Daily Archives: August 7, 2015

Ho Chi Minh Highway

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I finally joined the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) at Thạch Thành just West of the Cúc Phương national park and approximately 80 miles from my original starting point in Hanoi. The trip to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh had been quite an exciting diversion. The 750 mile HCMH, which roughly follows the route of the original Trường Sơn or Hồ Chí Minh trail, extends from Hanoi along the length of Viet Nam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South. It presents as a fair challenge for touring cyclists with sections passing through the mid Viet Nam highlands and some quite extraordinary scenery. However it is fair to say that with the ongoing upgrading of sections of the route to a six lane highway it no longer holds quite the same attraction as it once did. Increasingly it more suited to a motorbike than a bicycle. Currently the HCMH through the central provinces remains a quiet, often very rural, road. But no doubt that will change.

 Over the next few days I cycled 200 miles South on the HCMH passing through Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. The highlight of this was all the wonderful friendly people that I met along the way. The weather was a little mixed and got caught in a major downpour. I had stopped to make coffee when the rain fell very heavily. People from a house nearby rushed across with umbrellas to help and insisted I take shelter in their home. The generosity of spirit expressed by everyone I met along the route was quite remarkable. Wild camping was relatively easy although I did take a room (and very welcome shower) at a hotel in Yen Cat.  One magical night whilst camping in a banana grove my tent was surrounded by dancing fireflies.

Looking at the map I was drawn towards the UNESCO world heritage site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh province. But I became a little weary with the HMCH turning at times into a major road. My original intention was to explore Laos after Viet Nam and had marked the most Southern border crossing between the two countries as a possibility. However and having already passed one opportunity to head into Laos from the HCMH at Nam Phao I was presented with a turning and road sign pointing towards the Cura Khan Cha Lo border crossing.  I decided, somewhat impulsively, to head down (or rather up) the AH131. It was time for a change of direction.

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Bai Đính

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Situated slightly West and part of the Tràng An Landscape Complex; Bai Đính consists of multiple temples and a pagoda built on limestone hills (Bai Đính ‘mountain’) close to the Hoang Long River.  Although mostly of fairly recent construction it is built in a traditional style and on a grand scale. It consists of a gateway by a lake, belltower, covered walkways, a series of three increasingly larger temples and many record breaking Russian bronze gilded Buddhist statues. Bai Đính took over 7 years to construct and employed local craftsmen to produce a classical influenced religious complex of breathtaking proportions. It boasts of Asia’s largest bronze gilded Great Buddha Sakyamuni statue (10 metres high and weighing 150 tonnes) and also the largest ‘Di Lac’ or ‘laughing buddha’. It  also has the largest bronze bell at over 50 tonnes and the biggest pearl well in Viet Nam. The pagoda, which provides a focus for the complex, is the highest in Viet Nam.

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I felt a little uncomfortable leaving my bike and gear with a stranger on the Bái Đính – Cúc Phương road but it turned out to be a good decision. I ensured that I was carrying all the really ‘must not lose’ important stuff in my backpack. Once past the perimeter fencing and into the grounds of the temple complex I climbed up a muddy track that led past workmen’s huts towards the pagoda. The garden around the pagoda was being landscaped with lots of newly planted trees. I joined some workmen and clambered over a stone balustrade onto the paved walkway surrounding the monument. The pagoda, Viet Nam’s largest, provides great views over the surrounding complex and lake beyond. Steps nearby lead directly down to an international conference centre. Above and behind is a huge bronze ‘laughing buddha’. From this highest point I followed a route down to the Tam The dharma temple and the three huge huge statues of Buddha within.

The three temples buildings are connected to each other via steps and walkways which drop down towards the lake. These covered walkways are home to hundred of statues of Buddhist Arhats or masters. Each one is quite unique having been carefully modelled on their original subjects. They were created by masons at a local village using Ninh Bình stone.

Shortly before the final gatehouse, shrine and interior walkways is a bell house within which is the largest, at 36 tonnes, crafted bronze bell in Viet Nam. To ring it would require a large tree trunk as a hammer! IMG_3605 IMG_3604

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I climbed back up the hill past the ‘masters’ and returned to the pagoda. A little walk back along the lane, through a wood and I was back at the house where I had left my bike. All was good. The young lads sitting at a table out front offered some food but I was keen to get going to find the Ho Chi Minh Highway (QL45).. or at least somewhere to sleep. After a short while I found myself heading North on the busy QL 12b but then continued West on a smaller rural road towards the town of Phố Cát. Before the town I found a handy little bamboo forest stretching along one side of the road with fields and karst hills on the other. I pitched my tent and made coffee. It had been quite a day.

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