I’m an avid reader, usually with two or three books on the go at one time. And more than likely one will be a literary travelog about motorcycling.
Thus I today finished reading A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, by young English “ladyventurer” Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent.
In short, it’s a stupendous read! Read on…
About the time I was departing for my own motorcycle journey around Cuba (even by the early ’90s there weren’t many Communist countries to choose from), my acquaintance and fellow journalist Christopher Hunt rode a Russian 125cc Minsk through Vietnam, and his Sparring with Charlie: Motorbiking Down the Ho Chi Minh Trail had just been published.
Two decades on, in 2013, Antonia–who has made a name for herself riding unlikely vehicles on rugged adventures–rode a 25-year-old Honda C90 moped (nicknamed the ‘Pink Panther’) on a six-week slog… er, sojourn, though the jungles of Indochina along what remains of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Viet Cong supply route during the Vietnam War).
“While scores of travelers 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,” she writes. “I rode south from Hanoi, the cacophonous capital of Vietnam, through some of the remotest regions of Southeast Asia. Battling inhospitable terrain and multiple breakdowns, it was a journey that ranged from the hilarious to the mildly terrifying, during which I encountered tribal chiefs, illegal loggers, former American fighter pilots, young women whose children had been killed by UXO, eccentric Ozzie bomb disposal experts and multiple mechanics.”
In A Short Ride she weaves a riveting tale exquisitely told in concise yet visually panchromatic prose as compelling as an Imax movie. Her literary skill is half the beauty of this book, and reason enough to wish it a ‘Travel Book of the Year’ award. As if the sheer daunting adventure itself weren’t sufficient!
But far more important for me is the great service she does in revealing a harrowing tale of U.S. perfidy in the illegal bombing of Laos and neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War. At times I broke down crying at the imagery she so eloquently profiles of communities devastated by relentless bombardment and the legacy of UXOs (unexploded ordinance) that remain in their midst. Most U.S. citizens are unawares that more tonnage was dropped, by far, on Indochina during the Vietnam War than in the entirety of World War II. The USA has essentially since turned its back: We spend far more on futile searches for MIAs than in efforts to remove US ordinance from the midst of the innocent Laotian and Cambodian peoples, thousands of who are maimed and killed every year.
In this, Antonio has no axe to grind. A Short Ride portrays an equally distressing portrait of three countries now being further ruined by corruption and greed as the forests are felled post-haste, not least to make way for plantations and mineral mining.
But this is to paint too dark a picture.
Antonia’s tale is, of course, one of great bravery and at times terrifying adventure told with humility and a great empathy for the locals she meets. The overriding impression is of positive grit-your-teeth daring-do.
So buy a copy, pour yourself a glass of wine, and settle into a lounge chair for an enthralling and educational read.