Return to the Trail - Vietnam

Discussion in 'Epic Rides' started by Suqsuda, Jan 21, 2012.

  1. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    In April 2010 I rode the inaugural Rally Indochina in Vietnam. Digby Greenhalgh, an Australian living in Hanoi who also runs the motorcycle touring company Explore Indochina, founded Rally Indochina as a non-for-profit to raise funds for charities in Vietnam. The rally raised $43,200 in 2010, with proceeds going to the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, which fights child trafficking and child slave labor in Vietnam. Each of the participating riders was asked to contribute $1,600 to the charity (plus pay the cost of the trip).

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    In 2008, I rode the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos with Digby (some of you might have read my ADV report on that ride). I jumped at the chance to ride with Digby again on the Vietnam leg of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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    In Hanoi, we stayed at the Army Hotel.

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    Digby and I and the other riders convened in the Army's courtyard. Digby (at right) and I reminisced about our ride in Laos. he has been back since and says there have been big changes to the trail in Laos.

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    Organizers and leaders of Rally Indochina. On the left is co-founder Mark Wyndham, Australian, who runs his own motorcycle touring company out of Hoi An called Hoi An Motorbike Adventures. Digby and Mark were very earnest about this venture -- not only did they contribute their time and effort, but they each also ponied up a $1,600 charitable contribution like the other riders. Glen (center) was a guide who rode in front and led the way; Cuong (far right) is Digby's business partner and helped put together and run the rally. Ms. Linh, in sidecar, was indispensable in handling logistics.
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  2. Comrade Art

    Comrade Art Working stiff

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    Looks like you had a great trip. Is that Cuong who runs www.cuongs-motorbike-adventure.com? My coworker and I are traveling to Vietnam this coming March. We plan on riding from Hanoi to HCMC and renting two Honda 223's from Cuong. Post some more pics from your trip :clap
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  3. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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  4. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    That evening, we piled into a fleet of cyclo-cabs which took us a really cool restaurant in Hanoi's old quarter called Highway 4.

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    Much eating and drinking including shots and toasts with local flavored brandies.

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    This pork belly dish was fantastic:

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    Sauteed crickets with chiles, which were actually pretty tasty, kind of a buttery, fatty flavor:

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    Next morning we assembled in the Army Hotel courtyard to take a tour of Hanoi bu Ural & sidecar rigs. Digby's and Cuong's staff of drivers and mechanics did the driving and we all rode two-up or in sidecars.

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    One of the first stops was the historical Hanoi Opera House. A newly wed couple happened to be there for a photo shoot and they made use of the bikes as a prop:

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    Everyone wanted to pose by the bikes while their friends snapped cell-phone shots:

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  5. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Sidecar tour of Hanoi:

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  6. patiodadio

    patiodadio Motorcyclist

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    Subscribed :lurk


    .
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  7. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Army-green Ural with sidecar:

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    One stop on the tour was this wreckage of a U.S. B-52 bomber that was shot down and crashed into a small lake in downtown Hanoi:

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    Hanoi is a city of lakes, large and small and we circled several of them (if I could figure out how to put these 2 pics side-by-side...)

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    Another great meal that night at the Ly Club Restaurant (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ly-Club/92742586181). Digby and Mark are strong believers in good food and drink wherever possible.


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    Next morning visited Blue Dragon's Hanoi premises where head Mike Brosowski spoke about his work and we met some of the kids his group has rescued. In Hanoi he operates what's basically a safe house for the kids in an unmarked building. They don't make their location public -- last year local press reported that Chinese criminal gang members were in Hanoi hunting for it. Some of the trafficking is across the border into Chinese brothels and sweatshops.

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    Then our group went by minivan to the Ho Chi Minh Trail museum on the outskirts of Hanoi where our bikes were waiting for us. Good idea to avoid someone getting lost or injured in the first minutes of the trip in Hanoi traffic. I opted out of ther van and rode on the back of Digby's Minsk, where I go to witness his Ninja-like riding skills in Hanoi traffic which included side kicks, elbow strikes and the like in the traffic throng. Also a lot of riding up on sidewalks including once actually through a store's entrance and out a side door.

    Shot from the back of Digby's bike:

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    At one point I saw sitting in the middle of the street a clear plastic bag filled with water and a gold fish swimming in it. Then a little while later the scooter with dozens of bags of fish tied to a tree on back. Not quick enough to snap a pic.

    The museum was the official launch. By pure chance it coincided with a visit by schoolchildren, so it was perfect for purposes of the Rally (and a lot of excitement for the kids).

