Ho Chi Minh Trail - Southern Laos

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by NZMat, Aug 23, 2008.

  1. NZMat

    NZMat Adventurer

    Joined:
    Aug 22, 2008
    Oddometer:
    12
    Location:
    Edinburgh
    Mat and Jeremy. Two Bajas from Fuark in Vientiane (2004 and 2002 models). Six days riding.

    Day 1: Vang Vieng – Vientiane – Pakxan. 320km.
    Day 2: Pakxan - Kong Lor Cave – Na Hin. 214km.
    Day 3: Na Hin - Lak Xao – Nakai – Mahaxay – Xayabuathong – Sopxe(ish) – Xepon. 338km.
    Day 4: Xepon - Dong – Nong – La Beng – La Hap – Ta Oi – Salavan. 293km.
    Day 5: Day off at Tadlo waterfall drinking beer. 60km.
    Day 6: Salavan – Toumlan – Tat Hai – Phin – Thakhek. 370km.
    Day 7: Thakhek – Tin Mine – VTE. 400km


    Day 1: Vang Vieng – VTE – Pakxan. 320km.

    Had to do it, but would be nice if we didn’t need to.

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    Highlights were the Beerlao factory, looking up at a truck and seeing two elephants on it, and experimenting with the most streamlined position on a Baja and squeezing 130km out of it on the flat.

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    Starting young, good girl.
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    Day 2: Pakxan - Kong Lor Cave – Na Hin. 214km.

    Turn off to Na Hin and Vietnam.
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    We were expecting a small dirt road from Na Hin to Kong Lor cave, but a new road is being built that will be sealed next year, so the 40km was fast apart from the 30m detours around the unfinished fords. Visit the cave before it becomes flooded with tourists (a western guy we talked to in Na Hin who is working for the province’s tourist board said it might become a UNESCO heritage site).

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    We arrived at the cave and there were about 6 thousand people there… Apparently it was the 5-year anniversary of the opening of the cave and there was a three-day festival to celebrate it. Lots of beerlao going down, lots of stalls with that balloon popping game, and loud music of course.

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    So we were expecting a ride on a 4x4 track to a little visited cave, but got a smooth dirt highway and more people than Bangkok.

    The cave is worth a visit though. 7.5km long. US$10 for a return trip on a boat.

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    Day 3: Na Hin - Lak Xao – Nakai – Mahaxay – Xayabuathong – Sopxe(ish) – Xepon. 338km. Left Na Hin 8.30am, arrived Xepon 5.30pm (had delay of two hours for puncture)
    Highway 8 is an awesome road. Good tarmac, windy, black karst surrounding you. I have been to every province in Laos and for me Khammoune is the most beautiful.

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    From Lak Xao to Nakai is a winding dust/rock road through the jungle. Quite a few trucks and Jeremy just about got taken out by the trailer unit of one. South of Nakai I got a puncture and figured out that the tyre irons from my Minsk tool kit were not grunty enough for the Baja.

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    So I pushed the bike 3km to the area Jimoi mentions is a good place to stop south of Nakai (see his post) and got it fixed. I only got 4km before it was flat again, this time I checked inside the tire and found a metal splinter.

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    So after two hours delay we pushed on, not certain how tricky the roads between Xaybuathong and Villabury would be.

    From Nakai to Mahaxay to Xaybuathong is fast packed dirt with rice paddies and karst. The turn off to head south to Mahaxay is at: N 17 27.054 E 105 09.024

    The fast dirt road continues quite a way past Xaybuathong, then all of a sudden it stops and three small dirt tracks head left, right, and straight ahead. We headed right, which was south, and at every junction after headed in a southern direction as long as the track was bigger than a footpath. We turned back once but got to the river fairly quickly.

    Turned back here:
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    We were not sure how hard the river would be to cross so checked out one spot for a while as it seemed possible and the locals were encouraging us to cross there. But the banks were pretty hectic so we decided to move on a check the rest of the river out. A couple of kms down the road we found a lovely little bridge

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    (N 17 02.376 E 105 38.442) and within 10mins were on the main dirt road (10) heading towards Phin.

    Getting back on the main road:
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    Rather than getting to Phin we arrived in Xepon, but that was great because we had planned to head there anyway to try the road south from Dong.

    Day 4: Xepon - Dong – Nong – La Beng – La Hap – Ta Oi – Salavan. 293km.

    Big day, but the best day. We left at 6.30am and got to Salavan at 9pm. It would have been quicker if we had not been delayed trying to figure out where to go and by a 4-inch nail that imbedded itself in Jeremy’s back tyre at 6.30pm. Still the GPS said we were riding for 9 hours so it was definitely a big day.

