Cycling the Ho Chi Minh Highway

The Ho Chi Minh Highway was once a small track used only by locals and ponies for local transportation and distribution. The Vietnamese war for independence against the French and later the Americans saw the Ho Chi Minh Trail expanded into an elaborate system of mountain and jungle trails to roads for vehicles to transport troops, millions of tons of foodstuff, weapons, and other essentials. This web of trails ran for 1,200 miles, parallel to the Vietnam/Laos border, along the Truong Son Mountains. Despite almost day and night bombing by the Americans, the North Vietnamese kept the Trail open and supplies moving. Today, the Ho Chi Minh Highway, which was started in 2000 to provide a parallel alternative to Highway 1 on the coast, is a well-made, paved road cutting through spectacular landscape as it runs from Hanoi south.  I will cycle from Hanoi to Hue with SpiceRoads.

We will meet in Hanoi for a trip briefing followed by a welcome dinner and a brief walk around the city.  As a confirmed foodie, I am looking forward to eating Vietnamese food in Vietnam.

Our first cycling day will see us go from Hanoi to Mai Chau riding 70 kilometers (km) and climbing almost 1,300 meters (m).  We will cycle along small roads passing H’mong, Dao and Thai villages with spectacular views of lush vegetation and green rice paddies. Our overnight stop will be in a Thai ethnic stilt house in Mai Chau Valley.

Our third day will take us from Mai Chau to Lam Son cycling along the spectacular and undulating valley of the Song Ma River as we head towards Hoi Xuan. This route was used to carry supplies and ammunition during the war and linked to the main part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The route takes us away from the river as we head through the range of mountains that stretch from Mai Chau to Cuc Phuong and Hoa Lu. The road will become even more beautiful as we ride closer to Ngoc Lac with looming limestone cliffs and lush vegetation. After 120 km of riding and 1,230 m of climbing, I am sure we will be ready for dinner.

We will cycle from Lam Son to Thai Hoa on day four of the trip. We will be riding on the wide and newly-built Ho Chi Minh Highway through a fertile area of coffee, rubber, tea, and various fruits. After 100 km and 877 m of climbing we will arrive in the afternoon.

Day five from Thai Hoa to Pho Chau is a little longer at 130 km but with only 733 m of climbing.  The road winds through lush jungle and beautiful villages nestled under the Truong Son mountain range. I am looking forward to photographing the serene karst formations and posting on Instagram as I ride.

I am expecting day six of the trip from Pho Chau to Phong Nha to be one of the highlights of the trip. From Google reviews, the Ho Chi Minh Highway looks like a dream to ride on as the mountains rise and the road winds up and down along the hillsides. We will ride to Phong Nha National Park which contains one of the most spectacular caves in Vietnam. A true geological wonder with 65 km of caves and underground rivers, formed approximately 250 million years ago, the caves were used as a hospital and ammunition depot during the war and the entrance still shows evidence of attacks from American aircraft. I am hoping it is such a wonderful day that my legs do not notice the 150 km of cycling and 1,654 m of climbing.

We start day seven of the Phong Nha to Dong Hoi leg of the trip with a boat to visit the first 600 m of the Phong Nha Cave. When we reach the cave’s gaping entrance the engine is cut and we are transported to another world as we are paddled through illuminated cavern after cavern.

We can climb 330 steps up to Tien Son Cave, a dry cave in the mountainside which was used as a hospital and ammunition depot during the Vietnam War. Our afternoon of cycling will be a gentle ride on a flat road to the seaside village of Dong Hoi. The village has beautiful white sand beaches. While the ride is only 50 km with a mere 262 m of climbing, I am definitively going to look for a leg massage.

Our ride on day eight takes us across the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to Cam Lo. The DMZ was the dividing border between North and South Vietnam and troops of both governments were barred from 5 km on either side of the border. We will stop to visit Truong Son cemetery, a memorial to the tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers who were killed on the DMZ and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s just 14 km further to the town of Cam Lo and here the trail heads across the border into Laos.  We will not enter Laos but will transfer to Khe Sanh, the site of a former US Marine base and the 1968 battle of Khe Sanh, the longest battle in Vietnam war.  By the end of the day we will have put another 129 km in our legs and climbed 793 m.

Our next to last cycling days takes us from Khe Sanh to A Luoi. We will start the morning with a visit to the Khe Sanh combat base which looks very different today. After the visit, we will cycle from the Laos border to the Dak Rong River. We cross the bridge and ride along the river and what was considered the southern part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In contrast to the flat plains of the previous day’s ride, the terrain undulates as we ride 103 km and climb 1,528 m.

Our last cycling day takes us from A Luoi on a long ride downhill to Hue, Vietnam’s Imperial City, which was recently designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hue served as Vietnam’s capital, from 1802 to 1945, under the Nguyen Dynasty. During the Vietnam War the Imperial City was heavily damaged, but is slowly being restored to its former glory as can be seen in the photos below.  We reach our hotel after only 70 km and 836 m of climbing.

Breakfast on day eleven marks the end the tour. With more than 900 km of cycling in our legs and more than 9,000 m of climbing we will be ready for a rest day. I plan to take a final look around Hue before departing for Siem Reap. There is more cycling to be enjoyed before returning home. Next stop: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

NOTE: Much of the text for this preview was adapted from SpiceRoads, I will be posting original text and photos from Vietnam.

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