Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Triumph and Tribulation--Ha Giang to Bac Ha

Written from Hanoi, 15 November 2012.
Having arrived at Ha Giang city through the easy route up Hwy 2 along a swift flowing mountain river, I felt as though I'd done the thing all wrong.  To come to the province town of a most-mountainous district by riding a fine, level highway up a long valley just wasn't right.  So I studied the route onward to Bac Ha, where I hoped to deliver some cute-kid photos dating back several years.  It really isn't very far from Ha Giang City to Bac Ha, if you can fly and don't mind flying over mountains.  By road it's a different matter, there are two possible routes.  I'd already ridden much of the easy route on other trips, south a long ways on Hwy 2 and then across the southern margin of the mountains to the town of Pho Rang on Hwy 70, thence on a fine road (er, when it's a road at all. . .once I drove it as a construction site and then it was awful, but that was in 2010 and now it is again a fine road) anyway, after 40 km or so on Hwy 70 it's a 28 km climb on what has sometimes been a perfectly nice road up to Bac Ha in its high mountain valley.

There is an alternate I'd never ridden, apparently across the mountains directly (??) to Bac Ha.  The road starts out, so says the road atlas, as a "paved road, lower quality".  That might mean the finest sort of riding, narrow winding pavement, or it might, of course mean a disaster if the bones of the road are all broken and the gaps between the bits of asphalt are deep and wet, and yes, I've ridden on those roads and no, they aren't that much fun.  However, 111 km into the mountain route at a town called Xin Man (say it "Sin Mun", with the Sin going up and the Mun going down. . .) at Xin Man, as I was saying, the map shows a change to a smaller sort of road, not clearly defined as paved or not, which runs onward for a ways (8 km as I now know) and then turns to a thin brown line on the paper.  I didn't really need to consult the legend in the front of the road atlas to understand that was a small road, but I looked anyway. . ."dirt road, poor quality".  The only lesser road to find is a thin DASHED line in the same muddy brown "a track or trail".  Having fallen in bad going once already on this trip, I finally settled on the known, easy route South around, though it felt like it might somehow be a loss.  But my Atlas is several years old now and it is possible things might have changed, so I asked at  the hotel desk as I left Ha Giang and the gentleman, who seemed very assured, said in fact the road does go through all the way to Bac Ha.  In Vietnamese the expression is "di duoc", which translates directly as "goes enough" and generally means more or less "a good road".  He gave directions to the intersection that were correct to the exact km, which was reassuring, but I was still settled on the known run, which would deliver me right way up to Bac Ha in five or six hours of pleasant riding.

Forty six km south of Ha Giang, exactly where he'd said, I found the unmarked crossroads and asked the first passerby if it was the road to Bac Ha and got a firm, smiling yes, the road goes to Bac Ha.  H'mm.  It started out looking like any in-town street, so I rode a short ways out of town and found a fine, if very narrow, 2-lane road headed immediately up the mountainside (there was nowhere else to go!).  I stopped to stare and meditate a moment and two men nearby showed interest, so I asked one more time (three's the charm) and they confirmed, for a third time, "this road goes to Bac Ha enough".  That was clear.  So much for the easy south-about route.  I put the  little horse to the climb and she snarled and growled in 2nd and 3rd gear, seemingly forever, up a tangle of switchbacks far above the valley.

