Monday, December 17, 2012

What did he do with five days in Hanoi??

Written from Seattle, still a bit travel-worn, 12/17/2012 (on the far side of the International Dateline)

To begin with, I didn't spend five days in Hanoi. . .there were two other trips involved, but both of them ended up back in Hanoi in time for bed.

I finally checked off  the box titled "Bus Tour to Phu Lo and Tam Coc". . .which involves wandering around an old imperial complex sort of place for a while in the drizzle, then a fantabulous boat ride through three caves after the drizzle gives up.  We'll skip painful details about the old imperial complex in the rain, it's not the highlight of the trip, though it must have been a lovely setting for the imperial court once upon a time.  There's not enough room for a real imperial city though, and that first Emperor, having figured out the space problem, moved the whole works to Hanoi after a bit.
A gorgeous setting, even in the rain. . .but where to build a city?

So, on to the caves. . .they are actually pretty short segments of the boat ride.  Going THROUGH the caves is definitely the least scenic part (pitch black, or pretty close, in the middle), but the visual effects going in and out are stupendous, and so is the scenery in between.  My Geology 101 class is a long ways behind me now, but I'm pretty sure this sort of limestone cave and sink-hole country is called "Karst Topography" after someplace in Germany (amazing what an ancient mind retains instead of stuff it needs).  Be that as it may, the local tour companies call the trip "Halong Bay in the Rice Fields", which brings the discussion pretty much full circle, since the guide books sometimes refer to Halong Bay as "Guelin China in the Ocean".  This is the same sort of completely vertical countryside you'll also find in parts of Laos and in a number of areas around the northern arc of Viet Nam. . .vertical cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the surrounding terrain, topped by scenic windswept trees. . .but this is the only one of the lot where you can take a boat ride through three of the limestone mountains in one day.  This wasn't a particularly wonderful drizzly gray day to be doing magnificent scenery in, and the rice fields were bare and flooded well over the tops of the paddy dikes.  People were tending fish nets while wading around the rice fields rump-deep in the water, so it was a bit more like rowing along a narrow lake among the vertical cliffs and then simply rowing into the cliff.  At a guess, the water was 30" or so above normal stage (enough to flood the fields entirely) and that made the caves JUST BARELY high enough to row through without banging tourist heads on limestone ceilings, as well as cutting down the light inside.
Not the prettiest day, but a magnificent landscape.  The rice paddy is flooded over the top of the dikes, which means the roofs of the caves are. . .The boatpersons (ladies and gentlemen both) row with hands or feet (note the backrest) and power the little prams along for two hours like a steam engine. . .slow and steady, no breaks.
Pretty low. . .no bumped heads though.
Ah yes.  Light at the end of the tunnel. . .

And still it was stupendous.  It wasn't just me, there were 20-odd people in our bus and it wasn't the only bus there.  .  Everyone used up megapixels like crazy and everyone was floored.  It's hard to imagine the trip on a day with blue skies and green fields.  It'd take your breath away, but judging from the number of the little aluminum boats tied to the quayside, roughly enough to float a large army, you'd also have lots and lots of company.  Perhaps gray and drizzly wasn't all that bad.
A slow and gloomy day in December. . .lots of boats available!

But there's a downside to this tale.  It involves the 100-plus kilometers of road between Hanoi and Tam Coc, of which half or better is still under major re-construction (refer back a chapter or two for a grim description).  Taken all together, that comes to six hours of  bus riding for a 2-hour boat ride.  Tam Coc is located just a very few kilometers from downtown Ninh Binh, which, if you recall is where I was the day before I rode the last lap of the trip into Hanoi.  That was a lovely hotel I stayed in at Ninh Binh, set in a lovely neighborhood full of really nice places to eat and interesting neighborhood scenes and. . .so I sat on a bus for six hours to come back.  Dang.  Nobody ever said I was a genius at planning itineraries.

And of course there's an up side too.  The finest thing about most bus tours is the fun people you meet and visit with as you go along.  This trip was no exception.  There were two bright young ladies from Germany, a couple from Hong Kong, a few Vietnamese from the South (boy did they pick their season oddly) and the prizes of the day. . .a gentleman my age from Sweden who has half convinced me to visit India and a brother-sister pair (dynamic duo indeed!) from Jakarta, who've made it clear I have to visit Indonesia before too long.  We talked the miles and hours away and made a dent in half the world's problems.  Nonetheless, next time I pass through Ninh Binh I won't leave so quickly, and I won't have to come back by bus.

