Stage 3: Nha Trang – Buon Ma Tuot – Pleiku – Pham Duc – Danang (894km)
After a few days of exploring Nha Trang with all of its creature comforts, I packed my life onto my bike and set off at first light. I headed inland again, weaving through a tapestry of agriculture in the lowlands by the coast, beginning the gradual climb into the range of mountains that forms the spine of Vietnam. After half a day of solid riding my path cut the Ho Chi Minh Highway. This is the road that I had come to Vietnam to travel, and it would be my home for the next 800km. Its course roughly follows the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the famous supply chain of the Vietnam war, by which the north sustained its troops in the south in the Vietnam War.
Disappointingly, my first day along this road was uninspiring. Nothing remains of the original forests that carpeted these areas. The land was long ago cleared for plantation crops, and for several hours I followed a dirty, four-laned motorway through semi-industrial areas with the ugly scars of fresh development lining the road sides. But as I headed further north, with Buon Ma Thuot well behind me, the roads narrowed and became quieter, the provincial hub towns got smaller, and the agriculture and industry began to give way to trees. Part way between Pleiku and Pham Duc the forest began in earnest. Triple canopy jungle towered over one side of the road, while the other fell away down a sheer slope to the mighty rivers that drain the mountains of their afternoon downpours. Every valley view has a muddy river at the base, the thick green carpet of forest, and row upon row of blue mountains fading into the distance. For hours at a time I was alone with the trees, the river and the road. It’s an isolated and primal place, where a string of elephants or a pride of jungle cats would not seem unlikely.
Scattered along the road are small towns and smaller villages, where people still adopt a subsistence farming lifestyle. Although my routine began with a 5.30am start, the towns were a hive of activity well before this time. By the time I got moving, old women would be well on their way to the village markets, stooped and slow under the weight of a cane basket full of root vegetables. Old men would be busy on the forest’s edge, tying down a mountainous morning’s load of firewood to an ancient relic of a motorbike. The younger folk would be trudging out to work the fields or forest, all shouldering arms of shovels and hoes and machetes. Every turn in the road carried the risk of confronting a herd of cattle or goats ruminating on the tarmac. I stopped to take a picture of a mob of water buffalo, dripping mud, strolling past school-yard gates, driven by a man and a boy with bamboo sticks. Riding along this road gave me a glimpse of the provincial heart of Vietnam. But still, the locals considered me to be the stranger sight.
Although they stare at me as though I had been beamed in from another planet, they were friendly and welcoming, quick to smile and often to laugh. At every opportunity they would strike up incomprehensible conversations just to hear the words of my strange language, or my own clumsy efforts at theirs. Children would line the roads on their ways to or from school, reaching out with skinny, white-uniformed arms for a high-velocity, high-five; the impact almost spinning them on their axis as they hooted in delight.
Reminders of the impact of war are everywhere along this stretch. War cemeteries are easy to spot in almost every small town. Row upon row of precisely aligned marble column headstones often marked only with a simple yellow star and the words ‘Liet Si’ – unknown martyr. Dented, rusting tanks and heavy artillery flank flagpoles draped with the country’s blood-red flag. Enormous, Soviet-style granite monuments proclaim the people’s freedom and independence, and remind them how they earned it. Similarly, there are many bronze or marble statues of Ho Chi Minh, the man who guided them there. Loudspeakers crackle to life well before dawn, blaring anthemic music and pro-communist slogans from every government building, encouraging the population to be up and about their labours. As an outsider, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Vietnam has been besieged by war, and its people have been dragged to hell and back. But even when the government propaganda is filtered away, there exists an undeniable nationalistic pride. The tiny, faded red flags flying from the thatch-roofed village huts, or those stitched onto children’s schoolbags, say as much.
After four full days of isolation, working my way through the central highlands, I left the Ho Chi Minh road and headed back towards the coast. Hoi An was on the radar.