A second tour of the Hai Van Pass in clearer weather buoyed my spirits. Although I couldn’t quite see the horizon, the road was a pleasure and plenty of people had come out to play. Some happy couple in full wedding dress chose to have photos taken on top of the the old war battlements at the top of the range – looking a little like a grotesque concrete bridal cake. Not quite my idea of romance, but things are done differently here and weddings can be a very public affair. In every town garishly decorated wedding marquees are set up on the road, and local pop music or karaoke blares out about the air horns and revving motorbikes. I saw one reception that had been set up on a footpath at the front of the bank. All through the party, people walked in off the road to make use of the ATM.
Heading back inland, I left Danang behind and turned onto the Ho Chi Minh road again in the highlands. I followed it into the tiny town of Prao, where I stayed for a night, and then started early the next morning headed north for Khe Sanh. This section runs through the narrow waistline of Vietnam, being little more than 50km wide and running very close to the border with Laos. It is one of the most beautiful stretches for its high hilltops swathed in tall timber, and fast-moving rivers cutting a jagged blue line through the misty valleys. But it is by no means virgin territory. Shortly after setting off, I was almost derailed by what must have been one of the world’s ugliest pigs as he charged headlong out of the fog. Despite his lack of charm, he snuffled around my tyres unselfconsciously as I rummaged for my camera and threatened to make him famous. Hydroelectricity plants are scattered along the rivers, and a pair enormous spooky tunnels through the steeper mountain passes, loom out of nowhere. The regular scourge of illegal clearing by slash and burn also continues right up to the edge of the national park. But once that boundary is crossed the forest takes on Jurassic proportions.
The density of the forest here is thick enough to hide dwindling populations of elephants and tigers. The so-called Asian unicorn (sao la) lurks within the depths of this reserve. It is a critically endangered species, with an unknown number remaining in the wild. Intensely private, its habitat is continually shrinking due to encroaching development and it’s value as a hunting trophy with local people. Thankfully, conservation zones have been established in order to protect its territory, and rangers patrol the parks attempting to re-educate the hill tribes of the inherent advantages of conservation for tourism, rather than hunting for food or sport. It is difficult to know whether these efforts are all too late, as perhaps the population has already fallen below a genetically viable threshold. Given the local culture views almost any animal as a food source, the success of conservation efforts is hard to imagine.
After a particularly long and empty stretch of winding through the towering forest, I crossed a high bridge over a deep river gorge. On the opposite side, miles from anywhere and protected behind heavy fencing, was an enormous yellow, government building. As I slowed down, I noticed that all of the doors and windows had been removed, but more strangely still, a goat was staring down at me from the second story. The security gates were chained, but the padlock was open. Abandoned buildings beg for exploration, and given that I hadn’t seen another human for more than half an hour, I felt safe to slide the chain and park out of sight. There were five all or six buildings in total, all looking to be in reasonably good shape, but completely over-run with goats and cattle (alive and dead) and beginning to lose the inevitable battle with the encroaching forest. I poked around for maybe twenty minutes, got into a standoff with a billy goat on a stairway, and then spied what looked like an old war bunker overlooking the river.
The steel doors appeared seized with rust and wore heavy bolt latches, but again, one of them had it’s padlock open. Putting my back to the concrete, I used my foot to creak it open on complaining hinges, and dropped down with my camera and head torch into a battlement that surely hadn’t been visited by many (or any?) Westerner. The air was cold and dank, and wisps of dust swirled in the slanting light let in by the gun ports, stirred up as I moved around taking pictures. I followed a narrow corridor around two corners and found myself faced with another half-sized steel door. The latch was very stubborn, but I managed to throw it and wrench the door ajar wide enough for me to squeeze through. It led into a small room, maybe 1m square and pitch black. As I squeezed into it I almost tripped and fell through an open trapdoor. A rusting ladder led down into a narrow vertical shaft, and with the help of my torch I could see a side passage leading off from the bottom of it. With my heart thumping in my ears and a several neurons of common sense telling me that it was not a good idea to go down, I got ready to go down.