So that took up one of our five days.  Another was spent riding halfway back to Halong Bay to visit a statuary store.  No, bear with me, I wasn't buying statues, I was looking for a shipping agent.  Remember that sweet little thing back in Mui Ne, the one with the shiny black gas tank and the new 100 cc motor?  She's still in Mui Ne, sadly enough, but there may be another as lovely somewhere around.  So, still, a marble statue store??  Actually, it's more/worse than that.  The place is just about precisely halfway to Halong Bay from the city, and since that's a 3 hour ride in a tourist bus and the tourist buses all leave the city right after breakfast (or before if you slept in) then one and a half hours into the ride it's time to let the tourists out for a potty break and another cup of coffee and while you're at it, let them order a statue and a ceramic vase and a silk embroidery as well as a few panels of glorious lacquer work. . .that sort of place.  It may have the very nicest public toilets in Viet Nam.  Heck, they may be the nicest public toilets you'll ever see.  But I'm sort of missing the point here.  They do stock and sell a lot of really beautiful marble statues, your choice of religions, Catholic or Buddhist.  You can choose Mary or  Joseph or Jesus of the Sacred Heart blessing all and sundry.  There was even a museum quality copy of Michelangelo's "Pieta", one of the most heart rending sculptures on earth.  Or do you prefer a Buddha or Quan Yin? And in what pose?  How large?  Or, again, if you prefer lovely women you can buy a Venus in several variations including the armless de Milo or any number of more modern ladies en dishabile. . .or temple dogs or dragons or little boys peeing into space. . .you get the idea.  If it can be carved and polished in white marble they have it and you can have it at home in Podunk, wherever that may be.  They ship tons and tons of marble off all around the world every week, and I have been very favorably impressed by the very bright young man who is the sales manager there.  This all makes sense really.

One little 250 pound motorbike to Seattle wouldn't even be a challenge.  Come to think of it, small boats and anchors or steering wheels and propellers would be pretty easy too.  I needed to talk to the young man again.  As it turned out, we talked a long time on a slow morning before a bus load of late season tourists caused enough of a fuss he had to leave me. So if you want to ship a motorbike or a bamboo boat or whatever home to wherever, we have a solution.  

Yes, you say, but you left the pretty little lady behind in Mui Ne, so why the fuss about shipping motorbikes?  That would account for two more days of the five actually.  I put out the word on the street corners near the home hotel in Hanoi that I was looking for a CD50 or a CD90 to take home to America.  "CD" you may recall, is the model designation for that series of Honda motorcycles, of which, the 50's and 90's were without doubt the prettiest (the 125's and 250's are actually kind of ugly).  Having put out the word, I sat back and waited to see what the gentlemen of the motorbike taxi brigade could produce.  This was not a cheap proposition.  Hanoi is big.  What few restored or otherwise pristine CD's there are in the city seem to be at a great distance from my hotel.  Distance costs time and money, especially during rush hour.  But my gracious sake, what a fun way to see the City, including neighborhoods the tour buses have never heard of!  I went through $25 in motorbike taxi fares very quickly and only came up with three possibilities (and one of them was REALLY pretty). . .but in the end I was defeated by an interesting if innocent quirk in the Vietnamese paperwork system.
A 1970-something Honda CD90--new paint, new seat, 55,000 km showing on the clock (2nd time around you think? Third maybe?), nice smooth engine (started 1st or second kick every time), $700 USD.  Plus about $400 freight and handling to Seattle by ship. . .and then she'd have been crushed for lack of paperwork.  She's still in Hanoi.  Sigh.

Actually, as I now understand, I went at it all wrong.  If you want to buy old HONDA motorbikes in Viet Nam and have the paperwork all tidy for proving they're older than 25 years then you should have gone looking in Saigon, not Hanoi.   (Never mind that the model in question hasn't been produced for 30 years, without paper to prove to US Customs that it's older than 25 you have a real problem and a crushed motorbike.) So, the interesting quirk. . .when a bike is re-registered in Viet Nam the police retain (and destroy?) the original document and produce a new one for the bike, identifying it in great detail by color and model and engine and frame number. . .BUT NOT BY MODEL YEAR.  The only date that shows on the new document is the date the registration was done.  Now, there's one more piece to this puzzle, but it's simple enough.  Before the 1980's (when the CD was already moving into history) Honda had not imported bikes to "North Viet Nam". . .we were maintaining an embargo of the country remember. . .so all the CD's in Viet Nam were imported into "South Viet Nam" first (before 1975) and only later moved to the North.  Thus, though I never saw it and it might not be the case, the little Lady in Mui Ne may well have had her original or maybe second registration. . .with the necessary date intact.  The local Hanoi bikes though had only moved north more recently, and the only dates that showed on their documents were all too recent to suit US customs.  Oh well.  It would have been a real scramble anyway, so late in the game.

So what of the other days?  There are two left to account for I think.  Put them down in the record book as rest, saddle sore restoration, general chores (2 separate loads of laundry come to mind, storing the bike for next year, saying good bye to all sorts of people). . .and looking for presents for people at home.  There was a little time for afternoon naps, but not all that much!

The flight home?  Easy as such a long haul can be I think, back to the "real world", family, friends, and work for another year or more.  And is this the end?  I'm getting older (and poorer) too.  But I didn't sell the bike.  I hung my helmet up on the hook in the long hall of the hotel and hid a couple of things up on top of the wardrobe in my room to wait for me.  I told Grandma I'd see her next year (she is SO old now, I only hope it's true). I argued with her over how many bananas and apples I really needed to take to the airport (she'd packed a large bag!) And then I left.

We'll see.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The better part of valor. . .

Written from Hanoi, 12/9/2012
So. . .there I was at 18,000 feet trying to nurse the old bird over that notch in the Andes just one more time, rocks in the pass so close you could touch them from either wingtip and snow and ice below. . .when the left hand engine made a very unpleasant noise and the whole airplane started shaking . .I knew what it was when a black streak of oil crept nastily back from the cowling and over the wing. . .we were going down.

