In the late 1990s, Virginia and her husband Clive became the first westerners in peacetime to walk the full length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Their book ‘The Road to Freedom, A History of the Ho Chi Minh Trail’, is the story of that astonishing expedition, with interviews from key players. Your tour picks up their original journey at the Mu Gia Pass and traces their steps heading south towards the trail end at the Cambodian border. Virginia travels part of the route with you, making this a unique opportunity to learn about the Vietnam War and the importance of the trail for victory. Along the way, we stop at many of the points of interest mentioned in the book to enjoy the stunning Lao countryside and meet its warm hearted people.
As one of the only Westerners to work for over a decade with some of Ho Chi Minh’s closest colleagues, Virginia is a wealth of knowledge. She published her additional findings in a second book, ‘Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution, In the words of Vietnamese Strategists and Operatives’. Upon booking the tour you will receive a signed copy of Virginia and Clive’s book, ‘The Road to Freedom’ as a memento.
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Our adventure begins as we take the road out of Vientiane to Nahin. Once clear of the town the countryside opens up, and during their growing season, we are flanked by lush fields of rice. Riding on we go into Khammouane Province, where the karst mountains appear. We follow the beautiful mountains until we reach the Limestone Forest. Then, we are surrounded by stunning views as we near the Vietnamese border and arrive at our overnight stop, Nahin. In Nahin, we stay at the beautiful Sainamhai Resort beside the Nam Hai river, dining at the Grand Palace in the evening.
After breakfast, we ride to the Mui Gai Pass, which was a major entry point for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) on its way into Laos during the Vietnam War. The more Northerly entry point is now a reservoir, and the Trails have gone forever. As we arrive at the bottom of the Mui Gai Pass, we’ll attempt to take the old Trail up to the top. It’s overgrown in the wet season and not always possible. From the top of the Pass you can see the challenge ahead, as we look down the Annamite mountains and some of its great views. We overnight here in a local guest house at the foot of the pass.
An early awakening this morning, to enjoy a view of the sunrise and the pass. Then we head onto the local trail to visit some key villages. This area was a hot spot in the war. It was also the focus of one of the biggest search operations ever mounted in Laos, an operation to rescue a pilot shot down in the Phanop Valley. From there, we ride to visit the caves where people lived for an incredible nine years to escape the bombing campaign. This whole area was a maze of trails during that time. Some remaining cobblestone paths can still be seen. We won’t cover much distance today, but there will really be a lot to see. Once again, we return to the same guest house to overnight.
We have a fantastic day ahead of us. Our first job is crossing the awesome fords of the Xe Bang Fai River. Depending on the time of year, it will definitely get your attention, and sometimes your feet wet. Our destination is the Xe Bangfai River Cave. The cave swallows the river for 7 km, and is the longest river cave in Laos. It is not only 76 mtr wide and 56 mtr high, but also a spectacular piece of wonderment and natural beauty. The cave was used during the war as a link between Vietnam and Laos. We stay overnight at a homestay in Ban Nongping Village.
The Trail today is all dirt. Dirt tracks all the way to the Vietnamese border and the Ban Karia Pass; the Ban Laboy Ford also awaits us. This ford holds the unenviable record as the most bombed out area in the Indochina War. In spite of that rained destruction, a pristine section of cobblestones still remain up to the Ban Kari Pass. Once done, we will head back on Route 912, which was a key one out of the pass. It’s a great stretch of trail down into Vilabury and our overnight accommodation in a local guest house.
Today is an easy journey down to Expon via Muang Phine. Expon is an interesting area, as it houses a museum that honours the Battle of Lam Son 719. The battle was a last-ditch attempt by the South Vietnamese Army to try and stop the flow of arms down the Trail, although it didn’t go to plan for them. The afternoon can be spent relaxing a little.
Halfway point of the tour and we will explore the Cave Complex west of Xepon. This complex carved through a mountain, is yet another incredible construction created in extreme conditions. After the caves we ride to some fantastic scenery in Phu Tamok. The fire bases in the Battle of Lam Son 719 were located at this mountain. It’s quite a climb to the top, with a few steep sections, but the views are well worth the doing of it. From there we go back to last night’s accommodation.
After two days exploring Expon, we take the jungle track down to Ta Oy via Nong. Here we traverse a fast disappearing piece of the Trail which offers stunning scenery. As roads are developed, this section of the Trail is also becoming shorter. However, some stretches still house the cobblestones which proved to be fantastic as all-weather roads. On arrival into Ta Oy, we take twisty tarmac roads over the mountains and finish our day in Salavan, staying in a local guest house.
Today will mainly be on tarmac. The mountain pass has been upgraded over the years, and makes for a great journey with breathtaking views. On the way down, we negotiate quirky forest tracks, before arriving in Xekong for our overnight stay. The old ferry here is now redundant as a new bridge spans the river. More Trail gone forever, but its history remains. We stay overnight in a hotel by the river, where you can enjoy a great sunset.
Even with a lot of riding behind us, there’s still more to go. We now take the Trail to Dakchung, where some really remote sections await us, as we head into the mountains close to Vietnamese border. This was a busy trail back in the day. Progress though, has seen parts of the Trail now being closed due to hydropower projects. Luckily, there is still some great riding to be had in a countryside that is nothing short of beautiful. Not too many tourists travel these roads. For the evening we ride to a rural spot. Overnight accommodation will be in local guest house.
After a night in Dakchung, we ride back towards Attapue. These trails are being upgraded, so we are back onto the tarmac, stopping off to see a few sights. A SAM missile site reminds us of how active this area was during the Vietnam War. As the Trail got closer to Cambodia, it saw countless action during the war, with much of it still evident. On arrival at Attapue we dine by the river, sampling the locals’ generous hospitality.
After breakfast we head on the tarmac towards Vietnam. From that surface, we switch to the dirt road up to Nong Fa Lake, where Virginia and Clive had a marriage ceremony in 2005. Nong Fa Lake may have been a stopping of point for soldiers making their way south, as its rumored they would rest up there before completing their journey. A far cry from that, it is now a natural beauty spot. We will take a ‘packed lunch’ and enjoy the area before heading down the mountain to our overnight accommodation.
We take the tarmac back to Attapue before heading onto Route 18b. At that point, we enjoy an interesting dirt road before heading north through the forest. Along the way, we see some stunning nature before arriving at Tad Fane. Tad Fane is a local beauty spot with interesting activities and majestic waterfalls. We overnight in a homestay on the Bolaven Plateau.
Our final day, it’s also an easy one as we roll into Pakse. Our activity for today is discovering Wat Phu. Wat Phu is an area of ancient temples spread across a huge site. At this point, you have covered the Ho Chi Minh Trail from its most Northern entry point to its most southerly exit point at Cambodia. Along the route you will have learnt much about the Trail and the people of Laos. Memories that you will surely hold dear forever.
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