5:30am and the alarm goes signalling a commencement to what we’ve taken to calling ‘the big day’, stocking up on bun mi’s (Vietnamese baguettes) and a cake in the bustling early hours of the morning. We wave to Ari and Jamie sitting at the cafe for Ari’s much needed morning coffee before it’s out of town and into the mountains each holding onto hope that the boys behave today, they have to behave today. With the small town of Khe Sanh dissipating into jungle long before we’ve stopped yawning, we’re into the wilderness that is going to be our home for the next eight or nine hours. Or at least we hope it’s just eight or nine hours, time will tell.
In less than an hour we’re immersed in dense cloud as Rob and Greg struggle up a relentless road that reaches ever further into the mist. It’s now that we thank the mechanics in Hue who gave Greg his transplant and in doing so removed his bad attitude; the new and improved, back from the dead Greg Frankenstein lacks his charm and handsome looks but on this day I really need to just get there. I can do without a little charm. We’re still on the Truong Son trail and as we twist and turn to acrobatically negotiate the precipitous peaks and plunging mountainsides the engineering masterpiece that this trail is becomes apparent. In wartime no less, a population with farming tools, baskets and carts built the precursor to this road in terrain that would be near impossible to even walk through. For now all we have to do is pierce the dense cloud that sticks to us like marshmallow; and that’s on this cleanly made road with no jungle to battle.Venturing north the dominant feature we see is a forest of green so rampant and wild it clambers to steep hillsides with barely a tree visible. We can see the spikes in the canopy made by tall trees but vines clamber over and between the treetops like a blanket thrown over a dinner table leaving only the hint of shapes under its covering. Steepness doesn’t discriminate either, this forest smothers every steep slope the mountains throw at it. The forest is victorious except for the scarred hillsides raped bare from unsympathetic logging, standing nude and defaced like victims of some grave abuse. As with much of the world, timber as a resource is won on corruption and underhanded deals leaving hillsides like this plundered with no regard for any sort of sustainability. Loss of habitats, erosion, soil degradation are to follow; it’s not just that they look sad, these hills are likely to be damaged for far longer than it would take for that voracious jungle to regrow, if it regrows.
Gladly the bare bums of hillsides destroyed don’t last, plunging us again into a world of green walls that blank out all view of a sky only overhead, not in front. Intermittently rock faces peek out of the jungle, the geology is slowly changing into the famed limestone with vertical faces too steep for even this jungle to cling to. And so the steep mountains get steeper and the plunging valleys level off into flat pans of small scale agriculture leaving what looks like just the tips of mountains breaching a green ocean. Villages nestle into nooks between jutting rises of mountains that stand alone like figures in the mist, a crowd of giants gathering to welcome us in. Or to warn us. Warning or welcome, vistas reveal themselves as we peek between the assembling figures only to view more and more of the gathering crowd all with bare rock faces to critique these two invaders.Villages persist to toil this breathtaking land in idyllic locations, shunning the convenient complications of urban life. Sweeping a long gentle curve on a low bridge a children’s fairytale is played out for us. Lush flat fields of rice paddies beam at us as a few rustic village houses assemble on the banks of a winding river and all the while the gathering giants muster together as a protective entourage for the lucky few to live life in a postcard. This day is a long one and we have a long way to travel but this scene is one we must stop for, postcards are so rarely so large. So easy is it to imagine young boys and girls scaling these rearing giants to summit their own Everest’s and proclaim themselves kings or queens of the world while mums and dads work on their farms and keep a home for their families. It feels like a dream oasis tempting any viewer to get off their bike, wander into it and never return to a world of complicated convenience.
But we don’t abandon our lives for a dream, as idyllic as it is, we push on to Phong Nha on bikes not only behaving but charging ahead better than they ever have on this whole journey. Deeper and deeper into limestone mountains the flat pans of valley floor extend to leave the giants to array themselves more sparsely, more imposing in their singularity. Across a bridge, the town of Phong Nha Ke Bang sticks into a flat pan pressing itself out into all available space against the limestone mountains that jut up so haphazardly. After a long days ride, seeing this town in such a picturesque setting sends waves of relief and joy washing over us, it even has a hollywood style ‘Phong Nha Ke Bang’ sign emblazoning a peak in grand white capital letters. This is not be a place where stars of the big screen reside, it is the big screen, the biggest screen and I want some popcorn just to sit and look.From Saigon to Hanoi on the Truong Son trail was this trip, it sounded like a great idea. With this day always in mind as the pinnacle we sit down to a celebratory beer with more than just a little feeling of completion, as if we’d achieved what we came here to achieve. In truth there’s a few days ride to go but for now there’s a little sliver of accomplishment in these beers before us. Tomorrow there’s the biggest caves in the world to visit, the big ticket reason for coming to Phong Nha, but for now a world wonder just doesn’t scratch our consciousness, we’ve made it to the giants of Phong Nha and with it a sense of victory, come what may.