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    Bikes lined up. Mostly mid-to-late 1960s vintage surplus Vietnamese police bikes, Urals except for a few Dniepers, painted matte black. More on these machines later:

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    Tour of the museum. I found this very poignant. Who were Arthur & Dianna and what became of them?

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    #7
  8. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Ride starts -- into traffic on the outskirts of Hanoi. I'm riding, not shooting pics, no helmet cam, but rider Andy's wife Anne was 2-up and took some moving shots. We shared pics at trip's end.

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    Into the limestone karst mountains and paddy fields on the way to Hoa Bien:


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    My bike at a rest stop. This old Ural 650 had plenty of torque when it's not carrying a sidecar and a passenger. Nice low stance and upright riding position with a comfortable tractor-style saddle. Re-fitted with front disc brakes that made the front suspension dive a little when applied firmly. Kick start but started right up every time. I think Digby and Cuong are the only guides to run Urals in Vietnam.

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    Another stop, atop a mountain pass:

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    Ken, a rider from Australia. Check out the vintage biker jacket.

    <a href="http://s1002.photobucket.com/albums/af150/Suqsuda/VietnamHoChiMinhTrail/?action=view&amp;current=P1000109.jpg" target="_blank"><img src="http://i1002.photobucket.com/albums/af150/Suqsuda/VietnamHoChiMinhTrail/P1000109.jpg" border="0" alt="Photobucket"></a>

    The view. BTW, you can see in these photos the paved paths that connect villages. These are for foot traffic, scooters, bicycles -- not passable for cars and trucks. A couple times in the trip we rode for hours on end on these tracks. Delightful way to get off the main roads and see the country if you're not in a hurry.

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    Toward day's end we rode on single track toward Mai Chau, an ethnic Thai village of stilt houses where we stayed the night. Pictures again courtesy of Anne:

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    Our accommodations for the night, very nice. Also nice to sit on a high terrace looking out over the valley, drinking beers. I think I saw someone's ride report about a month ago where they stayed at this same place:

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    #8
  9. luckychucky

    luckychucky Long timer

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    thanks for your reporting. nice job.
    #9
  10. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    One of the riders was Vinh Vu, who owns a successful eco-touring and adventure travel company in Vietnam called Handspan Adventure Travel. He chose to ride a sidecar rig.

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    Morning ride on country roads for a couple hours along the banks of the Ma River.

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    Note the kids sitting almost on the road, need to keep an eye out.

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    At an intersection:

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    We joined the newly built Ho Chi Minh Highway and rode almost due south for much of the day. Beautiful road, almost no car or truck traffic. The road here is built over the original Ho Chi Minh Trail -- the leg of the trail from Hanoi south toward Mu Gia pass, where it crossed into Laos.

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    The pigs were alive and wriggling:

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    Stopped for a rest break and Mark had a quick smoke:

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    Stopped for lunch:

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    Ms. Linh set out greens and cold cuts and french bread for banh mi style sandwiches
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    Toward the end of the day we headed due east and took Route 1 to Vinh. I'm sure some of you on this forum have ridden Route 1. It was a madhouse of traffic, with big semi-trucks, buses, cars, scooters, ox-carts, tractors, bicycles etc. weaving and passing with inches to spare, and at a s mismatched pace with some vehicles fast and others crawling along. The safest way to ride it seemed to be to go faster than anyone else and to pass everyone. Otherwise the risk was in getting bumped from behind, or having people pass you and cut tight in front of you, maybe clipping your front tire and sending you down. Digby and Mark were bringing up the rear and came very close to getting wiped out when an oncoming semi-truck's trailer's rear tire exploded and shredded and the trailer swung into their lane like a pinball machine flipper. Digby got it on his helmet cam which we hooked up to the TV/VCR in the bar later that night to watch.

    Even with the wide-angle fish eye lens that makes things look farther away, it looked scary close. Actually the ride required such sustained and intense concentration that the effect was strangely calming like some form of meditation.
    #10
  11. heffe

    heffe #$%^&U*&^%$#@

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    :clap
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  12. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Next morning convened in front of the Saigon Kim Lien Vinh hotel.

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    First stop was at a war museum in Vinh:

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    Mark taking care of business.

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    Some young women soldiers were there:

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    Unfurled the trip banner:

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    Heading out of Vinh:

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    Gassed up:

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    Headed south on Route 1:

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    Traffic thinned out pretty quickly:

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    We headed inland (west) on small roads to Donh Loc intersection, which was a main junction for supply lines during the war and is widely recognized in Vietnam as the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Vinh was a rail terminus for supplies coming down from Haiphong harbor, where they were loaded onto trucks and moved toward west up and over Mu Gia pass and into Laos. There is in fact a 'Kilometer 0' marker for the H

    o Chi Minh trail outside of Vinh.

