Places to go – Ban Karai Pass

Our Trail ride takes us south from the Mu Gia Pass area to the other major pass  into Laos from North Vietnam; the Ban Karai Pass. This pass was nearly as important to Hanoi as the Mu Gia Pass… and nearly as deadly to the US.

Riding the HCMT to the Ban Karai pass will only take us part of a day. This doesn’t mean there is only one “Trail” to get there. There were hundreds… maybe thousands of alternates and bypasses. If we were to try riding all those, it would take years. Even Don Duval, who has been doing this for years, is still finding new trails. He even found a new one with the classic HCMT cobble roadbed in the last couple of weeks.

This is a 1973 map showing the mountains and the trail. Examine the map closely and you will see many of the alternates and bypasses. (In the top left there are at least 8 alternates for Route 23)

We will take mostly the main routes. Take a look at the map.

We’ll take Route 23 (solid red) and then Route 911 (solid blue). We may take a few of the bypasses or alternates just to see the area. The dashed red shows one of the alternates we are likely to take. When we get to Route 912 (orange), we’ll make a left turn and head up to the Ban Karai Pass.

There are many routes other than the ones shown. Depending on the route, and how much we stop to see stuff along the way, it will take us about 4 hours. I’m not sure what there is to see up at the pass itself, but besides that, there are three main areas we’ll explore; the famous Ban Loboy Ford; the Dogs Head, and the Guillet-Harley Valley.

Road leading to the Ban Karai Pass. (Don Duval Photo)

The pic above shows the cobbles used to “pave” the roads of the HCMT. I am told that riding the Trail on these cobbles is a very rough ride even for an off road motorcycle. You can see the path to the side of the cobbles is much smoother.

This is a recent pic looking down into Guillet-Harley Valley. (Courtesy of Don Duval)

I’m sure some of you know the Guillet-Harley Valley as “Harley’s Valley.” That’s what US fliers called the place from 1966 on. I have been trying, mostly in vain, to correct the record by calling it the Guillet-Harley Valley. Read the Sidebar, “FACTSs, FACs, and Butterflies” to see why.

The Ban Loboy Ford was a natural choke point. From the earliest days of the war, the Ford and area around it were on the way to being one of the most bombed places of the war. Trucks from the Ban Karai Pass had to cross the Xe Bangfai River near the Ban Loboy village. There was no other way into the central area of Laos. To cross the river, trucks were out into the open.

Drone shot of the Ban Loboy Ford today. You can still some bomb craters in the lower right section of the pic. What a magnificent shot. (Photo courtesy of Don Duval.)

In the early years, the bombing was to destroy bridging and make the river un-crossable. This ford appeared to be the only point where trucks coming from the Ban Karai Pass could cross. You would think it would be a simple matter to keep it so bombed that nothing could cross… and that trucks trying to cross would be committing suicide. WRONG!

The North Vietnamese knew they could never beat us by “playing” our game. They had neither the resources nor the fire-power. Instead, they built an underwater bridge a short distance downstream of the original Ford.

“Bridge” is probably the wrong word. They laid a pontoon roadbed a few feet below the water… just deep enough so it couldn’t be detected from the air, but not so deep trucks couldn’t cross it. They hid it so well that it wasn’t discovered until after the war.

Jock Montgomery discovered the pontoon “bridge” under the water.

For our HCMT Ride we will cross the original Ban Loboy Ford on our way to the Pass and the Guillet-Harley Valley. On the way back, maybe we’ll be able to cross the underwater bridge. (I haven’t been able to verify all the facts for this “underwater” bridge. Maybe by the time we’ve been there, we’ll know the real story.)

From Google Maps you can clearly see the “Dog’s Head” formed by the Xe Bangfai River.

The “Dog’s Head” got its nickname from the unmistakable way the Xe Bangfai River snakes around in the shape of a dog’s head. Fliers could easily see the Dog’s Head from well away. They could reference points to attack without need to mark the target with “Willie Pete” rockets… I.e. “Truck 100 meters above the middle of the dogs head… you’re cleared in hot.”

The Dog’s Head was also the center of a “Target Box” used starting in the Commando Hunt I Campaign. (“Places to Go – Part 3” describes Commando Hunt and target boxes.)

Wartime pic of the “Dog’s Head.” (USAF Photo)

In the above pic of the Dog’s Head, Route 912 comes in from the top right of the pic. If you look carefully, you can see the bypass around the “snout” of the dog. As you can imagine, there were many bypasses and alternates around this area. I have counted at least 8 shown in the old maps. Open the pic up, zoom in and see how many you can find in just this little area. (The area in the pic is less than a square mile.)

Since the Dog’s Head is less than a mile from the Ban Loboy Ford, there must have been a river crossing near there. However, I have never found any references to such a crossing. Maybe we’ll see it on our adventure.

The Ban Karai pass has much the same bombing history as the Mu Gia Pass. Operation Turnpike in 1968 brought in the B-52 bombers trying to close down the pass. The Commando Hunt operations also were mostly the same as the Mu Gia Pass. The same number of B-52 and tactical air strikes were also dedicated to the Ban Karai Pass. There was one exception; by 1971, when the SA-2s and 100mm AAA were moved into the areas, the B-52s no longer attacked the pass. I guess it was OK for everyone else to be shot down, by 100mm or SA-2s, but not B-52s.

This time I didn’t plot or examine in detail every aircraft shot down like I did for the Mu Gia pass. It is too time consuming and frankly too gloomy for me to count and put names to all the KIA. I did do a rough count… approximately 35 aircraft were lost in the Ban Karai area… 31 KIA, 28 survivor rescues and 3 POWs.

The Ban Karai pass became so crucial to the North Vietnamese that from 1969 to 1970 the number of AAA guns in the area tripled. In late 1970 the NVA brought in SA-2 Surface to Air Missiles (SAMS) to protect it. One reason for giving the pass such importance was in 1970 they built a petroleum-oil-lubricants pipeline through the pass. Without the pipeline, they couldn’t keep the numbers of trucks they needed going south.

Once again, there are hundreds of alternate and bypass trails to ride in this area. We’ll explore some of them and maybe spend some time in or around the Guillet-Harley Valley. Although not likely, maybe we’ll discover some previously unknown stuff about what happened there. Stuff is still being discovered in the jungles.

Brand new bridge built in 2019. It has been 45+ years after all.

With the new bridge finished, we won’t even get our feet wet crossing at the Ban Loboy Ford. (I guess I should now call it the Ban Loboy Bridge.) Somehow I’m disappointed we don’t have to do a water crossing here, but time is marching on.

Depending on how our time goes, maybe we’ll camp at the Ban Loboy Ford… or maybe not. We’ll finish our ride in this area by riding back down Route 912 to “The Chokes.”

Next up – Places to go, The Chokes.

2 thoughts on “Places to go – Ban Karai Pass

Leave a Reply to rdennard Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *