Saturday, March 31, 2012

The End of the Road. . .again. . .sigh

Written in Hanoi, Saturday, 3/31/2012.  Weather is pleasantly warm but quite gray.  No rain.

And this is it.  I've just come from Mr. Dung's mechanic's shop on the Dike Road and given up my motorbike for another year.  It has to be said that she started just as perfectly and ran just as smoothly (very smoothly) and turned into his parking spot just as tidily as she's been doing the past six weeks.  Then I switched off the little engine and handed the keys to Dung.  Sigh.  But no tears on either side.  It's been a good ride.  No new scratches on the bike, a few very minor adjustments and one sort of important repair (that wheel bearing. . .would have stopped us at some point no doubt).  Final odometer reading was 13,123 km, versus a start this year of 7413.  So, not quite 6000 km.  Pretty close to 3600 miles.  A good ride all told.

But that's today, and there's been a little work between the last post and here.  Actually, it was a rather odd sort of week in and out of Hanoi, Hung Yen Province, Bai Chai (Halong City) and Bai Tu Long (Bay, in this case I think would be redundant, since I'm pretty sure "Bai" means "Bay" anyway, but to be perfectly clear, Bai Tu Long is the large island covered bay just north of Halong Bay).  Circumstances had me at one point riding in regal splendor on a day long expedition into the absolutely flat delta country between Hanoi and Haiphong (and a bit South).  I'd be guessing, but I think this is about the story:

A very wealthy gentleman and his wife, daughter and three grand kids in various combinations have been drinking morning coffee, tea, and/or milk at the same coffee shop (68 Bat Su) that I do any morning I'm in Hanoi.  We've spoken on occasion and they've always been interested in the fact that I'm always writing a diary as I sip the morning cup and munch the morning baguette. . .at my miniature corner table under the fan.  Uh, yes, I am sort of a creature of habit I guess.  Anyway, out of the blue last week Mr. Son, as it turns out his name is (we'd never exchanged names, only pleasantries before), Mr. Son as I was saying, informed me that I needed to visit Hung Yen Province and He would see to it.  He said it would be on Wednesday and I said that would be fine but didn't worry about it.  So time passed, I went to Bac Ha and home again and voila it was Tuesday morning in the coffee shop.  Mr. Son (impeccably groomed and covered with grand kids) got up to confirm that I would be ready on the morrow at 0730 (we both usually finish coffee about then).  I was a little surprised (but shouldn't have been). . .and suddenly realized I had another appointment set up in Halong City with an old Boat Builder who needed to be interviewed for the forthcoming book (that counts as work, sort of).  There was no denying Mr. Son had the prior claim though, so I confirmed and hastened home to undo the damage at Halong City. 

This could get to be a long story, but leave it that I got the schedule worked out and met Mr. Son (and tribe) at coffee on Wednesday morning as scheduled.  Within a minute or two of the appointed time a young man appeared with the car keys, the daughter and grand kids departed (with the nanny) afoot and the rest of us proceeded to the car.  I got the right front seat.  Big car.  Dark windows.  Air conditioning.  Wow.  This isn't your standard poor man's motorbike!  We drove quite a long ways across town and pulled into an office complex that included an aerobics gym and valet automobile washing, cleaning and fueling.  My oh my.  Mr. Son and I sat down to tea and were shortly passed by and then joined by a most extraordinary man.  There were no introductions, until the newcomer, all black shorts and silver chains with a shaved head and a physique asked where I was from.  America.  "Ah. . .I am an American Colonel.  Kentucky Colonel.  I am a Pilot."  I made appreciative noises.  He and Mr. Son talked at length and then. . ."In 1972 I shot down two American airplanes, the first time it was ever done in Viet Nam."  Over Hanoi? I asked.  "No, in the South".  So, I asked again, you were flying a MIG?  "Yes, a MIG 21.  They were Phantom F4's."  And that was that.  I didn't brag too much over my exploits driving a jeep and shooting pictures.  We both lived through it and we can drink tea together now.  One thing more. . ."Last year I was in America and I saw Seattle.  It rains a lot, but pretty.  I was with the Ministry of Air Force visiting Washington DC."  And that was that. 

I think I said it was an odd day and I wasn't entirely certain what all was involved.  At that point an articulate and eager young man walked up, sat down, accepted the keys from Mr. Son who then waved the two of us off to the car, which had been fueled and wiped down by this point.  It seems what I had was a personally conducted tour by the "Assistant to the Chairman".  Chairman. . .which would be Mr. Son.  Well, I knew he was a wealthy man, also the top dog of. . .er. ..I'm not sure what Corporation. . ."Green-Planet Joint Stock Company"  it said on Mr. Anh's card.  Now, in the normal course of events here, I would call him "Em" or "little brother" and he'd call me "Anh" or "big brother", or, really, more likely "Bac". . ."Uncle" since I'm so much older.  No matter, he's stuck with "Anh" for a name, so that's what I get to call him. . .not that it's a problem.

And the oddness of the day continued, particularly since I didn't have a clue as to what was up.  This was a classical case of "go with the flow. . .and hope to hear the waterfall first".  The ride out of town was another route out to the Haiphong highway, Highway 5, which I know from a different bridge (almost all rides out of Hanoi start by crossing one bridge or another).  Shortly we turned off toward the South and rode on across unvarying tracts of rice paddy, with occasional dusty villages and towns along the sides of the road.  There was nothing whatever of "scenic" value.  Nothing in any way out of the ordinary.  Nothing but green, wet rice paddy.  It went on a long ways.  Then we arrived at a small city with enormous avenues.  Empty, dusty enormous avenues, lined with blocks and blocks of isolated government buildings.  We'd arrived at the provincial capital of Hung Yen province and proceeded directly to one of the very large government buildings standing inside its walls and gates.  It was the Ministry of Travel and Sport, responsible for, among other things, encouraging investment in tourism in the province.  We were met and tea-ed and smoked at by the aging Deputy Director of the Ministry and then turned over to an absolutely delightful young lady who was introduced as Ms. Hien, the Assistant to the Deputy Director.  Stop for a moment and remember who I am and what I do. ..dirt, rain, motorbikes, grease, rubber boots, rotting fish, diesel oil. . .that's me eh?  Enthroned on a rosewood armchair in a potentates office?  While a lovely young lady listens to instructions on what to show me?  The flow. . .go with it. . .so we went.  We saw two lakes, one of which has an island covered with white egrets.  We saw a total of four temples (really very nice ones, gold gilt, red lacquer, marvelous timberwork structure and tile roofs. . .) and one old street (really old, and actually quaint enough to maybe have some tourist attraction to it).  Then we were almost late for lunch and went hurriedly back across town to the Province People's Committee's Guest House (a BIG, apparently empty, hotel that looked like. . .er. ..a government building).  We were fed a huge and glorious lunch and plied with strong drink (I don't do that any more, which always makes that part of the ceremonies more interesting. . .but touch the lips with the stuff and try not to cry from the fumes in your eyes. . .you can get by it).  And then we went out and looked at another temple, this one dedicated specifically to Confucius and his 14th century Vietnamese disciple  Chu Van An (for whom streets are named in most Vietnamese towns. . .he's responsible for good luck on examinations among other things, and any student facing finals would be foolish not to drop by his place and burn a few sticks of incense politely).  And then the charming Ms. Hien left us and we drove back to Hanoi.
The details of the structural and ornamental timber work are worth study.

On the porch of. . .er, I think this is Temple No. 3. . .and the lively looking one is Ms. Hien (Assistant to the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Travel and Sport. . .and a delightful hostess).

Hung Yen.  If 1200 temples and/or shrines will make it a popular tourist attraction, we're on to something.

The next day at coffee it all became clearer.  Hung Yen is Mr. Son's home province and the President of the Province is his good friend.  He's trying to figure out how in heck to bring a little tourism to the place to help the economy.  I'm supposed to have a bright idea.  I am, after all, nearly a professional tourist in Viet Nam.  Wow.  Dead flat.  Boring as heck.  De populated. Covered with rice.  900 square kilometers and (what was the number???) 1400 temples and shrines. . .so what do I suggest???  Jeeminy.  A golf course?  A casino?  Disneyland???  I'm not much help.

I'm also about to be late for my re-scheduled meeting 5 hours away in Halong City.  So. . .the ride out to Halong is very familiar.  I've ridden it, once, sometimes twice on every trip I've made here (it's a great one night shake-down trip for a new motorbike, if nothing else, disregarding its status as one of the natural wonders of the world. . .) so I'll pass over the ride.  One bus made a serious pass at me.  There were no fatalities on the road, the bike ran well, my saddle sores. . .well, they're actually improving, with all this lounging around in air conditioned SUV's. . .

"Bald Quy", or "Quy, the Artist". . .the last in a line of 14 generations of traditional boat builders!
 And the visit with the Old Boat Builder???  There were several stumbles between the plan and the final version  of the day, but. all worked out.  My scheduled interpreter, Mr. Hai turned up five minutes early, but, er, hadn't confirmed our arrival time with our intended victim.  No matter, I'd stopped by the gentleman's house (that would be Mr. Quy, or "Bald Quy", or maybe "The Artist, Quy"). . .I'd stopped by his house, as I said, on my way into town on Thursday night, so at least he knew I was in town and would be by.  He's one of the great many Vietnamese who cannot understand my Vietnamese.  Some do, and compliment me on how well I speak.  Others can't hear a word I say.  Oh well.  That being the case, however, an interpreter was vital to the interview. . .hence Mr. Hai.

So we proceeded to Mr. Quy's house and found it empty.  No matter, the other half of the plan was a speedboat ride to a floating museum in (naturally enough) a floating village somewhere in Bai Tu Long. You'e looking for the connection here. . .the museum houses the bulk of Mr. Quy's output of careful boatbuilder's models of extinct traditional fishing boats from the area. . .it all makes perfect sense eh?  The village and the museum are floating because there is no land that is not vertical.  These islands are gorgeous to look at or photograph or do Chinese Ink Paintings of. . .but even a developer from California would have a hard time figuring out where to put a subdivision.  Straight up and down.  H'mm.
The houses in Cua Van floating village are all built on rafts. . .a wooden framework supported on blue plastic barrels.  Most have an attached fish-holding-net-pen as well, and of course, a fleet of boats.  People don't walk very far at once in this town.

Vertical rock. . .Cua Van.

One corner of Cua Van floating village. . .actually, the three largest buildings are the school.