    We took a small detour first thing in the morning to check out the old Xepon that was bombed heavily during the second Indochina war (turn off is at N 16 41.683 E 106 13.796). All that is left of the town is half a wall of the old Wat and the brick bank vault.

    Bank vault
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    Old wall of the Wat:
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    From there we got back on the main road and headed east to Dong. South from Dong was fast packed gravel/dirt. After about half an hour on this road we came across a couple of km of an old rock road that had been fenced off. After half a second of wondering what on earth was going on I realized it must be a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that is being preserved. Great idea.

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    Because our ride on this day must have been almost all on the HCM trail, and because we saw so much evidence of the US attempts to stop it, here’s a bit of background info on the trail courtesy of a USAF website, Wikipedia, and others:

    The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a road system winding along the Truong Son Range that facilitated movement of soldiers and war supplies from North Vietnam to battlefields in South Vietnam. The Trail played a key role in the Communist victory over South Vietnam. The system developed into an intricate maze of 18-foot wide dirt roads (paved with gravel and corduroyed in some areas), foot and bicycle paths, and truck parks. There were numerous supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command and control facilities. All of this was concealed from aerial observation by an intricate system of natural and man-made camouflage that was constantly expanded and replaced. By 1973, trucks could drive the entire length of the Trail without emerging from the canopy except to ford streams or cross them on crude bridges built beneath the surface of the water.

    As an example of the importance of the Trail, in 1967 the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) used the Trail to transport and store more than 81,000 tons of supplies to be utilized during the infamous “Tet offensive” of 1968. To prepare for it, 200,000 PAVN troops, including seven infantry regiments and twenty independent battalions made the trip south on the Trail. At any given time, approximately 100,000 people were employed along the trail as drivers, mechanics, engineers, and porters and in ground security and anti-aircraft units.

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    The first bombing of the Trail occurred on April 3, 1965, with two B-57 light bombers, supported by a C-130 dropping flares for illumination, flew the first “Steel Tiger” mission against the Trail. Combat aircraft of all kinds would soon join in the attack. The rain of ordnance that fell upon the Trail peaked in 1969, when 433,000 tons fell on Laos. This was made possible by the close-out of Operation Rolling Thunder (the bombing of north Vietnam) and the subsequent availability of huge amounts of airpower for the interdiction of the Trail through Operation “Commando Hunt”. One river crossing near the border of Vietnam and Laos is credited as being the most heavily bombed spot in the history of warfare. Much, much, much more than Khe Sanh for example, which had the equivalent of five Hiroshima nukes dropped on it.

    B52s over Laos:
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    The process by which supplies were moved southward by the PAVN was extremely complicated, requiring coordination between various transportation elements and numerous transfers of cargo in and out of vehicles and wayside storage areas. Almost all movement was conducted at night in a series of short shuttles, rather than by long-distance hauling. Drivers drove their trucks over the same routes night after night, becoming thoroughly familiar with their assigned segments. Periods of high-moon illumination, which allowed travel without headlights, and low cloud cover, were exploited to avoid detection from overhead aircraft. Truck movement began shortly after nightfall and normally trailed off about 3:00 a.m. to allow time for the unloading, dispersal, and concealment of supplies and vehicles before daylight. Although the North Vietnamese later made limited use of waterways and pipelines, their road network and trucks remained throughout the war as the heart of their logistic system. Intelligence estimates put the North Vietnamese truck inventory in Laos alone at 2,500 to 3,000 during the 1970 and 1971 dry seasons with from 500 to 1,000 moving per night, each carrying about four tons of supplies. Replacement trucks were drawn from large inventories maintained within the sanctuary of North Vietnam in the vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong.

    By 1970 the entire trail was protected by anti-aircraft guns, some equipped with radar. The PAVN’s employment of “hunter-killer” teams and tribal scouts also protected the trail against enemy incursions. By the end of the war, according to the North Vietnamese, nearly 2000 miles of the 12,000-mile trail had been camouflaged. The PAVN’s use of underwater bridges not detectable from the air, and the employment of deception tactics such as strewing gasoline-soaked rags along the trail to trick pilots into believing they had struck real targets, served to make the trail even more elusive to US air power.

    The elusive nature of targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail prompted the US to explore the application of new technology to the interdiction problem. The “Igloo White” program was the most effective, consisting of a network of sensors and remote surveillance systems (mainly dropped by planes). During the lifetime of the program, which ran from 1966 to 1971, the United States spent approximately $1.7 billion to create a network of 20,000 battery-powered sensors along the trail in Laos. The Igloo White system was vast. In the words of one Air Force officer, “we wired the Ho Chi Minh trail like a drugstore pinball machine and we plugged it in every night.”

