The time has arrived, we’re fronting up to the mechanics dressed in black like a couple of grieving widows. As we approach there’s no solemn face with a serious brow, no empathetic tilt of the head to assure us that they did everything they could. Instead there’s Greg, or a bike that looks like Greg sitting in the morning light like a scraped and scrubbed corpse in an open casket. The boys here have performed some voodoo or some such dark art mechanical witchery and yet the husk of my former Greg stands immobile, inanimate. I swear for a second I can sense dense thunder clouds rolling in and a sharp peal of lightning as the ignition is pressed and Greg Frankenstein lurches to a steady idle; a maniac inside my head screams the iconic words: He’s alive!
There’s a black engine shell rather than a silver one, it seems Greg was indeed dead, a new motor is mounted to the body of my former Greg in the transplant of the century. After resigning to bid my farewells yesterday it’s off again on this machine that I’m reluctant to call Greg but so far am unsure of another name; is he more Greg or more Frankenstein? He’s running superbly so I’m leaning towards being more Frankenstein but let’s not judge, for now we’re elated to be hitting the road again. Ho Chi Minh trail here we come.Deemed by the US army as one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century, the Ho Chi Minh trail is a system of roads that acted as logistical pathways for the Vietcong in the American war. The trail runs largely through and into neighbouring Laos and although it’s a network rather than a straight line a spine exists along the mountain range that runs along the west of this long skinny country. The Viet name for the trail is the Truong Son trail, named after the Annamite range but it’s known outside Vietnam more as the US dubbed, Ho Chi Minh trail. For Australians there’s a famous equivalent in Papua New Guinea, the Kokoda track. For us, Kokoda is a source of national pride, a pilgrimage and a myth all in one; I can only imagine that the Truong Son trail is of similar mystique to many Vietnamese.
Yesterday before the original Greg died we never made it quite to the trail but today we ride the footsteps of heroes to Khe Sanh, similarly a focal point for the American war in Vietnam. So close to the coast these wild mountains rear up and crowd overhead, as we swing around sweeping turns catching vista upon vista at each outward reach of the road before plunging into a green wilderness in the clefts of the mountain slope. The most rustic villages of our entire time here line the road and along with the villages are children baring huge smiles and waving like the families of game show contestants desperate to be seen on TV. I guess seeing tourists on these roads might be a novelty but we can’t get past how cute these kids are; cute in a classic sense definitely, but more so the uncontainable sense of innocent joy at something so simple as waving at a bike is infectious and disarming.Due to the unknown of Greg Frankenstein we’re leapfrogging Jamie and Ari as we more or less ride in convoy but separate; no one else deserves Greg’s rubbish today, we’re on our own if Frankenstein blows a neck bolt. Bridge after bridge spans the mountain clefts too sharp to veer into as turn after turn thrusts us out over a river running wild as only alpine rivers do; but alpine it is not. Yet again in these mountains I am forced to readjust my ideal of mountains, the altitude is not as high as some and in the tropics any hint of snow-line, glacial carving and turquoise snowmelt is a thing of myth. But mountains they are unmistakably, any real measure of mountains exists here except for the easy markers my eye searches for. Just like Greg Frankenstein, they’re mountains as I know them but something’s a little different, something’s been changed over or added in making them a strange new beast all together.
The debate rages, we arrive at Khe Sanh without a single complaint, I don’t think this is Greg at all. As well as being a stopover one night for us, Khe Sanh is a famous battle of the American war. Held by US troops the Vietcong bombarded the hilltop rise that now houses a war machinery museum; well kept machines sit in-situ frozen in time as a relic of a time when the Truong Son trail was earning that mantle as a great engineering feat. Under siege, the US airforce dropped 100,000 tons of explosives, the equivalent of the Hiroshima atomic bomb which equated to 5000 tons for each and every one Viet soldier. Along with its allies, the US threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Vietcong sparing no degree of their power or wealth. The US and its allies lost.In this site of western might, Vietnamese fortitude and a science fiction bike back from the dead we’re shrouded in misty clouds and despite all of these huge contemplative notions, thoughts rarely get past Phong Nha and the ride tomorrow. With bottles filled up with extra petrol and food for the day we’re launching away from the safety net of Vietnamese mechanics to do it ourselves. The mountains are bigger, the views grander and on the very seldom travelled part of the Truong Son trail it’ll be us and the boys up at 5am to attack the mountains. I should be riding Greg through the highlight of the entire trip but the Frankenstein version has avoided the attitude flaws of the old version; even still, part of me wants the old Greg back. Maybe the old Greg can come back in two days time.