Last night after checking in to the hotel I'd managed to catch the excellent Ms Cuc (I think you met her once before, the assistant to the Owner of Indochina Junk??) and, somehow, she'd put the speedboat ride together on a "whenever you can manage it" basis. . ."just call my cell phone and I will call our Staff and they will be ready for you".  She was good.  I called from Mr. Quy's front porch (in front of his empty house) and we rode across the big bridge to Hon Gai city and to the offices of  Indochina Junk, where, after buying the gas for the speedboat (all that the company charged for an extraordinary effort to help out my book-writing) we got on board a little scrap of white fiberglass with a brand new 100 hp Yamaha outboard holding down its stern.  Three of us didn't impress it.  We flew.  I don't know how fast such a combination goes, but we were 40 minutes en route over a glassy sea with the tachometer holding steady at 4700 and the wake. . .well, I don't normally ride in speed boats, but it was a very pleasant ride. 

The Cua Van Museum collection of Mr. Quy's models.  He also has models in museums in Japan, Korea and Europe (assuming I got that right)
The museum was very small, very nice, well maintained, and had the models as advertised.  Time was passing and we were getting rapidly later. . .so I photographed like a mad man.  Given the conditions (not much light) and the rules (don't touch or move the models). . .it went well.   The models are documented.  Check the website sometime soon and you'll see.

This crew needed a ride to the city.  . .and we were going that way.  The oarswoman took the boat ashore and we took the rest on board.  I liked standing up best anyway.
And so, back again (I said at the top of the page, this was a strange period of time. . .) across that glassy sea, but this time we stopped and picked up a boatload of women and kids who were trying to hitch a ride to the city to pay last respects to a dying grandfather. . .would I mind if we took them???  Heck, I was already happy standing up and there seemed to be enough room and as long as we kept the rpm up we weren't going to sink. . .couldn't get deep enough into the water.  So we gathered them up and went flying back on our (suddenly) errand of mercy.

Safely back on dry ground (safe?  on motorbikes? in Viet Nam? h'mm) safely back, as I said, we finally connected with and tried to interview Mr. Quy.  It went.  I got some answers and one bit of insight I'd been looking for. . .but. . .call it lack of interviewer preparation. . .or maybe inadequate translation. . .or. . .just the way it worked out.  It was a little frustrating, though quite friendly and soon over.

And that about brings us up to date.  I rode back to Hanoi, cleaned up, ate supper (green papaya shreds with sweet and salty sauce, bits of barbecued meat (of some sort) and slices of cucumber with sprigs of mint. . .not to be missed!!  "Bun Bo Kho" is what the sign said over the doorway I bought it from.

Today I bought a suitcase and put my motorbike in storage.  Tomorrow I start the long trek home.  There'll be a post script in a few days, photographs and some last thoughts for the season. . .I can't post photos from this internet shop and my little travel computer has swallowed a bug and won't do internet, or much of anything else either. . .so. . .it's all but over now.  I'll be home soon.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A few chores in Hanoi and Finally up to the Northwest

Written in Hanoi (again) on 3/26 & 27/2012.  Weather comfortably warm and very gray.  Dry.  But that's here and now.  When last I wrote, I'd very recently returned to Hanoi and seen to bathing both self and bike after a muddy and difficult ride in from the South on a severely clobbered up Highway One. The next day was spent in chores around Hanoi, as well as the long-awaited introduction to Miss Nga's very soon to be husband, and a gorgeous lunch to celebrate the very-soon-to-be marriage.  Miss Nga (or just plain "Nga" which means "flower of some sort" and suits her well) Nga, as I was saying, has figured in every trip I've made to this country.  She's 26 now and just finishing her MBA in London. . .so, doing the arithmetic, she's been a favorite person of mine since she was 19 and too shy to take me on a tour of the town by herself.  Instead, when I asked for a native-guided tour, she put together a work party of three of her classmates (all of whom, she insisted, spoke better English than she, though I could never detect any superiority).  The five of us rode all over Hanoi and saw all the major sights. . .with them on clean sweet 4-stroke motorbikes and me on my (first, worst) smoking dripping 2 stroke Minsk (which is awkwardly big to go with its other sterling qualities).  I only ended up with one photo of those four that day, and one of the ladies closed her eyes, one looked away at the critical instant and a third had a streak of light across her body from the light leak I didn't know I had in that old film camera.  Sigh.  But that's ancient history now, that dreadful old bike is gone (with all its electrical problems) and Miss Nga is all grown up, about to be married, and not shy anymore at all.

Besides that today, the current bike (now a 2.5 year veteran) got a different rear wheel and another new upholstery job, this time with real, honest to goodness factory made (in Viet Nam, not China) foam and seat cover. . .denser, thicker foam than the original, but still designed to work with the bike's design.  The improvisation from Thuan An turned out to be basically a total loss.  So much for shade tree upholstery shops!  The wheel. . .she'd spun a bearing in the hub and Mr. Dung had a spare wheel lying around ready to use, so rather than replacing the hub (think many many spokes and then truing it all up again) he talked me around to the old spare.  Sigh.  But it does seem to be fine. . .and I got to keep my own tire with its new tube full of exotic bug juice to prevent flats.  That's working too, so far, that or the new tire pump I bought.  One  way or another, after having two flats in three days, we've gone quite a pleasant dry spell since.  Must be the slimy bug juice eh?  Although if I hadn't bought the tire pump goodness knows where we'd have had a flat. . .we've been some lonely places! yikes!

There was some randomized shopping done around Hanoi (it's getting close to figuring out presents time again) and a long hike intended to keep me off my saddle sores. . .nothing dramatic. . .so I propose to skip ahead, and leave Hanoi bound for the Northwest again. 


So, having visited, rested. bathed and "enjoyed" a little city life, on Friday the 23rd fairly early in the morning I got the bike loaded up and got out of town to the northwest.  This is the easiest route out of Hanoi from the Old Quarter where I live when I'm here and the first I learned.  You simply ride straight East on my hotel's street until you come to the dike road-ring road around the whole Northeastern part of the city.  You can't turn North, the road is VERY divided at that point, so you turn South. . .and if you need gasoline you continue about a kilometer in heavy traffic.  The gas station is on your left and the first half of it is for automobiles only. . .proceed past the office building to the motorbike pumps and get in line.  They're fast and efficient and there's usually a good crowd, so you'll be happy you're riding a bike like mine, easy access to the tank and no oil to mix with the gas. Almost everybody else has to get off, unlock their seat (which means unstrapping any load on the back) lift up the seat and thus arrive at the gas cap.  I sit tight, unlock and open my tank without unlashing anything, and nowadays, riding the Chinese bike instead of the Russian one, I don't mix oil.  The tank holds more than the step-through tank-in-the-seat types too. . .often 100,000 dong (five dollars worth) which will come to almost five liters (quarts more or less) and take me a long ways.  Anyway, having stopped for gas you take the next upramp, staying far over to the left, and stop at the light at the top along with a hundred of your closest (for the moment) friends and a few automobiles.  The light WILL change, but if you get a break in oncoming traffic feel free to make a break for it.  That's the done thing and people will try to drive over the top of you if you're wasting an otherwise good opportunity!  And that's it for a long time.  Ride straight along the dike top, generally northbound and just stay out of trouble.  You'll shortly go under an overpass (the road to Halong Bay and Haiphong actually) and after another short ways under the old Long Bien bridge with its two lanes for motorbikes and one lane for trains. . .and then you'll ride on the dike top or alongside it for what seems a little like forever. . .several kilometers and lots of traffic anyway.  And then you come to the BIG bridge that carries the road to Noi Bai Airport.  That's your bridge, but it's 50 feet over your head at that point, so go on under it and turn left.  Ride until you see the incoming motorbike traffic coming down a ramp from the underside of the bridge. . .and turn right through that stream of bikes. . .a very busy moment, but keep turning left onto the UP ramp for East bound bike traffic.  That's all there is to it.  This is all new. . .for years I've had to ride as though I were a car and try to figure out the figures of eight and S turns and so forth to get from the dike road up onto the dratted bridge, but the bike lanes are finally open and they're grand.  For one thing there are no cars, trucks or buses.  That's big.  There are high speed nuts on motorbikes, but keep to the right and resist the urge to stuff a rag in their horns and buzzers.  Wouldn't do any good and might make them angry. 

That dumps you out into the middle of a field recently converted to a high density roadside retail area on the far side of the river (a long ways across the whole flood plain) but the signage is at least adequate and any time of day or night I've been there, it's been really obvious how the flow of bikes is running.  Go with the flow and you'll shortly roll out  onto the freeway again.  And so it goes. . .20 odd km toward the airport, then at the last possible moment before the airport drive, a simple left turn onto a much smaller road, Hwy 2, and you're on your way.  As navigation problems go it's really easy.

It's not that much fun at first, basically still Hanoi style urban combat driving on a 2 lane road, but shortly it opens up into 4 new lanes and moves a lot better.  Highway 2 runs with very little confusion generally northward for a bit and then turns sharply to the Northwest to Viet Tri, an hour or two up the road, depending on traffic and your attitude.  The key here, as in most route finding here, is to have at least a mental list of the towns on your route. . .better a written one really.  You'll be offered lots of good signage, but if you don't know the names of likely towns ahead the signs don't tell you much.  Too often the roads on the ground look much the same and often don't intersect at nice clean right angles. . .rather they come off of traffic circles at odd angles and then either continue where you wanted to go. . .or not!  When in doubt ask. Point.  Say "my destination".  Point.  Look helpless.  Your typical helpful Vietnamese motorbike taxi man (your most likely informant on any corner in Viet Nam) will nod his head vigorously and answer back. . ."your destination--your destination--your destination"  (fill in the blank as appropriate).  If you guessed wrong at the last traffic circle he'll look puzzled for a minute, figure out where you went wrong (if you've asked soon enough) and will shoo you back down the way you just came with magnificent gestures indicating a right or a left or a whatever when you get back to the decision point you muffed.  If your Vietnamese pronunciation is weak at all, your pre-departure preparation might better include getting a written list of waypoints WRITTEN BY A VIETNAMESE FOR A VIETNAMESE AUDIENCE.  Though I think my pronunciation is excellent (I'm often told that's true. . .) no matter, I often have to repeat myself several times, shifting the accents or the sounds of  of the vowels until I finally hit the right combination. . .but everyone in Viet Nam can read and write. . .so get a list from the hotel receptionist.  She might have trouble with your map, but her handwriting will be appropriate.

