While not exactly the roads we followed, this map shows approximately how we traversed central Vietnam by motorcycle. (video)

Our 2nd night of the motorcycle trip was spent in Huế, a city in central Vietnam that was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and was the Vietnamese capital from 1802–1945. Hue’s 19th-century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls, enclosed the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; and the Forbidden Purple City. More amazing than the buildings even were the tales of 1,000 concubines and dozens of children supposedly attributed to the various emperors. Busy bees.

Entrance of the Citadel, Hue, Vietnam. Unesco World Heritage Site.

Shauna shows off her newly made Hoi An dress in front of Hue’s Citadel. 

Within the Imperial City are a number of large copper urns – one for each of the emperors that ruled there….

…and some created for other purposes.

The Imperial City is huge. The grounds of the Imperial City are protected by fortified ramparts which encompass approximately one square mile.

The Battle of Huế  was one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War. In February 1968, 11 battalions of the South Vietnamese Army, two U.S. Army battalions, and three U.S. Marine Corps battalions, for a total of 16 battalions, defeated 10 battalions of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. During the initial phases the battle, due to Huế’s religious and cultural status, US troops were ordered not to bomb or shell the city, for fear of destroying the historic structure, but as casualties mounted in house-to-house fighting these restrictions were progressively lifted and the fighting caused substantial damage to the Imperial City. As a bit of pop culture, the setting for the second half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is primarily set in and around the city of Huế. This archway was riddled with bullet pockmarks from intense fighting within the Imperial City. Our guide was 12 during the battle… he recalled the hand-to-hand combat that took place.

One of the loveliest sunsets we experienced lit up the Perfume River in Huế and outlined the mountains to the west.

Just outside of Huế is a tiny fishing town known as the City of Ghosts, where the dead live in more opulent style than the living.

And in An Bang, an influx of foreign cash from relatives abroad, led by the U.S. and Australia, has triggered something of a competitive tomb building spree, with families eager to build the most extravagant grave in the plot. The tombs are getting taller, wider, and more ambitious every year. According to traditional customs, a taller tomb gives the ancestors a better view!

Families in the rural community of An Bang are pouring up to $100,000 into elaborate final resting places for their kin — an astronomical cost in a country where the annual per capita income is $2,500. 

We stopped for lunch at a crossroads cafe – really a local’s home with tables set up outside – and were surrounded by teenage girls on lunch break from school. The guy sitting on the ground is obviously not a teenage girl – he is an Australian named Lee who was our awesome motorbike tour guide. The girls were all giggles over him….who wouldn’t be?!

For lunch, Pho, a Vietnamese staple.

As we made our way north, we saw more frequent War memorials.

Vinh Moc is a tunnel complex located on the border of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The tunnels were built by local village people to protect themselves from the intense bombing in the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and arms to the North Vietnamese garrison on the island of Con Co which was hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi. The idea was to force the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave the area but, for them, there was nowhere else to go. The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 30 feet underground but the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 30 feet. Eventually, defying all odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 100 feet. The tunnel complex was constructed in several stages beginning in 1966 and used until early 1972. It grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels; as many as 17 children were born inside the tunnels.

The total length of the tunnels was nearly 2,000 m long with 6 entrances to the tops of hills and 7 entrances to the East Vietnam Sea.

A crater formed by a burrowing bomb that did not explode.

At one of the main entrances of the Vinh Moc tunnel complex.

An underground reenactment of life in the tunnels.

One of the many side tunnels opened onto the beach.

Wow….somebody who is a bit claustrophobic went down 50 steps underground into the tunnel complex.

Babies born in the underground nursery in the Vinh Moc tunnels.

As the villagers lived in the tunnels for 8 years, the babies grew to be young children.

A haunting photograph.

After leaving the Vinh Moc tunnels, we stopped by the Truong Son Cemetery, Vietnam’s version of America’s Arlington Cemetery.

Burial in the cemetery is reserved for North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers who were recognized for their valor.

Vietnamese women tending the graves at the cemetery.

And then, back to the mountains, headed for our final night in Khe Sahn. This bridge, one of the first built after the war, was funded with Russian assistance.

We rode west along the Ben Hai river, which served as the dividing line between North and South Vietnam for much of its length, towards Khe Sahn. The Battle of Khe Sahn represented a major victory for North Vietnamese forces in 1968. Here is a pic from the 1960s showing a US convoy on the ‘highway’ at the time, along the Ben Hai river.

The North Vietnamese Army was able to bomb the American Combat base of Khe Sahn from the high mountains surrounding the air base. It was difficult for the superior American air support to be effective because the North Vietnamese moved locations frequently, and they had the high ground.

Newsweek picture of the back of a Marine’s shirt – May, 1968.

From the museum at Khe Sanh. You can see the higher mountains in the background from which the NVA attacked the US base.

US war planes, helicopters and tanks have been moved back to Khe Sanh for display at the museum.

From the museum at Khe Sanh.

On a brighter note, there is a coffee plantation on the former American combat post. Vietnam regularly ranks in the top 3 coffee exporters in the world.

Back to the motorbikes. We are all smiles because we are about to embark on one the of the best days of riding that we have ever experienced…

…a 100+ mile drive through Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng national park which also happens to be UNESCO World Heritage Site. The core area of this national park covers about 300 square miles with a buffer zone of approximately 600 square miles. The scenery was spectacular and the roads were steep, curvy, mostly paved and mostly deserted… motorcycle nirvana.

The plateau on which the park is situated is probably one of the finest and most distinctive examples of a complex karst landform in Southeast Asia. These limestone formations are the oldest in Asia… 400 million years old.

The park was created to protect one of the world’s two largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes and also protects the ecosystem of limestone forest of the Annamite Range region in North Central Coast of Vietnam.

The aquamarine color of the many rivers is the result of the limestone river beds.

The northern end of the parks exits onto a broad river valley…

….which served as a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

At the end of our four days with Lee, a guide with Hoi An Motorcycle Tours, who did an awesome job. These four days were the highlight of our time in Vietnam (which is saying a lot). (video)