Weather here is quite warm in the afternoon, but cools to just pleasantly warm by early evening. There's a full moon tonight in an otherwise unbothered sky, with a good breeze moving the air through the city. You could make excuses to be out under that moon for quite a while if you wanted.
There is a time in life for writing about life and there is, I submit, a time when it is better to forget about the writing (no matter how important it might seem) and simply go out and live. So I've written a bit the past few days, an email or two needed answers and I've scribbled in my diary of course. . .but mostly for the past few days life has been on the road and pestering the locals, especially if they have anything to do with building boats, or offloading fishing boats or selling ice or pretty much of anything on the waterfront.
The route from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City could be very straightforward, but it doesn't have to be. Just as well. . .and it could probably be done in one long day by a determined long distance rider, though perhaps not. You might get to within 40 km of the city in a day and then have to admit you'd never make it through the traffic jam on the approaches to the city in time to make it all in one day. But that's entirely beside the point. Our route this time was straightforward enough, just not direct. From Nha Trang, it was a pretty easy day's run down Highway 1 and the beautiful beach road through the sand dunes to Mui Ne, just north of Phan Thiet.
|The not really new any more road along the beach and the sand dunes north of Mui Ne. I have a long and affectionate relationship with this road. . .it's a lovely 40 kilometers.|
There were a few chores in Mui Ne, and I tried to fall in love (not "three a week" like some young men, but now and then it does happen. . .we'll get to that in a bit) and (besides falling in love) made an interesting mistake. . .though no real harm done. . .we'll get to that too. After a heart rending farewell to my new love (it was a short affair) we moved on to Phan Thiet and continued my absolutely unblemished record of getting thoroughly lost in that dad blamed town. I'd buy the city fathers the road signs out of my own pocket if they'd just put a few up, honest!! Excuse me, I get a little worked up over Phan Thiet and the fact that you can't get there from here, or rather you can't get through there from Mui Ne. There's only one cotton picking road out of town anyway, so why not put up a sign to let poor innocent strangers find it??? Thank goodness the people are so sweet about giving directions.
Anyway, having made it past Phan Thiet we had to rejoin Highway 1 for a short while, about 50 km I think, until the town of Thon 1B. Maybe it's not really a town with a name like that, but it's a settled spot. There's a sign there that you'd think would read "Ham Tan" or maybe "Hwy 55" or some such from looking at the road atlas, but no, it comes right out and says "La Gi", which is where you're trying to get. . .so all you have to do is be awake when you drive past the sign so you can double back and run down Highway 55. And then we get to La Gi. It's a fishing town with a few outlying resorts down the beach and some interesting variations in its fishing fleet.
|The back side of the Harbor at La Gi. This is not too hard to find, but can be impossible to get home from. Odd.|
I seem to have gotten side tracked in La Gi, let's get back to the route. From La Gi we stay on Hwy 55, though first we have to find its continuation. . .as I said, it apparently isn't completely stationary, or maybe you can only see it when you're in the correct frame of mind (pure of heart? No, I guess not. . .) But we did find it after the bike got her bath (fooling around in the sand around La Gi made her feel itchy and she was complaining about her chain and one thing and another, so she got a for real washing from a man who took it seriously. . .). This year (and this day, to be specific) we remembered my day pack (she keeps asking me if I have it every time we leave somewhere. . .didn't approve of the night ride I guess), so unlike the last time through, we had no excuse to come back, not even a new love. And so the 80 km to Ba Ria, almost all on a lovely small rural road (the aforementioned Hwy 55), which morphs into a suburban monster a mile or two out of town. Actually, it morphs into a small and manageable suburban monster road before Ba Ria, but ever so gradually grows and matures into a FULL FLEDGED HORRIFIC CITY TRAFFIC MONSTER way before Bien Hoa. . .and almost all the way into Saigon.
Then a funny thing happens (I've seen it before). You've spent 20 km inching forward breathing nearly pure diesel fumes (mixed only with some minor amounts of dust, since nobody is moving fast enough to raise any more. . .) and only moving now and then when some minor seam opens ahead of you for a second (longer than that and it's gone. . .somebody else got it) and you gain a little. Then, crossing some magic line, the traffic politely divides into a column of smoothly moving cars and trucks in two lanes on your left and you and the hundreds of motorbikes you've been sharing paint with for the past hour flow quietly into a completely separate (and barricaded to keep it that way) lane all to yourselves and the entrance into the city itself is something a child could do. Of course, no child would have lived through the approach, but that's another matter.
