An Antique Land

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Vestige of My Son where nature is taking back its place.

I am Ozymandias, the King of Kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair.”

Yes, I may be a tramp, but I’m quite a well-read tramp, as tramps go. So for the benefit of those of you not acquainted with the works of Percy Shelley, and who could easily be forgiven for thinking that I’m quoting from a comic book here, the poem tells the story of a traveller in the desert who happens upon a crumbled statue of Ozymandias (or Ramesses) bearing the above inscription. The King of Kings, so proud of his empire and all that he has built, erected the statue in his own image, and mocking even God, in his conviction that none could surpass him. But long years have passed when the traveller stumbles upon it, the statue is broken, and there’s nothing to be seen of Ozymandias’ great empire but desert. All of his ‘works’ having long since crumbled to dust, or vanished beneath the sand.

Some might consider the poem to be an ode of the arrogance of Kings, but I prefer to think of it as a testament to how times change, and empires inevitably fall.

The reason I decided to crowbar a little culture in to this introduction is that I was reminded of the poem while picking our way through the ruins of My Son (pronounced “mee-sun”). Once a great temple city and the centre of the vast and powerful Cham empire, now naught but a few moss covered rocks sprouting up from the jungle floor.

The city was constructed from the 4th century onwards and was inhabited until the Cham empire collapsed in the 14th. Abandoned to nature and the elements, the buildings remained largely intact until their rediscovery in 1898, having remained hidden and surviving multiple invasions of the region by the Khmer, the Chinese and the French, amongst others. What finally finished the city off in the end was the “American War”. Worried that the ruins could be harbouring enemies, Uncle Sam carpet bombed the place to rubble in the space of a week during the summer of 1969. The largest and greatest of the Cham towers apparently withstood multiple aerial bombardments, before a dedicated sapper team was helicoptered in to blow it up from the ground. That’s just not cricket. It’s akin to nuking the Sphinx at Giza, just because half a dozen ‘terrorists’ could conceivably be hiding in it’s shadow.

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Robb posing in front of the Ho Chi Minh Trail sign.

And this talk of the war brings me to the matter in which we have succeeded. We’re in North Vietnam. A feat which the full military might of the world’s most fearsome superpower failed, and which two hapless Europeans on a broken motorcycle achieved with ease. We traversed the fabled Ho Chi Minh trail. We boldly crossed the bomb-crater strewn DMZ. We penetrated all three levels of the subterranean labyrinth that is the Vinh Moc Tunnels. And at least one of us courageously urinated against a tree at Hamburger Hill. Hard to see what all the fuss was about really. I mean, there they were, expending thousands of lives and billions of Dollars, when they could have just hopped on a $400 motorbike, turned right on to Highway 14 from Dong Ha and they’d have been drinking Bia Hoi in North Vietnam in under an hour. Ah well, they’re Americans. Never known for deep thought.

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One of the numerous waterfalls we passed by on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Anyway, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. To those who’ve emailed me lately wondering what happened to my updates over the last 18 days or so, sorry, we’ve been so busy that I didn’t get much time for writing. And to those who didn’t question where I was, you’re terrible. 18 days! I could have been eaten by a leopard!

What we’ve actually been doing however, is riding. From Hoi An to the Laos border, then up the Ho Chi Minh trail to the historical capital of Hue, incorporating two days of torrential downpours that turned the mountain roads to muddy landslides. So bad were the conditions that even our motorcycle guide Chou with his 25 years of experience on these roads lost it a couple of times. Not me though, I’m awesome. Then from Hue we crossed the old frontier to Dong Ha before turning inland again towards Phong Nha Ke National Park.

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Picture of a part of Paradise Cave.

Phong Nha Ke National Park. My new favourite place in the world. One of Asia’s last remaining pristine evergreen rainforests, a lush green jungle carpeting jagged limestone mountains and gigantic sweeping valleys. It’s also home to the world’s largest cave: ‘Son Doong’. And the world’s second largest cave, the aptly named ‘Paradise Cave’. Both of which were only discovered in the last 6 years. It gives an indication of just how remote this area is when you consider that Son Doong for example, is so vast that it has a jungle inside of it. And that it’s said, you could park a battleship and a 747 inside the main chamber, and that you’d have trouble finding either one the next time you visited. Think about a cave of that size, and that until 2009, no one even knew it was there.

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Picture inside Phong Nha Cave.

Yeah, it’s a pretty rural place.

I guess that’s why Desmond chose that particular moment to pounce. He’s run reliably every day for the two months and several thousand kilometres since leaving Saigon, and we’d come to thinking he was trustworthy. But no. He was biding his time. He waited. Until we were in the most remote location thus far. Until just 30 minutes after we’d waved our guide goodbye. Then the front brake calliper and the master cylinder failed simultaneously, and neither could be repaired. Certainly not by me, and not by either of the two mechanics that we managed to track down in the Phong Nha Ke area.

 

The upshot of this is that we rode 80km of the mountainous Ho Chi Minh trail, a 50km (even more mountainous) circuit of the national park, and the journey back to the nearest town of Dong Hoi, all with no fucking brakes. Literally no fucking brakes. The only way to stop was to put my feet down Flintstones style. So now I’ve got holes in the bottom of my shoes to add to my racked nerves and frankly ruined, underpants.

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Phong Nha Ke Park has turquoise water and interesting rock formations.

Since I began this email with a short discourse on the fall of empires, I’ll return briefly to the subject for the end, because while in Hue we paid a visit to the home of Vietnam’s last emperors, the Nguyen Kings who ruled for 350 years before the revolution deposed them in 1945. Not only did we gain access to the throne room, but the Great & Powerful Mr Bob managed to place his Great & Powerful arse upon the Emperor’s throne. How many can say that? The Actual Emperor’s Fucking Throne! And boy did I dress for the occasion. Check Facebook in an hour or so and a most magnificent photograph should be uploaded. All hail Emperor Bob.

 

The short list of vastly exciting events that I ought to write about but can’t be bothered:

 

  • Meeting a minority hill tribe who decorate their homes with the skulls of every animal they hunt.
  • Visiting the most spectacular caves in the world. Warrants many words of description and I’ve given it none. Trusting instead that madame’s photos will save me from having to over-utilise words like spectacular.
  • Encountering water snakes while skinny dipping in an isolated mountain river in the Phong Nha Ke rainforest. “Ummm . . Are these things poisonous?”
  • Scary man in large, expensive, black SUV who politely introduced himself to me as “a gangster”.
  • Playing volleyball on a court of 5 inch deep mud with a team consisting of locals, backpackers and one highly fickle water buffalo.
  • Some other stuff. . .
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Robb holding one of the skulls brought back by the hunters of the minority village.

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