The two shorter days we had just completed were only a short break, for day 16 was arguably the hardest of the ride.
The route from Khâm Đức to PleiKan, also known as Ngọc Hồi, spanned 115 kilometers and included our route’s longest climb:
20 kilometers, gaining 700 meters of altitude along the way.
That huge hill was the last hurdle between us and the Central Highlands, a vast, rugged area of rolling hills and minority groups.
On the climb
It was a hot, sunny morning as we rode out of Khâm Đức, and we knew we were in for a sweaty day.
The first hour or so was fine, with a few small hills, great views and little traffic.
Then, the climb began.
Though the gradient varied, the entire thing was a challenge.
Fortunately a light breeze wicked some of my sweat away, but a few times that breeze turned into an extremely unwelcome headwind.
I was out front, with a couple of riders not far behind, and I tried to keep the wheels turning constantly.
I had to stop for water several times, as the heat was becoming increasingly intense.
At the top of the hill
After a couple of hours of slogging away I reached the top of the hill and immediately stopped for cold drinks at a ramshackle shop.
I struck up a conversation with a man from Kon Tum sitting nearby, and he explained that Laos was just over the next mountain.
It felt great to be finished with the climb, but we still had a long day ahead of us.
View at the bottom
After a few people caught up we bombed down the other side before quickly encountering a short, but depressingly steep hill.
This was brutal after having just finished the big climb, and it was even hotter now that we were in the highlands.
We lumbered along and finally reached civilization in a town called Dak Glei, where we collapsed in a restaurant and gorged on rice, pork and eggs.
The bad news was that, even though we were already exhausted, we had only covered 50 km, so we weren’t even halfway.
Nobody was happy about that fact.
However, I expected the next stretch to be easier, as there weren’t any significant climbs.
Entering the Central Highlands
In fact, the final 60 km were brutal.
The sun was beating down on us, and a headwind was making life difficult.
We were also entering areas with more traffic, and a specialty of the Central Highlands seems to be murderous truck and bus drivers.
Every one of us was nearly run over multiple times by some idiot blasting down the narrow, potholed highway at a ridiculous speed.
I know I’ve mentioned this in previous parts, but I really don’t understand drivers here.
Curious children in Ngọc Hồi
After several hours of plugging away, the kilometers slowly counting down to Ngọc Hồi, I finally reached town around 5pm with a couple of other riders.
We immediately knew we had a problem:
A large chunk of the team was well behind us, and darkness was coming.
We don’t have lights on our bikes, and riding at night is dangerous thanks to the drivers anyway, so a strict rule was no riding once the sun sets.
It was now a race against time.
Sadly, six people had to be picked up by the rear van and brought into town, as it had become too dark to safely carry on.
It’s tough to ride so far only to find out you can’t finish the day on your bike, and I felt bad for them.
Still, we had completed the most challenging day of our month-long trip, and we had several days in the Central Highlands to look forward to.
By MICHAEL TATARSKI