Anyway, Viet Tri is a good sized little city and you can have a certain amount of traffic to get through, but there are no surprises really and some lovely parks and lakes along the highway.  The map seems to indicate a highway change at some point from Hwy 2 to Hwy 70, and they must be different, but it seems pretty seamless. . .really easy navigation mostly. . .and still pretty urban until you get to Doan Hung.  By that point you're definitely on highway 70 and you plan to stay that way for a long long ways.  You're also getting into much nicer countryside, with rolling hills and a lot less traffic.  Highway 70 is the main road from South China through Lao Cai, 330 km from Hanoi and it was utterly destroyed in 2010 when I tried to ride it all the way from Bac Ha down to the City and beat myself and bike bloody and muddy.  There must have been a dozen or more contractors working on individual segments of road with no coordination at all, so you passed from ongoing demolition to completed roadway and back again over and over.  Now comes the payoff.  All that work was done in 2010 and into 2011 I'd guess, and it's essentially all in excellent shape now.  Wow.  What a difference!  I will note with a certain "told you so" tone in my voice that the concrete ditches that made so much of the mess in 2010 are finished now and they are at least as bad as I feared.  They're deep enough to swallow the largest tire that gets into them (or rather, all the wheels on that side, however many that is. . .) and of course, they'd eat a motorbike whole.  They're way to steep sided to walk a 4-wheel vehicle out of and you'd have to have 3 friends to get a motorbike out if there was anything worth getting out.  I saw 5 separate wrecks stuck in those ditches just in the two days riding Northbound.  One was funny-sad.  A bus and a truck had obviously been getting too close to each other and veered away both at the same time.  One went in one ditch.  The other in the other.  Stuck tight, ditched wheels off the ground, hard aground on their undercarriages.  The bus was nosed up against one of the little household access bridges and looked like it was trying to swallow it. 

Having a glorious new highway to ride does not, however, reduce the impact of the cold and the rain.  It was misty miserable leaving Hanoi and didn't get better.  By three in the afternoon, only 150 km to the good, I'd had enough.  That got us as far as Yen Binh, which is the last town big enough for a hotel for over 80 km, and I didn't have 80 km more riding in me at that point.  There were 4 hotels to choose from and I picked the one with wifi and the rock hard bed.  Actually, I didn't notice the rock hard bed until almost time to use it and way too late to change my mind.  Ouch.  We're talking seriously hard here.  In a country where many of the old people prefer to simply put a sheet or a woven grass mat on a slab of hardwood and call it a bed, I suppose these mattresses are truly degenerate and soft.  But if you're used to anything else. . .they're solid.  Firm support.  As in unyielding!  Oh well.  Oh, and the wifi??  Good strong signal, but nobody left in the hotel at night knew what the security code was.  Oh good grief.

As soon as I'd unpacked the rain stopped of course.  It's almost a guaranteed thing.  However, we're here to see Viet Nam and we haven't ever seen Yen Binh before so, leaving the bike parked where it couldn't irritate my poor saddle sores any more, I headed out for a long walk.  That's easy in Yen Binh, the place goes on forever along the highway. . .one building wide on each side most of the way perhaps, but a long ways along the road.  You're well into the hills by the time you get to Yen Binh so there are some good steep climbs if you're an old guy who's been sitting on a motorbike too much and has gotten a little stiff and sore. . .but there are compensating factors.  About the center of town, and certainly at the center of gravity of the government buildings, sports arenas and schools, there is a soccer field, and a vigorous little league soccer tournament was in progress when I got there, complete with drums and cheering sections.  The boys (all boys in this tournament, though girls play too I know) were quite good and playing hard. . .to the rhythm of the drums, which, when they all got together, could probably regulate heart beats at a considerable distance.  Sometimes they seemed to need a defibrillator for a while when they all got out of synch, but the noise level was still fine! 

And there was a barber shop (or five or six and beauty salons as well. . .Vietnamese are always well groomed).  I stopped at the first I came to and looked inside.  Neat and clean and one chair out of two vacant.  The propietor took one look at my shaggy crop and waved me inside.  Six weeks is a bit long to let the stuff grow (where it grows at all) so it was time.  Actually, I haven't looked so trim and tidy in ages.  First it was the hair, what little there is, then shaving the back of the neck, then shaving the cheekbones (??) and the ears (????) all with soap and a straight razor.  Then he started eyeballing the beard.  I said I'd take care of that myself.  He combed it out, teased out the tangle where my scarf had matted it a bit under my chin and looked longingly at the only hair I really had to offer.  I said "one centimeter".  He held up his fingers, a perfect cm apart.  I nodded.  He put on a really serious and professional look, took clippers (CLIPPERS??) firmly in hand and went at it.  The last time a barber took clippers to my beard I ended up looking like I'd simply forgotten to shave. . .and would have clobbered her if she'd been a man.  This man understood the risk.  He took a centimeter.   Not 11mm more or less, a perfect 1 cm.  What can I say.  Nothing can change the basics except more age and worse posture, but if a haircut makes the man. . .I'm looking pretty darned good.

So the night passed without internet or an excessive amount of sleep (one tends to turn often when lying on a rock).  Day dawned dryly, thank goodness.  We were on the road by 0730, fed watered and full of gasoline as appropriate. 

With every kilometer you ride after Yen Binh you are deeper into hills and farther from the city and the traffic.  Buses will still try to kill you now and then, but otherwise the traffic is light and well mannered.  The scenery just gets steadily better and the curves come faster and steeper, steadily rising, but not all that quickly really.  It's simply a wonderful road to ride a motorbike on now.  So 80 some km later, without a straight piece in it, you pass through Pho Rang (there are 3 or 4 small guest houses there, so it would also make a good overnight stop, though it's much smaller overall than Yen Binh) and another 45 km or thereabouts brings you to a small hamlet and the turnoff up to Bac Ha.  If you continue on, it's about 30 miles to China, or at least the border crossing at Lao Cai.  If you don't have a multiple entry visa for Viet Nam then crossing is only for people who want to go at least 600 km into China (or so I'm told).  That's the distance to the first place to buy a new Visa to get back into Viet Nam.  It's easy to tell you're at the border, you have to cross a substantial bridge over a very turbulent Red River that is flambuoyantly marked out in Chinese characters as well as Vietnamese, with border posts at each end of the bridge. . .this is a border by golly. . .take it seriously.  This year I didn't get that close, but rather, turned off toward Bac Ha as planned.

The first 280 km are hilly, but the road runs mostly in bottom land, following the edge of the arable ground in and out along the contours, so it's level but winding roadway.  Fun riding.

This sort of timber frame home with wattle and daub infill between the framing is very popular, either with traditional clay and lime based plasters, or with cement and sand plaster.  In these houses there is often a dedicated fireplace and chimney and the gable ends may well be closed in.

Shagggy thatched roofs are still very common, as are the houses built up off the ground.  Often the area under the house is really a part of the house, just entirely open to the environment and public view.  A set of furniture, often very nice, will be set up for visiting and a bed frame or two may be at ground level as well.  Or. . .there may be tractors, tools, corn cribs, a loom. . .whatever. . .filling that space.

Just as you're heading up the mountain to Bac Ha you cross this substantial stream.  Years ago I spotted a pair of freight boats tied to the bank under this bridge, but now I only see tourist boats.  Freight must move entirely by truck now.  This is a very shallow river. . .difficult navigation.

The farther you go to the Northwest, the finer the scenery and the harder the farming.  What a road for a motor bike!

Yes, it's picturesque and gorgeous, but can you imagine squeezing a living out of these hillsides?
We're almost to the turnoff now. . .note the road sign and then count the nasty little foot smashing white and red concrete posts.  You can't budge them with a motorbike, but apparently a truck can do it.
By now you've no doubt caught on that I have a number of favorite rides here.  The run up from the valley floor at the turnoff into the foothills then steeply up the mountain to the high valley where lies Bac Ha. . .that run too is one of my very favorite.  It's 27 km from the turnoff to the middle of town, with the first six or seven km running along a small stream's flood plain, with very intensive rice farming and a sort of one-house-wide village running along both sides of the narrow road.  Soon though, the road noses up hill, often with grades signposted at ten percent or more.  This trip (my fourth to Bac Ha I think) was a first two ways.   It is the first time I've arrived in the middle of the day.  Usually I'm riding in at the very end of a day, and race the sunset up the mountainside.  The bike can climb fast enough that as the sun dips behind the mountains in the West and "sets" for the day at that elevation, we can run around a few steep switchbacks and raise the red ball back above the horizon for a ways. . .that is, we can if the sun is there at all.  Sometimes I'ts just been cold gray rain.  The other big difference--the whole 27 km run from bottom to top is complete and in good repair the whole way.  My first trip it was the top half that was devastated, rocky and muddy and barely passable.  The second visit it was the lower half.  More recently it was the top again and worse than before.  And today. . .it's lovely the whole way.  So much so that the two minor rough patches are all but frightening when they surprise you.. 

We didn't stop in Bac Ha but rode straight through and, looking for the road on to Si Ma Cai, got instead onto the road to and past Ban Pho.  It shows on the map as a narrow track and narrow it is, but it is a splendid little road, smooth, with the pavement generally in excellent condition, and it climbs, seemingly forever to a high pass before it drops down into the next valley and goes on, actually, by another route, to Si Ma Cai.  By then though I thought maybe it was late enough and it was a Saturday Afternoon before the Sunday Market.  Note the capitals.  The sunday market in Bac Ha is at least locally famous as far as the tourist road from Hanoi to Saigon.  I've actually seen Sapa-Bac Ha-Can Cau Market tours actively flogged in the tourist travel agencies in Saigon, 2000 km away.  There are a lot of hotel rooms in Bac Ha and a few more building as we speak, and on a week night you can have any of them for cheap.  Saturday night, with the Saturday Market in Can Cau (on the little road to Si Ma Cai) and the Sunday Market in Bac Ha, it can get a little crowded in town. 

So we turned back from Si Ma Cai without ever getting to have another bowl of the best noodles in the world.  I guess I had to leave something for another trip.  The noodles in question are thick, home made noodles, actually chewy, not the bland and delicate little strands of normal Pho or the spaghetti noodles of Bun, and certainly not the "instant" noodles of "Mein".  She (the kitchen magician with her outdoor cauldron) calls the stuff Pho like any other, but that's like calling the Queen Mary a boat.  I'd been thinking about those noodles for 17 months or more before I turned back.  I'd tried to duplicate them at home (hard work and didn't work like the recipe implied).  So I turned back with substantial disappointment, while still rejoicing as I went.  This country is higher and if anything steeper than the Ho Chi Minh road near A Luoi, and yet it is nothiing like so intimidating.  Basically, it is very well lived in.  The "Flower" Hmong, relatively recent migrants from China whose women wear really bright and glorious colors in multiple layers (think rain and cold and living and working outdoors).  Flowers of the mountains indeed.  They are mountain farmers and they farm nearly every square inch this countryside one way or another.  Like Hmong people in Laos, they clear mountainsides with machetes and fire to plant bananas and whatever other trees or shrubs will grow on the slopes, but they also terrace the mountains to grow rice where they can and maize where they can't.  Their plums and cherries (or is that another name for their plums I wonder?) are famous and I've seen the hillsides blooming like new fallen snow earlier in the year.  Now they're all leafed out and the fruit is swelling.  I've never been here at plum picking time.
At least one wall is usually 2' thick rammed earth, to "hold the heat" I think I understood.  The gable ends are always wide open to let out the smoke from cooking fires.  There doesn't seem to be any sudden move away from this style of house, other than adopting tile or the corrugated fiber-cement roofing panels instead of thatch.

