Author MIKE GUY Photography AIDAN DOCKERY
My objective is to ride the trail, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, south for 410 miles to the former imperial city of Hue. However, I have serious doubts I’ll even make it out of Hanoi alive. Truthfully, I’ve been dreading this day: Hanoi—a quiet Asian city, as Asian cities go—is internationally acclaimed as having the worst traffic in the world. Guidebooks practically beg readers not to ride here.
My guide, Mr. Thong, from the Indochina Trekking Company, arrives on his spotless red Honda. Small of stature, imperturbable and with vast stores of knowledge, Mr. Thong is a 32-year-old Hanoi native who has ridden every complicated road in Vietnam. He gives me and my sagging saddlebags a look, frowns quickly, and says, “You pack too much. You sure you ready for this?”
No, but I’m going anyway. I mount the bike and kick-start it to life. A hotel employee who’s been standing nearby looking concerned hands me a business card, “In case you need help,” she says.
Buckling my helmet, I ask Mr. Thong if he has any advice about negotiating Hanoi’s roads.
“Use your horn,” he says. “A lot.”
I follow Mr. Thong into the fray. Cargo trucks, scooters, motorcycles and bicycles battle for every square inch between the curbs on either side. There are no discernible road rules whatsoever. No matter the width of the street, right and left lanes appear arbitrary and interchangeable; pedestrians step blithely into the street indifferent to my presence; traffic lights exert little authority.
I shift into third and ease open the throttle. The chaos outside my helmet is almost too much to absorb, so I focus on Mr. Thong’s rear license plate as it darts about. Scooters zip past at odd angles. Needles are threaded, brakes are locked, tires screech. Following Thong, I pass traffic on both sides, crossing onto the oil-smeared shoulder, then into oncoming traffic. Suddenly, everyone stops to let a big truck cross. I take a deep breath.
Like many mysteries of the third world, it’s an insane system, but somehow it works. A few times, I try to look back before switching lanes until it occurs to me that doing so is actually a liability. Lesson number one: Honk your horn, have faith and just turn.
AS I QUICKLY DISCOVER, the Ho Chi Minh Trail is less a geographical place than a concept. When Uncle Ho went to war to “liberate” South Vietnam, his army hacked supply routes into the landscape. Over the decades of battle, these paths were further dispersed into an untraceable 10,000-mile network of paths, roads and tunnels winding over mountainsides and through jungles across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Today, only a fraction of the actual trail is identifiable, and much of that has been paved with asphalt and rebranded the Ho Chi Minh Highway. That’s where we find ourselves riding.
The route that Mr. Thong and I are taking—the narrow swath of countryside from Hanoi to Hue, bordered by Laos and the Gulf of Tonkin—is a stretch rarely mentioned in guidebooks. The popular one I purchased in New York says this segment has “nothing much at all to offer the traveler.” Stunned at such a breezy dismissal, I took that as a challenge. Then I returned the book.
The madness of Hanoi traffic ebbs as we cross into Hoa Binh Province. Mr. Thong waves me into a gas station to fill up, and I drink thirstily from a bottle of water. My hands are shaking. A crowd gathers to admire my jacket. They speak Vietnamese. I just nod and smile.
“Good job,” says Mr. Thong, giving me an encouraging hug. “You used your horn a lot, and you’re alive.”
We turn off the main road and head west to our first stop, a tiny town on stilts called Mai Chau, in a valley of rice paddies. Leafy trees line the road, and we wind lazily through valleys of soybean and corn fields. My hands relax on the handlebars. A mountain range emerges in the distance and we start to climb. For the first time since leaving New York two days ago, I can now clearly imagine surviving the day.
THE NEXT MORNING, I wake up on a straw mat in a raised hut overlooking bright green rice paddies. My shoulders are sore and taut. With Aidan Dockery, the photographer who joined us the night before, we drink strong, incomparably delicious coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Turns out Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee.
The rice stalks in the paddies are tall and beginning to bend with the weight of the seeds.
“When is the harvest?” I ask Mr. Thong.
He gazes across the field and grimaces thoughtfully.
“Eighteen days,” he says finally, sipping his coffee.
“You’re sure it’s not nineteen?” Dockery asks with a smile.
We ride out of town as the heat rolls into the valley, and then run along the Má River. This is our first segment of the actual trail, though no sign announces it. We come upon a bamboo factory, where tree trunks are floated down the river and milled into a variety of products: planks, chopsticks and toothpicks. Mostly women work here, their pointed nón lá hats tied tightly under their chins. They smile at me beneath their face masks (a common accessory for women here, owing to a preference for pale skin) and tie bundles of chopsticks—25 to a bundle.
IN VINH THAT NIGHT, I walk out of the hotel for a bowl of pho, a noodle soup that is Vietnam’s national dish. Half dazed from 11 hours on the bike, I squint at the six lanes of heavy traffic separating me from the restaurant. I wait for a gap in the flow of cars, but none comes. It’s like the most perplexing level of Frogger ever devised. Truck headlights blur with scooters. After 20 mesmerizing minutes, I turn around and head back into the hotel, ready to content myself with the crackers in my saddlebag.
