Alone in the jungle

Six gruelling weeks through paddies, mountains, jungle and sun-baked plains of Southeast Asia: Ants Bolingbroke-Kent shares her journey on the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail with a 25-year-old motorcycle

A few years ago I decided it was time for a proper adventure, the sort where I’d find myself deep in the Southeast Asian jungle; alone, slightly terrified and knee deep in mud. So in the spring of 2013, after months of wondering what the hell I’d let myself in for, I headed east for a solo motorcycle journey down the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail.

The means by which Uncle Ho’s communist North sent men and supplies to fight the American-backed South, the trail had been the fulcrum of the Vietnam War; a 12,000-mile labyrinth of roads, bicycle tracks, footpaths and waterways winding through the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. But five decades on it was fast being swallowed by time, nature and development. I wanted to explore what remained before it was too late.

While scores of travellers ride a tourist-friendly, tarmac version of the trail between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, only a handful follow its gnarly guts over the Truong Son Mountains into Laos. Even fewer trace it south into the wild eastern reaches of Cambodia. I wanted to do both. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese who walked, drove and worked on the Trail in the 60s and 70s, I wouldn’t have to deal with a daily deluge of bombs. But UXO, unexploded ordnance, littered my route south, cerebral malaria was still rife and the trees slithered and crawled with unpleasant creatures. There’d be mud and mountains, lonely forested tracks and – in many areas – no humans for miles if anything went badly wrong. 

Despite these dangers I was intent on riding alone, on stripping away the protective blanket of companionship to see what I was really made of. How would I react when my bike ground to a halt in the middle of a river? Could I hack days and nights alone in the jungle? Only through the purity of solitude would I find the answers.

With three gears, an automatic clutch, slender city wheels and brakes that would barely stop a bolting snail, the humble Honda Cub wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice of transport for such a trip. But with my meagre budget and limited mechanical know-how the cheap, the simple Cub suited me perfectly. My particular model, a 25-year-old beauty dubbed the Pink Panther, was bought in Hanoi for a mere £200.

For six weeks I clunked and bumped south through the mist and paddies of northern Vietnam, the sweltering jungles of Laos and the scorching plains of Cambodia. It was tough, dusty, muddy, exhilarating, exhausting and at times terrifying. I passed through tribal regions where people ran away from me in fear; I rode eerie, dark tracks flanked by bomb craters; I buzzed through villages scarred by the wreckage of war and I heaved my bike through deep mud, up steep mountainsides and across myriad rivers. By the time I reached Ho Chi Minh, Pink Panther had received no less than four engine rebuilds. 

The experience didn’t fundamentally change me, but I did learn a few things that can only have come from travelling alone. In times of adversity, when the mire and the mountains conspired to beat me, I felt like I’d faced myself and passed the test. Whatever the future holds, I always have the knowledge that I cajoled an ailing Pink Panther over the Truong Son. If I can do that, I hope I can overcome a lot of life’s difficulties.

You can read the full feature in iPad issue 3 of Ernest Journal, available to download now.

Ants Bolingbroke Kent is a veteran of lengthy journeys in small, slow, unsuitable vehicles. She’s co-piloted a pink tuk tuk from Bangkok to Brighton, wobbled around the Black Sea on a zebra-print Honda Cub and survived an attempt to reach the Russian Arctic on an old Ural motorcycle.