They are incredibly hard working mountain people and brew horrendous rice and corn whiskey.  The tour brochures call it "wine" but you could run a car on it if you wanted, it's that strong and it comes in big plastic jugs and small barrels.  Rows of women in their gorgeous clothes sit behind rows of jugs and barrels around the market.  And some of the men need  a nap after market day, or so the story goes.  If someone offers you a drink from a bottled water bottle but offers it in a shot glass or a tiny tea cup. . .think twice.  If you have to ride a motorbike afterward, don't even think about it!! 

If they aren't at the market selling the produce of the week (not just the whiskey, but every sort of farmyard critter or fruit or vegetable that can be coaxed out of the mountainsides) then they're at work with hoes and shovels and brush hooks in those terribly steep fields or even higher up the mountains among whatever trees and shrubs will grow wild in the cold and mist, machetes in hand, harvesting whatever's to be had and packing it home in pack baskets.  Their homes, thick walled sometimes, or with one or two thick mud walls to "keep the warmth" and build the cooking hearth against, cling to their mountainsides, often with no sign of level ground outside. . .steep hillside above and a drop off below.  Some, built on the edge of the road, have their front doors on the shoulder at grade and the back of the house held up on 20' high posts.   There are some houses with actual chimneys for fireplaces farther down the mountain, but here in the highest country the Hmong people simply leave the gable ends of their houses open to let out the cooking smoke.  Great stacks of maize, still on the cob and stacked like firewood, fill the attics.  Perhaps the smoke helps keep the vermin out.   All in all, it's an amazing use of inhospitable ground, and somehow,  they squeeze what seems like an abundant life from almost nothing.

The country around Bac Ha.  Mostly the terraces go into maize, but some get enough water and are level enough to grow wet rice.  I think anything you see her is under cultivation.  No weeds.
Beautiful, friendly, healthy kids.  This is only the third blond child I've seen in Viet Nam.  H'mm.

Aw for the life of a pig.  Coming home from the girlfriend's house.  H'mm.  The ponies work in harness to voice commands, and without the blinders that are so common in the cities.  To watch one backing up a heavy load of sand or rock is a revelation.  They throw themselves over backwards almost, left or right or straight back. . .on voice commands.  Amazing.  Then you dump the load by turning loose the belly strap of the harness and the shafts fly up and the pony, harness and all, walks off to one side to nibble whatever's to be had, while the man shovels out the rest.
Hotels in Bac Ha.  The blue one on the right has a good wifi signal and hard beds.
So I took another hotel room with wifi and a rock hard bed.  No kidding.  Wifi is just about everywhere in Viet Nam now, which follows on the fact that laptops are almost everywhere in Viet Nam now.  Duh.  And this time I had no trouble with the password.  I did not, however read past the fine print to the rock hard bed.  Two nights in a row.  My goodness.  I've learned, honest, I've learned!

This was one of those times when meeting a fellow-traveler turned out to be almost as much fun as being here alone.  Generally I don't want to be bothered with worrying about a companion's wants or needs, but for a single afternoon to show a Frenchwoman around Bac Ha (admittedly, an unusually adventurous 52 year old Frenchwoman, only 48 hours in country and already traveling on local buses without a tour guide or any scrap of language skill). . .to show such a person, wide eyes and eagerness, around a place as special as Bac Ha as though it were my own. . .was great fun.  There was a short moment when she spotted a young dog being lead brusquely toward the livestock portion of the market and her face fell and she said ".. .oh, he's to be eaten?"  I said, yes, probably so, here they don't have the Humane Society to kill the surplus and put them in the landfills.  I've always regarded dogs as fairly close kin.  I was raised with a dog (or several at various times) and sometimes raised as one (when my table manners merited a demotion to the floor and a dog dish without fork or spoon).  Still, left to their own devices there would be a great many of them, and protein of any sort is still precious here.  So. . .Is it so much worse?  Is it perhaps better really?  H'mm.  That moment passed.  She's here to see her son who is working for an educational NGO in Hue, so I gave her instructions on getting to the beach there and we parted friends.

Sunday morning came with the usual fanfare. About 5 minutes before 6:00 am the loudspeakers on the hilll behind the hotels begin the countdown to the day and at 6:00 sharp you get Radio Hanoi loud and clear.  By 6:15 I was out in the murky dawn watching the wall of rain come down the main street of town.  It was impressive, but it didn't faze the market goers.  They just added yet more blue tarps to the ones they'd already spread for preliminary shelter, wrapped pieces of clear plastic around their shoulders like Superman's cloak and opened their umbrellas.  Here the women carry umbrellas with their machetes, it's just part of being dressed.  The bottom line is, it's Sunday and the market WILL happen. 
"Hello". . ."Please sit down."

Shopping for a new water buffalo.  There is no sweeter tempered more trustworthy large work animal on earth I think.  They're simply lovely people.  The horns are just to give kids somewhere to hang their sandals or grab hold of to help climb up on top.  I don't photograph minority women much, particularly the Flower Hmong.  There must have been half a million dollars in cameras on site by 0930 when the buses arrived from Sapa, maybe a lot more.  It all gets aimed at these women in their "colorful" costumes.  Mostly they don't seem to like the idea, and i've only had a few volunteer to be photographed. 
Looking down into the Bac Ha Market from the livestock area.  The roofed buildings are permanent shops and restaurants, the blue tarped area is mostly filled with food stands (mostly various sorts of noodle soups, but also deep fried sweet things, and whiskey.  Lots of whiskey.

Breakfast was at a tented low-benched noodle stand in the heart of the market (many many to choose from on market day) lured in by a  delightful 7 year old young lady in a warm red coat who knew "Hello" (smile) "Sit down please" (big smile and welcoming sweep of the hand toward the benches).  Good noodles, with quite a nice bit of thin sliced pork, lettuce, mint and MSG (Aji-Ngon brand). And, by 9:00 the rain had stopped, the extra tarps were rolled up and the wider open spaces of the livestock market, the plow pieces market, the oboe sellers spot and so forth, all outside the normal tarped and roofed market (think of the oboes as bagpipes without the pleasant drone. . .way way loud, though in good hands, very musical too) were full and busy.  And by 0930 I'd seen the market for another year and was packed and gone.  

There's very little to tell of the ride down the mountain and the long winding road down the valley through the hills, back through busy Viet Tri and the late rush hour traffic into the city.  My ears popped several times coming down the mountain, the road was still muddy in places so the bike added more mud to what she already had.  I wore most of my clothes. . .two rain coats, my sweater (bought in Hanoi in 2005 and used here ever since), jeans and rain pants over tall plastic rubber boots.   When I stopped in mid afternoon  for a bikewash (by then I was convinced the rain was over, which turned out to be correct) I stripped down several layers for a little less warmth (lower and warmer weather as well as dry) and better freedom of movement on the bike.  The ride is 320 km of not very fast road by and large.  I stopped at that bike wash which seemed to take forever, but it was a good job and really not even 20 minutes. . . and once for gas (three minutes tops) and once earlier for a minute or two to buy a loaf of coconut sweetened french bread (excellent. . .never heard of it before), which i ate at the bike wash.  Other than that, we rode.  It was 6:12 and deep dusk when we passed the airport's welcome sign and turned toward town 27 km away, almost exactly 7:00 when we rode up onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel and switched off the little motor.  Quite a performance.  She earned her oil change.  I slept in my own hotel room on my own marshmallow of a bed.  Oh Joy. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Busy day in Hue, then North to Hanoi

 Written from Cua Lo, about 392 km north of Hue. On 3/19/2012, Monday. Weather warm and hazy overcast, varying through the day from nearly blue sky to rather threatening, but no rain. Passing through Vinh toward Cua Lo there was a sudden temperature drop and it was misty-almost foggy the last 10 km to the coast, Northerly breeze.


Yesterday was a very busy day in Hue. Arriving the night before last in the afternoon and finding my normal hotel clear full (all three of them actually) there was a certain amount of lost time getting me escorted over to an alternative hotel across the river that was stupendous. It was the sort of place I normally don't even look at, but with my normal hotel pulling strings in the background it was suddenly very affordable. Wow. So, threw my stuff on the bed, rinsed off and rushed out to get my day pack rebuilt. . .the bottom was about to fall right out of it again. It's getting very close to needing a full rebuild with all new bottom material, perhaps this season still, but I'd hate to get it fixed so well that I don't need to hunt down dressmaker's shops to have it fixed in. It's all made of lightweight ripstop nylon (from REI no less) and it's been on my back every day of every trip I've made out here. There's not a stress point on it that hasn't failed, the bottom has been re-sewn, the hem of the drawstring, the terminations of the shoulder straps, both at the back of the neck and down at the hips. . .I'd doubt there's any original stitching still holding any of the larger bag. Getting that pack sewed back together has really been a fun way to meet people (always ladies, often pretty ones, frequently with cute kids) who NEVER have to deal with tourists otherwise. An elephant riding a motorbike (my usual occupation and appearance here) has nothing to compare with a big white guy in a dressmaker's shop in Viet Nam, and perhaps even less in Laos. I don't think I've ever had it sewn up in Cambodia. . .it lasted to Luang Prabang in Laos on that trip!
The daypack at work yet again. . .and yes, that's a treadle machine, most dressmakers use them in preference, but canvas workers use big Juki power machines as a rule.

