Thursday, September 30, 2010

The run up Highway 14-The Ho Chi Minh Highway

Dateline: Hue, September 30, 2010, day 23 of 49 for the trip. Rain most of the day, quite heavy at times, though never a true tropical downpour.

When last I wrote I'd gotten one day north of Saigon on Highway 14, interrupted near dark by a downpour. That became a defining pattern for a day or two. . .beautiful (cool!!) mornings, puffy clouds in the middle of the day, generating a few real thunderheads by midafternoon and going for broke about 4:30 or 5:00, an hour or so before sunset. I'd have been more or less happy to keep it that way, but the last day of the trek north back to Hue was different. Gloomy morning followed by rain at times and occasional downpours, with sunbreaks at rare intervals. Pretty ugly skies at times, never did get any dramatic views of the thunderclouds, just the black underbelly gushing rain. My raingear flunked. Marmot's best single layer Goretex, has never been REALLY good, but never flunked quite like this. It reminded me of the brown dome tent I took to Ireland on my bicycle all those years ago. It was great for keeping the water in the bedding after the rain stopped.

After you once get clear of the Saigon metropolitan sprawl there's very little chance to go astray on Hwy 14, the signage is usually unambiguous at any sort of an intersection or Y in the road. The big white arrow on the blue background with the Hwy Number and the next big town on one side, the little white arrow off to the side (or whatever) with the little town's name the road in question leads to. Usually there would be no temptation. . .red dirt lane on your left, two full lanes of asphalt straight ahead. Uh. . .could I hear the choices again please?? However, if someone is using the big blue sign to hang a big blue tarp from in order to run a roadside pop and coffee shop. . .you might miss it, and if it were the only 90 degree turn in the highway (with the road to Podunk going straight ahead) for a hundred miles, you'd be forgiven for taking the wrong road. Fortunately, the Vietnamese in general are keeping up the traditions of kilometer markers with the highway number, and distance to the next town and so forth, every 1000 meters more or less. . .so when the next km marker turns up as QL40 instead of QL14 you get really suspicious. The back of the blue sign was perfectly obvious coming from the other side, and when I stuck my head under the tarp, sure enough. . .big arrow--hard right, got it.

This is an entry that doesn't need a lot of verbiage I think. I'll post several photos instead and summarize as follows. We already discussed the rain, but keep it in mind as you read. The highway (?) is a pretty good bare two lanes of asphalt for most of its length(usually no shoulder and often no place to put one anyway) , but the 100 km or so from Thanh My (where a sensible person would turn off and run down the river road to Da Nang anyway) to A Loui (say that "Aw Loooey") is very steep mountain country, densely forested and uninhabited so far as I've seen. It apparently gets very little traffic (I saw nobody at all for over 30 minutes at one point) and not surprisingly, not a whole lot of maintenance. I rode through that stretch once in 2005, rode up from DaNang in fact, headed generally toward Hanoi in blissful ignorance. It was a brand new road then, having just not quite lived through its first rainy season. A fair proportion of it (oh, not really, but quite a lot in one place and enough to be a problem in several places along the way) some of it anyway had slid off the mountainside and down the canyon and dammed up the local rushing creeks. . .which made for difficult motorbike riding through the area and no doubt messsed up the ecosystem in the creek, though, with the rain they get there, I'll bet it didn't last long.

The county road crews, or whoever does that work here, had been out getting a temporary goat path pushed through the slide areas so I made it that time, just to smash my right foot later that afternoon between the (strong) footpeg and the (immovable) concrete bollard on the side of the road as I skidded in pea gravel on a tight curve. . .really bad foot from that, lasted for months and still hurts when the weather's wrong. So on this trip, five years later, I was curious to see how the mountainside came out and also to try to find the place where that particularly nasty concrete post lived. The mountainside has been plumbed and paved. They basically plumbed it with a mile or so of perforated drain pipe and concreted the whole hillside for a couple hundred feet straight up. The pipes discharge all over the face of the concrete and the water is lead to sluiceways with stairsteps (must look spectacular when it's raining hard. . .just drizzling when I went by this time). It looks like it'll work until it undermines. Fixing it then might be a real chore. I don't know what else you could have done though really. . .taken the rest of the top off the mountain so there was no more to slide? Lot of mountain up there.
As for my foot bashing post. . .not to be found. I rather think he's been replaced with one of a series of Jersey-curb type barrier on particularly nasty curves. They probably got tired of fishing American scooter drivers out of the canyon. It would, seriously, have been a good place to die that time. I stopped just a few feet from the edge to contemplate my smashed foot and think about how much better it would feel after it stopped hurting. . .but another few feet would probably have saved me the trouble entirely. Long ways down. Lots of hard things to bounce off of. But that was then. I'm more careful now, really, I am.

