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Old 06-03-2008, 06:15 AM   #1
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Talking Saigon to Hanoi on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietnam

  • One Man,
  • 9 Days,
  • 2,700 kilometers,
  • the back way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi
  • ... and a Chinese 125cc road bike.

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Old 06-03-2008, 06:22 AM   #2
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The Ho Chi Minh Trail

Hi and thanks for taking the time to open up my trip report.

From 9 until 17 May 2008, I completed a 2,700km trip from Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Now, the HCMT was a network of roads which was used during the Vietnam War to bring troops and supplies from North Vietnam to the South.

Here's what Wiki says about the HCMT:

The Ho Chi Minh trail was a logistical system that ran from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) through the neighboring kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia. The system provided support in the form of manpower and materiel, to the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF or derogatively, Viet Cong) and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) during the Vietnam War (1960-1975).

The trail was not a single route, but rather a complex network of truck routes, paths for foot and bicycle traffic, and river transportation systems. The name, taken from North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh, is of American origin. Within North Vietnam, it was called the Truong Son Road, after the mountain range in central Vietnam through which it passed.

Parts of what became the Ho Chi Minh trail had existed for centuries as primitive foot paths that facilitated trade in the region. The area through which the system meandered was among the most rugged in Southeast Asia: a sparsely-populated region of rugged mountains (1,500-8,000 feet), triple-canopy jungle and dense primeval rainforests. During the First Indochina War the Viet Minh maintained north/south communication utilizing this system of trails and paths.

When armed conflict heated up between the NLF and the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1959, Hanoi dispatched the newly-established 559th Transportation Group, under the command of Colonel (later General) Vo Bam, south in order to improve and maintain the system in its bid for a unified Vietnam.[2] Originally, the North Vietnamese effort concentrated on infiltration across and immediately below the Demilitarized Zone that separated the two Vietnams.

You can read more about it here:

Note to the above, while the name Ho Chi Minh Trail was coined by the Americans, that is now the Vietnamese name too. In Vietnamese it is called "Duong Ho Chi Minh".

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Old 06-03-2008, 06:26 AM   #3
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The Modern Trail:

These days the trail has been upgraded so that it is now (occasional landslide aside) paved all the way from HCMC to Hanoi.

It follows what is now Route 14 in southern Vietnam and in the north it branches - the west route and the east route, Route 15.

I followed the more remote west route, except for a section around Danang and Hue where I left the HCMT all together and dropped down to the coast so I could drive on the scenic Hai Van Pass.

Here is the route I took:
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Old 06-03-2008, 06:38 AM   #4
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Preparation and the Bike:

Vietnam is the place where I learned (and still learning) to ride a bike: I've done about 9,000km total riding now and all except maybe 500km has been in Vietnam.

The bike I used is a Guangdong China made Haojue 125cc road bike. I don't know much about other bikes, but I think this is a good learner motorcycle. It's not as underpowered as you may think, as traffic in Vietnam doesn't go fast. Most people cruise along in the cities at 30km/h. Even on main highways, you don't often see anyone going over 80km/h.

I originally planned to do the trip in early April 08, however I mentioned it at work (I've been working in VN for over a year) and the comment around the westerners in the office was that it was "suidical" and I was "crazy". Infact the day I mentioned it, my leave got cancelled for a business trip to Indonesia. I'm sure part of the reason it got cancelled was my boss thought I would kill myself and it would upset the project schedule until they found a replacement!

To be fair though, if I'd ended up unconscious in a ditch somewhere.... well I wouldn't be the first westerner workign for my company who ended up unconscious in a ditch after riding a motorbike... The Vietnamese in the office seemed to think the trip would be good fun though - in VN everybody rides a bike.

April would have been better as May was heading into the rainy season and I did hit a bit of rain on the way up.

I picked up a copy of a Vietnam Road Atlas, scanned every single page and loaded it into my PDA type GPS with the Pathaway software This fixes your position on the map, if you have calibrated correctly.

I looked into getting a dedicated GPS unit like a Garmin or Magellan which would have been good as they are ruggedised and waterproof however there is a big problem for Vietnam - no detailed maps and propriatory maps is what you need for these units. This lead me to the PDA GPS which is a bit clunky to use, but you can load whatever paper map you can lay your hands on into it. For waterproofing, I just put in in the plastic covered map compartment in tank bag. To waterproof the powersocket mounted near the front of the fuel tank, I put some duct tape on it!

Loading the road atlas into the GPS was quite time consuming. The steps are:

1. Scan map
2. Crop as required; mess with it so the file size is manageable
3. Load into Pathaway software
4. Manually input lat-longs of known points to calibrate it; the road atlas had lat longs printed on it, plus I cross referenced with Google Earth. The software calculates the location of other points on the map by scaling from the known points you have input
5. Copy to SD card and insert into GPS
The whole thing took about 30 mins per map page and there were a load of pages in that road atlas....

