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.