Oops.  wrong story again.  Let's see. . .try this. .  .there I was at 60 kmh, humming along nicely within easy reach of Hanoi in the next half hour, almost alone on the freeway from Phu Ly when another fellow on a motorbike passed me going the wrong direction on the shoulder. . .and flagged me vigorously to follow him.

I wasn't sure what sort of thing was going on, but it did seem a little odd, so I took an easy chance to hang a U turn on the freeway (only used about half of the thing, it's a good big road) and drove (also on the shoulder) back the way I'd come. . .he'd pulled up and was waiting.  I won't try to get the translation exactly right since I only got about 80% of the Vietnamese in the first place, but the important part was "Turn Around and Go Back!  Police Ahead!  Must Go Back!  I said something inspired like "I have to go back to Hanoi" and he pointed out (I'm pretty sure) that I'd have to walk to Hanoi if I got to the Police road block and they took my motorbike.  H'mm.  That IS their favorite enforcement technique. . .they use smallish trucks with lift gates.  One policeman can load your bike while the other writes out your ticket.  Great.  What else to do? I followed him. . .so there I was at 55 kmh going the wrong way down a Vietnamese Freeway. . .and this was supposed to be better than what??  Oh well, it was only 5 km or so back down the road and I couldn't help but notice that there were no other motorbikes in the mix of busses, trucks and fancy cars flying past us going the right way.  Things change and we must adapt.  Further enquiries have revealed that certain "high roads" are no longer open to motorbikes.  I wonder what all that involves???

Anyway, it all went fine.  We just rolled on up the shoulder to the on ramp, smiling at the oncoming horde, and went Off the On ramp just fine then through the under crossing and west half a kilometer to the old highway (looks a lot like a city street now, but it runs right along the RR line, where it always has).  We stuck together (was he babysitting me do you suppose) until we were well into the Hanoi suburbs. . .he passed me one more time and waved a thumbs up and I rode the bike through the city to our turn-off and thus with another turn or two to Hoan Kiem Lake, through the fun intersection where you must pay attention and on to the hotel, all before noon. He was very good help I suspect.

But I've jumped ahead.  The day and a half in Hue were mostly a rest period, with some fun work delivering new photos (the last of the ones from Thuan An I took on the way out of town) and some good time spent writing on the table in the hotel front room, but mostly it was a chance to relax from the constant traveling and say goodbye to friends.

Sometimes traveling as I do, certainly as a part of the world, but very apart from most of the people around me, a few moments come out of the whirlwind of sight and sound and leave me feeling very happy with it all.  It's hard to tell such a thing to someone else, but, out on the Island,  I stood for a long while watching a harsh surf beat on the beach below the dune crest at the end of Kiet 6 (I think it would translate to "Alley #6)  in Thuan An village, unusually alone with myself and the Little Horse.  More often, if I stop in such a place, surrounded by homes and people, a crowd will quickly gather to see what I am. . .which is fine of course, but the peace watching the violence on the beach below, as wind driven breakers swept in off the sea and gnawed away at the base of the high dune, that peace was precious and the sea was marvelous to watch.  No fishermen had put to sea through that surf, the beach was full of idle boats, all deserted but for one couple mending net to the South.  I turned back to the bike after a bit and as I slid the key into the ignition switch, an incredibly beautiful young woman, dressed as though she would go to work in an elegant office downtown, with a chiffon scarf wrapped around her neck that set off her coloring so well. . .such a young woman walked past me within five feet without "seeing" me and stood exactly where I had stood and looked out over the same surf I had watched--and watched in her turn for a long moment, then turned and walked very slowly back down the sanded lane to me and deliberately smiled.  We spoke of nothing in particular for a minute or two, in Vietnamese mostly (she spoke English well I think, but very softly), then I showed her the photograph I'd taken of the ancient old man and the toddler in the street just behind us a few weeks ago. She laughed and took the thing and walked briskly a short ways and called out (even a pretty Vietnamese girl can peel wall paper with an unamplified voice if need be).  That produced my crowd. . .the grandmother of the toddler (truly a little kid) with the kid in her arms. . .and her neighbor and a friend from down the way. . .which brought out the camera of course and produced some fun photographs.
So, is that "Victory", "Peace", or the Cub Scout Salute?  Big smile from Mom anyway.

But the photograph I wanted, the extraordinarily beautiful young woman. . .shook her head "no". . .and smiled when I put away the camera.  Sigh.  You'll just have to imagine her in your own mind's eye, a lovely person.  Sometimes it's like that, and nothing else to do.  But I'd rather have her smile and no photograph than the photograph without the smile.    

Anyway, in due course the urgency of returning to Hanoi and the proximity of the airport overcame my comfort in Hue and after much discussion with the Hotel family (who always seem to want me to stay one more day. . .for no particular reason usually) I finally got away late with all my laundry clean and at least most of my good bye's properly said.  That was on a Friday, the 7th of December, a week before flyaway, and at least two days from Hanoi. . .time to go.

The day was cool to begin and became much colder as we went.  It's December in the North of the country, so it was to be expected. . .and the road was mostly splendid, in great condition and not all that much traffic, almost all of which was well behaved, so it was a very good day for traveling once I stopped and put on more clothes.  At 55 kmh the wind is not warm at all on the Little Horse.

