Sunday, December 2, 2012

How to not get to Dalat. . .by way of My Tho.

Written from a nice little town called Bao Loc about 110 km Southwest of Dalat.  Weather here is almost cool.  Wow.  We're getting up in the hills.  Dalat would be cold in the morning no doubt.

I think it's unfair that I've only recently been compelled to debunk my own reputation for intrepid adventuring, not to mention effective way-finding.  Wouldn't you think once would be enough for one trrip?  But no.

We left Saigon southbound by my standard method yesterday morning. . .I studied the map and the guidebook and put the two together and made a list.  You can buy a Saigon map any time you want one in the tourist district. . .the ladies selling cigarettes and gum have them for about a dollar.  Get one.  They're really good. The solution is to first figure out where you're trying to go. . .obviously you don't want the southbound exit if you're headed north. . or east or west.  All roads around here lead into Saigon.  The guide book is best for this, its city and district maps pretty clearly identify just which city street will eventually either become the highway you need or at least dump you onto it. . .or under it in some cases.  Once you understand where you're going, mark it on the $1 city map (which may have the same sort of notations, but they might be somewhat less helpful as for example "to the western provinces").  On the other hand, your $1 map will show bridges (by name, very helpful since they're all labeled on the ground) and such things as traffic circles without a statue as distinct from those with a statue. . .or some other sort of monument.  That's excellent information since the streets otherwise tend to look an  awful lot alike.  If you know your intersection has a traffic circle with a statue, you've just narrowed down the search a whole lot.  The list reads something like this:
  • From Spring House Hotel (highly recommended, even at a ruinous $18), turn right and proceed to and turn left onto Nguyen Thai Hoc.   
  • Continue to a statue in the intersection (short ways) bend left onto Khach Mang Thang 8.  
  • At the next traffic circle do 90 degree left onto Dai Lo 3 Thang 2. 
  • Continue to an obvious major intersection turn right onto Le Dai Hanh, continue a good distance
  • Turn left on Huong Lo 2, which might also be called Thoai Ngoc Hau. Continue until you find the hwy.
That takes about an hour in morning traffic (pretty easy traffic really) and it went almost flawlessly.  I over ran that left onto Huong Lo 2 (which was in fact called Thoai Ngoc Hau at that point and only morphed later into Huong Lo 2).  I got suspicious in about six blocks so stopped and studied the map.  Yup.  Too far, but there was an extremely easy diagonal correction available right there, so it didn't even involve any backtracking.  

At the highway I made the left turn toward the south and the delta where the first city of any consequence would be My Tho, which you say "Me-Tawww", with a slight upward lilt to the "Me" and the "Tawww" a good bit lower.  There are other towns elsewhere with very similar names, so try to get it right if you really need someone to understand.  Anyway, I got the turn right and merged to the left into the most unpleasant sort of traffic.  Mind you, it could have been worse.. .raining for example, or dealing with a spluttering bike. . .both of which I've tried on this route, but still, on a scale from one to minus ten this must be right there. . .or maybe eleven.  It's a securely divided highway, so you don't have incursions from the opposite lane (okay, that makes it maybe a -9.5). . .but there's tremendous mass of trucks and buses using the two real lanes and the bikes are cordoned off in about half a lane WHICH THEY HAVE TO SHARE WITH THE SHORT RUN CITY BUSES!!  Now, that makes perfect sense for the buses and their riders. . .how else to pick up and drop off from the curb??  But they take up most of the width of our lane, and they're constantly dodging into the curb to do their business.  They have really loud turn signal horns (weird sound, like nothing else on the road).  Otherwise most of the bikes would be squished and we'd all be dead.  And that's only part of the problem.  The dust and grit is unbelievable, since almost every truck tracked in mud from the countryside. . .okay, maybe only half the trucks.  Lots of dust anyway. . .and horns and engines (with and without mufflers) and horrible horns. . .separate issue from ordinary truck horns, these are meant to wound or kill. 

I feel for the truck drivers too, but on a bike you are constantly in very close proximity to many other riders, a few feet ahead and behind usually, but side to side, you often overlap a bit, as when somebody else's handle bar passes under your elbow as he swerves to avoid someone  else on the far side. . .but as a normal thing you can easily reach out and touch the people on either side of you.  