Well, this dressmaker's shop had a cute 6-year-old (guessing here) who wasn't terrified and didn't realize the camera in my lap could take her picture from there and I have the fake camera sounds turned off anyway, so she all but posed for me. It was dim enough lighting that most of the shots were spoiled by blurring, but I got three that were fine. So, with that done, I made a bee-line for my current favorite photo printer at the edge of the Boat Trip part of the city park near the hotel. He promised to get them out by 9 in the morning (that should be simple, but he insists on Photoshop-ing them to lighten the skin tone to the Vietnamese preferred standard, and incidentally to even out any lumps in the face. Vietnamese portraits tend to all look quite a bit alike. I struggle with it but generally give up on the skin tone, there's no doubt the lighter the better as far as your victim is concerned. (Years ago I did a really stupendous 11x14 portrait of one of our office ladies in Bien Hoa. It was superbly sharp and very realistic. She was a lovely young woman and it was a really good likeness. She burst into tears when I showed it to her. She had a blemish on her cheek I hadn't dodged out and she looked “so dark and ugly”. I went back to the dark room and reprinted it as required, no blemish and light skin. . .much better. I do eventually learn from life.) As for lumps, my kids are usually pretty smooth faced, but when he tried to take out the puckered cheeks of one shot when the kid was deliberately pulling a funny face, I raised a stink.
The dressmaker's daughter. . .

With Funny Face.

I called Thanh on her cell phone to let them know I was back in Hue, as promised, and after a struggle we settled on a lunch at their house (and coffee shop) the next day at 11:00. That was really hilarious. Thanh has absolutely no English and my Vietnamese is geared heavily toward my needs as a motorbike traveler. Trying to set up a dinner party is not part of my normal needs. Face to face we do remarkably well, since both of us are willing to play charades and be a little silly to get a point across. ..but on the phone, there's no visible body language and pantomime is very difficult. Nonetheless, that 11:00 became a hard milestone in the day's schedule, and since it's a solid hour's ride from the hotel, 14 km out to the beach at Thuan An and then another 18 km down the island (a very lovely but very slow ride, in honor of the very dense population along the road), things earlier in the morning were starting to look busy. Can and I had coffee and breakfast together, then he ran off to the office. I went scooting over to the big market across the river and bought myself a really cute fuzzy dog with a tee-shirt and a (yuck) Barbie doll sort of thing, though bigger. Blond hair, blue eyes (that open and close with long eyelashes), bosoms, shoes and clothes and alternate clothes, all of which two different toy store-stands (deep in the dark interior of the market) agreed would be absolutely perfect for a 4 year old. Bao Thi is 3-3/4, so, against my better judgement I bought the thing. The dog was a wild shot, hoping it might please a 9 year old blind and autistic girl.

With the toys in hand, I made a pass by the Kodak shop and wonder of wonders, they had my prints ready to go, so at 9:40 I headed for the dressmaker's shop (which is right by the Huda Brewery on Le Loi street, on my normal route to the beach anyway). You have to understand that we had not agreed entirely last night on just how to repair the pack and they'd done it their way. . .so when I drove up and began unpacking the thing again, they were looking pretty dubious. However, the photos were a big hit (she is a really cute kid and those were three pretty good portraits. . .) and then of course I had to shoot Mom, who is a truly beautiful young woman, and, with her daughters' portraits in hand, cheerfully posed for me.

At ten o'clock sharp I turned off Le Loi and onto the road out to the island, so should have had about seven minutes in hand, riding conservatively. On the edge of Thuan An town (just before the big bridge onto the island) a pavilion was set up on the bank of the little stream that flows there and several hundred people were spread out up and down the banks. There were banners and a police presence managing the traffic out on the road and a police boat anchored in the stream. I was quick to understand for a change. On an earlier trip through Hue I'd found a boat builder who normally built aluminum and wood composite boats for daily use but he had also showed me a racing canoe, all woven bamboo and polished and painted tar. . .and explained how they race with big crews for special festivals. I'd stumbled onto the finishing line without even knowing there was a race or a festival, and I had seven minutes in hand. The canoes came around a bend and into long distance telephoto range five minutes later. I shot the finish, excused myself (half a dozen bikes had packed in behind me), backed out into the road and got under way again with about a minute still to the good.

The finish line--winners get to keep a red banner. this one out of order. . .this is the winning boat resting on her laurels.  I barely avoided the party going on when they spotted me. . .they'd been celebrating for a while!!

And the finish itself
The ride down the island is one of my favorite rides anywhere. It's almost completely un-challenging except that you must be terribly alert to avoid running over somebody or their dog or their chicken or their child. The road (which goes by the name of Hwy 49) is really narrow and the houses mostly open directly into the street, many with no front yard at all, or very little. The shops stand back a few feet, but the fishmongers and vegetable vendors and the ladies with deep fried treats set up right on the road's edge. The water buffalo take themselves to the fields and home, but they generally stay on the shoulder. The locals ride half again faster than I do normally and you don't see a lot of road kill, but I'm really opposed to it myself, so never ever push it on the island.

Well, not all the road on the island is crowded, there is some countryside too.  I was trying to get the third person, another young lady, on the bicycle on the far side. . .towing by holding hands with the one you can see.  It has to be a disaster waiting for the impact, but it's a popular way to get the bicyclist home too.
I got to the first turnoff off the island two minutes after I was due to turn up for lunch. That's not good. The turnoff off the island is a couple km PAST Thanh and Duy's place. I must have been gathering wool or just enjoying the scenery too much and driven right past. Yikes. Timing was everything and I over-ran the drop zone. Oh well. In the event Thanh and her sister were still putting finishing touches on the banquet a half hour later, so no harm done. It was a marvelous meal (Thanh is truly a great cook and was clearly showing off). There were separate little plates for squid, fish, baby pork ribs, fresh and cooked vegetables, oh dear. I'm not remembering half of it. And the sauces. . .hot, salty, sweet and sour in combinations. The only problem is that (and I should have remembered this, though I don't know what I could have done about it) they eat on the mat on the floor. They can do that all day, I've watched them at a party. Then they can just stand up and walk away. If I sit through a meal you need to hire a crane to get me on my feet again. Oh well. It was worth it and I managed without the crane, though it wasn't pretty. They all pretended not to see that part.

Lunch over, Duy had to go to work (he's an electrician when he's not a coffee shop host), so Thanh and I tried to visit a while, and then I delivered my dog and doll. I pulled them out of the daypack and Thanh spent a very vocal couple of minutes pointing out that I shouldn't do that sort of thing and the kids had too many toys and so forth. Bao Thi took her doll in it's factory wrappings over to the couch and very seriously opened it up and studied it. I got a very serious smile and a long wave out of the deal. Pretty cute. Bao Vi was off doing something else and we made no effort to bother her. If she doesn't end up playing with the dog, no doubt Bao Thi will. Heck, I liked the dog. Even the tee shirt.

I was almost off the island when I passed yet another motorbike seat shop, complete with new naughahide covers and nicely shaped yellowish foam seats waving in the breeze hanging from the eaves. I've passed hundreds of such shops and twice have used them to rearrange the padding in past bikes. Lights went on. Rebuild the seat and reposition the pressure points on my behind. Stopped. Nobody in the shop. Went to the house and called out for anybody home. Nothing for a minute, then stirrings. A drowsy lady emerged. I asked if there was anybody who knew how to “do that” and pointed at the shop. . .(that particular phrase does a lot of hard work for me). And so it began. It was an epic all its own, with the normal problems taking apart an inexpensive Chinese copy of an old Honda, but he figured it out, popped out all the old staples, had a hard look at what was on the bike (very different from the scooter-style seats he had hanging on display). We deliberated at length. The new foam blanks were 3” longer than my old seat. So it's easy to chop one up (they use a hand-held wide hacksaw blade and make it look easy). The front end of the new blanks was quite thick, to work with the sloping geometry of a typical motorbike-scooter. We poked and prodded and made cutting gestures here and there. He re-checked to make sure I agreed to the price, and the butchery began. Well, it wasn't pretty and he had to sew a new cuff on the front of my old upholstery to make it long enough to swallow the fatter padding. It also didn't work, which was apparent by the time we started to put it together. I rode it down the block and back to be sure, but it really wouldn't work. He understood completely (it didn't look like a motorbike seat and it wasn't). He took it all apart again, peeled back the naughahide and we reconsidered where to slice and prune. Well. It's not what I thought I wanted, and it probably isn't “right” but it's enough different from the old seat that it really does shift lower unit support points around and might, just might, get me through the rest of this trip. We shook hands and I left.

Back in town and back to my photo shop with the portraits of the dressmaker herself. They've done five batches for me in the past three weeks and know the drill, print to 5x7 and laminate in plastic, for $0.50 each. It was 3:30. I asked for them at 5:30. He promised 8:00 pm. I said not to bother, I had to leave in the morning before my victim would open her shop and nobody else could drop them off for me, so if he couldn't give them to me at 5:30. . .he agreed to 5:30. I didn't even mention natural skin tones. I'm sure I've forgotten a few moves in the day, but you get the idea. It was tightly scheduled and too busy, but enormous fun at every point. I picked up the photos, still warm from the laminating machine, at 5:29 and headed for the dressmaker's shop, about 15 minutes away. They were tidying up when I got there. Nobody moved. I didn't have the daypack, the photos were in my saddlebags, so that wasn't an issue this time, and anyway, m'lady no doubt knew I had them. I handed them over (with their properly lightened skin tones) and waited for applause. She made some sort of deprecatory remark I didn't understand in detail, which caught me flat footed, so I said (in passable Vietnamese, apparently) “If you don't want them I'll take them back!” at which she snatched them away and held them tightly to her chest with her chin tucked over the top and spent a solid minute saying thank you several different ways. If what she had said was that she was ugly anyway, someone needs to talk to her. So, they sat me down and fed me tea and chattered on and on and asked about my family in excruciating detail, stuff for which I have ready answers, so it went very well for a while and I got away before the spell collapsed. As I've said, being the traveling elephant on the motorbike who almost speaks Vietnamese and has the almost instant portraits is a pretty good racket.

The dressmaker's daughter's mom. 
But that was it. Mr. Can was feeling poorly, so I ate alone. That's worrisome, it sounds too much like an appendix, but he's going to the hospital in the morning after the staff meeting, a true boss, eh? I packed my bags down to the toothbrush and spent an hour uploading photos, and thus to sleep, with the road to Hanoi in front of me.


Riding pretty steadily from 0830 to 1800, with a short lunch break and a very short Red Cow break and. . .a really short beach stop for a few photos of nothing new, it totaled 392 km made good. All in, over 41 km/hr average for the day. If you deduct 30 minutes (tops) for the stops, it's about 43.55 km/hr speed when running. Excellent road conditions and easy traffic! My previous high mileage for a day in Vietnam was 425 km run, in a little longer day, southbound on this same route, so probably about the same averages. It's not an unlovely route mind you, just not a particularly pretty one. An awful lot of rice paddy mostly, interspersed with a village or small town every little bit. There are bypasses built around the bigger cities now, which let you move very well where you used to spend an hour or more getting through downtowns. I used them this trip, though I don't entirely approve. You came here to, er, bypass the place??

