Two days drive to the center
When I left Ninh Binh that morning, I was leaving the north of Vietnam. Of the three major regions of Vietnam - the north, the center and the south - it is this first one that has the most to offer. I had a twinge of anticipation to leave. There were several places I hadn't visited, including the ethnic villages in the northwest, the scenic roads along the Chinese border, and the Cao Bang Falls. But I didn't have time to see everything. I still had a lot of driving to do to get to the south.
To console myself, I told myself, "I'll be back soon."
But next time, I would bring warm clothes. And to ride the country's northernmost roads - which are also the most beautiful - a dirt bike would be in order.
Satisfied with this decision, I headed south. It would take me two days to get to my next destination: the Phong Nha ("Fong Gna") National Park. This area is home to many cave systems that are said to be spectacular. So, after my 530 kilometers of road, the visit of these would be my reward.
It is in this region that the largest cave in the world was discovered: Son Doong. It is so big that you can fit the whole island of Manhattan in it, including the skyscrapers. The cave has only been open to tourists since 2011. But the waiting list is very long, as the Vietnamese government has limited the number of visitors per year to 300. Not to mention that the six-day visit costs several thousand dollars. Thus, few people have the chance to enter.
Moreover, the tour - which is entirely underground - is demanding. It involves long hours of walking, wall climbing, high ropes, and swimming in underground rivers.
I was fascinated by the idea of visiting the extravagant Son Doong Cave. But under the circumstances, I would have to settle for a more modest visit.
The choice of my route to the center had been the subject of intense procrastination. I had two options. The first was to take Highway 1 along the coast. It is the most direct road but also the one where the commercial traffic of Vietnam circulates. This means that there are a lot of trucks, which is the most dangerous element on the road.
My other choice was to take the new road built by the Vietnamese government, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is inland. This road is known for its picturesque scenery and is much less crowded. It was nevertheless a detour of about 100 kilometers. Moreover, Trung had warned me that this road, built in a rural area, was little inhabited. This meant that if something happened to my bike, I might have to push it for several kilometers before I reached a village.
Having always a certain fear of breakdowns, I had some hesitations to take the Ho Chi Minh trail. I had to weigh the risks: the one of negotiating the path with heavy trucks, or the one of pushing my bike for 20 kilometers.
Considering that the second option did not involve any risk to my safety, it is the one I chose.