed a very beautiful part. It was only 60 km, 120 km round trip, so we figured it would be worth doing.
When we set off at 10 am it was drizzling lightly. This light rain deterred Daniel and Benny, the Swiss brothers, so it was just James, Kristian, Greg and I who decided to drive it. Greg and I had purchased very fashionable ponchos in Hoi An after we saw all the locals wearing them. It seems to be the best way to keep you and your bike seat dry. James and Kristian had opted for slightly more “normal” looking rain gear- blue pants and jackets. Either way we were all prepared and couldn’t be bothered by a little rain.
The karst mountains we drove through during the first part of the drive were made that much more incredible by the mist, but as we climbed up the U Bo pass we couldn’t see a thing. There were no other vehicles on the road, so the only problem the cloud presented was the lack of a view. On the other side of the mountain the clouds broke and we were able to see down into the valley.
We had brought along our handy dandy stove, and James was kind enough to whip up some lunch at this point. On top of a median we cooked some rice and veggies. Half a bottle of water was the only casualty lost off the edge. It was a delicious lunch with a lovely view. To make it back we looped around the quick way that we had used to get to Dong Hoi. The good road conditions made it a quick ride to the hotel.
Day 26 Rest Day in Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park
I woke up the next morning with some nasty food poisoning. I opted to stay in bed (close to a bathroom) and watch some YouTube documentaries. While I learned about environmental damage caused by fracking and the history of American rodeo, the boys all went to explore the Dark Cave. Gasland was the fracking documentary, and it was actually pretty fascinating. This isn’t really relevant, but I’d recommend it if you’re looking for something to watch on YouTube.
Although I wasn’t present, I was informed that the cave exploration involved a lot of swimming, mud bathing, and Rock scrambling. It sounded like a pretty good time.
Thanks to ciproflaxin, I was feeling much better in the evening.
Day 27 Phong Nha- Ke Bang to Vinh
160 km traveled in 9 hours with numerous bike breakdowns
I woke up feeling well enough to travel, so we set off around 8 am. Less than 30 minutes down the road Kristian’s bike required the first repair of the day. The problem was his chain. Some nice man with crazy hair, who spoke no English, and had about 50 chickens in his yard, got the chain back on. We then went a little down the road to a real mechanic to have the chain replaced. A little over an hour later we were back in business.
Another 20 km down the road we had some new bike troubles. Benny’s bike was leaking gas, and James’ bike was revving very high and smoking. Benny’s bike was missing a cap. It was easy enough for him and Daniel to rig up a fix. James had run out of oil even though it had just been changed just 400 km ago, it also looked like his dipstick had melted, but we can’t confirm that he had one to begin with. Kristian grabbed some oil, but even after refilling it the bike still didn’t seem right.
Thanks to a push from Greg, James was able to get moving, and we found a “mechanic” a few minutes down the road. Due to the language barrier we had a rough time getting anything fixed. The guy messed around with the spark plugs and then changed the oil again. 200,000 dong ($10 US) later and nothing had been solved.
After driving 30 km more we stopped in the next town to have it looked at again. This time the mechanic pointed to the front part of the engine and quoted 500,000 dong ($25 US). This seemed to be closer to what needed to be done, so we went with it. The mechanic then disappeared for about an hour while we had some pho. When the mechanic came back he had some parts in hand. He cleaned stuff out and replaced a few seals (at least that’s what it looked like). He then charged James 350,000 dong, and better yet, the bike was as good as new! Woo!
We ended up making good time and drove the 100 km to Vinh before dark. Right as we rolled into the hotel area of town, Greg and I felt a pop and started to wobble. When we stopped to investigate we found that we had run over a large screw. This made the total damage for the day 4 out of 5 bikes. At least the timing of our flat tire was good… If there is such a thing.
We are now 300 km from Hanoi. The bike trip is coming to a close for Greg and I. It will be sad to sell our bike in a few days, but it sure has been a great ride.