    In addition to the Igloo White program some of the more exotic ideas developed by the US for slowing movement on the Trail included dropping Budweiser beer on the Trail, developing chemicals to turn the dirt into mud, rain seeding to prolong the monsoon rains, monitoring Trail movement by developing sensors that resembled dog excrement (it was cancelled after it was learned that there were no dogs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail), and training pigeons to carry munitions, land on North Vietnamese trucks, and explode on touchdown (among other difficulties, the pigeons couldn’t tell a communist truck from a non-communist one).


    So following in the footsteps on many Vietnamese before us, we made good time down from Dong and got to Nong at 8am.

    In Nong
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    We checked out a Russian armoured vehicle of some sort and a Russian antiaircraft gun(?) and figured we might make it to Ta Oi for a late breakfast. As it was we got to Ta Oi at 4pm.
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    Our first obstacle was a dirty great river south of Nong that was not on the map.

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    There were no boats so went about trying to figure out how to get across. The locals pointed us west but we could not find a crossing within 10km of Nong. So we headed east and there was an easy crossing (N 16 23.747 E 106 31.425) over a river that must have been a tributary of the larger one.

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    From here we continued on a small but reasonable dirt road surrounded by bomb craters and pieces of UXO.

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    There must have been a huge amount of UXO in the area just after the war, because there was a lot left after 35 years of people collecting it for scrap.

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    We arrived in a small village where the topography was dominated by 500-pound bomb craters bigger than the houses.

    Yes, thats a bomb crater that Jeremy is standing in
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    Instead of timber, cluster bomb canisters were used as piles for the houses.

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    "Install arming wire here"
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    We could not find a road out of the village so we asked for “Ta Oi”. Funnily enough there was an old guy who said “No have road Ta Oi” and directed us back the way we had come. I think there might have been a road but he seemed adamant that it was no good. With a nice simple diagram he drew us a map. We had to turn right down the road somewhere, then “La Beng, La Hap, Ta Oi”. They were the best directions of the day.

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    By asking for La Beng we found the turn off (N 16 17.788 E 106 33.490).

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    At the top of the first village after the turn off (La Beng?) there were two tracks, we took the left one but it turned to custard, so we took the right one and it was do-able. For a few km we were riding on small saplings/bamboo that had been cut down. This was hard. Balance was hard work, branches got stuck in wheels etc, and we were worried that the bottoms of the chopped saplings still rooted in the ground would give us a huge puncture. Its also hard when you do not know how long a track like this will last.

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    After a while things got a bit easier. We were riding on the HCM Trail for sure as there were 44 gallon drums everywhere, vehicle parts, craters, and remnants of UXO. The road had two deep tire ruts for most of the way. I could imagine the Chinese or Russian trucks traveling this road back in the day.

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    Lunch: canned fish
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    Along the way there were quite a few junctions. The best bet seemed to try and pick the biggest track/road rather than the one heading south (towards Ta Oi). We took one road that deteriorated over the course of 30mins as it headed into the jungle.

    It got a lot worse than this
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    It must have been a logging road. We decided to turn around after 30 minutes (which is hard when it has been hard work getting there) and checked out the other fork. This was a good decision as we were back on the deep rut type road which was easier.

    It was nice and dry when we were there, but with a little bit of rain it would be a nightmare. As it was I hit a slightly wet spot on the rim of one of the giant ruts and my back wheel flicked down into the rut and I broke my clutch lever. Bit of a pain to not have a clutch on a road like this.

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    Over the course of the day we would have done 15 stream crossings.

    I found an old US military map that a Vietnam veteran had scanned and posted on the net, and overlaid it on the Google Earth map of the area by scaling it and matching up the rivers on both maps. The white roads are the HCMT late 1960s, you can see how our GPS tracks (yellow) follow it.
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    Same map as previous, but tilted and rotated clockwise. This is the US bombing frequency in the area. It does not include cluster bombs.
    Every dot represents one bombing run by any number of planes and normally represents 20-40 bombs. The big stack represents over 2500 bombs. Their location just represents where they planned to drop, so its safe to say the whole area is totally saturated with bombs. The 'interdiction point' (where the photo of my broken clutch lever was taken) was hammered as it was where the main west to east section of the HCMT funnelled through a gorge.
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    We finally started to see a few people and then arrived in Ban Hap (N 16 18.026 E 106 41.030) where we managed to find some little bottles of sweet drink. We were very thirsty as both our spare water bottles had been punctured with the vibrations of the road, and we had not been able to buy water since Nong. It was very funny to see two Minsk in the middle of nowhere.