A few schools manage to let kids out for lunch or dinner as you're passing, which adds to the spice. In this flat countryside all the kids ride bikes and seeing an entire school worth of kids strung out along the highway ahead of you as far as you can see, riding two or three abreast and skylarking like. . .er. . Kids, it's a sobering sight. You slow down to avoid conflicts of interest with sudden lane changers, but that means you get spotted. If you get spotted at the tail end of a kilometer of kids on bikes, it means you say hello. . .oh, I don't know. . .a lot of times before you get free.

Every now and then a bus tries to kill you and you end up way off the shoulder in the weeds, if there is anything out there. Otherwise you pull up on the edge of the ditch and call his mother names under your breath.

You see the white crest of the sand dune that backs up the beach off to your right fairly often-- it runs for miles, but you rarely get to look over the top of it. . .though there are some really pretty views where a small range of hills gets you up a hundred feet or so and you can see through the trees and telephone poles down to the water.

I contemplated stopping in Vinh that first evening, but really, it's a great big city, goes on for at least 7 km, with four and five star hotels and traffic and noise and no harbor. I held on for Cua Lo, another 14 km down the road, though the sun had set while I was getting through the Vinh rush hour (yes, there is such a thing), and even pushing along, I made the turn into the beach drive at Cua Lo with the last of the daylight and rode up to my old guesthouse.

It wasn't gone but it was drastically changed and dark. I peered through the new windows that closed in what used to be a broad porch. No llife. I sat the bike and stared a while. I really like the people there and had been looking forward to seeing them again all day. No joy. The desk clerk from the guest house next door came out on their porch and beckoned me over. I took her room and unpacked.

When I was walking out for supper (a desperate search in off-season Cua Lo, but noodles can be had), they spotted me from inside and came running out. Oh sigh. Well, it was a lovely reunion (I'd have to think it through, but in 6 trips I've probably stayed with them 6 or 8 times, including last trip, when the flood nearly kept me there (though that's another story.. .read back through the archives if you want the wet details). They walked me through their addition. My old favorite room on the ground floor has been incorporated into the newly walled in porch and part of the old reception area to make a really elegant L-shaped dining room (they used to serve supper in the garage before they put the bikes and cars to bed for the night, so this will be a big improvement). The ceilings were all done with knotty pine, carefully hand fitted in elegant patterns, the tables and chairs are full sized and the crockery all matches! It is impressive, though it means in future I'll definitely have to climb two flights of stairs to my second favorite room with the view out over the street toward the sea.

As it turned out, my alternative room this night was a bit substandard, but I forgave it for its shortcomings (a drippy bathroom ceiling??? and a rock hard pillow twice too thick) on account of the absolutely charming two kids who did desk duty until nine. It took them five or six trips to round up a towel, a toothbrush, a pair of D-cells for the igniter in the hot water heater and so forth, but they got it done with nonstop giggles. I wonder what they found so funny .


I've been dreading coming back through the 60 km or so of horrendous road work (from about Thanh Hoa to Phu Ly) since I rode through it going the other way a few weeks back. It was worth dreading as the day proved.

However, nothing could keep me away from the Cua Lo fishing harbor for a look before I left. The fleet was about half in harbor and half still at sea. Offloading the catch was well underway, one truck was nearly full of iced fish, hundreds, literally, of fishwives were taking the catch from the boats, getting it tallied, sorted, washed and either into trucks to head for the city or into their baskets to peddle around the town. I actually saw one fierce disagreement. . .which ended with one of the disputants upending the disputed box of fish and flinging the box across the pavement. The two of them proceeded to peel the wallpaper off the sky with their screeching while onlookers divided up the fish and left. Spectacular, and exceedingly uncommon. The town will no doubt talk!

Offloading sardines in Cua Lo, about 6:00 in the morning and they'd been at it a while already.

It was a dark and threatening morning (carried through with the threat later on. . .sigh) but that seemed to provide good lighting, with fully saturated colors and good shadow detail. . .so I shot a good bit in a hurry. There's very little “new” there, (rather the opposite sadly, some of the old details have disappeared, including two entire classes of small fishing boat). I've documented the place and its fleet really well, but it's always worthwhile getting better photos. There will be a book someday!

And then to the road. My old hotel-friends met me on the street and sent me on my way with promises that we'd meet again, perhaps next year and I left. This time I didn't have to splash through a foot of water in the street outside, didn't have to get off and push the bike through the much deeper water at the low-intersection in the middle of town. . .just rode away. It was cool enough to want a jacket and the misty fog collected on my visor right away. It's enough to block visibility, but not enough to form beads and run off. . .add mud and you have a rotten visibility problem. That would describe most of the day's weather. It actually became very light rain for a while as we were in the worst of the new construction work. . .making a nice muddy layer over all forward facing surfaces on the bike and the body. Gritty going!

There were no beach stops on the route, but at one point about noon I suddenly realized (through a thick mental fog) that my blood sugar level had collapsed. Now, I'm not a “brittle” diabetic and rarely have serious low-sugar experiences. . .but now and then I get caught. Riding along, trying to read the road and the traffic and keep my visor wiped off, I simply realized it was all too complicated and I couldn't keep it straight. I was (just) still smart enough to know what the problem was and almost immediately spotted a house-front with a table out front and a display case with RED COW in sight. That stuff will get your blood sugars up in no time! When I tried to order a can, the lady of the household explained that she normally had Pho (one sort of noodle soup) and Bun (a different style of noodle) but she was out of Pho, so I'd have to eat Bun. I tried to explain that I just wanted the Red Cow but she started slicing meat and picking lettuce and basil leaves and I gave up and sat down. It was noon already, what the heck. As the Red Cow started to perk up my mental processes, I began to admire the old black and white portraits of a lovely young woman (one showed her in an army uniform cap and the other was absolutely ravishing). They were hanging on the wall with a very formal portrait of a young army officer. I was soon convinced it was the two of them, but many many years ago. Having regained some use of language by then, I asked if she were the young woman. . .and she was, and the fine young officer was himself (he had helped me off the bike with his one good arm, his other missing from the elbow down). The portraits dated to 1970, just before I turned up in country the first time. We missed each other that time. Thank goodness, we weren't on the same side. While I slurped my noodles they watched a Chinese drama on the TV. The Vietnamese voice-over was good I think, but the hero was forever talking on after the words stopped. Chinese villains are ugly and really mean!

Oh. As I was leaving I asked them to pose by the old portraits and they cheerfully got into position, but before I could get the job done a son came out of the back of the house in a hurry, with a clean white shirt for the old gentleman. They're a really delightful couple, obviously still sweethearts after all this time. She buttoned up his shirt and tucked it in for him and then the young son let the thing proceed. She squeezed his good arm and they both grinned.

And thus, once again, a few hours later, I rode in off the highway into rush hour in Hanoi, covered in mud and riding a mudball motorbike. The perfectly groomed office staff of the whole city was out in the street heading home or wherever, driving several million (seriously) spotless motorbikes in close formation, while I astonished and did not delight the masses with my tidy appearance. It seems to happen that way most of the time. It's all right as long as we're moving, but when we stop at a stoplight and they have to actually SEE me, it's another matter entirely.

I was tired and sore enough that the idea of riding again any time soon was very unappealing, and yet, I'd have to wash the bike before she could go inside for the night. . .so I laid a course first for my favorite bike-wash (truly, a hole in the wall) where the lady in charge stared at that rolling mess and announced I'd have to pay double this time. She's washed my bikes for six or seven years now when I've been in town, often having to do the job when I was riding in off of some gruesome muddy highway--so there was no point in arguing. That done, it was a short ride to the hotel, up onto the sidewalk in front of the dentist's office again (this time without tipping over the bike), unstrapping the bags and a bath. Oh yes, a bath.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

North from Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Road

Written beginning in Thanh My, Three days North of Saigon, on the Ho Chi Minh Road, Friday, 3-16-2012 – finished in Hue on Sunday 3-18-2012

Right off the bat, notice the word is “Road”, not “Trail”. Two very different routes, the old one, the HCM Trail, was the infiltration route through the mountains of Laos and Cambodia that lead to our secret bombing and mining of those two countries. You can access parts of the trail still, I'm told, but I've never tried, the War simply isn't what I'm here for. The Ho Chi Minh Road, on the other hand, is a modern day route north and south through the country, generally quite a ways west, and sometimes quite close to Cambodia or Laos. That's our route from Saigon. . .but let's start at the beginning, in downtown Saigon, a long ways from the Northbound road. I've always been intimidated by Saigon, it's quite large, and its looping river and assorted other waterways give it a rambling attitude that doesn't work well with a plumb and square mind. I get lost, sometimes pretty badly.

So I bought a city tourist map from a young lady with a two year old (much better than an organ grinder's monkey) and a tray full of books, combs, wallets, toenail clippers and chewing gum hanging from her neck. (That's right, the tray and the two year old) The map was seventy five cents, which was that a good buy. The thing is printed on pretty puny paper, so I'd get it laminated if I were going to move into the city to stay, but you could read every street in the city on it. . . for one trip out of town it was perfect as was. I knew more or less where we were, there in the heart of the cheap tourist zone, and I found the Highway we needed, identified way up in the upper right corner of the map. It probably only took half an hour and two cups of too sweet coffee, but I made myself a list, corner by corner, street names, bridge names, parks and TV stations (BIG antennas), statues and big traffic circles (those can get you turned around, they aren't simple circles, they have separate little islands stuck on at odd angles to try to smooth the flow of traffic. . .what an idea). Anyway, I made my list, folded it so it was easy to open in traffic, and headed North. That was perfect planning followed by flawless execution. Oh, well, yes, there was that one-way street I hadn't expected. . .h'mm, offset left one block, up one block, right one block, left again. . .But it worked! In the absence of such preparation it would have been pretty desperate, but I suppose you could have done it on the fly. You'd just have been one more stalled vehicle among the others along the morning commute. . .while you fumbled with your map and guidebook.

Thus we got out of town. It was a long hike across the city and a great deal of fun for its own sake, though I'm glad I don't do it every day. You do reach a point about 45 minutes under way when you realize it isn't desperate any more. Then, more suddenly than you'd expect, it's really pretty open. Not “country” yet by any means, that takes a couple of hours plugging away northwards, but it's not hard riding. The whole place is dead flat for a long ways that first morning out, the “highlands” are still way ahead of us. There's only one highway change to worry about. Something like 50 km out of the City, we switch from QL 13 that we left town on onto QL 14, hopefully our road all the way to A Luoi, many kilometers north. There's no interchange or anything, but there is a clear choice to make. There will be lots of times to choose of course, between the obvious and the correct choice. . .which are only sometimes the same thing. Still, you can just almost count on the signage. Almost. It really helps if you know the names of all the towns ahead on your route. Sometimes the highway sign will point you toward Hanoi, 1700 km away, but now and then your choices will be very obscure, of local interest only. I'm not shy about asking directions though, so I only sometimes wander off down the wrong fork.

