Leaving Son Trach we headed back through Phong Na National Park, the same road we had ridden the afternoon before, until we reached the western section of the HCM Trail. We now entered the most remote section of our entire 30 day ride. We were heading south, parallel and very close to Laos. The vegetation remained the impressively thick jungle of the past few days, with high mountains off to the west (behind which lay Laos). The road was very twisty as we rode one mountain pass after another, so twisty that on our knobby tires it was just not possible to ride fast, so slow going it was. For well over an hour we did not see a single vehicle of any description. The only sign of people was one small army post, and then a bridge tender who had a small house alongside the bridge crossing a ravine. In terms of being remote this was even more impressive than anything we had encountered in the far north.
Behind the hills is Laos:
After well over an hour we finally started seeing signs of humanity. First a few road workers riding on their bikes, and then slowly a few small villages. It was really hot. After crossing a long bridge I was accelerating up the hill on the far side when a motorcycle suddenly appeared coming toward me in my lane. I had little room to my right but we both managed to swerve and avoid a collision. Very close call. Zach later told me the motorcyclist turned around to stare at me after we passed each other causing him to drift back into our lane and narrowly missing colliding with Zach. Later still after crossing another bridge I was accelerating up the hill on the far side when a lowered boom suddenly appeared bare yards in front of me. It all happened in a flash - I avoided being decapitated by lying flat on my gas tank and ducking under the boom. Zach was riding behind me and also did not see the boom until he saw me ducking. Another narrow escape for both of us.
The scenery started to change as the dense undergrowth thinned. Finally we reached the town of Tanh Ky where we intended to get gas. The town was a lot smaller than I had anticipated with no gas stations, but we were able to locate a small roadside store selling water, soft drinks and basic supplies that had a 25 gallon container of gas from which we filled our tanks. We had a good time at the store interacting with the young owner and his family - his lovely wife, newborn baby, mother-in-law as well as a few locals who dropped by to ogle the Westerners who had blown into town!
Now heading on the HCM Trail toward Khe Sanh, site of a huge American military base during the American War the going was a little faster as we were riding alongside a river and flatter land. Finally we reached Khe Sanh where we had some lunch, and then 15 kms later linked back up with the HCM Trail, heading further south. The road was now more trafficked (but really not too busy at all) and the going easier - it remained very pretty as we rode along another river for many miles. At one town we took a wrong turn and seemed to be heading back into the mountains and the dense jungle. It felt wrong, and this was confirmed by a sign indicating the Laos border was 1 km ahead. We turned around and headed back toward the missed turn 12 kms back when the sky quickly darkened. Within minutes we were riding in a fierce downpour, but the weather was so hot it was not that uncomfortable - except of course for the slick conditions made a lot worse by our knobby tires. We rode on through the downpour for about 20 minutes. I was amazed at how quickly my soaked gear dried after the downpour - within a half hour I was completely dry as if there had been no rain. The heat is quite impressive.
Climbing a pass in one remote area we saw a Western couple sitting on a wall alongside the road, their bikes parked next to them. We had seen very few Westerners on the road our entire trip and stopped to chat with them. A nice English couple, they were riding the HCM Trail south to north heading to Hanoi. They had plenty of time and were taking it slow over many weeks. We shared some mangoes with them and watched a large snake in a pool below us hunting frogs.
Finally we reached our left turn off the HCM Trail to take us down to the city of Hue, our destination, on Hwy 49. For the first 20 kms there were extensive roadworks causing multiple delays while we waited, with a lot of locals, for the bulldozers and excavators to do their work removing huge piles of rock and dirt. Some of the delays were at least 10 minutes with the result that we lost a lot of time making for a late arrival in Hue. I guess all the waiting got to me, because by the time we left the last construction delay - and we were still riding through a lot of dirt as the road was being rebuilt - I put the hammer down real hard. I was feeling very confident on the bike, throwing it around and just riding screaming fast. It was totally exhilarating, I had not ridden a dirt bike in that manner for years and it just felt SO good, just tons of fun
I rode like this for about an hour until we reached the busy roads approaching Hue.
We arrived in Hue during evening rush hour. It was pretty chaotic and we had no idea where to go. I asked one young guy on a motorcycle stopped alongside me at a traffic light for directions to downtown. I guess he was kind of shocked by this Westerner on a big bike alongside him because he just blew me off but he must have had second thoughts because he caught up with us a little further down the road and led us to the main road into town. After a lot of bother we finally located our hotel, really nice at $20 including breakfast.
We took a walk to the riverfront after dinner. It was a Thursday but there were thousands of people hanging out on the waterfront, mostly teenagers. And motorcycles - never seen the likes of it. Row upon row upon row of parked bikes. Thousands. Zach and I talked about the ride and he asked me why I had been riding so hard and fast the last section. Said he had a hard time keeping up with me and he felt I was overdoing it, going too fast and taking too many risks. I had to agree with him. I'm not too sure what had gotten into me but in hindsight it was not smart. In my riding experience when your confidence gets that high and you overdo it, it's often the precursor to a fall. So we agreed to ratchet down the speed in the coming days, take more care and be a little more sensible. Thank goodness I had my son there to knock some sense into me
Total distance for the day - 410 kms (255 miles)....a long distance on a 250cc dirt bike!