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Old 08-23-2009, 11:21 PM   #46
Joined: May 2009
Location: Thun, Switzerland
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It's me, the chopper dude!

Thanks for that great report and thanks for bringing back all the memories, Bob!

I was trying to piece together the places we went to and the chronology and do a RR as well, but failed miserably at it.

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Old 08-24-2009, 09:25 AM   #47
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Hey, Ray, great to hear from you, and please continue to post to this thread, that would be cool.
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Old 08-24-2009, 11:39 AM   #48
around the bend
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Great RR - I'm in. Thanks for taking the time to post this - fabulous!
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Old 08-24-2009, 03:31 PM   #49
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Lao: Karst, caves, bamboo rafts & rivers, and at the end of the day (if available) a Beer Lao is a just reward. You've had a most amazing ride, report, and great photos. In 2000 I and the GF did northern and mid Laos, two up, on a two stroke Yamaha 250 rented in Vientiane..not as hard-core as following the trail, but truly amazing. Everywhere I heard the trail wasn't doable, but not so - kudos! In your research did you read "Riding With Charlie", (Christopher Hunt) written in the mid-90's; trying the trail the Vietnam section of the trail on a moto. Its a good read.
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Old 08-24-2009, 05:55 PM   #50
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We continued on into the 'Crux.' This is what Digby had dubbed this part of the trail. He had done it once before and told us to expect steep ascents and descents, and there were -- ascents steep enough so that my front wheel would come up off the ground even when I was leaning all the way forward, rocky descents like going down a four-story staircase. On some of the descents I had front and rear brakes locked up and the clutch in and I was still skidding down them faster than I was comfortable. Steph or Digby, I can't remember who, told me, 'Listen, let the clutch out, it's better to ride down than skid down.' I wasn't taking too many pictures -- it was all I could do to stay (mostly) upright. There were a lot of places where if you stopped, or slowed down, you were sure to drop the bike.

And there were parts where the jungle was closing in:

Declassified American military after-action accounts and Vietnamese archives that Digby has collected and gave us to read describe this place as the site of the North Vietnamese command center for the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. There are reported to be ruined bunker complexes and tunnels throughout the surrounding jungle.

The U.S. Army called this place 'Target Oscar 8.' In 1967, a 'Hatchet Force' of about 100 Green Berets and Nungs were inserted by helicopter to attack. There was a B-52 bomb strike first, and the Special Forces troops landed right in the bomb craters -- there was no place else to set down. The ended up being pinned down in the bomb craters for four days. Twenty-three American and about forty-six Nungs were killed before they could be extracted. They called in close air support and three American jets two Marine helicopter gunships and one AFVN helicopter were shot down. And a Marine troop transport helicopter was shot down as it was lifting off the zone.

Remember, the U.S kept a record of the excact date and coordinates of every bomb strike in Laos. Well, the craters where the Special Forces put down were right here, according to our GPS. I think the actual craters had filled up with water and were now a number of large ponds just off the trail and covered in jungle, from which we could hear a cacophony of frog and bird and insect noises.

When Steph stopped his bike a pale yellow snake as thick as his arm and maybe four feet long slithered across the trail in front of him.

We had a picnic lunch on the trail:

Fuel drums are another artifact you see on the trail:

We came across a camp of Vietnamese who were combing the area to collect scrap metal, including this live mortar round. They said that there were old bunkers within hours' walk.

They use metal detectors to find big, buried unexploded bombs. We saw a number of these as we came up to their camp, right on the side of the trail, half dug up and partly exposed. They will light a fire on top of them, leave and come back after they explode to collect the metal.

Then there was a series of long steep descents -- here, Ray disappears down the rabbit hole:

More small water crossings in the Crux:

Steph didn't drop his bike too often, but fortunately, when he did, there happened to be someone there to get documentary evidence:

Toward the end of the day, we emerged on broad, grassy riverbank:

We knew this was coming. Last time Digby crossed here was later into the dry season when the water was lower. We did not know if the water would turn out to be too high and swift to cross to the other side. If it were we would have to camp, then turn back and ride back over the Crux.