The good news is you normally don't get lost. A GPS is a necessity in Vietnam IMHO unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Road signs are poor, they only point to the next town which can be known by any number of local names which are different to what is printed on the road atlas. In addition, outside the big cities very few people speak English (I can't speak Vietnamese) and a lot have never seen a map before anyway!

There is a screen shot of the PDA GPS screen below on top of the same page out of the road atlas. My track is shown in RED. You can see it doesn't always line up exactly with the road on the map, but it is pretty close. The diff is due to calibration errors and also the road as drawn on the map may not be spot on either.

Bike and Gear:
I installed a 12V power socket on the bike so I could power the GPS. For clothes, you can buy really cheap bike stuff in Vietnam. I got a pair of waterproof (and they are very, very waterproof as I found out) armoured pants and an Alpinestars armoured mesh jacket for US$100 all up. While I was at it I also picked up a couple of cordura/goretex armoured jackets for future biking in colder climates.

It's too hot in VN to wear a cordura waterproof jacket, so I stuck with the mesh jacket and put on a cheap plastic poncho when it started to rain.

Why I rode a 125cc bike:
Up until quite recently bikes over 175cc capacity were banned from import into Vietnam. There are also two classes of motorcycle license in Vietnam A1 = under 175cc which is easy to get and A2 = over 175cc and is harder to get. The ban on 175+cc bikes has now been lifted, however they are still subject to a huge import taffif. As a consequence, there are very few big bikes in Vietnam. Since most bike manufacturers don't make 175cc bikes, this leads the largest bike which is easy to get being a 125cc.

The bike I bought cost 20M VND new, or about $1,250 (including the Givi box). If I wanted a larger capacity bike, the next step up would have been $3,000 for a 10 year old Honda dirt bike. I opted for the 125cc. It's still more powerful than 80% of the bikes in Vietnam, which are 100cc underbone stepthrough motorcycles and the occasional scooter.
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Old 06-03-2008, 06:52 AM   #5
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Here's the bike immediately prior to leaving for the trip.

Tank-bag contains GPS, first-aid kit, day food, road atlas, camera and tripod.

Garbage bags on the back of the seat is spare parts, rain coat and more food and the Givi box is clothes.
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Old 06-03-2008, 01:26 PM   #6
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Looking forward to this Josh. Interesting part of the world.

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Old 06-03-2008, 06:07 PM   #7
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Should be a great ride..

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Old 06-03-2008, 07:17 PM   #8
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I love your reports!
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Old 06-03-2008, 08:31 PM   #9
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standing, I mean sitting by.
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Old 06-03-2008, 08:44 PM   #10
On the Road Less Taken...
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This looks good!
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Old 06-03-2008, 11:57 PM   #11
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This will be good. Small capacity bike + long distance touring = ADVENTURE!
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Old 06-04-2008, 01:25 AM   #12
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keep this coming,we are going to do almost that exact route in feb next year
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Old 06-04-2008, 03:48 AM   #13
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Hi I'm back again! Bear with me, this ride report will take a few days to get through.

BTW - anyone considering a unguided trip outside the regular tourist areas should get a copy of this road atlas. Without it, you will get horribly, horribly lost.

It's widely available in bookshops once you get to Vietnam.

If you are returning to this thread, I've edited post #4 and provided more info.
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Old 06-04-2008, 03:53 AM   #14
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Spare Parts List

Spare Parts List:

OK, before I launch into the trip report, here's the spare parts I brought with me. I'd appreciate any comments from people who have done a few long trips about if you thought I brought the right stuff. In the end, I had no mechanical problem and didn't use anything, except for a couple of squirts of RP7.

My spare parts:

- 1 can Selleys RP7 (same stuff as WD-40)
- spare clutch cable
- spark plug
- headlamp globe
- inner tube for front and rear tyre
- duct tape (this proved really, really useful)
- tyre levers
- tyre pump
- tyre repair kit for inner tube (same as a bicycle tyre repair kit)
- screwdriver
- adjustable wrench
- plyers

I've heard there is some sort of tyre plug you can use to plug tyres without taking the tyre off - anyone got any info?
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Old 06-04-2008, 04:22 AM   #15
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Day 1 - 9 May 08
Saigon to Kien Duc, Dak Nong Province

Setting off:
I have to say, as I set off with a full tank of fuel and a fully loaded bike with Hanoi as the destination - I thought what the hell have I got myself into? I was quite aprehensive - remember I've only been biking in earnest for about 8 months and now setting off for 2000+km on a remote route through the jungle.


Well where would we be in a Vietnam trip report without a photo of somebody carrying a ridiculously large amount of stuff on their bike!

This is about 30 mins after departure on one of the trunk roads out of Ho Chi Minh City.

BTW - I'm using Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) interchangeably in this report. The name was changed to HCMC after the war, but many locals still refer to it as Saigon. Places like the train station are still named "Ga Saigon" - Saigon station.
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