It was just marvelous.  The pavement was smooth, most of the curves were nicely banked, though so sharp and steep that we stayed in lower gears, and the views got better every moment.  The day was hazy, sad to say, so there are no long vista photographs of the distant peaks, but even so, it was lovely.  But not fast!  In low gears, climbing and descending constantly, and running far back into side valleys before doubling back to the main route, the first 71 kilometers took until 1:30 in the afternoon and brought us to the tiny mountain town of Vinh Quang.  From a hotel-for-the-night standpoint, this was the point of no return, and also a dandy place for a good sit down lunch.  So I ate the lunch (rice, spicy sweet bits of ribs, tofu and tomato, sauteed vegetables and a bowl of chicken broth with a mass of greens and a very nice whole chicken foot (what are  you supposed to do with a foot??), which I know is supposed to be a delicacy.  And one last time, I asked a man on a motorbike, clearly a local rider. . ."does the road go to Bac Ha?" and again, got the answer,  "duong di duoc", "the road goes enough".  Onward then, committed to the crossing, one way or another.  In the back of my mind I knew I had a good poncho, rain gear, a coat and could bivouac in the mountains if I had to, but I wasn't dwelling on that.  Besides, the road was still plain and simply marvelous.  All morning we'd had views of the terraced fields below, the shapes, not intentionally artistic, but forced by the contours of the land into lovely organic patterns that delighted the eye.  We stopped often to see the view (in order to avoid driving off the road and INTO the view. . .) and took a number of photos.  It was rather like the day I shot a hundred-odd photos of mountain goat moms and their kids in Montana. . .you simply have to be there to understand the urge!  Anyway, the road was different from Vinh Quang to Xin Manh, more in the river valley for a while, and not so much on the ridges and, with very little exception, reassuringly excellent.  There was very little heavy traffic (and none of it REALLY heavy, the largest was a two-axle fuel tanker), and nobody was being stupid on the always-turning road.
The terraces are not deliberately beautiful, they simply turn out that way as they follow a level grade along the mountain side.  A map-reading class would understand contour lines in a moment if they could just see these!!
Making a terrace big enough for the farmhouse is not easy.  Some of the homes have the downhill side 25' in the air, with the front door at ground level.  No back door!
Leaving town after lunch, no really, there's a town back there. . .well. . .it's not very wide, but several blocks long, and an excellent sit-down lunch place--Vinh Quang, Ha Giang province.  
Okay, this gives a better perspective of Vinh Quang.  There really is a town there!

After the third pretty water fall I gave up on photography. . .there were too many.
Riding into Xin Man. The road onward leads over the ridge beyond, far far over.  Tolkein would have called this the "last homely place this side of the mountains".  There are stone trolls beyond.

I thought to myself, "this is the grandest ride of my life!  What a marvel!  What a fine choice!!".  At Xin Man the road simply forked and stopped right on the edge of town.  Both forks lead into small neighborhoods and neither looked like a through road. There had been kilometer markers faithfully all day, but at this critical point there was not a sign to be seen.  I stood astride the bike and stared while the populace studiously and politely ignored me.  Finally I spoke loudly, without eye contact anywhere, and asked "which road goes to Bac Ha??"  The youngster nearest me, checking tire pressure on his cargo-bike (big added shocks and a wide rack behind his seat) looked over his shoulder, not seeming overly friendly, and pointed uphill to the right.  That street ran under a typical neighborhood entry-arch, red background and a welcome sign above the roadway.  It did not look like the road out of town, but he'd been quite clear.  I said thank you very much and turned up the hill.  In a moment or two he passed me with a burst of throttle and never a look back.  We dodged on the narrow grassy verge past an excavator lumbering up the street and then the dump truck that was leading the way and came to another fork.  I took the obvious route to the right, much better looking route, and was surprised to hear a very loud shout.  It was my cargo rider, stopped a ways up the left fork and waving vigorously.  I hadn't realized he was leading the way, but was tickled to follow him past a series of equally unmarked and obscure forks in the little road.  We climbed sharply out of town for a short ways, and, having obviously passed the last confusion, he stopped, turned, smiled and pointed up the mountain.  Di Bac Ha!  "Go to Bac Ha!"  I stopped, bowed deeply in the saddle and reached to shake his hand.  He squeezed hard and smiled at my thanks.  It was a fine send off!