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    One guy had a stepthrough loaded with what looked like pieces of plane, I should have pulled out the camera but I was too intent on getting a drink. I rummaged around in a scrap metal pile and found a cluster bomb half as a souvenir, then we left. It did not seem to be the most friendly village.

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    From Ban Hap the road became easier and after asking directions as usual we arrived in Ta Oi. Probably due to our poor pronunciation it was hard getting directions. You would think “Ban Hap”, “Ta Oi” or “Salavan” would be hard to get wrong, but it seemed as if every person we asked would point in the opposite direction of the person before them. One thing is for sure, when away from the main roads you have to ask for places close to where you are otherwise you are likely to draw blank stares (eg asking for Salavan when on the smaller roads).

    In Ta Oi we bought out a small shop of its fuel food and drink, and I filed a scooter clutch lever so it would fit the Baja.

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    We probably should have stayed in Ta Oi as it was 4.30pm, but we decided to push on to Salavan.

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    The road from Ta Oi to Salavan is a lot of fun. Quite fast packed dirt and dust. Lots of trees. In places the road is made up of ridiculously chunky rocks which I presume are from HCM trail days?

    I plunged into a deep mud-filled hole at one stage (I think a truck must have been stuck there and dug it out) but was helped out by a team of Laos boys as Jeremy laughed and took photos.

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    About 20km from Salavan Jeremy’s bike started to handle poorly. Through a combination of our mechanical knowledge we figured the most likely reason was a 4-inch nail which was likely threatening the integrity of his inner tube.

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    As hypothesized the nail had indeed compromised the inner tube (it was f-ked).

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    In VTE I had been about to ask Fuark if we could take a spare inner, but got distracted and didn’t. Stupid. So we set about trying to fashion a patch from another tube that a local found for us.

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    There were another 4 holes as well as the big one, so it was a bit of a mission. It seemed OK when we pumped it up outside the tyre, but when push came to shove and we pumped it up in the tyre it did not hold. So we trusted a family (that had been bemusedly watching us fix it) with the newest Baja in Laos and I doubled Jeremy to Salavan. Two km from where he ran over the nail the road turned into flat, hard, wide, about-to-be-sealed road. Murphy’s law.

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    So we got to Salavan at 9pm and had a beer. Then we tried to find accommodation (well I did while Jeremy had another beer). But the four guesthouses I found were all full. Seriously, when does that happen in a place like Salavan? Eventually a nice lawyer who owned one of the guesthouse called the “Saise Hotel” and drove me round there to show me where it was. Very good to have a place to crash.

    I am not sure how these sweatsoakers ripped under my motorbike pants...
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    There were no restaurants open by then so Jeremy found a shop and we had strange bags of chippies for dinner.

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    Day 5: The next day we started the difficult task of finding a tube big enough for the Baja’s rear tyre. Every tire shop in Salavan pointed us to Pakse 110km away, but after some perseverance we found one that was too small but near enough. Then we headed back to the bike hoping it was still there (which it was) and replaced the inner tube.

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    We then rode to Tadlo waterfall and ate a lot of food and drank a load of beer. Lovely.

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    Day 6: Salavan – Toumlan – Tat Hai – Phin – Thakhek. 370km. 8am to 5pm

    The road to to Toumlan was a mix of rock (old road – French?) and packed dirt and sand. We were able to travel at a moderate pace. We hit a river that we had to walk the bikes across as the riverbed was smooth slippery rocks.

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    The bike slipped once with me and I broke the scooter clutch as I tried to hold it up. It was usable, but I had to hold it the whole time with my left fingers to save it falling out.

    A bit after Toumlan the road started to become more hectic. Probably only possible on a motorbike. Big boulders/rocks, sand, smaller rocks. Slow going but fun.

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    It got a bit easier 5-10km south of Tat Hai. At one stage I got my back tyre caught in a rut hidden under some sand and went down going about 50km/hr. No problem but broke most of my brake lever off.

    The river at Tat Hai was very low, but not low enough to cross, so we loaded the bikes on to a boat that was too small and ferried them one by one across the river.

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    We should not have listened to the boatman and laid the bikes down, because my one just about capsized the boat at one point. 35,000 kip each for the trip. Easy money for the guy, but he had us by the balls.

    From Tat Hai it was a fast dirt road through the Dong Phou Vieng NBCA jungle towards Phin. I must have killed 30 butterflies, they were everywhere. Even a butterfly hurts if one hits you in the neck at 100km.

