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!

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