AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   June/July 2008

Down the Ho Chi Minh Trail on a Motorcycle   

By Alex Tilitz

An eight-person, eight-day motorcycle trip through Vietnam during the hottest part of the year may sound like an endurance test to some, but for Bill Ketter, vice president of news at Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., it's a vacation.

From July 29 to August 5, Ketter, two guides and seven others will make the 800-mile journey from Hanoi to Hoi An riding small motorcycles down the country's eastern coast. A combination of off-road and highway riding, their route will take them to sites such as the Phong Nha Cave, widely hailed as the most beautiful in the region; Hue, the imperial capital of feudal Vietnam; and China Beach, the site of the first major Marine landing of the Vietnam War.

Off Road Vietnam, a small company that offers bicycle and motorcycle tours throughout the country, is arranging the trip. Ketter's group paid $850 per person, but prices vary depending on the size of the group and the route.

The company provides most of the essentials: motorcycles, fuel, camping equipment, food and guides. Tourists need only supply their own clothing and transportation to and from Hanoi. But Ketter, a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is preparing for the trip in other ways.

"I'm taking motorcycle lessons here so I don't end my life over there," Ketter, 68, says, adding in an e-mail: "I'm a bit nervous about getting back on a motorcycle after more than 30 years, and handling the rougher parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail [the route that the North Vietnamese used to travel to South Vietnam during the war]. I'm told some of it is no more than a cow path." Though Off Road Vietnam's Web site (offroadvietnam.com) warns of the "no rule" nature of Vietnamese streets in several alarming sections, it also promises that the company takes tourists on the safest roads. Despite those reassurances, Ketter is taking few chances. He requested that the tour begin outside Hanoi, though it usually starts within city limits.

"I was not going to try to drive in that crazy traffic, probably the worst traffic and the craziest drivers in the world," says Ketter, who plans to write about his experiences for CNHI's 90-plus daily newspapers. "I do know Hanoi has one of the highest fatality rates in the world."

Though cool on the prospect of motoring through Hanoi, Ketter does plan on spending several days in the capital before his tour begins. "I'll visit the site where John McCain was held prisoner for 5 1/2 years, known to American POWs held there as the Hanoi Hilton," he says. "I'll also revisit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square. I'm curious if the Vietnamese still line up to file past his open coffin to view his preserved corpse... And, of course, [I'll see] the French architecture, which dominates the Old Quarter of the city."

As excited as he is about the visceral thrills of the motorcycle trek, the chance to immerse himself in Vietnam's history is even more enticing. "As a young reporter the war was going on and I covered a lot of campus demonstrations working for UPI," he says. "Having traveled there in the spring of 1995, I got even more interested in it. Hanoi was just coming alive then. Southern Vietnam was obviously much more developed than the North so I'm looking forward to seeing it now, almost 13 years later."

Tilitz (atilitza@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.