    Ideally your levers should be in better condition than this:
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    Huda?? Too close to Vietnam. Where is our Beerlao?
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    From Phin we pushed on to Thakhek.

    Day 7: Thakhek – Tin Mine – VTE. 400km

    The side trip to the mines was worth it. Beautiful country, and the French buildings near the mines are interesting.

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    This tyre was brand new a week before.
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    So once you get off highway 13 there are some great roads, heaps to be explored. Don’t take too big a bike. Don’t go unless it is dry and the rivers are low. Enjoy!
    #1
  2. Speed Rayzor

    Speed Rayzor n00b

    Joined:
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    Wow! Great pics and most excellent report!:clap
    #2
  3. Gaston Gagne

    Gaston Gagne Past Easy

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    Great report. Amazing scenery. Thanks for sharing.
    #3
  4. bomose

    bomose Long timer

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    That looks like a real adventure! Thanks for sharing. I noticed you didn't have trouble finding beer, such as it is.:lol3
    #4
  5. JourneyRider.com

    JourneyRider.com Long timer

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    That looked like an awesome trip. I like your resourcefulness.
    #5
  6. MoBill

    MoBill Smiles when says dat

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    Damned outstanding! Enjoyed reading about your seeming no stress approach to getting on with solving the problem at hand.
    #6
  7. zadok

    zadok Long timer

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    Fantastic!:clap
    #7
  8. GB

    GB . Administrator

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    Dude! You've crashed a lot of vehicles!! :lol3

    What a great adventure!! Thanks for the report and pics.. :thumb

    Please give us some more :lurk
    #8
  9. Ginger Beard

    Ginger Beard Instagram @oneworldcycles

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    Great report.I am definitely envious of trips like this.... Can't wait to do some ADV riding over seas. Thanks for this one ,Cheers!!:freaky
    #9
  10. SteveRed

    SteveRed Adventure Moto

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    THE BIKES!!?? MORE ABOUT THE BIKES?? Great report fellas, WOW what a trip. Did you hire the bikes or buy em cheap? Were the front headlamps set up that way? Might be a good idea to bring over my own HD tubes and a set of proper bark busters then :wink:

    Cheers and Thanks
    #10
  11. funhouse

    funhouse Overdue

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    a top 10! can't imagine doing it but enjoyed the ride! thx....Bruce
    #11
  12. roninwva

    roninwva Been here awhile

    Joined:
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    Hurricane, WVa., USA
    Great report! Thanks for sharing the adventure and pics. By the way, how many CC's are the Honda Baja's?
    #12
  13. NZMat

    NZMat Adventurer

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    Thanks!
    The Bajas are 250cc.
    #13
  14. rosscoact

    rosscoact need constant supervision

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    fantastic:thumb :thumb
    #14
  15. KLXmcrider

    KLXmcrider Been here awhile

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    Great report :thumbup Thanks for sharing your trip and the fantastic pics:clap
    #15
  16. Pedro Navaja

    Pedro Navaja Long timer

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    Excellent! Glad to see someone who understands that the HCM Trail was not in Vietnam. I mean there are these tours in Vietnam that hint the HCM Highway is the same thing as the HCM Trail from the war years.

    Laos is next on my list. Have done Thailand and Cambodia.

    An excellent read for those interested in the secret air war is The Ravens.

    Good report.

    Thanks,

    GWW
    #16
  17. Craypot

    Craypot Lounge lizard

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    Mat,
    Another trip to Laos for you. Great stuff. Hope Fuark didn't give you too much of a hard time with the broken bits on the bikes.

    Laos has a 250cc size limit for locally registered bikes so the XRs and Bajas are pretty much the only rental option available.

    Some more crash photos from Laos. The truck is on the road to Thong Lor cave and the pickup is on Highway 8 near Lak Xao.

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    #17
  18. motoxusa

    motoxusa Biker Dude

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    Clermont, FL
    What an awesome experience, and great pictures. Thanks for sharing.
    #18
  19. Frankko

    Frankko Midnight Rambler

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    Just came back from Thailand, planning a tour to include Chang Mai...
    Excellent trip / adventure guys awesome.
    #19
  20. NZMat

    NZMat Adventurer

    Joined:
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    Edinburgh
    Hey Michael,

    Apart from the levers the bike was fine, Fuark hardly blinked an eyelid about the damage. I think he was pretty happy with the fact Jeremy had hired a bike for 6 weeks!

    I like your matching of my ute in a ditch, and rolled truck.


    Mat
    #20