Hoi An, Vietnam is a backpacker favourite, and a must-do for most travellers to the country. I’m not going to lie, it’s not my favourite spot in the world for various reasons – but I’m definitely in the minority. Still, I think that a Ho Chi Minh Trail tour is a great add-on to anyone’s time in Hoi An. The tour traverses through the countryside, giving riders a chance to see authentic Vietnamese life (one of my issues with Hoi An is that it’s definitely not authentic Vietnamese life) and up into the mountains, before driving down the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail.
What is the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a stretch of road that was used throughout the Vietnamese War. It doesn’t just go through Vietnam: it also stretches through Laos and Cambodia, as it was used as a ‘back route’ for Northern Vietnamese troops to bring ammunition to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
Raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
There were a lot of raids against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, because the US troops who were in the country were aware of its use. This is why many of the communities around the Ho Chi Minh Trail fared the worst in the war, and still suffer from a lot of poverty to this day. One example is Phong Nha, which is a few hours North of the DMZ.
This bombing also affected Laos and Cambodia – Laos is actually the most bombed country of all time because of it – and there were lots of after-effects to this bombing, including societies leaning towards Communism, which had devastating effects in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge seized power and launched a genocide against their own people.
The bombings also inspired many resistance movements throughout the Communist and Non-Communist world. Many governments were deeply critical of the US, and many peace movements were brought up in the US itself. This is partially because it was the first televised war, and also because the methods they used – including Agent Orange – were so horrific.
Why Visit the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
Despite this being a place of difficult and turbulent history, I do think it is important to visit to learn about this side of Vietnam’s history. The war really didn’t end that long ago – troops withdrew in March 1973 – and it still leaves a huge mark on the country to this day.
The Ho Chi Minh Highway is a sealed section of the road, and is quite accessible for tourists. Nowadays, it weaves through the mountains and is one of the most beautiful spots of Vietnam that I have visited; starkly contrasting to its tragic history. It’s important to take a few moments and take it all in. For me, visiting the Ho Chi Minh Trail was an important reminder to appreciate the peace that we live in today.
The Best Way to See the Ho Chi Minh Trail
If you can ride a motorbike, you could see the Ho Chi Minh Trail independently. Many people opt to ride a bike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping off at various points on the way, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a popular side route.
However, I would really recommend doing it on a Ho Chi Minh Trail tour. This is because, this area is somewhere to really learn about rather than just whizz on through. I learnt so much on my Ho Chi Minh Trail tour that I would never have learned otherwise.
Some people do think that Ho Chi Minh Trail tours in Vietnam aren’t really worth it, due to the fact that the trail in Vietnam is largely restored, and isn’t anything like how it was – the unrestored majority of the trail is in Laos and Cambodia, much of which is still unsafe to travel down due to landmines.
However, due to the stories that I learnt from my guide that I definitely would never have got elsewhere, and being able to kind of put this into context by seeing the trail, I think that the trail tour was well worth doing, and actually was one of the best things I did on my Vietnam itinerary.
You could of course, take it further – like this intrepid Vietnamese traveller who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, or British writer Antonia Bollingbroke-Kent who travelled the trail on a Honda and wrote about it in her book A Short Ride in the Jungle. You can buy the book here.
But for most tourists, the restored trail in Vietnam is the best introduction to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Ho Chi Minh Trail Tour: Meeting My Driver
Late, as ever, I hurriedly packed ready to meet my driver. He was waiting for me outside – luckily not bothered about my lateness, and ready to secure my bags to the car. Everything should be strapped to the back, he said, even my small rucksack which I normally keep on me. ‘We’ve got a long way to drive’ he told me.
One of the first things he told me was that he, himself, fought in the Vietnam War. He told me if I was interested, he would tell me all about his experiences throughout the course of the day. But now, he said, it was time for coffee.
Hoi An’s Surrounding Countryside
One of the best things to do in Hoi An is to enjoy its surrounding countryside, and as we delved deeper into it on the westward drive, I realised how much I enjoyed being in this part of South East Asia, away from the crowds.
The road was gradually approaching the mountains, with epic views in every direction, and occasionally people by the road would shout a cheerful “hello!” or “sin chou!” and wave. We stopped a couple of times, once for the best pineapple I’ve ever tasted (which I was assured grows all year round) and once for a cold drink.
Onto the Trail!
“We’re on the trail now!” my guide told me. We’d been driving for a few hours, and were finally on a road that weaved through mountains. It was quite hard to imagine what it had been like 40 years ago – it definitely wasn’t tarmacked over, for one thing – and nowadays the mountains seemed so peaceful and serene, it seemed impossible that so much war and despair had happened here. But my guide’s constant comments reminded me that it very much had.