So. . .daily routine: we got up, got fed and watered (some very nice scrambled egg sandwiches on the roadsides around here. . .they do nice things with cilantro, cucumber, tomato, hot sauce and mayo on a baguette. . .and the scrambled egg is an interesting variable, but always tasty. Good start to the day, followed usually by a cup of iced sweet milky coffee (you have to try it, but it's marvelous, if expensive) and a pot of bitter hot tea that comes for free with the coffee (??) though sometimes it's not bitter after all, more flowery. After breakfast, a quick pass through the hotel room to finish packing the bag (I'm actually pretty well organized, place for everything and everything fits sort of lifestyle on the road), checkout, return the key, retrieve the passport (be sure to get your own), get the pack strapped on the back of the bike, slow down at the local gas station and spend $4 or $5 for the day's running. . .and then go out and cheat death and dodge thunderstorms. Take photos during breaks in the rain. Stop for more coffee. Stop for lunch, go out and cheat death some more, keep an eye on the thunderstorms after about 4:00 pm. Find a hotel before the thunderstorm finds you (no misses yet, though there was one town with just one hotel to choose from. . .but it was a very good one). Eat, sleep, get up, do it again. Cover 1100 km in three days more or less, call it good.

The country ranges from rolling hills through steeper hills to precipitous mountains. There are gorgeous little waterfalls running down granite slopes or bouncing through boulder gardens at the bottom of incredibly steep ravines (even in the photos, which usually flatten such terrain, they still look steep). Wherever the hillsides are just sort of steep they have been planted to trees or shrubs of some productive sort or another, tea, coffee, rubber, and several things planted in rows and columns whose names I don't know. Anywhere there's a flat spot there is rice. Almost flat spots get corn or pumpkins or something of the sort. There are towns every 30 to 50 km, small usually, very pleasant, very unused to seeing foreigners. There's a lot of Vietnamese travel these days though, so even the smaller towns usually have a guest house of some sort, and two of the nicer hotels I've stayed at were on this run.

The morning markets on this inland road are fun, so much of their produce and fish has to come in from elsewhere. . .but every day before daylight there will be trucks parked around the central market area, nice fresh sea fish on the tail gate, or lowland vegetables. . .and whatever else needs to come in from lower, warmer climates. The central part of the markets are usually given over to dry goods (if the tarps can keep the goods dry in the rain) and the sidewalks all around are covered with local produce and fresh meat, much of it still squawking or quacking. Poultry and fresh water fish are bought alive if at all possible, only beef, pork and goat come pre-killed and cut up, though visibly freshly so.

The mornings are definitely cool at this time of year. . .riding in shirt sleeves is not attractive until the sun is over the edge of the sky, but those first couple of morning hours on the road are delicious.

After weeks on Highway One, the fresh air on the mountain road comes as a surprise. So many things to smell, and so many of them delicious! I have no idea which flowering shrubs or trees make some of the sweet smells, but they are lovely anyway.
So, Highway 14 is not the best route in Viet Nam, but it is without doubt the most pleasant route from South to North between Saigon and Da Nang. The 100 km or so between Thanh My and A Loui. . .is worth the effort, but shouldn't be regarded as basic transportation. You'll have to try it yourself.

I'll be around Hue until Sunday morning as it now stands, getting my laundry dry, letting my saddle sores heal up a bit and waiting to cross the Lao border on straight time on Monday at Lao Bao.

Oh, and if you haven't seen it yet, my long-awaited article in Wooden Boat Magazine is now on news stands, and we've gotten a short added article on the sailing boats off Hue posted on the website at Go have a look!


  1. Can you help? I am writing a memoir to honor veterans of the Vietnam war.
    I need a picture of a typical narrow river in Vietnam. I will need copyright permission from the owner of the picture. There is a good one here, the third one posted:

    If you tell me it is OK and tell me your email address, I will send a permission form.

    Vietnam Veteran 69-70