It became immediately apparent that the “Ho Chi Minh Road” was either in need of repair, or under repair and it was not going to be an easy ride. Maybe there's a historical karmic twist to that. . .we didn't make the HCM Trail any easier than necessary either. H'mm. We ate yet another delightful lunch in a thatched roofed pole barn sort of restaurant, with the kitchen right out in front (actually a pretty ordinary sort of highway restaurant). Then, when time came to pay the bill the cook, waitress and bottle washer (one lady who was old enough to know better) decided to see just how soft and blubbery I really am.. .poked me in the tummy and the side and. . .well. Anyway. I've no idea what that was all about. She DID take my money when the time came, and said goodbye sweetly. Good grief.

That's the kitchen in the background, a quite nice highway-side restaurant really.

Actually, aside from the dust this was a pretty nice detour. There were lots to choose from.

Later in the day, the road rising up into hills now, I stopped again to stretch and have something to drink (Red Cow I think, with a water chaser. . .the stuff is a bit sticky straight). One third of the big metal frame pole building that housed my coffee shop had been set up as a roller rink, and three teenaged boys were doing figures and couples dancing on roller blades and looking very good. I was still stretching when they broke off practice and came in for a soda. . .were very pleased with my compliments. But really, they were pretty darned good.

The scenery? Not stupendous. People ask if the scenery is good. I tell them Viet Nam is gorgeous except where it's butt ugly. That's really not right. A lot of the place is just plain plain. The southern reaches of QL14, though hilly, and countryside, aren't particularly nice. It was once dense jungle (some of it even fairly recently). It's all been logged now and planted into rubber and pine trees and other sorts of orchards. There're not a lot of row crops, rather plantations of shrubs and trees of one sort or another (in neat ranks and files, with the diagonals lined up to make your head spin if you watch it while you ride by). Wherever a patch of ground is level and you can get water to it, it's put into wet rice of course. Vietnamese simply grow rice whenever they can.

So that first evening out of Saigon we ran on northward to a small town (though not as small as I thought) called “Gia Nghia”. . .say it “Yaw Nghia” (how else would you transliterate something like “Nghia”?). Gia Nghia is (or so I thought) a hilltop town, just off the highway, so we turned up hill and found the route to the top, where voila, there was a perfectly nice looking hotel next door to a bakery. Life is good. Stuffed my bags in the room, rinsed off the worst of the day, and went out to change oil and adjust the chain on the bike. That lead to my being just downhill from the local grade school, headed uphill just as class ended for the day. One parent (there's always one) came for her darling in a great big new SUV. The other few hundred parents came on motorbikes. They came from up hill and down, and wanted to leave downhill and up. The SUV was in the middle. There were shortly motorbikes, some empty, and some very full, going both ways to nowhere on both sides of the SUV, and straight at it (planning to go under or over I wonder??) Very soon, it became apparent that nobody was going anywhere, so I pulled off to the side and began filming and shooting kids. For a while it was as though I were completely invisible. I just stood there running the camera while kids hunted for moms and dads and vice versa. . .while trying to get a whole day's visiting in before they really had to go home. . .and then the illusion dropped. My invisibility spell failed. They all saw me at once. A few ran for their lives (they're still alive, which proves something). The rest wanted to know all about me. One gang of 13-year olds, headed by a young lady who will no doubt be President some day, conducted a very good interview in English, helped only a little by my (very little) Vietnamese. Actually, they played to my strong points well, so I passed for fluent for a few minutes. That spell failed too. Still, for half the evening I kept hearing “Hello Ken!!” from behind half closed doors and across streets. I spent the evening as dark fell (so sudden here) eating little bits of things, the bakery, a quite nice plate of rice, meat, vegies, shrimp and a small bowl of cool soup, a very typical $2 sort of meal, then my favorite Vietnamese dessert, “Che”, a glass of smashed ice, sliced fruit, beans, corn, colored agar cubes, some sugar syrup all topped with crushed peanuts. As “che” goes it was only just pretty good (I prefer toasted coconut to the peanuts. . .yum), but the atmosphere was fabulous. It was just the right time of night and the che stand on the corner by the Honda dealership (yes, I pestered them too, think I like the Yamaha's better) the che stand was, as I was saying, a very busy place, with parents on motorbikes and on foot arriving every minute with yet another load of cute kids for their special treat. At the moment I was sitting at a tiny red table with 3 chairs and only one guy (me) so one two year old gentleman and his Mom sat down at the table with me to eat their flan. The poor kid wanted his flan, but he wasn't sure he could eat it at the same table as a foreigner with a beard and a bald head. It was a bit much. He finally figured out he could hide his face in his mom's shirt most of the time and just come up for a bite of flan now and then. By the time he finished it off though, he was smiling at me. Any one of a dozen other kids would have cheerfully changed places with him, I got all the smiles and HELLO'S I could handle. There are times being an elephant on a motorbike is quite a lot of fun.

The Girl who will be President.  Very sharp!!

Street market, downtown Gia Nghia.  Note the slope of the street, not much level groound here.

He was tickled  to see an elephant eating che!!

Just as an aside, that was a perfectly normal sort of thing to do, to sit down at a table with a complete stranger to eat. Things are often enough crowded enough here that if everybody stood around waiting for a table of their own, there would be a lot of hungry people. You don't have to acknowledge a newcomer, it's fine to just keep eating your meal, but if you do, it seems perhaps a little better. I still ask, before I sit down, but I've never been denied, and mostly people just assume if there's a seat at the table it needs to be sat in.

So on to Day Two of the Ho Chi Minh Road Trek, from Gia Nghia on to Pleiku. . .same weather (hot and fine). . .same sorts of hills and orchards and plantations and so forth. The day did start out by correcting my opinion of Gia Nghia. It is much more extensive than I'd thought, and my “hilltop town” was really more of a hilltop southern outlier. Maybe someday I'll explore the other 75% of the town. The road continued to be in pretty rough shape, either under repair or needing it. One sort of repair/improvement going on was extensive widening. That meant, in effect, wiping out everything along the old shoulders and CUTTING THE GRADE DOWN A FULL METER, to backfill back up with compacted material. No doubt that's excellent structurally, but there's nothing so nasty as riding along a beat up roadway, full of chuckholes, and instead of a shoulder to escape onto when pressed (charging buses mostly) you have a ragged pavement edge and a three foot drop off. Those buses seem to feel you should be able to run off onto the shoulder whenever they need to use your lane. Tough riding, and not much time for gazing off into the distance.

I need a gardener now to identify a shrub or tall bush with bright green leaves and small white blossoms that smell wonderful.  Not just when you put your nose down close, but as you're riding by a hillside covered with them.  I finally had to stop and have a closer look and sniff.  It's like jasmine, and the little white blossoms do look like the blossoms that show up in jasmine tea, but the leaves don't look a bit like tea OR jasmine.  H'mm.  Maybe it's a fruit crop that just happens to smell nice.  There are large plantations of it in any event.

Big plantations of this shrub covered whole hillsides and filled the air with delicious perfume.  Wow.

The people here, in the Southern part of the trek, seem at a glance, to be almost entirely ethnic Vietnamese. They dress typically, with no noticeably “ethnic” costume even for the ladies. The schoolgirls wear traditional white ao dai's (the distinctive Vietnamese dress style), which is pretty standard for schoolgirls from about age 12 on up.

When I was a young man in 1971 this was largely a region of ethnic minority people and a trip into the area would have almost certainly meant you would encounter “ 'Yards”, which was GI for “Montagnard”, which apparently the French used to name a wide variety of ethnic minority groups that weren't, whatever else they were, ethnic Vietnamese. Compared to the relatively Westernized Vietnamese soldiers and civil servants I was working with, the 'Yards seemed almost “Wild Indian” people, carrying crossbows (as well as M-1 carbines), and pack baskets, the men in short trousers and long tunics, the women in long skirts (black or dusty brown) and bare from the waist up, with a child on the hip and often as not nursing as Mom walked along. Almost without exception the ladies smoked a pipe as they went, meaning that they were managing a heavy pack, a baby and a pipe all with two hands and no visible effort. I had no business to do with those people, so when we met it was with mutual astonishment, but no real interaction. I felt then that my Vietnamese counterparts perhaps looked down on the 'Yards, though if so, it was a discrete sort of thing, and my normal companion in the field, Mr. Mui, was far too much the gentleman to say anything rude.

This trip I saw a few older ladies, perhaps in their 60's or 70's, who still wore the long skirts, but had added a typical Vietnamese blouse, and still smoked the same double-crooked pipe as they walked along. They could be the same young ladies I suppose, 40 years later, their children with grandchildren of their own now. Amongst the general population here there is, perhaps, a tendency to be a little darker skinned, but that might be outdoor living more than ethnic background, and a fair number of ladies wear the long skirts still, though with all sorts of stylish tops, a Vietnamese lady's conical hat and their hair in a Vietnamese pony tail. . .and no pipe! The real giveaway though, proof of the ethnic background of many of the people, is that so many babies are carried around in handwoven slings, in front, in back, or off to either side of whatever parent or sibling has kid duty, just as they were then. There it is, the most durable ethnic identifier (to an outsider at least) is the baby sling.
A more or less typical sort of homestead, near Kontum

I didn't mention the wreck that didn't happen.  We had an instantaneous rear-wheel flat tire at speed, but kept everything right way up.  Then it was a 1-mile walk to a boiled-corn-soft-drinks-tire shop, but the bike will idle in low gear at walking speed, so she pulled herself, my pack, and helped me. . .I just had to keep her right way up.  Of course, if I'd bumped the throttle she'd have jumped out of my hands. . .but that didn't happen.  Hammocks in soft drinks stops are wonderful.

Pleiku.. .a lot of GI's spent time around here, though there's not much trace these days. I didn't spot an airport, but if there is one, that would be about it. Oh. I did see an old M49 tank in a park, kept up in quite nice shape on the outside. I actually used the M60A1 tank myself, and never for what it was designed for. I'd hate to have to fight the things, but they're great for running through the puckerbrush on Fort Riley. So, Pleiku is a perfectly nice city these days, clean and tidy at least along the highway. It doesn't quite feel as squeaky clean and pretty as Buon Ma Thuot, but that might just be me.

