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.
OFF TO THE NORTHWEST!
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.
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!
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.|
|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.|
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.
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.|
|Hotels in Bac Ha. The blue one on the right has a good wifi signal and hard beds.|
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."|
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.