The water was high, but looked like it could be crossed:

We took turns helping each other walk and ride the bikes across the river; here Ray helps Digby across. There was a shallow rock shelf that formed a kind of narrow natural bridge with a deeper drop-off on either side.

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Old 08-25-2009, 07:31 PM   #51
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After getting across the river, we came came to a dirt road. We had about two more hours of riding to the village that was our destination. We rode as fast and hard as we could. Ray and I went out ahead knowing that Steph and Digby could catch up with us at will. In our rush we took the risk of crossing a couple of very dilapidated bridges where we really should have descended to the river, crossed it and then ascended the opposite bank. Ray said the planks on one bridge were jumping up and down like keys on a piano as I crossed it.

Then the sun set with the suddenness yous see in the tropics and we were riding in darkness. We had the road to ourselves -- we saw no other traffic the whole time.

The the road turned into a river. I guess a river somewhere had jumped its banks and was now flowing down the road. Tracks started branching off the road from both sides to by bypass pool-sized potholes, to rejoin the road a few meters or a few hundred meters later. From the air, it would look like an unraveling braid. Then Ray and I got separated and I was riding alone.

I later learned that Steph, riding behind with Digby, got stuck:

Meanwhile, I was riding alone through one deep, water-filled, bathtub-sized hole after another until I came to one that was turned out to be too deep; the bike seemed to momentarily float, then capsized like a canoe and sunk completely out of sight. I was soaked up to my neck. I groped around underwater to grab the lower handle bar and raised the bike. I was standing in water up to my waist. I tried to start the bike; it turned over but didn't catch (I learned later this was not the best thing to do). I rocked and pushed the bike forward, out of the hole. It still wouldn't start. It was disconcerting because, not only was it pitch dark, but it was silent. You can hear the bikes a long ways off so I started to think that maybe Steph and Digby had bypassed me on one of the side tracks and left me behind; I didn't know at that point they were also stalled out.

I was cold and wet and was starting to think about lighting a fire to get warm and dry my clothes. My bag was not waterproof and everything in it was soaked by I did have waterproof matches, a bar of magnesium to cut into shavings, a metal spark striker -- and also a tank of gas. I was starting to think of spending the night by a bonfire.

Then I was relieved to hear their motors and see their light approaching:

The three of us managed to tilt my bike to vertical and drain about a gallon of muddy water out of the exhaust. Then it started! I really loved that bike then. The only lasting damage was that the water shorted all my electronic displays.

I was cold and wet and tired by the time we came to a village where I could warm myself at an open cooking fire with a glass of whiskey while Ray was good enough to cook another of his meals. The end of a long day.

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Old 08-25-2009, 11:21 PM   #52
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Steep learning curve

That day I learned more about motorcycling (and hardening the f*** up) than all my other days on bikes combined!

I still don't know why or how I made it that far.

And I'm still haunted by the evil looks I got from the lady, whose kitchen I comandeered.
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Old 08-29-2009, 05:00 PM   #53
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Continuing in the morning on an unexplored leg of the trail. Digby is an intrepid soul and whenever possible he steered us to parts of the trail that he had never ridden. He liked to say, "Let's go cut some trails," meaning trails where we didn't know what we would find.

We ascended a rocky track up the flank of a mountain:

Lunch break:

We came to the ruins of this Vietnamese way station -- so we were clearly on part of the original trail. The Lao do not use this script:

After ascending the mountain, we came to a plateau with easy riding through beautiful countryside:

A small traffic jam on the trail; this Lao medical team riding step-through scooters was carrying a white cooler full of vaccines; they were vaccinating rural villages.

We came to a wide river:

It was crossed by bamboo bridge -- I thought of it as the Bridge Over the River Kwai (for those who remember the old movie):

The bridge, continued:

Close up:

Digby crossed last:

We had not gone too far past the bamboo bridge when we had another river crossing:

We ended up in a remote village after which the trail split again and again into myriad, meandering dead-end paths through a brushy, swampy area; after some doubling back and casting about, we crossed paths with a villager returning home from the main road some hours away. He was nice enough to show us the way through. We had some of the steepest ascents and descents to date before emerging on a dirt road that led to a paved road. We ended our ride with daylight to spare.