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  13. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Next stop was at a Ho Chi Minh Trail museum and memorial. This photo on the wall showed the same stretch of the trail during the war that were are riding today -- bombed to a lunar landscape:

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    Wide (weird) load on the road:

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    After a mountain pass of sweepers, stopped for lunch just past this bridge over a river:

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    You can see that the original bridge was bombed in the war:

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    At the lunch stop:

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    Mark takes a nap:

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    Proceed through beautiful scenery on good, almost empty roads toward the Lao border, and pass the foot of the Mu Gia pass into Laos.

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    #13
  14. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    End the day in Phong Na, then cruise on the Son River to Phong Na cave, which was a sanctuary for civilians and soldiers from bombing during the war:

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    Boats go into the cave and drop you off on a sandbar to walk around, then you exit by a footpath and meet the boats again on the outside.

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    You can see marks on the cave roof from exploding ordnance tho it does not show in the picture.

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    #14
  15. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Been following a couple Vietnam RRs on this site, which has inspired me to finish this RR. If Vietnam is overdone on this site it's for a reason -- spectacular country and great riding -- and I for one never get tired of seeing reports from there.

    The day after visiting Phong Na we rode through the World Heritage Khe Bang national park, 230 km to Khe Sanh. One road in, from the north, with a checkpoint. Despite its status as a park, entry is strictly limited, I'm told, but our trip leaders Digby and Mark have obtained permits.

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    A leg of the original HoChi Minh trail runs from inside the park, across the border to Laos -- the 'cobblestone' paving is always a tell-tale. We rode up it for a ways before turning back. I was on the Lao side on this part of the trail in '08. This east-west leg crosses Ban Laboy ford on the Lao side before joining up with the main north-south trail in Laos. For those of you who follow Vietnam War history, Ban Laboy was where Lance Sijan was shot down.

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    Quick photo-op before rejoining the main north-south highway.

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    Approx. 230 km to Khe Sanh and we did not pass an oncoming vehicle the whole way -- the whole day. The first vehicle I saw all day (other than our own) was just a couple km before reaching Khe Sanh. That's because the park is basically closed from the north. Beautiful cement slab road. Up and over three mountain passes, countless curves, through pristine jungle. A couple years ago some scientists "discovered" the world's largest cave here, Son Doong cave, which is 5 times bigger than Phong Na cave and is believed to run under the border to Laos. I heard they flew over it and saw the jungle 'breathing' from air rushing out of the cave mouth. Of course, it was known to locals who reportedly didn't venture in because of a strange constant whistling from the cave mouth, caused by a raging underground river.

    Pit stop to repair one of the bikes:

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    Empty highway all to ourselves:

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    After the first hour we spread out pretty far apart so that for long stretches, we were riding by ourselves.

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    Later in the afternoon, we started to pass villages and fields, but still no other vehicles.=:

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    Entering Khe Sanh:

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    #15
  16. Comrade Art

    Comrade Art Working stiff

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    Nice pics!
    #16
  17. Loutre

    Loutre Cosmopolitan Adv

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    These bikes do look amazing! beautieeees!!
    #17
  18. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    We stayed in this hotel in Khe Sanh.

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    The hotel owners made their money in coffee plantations, which I'm told were planted around Khe Sanh after the war. The wrought iron balconies have a stylized civet cat symbolizing the coffee business. As some of you probably know, these cats eat coffee berries and have an unerring nose for picking the most flavorful and perfectly ripe berries. The Vietnamese pick the coffee beans from the cats' shit to make the very best coffee, called cà phê Ch&#7891;n or 'Chon coffee,' which is served at the hotel.

    That coffee will wake you up in the morning when served with another local breakfast specialty, noodle soup with egg but the egg is a chicken embryo with tiny feathers and beak.

