I am so excited for today. We have arranged to spend the next 4 days getting close and personal with the central highland region of Vietnam from the back of a motorbike.
Our drivers, Ty and Thang, are at our hotel promptly at 8 am to fetch us. With some introductions, handshakes and strapping of our small backpacks onto their 125 Honda motorbikes sorted in no time, we are off on our newest Vietnamese adventure.
My helmet is miles too big for me and jiggles around on my head every time we go over a bump, which is often. It keeps slipping down over my eyes and I can’t move my head sideways cause the helmet stays behind. Regardless of this little annoyance, I have a huge grin on my face as we chase the early morning traffic out of Hue and make our way onto Highway 49.
Now please, do not make the mistake of visualizing Highway 49 as a 3 lane, high speed, smooth flowing ride out of the city. Highway 49 is a potholed, under construction and/ or repairs for most of the way, single lane, traffic jammed road that requires great skill and stamina to negotiate.
I force myself to stop thinking about the medical insurance cover we have and to enjoy the scenery. Given that our bikes have “little” engines carrying a fair amount of weight, we travel at a very acceptable 40km an hour, maybe 50km on a downhill. This gives me ample opportunity to take in the views and to wave at the smiling children as we trundle by.
My euphoria soon turns to gut wrenching fear. The potholed, tarred road has turned into a construction site. Now normally, this would not be a problem, but in this case we are talking about a mountain pass. I wonder how we are going to survive the loose sand which turns to mud and then to more loose sand, interspersed with holes that would swallow us whole, whilst making sure not to hit a truck coming down the pass in the opposite direction at high-speed, and dodging the other motorbikes carrying chickens, pigs, humans, bricks, baskets and all sorts of other unidentifiable objects from one destination to another.
At one point we stop to let a huge earth moving monstrosity clear the road. We are advised to get off and walk along the rocky road and get back on at the other side. It’s just too rocky and slippery for the bikes to make it through with us on them, and at this stage I am ready to suggest that I walk the whole way to wherever it is we are going!
After repeating over and over in my head “all is going to be OK” at least a hundred times, I start to relax and to appreciate the incredible bike handling skills of our drivers. They would give any off-road biker a run for their money on their little road bikes.
When, eventually, we get through all the construction work, we stop for a much deserved drink break at a little village somewhere along the mountain pass. My throat is parched, mainly because we are covered head to toe in dust from driving behind a truck for the last few kms. A sweet milk coffee to clear the throat and a wet cloth to wipe the dust off, and we are back on the road. From here on it’s in good condition, we are assured.
A simple but delicious noodle lunch at a small roadside eatery gives us the opportunity to chat with Ti and Thang. Both are in their late 30’s, and love their jobs. They get to meet interesting people and learn about other countries and cultures. They get to travel and get paid for the privilege. Neither have ever been anywhere outside of Vietnam. They are great custodians of the history and heritage of their country, and see it as their responsibility to preserve and look after it.
Our route connects us onto the Ho Chi Minh trail, which is well-known as the landscape that once sheltered VC soldiers. It’s an undulating, curvaceous, winding road with waterfalls, tribal villages and lush jungle vegetation. I am mesmerized as we climb high into the clouds passing through tunnels then down again on the other side into the sunshine, only to start a steep climb again, the little engine humming and struggling through the gears to get us to the top.
We make it into our overnight town of Prao just before my aching butt cheeks turn completely numb from lack of blood flow, and am beside myself when I can hobble off the bike and stand in an upright position.
The speedometer reading tells me its been 168km of pure, unadulterated Vietnamese adventure.