“Get your motor running: Head out on the High Hue!”
If you were ‘Born to be Wild’, then you pretty much need to get your butt to Vietnam, or Hue (pronounced hway) in particular. I’m talking about climbing on the back of a motorbike and striking out into the countryside in search of adventure.
So, why the 3 out of 5 rating for adventure? Actually, it’s a personal thing. Around 6 years ago I was in Koh Phangan, home of the full moon party in Thailand when I’d been out on the town and was heading home.
A local guy stopped me and asked if I wanted a lift back. For payment of course, they’re kind of like moto taxis, ferrying drunk people back after a night of partying. My feet hurt, so I agreed and climbed on the back.
I could smell the alcohol on his breath as soon as I got on, but it was too late, and he sped off in the direction of my guest house.
Within seconds, he was wobbling all over the place, and as we turned a corner he oversteered, causing us to fall to the ground. Luckily we weren’t going too fast, and all I ended up with was a scratch on my leg and a feeling of foolishness, but I swore I would never get on a motorbike or moped again.
Lesson learned: Do not take lifts from strangers.
Fast forward to almost present-day me, and the thought of getting on a motorbike still filled me with dread. Alex and I rented a moped in Hampi, India to get around the sights but I never felt 100% comfortable on the back. I was always cringing every time we went around a corner, or freaking out a little if cars got too close.
That is, until I went on a tour with Hue Easy Rider in Central Vietnam. I decided to face my fear head-on and book onto a one day tour around the De-Militarised Zone (the DMZ) around the city of Hue, which until 1945 was the capital city of Vietnam.
The tour took in a few spots of historical importance during the war which tore the country apart, and also drove through its beautiful countryside, seeing how the locals live along the way.
A strong Vietnamese coffee with lots of condensed milk eased our early morning start, and we were greeted by the smiling faces of Mr Loc and Mr Tu, our guides for the day.
After only a few minutes I knew I was going to like my guide Mr Loc. He had such a gentle manner, and he didn’t even flinch when I used his back to steady myself as I clumsily fell onto the back seat of his bike.
As we moved off, I was as stiff as a British upper lip, leaning awkwardly away from corners and trying to put my legs down at every red light. But as soon as we left the city and started cutting through fields of rice paddies (not actually through the fields, but on a road of course), I started to relax.
Mr Loc narrated the countryside as we went, telling me all about the flowers (did you know you can use every part of the lotus flower?) and about how the people make a living here (clue: it involves a LOT of rice).
Row after row of bright green rice paddies passed, and with them, so did my fear. It’s the strangest thing, losing a fear so quickly and so fully, and how free it felt to be able to ride on the back of a motorbike without freezing like a popsicle!
Our first stop was at the Ben Hai River, which split North and South Vietnam during the war, and was the scene of many a bloody battle during the ’60s and ’70s, with napalm bombs dropping on soldiers trying to make the crossing, as well as gunfire picking men out of the water. It now contains a memorial site on each side of the river to represent peace.
Mr Loc himself told us that he had narrowly escaped fighting in the Vietnam war, as he was due to go into the thick of it just two months after the war officially ended. I was in the company of a very lucky man, indeed!
Back on the bike, and our next stop was the perfect white-sand Cua Viet beach, with lifeguard posts which reminded me of South Beach in Miami. It was 30 degrees and counting, a beautiful sunny day and hardly a soul was to be found.
That’s the strangest thing about Vietnam, and a lot of Asia. They love to be white so will cover their skin, use whitening skin creams and avoid sitting in the sun like the plague. A complete flip on what Westerners consider to be beautiful, as I can guarantee if that beach was anywhere throughout Europe, it would be crammed with people getting their tan on!
A little further up the coast and we found this stretch of golden sand to recline on, and to have a relaxed lunch. Yet again, not a soul to be found. Paradise.
After a restful morning soaking up some of Central Vietnam’s nature spots, it was time to get stuck in to its history. The first historic stop was the Vinh Moc Tunnels, about 2 hours outside of Hue.
Vinh Moc was a normal village which had a unique way of protecting itself from the overhead shells being dropped all over the country by American troops in the 1970s.
They decided to build a network of underground tunnels to use as a shelter during bombing, and oh my God, they are EXTENSIVE! Split over three levels: 8-10 meters, 12-15 metres and 23 metres underground, they run for nearly 3km and housed several hundred people at a time. The network took the village just over 2 years to build.
They also have rooms splitting off from the tunnels which they used for family accommodation and even a maternity ward! In case they were found by the Americans, there were seriously narrow escape tunnels to move down a level.
What really struck a chord with me was just how well camouflaged they were, and how this ensured that they were never discovered throughout the war. Just a few steps from the tunnels was this secluded beach which the villagers used to fish.
We also got to see one of the craters left by a U.S. bomb, a direct hit on the village but every life was saved thanks to the tunnels. Amazing, really!
From this feat of human engineering we moved to a sobering reminder of just how many lives the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War) claimed. No one knows for sure how many people died but I heard estimates of between 2 and 3 million people between the mid 1950s and the 30th April 1975, when the war was finally brought to an end.
We visited one of many war memorials dotted along Central Vietnam, which really brought home the scale of the destruction. The saddest part for me was that hundreds upon hundreds of graves had no name on them, as they were unidentifiable, ‘lost’ soldiers. To know that these people died without being recognised for their sacrifice really makes war seem so pointless, doesn’t it?
Our final historical stop was the Long Hung Church, which was the scene of a brutal fight lasting several days as the Americans tried to flush out the Viet Cong from inside the church.
The building is falling into disrepair and still bears the scars of thousands of bullet holes – some as big as my hand!
The day ended with a blazing sunset as the backdrop to our ride back to the city. It was just the most perfect day, and if you find yourself in Hue, I HIGHLY recommend the Hue Easy Rider DMZ tour (ask for Mr Loc!).
The Hue Easy Rider one day DMZ tour costs US$45 per person including lunch and can be booked here.