Monday, September 27, 2010

Decision Time and Turn Around

Dateline Eah T'Linh, (also apparently written "Ea T'ling" or just "Eatlinh", clearly a non-Vietnamese name, this is montagnard country), about forty km short of Buon Ma Thuot (Also "Ban Me Thuot"), which is where the thunderstorm caught me forty minutes before sunset this afternoon. On the map, it must be about 250 km North of Saigon on Highway 14, though I haven't taped it out. This is September 27th here, the 20th day of 49 of the trip, and I'm not headed South any more, but I'll get to that in a minute.

When last I wrote I was in Quy Nhon feeling sorry for how much things had changed and Nha Trang, where it wasn't so bad because it had already changed. . .hope I didn't sound too down, but Quy Nhon was a bit of a shock. Anyway, from Nha Trang South to Mui Ne-Phan Thiet is an easy run and a lot of it through pretty country, including a stretch through granite boulders littering the mountainsides that make you think you're in Baja California. Actually, the climate is almost that dry and prickly pear cactus and palm trees go together nicely and the afternoon thunder storms against the mountain sides (all of which missed me) are spectacular.

If you're headed north out of Mui Ne it's pretty easy to find the new coast road and follow it along beside the breakers northward, thereby rejoining the highway about 45km north of Phan Thiet and saving yourself quite a long backtrack. It still doesn't show on any map I've seen but it already has kilometer markers and a highway number. The first time I stumbled on the road it wasn't really open yet and I ended up giving the center-line stripe painter a ride back to the work camp. He started to decline but, me being a true gentleman and he being out in the middle of nowhere with with a brush, an empty pot of paint and nothing to drink on a hot afternoon, he changed his mind and hopped on. I should have listened. It took most of the rest of the trip to get the paint off the bike. Anyway, it's a gorgeous ride for twenty odd kilometers, the red and white sand dunes on the land side, rocky headlands out in a blue sea that seems to always be breaking. . .on miles of perfect beaches. As I said, it's easy to find from Mui Ne, basically just keep trying to get out of town Northbound until one of the roads actually goes somewhere. Three or four tries should do it. Coming in from the South though I'd never managed it before, it's a very quiet little intersection sneaking up on Highway One in the middle of a small town, but it's gotten easier lately.

As the kilometer markers showing the distance to Phan Thiet started to get down in the mid-forties I started paying attention, then noticed the red colored ridge of the hill running along the road a quarter mile off to the left and "Red Sand Dune" clicked in the back of my head, and just when I was about to feel like the brilliant explorer and find the road head all on my own the big new blue and white sign reading "Mui Ne That Way" came up. It will be easier to spot from now on. So I didn't have to run all the way into Phan Thiet and come back the twenty two kilometers to the beach guest house. I rode along with that beautiful stretch of desert coast with the blue breaking sea on one side and the scrub and cactus covered dunes on the other. There were fish boats off shore and, er, well, busloads of tourists, I mean thirty busloads of tourists, doing something about a grand opening at one of the new hotels along the way. Oh well, I guess I have to share, and nothing could spoil such a beautiful ride, not even my saddle sores.

Mui Ne is the site of one of the most beautiful landscape photos I've ever taken, on a good sunrise morning some years ago now, standing on the hill above the bay with the hundreds of bright painted boats perfectly highlighted by that early sunlight full of golden highlights, against the darker sea and shore. I wanted very much to see if I could improve on it though, since it was originally shot in 35mm and digitized. So in the late afternoon (the light all wrong), I only paused to see that the crowd of boats in the bay is still much the same, bought a shell from a young lady too sweet to say "no" to, and went on to the guest house. It's a very sweet little place, across the street from the beachfront, two long low buildings facing each other across a beautiful flower garden, with spotless little rooms and friendly people, though I couldn't make the wifi work. (good grief, wifi in paradise??) Out on the beach a Vietnamese social director for one of the nearby resorts was MC'ing an incredibly goofy game for a bunch of vacationers. . .trying to toss a ball across a badminton net with ten men holding the hem of a table cloth, while their wives and girlfriends on the other side tried to catch the ball on another table cloth without dropping it. Funny and loud, but not what I came for. A ways up the beach in front of the fishermen's co-op they were just finishing a set of a beach seine and had a nice basket of tiny fish to pick up and carry away and the fellow who charcoal grills seafood on a tiny brazier had a bucket of scallops, a jar of lime juice and green onion tops and another of brown sea salt. Ten scallops for a dollar, my goodness, and the first one (just a taste) didn't count in my ten.