So we arrived in Saigon in plenty of time for our chores (it was just past two in the afternoon when I lugged the luggage (THAT'S why they call it that. . .who'd have thought it??) and the day's challenges really began.
But we need to skip back to Nha Trang for a moment. I tried to leave the hotel and the young lady at the desk wanted to know if I would go to the airport at Cam Ranh. I said no, I didn't think so, I was going on to Mui Ne. She said, yes, you can go to Mui Ne in about six hours but you should go to the airport in Cam Ranh. I said "why"? She said "Because" and hesitated, and then said "Why NOT? It's very beautiful!". Well, I'd scouted the road out of town the night before and found a new escape route and now it dawned on me the full text of the sign at the turn was "Sam Bay Cam Ranh". . .and I hadn't bothered with the "Sam Bay" (say it "Sum Buy") part. . .but that's "airport" to the rest of us I'll bet. Some one check me on that. . .but May Bay is an airplane, so if Sam means er. . .well, it's not "cang" which means water-port. H'mm. Anyway, it was gorgeous, a brand new four lane cliff top expressway, overlooking the blue blue sea, divided almost every inch of the way, with breaks in the divider only where it was safe to build a scenic viewpoint with enough line of sight for traffic to have a chance. . .but no traffic! So, leaving Nha Trang, by all means go to the Cam Ranh airport, just turn off about 8 km short and move back over to Hwy 1 and carry on. Oh. If you can, arrange for a pair of artistic local boats to round the rocky point at the scenic view point for you while you're there.
|The view from the first scenic viewpoint on the new road from Nha Trang to the Cam Ranh Airport.|
|Here's a wider view. The coast from Quy Nhon all the way to Mui Ne (at least) is really just splendid, and you can even see it now and then!|
And the two stops. . .once for a can of Red Cow as I mentioned. . .in the same little roadside restaurant in the desert where the Mountain Hmong people have been transplanted (I still can't imagine, mountain people from the rainy cold highlands transplanted en masse to the Baja California type lowland coastal desert). . .in the same restaurant, as I said, where I stopped last trip and didn't ask if the Hmong crossbows on the wall were for sale. Madame recognized me before I had my helmet off (the beard I think, or maybe the smile?) and was ready to feed me a full lunch again, but furnished the necessary Red Cow instead when asked. The crossbow and 2 full quivers of darts would be $300,000 VND. $15 USD. I didn't buy it. Maybe I'll have to run back through there. . .I've always wanted one, and that one is really nice.
|It's an unusually well made Hmong crossbow. They're actively in use for hunting small game, but many of them are pretty poorly done. The feathers are actually folded palm leaves.|
But the big deal for the day was the boat harbor in Ca Na. You've seen a photo of a boulder strewn hillside in Ca Na before (page back through last year's ride if you can't remember it), but not the boat harbor. The building in that photo is a Nuoc Mam shop. . .factory and sales outlet combined. . .and it's only one of maybe thirty of them in this little burg in the middle of the desert. So think of what you need to make nuoc mam. . .cheap fish, and lots of it. . .cheap salt and lots of it. . .warm sunshine (to get the fermentation going) and barrels for the fish to rot in. That's it. So there had to be salt ponds and a fishing boat harbor. You can keep the salt ponds when you find them, they're all the same. . .but the harbor is mine! Wonderful! You wouldn't believe the size of the fleet, hundreds and hundreds of boats, and they're grand!! They're all very much alike, 17 meters long, 5 broad, and 2 deep (draft, not fairbody depth). I got that by asking by the way. My experiments with my new tape measure have not been well received by my audience. I think maybe the law likes to measure boats with a steel tape when they're figuring out taxes. . .or something like that. Anyway, there were two immediately obvious boat yards and one of them provided a near perfect sequence set up. There was one of the typical boats just getting started. . .keel laid, keelson bolted on and sprung into place, the stem (a big hunk of wood) braced off and bolted on and all the bottom frame members bolted onto the keel or keelson. Period!! Absolutely conclusive. Then there were two boats each a little further along, so the sequence of construction is very clear up through completely planked up. I'll put together a full fledged article for the website next month at home. . .but here's a taste:
|This is what they're building. Oh. And no blueprints anywhere around.|
Mui Ne, you may already know, lies at the end of almost 40km of desert road through white and red sand dunes, past rocky headlands and sweeping bays. . .and the town itself is set on a prominent point that provides shelter from the prevailing wind for a large fleet of fishing boats, basically of three types, which I've already documented to pieces. It also provides a gorgeous dramatic view of the enclosed bay with the fleet all anchored there and I've photographed it until it flinches when I pull out a camera. So has every other tourist that's ever ridden the tourist highway down the coast. . .but I keep trying. I have one photo that will do for the cover of the book if we ever get there, but you never know, I might get the tide and the light even better someday. Not this time though.
