Sunday, October 10, 2010
A Run up to A Loui
Dateline: Er. STILL Hue. Today is Sunday the 10th of October, and my paperwork is due back from Hanoi on Tuesday. Maybe I'll just skip the “dateline” bit for a couple of days. The weather yesterday was actually pretty nice, sort of hazy bright with some ill-defined blue patches spotted at times during the day, not really hot, even in the middle of the day, just nice. Today dawned nearly clear, hazy close to the ground, but mostly blue overhead and it became HOT by two. But this is about yesterday, when I rode up the mountains to A Loui again. I've made that ride now perhaps a dozen times one direction or the other. This is the road I had to ride in to Hue on the day in 2005 I smashed my right foot. After the wreck, I'd ridden another 50 km or thereabouts out of the remote part of the Ho Chi Minh Road where it happened, to the first town with a hotel. . .A Loui. Unfortunately, it was still in the Tet holiday for another two days, and the hotels were closed. Both of them. So I had to ride the 68 km down out of the mountains on little Hwy 49a, one of the most convoluted narrow mountain roads I've ever seen, and had to do it in the late afternoon and evening, with long shadows in the canyons to start, becoming dusky and finally dark as I got closer in to the city. I'd never been that way before and simply staggered into the center of the city by accident, with no idea of how I'd done it (and it's not all that easy even now that I have the idea firmly in mind). I don't like to exaggerate, but that smashed foot was simply terribly painful and I was thoroughly over-extended, had never intended to ride so long in the day, but I think I was still completely lucid, just very very tired and hurting a great deal. My memories of that ride down the canyons are remarkable and vivid, but dream like. . .I think I'd been drunk on mountain roads and fog and mist before the crash even, running for hours through the twists and turns and the steep land all around.
I could go on, but never mind, that was then in the growing dark. Yesterday was for pure pleasure on a little motorbike running to perfection and ideally suited to the job, climbing up out of the flat lands and into the hills in fine weather. . .altogether different. As I worked the little machine up around the bends and back into the switchbacks, I wondered if one of my bigger bikes would do better. . .a 110 is a very small machine for a man my size, but I concluded.. .no, bigger wouldn't suit me any better here. This is the sort of road on which a competent rider on a Ducati, with adequate motivation, could kill himself three or four times before noon, eat lunch at the intersection outside of A Loui (I like the food there better than the restaurant in town) then turn around, and die again several times on the way down. If the curves didn't get him, then the loose gravel would, or the chuckholes or the oncoming trucks or the narrow bridges. . .no, I'll stick with the 110 cc fake Honda from China. She snarled and growled all the way up without missing a beat or a shift, and putted and popped all the way down (except for the few places you have to climb back up after you've crossed some minor creek, the stream you're following down the canyon never deviates a bit in its rush downhill).
As it was, I had one very interesting moment with, of all things, a down bound beer truck, headed back to the Huda brewery in Hue with yesterday's empty bottles, a very necessary truck and I don't begrudge him an inch of the road he needs, but he was going a bit fast down the mountain and he was taking up a little more than he really needed and he wasn't leaving a lot for the rest of us and the shoulder in that stretch is pretty imaginary, so. . .well, it was an interesting moment or two. Nothing touched anything it shouldn't have, but there wasn't any great amount of space to spare anywhere. All this time I have thought it was a pig truck wandering around Viet Nam with my name on the bumper; asking everyone if they'd seen me. . .and it turns out it was a beer truck of all things. How ironic. On the other hand, there are those who've said all along that the booze would get me some day. Perhaps they didn't mean ten tons of empties. . .but the effect would have been the same.
As is sometimes the case, I found myself wishing for a toilet at inopportune times during the morning, and made, therefore, a stop or two “for a bottle of mineral water” that I might not have made otherwise, but had I just rushed by those coffee shops (er. . .potential toilets) I'd have missed a cute kid and a bike with training wheels (and his mom and dad and grandma). It turned into quite a nice visit, one where my vocabulary almost perfectly matched their curiosities, so I kept on rattling off my standard answers (America, 64 years old, yes, really, 64, yes, I'm healthy (small lies don't count), yes, married, wife in America, two kids, both girls, 30 and 34, construction engineer, yes, during the war, no, didn't kill any VC. . .)I can do those in my sleep and more important hear the several different ways they're routinely asked. A conversation like that, with a little discussion of the weather and the road (good? Bad? Closed?) and their kids (handsome, pretty, smart, how old? Oh, big for his age!) and I can create quite the good impression on the locals. Anyway, the toilet was excellent and in time and there was enough ice in the mineral water to do the job (not always).
