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. . .


  1. Point of information on BMT and the coffee industry. Vietnam ranks second in world coffee production. It passed up Colombia sometime in the 1990s. It still ranks well below Brazil. Vietnam's coffee is Robusta, which grows better in cleared land without trees at lower altitudes. The higher quality coffees tend to be Arabica, which require shading and grow best in high altitudes. Most latin american production is Arabica. In any event, most of Vietnam's coffee production ends up as one of several coffees in a blend. They do produce small amounts of very high quality Robusta, but their bread and butter is the low base stuff for the mass market. A friend of mine who served with the Vietnamese Airborne Division as an advisor once claimed that he would touch no product from today's Vietnam. He still argues that his blended coffee has no Vietnamese beans in in, but I would bet he is mistaken.

    Any freshly roasted coffee tends to taste superb at its point of origin, and Vietnamese coffee is no different. I used to say that you couldn't get a bad cup of coffee in Vietnam, but then I visited Hanoi. They brew their coffee differently, even in the chains like Trung Nguyen. In fairness to Hanoi, teas are what most Hanoians drink, and they have some world class ones. My experience is that Vietnam's best tasting coffee starts somewhere above a line running from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang and points south.

    I've made three trips back to the Highlands since 2002 and every time BMT gets larger. It's population exceeds that of Can Tho in the Delta. In 2002 I was told that the Montagnard population of Dak Lak province was below 15%. BMT has at least quadrupled since then and the Montagnard population is far smaller compared to ethnic Kinh. Back in 1968, when BMT was the Rhade tribal capital, the only Vietnamese in BMT were a small number of shopkeepers, ARVN troops, and their dependents, and they were outnumbered by the Rhade.

    Final comment: Hope you visited the Lam Dong provincial museum in Dalar when you were there. If not, recommend it on your next trip. they have a display containing some items from that 7th Century AD Hindu Temple unearthed at Bao Loc. In 1968 Bao Loc was a small Special Forces camp. Of interest, its Vietnamese Special Forces commander was a Montagnard officer. Nowadays it is a Bauxite mine.

    Anyway, the Lam Dong museum is well worth your time, unlike the BMT and Pleiku provincial museums which are mere Ho Chi Minh propaganda palaces. They don't overdo the HCM stuff, and they include nice exhibitions of the Koho and other tribes who inhabit Dalat, in addition to that Hindu Temple display that begs the question: Was Lam Dong province part of Champa? After Dak Lak province, Lam Dong is the second largest center of coffee production in Vietnam.