Day three of the trek North, from Pleiku to Thanh My (“Play-Koo” to “Tawn Me”, more or less)
is where the real payout starts. From Pleiku to Kontum (“Kawn-Toom”) is much the same as you've seen the past couple of days, orchards, some row crops, a bit of rice in any usable bottom land, rolling hills. . .perfectly nice, and a good road, so not to complain, but nothing really special. Then you make the correct turn out of Kontum (as opposed to the Obvious straight ahead) and very soon things change. The road rises up, the bike works a good deal harder, the hills get to be too steep for any regular crop and before you know it, you're into glorious mountain jungle. My goodness. The tree ferns are truly as big as trees, the timber bamboo is six inches or more in diameter and towers over the road in fluffy green tops. And those are the small low growing plants. The real trees are enormous, tall to reach over everyone else and get first choice of the sunlight. This is where the tropical hardwoods you're always hearing about have been coming from, but this stretch doesn't seem to have been logged much at all. In fact, it doesn't seem to be terribly lived in. From Kontum there are a string of towns with names that simply ring with the sound of the highlands, Dak Ha, Dak To, Plei Kan, Dak Glei, Kham Duc and after a long day, Thanh My. The people almost all carry their babies in slings, a good many of the women wear long black skirts, often with bright accents of red, pink, yellow, blue and white as narrow stripes against the black ground. It is Montagnard country. . .but more and more, it's Vietnamese. If you weren't looking for the differences I doubt you'd see them. In another generation. . .I guess I won't worry about that.

But after Dak To (“Dack Toe”) the road climbs higher and higher into the mountains. There are many waterfalls jumping off the hillsides and running under the road. . .clear pretty pools with golden round rocks teasing the water back and forth before it spills down another drop and another and disappears far far below. There's so little traffic. . .there's NO traffic really, I simply pull over to the better view side and park the bike and try to catch it in the camera. For the motorcyclist in me, this is what I came for. A road that demands attention and some skill, surprises and minor challenges more or less constantly, and glorious scenery on a warm (no, hot) afternoon. Everything else goes away. Worries? For later. Eyes, ears, the muscles in legs and arms, all work the road and the road ahead. The bike wants attention all the time, more throttle or less, or a downshift or two, quickly as we come into a really steep hairpin switchback, then back up through the gears as she gathers her skirts and runs off downhill. . .but then it's care with the brakes and watching that the speed doesn't build up to fast or too far. Hours pass in the growl of the motor working uphill and the burbling popping run back down and the eyes feasting all the time on countryside I won't see for another year, if then.
Every bit of ground that can be levelled and watered goes into wet rice.  The rest, into whatever orchard crop works, or at length, just into natural woodland.

One of the most prominment products of the area is the very large imitation ceramic jug turned from a trunk of beautifully figured wood.  The primary tool is not so much a lathe as a rotating workpiece holder.  The carving tool is actually a large router sort of cutter mounted directly on a good sized electric motor.  Finish work is done on a "real" lathe with typical tools.

One of dozens of little waterfalls.  Essentially any stream here is a waterfall until it finds the valley floor, when it becomes part of a white water river!

We got into Thanh My a little bit late, but it was still light. I rode past the first hotel a short ways, then, for whatever reason, decided it was a one hotel town and I'd better go back and get a room. It wasn't really all that bad, inexpensive certainly, and the lady who rented me the room was friendly. It was definitely a low point for this trip, but it was a nice mattress and a clean towel and hot water. The mosquito net smelled a little of perfume, which was distracting for a while. . .but I've done worse elsewhere. The town itself is truly small, a single street at an angle off the highway (highway???) with shops of all the usual sorts along each side and at the bottom of the street a quite good little covered market, with a great variety of noodle shops and such, as well as all the things you'd expect, hoes and handsaws and rubber boots and shampoo. . .anything you might really need that you can't grow I guess. A 2-pump service station with a door to close off the pumps at night was the last necessity. It makes a perfectly adequate jumping off point for the crossing over the mountains to A Luoi, and that's what we needed. (“Aw Lou-ee” as in “Aw, Louis, don't be silly”, but with a sort of upward twiddle to the u-sound.)

And thus on to day Four of the northbound trek. I was soon fed and watered and the bike had her fill as well, so there was no reason to linger . To tell the truth, heading up into the mountains in the early morning I had a small case of butterflies. This is the stretch where, in 2005 on my first trip through the country, I'd smashed my foot and just barely stayed on the correct side of a substantial drop off. I'd been more or less drunk on the road, it was late and misty-foggy, thinking about perhaps drizzling and I came into a tight level curve set up just right for clean pavement. There was a skim of sand on the road, obviously just spilled from a dumptruck. I couldn't hold the bike in the curve, ran off onto the shoulder and my right foot neatly cushioned the impact and prevented serious damage to the bike when my footpeg solidly hit one of the concrete posts the Vietnamese highway department uses to mark bad curves (and maybe keep a car from going over the side). I thought at the time that I must have sheared off the toes and declined to take the shoe off to find out. They were only broken, but that's another story and I've told it before. Since then I've been much more acutely aware of the difference between typical Hwy 1 driving, where help (as well as instant destruction) is always all around you on the one hand, and on the other, the out of the way corners of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, where other humans of any sort may be quite scarce and distances relatively very long. I think this 100 kms of the Ho Chi Minh Road may be as untraveled and lonely as any place in Viet Nam and most places in Laos. That of course is a large part of its charm, but it merits a little respect as well. However, it was a fine day, excellent weather, at the end of a long string of good weather. The road was as good as I've ever seen it, with only a few relatively minor slides and washouts, nothing you couldn't get an ordinary car through. . .though you might need a little run at it, and you'd want to stay up close to the cliff on the left, not the drop off on the right! Nonetheless, it's still a remarkably lonely corner of Viet Nam and even a simple breakdown could make for a really lonely day. In the event, the bike ran flawlessly, and it was a thoroughly pleasant day (except for my saddle sores, sigh). Although the total day's run was about 225 km, 65 of it was after A Luoi, and that's a well travelled road, though it was by far the worst road on the route, and if the repairs aren't finished before the rain starts it might be closed a long time.

The sign says it all.  Ten feet of fall for every hundred feet run.  That's a very steep road, and about all the loaded bike will climb in 4th.  If you add a switchback, it's down into 3rd!

Like rough seas, steep ravines are very hard to show.  Please take my word for it that you could not "walk" down this one.  It would be more of a fall.  The audacity of pushing a modern 2-lane road through such terrain, innundated with typhoon rains every season. . .is impressive.  

Of the remaining 160 km, 60 is basically just preliminary riding, as far as the town of P'Rao (also spelled Prao, and said “Purr-ow”. It's only the 100 km over the top that is so lonely (and really, after the 2nd tunnel (the DARK one) the land flattens out pretty quickly and comes under cultivation before you get to A Luoi itself. That whole way I was more or less worrying about a failure of some sort. I wasn't driivng at all hard, so there was no danger of another smashed foot, and I'd bought a tire pump back in Kontum, which guaranteed we'd have no flats for quite a while. The little bike just likes to run, and never spluttered once, though every now and again on downhill runs she'll let off a backfire that will wake up. So I was eager to make the crossing the whole three hours, but also thinking, “When this is over. . .it's over.” It's really hard to think I might not go that way again, but if I don't, I said goodbye.
The road across the top when it's good. . .is wonderful.

But when it's bad. . .it's very bad  indeed.  This year  was the best I'd seen it, and this particular washout and landslide is almost ready for paving again, with the hill side repaired and the road bed going back in.  Some were fresh and raw, just caterpillar tracks through the fallen mountainside's mud.

All that said, I think the previous day's run from about Dak To almost to Thanh My is even prettier. . .lots of waterfalls this time of year, some of them really nice. One is good enough they're just finishing up a hotel-resort in its honor. H'mm. THAT route isn't half so scary, there's a lot more traffic (though still nothiing to call traffic, just a bike or a car now and then).

And here's a bit of unintended consequences. I was studiously stopping to photograph interesting houses along the way and actually stopped and backtracked a hundred yards to photograph a particularly nice looking house with four blue painted columns supporting the front porch. However, when I pulled off the road, a voice from a shed in front of me said “Hello, Please Sit Down”. That was it, all the English, but it got my attention. Mind you, I'd not even gotten clear off the bike and the LAST thing I wanted to do at that second was sit back down on my saddle sores, but the notion of a disembodied voice greeting me in such wise in that very lonely place. . .got my attention. I never did sit down (actually, there was no chair in the shed the voice eventually turned out to be coming from, but there were some bottles and cans of soft drinks. . .including a Red Cow. I ordered the can before I thought to ask about the ice (none), so drank it at body temperature. You can do it. It's not easy, but. . .Anyway, there was a bundle of sticks leaning against the wall, wrapped round with what was clearly the warp of a weaving project. I'm fascinated with weaving, so I asked where the loom was (I used the word for “machine” which might have worked. . .) and the young lady answered in a torrent explaining I know not what. So I looked stupid and asked again. She gave her baby to the grandfather (who took the sling and knotted it and stuffed the baby in without a complaint, walking away with the kid under one arm). With hands free she took the bundle from the wall, sat down on the floor with it, un wrapped part of the band that kept it rolled and passed that behind her back. She leaned forward and hooked her toes under two of the bamboo sticks , which turned out to be the loose warp threads, straightened her knees flat and there you had it. . .the takeup roller was a pair of bamboos in her lap, there was a single headle (Navajo style string headle) and the working segment of the warp lay across her thighs. She opened a shed with the headle, ran a long wooden blade through the shed and set it upright to hold it open, then passed a long bamboo shuttle. . .just a bamboo stick wound round and round, figure 8-wise with the weft. . .through the shed, dropped the shed stick and pulled it out and opened the other shed with the buried shed stick. Essentially it was a Navajo loom in operation, without the loom. I'd heard of a “backstrap” loom and seen sketches, but never seen the real thing, and never imagined what a high quality fabric you could make with such an arrangement. For that matter, all the drawings and photos I'd seen of a back strap loom had the far end hung from a tree trunk or a post in the ground or SOMETHING more than a lady's toes.
Note the toes at lower right edge of the fabric!   If you'd like two skirts let me know, I don't know what else todo with what I have.

So I bought the 2-skirt long piece of fabric she produced from a wardrobe in the back of the room. I didn't argue about the price but gave her what she asked. . .the 3 or 3.5 meters of fabric cost her a month's work, not counting the cost of materials.

I never did photograph the house.