At the stairs, I bump into Mr. Thong and tell him about my thwarted dinner attempt. He leads me back to the street.
“Don’t hesitate,” he instructs as we near the road. “And don’t change speeds. Just keep walking.” Without breaking stride or even looking at the oncoming vehicular melee, Mr. Thong takes me by the arm and we step into the traffic, walking straight across. Scooters and trucks throttled to full speed pass within inches in front of us (and presumably behind us), but no one honks. Nor do they seem the least put off by our jaywalking. The sea of traffic merely parts.
“And that, my friend, is how you cross a street in Vietnam,” Mr. Thong says.
MUCH OF VIETNAM’S agrarian economy rides jury-rigged on the back of scooters. The sampling I witness is mind-boggling: a crazy bundle of scythes bungeed across a seat, blades facing oncoming traffic; a scooter pulling a giant water buffalo crammed into a cage on wheels; a man who’s fastened a seven-foot-tall pile of what appears to be shredded rags to the back of his seat, and then somehow wedged his wife and three children between him and the cargo.
Back in Hanoi I saw a living room set riding slowly through traffic—sofa, love seat and easy chair. When I passed, I saw a scooter beneath the furniture, and a rider whose arm lay on the sofa’s armrest, giving him a housewife-watching-The Price Is Right look.
Here, the scooter is the equivalent of a pickup on an American farm or a Mack truck on an interstate.
AS I MOTOR ALONG, I decide that the Vietnamese countryside might be the best place in the world for motorcycle touring. There are barely any cars, the blacktop is smooth, and the land passes by in a stunning panorama. The only downside—besides the occasional blood-chilling close call with trucks and other bikes—is breaking down.
Dockery’s Honda has been dying since Mai Chau and finally sputters to a stop in an airless valley near the caves of Phong Nha. As we stand sweating on the sandy shoulder, Mr. Thong, a mechanical wizard, begins his methodical diagnosis. A weak breeze riffles the elephant ear undergrowth. The rumble of an approaching diesel engine carries through the forest, and a cargo truck appears over the hill with a tottering load of chicken-wire cages.
Before I can see what’s in the cages, I hear the whimpers of hundreds of dogs.
“You can bet they aren’t off to the kennel,” Dockery says, winking.
NEARING HUE, MR. THONG waves me to a stop at an intersection called Dong Loc Road Junction. A tall statue marks the center, and there’s a shrine nearby to 10 teenage girls who manned the crossroads during the “American War.” Mr. Thong explains that from 1968 to 1972, Dong Loc—then a major supply crossroads on the trail—was bombed into oblivion by American warplanes.
“Every square meter of soil here was tilled by bombs many, many times,” Mr. Thong says. At night, the girls would rebuild the road well enough for supplies to pass through, and the B-52s would fly over again in the morning. The girls were killed one day in ’68, and the crater where they died remains as part of the shrine. (Hundreds are killed every year by previously unexploded ordnance.)
“Whenever I come here I feel sad and cold,” Mr. Thong says. “But also proud. We came through so much, and today we’re full of love.” He’s right. There’s a lot of love in Vietnam.
IN THE SPARKLING CITY of Hue, I park the bike at La Residence, an old French colonial villa that’s been expertly transformed into one of Vietnam’s most exquisite hotels. At the spa, I tell a 90-pound masseuse named Huong not to worry if she can’t manage to unbind my knotted shoulders. “It’s going to be a process rather than a session,” I tell her. But when I succumb to her expert hands (and feet), I fall deep into a bottomless sleep and wake myself with a loud snore that draws a giggle from Huong.
Before I leave for Saigon the next morning, Mr. Thong joins me for a final lunch of bun bo Hue, a renowned local version of pho. We walk along Dien Bien Phu Street to a food stall in a rough section of town. As we sit, the matron stokes the kitchen fire and drops handfuls of rice noodles, sweet basil and lemongrass—along with a thick, gelatinous cube of boiled pork blood— into stock made from pork and beef.
The smell of fresh chili peppers reaches me and sweat beads on my forehead. I slurp the soup down noisily, savoring every blazing chopstickful—even the supple, succulent pork blood.
It’s complex, unique, challenging and stunningly delicious. Sort of like Vietnam.
Afterward, Mr. Thong and I walk and chew on bamboo toothpicks.
We prepare to part ways at an uncharacteristically quiet intersection along Dien Bien Phu Street.
“You ride well for an American,” he allows and grasps my hand. No sooner have I thanked him than two scooters collide loudly at the intersection. The bikes appear totaled, though the riders are unhurt. They stand there and smile and shake their heads.
“You see?” says Mr. Thong. “That’s the Vietnamese way. Always smiling.” And then he crosses the street and disappears around a corner.