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.