Evening caught us at Ha Tinh, well short of Cua Lo, where I'd hoped to spend the night in a small hotel with the most delightful people. . .where I spent the wild night of the Typhoon back in 2010 and whence I pushed the bike through the town, knee deep in flood water.  But that was then and I was fairly caught in Ha Tinh, which is much larger than I'd realized, a small to middle sized city, not just a town, with a wide variety of hotels spread out along the highway (and back from it) for a long ways.  I chose the worst I think.  It was a fine looking old building, three lots wide, with traditional balconies full width and nice detailing.  Once it had been a very good hotel.  No more.  It was late and I was tired and it didn't seem so bad at first (and in fact the mattress was actually quite comfortable. . .a thin pad over a lattice of bamboo splits) but things went from not bad to. . .er. ..well, not very good.  There was no room key.  There was a TV set.  There were two teenaged boys living in a cubby hole under the stairs (they were good young men really, helpful, though they smoked constantly) and the room I'd been given, the last on the first flight of stairs, was normally their day-room, and smelled of their smoking. . .though that soon aired out.  However, they hadn't finished watching the Kung-fu movie on the TV when I moved in, so, standing in the hallway, they pulled the drapes away from the window, reached in and got the remote. . .and turned it back on. . .that's a first.  They watched absolutely motionless (and put away their cigarettes when I asked) and continued to watch until the last wire had flown the last Chinese magician across the rooftops to devastate the bad guys with incomparably improbable Kung fu.  . .then they snapped the machine off (the remote had been sitting on a table under the window where I'd normally have set up the computer), said good night and went back downstairs.  M'gosh.  When I went out for a late walk (and dessert I hoped, though nothing turned up), I protested the lack of a key to lock the room.  The older youngster stood proud and told me not to worry, nobody would get past him to my room.  And he was good to his word.  I could go on complaining, but. . .what the heck.  I actually ended up liking the two boys quite well, and the rest was perfectly bearable.  In the morning, riding past at least a dozen other hotels though I couldn't help sighing.

The hope for that second day en route to Hanoi was that I would stop in Cua Lo anyway, to check on progress of the two local style boats under construction there, and perhaps have breakfast with my friends in the Hotel.  That much was easy and delightful. . .then that I'd continue on to Sam Son and likewise check on the progress of the boats a-building on the beach there.  That too was easy, but by then it was becoming apparent that I'd not make Hanoi in just the two days I'd planned, especially since I knew the road from Sam Son on at least to Ninh Binh would be awful. . .it was awful southbound and it hadn't been long enough for any serious improvement yet. . .that sort of rebuild will take a long season.  And so it was.  Just Awful.

There's something about the conditions in a major construction zone that brings out the inner madman in many drivers. The frustrations of narrow lanes, horrible jolts and jars, the inability to make schedules and the overwhelming dust and grit get to be too much for ordinarily perfectly nice people, and they become risk takers.  Now, it's one thing for a man on a motorbike to take risks against the moving steel mountains, zipping precariously on nonexistent shoulders past lurching trucks and buses to win a few extra lengths toward his goal.  If he fails and the risk comes due, it is probably only his own bike and body that will suffer and perhaps die.  However, when a bus driver or a trucker decides to become a risk taker and somehow gain an advantage of some sort (though he can see an unbroken column of traffic moving at the same horrible pace for half a kilometer ahead). . .when a man in charge of such a large machine takes risks in such close quarters, things can become suddenly very bad for the small fry.  That's me.  There were over 60 km of really harsh construction conditions, and it showed.

We stopped the night in Ninh Binh, and as though to compensate for last night's hotel, this one, picked at a distance on the far side of a little square urban lake, one block off the highway, turned out to be lovely, or a little better than lovely.  There is a balance in life eh?  What's more, though it wasn't immediately obvious, the hotel sat on the edge of a simply delightful neighborhood. . .one long street with a few short side streets opening off of it, filled with life and light, clean and pretty, lots of good food, nice people.  . .oh my goodness.  It was a very pleasant evening!  In the hotel it became clear that Ninh Binh is by no means just the last big town before Hanoi, it's quite a fine destination in its own right, with some magnificent scenery around and history of its own. Look up Tam Coc for example. . .exquisite limestone mountains rising sheer out of rice paddies, with a river flowing through. . .not just the rice paddies, but through three of the mountains as well (if I understood correctly).  To think I've ridden right past Ninh Binh two dozen times in the past years and never looked to either side. .  I owe the place an apology and a detailed exploration.  Perhaps next year, this year is all but spent.
Progress in Cua Lo, coming along nicely.
And in Sam Son the new boat is really getting close
From the 2nd floor balcony--lovely hotel in Ninh Binh
Small street in Ninh Binh, the lady has beach balls, barrettes, hair clips and toys. 
Street life in the evening--Ninh Binh

Which brings us to the roads northbound into Hanoi where we began.  The construction mess continued all the way to the junction at Phu Ly, within 45 km of Hanoi, and though I looked for the mouth of the old highway I did not see it and thought no more about it until we were nearly home and the gentleman rode to my rescue from the police roadblock and we rode by other routes back into the city.