One of the most meaningful chats of my life
After an afternoon’s driving, we pulled into a nearby town and checked into a local hotel. Arranging to re-meet for dinner, where my guide said he’d tell me his full story, I set off for a walk around the village, and then to my room to have a proper think about everything I’d learned about already that day.
Over dinner, my guide told me a bit more about his story. He was from Da Nang, which is firmly in South Vietnam, although not all that far from the DMZ. He wanted South Vietnam to be an independent capitalist state, and was against communism. So he ended up joining the fight against the north, and fought alongside American soldiers (which is how he speaks such good English).
There’s no denying that the US did some absolutely awful things during the Vietnamese War – the use of Agent Orange, which has caused birth defects to this day, is just one of them – and I do agree that their main incentives for being in Vietnam were selfish. They feared the spread of Communism under “The Domino Effect”, which they thought would subsequently lead to a world under Soviet control – which would be devastating for them.
However, despite my feelings towards American interference in Vietnam, my chat with my guide reminded me that there were innocent people on both sides of this conflict. There were North and South Vietnamese people just doing what they thought was right, and families were torn apart because of it.
My guide described the next few years of his life to me, where he had to spend some time at a re-education camp. He didn’t want to talk much about it, but said that it was a very dark time in his life.
But, on a brighter note, he told me how in Vietnamese tradition, when men went to war, their wives would grow their hair for as long as they were waiting for their beloved. When he finally returned home, his wife was there, with hair longer as ever. They’re still happily married today.
The next day – visiting Da Nang and the Hai Van Pass
I took a 2 day tour, which also involved visiting Da Nang and the Hai Van Pass. Da Nang is a really modern city, which reminded me how rapid a pace Vietnam is developing.
The Hai Van Pass stretches up through the mountains over Da Nang, and it is regarded by Top Gear to be one of the best coastal drives in the world. It certainly has dramatic scenery, and at the top there are some bunkers.
These were actually built by the French in the first Indochina War, but were adopted by the US to keep track of vehicles using this road.
After driving for a few more hours, checking out some of the coastal nature on the way, including a fishing village and a small village with multiple temples, we arrived in Hue.
Things to do in Hue
Hue is an ancient capital of Vietnam and is well worth visiting while you’re in the country. Some of the best things to do in Hue include:
- The Ancient Imperial Citadel: This details Vietnam’s former regal past
- The Thien Mu Pagoda: This seven-story pagoda, which is an icon of the city, is also home to the car that Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in.
- Perfume River: taking a cruise along the river is a lovely way to pass an afternoon in Hue.
- Tombs: there are various tombs in Hue, I went to the the Tomb of Tu Duc which was both interesting and had some really beautiful, serene nature to take in.
Where to Go from Hue
If you’ve taken this Ho Chi Minh Trail tour like I did, going from South to North, the next spots on your Vietnam itinerary might be Dong Ha City, Phong Nha and Ninh Binh before approaching Hanoi.
I’d highly recommend visiting Dong Ha City for more war history – you can do a tour of the DMZ from here. Phong Nha is a great spot to visit for nature, but there’s also a lot of sombre history here, as it is one of the areas – if not the area – that suffered most from US airstrikes.
Ninh Binh is a beautiful nature spot, sometimes known as ‘Halong Bay on Land’ and I’d highly recommend spending a few days kicking back and relaxing here before approaching the madness of Hanoi.
You can book trains and buses on Bookaway – click here to go to their website.
The Vietnam War
There are lots of places to learn about the war in Vietnam, and for me, visitng the Ho Chi Minh Trail helped me piece together the story of Vietnam a little more.
One more thing that had a lasting impact on me was my guide saying “we were occupied by the Chinese for 1,000 years, then the French for 70 years, and then we were at Civil War for 18 years, and then we had to rebuilt the country. We’re only just starting to know ourselves and who we are”.
The lasting impacts of both war and occupation can never be ignored, and I think it’s so cruicial to learn about these parts of a country when travelling there, to get even an ounce of understanding about it as a whole.
Some books that I have read about the Vietnamese War, and recommend, are:
- A Short Ride in the Jungle by Antonia Bollingbroke-Kent: As recommended before, this travel book details one woman’s journey down the entire Ho Chi Minh Trail, and gives a great overview of it and its significance in the war. Click here to read more.
- Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: this diary was published posthumously, and details a woman’s life working as a nurse during the war. Click here to read more.
- The Things They Carried: this focuses on Vietnam War Vetrans returning to the US, dealing with hostility after being involved in such a bloody and needless war, and the PTSD that many of them encountered. Click here to read more.
I hope this post has given you a bit more of an insight into doing a Ho Chi Minh trail tour in Vietnam. Check out my other Vietnam posts for more travel tips and inspiration for visiting this country!