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Old 08-29-2009, 07:49 PM   #54
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What an awesome place to visit!
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Old 08-29-2009, 08:02 PM   #55
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Dudes that trip was absolutely incredible. I enjoyed every moment...... even all the scary moments!
"... I lock my rear up at least once every time I throw a leg over a bike."
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Old 08-29-2009, 08:28 PM   #56
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Thanks for your comment RideDualSport and stay tuned -- we're not out of the woods yet.
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Old 08-30-2009, 09:59 AM   #57
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First-class reporting.

Your low-key tone about sighting unexploded ordinance underplays the danger of your adventure. It's a very gutsy thing to do but really, you were playing with fire there, as do the villagers in their everyday lives. And those Vietnamese who collected bomb metal Yikes! I am glad -- so far anyway -- that you were able to roll through there without activating deadly forces.

As for the cold responses of some villagers, they may have seen in you fellows the shadows of those who left behind a deadly legacy. Sorry to say.

Anyway, thanks so much for the reporting and photography.
Searching for a new home in Southeast Asia:
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Old 09-02-2009, 07:32 PM   #58
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Daily we would approach, sometimes pause, and pass through a village like this. When you shut off the motor, you would hear the wind blowing and the sound of bells on the buffalo's and cows' necks.

Ruins of a downed U.S. helicopter in Muong Phin:

After some riding on tarmac, we're in Muong Phing and poised to ride Route 23, which will be our last day entirely on dirt roads and trails.
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Old 09-04-2009, 04:43 PM   #59
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Easy riding south from Muong Phin on Route 23, at first on a wide, graded red dirt road. Route 23 was a French colonial-era highway that the North Vietnamese used as a supply route early in the war. In 1966, the U.S. cut Route 23 by bombing two major bridges, after which traffic shifted east to the HoChi Minh Trail.

After an hour or so we came to the first bombed bridge, over the Banghiang River:

The main trestle fell into the river, where it remains. The cement pylons are still standing:

We took turns crossing by canoe; you hook the handlebar over the gunwale of the canoe to stabilize it. Ray went first. We removed our boots so we could swim if we went over.

The destination on the far side of the river:

I like the way the young boy here helps land the canoe:

Because of the current, the canoe put us ashore well downriver and we had some difficulty picking up the road again on the other side; the landing looked like a road but once we ascended the bank, it turned into small footpaths that petered out into fields. It took us an hour or more of thrashing through underbrush, riding and sliding up and down the riverbank and cutting our way with a machete before we rejoined the trail on the other side -- and on this side of the river, it was only a trail, not a road:

Ray and I rode out ahead. Steph brought up the rear for much of the trip, whether by unspoken understanding or at Digby's request, I don't know; he was the anchor, the strongest rider, and he carried tools and a tow strap. Thanks, Steph.

Ray got stuck here and waited for Steph and Digby to help him out and I ended up maybe 30-40 minutes ahead. I felt I was riding well for really the first time on the trip, feeling relatively relaxed and confident. Here was some more advice that either Steph or Digby gave me: 'Ride it like you're stealing it." It was counterintuitive to me at first as a novice rider but did learn that I was often better off carrying some speed into some situations.

The trail eventually intersected a wider dirt road and it was obvious to turn right, but I waited -- our agreement was to ride ahead as we liked but wait for the group to catch up at crossroads. I switched off the bike, peeled off my shirt to cool down. It was completely silent. It was an extraordinary feeling to be alone in the jungle for a while, even if I knew the others would be coming up behind men.

We came to the second bombed bridge, at the Don River, and took a ferry across:

Here too the bridge pylons still stood, pockmarked from strafing:

Dusty dirt roads the rest of the way to Saravane, our destination for the day and once again, racing the setting sun.

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Old 09-04-2009, 06:52 PM   #60
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Oh man, those canoe crossing pics are just first class!
Brilliant 'man with machine' pics.

I can see how hard going it is for you guys during peace time, I can't imagine what it would have been like on the ground during the conflict.

The locals using bombs and remains of bombs dropped on them to improve their living quarters and conditions is nothing but profound and incredibly thought provoking.

I love reading ride reports, anything, a report about a ride to the local shopping mall, I like reading it, but your report is truly special.

Many thanks and best wishes to you.
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