If you use a magnifying glass, or at least look closely at the road atlas, you'll see that there is an uncolored double line, perhaps 3/4" long, drawn with a very fine pen indicating the road just beyond Xin Man.  It was a concrete road about eight feet wide and nicely done.  It also climbed the mountainside in second gear, dropping into first for the switchbacks.  Very quickly we climbed out of the Xin Man valley toward what had looked like the peak above town, and soon passed it and continued to climb, leaving Xin Man far  behind.  I'd not properly studied this bit of the route I admit, and was convinced there were only 21 km to cross over to the Bac Ha side.  There were actually kilometer markings along for over 8 km, each one indicating Bac Ha in the near distance. . .12 km, 11 km, 10 km.  And, for all that it was steep, still the going was pretty good.  I was delighted!  Don't count your chickens until you're actually across the mountain
Climbing out of Xin Man toward Bac Ha.  In another 8 km we'd climbed into the cloud base and visibility was gray and  dripping wet.  At times you could barely see 100 feet.  The road was horrendous and there was no more photography.  Rather, it was quite serious work to get over the mountains.
The roadway roughened to a bad track of broken pavement and stones twice for a quarter mile or so but resumed its excellent condition on a ways further.  Finally we came to a province-boundary sign, like so many others, it read, in Vietnamese, "See you Again, Ha Giang", and like so many, had an English translation, but this was different:  "Hello from Ha Giang.  Goodbye.  Good Luck".  Oh dear.  In fifty feet the road changed to a very rough Cat track, coarse quarry run shot rock roughly bulldozed into a "road" passable by. . .well. . .a bulldozer.  I thought to myself (in my ignorance) a)  it can't go on like this very far, everyone has said the road "goes enough".  b) we only have maybe 9 km to go, even if it is like this, we might make it. . .

Wrong on both counts.  But, as I said before, the point of no return was miles ago and I really believed we were only 9 km from town.  I could just about push the bike that far before full dark (on a flat smooth road, h'mm).  The cat trail ran further uphill, very steeply in places (the hill was very steep and no doubt the bulldozer made the road by pushing more or less straight downhill. . .) and then into the lower limit of the cloud cover.  Visibility dropped to a hundred feet or less, the rocks dripped water, my glasses misted over and I slammed the bike constantly into horrible rocks, slipping the clutch in low gear.  I've never imagined punishing a machine like that, bouncing off rocks, bottoming out the shocks, and demanding she climb always higher, engine snarling and clutch slipping.  Stop and reflect on what she really is, an inexpensive ($500) Chinese copy of an old Honda 110 cc motorbike.  She has narrow street tires, spindly forks, tin fenders (I swear the chrome plate is the thick part) and minuscule shock absorbers.  She might have a little more horsepower than my lawn mower at home, but maybe not.  These mountains are full of her sisters though, many of them lugging hundreds of pounds of cargo over the local roads with their daring young men.  I understand why now.

The actual distance, according to the atlas is 21 km OF THE BAD ROAD.  It's really pretty plain to read after you've driven the distance and know the truth.  It did not get better until the last kilometer.  In fact, I didn't fall the first time until quite near the end.  It was when we rode out of the rocks into new construction and onto. . .you guessed it. . .red clay fill material, and as before, I found the right combination of swooping hollow, conflicting ruts and the right degree of moisture to produce a graceless splat, pinning my right leg (that's the camera side, by the way, as well as the exhaust).  I lost the shoe in that argument and didn't get it back until I'd stumbled and grumbled and stood the bike back up in our mudhole.  A mile or so later, having taken what looked like the best track around a horrible long mud hole I was cut off by a brand new drainage ditch, over which there was no going. . .and turning back and rejoining the road into the clay bog ahead we went down again.  She nearly stood herself up, I was in such a state.  I'm sure she knew I was cursing the road and not the horse, but no doubt she was intimidated, let me up with both shoes on and stood up herself when I heaved on the handlebars.

We arrived in town at deep dusk, covered in mud (both of us) and happy just to be alive and there.  The bike wash I usually visit was already closed for the day, and I still had my cute kid pictures to deliver, so we drove down the side-valley road, had to ask once which house the kids were from, got the last 100 meters worth of directions, and, as I knew we would, found them.  That was quite the ride to deliver five photographs!  But that's another story.