As always, there will now be a short period of hunting around for things to bring home. . .in the past that's included such trinkets as a full set of metric T-handle socket wrenches, a large pair of kitchen shears (the Vietnamese cooks use scissors for a lot of things you wouldn't think of. . .very effective) as well as small scissors for trimming beards or sewing thread.  There have been quilted silk jackets for ladies (very successful) and antique ceramics for Aunts and Uncles. . .as well as extra suitcases to haul it all home in.  That's still ahead, and there may be a day to run back to Tam Coc. . .we'll have to see, but it might be do-able, either on the bike or perhaps on a tour bus (me?? Never say Never. . .).  But the end is in sight, and my cardinal rule, always to leave time to recover from problems, means the wild adventuring is over for the year.

I'm glad you came along, it's been a good ride.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Two days from Buon Me Thuot to Hue--through Da Nang

Written from Hue, 12/6/2012--A Thursday

I wish I could give you the joy that comes when you ride out on a bright May Morning in December, with the half moon high in the blue bowl of the sky, and the sky ringed all around with green mountains, and a road stretched out, just wide enough (and no more), for farther than your imagination runs.  And that is the story I have for these past two days.  The morning air was cool, almost crisp, but it warmed before noon.  The nights were starry and moonless until late, but the pale moon lingered into late morning overhead while the sun grew hotter.  Oddly, perhaps it's just as fine to struggle through driving rain and dense fog over a high mountain pass and down to the coast and the furor of the highway, to come at evening, through narrow lanes and busy villages to rest in Hue, and through it all the faithful hum (or snarl, depending on the climb) of the Little Horse between my knees.  That is how it was.

The city of Buon Me Thuot (which I've hardly seen, though I've ridden through from south to north and back again and come at from the east as well) Buon Me Thuot, as I started to say, lies in a valley of hills among the mountains.  It is neither so green nor so beautiful a valley as the mountains around it, but the city is a grand place, a place, I think, that Coffee has made rich.  The best coffees in and from Viet Nam are grown in the mountains all around and gravitate to the city to process, package and send out to the world.  Viet Nam has, or so I've heard, surpassed all other coffee producing nations and sells more of the precious bean than any other.  Be that as it may, BMT as it's often written, is clearly a prosperous place and puts on a grand face to the world.

I sneaked in over the hills from nowhere however on QL27, as I've told, and that entry is less grand.  So, for the best impact from their effort you must be reasonable enough to arrive properly up the National Route AH17 (which is confusing as heck since it doesn't seem to exist on the maps. . .it's the combined route of old QL13, QL14 and the old Da Nang Road. . .).  If you do, as I was saying, arrive via AH17 you come immediately to an expansive four lane boulevard, with trees and excellent architectural street lighting, a boulevard that goes past banks and offices and schools and so forth and so on and doesn't present a great deal of any use at all to the motorbike traveler. . .no little guest houses, nowhere to wash a motorbike, nor a repairman to change its oil or lube its chain.  It is, in the final analysis, a boulevard for looking at out the windows of a tour bus and leaving a good impression.  Fortunately, there are, besides that glorious highway-boulevard, lots of pleasant side streets and those have everything you might want.

So we stayed the night actually on the old QL26 approach to town in a hotel that was grand once and still nice enough. (remember that QL27, which is how we got here, Teed into QL26 on the edge of town and almost sent us back to Nha Trang. . .) That hotel room had a window (many do not, though I always ask for one) and through that window I could see the top of a pagoda's tall tower above the surrounding roofs somewhere back from the streets.  A short search found that a clean, peaceful, narrow alley (that is to say, a very uncommon alley) up the street a ways from the hotel lead into the heart of the city block and to the "Chua", the temple.  There was no one about except a woman of middle years sweeping the endless supply of leaves off the alley floor and she gave me the liberty of the place.  It was early in the day and I was feeling easy with the day ahead, so I spent half an hour there, being quiet and soaking the place up.  In the main hall there was a very simple altar (as these things go) with a only two statues, a seated Buddha above and behind and a "Kwan Yin of a Thousand eyes and arms" in front and a little lower.  The thousand eyes and arms matter has to do with the humanity's need for frequent help and rescue. . .though the statue, like most of them, has only 14 arms, so you have to use your imagination for the rest.  Just to confuse things, this is the same entity who is also shown as a beautiful standing lady with only the standard two arms and eyes, pouring out the water of compassion for the whole world.  That particular manifestation has a separate shrine outdoors.  This is a particularly nice little Chua, not grandiose at all, but comfortable and encouraging.  Instead of glowering soldiers guarding the doors, there were magnificent dragons (oh, and one sword-bearing soldier. . .can't leave things entirely to chance).  The beautifully done low relief mural walls had a series of incidents in the life of the Buddha (not like the hell and damnation murals you sometimes see. . .rather a direct parallel with our American variations), and the tall tower with its many eaves was somehow peaceful rather than imposing.

Thus to a long day in the saddle from BMT through the high valley to Dak To.  Once again, I noted some interesting inconsistencies between the facts on the ground and the facts in my road atlas.  Either I can't quite read a map, or the distances are oddly distorted.  No matter, it was perhaps a 350 km day, over very rough road through. .  .a countryside that was not always particularly pretty.  I had thought to go a little further before quitting for the day, to put Hue within certain reach for the morrow, but between the roughness of the road and stopping for lunch and so forth, It seemed unwise to push on past Dak To, which would leave Hue on the far edge of possible one-day rides.  Still, we stopped and found good quarters.

