Traversing Vietnam By Motorbike: Day 10 – Cruising the Central Highlands – Hue to Khe San
Distance: 175km / 109 miles
Bike Condition: mystery problems & guzzling fuel
Driver Condition: singin’ in the rain
Today’s drive, scenery-wise, was one of our best days yet as we moved back inland and into the central highlands and the phenomenal scenery of the Truong Son mountains.
Setting out from Hue was a bit hairy, as the drive through cities usually is, but once we were beyond the city a bit the traffic cleared and the roads were open and beautiful. Though some sections of road were a bit beat and battered, the majority of the route was on nice, smooth roadway with gradual curves that made the mountain riding pretty easy. There were the occasional hairpin turns, and of those, I can say, I am better at right hairpins than left hairpins… ha!
After a bit of a fubar, which shall come to light in a future blog post, Shawn and I were back at a mechanic’s shop to have my gear shifter fixed, which in this case meant getting a new one. With prices cheaper than in Hue, Shawn also took the opportunity to have his exhaust pipe replaced since it has had some issues. Hopefully this will have John Cena driving a bit better.
New parts and wind in our hair, we continued down the road to find that: John Cena’s exhaust pipe was not the issue. While the bike did need a new one, there is still a mystery issue causing Shawn’s bike to ride like shit, though there wasn’t much we could do about it for the time being.
At the very least, the scenery was spectacular, riding below and among soaring forest-covered limestone cliffs, along river beds, and through hillsides patterned with rows of different crops. High misty mountains loomed on the horizon over river valleys. Cows, water buffalo, geese, goats, chickens, and dogs roamed along the roadsides, and children waved at us and shouted hello as we passed. I stopped for about a bazillion pictures.
While the countryside is beautiful, many of the mountain communities we pass through look quite poor, with ramshackle wooden homes, some patched together with a combination of wood, tin, tarp and any other spare materials. It’s sad to think that amidst this paradise landscape, many of the farming communities struggle, as with many countries, more money is invested into the cities and coastal areas.
About 40km from the end of our ride, it started to rain, and the entire countryside popped with bright greens – the forest and fields verdant and lush. While the showers slowed the journey down a bit on the winding mountain roads, they did little to kill the spirit, with beautiful green vistas abound, we were singing in the rain as we drove along (at least I was).
The showers continued intermittently all the way to our destination in Khe San… which we almost made it to without running out of gas! Have we mentioned that the fuel gauges on our bikes don’t work? As we neared Khe San, Shawn felt like he was running low on fuel, which seemed absurd because we had filled up only about 100km earlier and the gas tanks typically carry us much further than that. Ruby Toots was still feeling good, but we kept an eye out for gas stations as we neared Khe San, with only about 15km or so to go.
Unfortunately, John Cena was soon on fumes and not able to make it these last 15km, eventually sputtering to his death on the side of the road not far from town. I continued on to find a gas station while Shawn waited along the side of the road. As luck would have it there was one only about 1km up the road. I dumped out the remainder of one of my 1.5L water bottles and had it filled with gas, got Ruby Toots fueled up (in case I was also running low on fuel), and sped back down the road to rescue Shawn and John Cena.
Fuel in tanks, we headed back up the road so Shawn could get the rest of his tank filled up, and then into town to find a hotel for the night. While we can typically search and book a hotel or hostel online before arriving somewhere, Khe San is not one of those destinations. It’s a small town that does not cater to many tourists, and thus does not have much of a presence on Trip Advisor or accommodation booking sites. The majority of the tourists passing through are those on motorbikes taking the scenic route from Hue to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, one of the most spectacular national parks in Vietnam, and home to the world’s largest cave. And this is just where we were heading. Khe San is really the only town along the route that is big enough to have a few hotels and so a necessary stopping point, since the full drive to Phong Nha along this route is much too far for one day.
And so, we rolled into town and looked for a place to stay. While it looks like there are some new lodging options in the works, the current options are pretty drab, but will suffice for a night. And so, we found a clean room with a cheerful owner for our short overnight stay. Lodging squared away, we found some grub, talked to another traveler passing through on his way northwards, and Shawn worked on his bike’s mystery issues for a bit.
What Khe San lacks in charm, it makes up for in history. Vietnam War history buffs may recognize the name Khe San, as it was a strategic American combat base during the war and the site of one of the most famous and bloodiest battles of the war. It later became clear that the siege on Khe San was an enormous diversion to draw attention away from South Vietnamese population centers, like Hue, as the North Vietnamese prepared for the Tet Offensive, which began a week after the siege on Khe San began. Unfortunately, we rolled into town a bit too late to visit the small museum at the Khe San combat base, though it opens early so we are hoping to swing by quickly in the morning as we head out of town.
Fingers crossed (mostly for Ruby Toots and John Cena) for tomorrow’s mountainous journey northwards!