|Mui Ne Anchorage. Probably the most photographed spot on the Vietnamese Coast. It's hard to get it really right.|
|REALLY CUTE, and really in very good shape. . .easy to fall in love!|
But it is not to be I fear. Wiser heads will prevail. Our stars are not crossed. Once she's been modified to that extent I'd either have to become a Honda surgeon to keep her running, or manage to get a work visa for one from Viet Nam, not to mention the supply train of 40 year old Honda parts. There has to be an easier way to get a really cute ride. . .but. . .I'll never forget her, how she looked over shoulder and smiled at me. . .oh gosh. And all those new CC's. Oh my.
|Dishwasher catching up the back log while I had breakfast. . .Mui Ne|
So that was Mui Ne. And we discussed getting through Phan Thiet. We did the obligatory stop on the bridge to check the two known boat yards. The one I've figured out how to get into had several boats up for overhaul and bottom paint though nothing I still need, but the yard I've never been able to find (I mean, you can LOOK right at it from the bridge, but you need to be a sparrow to get there from the road I swear). . .that one. . .had three of the ocean going passenger and freight boats up for painting too. I'd have liked to photograph them from close up, I've never seen them out of the water before. . .but no. No wings. No can fly. How in heck do they get anything in there?? By water? Maybe so. . .maybe so.
|As close as I could get. . .Phan Thiet, ocean-going freight and passenger carriers that run a regular service to offshore islands. . . big sturdy looking boats, but very plain accommodation.|
So my first pass was through the main side of the harbor, where the fish market is and the ice house and sure enough, it was where I left it. Good start. Then out of the harbor complex and back to the road, through the narrow (and quite nice) fishing town streets to the arterial I'd left behind (a very slightly bigger street, and still pretty small) and soon I crossed the bridge at the tail of the harbor and recognized (oh yes?) the turnoff to the back side (north side?) of the harbor and turned down it. It's not really a street, rather a sand and rock lane. . .alley? running down the back side of the harbor with small temporary looking houses on the landward side. Suits the little horse just fine, though I wouldn't bring anything bigger.
And then it ended. It wasn't supposed to end, so I was a little surprised and stopped and stared at the way ahead. Which didn't go. Subconsciously I must have heard the giggling behind me sooner than my main brain picked up on it, but eventually I got it. Somebody was amused behind me. Actually, a whole porch full of people were amused. They were being amused quietly, I admit, holding it in, not guffawing or anything rude like that, basically trying to be quiet while their sides split. Now, I'd bought a little plastic bag of boiled peanuts (boiled??) and had them stuck on my handle bar. The porch full was snacking on something and drinking beer. They beckoned me to join them. I did, plopping my soggy bag of peanuts down next to their platter of coconut peanut brittle (oh yes! and ask me about ginger peanut brittle some time). That was a good move. Half an hour later I got away and found the right turnoff a bit further down the lane and ended up where I'd hoped to and that's another story.
|People don't come a lot sweeter than these. . .and I provide pretty good free entertainment.|
|He rowed very well with those bare feet (they all do in La Gi Harbor) but he would not row where I wanted to go. Sigh.|
|They aren't as much fun to watch as the ponies with their dump-carts, but they're amazingly sweet tempered (unlike some of their bosses) and really strong. Not fast. . .we're not worried about fast here|
The energy vortex and the alternate reality? Yes. Well, we got really lost, I mean, out in the country-where'd-they-put-the danged-town kind of lost. The worst part of that sort of lost is that moment when you realize you're being delighted by seeing the same things because you were lost there a half hour ago. At that point you know it's time to consult locals. I've already told you the secret to that particular energy warp, just remember the stoplight by the Chua and you're golden. In a more general sort of way I'd suggest you always (make that ALWAYS) take a business card ("carte visite". . .say it "carta vizz-EAT") from the front desk when you leave. If they don't have one you're staying in a really small hotel. Good luck.