Deep fried battered banana halves.  1,000 VND  each, let's see, that's 5 cents US.  That beats a nickel candy bar all day long!

Rubber Trees. . .

Lots and lots of rubber trees.

I'm being mean here. . .but I'd love to be the Minister of Garbage for a year or two and get some decent garbage solutions for these small towns. . .this is the edge of too many towns all over the country.

This one was pretty visible.  Sometimes they take you by surprise,  and sometimes they're a lot messier!

Now, the fact is that I've been lamenting quietly to myself that I did not buy that crossbow way back in the restaurant along the highway south of Ca Na and these high mountain valleys are the native home of the various tribes of ethnic people who still use the crossbow in Viet Nam. . .SO, I thought to try to find one in Dak To (the very name suggests the highlands and the tribes. . .it's not a Vietnamese name at all).  First item was to find the name of the thing in Vietnamese, and a simple drawing produced the desired results from the front desk of the old hotel we'd settled on.  The word is "Cung Ten", with a little bit of a warble when you say the "Cung".  However, the young man at the desk assured me I would not find one in town, I should have looked in Kontum.  Hours behind us of course.  And he was right.  I walked all through the covered market and before I got clear around everyone was telling me that they didn't have a cung ten but would be happy to sell me a fish (or a duck or a sack of rice or. . .any number of things I'd no way to carry off.  Later I trooped up and down the main street of town (the highway) and poked into every likely looking shop, all to no avail.  I suppose, on the bright side, that if Id found one, it would have been one of the largest sort and wouldn't reasonably come apart. . .a very awkward addition to my otherwise very tidy cargo.  Worse, it probably would not pass security in the airport. Sigh.
The outer perimeter of Dak To market.  No, we have no crossbows.

But if You'd like a bit of roast pork or duck. . .
The romantic telephone company offices in the moon rise.

Well. . .crossbow-less we went to bed early, fuel in the tank, air in the tires, the chain just right, ready for a long day tomorrow, which duly dawned.  An egg-baguette place appeared magically just outside the hotel door while I was brushing my hair, so that was soon settled.  I think I was her second customer of the day, but they soon swarmed in and I doubt her stock of bread lasted til 9:00.  I asked her where I could buy a coffee and she laughed and pointed back to the hotel, where, in fact, I got a FULL SIZED CHAIR AND TABLE to sit at, eat my baguette and drink a perfectly nice coffee. The fates were trying hard to get me on the road early. . .it might be a record for me, fed and watered and on the road well before 8:00.  Quit laughing, it takes a lot to get this outfit under way.

But what a day it turned out to be.  The moon was still high in the sky though the sun had been up over an hour. . .the road (the same road that threatened to beat both bike and rider to death yesterday) was a fine smooth wide road. . .and the scenery that had been somewhere between drab and not all that great for 300 km yesterday. . .that same scenery was absolutely splendid, mountains all around, long vistas, colorful towns, all the things you hope for.

I'm not sure I have enough nerve for a bridge like this one.  
I stopped taking waterfall photos after a while. . .too many to choose from.
It was a fine road in excellent condition. . .with curves to suit!

But it was too far to run all the Hue if we stayed on the mountain road, so there came a decision time at the fork that lead down out of the hills to Da Nang and Highway One.  I stood there at the fork, looked longingly at the mouth of QL14B, which would have kept us in the mountains and through the 80 odd km of most-beautiful and most-lonely road in Viet Nam. . .but would end, at best, at night in the only guest house in A Luoi. . .or we could ride down out of the mountains to the pandemonium of the highway and the city. . .and end up safe in one of the best beds in Viet Nam for the night.  There was a complicating factor evolving during the day.  That perfectly blue sky that started the day had turned black and threatening and rain in the high country does bad things to the roads. . .so. ..all things considered, that late in the day the route through Da Nang won the toss.

It was as bad and as good as I feared.  The city was hectic, the highway traffic was really busy, and the foul weather that usually waits for you at the top of Hai Van Pass came down to the edge of town to meet us with a gusting gale and a blast of rain. . .big heavy stinging drops of rain.  With all the rain gear on (and the lower half leaking) we plowed through the wind and rain on up the Pass. . .and rode into the cloud base way below the summit.  It was a very dark and dismal cloud with very poor visibility, but, surprisingly, everybody slowed down, even the tour buses and the fuel tankers, so I think we all made it where we were going.  A stream of bedraggled tourists and city folks, all out of Da Nang were straggling down the mountain through the down pour on their scooters, shivering as they went.  One trio, two very stylish young ladies (VERY high heels and skimpy short skirts. . .) and their magnificent young escort stood there trying to divide up two plastic ponchos among the three of them while they were soaked clear through.  That party had not ended well!
Leaving the highlands--last of the mountains
The road down Hai Van Pass to the North.  The sign says "Di Cham"  "Go Slow".  No kidding.  Higher up the mountain the fog was so dense you had to hunt your way around the curves.  We're just out of the cloud base here.