And the traffic moves at different speeds. . .the buses are always starting and stopping and roaring off, but I'm talking about the bikes.  A guy who's late with a delivery of whatever he's piled high with may tear past like the dog was chasing him, while an old gentleman on a French moped might continue along in the middle of the lane at half the speed everyone else is making. . .not to mention kids on bikes or electric scooters.  Of course there are people veering off to one side or the other as their "exits" come up or they decide in desperation to ride with the trucks in the real lanes (not recommended in general, but there are times. . .)  Mercifully, I suppose, the actual speeds are pretty low.  If we were moving much over 35 kmh it would likely be bloody mayhem, though now and then we do better than that for a while, and I guess that feels like progress when it happens.

You needed to know all that. . .it bears directly on what follows.  I saw a sign.  Different from seeing the light, but it had a profound effect anyway.  It happened about 30 minutes into the "freeway" riding and it convinced me (consider my state of mind at that point) it convinced me. ..that I'd gone the wrong way.  I've done this before in my life. . .thought I'd made a mistake but was  wrong, I hadn't.  But, convinced as I was, I did the terrifying things necessary to do a U turn in that bit of the world and started off the other way.  North, as you've no doubt figured out, away from our destination in the Delta, but IN MY MIND (no giggling darn it) I'd fixed the problem. But things just didn't seem right, even if I was (as I was sure I was) finally going the right way (even though it was the wrong way. . .are you still with me?  We're coming to the crux of the matter.)  

You have to understand that I don't really like cities, even if I find the energy level in Saigon fascinating for a day or two. . .and I really don't like anything at all about the traffic on the highways in and out of Saigon.  I was not, to be blunt, having any fun at all.  Furthermore (I do make excuses and rationalize things at times) I am down to only 14 days until flyaway and my intended route home to Hanoi should take about 9 days.  That's cutting it as thin as I ever want to do it. . .SO to recap the position of things. . .I'm headed North on the interstate and have been for most of an hour but I think I'm headed South and I've just made up my mind to turn around and head for home, or, as a first step, north toward Dalat, the next want-to-see area on the road home.  So I did another death defying u-turn.

The kilometer marker with the inscription "My Tho 42 kn" came up about half an hour later.  My mind was unprintable for  a minute or so.  But I know when I'm whipped.  We continued to My Tho and had a lovely time.  Actually, there was enough day left to make the trip all the way to Can Tho (Kun-TUHhhh), a place I know I like, beautiful river town really and I'd like to see the new bridges. There are two MAJOR bridges and one small one all on one alignment. . .should be finished by now and it's no doubt a magnificent sight!

But it seemed silly to me (considering my sudden interest in heading north) to run another hundred and some km away from home, and I'd never spent the night in My Tho. . .which turned out to be a delightful place in a very quiet sort of way.  It's sort of a dead end now, about 10 km off the main highway going on into the delta
and it's less important since the new bridge to Ben Tre was finished and the big fleet of little red and white ferry boats that used to connect the two towns disappeared into history.  Now it sits there and catches fish and grows rice and administers its province and in general minds its own business.  You're clearly in the Delta here, you've left the North and the Central provinces with their hills and waterfalls far far behind.  This is the land of the Mekong River in all its very many channels.  The fruit is tastier, the vegetables greener, the rice fields flatter. . .well, really flat anyway, and the people are just about amphibious.  At least the kids are.  I spent a good half hour watching one bunch of boys jumping off the top of a 4 pile dolphin driven with coconut trees for piles.  The wrinkly trunks of the palm trees gave the kids just enough of a toe hold to let them scramble up to the top and dive (jump?) off. 

And I had to stand in a beautifully groomed waterfront park, landscaped and tiled and filled with bright and happy people on their Saturday evening off. . .people walking their dogs and their kids and their grandparents and sitting and eating peanuts and squid (but no ice cream darn it) and I had to eat little treats as I strolled along the river bank and  watched the world go by.  It was nothing to write home about I guess, but it sure made a pleasant evening.  There was a great internet connection in the hotel, they found me a room only one floor up with a view out over the market from my window, everything worked and the ice water was cold.  No fireworks, just a fine evening.  In no particular order, here are a few My Tho Photos:

Yes. . .I'm ready, go for it!!

The Riverfront park in My Tho

The new Ben Tre Bridge. . .farewell to the ferry boats, they were cute. . .but slow and you had to wait in line and. . .