Then I noticed the quiet. The background bleating of goats, which had been a constant and irritating soundtrack to my exploration, had stopped. I strained to listen, holding my breath, until over bounding pulse I heard heavy feet scrunching on gravel. A lot of heavy feet. And then voices. Not-so-happy voices. The gravel scrunching and not-so-happy voices got louder and then stopped, right outside the first door. After a few seconds pause, an authoritative voice called out something that I couldn’t understand. Adrenaline surged, and I had to fight down the irrational impulse to drop down the ladder and try to escape through the tunnel. Instead I waited a moment to assess my position – it didn’t take long. I was more than 50km from the nearest town, in the middle of dense forest, on government property. Further, I was deep inside a restricted access relic of the Vietnam war and had obviously forced at least two doors and a gate to be there. No one knew where I was except the men outside. I was cornered.
Not being able to think of an intelligent escape plan, I decided to play dumb. I retraced my steps through the corridors and squeezed though the entrance back to the outside world. Squinting in the brightness of the sunlight I found myself looking up at about eight green-uniformed soldiers, looking annoyed and shouldering rifles. One of them wore more regalia than the rest. He stepped forward and barked out something else that I didn’t understand then crossed his forearms in front of him in an ‘X’. The message was clear, ‘trespasser’. Channeling my inner idiot, I began babble non-stop about things that I can’t remember, making a big show of rummaging through my pockets, pointing at the sky, and slapping my forehead as though I had forgotten something important. I kept chattering and gesturing at the world around me as I climbed out of the trench, sidestepping with increasingly long strides towards my bike, not taking my eyes off the men, but nor looking them in the eye. They followed me a few steps, but seemed unsure as to what to do, giving me time to fire up (thank God for Honda – first time, every time) and putter away at an idle, the animated conversation still going on inside my helmet.
As soon as I rounded the first corner, fueled by adrenaline, I opened the throttle as far as it would go, and leaning deep into bends, rode as hard I could until I was sure that I was clear. I had pushed my luck, and could have broken my neck trying to get away. But, I will always, always wonder what was down that shaft.
I made it to Khe Sanh without further incident. Despite its notoriety, the town is actually a bit of a dump, and there is little to mark it as the site of the deadliest battle of the Vietnam war. Control of the airfield was the cause of the fighting, and it now preserved as a museum. I arrived in the early afternoon, saddle sore and walking with bowed legs showing plenty of daylight between the knees.Two old men with similar looking suspension shuffled after me for my entire visit, doggedly trying to sell me pieces of shrapnel, and I had a difficult time trying to outrun them. Despite the very heavy bias in the museum’s presentation, the opportunity to walk around and over the aeroplanes, tanks and helicopters that were left behind by the southern forces, was powerful stuff. The mountains form a serene backdrop in the late afternoon light, but with bombs reigning down, it must have been a truly godforsaken place. Standing on the runway, or in the bunkers with my eyes closed, it wasn’t hard to imagine the muddy, bloody hell that the airbase must have been during the fighting.
I decided that one night in Khe Sanh was enough – there really wasn’t any more to see, and back in town I was unnerved by an assortment of drunken xenophobic men watching me with unfriendly eyes. I guess that some grudges will last a lifetime. I stopped for a quick take away dinner at a roadside vendor and ordered a couple of pork and salad bread rolls. Or at least, I thought I did. They tasted different to what I’ve had before, and when I checked later, I found that thit cho translates as dog meat. Whether it was the meal itself or a psychosomatic reaction, I spent an extra day in Khe Sanh doing cartwheels in the bathroom, firing double-barreled projectiles of my own. A short but violent reminder that despite six months on the road, my digestive system is not iron-clad.
Finally, the tide went out, I could sneeze again with confidence and was beginning to think about food without full body convulsions. Just to be sure, I chewed down a handful of immodium laced with metomide, (a detail that I would forget about until the following Friday) and saddled up. The trip between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha is recognised as being one of the most arduous in the south to north stretch. Not just because of its length (230km or 8-9hrs), but also because of its emptiness. And I wanted to make it before any further digestive exclamation marks.