    We had what to my mind was a sad and thought-provoking encounter that evening at dinner. The dining room was empty except for our table and a lone man in his mid-60s at another table, obviously an American, doing his best to kill a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Digby said, "I bet that's a Marine who was at Khe Sanh and has come back to visit." And so he was, as we learned after Digby invited him over to our table (although strangely he had not actually visited the base but was just holed up in the hotel). Digby, who knows volumes about the Vietnam War but takes every opportunity to learn more, quizzed him for hours about the siege of Khe Sanh as we finished off a couple more bottles of scotch. But this guy was stuck in his head at the siege of Khe Sanh. It was like we didn't even exist for him. He had no interest in who we were. And he made clear that the Vietnamese were still the enemy to him, who haunted his nightmares, "gooks" as he called, then and now. Our Vietnamese friends at the table who understood English -- Cuong, Vinh and Ms. Linh -- just shrugged it off. In fact, he couldn't seem to accept the idea that we would be sitting with Vietnamese and insisted on believing they were Filipino. Anyway at the end of the night of drinking he collapsed in the hall on the way back to his room, too drunk even to crawl and tried to drag himself to his room. So two of the "gooks," Ms. Linh and Vinh, each took him by an arm and got him tucked into bed. Vinh told me next morning, chuckling, that the guy had tried to tip him with a handful dong. Vinh, a tycoon in the making who owns a bunch of successful companies.

    Next morning we rode toward the Lao border to an old Green Beret camp that was overrun in the early days of the siege of Khe Sanh. The SF guys weren't wiped out, though, they were able to run some miles back to Khe Sanh.

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    Then to Khe Sanh base itself:

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    Some of the sandbag bunkers still standing.

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    Heading out, will ride to Hue this day:

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    Across the old DMZ and stop at Truong Son cemetery, Vietnam's 10,000 North Vietnamese who lost their lioves in the war are laid to rest.

    Cuong and Vinh light incense to honor the dead. Pretty much everyone in Vietnam lost relatives or family members in the war.

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    Visited the Vinh Muoc tunnels where thousands of villagers lived underground during the war.

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    We followed the coast line on beautiful, little trafficked roads, south toward Hue. Rode on trails onto this peninsula for a picnic lunch:

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    The view from our picnic spot.

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    Curiously, was out on this peninsula was a big, deep hole where the roof of a tunnel had collapsed. So even here, miles away from Vinh Moc, was another network of hidden tunnels, probably unexplored.

    On the way to Hue:

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    I was riding right behind Glen when we came to an intersection to he waved me to stop so I could direct all the other riders coming behind which way to go. Since we were spread out, I was there fro about 15 or 20 minutes. I always king of enjoyed these stops.

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    Eventually I think every kid in the village came to see my bike. And what a thrill and commotion it caused when I got back on to ride and, luckily, fired it up on the first kick.

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    I had a near get-off while riding on this beachfront road. There was a dip in the road that I couldn't see the bottom of, and when I crested it I saw that in the trough, a big patch of sand had drifted from the beach across the road, a sand trap. I was going about 60 mph and braking was out of the question, so I just slewed and slithered across the sand before the tires got a bite of pavement on the other side, I definitely got a surge of adrenalin.

    Digby on the way to Hue:

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    #18
  19. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Torrential downpour in Hue:

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    The Citadel in Hue:

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    Leaving Hue:

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    Plan was to ride west from Hue up and over a mountain pass then south through the A Shau Valley. At the top of the pass on a muddy dirt road a bus was stuck and blocking the way:

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    We muscled one bike past, no way way to get the rest through (much less the support jeep and the sidecar rig), like a cork in a bottle.

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    Traffic piling up behind:

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    We try to help the bus get going:
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    More traffic stuck:

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    Passengers:

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    #19
  20. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    The bus lurched forward and moved up the hill with much slipping of tires. My first thought was that it would go up the road another hundred yards and get stuck again, so I scrambled onto my bike to get ahead of it. As did most everyone else, so their was a mad dash to squeeze past the bus, which of course made no effort to make it easy for anyone to pass. Glen and I got past the bus and to the head of the pack when a road repair crewman flagged us to stop. An excavator was perched precariously up on the hillside trying to clear a slide. Then the side of the hill started to give way and the excavator started to go over. We hastily ducked-walked our bikes backward because we had been stopped within a couple feet of where the shovel came down. The glass shattered in the window and the operator popped out unhurt. Luckily the shovel arm didn't go all the way across the road and there was room to pass.

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    The arm cut right into the tarmac:

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    View from the back of the pack:

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    The origin of bird flu:

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    Up and over the mountain pass. Unfortunately, on one of the corners coming down the pass, Vinh crashed his sidecar rig quite spectacularly (I'm told -- I didn't see it) and broke some ribs. He finished the day, getting to Hoi Anh, but had to fly home the next day.

    Into the A Shau Valley on a very nice, fast, smooth highway with little traffic, passing Hamburger Hill on the west side of the highway, occasional pit stops and rest breaks.

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    #20