So I got up this morning thinking I had two full days to make Dalat, including the horrendous Saigon traffic. I'll spare you the details.  It was just as bad coming as it had been going with one interesting difference.  I intended to follow the bright red double line of the map that shows Hwy 1A  running right around the City, bending gradually from northbound through the compass points until it's aimed East toward Bien Hoa, 20 km or so away.  What actually happened is that we came to a Y without a highway sign of any sort, just one road coming in (the one we were on) and two, apparently identical roads continuing on, one to the left a little, the other to the right a little.  We went right and in the course of a mile or so the four-lane divided highway became a four lane urban street.  It carried its median a ways, then dropped that too.  

Plan B.  Stop.  Figure out where you are and where you're trying to go.  Make a list. . .Actually, there were only three critical turns and we only missed the last one.  The first one was at a T. . .that was easy, and the next one was at the very next traffic circle and was a simple 90 degree right.  The third should have been the continuation of the highway and it should have been really obvious, but we never saw it.   Really though, the trip through the city on the one very long leg after the first two turns was  quite pleasant.  I had many many blocks to run and no navigation to do, so I was free to look all around (as long as I kept the bike out of trouble).  There is plenty of traffic on Saigon streets, but this WAS  a Sunday morning and it was mostly just a fine ride.  I guess if you had some idea where you were going riding in the City wouldn't be all that bad.  

So when I was sure we'd far over run the intended turn onto Hwy 1A (we were actually on Hwy 13, headed for our normal northbound route at that point.  So we stopped again, made another list, got it verified by two gentlemen who were handy and amused (or bemused. . .I suppose my ears and trunk were showing).  Anyway, I followed my nose, made a couple of lucky guesses, took the right down ramp one time that mattered and sure enough, we ended up where we wanted to be.  Or at least on the right road.  
Fifteen or twenty km later, after the morning can of Red Cow and a whole pot of cold tea at a highway-side chaise lounge sit down sort of place, we found the left turn onto Hwy 20 and everything changed.  Really, we'd been all day on the big one, Hwy 1A, four lanes and two big shoulders and lots of traffic and then right through the heart of Saigon. . .then we turned left and in a few hundred feet there was a complete phase shift in the universe.  The crystal turned from dark to clear, the road became two lanes and hardly any shoulder, there were rubber trees in the thousands on both sides of the road and we were all but all alone.  My goodness.  And it just got better the rest of the day.  When we first started seeing the Dalat kilometer markers the distance to run was up in the 220 km to go range and it was already after one in the afternoon. . .there was no way to make it before dark, though it was fun to count the kilometers as they ticked off and check the distance against the sun and the clock.  

But we really didn't care.  There are a number of little towns before Dalat that will have hotels just as nice, and this is a wonderful road to ride.  The mountains got steeper and the turns got tighter and the air got COOLER.  I hadn't realized how hot we've been the past week or so, but the cool air in the shadows here in the mountains was so delightfully fresh and fine. . .it even made my shirt feel thin.  And this is a road we've never ridden before, so every curve brings something new, every climb is a new test, every cliff a new delight.  The giant boulders on the edge of one little town inspired someone to build a fine little pagoda and fill it with kids going to school.  They set a large white Buddha on top of the largest boulder, fifty feet or more above the ground, with a Quan Yin in a separate shrine below.  A choir of 40 women and two monks sat on the tile floor in the great hall and sang and occasionally sounded a gong.  Like Gregorian chant, even without understanding the words, it was hypnotic and lovely.  They continued their chant unbroken as they filed out the door and around the corner into the cloister.  The children of course never stopped giggling and posing for photos.  Here are some "Highway 20" photos, about 150 km worth. . .
A string of typical Southland chaise-lounge drinks shops. . .they'll fresh squeeze sugar cane juice for you and put it on ice. . .just lovely, but not quite the right thing for diabetics.

A few of them looked at me while I stood back from the door trying to be really small, but mostly they kept up a lovely "Gregorian Chang" sort of song and occasionally sounded a big gong.

The kids in the Pagoda. . .perhaps local kids for class, but a lot of pagodas raise orphans and poor children.  

Curves, climbs and descents. . .joyful riding and not much traffic.  The roadway is a little bumpy, but no big chuck holes!

This is tea and coffee country now.  Was a lot of jungle when I was young.  H'mm.

And so we came to this little town a hundred km short of Dalat, which we may never see now.  The turn off for Hwy 27 to Buon Ma Thuot is twenty-some km before Dalat, and really, it was only the mountains and this road I wanted to see.  We may just continue on to Buon Ma Thuot and thence up the Hwy 14 "Ho Chi Minh Road" and back to Hue to say last goodbyes (for this trip at least).  Thence onward to the North, perhaps by new roads again.  But that's getting way ahead of ourselves.  

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