Once the tunnel under the pass dumped all the rest of the traffic onto the highway with those of us who had gone over the pass, the highway was simply stuffed, slow, loud, smelly, everything we'd missed up in the mountains.  We turned off where the railroad crossing leads you to the tiny road around the end of Hue's inland sea and onto the island.  It added 25 km to the day and deleted an hour and a half of misery on the wet and windy highway.  I did not even hesitate, and the crossing gate was open, no train coming, so we were soon back in wonderful riding, a 12' wide road, no traffic but a few motorbikes, small farms and fishermen's houses, the impromptu evening market in one of the little villages (it nearly blocks the road, and that's fine), the kids shouting hello and waving as they ride their bikes. . .it was lovely. Tired and sore as I was, it was well worth the extra few km to run.
The afternoon fish and veggies market north of Thuan An on old Hwy 49B.  Sometimes you can only squeeze through on a bike.

For now, at least, that will be my farewell ride the length of the island, and I savored it that way.  "We may never pass this way again" opens your eyes a little wider.

So once again, I rode into Hue a little damp and muddy (when everyone else somehow was still clean and dry). . .and it seems I've also ridden out of the Fine May Mornings into December in the North.  There will be a day or two here in Hue (I'm a little road-weary just now), then two or three days riding north to Hanoi and. . .and that will be that.

PS--if you want to download 2010 for safe keeping, do it now. . .

Monday, December 3, 2012

Over the mountains to Buon Me Thuot--Hwy 20 and 27

Written from Buon Me Thuot--evening of 12/3/2012--weather fine, partly cloudy, warm during mid day, but positively cool this morning in Bao Loc.

Almost nothing happened today. . .we just crossed two low mountain ranges, ran a total of about 300 km in under 8 hours and rescued one damsel in distress.

To summarize (since there's not much detail to add), the ride from Bao Loc on 80 km further on hwy 20 to the crossroads where Hwy 27 makes it's start over the hills to Buon Me Thuot was a very pleasant ride, good road, light traffic, cool enough for a jacket for heaven's sake. . .but nothing to make a big fuss about.

Consider the difference between the two roads for a moment. . .Hwy 20 is the only direct link from Saigon (the biggest population center in the country, and a place known to cook like an oven a good part of the year) and Dalat, the nearest high mountain town, where the weather is mild and pleasant even during the hottest months of the year.  Add a little scenery at one end and a few million people sweltering at the other and you have an excuse for the authorities to keep Hwy 20 looking pretty good.

Hwy 27, by contrast simply starts at an unimportant small town on the way to Dalat from Saigon and goes, well, basically nowhere.  I mean, if you wanted to get to Buon Me Thuot from Saigon (and tons of people do) then you'd take the direct route up Hwy 13  and Hwy 14, as I've always done in the past.  You wouldn't drive almost all the way to Dalat and then take a wild left turn and drive another 200 odd km across mountain and dale and bad road. . .I guess that's the point.  Hwy 27 is really a string of farm-to-market roads all run together.  It serves the needs of the people who live and grow coffee and tea next to it and that's about it, absent the occasional white guy on a motorbike looking for a new road.

The overall theme for the day (besides saddle sores) was coffee.  I mean, the day started with a really excellent iced coffee, but that's not the point.  This whole part of the world is growing either coffee or tea and hardly anything else. . .a few veggies here and there and a little maize. . .oh and rice, wherever they can get a puddle of water to stand. . .but mostly the hillsides are covered in coffee trees.  Right now they are drying coffee beans on every threshing floor and every front yard in the countryside.  If there are a few square feet in a farmhouse yard. . .spread out a tarp and cover it with coffee beans.

The first part of the way the road was just a bit bumpy. . .and almost completely empty (you want silence, you stop and turn off the motor and listen to it. . .sometimes for a long time!!)  Somewhere in the middle of the 200 km was a short stretch really, less than 10 km I'm sure, of rough graded shot rock sub grade. . .not as bad as what we had to ride on from Xin Man to Bac Ha, but certainly not a very good road surface.  We probably hit top speeds near 20 kmh and maybe averaged 10 or less.  It's times like that when you realize you're 100 km from anywhere to spend the night and it's 1:00 in the afternoon and you're only making 10 kmh good over the ground. . .you do the math and maybe wonder just why you wanted to do this particular stunt.  But my normal procedure is to hold a good thought and keep plugging along. . .as long as it's still going the right direction and you're not at a full stop. . .and sure enough, things got better.  We went through one nice little town and the road was noticeably better on the Buon Me Thuot side (let's start calling it BMT like the locals do. . .).  So we picked up to a reasonable sort of speed , 40 to 50 kmh and felt much better about it.  THEN we came to a newish hydro electric power plant, or at least its reservoir.  The road became superb.  Apparently these electrical generating people don't like to drive to town over potholes and patches.  It was two full lanes with a white stripe and everything.  Go for it!