The run from La Gi after the bike wash was just plain lovely until the traffic jam trying to get into the City. I knew it would be like that, and I'm not even sure it was as bad as I've seen. Half of the country is trying to get into or out of Saigon. . .even if they're still in Hanoi really (and the other half is trying to get out). Saigon is where the money is. End of story.
I always study maps and guidebooks before trying to get into or through Saigon and I've found there's a certain Zen like state you enter when you pull over to the side of the road and spread a map and a guide book out on the handle bars. The world whirls around you, sometimes close enough to flutter your map, and local help may (just "may" it's not a sure thing) stop to see if they can help. But one way or another, all the fuss goes away and you can study the map and the street and the compass. . .works pretty well, just don't be in a big rush. Getting out of town I usually make up a list of street names, turn directions, bridges and traffic circles (they show well on the $1.00 tourist map you can buy from almost anywhere. . .why doesn't Phan Thiet. . .oh never mind).
The arrival scene at my hotel in Saigon is something out of a movie. This is the absolute center of Saigon's backpacker tourist zone and all the bus tours drop off and pick up their loads here. In the afternoon and evening the buses that left Hanoi yesterday are offloading the survivors (yes, they're nice, really nice sleeper buses, but 24 hours??? Oh wow. The place is a madhouse, mostly all the time. I pull in, dusty or muddy depending on the day, squeeze through the incredible volume of motorbikes, cars and buses up fairly close to the curb, and catch the attention of the security guard who is also the doorman for the hotel. He acknowledges with his permanent smile (I think he really likes his work) and sets a guard on the bike, I climb the stairs, there IS one room left and I grab it. It would make good movie footage if you had a handsome star and maybe he wasn't quite so road-worn.
|In the quiet of early morning you can hardly believe the afternoon pandemonium, but just wait!!|
The only reason we stopped in Saigon was to meet the people who make the beautiful boat models that have a link on the website. They've been fun correspondents and I wanted to make personal contact this trip. Yes. Well. . .the older gentleman with the geriatric motorbike I ended up hiring was sure he knew the address. . .I had it written out in long form, street name and number, district and ward. . .and I had the map. I mean, we did make it eventually, I can't complain. The local motorbike taxi men have a union agreement that they'll always help a fellow union member. We cashed in on that something tremendous. . .stopped over and over again (and kept getting sent back more or less where we'd been the stop before) and finally, after asking the same group of coffee shop customers the same questions for the fourth (no, i'm serious) time, we drove up to one last xe om sitting on the right hand side of the street (say it "Seh Ohm". . .means the "hug vehicle" literally. ..motorbike taxi) and went through our whole rigamarole again. He pointed across the street and there it was.
|They're just gorgeous models. The blue sloop is almost as tall as I am.|
Which brings us back to choices. I was sitting here at this lovely little writing desk (it's rattan with a woven top covered with a tight fitting sheet of glass held in place by a picture frame of peeled bamboo. . .and it's the right height and the chair works with it) sitting here, about ten paragraphs back, when I realized just where I was and what was no doubt going on out on the street and that I hadn't had any lunch and. . .so I chose to go out and be in Saigon. There's a wonderful city park right across the street from the hotels. . .it takes up what, three city blocks. Trees, paths, flowers, and places to practice specific sports and do specific exercises on public (cast iron) exercise machines.
|Look closely. . .he's just whacked the thing and it's headed back where it came from, with deadly accuracy. It's like ballet! Mere mortals just kick the thing back and forth, but these people (some are ladies) are extraordinary!|
Well. I wrote until midnight last night. It's 7:00 now and I've been at it again for an hour and a half and I want to do about 8 hours on the bike today (I'll not tell you where, and perhaps, just maybe, I'll actually get there.. . .it's a long day and a route I don't know well at all.) So it's time to add a few photos and maybe a video. . .and get out of Saigon. You should be here.