Sunrise came in due course and I tried for the photos and no, didn't really do as well this time, the tide was too low and the small boats were still out, but I got some that will be worth having, then rode around and poked down tiny footpath streets to find the beach accesses on the Northern shore of the bay (I'm getting bolder about riding down footpaths among houses, there has always been a place to turn the bike around so far). There is actually a good operational marine railway there that I'd not seen before and they had three small boats up for bottom work. Their business is impacted though by the very wide, hard sand flat that bares along that beach and is perfect for careening the larger boats. That's a hard way to get your bottom work done, you work when the tide is low and sleep when you can, but the yard bill is much less so there were several boats up getting a shave and haircut on the cheap.

That was about it for Mui Ne, I packed up and left, thinking I might make it well south of Saigon in the day ahead, which would put Rach Gia within a very long day, or possibly two and thence Phu Quoc by the ferry. I was starting to feel pressed for time, but still couldn't help stopping on one of the bridges over the small creeks in Phan Thiet and getting some more good photos of the fleet that ties up just below the bridge. There, where it has to have always been, just across the way and downstream a bit, was a boatyard with three good looking examples up on the hard. It only took another half hour to work my way in through the maze. People kept trying to stop me, looking alarmed, but I'd show them the photo of the boatyard from the bridge, explain that's where I was trying to get, and they'd just point me in the right direction. Worked just fine!

And then, under way at last, I suddenly realized I wasn't really on the highway anymore. Wrong turn somewhere. Checked the compass, carried on a ways further. The street became a narrow lane. I started asking, and really, it wasn't that bad. I'll never know exactly where I'd been of course, but with help from just a few native guides I was back on the highway before too long. . .and that's when the trouble started. My mind kept running through the days to Phu Quoc, the probable stay there (minimum 3 days, it's about the size of Whidbey Island back home)then the time for the ferry ride off the island (another day) and the long run back north to the Lao border at Lao Bao and I realized it just didn't fit.

To summarize, we've made it from just shy of the Chinese border in the north as far south as Saigon, all along Highway One, almost the full length of the country, 1800 kilometers if I'd stayed on the straight and narrow, nearer 2500 as we'd actually done it. So I realized I had to make up my mind, Phu Quoc Island, which is normally stated to be better than Phuket Thailand twenty years ago, or, in any event, the nicest beach and scenery area in Viet Nam. . .or to return to the mountains in Northwestern Viet Nam and Northern Laos, which I have been missing very much. I admit, the crowds in the beach resorts along the coast and the crush of traffic at times on the highway have made me hungry for open country, steep hills and rushing water. So I'm headed North now, turned off on the outskirts of Saigon last night in a driving rain (it'd been fine all day, just got wet when the evening thunderstorm figured out where I was headed)and started up Highway 13, headed for Dong Xoai and the start of highway 14. Headed north now, yes, but of course, having come so far south we've a long ways to go. Not to worry, we're going up Highway 14, the "Ho Chi Minh Highway" that follows the Western border of the country more or less, all the way from here to the far Northwest, with a few exceptions. I've seen part of it before, but for most of that run I was all but deathly ill, and all I can remember now is rows of rubber trees, dust, a dreadful road and a variety of less than ideal toilets every day and it ended with a smashed foot when I ran the bike off the road on a mountain curve and hit a guardrail post. In better health this time and absent another crash, it should be a good run, and at the end, real mountains and wild rivers (not to mention long skinny boats to run them). I'll stop in Hue for a day or two (should get there on Thursday I think) to get a Lao visa and collect the map I left in Hanoi (it's been sent on to my hotel in Hue. . .truly it's good to have a friend in Hanoi if you're going to insist on breaking legs and leaving behind maps and so forth). Then from Hue it's only a single day's ride to the border at Lao Bao, a crossing the next morning and I should be on the Mekong at Savannakhet that night. Er, not to plan ahead or anything, but it should be do-able.

Oh. Did I mention the bike wanted a new clutch for breakfast? It cost two hours sitting around the shop drinking sweet coffee and watching. And twelve dollars. She's happpier now.