Traversing Vietnam By Motorbike: Day 11 – Khe San to Phong Nha Ke Ban National Park
Distance: 230km / 143 miles
Bike Condition: rollin’ through the mountains
Driver Condition: Evading the law…
After a night of not-so-good sleep, we got up a little later than anticipated to find that Ruby Toots rear tire was flat. Yay. Oddly enough, another traveler we met yesterday was pushing his bike up the road because his tire was flat as well… hmm… Anyway, we went across the street to a bike service shop where I learned something new. The Honda Wave motorbike tires actually have tubes. We later learned this was true of all(?) motorbike and maybe even motorcycle(?) tires. Did not know that. So… we got a new tube, grabbed some Pho Bo for breakfast (pho noodle soup with beef, a pretty typical Vietnamese breakfast), and finally hit the road, much later than we’d hoped.
Not far outside of Khe San we were totally caught off guard when a police checkpoint appeared, a traffic cop in the middle of the road was blowing his whistle and waving us to the side of the road. I had not expected to see a checkpoint ‘round these parts. After a momentary hesitation, I sped on by with Shawn following suit. Another traveler we had met earlier in our motorbike journey had said if you just kept on going, they wouldn’t follow. I crossed my fingers and hoped this was true. I can’t say I didn’t check my rear view mirror for awhile, or think to myself, man, I really don’t want to end up in Vietnamese jail just because I didn’t want to pay what would amount to a $10 traffic bribe… or even WORSE, have people back home read about the dummies that ended up in Vietnamese jail over a $10 traffic bribe, like that idiot that decided stealing a sign in North Korea would be funny. At any rate, no one followed and we continued along with our day just fine. F*%K THE POLICE!
While I was busy checking my rear view mirror for any following authorities, we cruised right through what was once the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which served as a buffer between the north and the south during the American/Vietnam War. The zone extended 5km on either side of the Ben Hai River, also known well as the Seventeenth Parallel, though the area was actually just a bit south of 17N latitude. While the majority of the wartime landscape of bases and bunkers have long since been removed, the DMZ was once, ironically, one of the most militarized areas in the world, with many of the bloodies battles of the war occurring in the surrounding area. Today the landscape is quiet and peaceful, giving few hints to its bloody past.
After cruising by the police checkpoint, the rest of the day was pretty uneventful, I’m happy to report. We had no major bike issues, we didn’t run out of gas, and we made it to Phong Na Ke Ban National Park in one piece (or rather two pieces… four if you count the bikes… you get the idea).
Beyond Khe San, the route was 100% in the mountains, roads continuously winding up and down switchbacks, curves, and hairpin turns, with scenery even more spectacular than yesterday. The limestone tower karst loomed above us, the jungle covering the mountainsides dense and thick, trees growing upon trees with a carpet of vines over everything, dripping down over the roadway. Did we mention Vietnam is absolutely stunning at every turn?? Such a beautiful country, particularly in the mountains and along the coast, which is about all they have, so the entire country is phenomenal.
While we had hoped the temperature would be a little cooler in the mountains, the majority of the day was scorching with hot winds in our face. Toward the latter quarter of the ride we started to hit more shaded roads with some cooler breezes – thank you, thank you, thank you – intermittently interrupting the hot air.
Around 3:30pm or so, we finally rolled into the main town area of the national park, Son Trach, known to everyone as Phong Nha. Other than taking care of some bike maintenance, we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon/evening and we’ll take the day tomorrow to explore some of the national park!