into the hills
Head bowed, sweat running down my arms and dripping onto my mirror I concentrate on the climb ahead; beep-beep-beep-beep…. ‘what in god’s name is the problem?’ The sound of a small motorcycle grows louder as it looms slowly up behind me, a short respite and then the horn begins again. This road is empty, it just can’t be possible that a small motorbike cannot pass a bicycle crawling uphill at walking pace without the need for so much noise and fuss. It pulls alongside and I choose my words with care, I want to make it clear, in an international recognisable sentence to the fool pulling along side me that I am displeased with this unnecessary attention. I turn and glare and what greats me? Phong’s huge foolish grind ‘come on you old friend of my grandfather, can you go no faster?’ Phong is at the helm of the machine, behind him sits a less than handsome fellow with teeth clearly borrowed from a giraffe that perfectly round off his Cheshire cat grin. Hung across his shoulders like a yolk is Phong’s bicycle, ‘ten kilometres to the pass’ shouts Phong, ‘I pay one dollar per kilometres, I will wait for you in the shade at the top’. And that was the last I saw of him for the next hour, although the Cheshire Cat grinned his way past me on his way back home.
The character of this journey has taken an unexpected twist. As Phong never tires of reminding me, this is why we call it “investigation”. He insists that he would much rather ride the whole way and that his utilisation of local transport on some climbs is an initiative simply and purely designed to help the local economy.
The initial days of this journey were in the main part along valleys, some wide with rice and corn fields, some narrow where bamboo is grown and fashioned into chopsticks. There were climbs and descents as we crossed valleys, but always these were gentle and not overly taxing. We were, we felt sure after the first few days, looking at a physically lighter alternative to the NE Tour offered by Painted Roads and a tour lighter on traffic than the already fairy quiet NW Tour we have worked on together in the past. Then we began the climb into the Trung Son Mountains and all changed. The traffic grew even lighter and the climbs became more challenging. Thick jungle hangs to the valley walls and it is easy to see how the Communist Army could keep a low profile as the worked their way south carrying outrageously heavy packs. Phong has a relative who walked and fought on the route, I have met him and he is a kindly gent, one would never believe from his gentle demeanour that he had faced all to horrors of jungle warfare. He has told Phong of battles with many lives lost on both sides, of disease spreading through his comrades with little in the way of medication to treat them, and as one man fell another would have to shoulder his load. The climbs even now are steep and in this glaring mid-summer sun they are tough. Back then the roads were dirt tracks, steeper, rougher, wetter, with the constant fear of ambush and bombing. I think about all of this as I climb the pass, I think how easy this all is compared to what so many have been through as they passed this way. And as I think I finish the climb, and there he sits, shading from the sun beneath a wide tree, ;where have you been you frail old man’ he shouts as I hove into view.
The downhill that follows is quite fantastic, a perfect gradient, great road surface, no other traffic save for one small motorcycle coming the other way. We swoop down into the valley and make our way into Khe Sanh town where a little treat awaits. Unlike the last border town we stayed at, a dusty town with the feel one expects of a border town there is a feeling of prosperity here as we ride through the suburbs. Not quite Surrey, but there is affluence, cross border, uhm, “trade” being responsible one imagines. We pass a large truck discouraging large quantities of foreign beer into a dim warehouse as we make our way to tonights dwelling place, a rather luxurious hotel with a quite splendid little café where several beautiful young ladies attend to our parched throats with lashings of ice cold Heineken.