Later I stopped to take a photo of a timber frame house about half built and found myself sitting down to eat lunch with a dozen or so Montagnards. They're not ethnic Vietnamese, though these days they speak Vietnamese at least as a second language (their kids go to school in Vietnamese, the TV is Vietnamese and so is the newspaper, so the various ethnic languages are probably one generation away from history now) but. . .like the Lao hill people, they eat a lot of their meat raw, mixed with spices (notably crushed chili, but also garlic and lime juice and green herbs of one sort or another) all pounded together in a mortar or finely minced with a knife. Such was the case. Duck, they said. Red in any event, but also, and unlike the Lao dishes I've had, utterly filled with crushed bone splinters. The flavors were fine and I'm not absolutely opposed to raw meat, but the bone slivers. . .whatever are you to do about them?? As I often have to, I paused in my eating, played with my rice and watched, but couldn't see anybody spitting out anything. I can't imagine they eat such a mass of sharp slivers. . .but I really don't know. I picked some meat out from among the bone and finally tossed the rest out on the ground, where two dogs took care of the problem. The rice was tasty and there was a thickened vegetable soup/stew too, so I had enough to be happy. . .and anyway, it was early and there'd be a chance for another lunch later, which turned out quite differently.
There was time enough in the day and I had the miles in me, so I rode on another good ways toward Khe Sanh on Highway 14, a road I'd traveled just once before, two years ago, so, though I remembered a lot, still, there was lots to see “for the first time”. For one thing, the gold panning and sluice boxing going on along the river bank, and for a horrifying other thing, the two horrible mechanical gold dredges idle in the midst of their devastation. They grind their way through the rocky, cobbly river bed, picking up everything, washing the gold out of it and piling it up behind themselves willy nilly. I suppose a good solid freshet will spread it out again, but I'm a product of “for the protection of juvenile salmonids” regulation, and the work of these gold dredges is beyond my beliefs these days. I understand it's much worse in Mongolia now, there's more gold in more rivers, and the dredges are much bigger, but we don't need to borrow problems. . .the Vietnamese ecology has all it needs dealing with recent development and resource extraction. Let's not start a rant though, other than the dredges, it was a lovely day and a beautiful countryside. . .though you can't help noticing that a lot of the mountainsides simply aren't jungle anymore. . .they've been cut and planted to commercially valuable shrubs and trees of whatever sort, to support the people. That's not the same thing as the gold dredges though!
My late lunch, at the intersection of Hwy 14 and little Hwy 49 there outside A Loui, was a simple plate of sticky rice with two nice pieces of pork chop in spicy sauce, some green beans with chilis and herbs, and a bowl of lovely salty soup. Very nice and just the right price. . .$1.25, including the bottle of mineral water (I drink a lot of the stuff these days. . .) and the cute waitress wanted to practice English.
The large resident female dog (I started to call her “the big beautiful bitch”, but somehow thought that might create the wrong impression, though it's absolutely correct) the dog in question anyway, a tall, well muscled, lean bundle of bone and whipcord, with teeth and an attitude. . .is still a virgin no doubt, despite the attention of lesser mutts. One came by to try his suit while I was eating. She would have none at all of his nonsense, leapt on him, threw him on the ground, seized him firmly by the neck and shook him. . .let him up, nipped him on the rump and showed him out of the restaurant. . .then came back in, yawned and stretched out on the floor. If she's to have a mate, he'll have to be more persuasive than that. And probably a lot bigger.
On the way back down I found a crew of ten or fifteen men and women loading a truck with logs. . .by hand. Granted they'd cut the logs fairly short, probably not over twelve feet long, and some of them weren't really that big, but by and large, it was a daunting job and they were getting right with the project. The women were stripping the bark off the logs off to one side with some wicked looking big chisels and prybars (though some were being loaded with the bark still on. . .h'mm. . .puzzling). The men picked up a log with however many men it took and marched it right over to the truck. Another crew of four in the truck dragged it on up in and then stacked it up, WAY up and waited for the next. Impressive. We exchanged a few comments and I expressed admiration and got under way again, only to find the road blocked by an upbound truck trying to get past another truck who'd made a serious mistake regarding how far he could back up toward the ditch. The ditches along this stretch are really V shaped concrete channels, and once you put a tire into one. . .well, it's not normally considered wise. The upbound truck got by and then so did the rest of us. No doubt the stuck truck will get pulled out eventually, but I'll bet his brake lines and rear axle don't enjoy the experience.
So it was a fine day, a lovely ride, lots to see and people to meet, and the best set of photos I've made of that run so far. . .nothing like sunshine or at least bright haze to light up the country.