And it was in that marvelous stretch that we spotted the DAMSEL IN DISTRESS.  Wow.  What every knight errant dreams of, a damsel in distress and NO DRAGON HANGING AROUND.  The damsel in question was under some sort of a spell that made her look like a rag and bone and scrap cardboard lady with a hugely overloaded old Honda.  You would not believe. . .Anyway, she was standing astride the bike in the middle of the road and it was obvious the load had shifted and was either going to be held up by brute force or it was going to tip the whole works over.  I pulled the little horse back on her haunches, let out a battle cry and went to the rescue.  Well.  I parked the bike and stabilized the load while she got off and, once she figured out I only knew how to say "Hi, I'm the errant knight here to rescue you" or "Hello" or some such, she pantomimed instructions and I held the mess upright while she undid the lashings (long strips of old inner tube. . .lots and lots of them) and started pulling the load apart.  A terminally finished pink plastic baby bouncy chair with wheels drifted away from the rest of the pile and caused panic among the oncoming traffic (we were taking up our half of the road with stacks of cardboard and old fertilizer sacks, so the other folks were stuck with what was left).  Eventually she got down to the foundation of the load, a pair of big round baskets full of squashed plastic bottles and beer cans (also squashed).  This was the typical setup for home-made cargo racks. . .two bars of wood to straddle the back seat, a couple of cleats to hold them in place, and the two baskets lashed to them. . .I still couldn't see the actual framework under the remaining foot or so of cardboard so I got it wrong when she told me to heave up.  I hove on the cardboard and almost started an avalanche.  She came around to my side, showed me the bars and how to lift. . .and we got it done.

At that point it became clear why the load had shifted.  She had a flat tire on the rear.  It must have given her a heck of a ride with that load on. . .but unbelievably, at least a quarter of the spokes in that wheel were broken and the wheel was positively floppy.  That did not seem to interest her a bit, she just took the bike by the handle bars and started up the road pushing. . .and leaving our pile of whatever right where it was.  Oh my.

Incidentally, if anyone asks why you should buy a Honda, refer them to that young lady.  That was the rattiest bike you ever saw, hardly anything on it in one piece but the frame and the front wheel. . .broken plastic and tin all over. . .and still hauling most of a pickup load of stuff down the road until its bald tire went flat.

Oh.  In order to try to make herself better understood at one point she undid her face scarf and by golly she was actually a rather pretty young rag and bone and old cardboard lady. . .a damsel indeed.  As she pushed her wounded bike up the road I remounted and kicked the Little Horse in the ribs. . .and with a hearty Hi O Silver. . .oops, wrong story.

Here are some photos, mostly without captions.  This is just what I see on rides like this. . .though this was a particularly nice day all told.
This was an incredibly nice breakfast place across the street from the hotel. . .a big breakfast including iced sweet coffee,  a pile of aromatic steamed rice, an omelette sort of thing, a little slice of grilled pork chop (marinated, just right), tomato and cucumber slices. . .and a banana was $1.80 and the music was really lovely.  I guess compared to my usual $1.10 coffee and baguette with an egg on the sidewalk it was expensive, but somehow I' m not feeling too extravagant.  There were goldfish swimming around that tree. ..big ones. ..and the tree grows through its own hole in the roof.  

The kids were hiding behind the edge of the doorway, so grandma went and dragged them out for me.  The photos in this sequence are really to document the timber fronts on these otherwise masonry homes.  The style reminds me of all-timber houses a friend has documented down in the Western Delta country.  A wild theory. . .these people came for the newly available land as the jungle was cleared and brought a traditional house form with them??  Could be.

A highland town just feels different from a coastal plain town. . .and way different from a delta town.  Sort of a "wild west' flavor somehow.

Coffee beans drying on the threshing floor in front of the house.  Nearly every house for 300 km has every available inch covered, an amazing amount of coffee.  It's very apparent that the area is prosperous and the people are doing well.  The jungle not so much any more. . .

This is your typical walk behind style tractor rigged up to pull a wagon.  The connection between the engine and everything else is a pair of big V-belts.  In this case they've been de-coupled from the tractor and are now powering a coffee shelling and sorting machine.  I couldn't see exactly how it separates the hulls from the beans, but the hulls fly away off to one side (sometimes in a long sheet metal tube, to get the pile away from the work) and the beans fall on to a small vibrating screen system that grades them into three sizes.  The beans are caught in aluminum basins which in turn are dumped into sacks for shipment.  Big effort by a number of people.  Lots of racket, no conversation.

Quite a few "ethnic minority" style of house, up on low stilts and made of wood and/or bamboo.  The more typical house though is a masonry structure, plastered concrete blocks, with a frame of reinforced concrete beams.  

What a gorgeous herd. . .note the bull with his black tipped hump.  Beautiful animals.

Damsel about ready to push her bike up the hill.  The Phe Lieu (Vietnamese for "recyclables") stayed right there.  That's the wandering baby-bouncy chair on the right. . .won't roll now. . .upside down, wheels up 
Here's a final practical note in case you ever ride this route.  Highway 27 does not intersect Hwy 1A directly.  Rather, you arrive in urban BMT and come to a completely unmarked intersection at a slight angle.  The easier right hand side (which is the direction you would have turned to go north if it were the right road, isn't the right move. . .as I learned the easy way. . .I asked).  It goes on over the hills by another route and ends in Nha Trang.  That may be a good trip for another day.  Anyway, take the harder left side and proceed another km or so to a major intersection (traffic circle with monument!) that is well marked as AH 17.  AH 17 is the new designation for the overall route that includes both QL13 and QL14. . .the major north-south inland route.  You never know how these things will work out though and a consensus opinion is much to be preferred when you can get one!  Of the two gentlemen I approached, one would have sent me to Nha Trang, but the other was emphatic and insisted on leading me to the correct intersection.  Intrepid exploration works best with cooperative natives.  Ask Lewis and Clark!