Friday, December 27, 2013

And it's good bye again.

Written from the June Tourist Hotel, somewhere near Incheon airport (which is not terribly close to Seoul, Korea).  Weather cold and clear (about 20 degrees F when we got in last night, so at least 14 degrees colder than that morning in Samneua. . .but I'm not riding the little horse any more.

I've been saying goodbye to Viet Nam off and on now since 1971 and 1972.  In 1971 I knew I had to come back or go AWOL, and my Uncle's army wasn't kind to those who went AWOL.  In 1972, only a few months later really, I first understood I loved the place, and thought I'd never see it again.  I think it was then, getting on the "freedom bird" to fly home to the States for good (I thought) that I wondered a bit about why.  Part of it was no doubt simply that she was letting me go home alive.  It's probably the same reaction that's observed at times in released hostages who somehow empathize with their recent captors. . .but that wasn't the whole of it at all.  I just simply liked the place.  The food was fabulous, the scenery was often beautiful (more so then than now I think, there's a lot of jungle gone and cities sprawled in the years between), the people (except those actively engaged in trying to kill Americans) were incredibly industrious and wonderfully friendly, and just beneath the color of their skin they were all people like me.  And it was all so different than life at home.

That all still applies I think.  I'm tickled that once again the little horse and I have ridden through all those kilometers with all those opportunities for catastrophe. . .and got away alive.  Not entirely un-marked of course, but the horse will end up with a new just about everything out of it, and I'll heal up from my minor bumps and scrapes shortly.  Nothing broken, not even anything important bent.  Not bad.

There are still frequent moments of exquisite beauty along the road between the problems of the dense population and the often dreadful ongoing pollution.  Truly, I would take a five year stabilized tour of duty as the commisar of garbage for Viet Nam. . .with the power to make things happen, if they'd offer me the job.  Somebody must have that job already, or a number of somebodys. . .but it's a major uphill battle.  Far too many towns, not all of them so very small, have no place to put their garbage, so it ends up on the roadside at the edge of town.  Oh so sad.  Somehow a market has evolved for some of the rubbish. Glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans are carefully scavenged out of the curbside pickup by quiet people with gunnysacks on bicycles or on foot.  Cardboard, old fertilizer sacks, and scrap metal of any description, a huge volume out of the total, all gets carefully sorted and sold. . .the signs are all along the highways and in the towns. . ."Mua Phe Lieu"--"Will buy Recycleables" and trucks come to pick up the gathered stuff and pay for it.  But what of the plastic bags, the national bird of the country, flying free over every hectare and perching in any tree they like?  Or styrofoam boxes, used once for a lunch and liberated thereafter to roam?

I'd best get off my soapbox.  They're not hiring old men for the job anyway.  But the beauty is still there, and the people, just as industrious and cheerful as ever, and welcoming and polite to an old guy on a motorbike.

When you cut out the nonsense though, what has brought me back the past eight years is the endless network of roads and guesthouses and the little horse to ride on them.  I must have a gypsy somewhere in the family tree, or a peddler or a tinker or just a bum. . .I think I am never so happy as when I get up on a fine morning, throw my bag on the horse (and watch her stagger and then catch her balance), tie it down, and slide into the saddle.  Even if that fine morning is wet or cold (or heaven help us, both at once), still, setting out in the morning, now knowing what the road will bring, saying goodbye to pleasant hosts (or dusting off my feet from the house of the occasional grump) and moving on through the landscape.  Coming at evening to a town I've not seen before is getting to be a rare experience now. . .there's still a lot of country I haven't seen of course, but on the major routes, I know the roads and towns pretty well now.  So pulling into town well before dusk, finding my way to a remembered good guesthouse or hotel and being met by bright remembering eyes and obvious delight "You're back to Viet Nam Again!!  I'm so glad to see you!". . .that's a fine thing as well, with stories to tell on both sides, weddings and new babies since last year or old folks gone,  and where have I been and what have I done?

So I love the place, but after a time I can hear home calling again and now I'm joyful with the anticipation of home and friends.  Perhaps that too is part of the love of being gone, the joy of returning to the familiar life at home to see it, for a while at least, through different eyes.  The same eyes that have gulped in the sight of sunrise over fog filled valleys pierced by black mountain tops. . .those same eyes can see the lanes and woods and houses of home and handle them with greater care and understanding  for having ridden all those miles away.

But what did I do?  It seems every year I spend a page or two itemizing every Hanoi museum or shopping trip or minor adventure, and I did them all again this year.  There was a two-day, few hundred kilometer run up to the Northeast, where tourism and coal are doing well and boat building has hit a terrible downturn, a grand meeting with a young lady who is now an old friend at "Indochina Junk" (the nicest of the nice tour boat companies in Halong Bay), and long talks with other friends on other matters.  I listened, unbelieving, to the peal of bells in Hanoi Cathedral on Christmas night and sat a while with the finest zen statue of the Buddha I've seen in a monastery out on the dike road south of the city.

I had to make a hard decision about the Little Horse.  To spend the money to make her right again after what we went through in southern Laos. . .or to hand her over to the auction and be done with it.  I pondered how, and for how long in the future I'll be able to come back and put the bags on her back and ride out of the city in search of (reasonably survivable) adventure, and in the end I couldn't sell her, so she'll be doing very well indeed the next week or so, and I'll be back to ride her.

You can still get married in a Camry, but Mercedes is the new benchmark, and no more plastic flowers too!

Not the smallest ferry on the Red River, but she's on the list

Country town, northern Viet Nam (on the way to Halong City from Hanoi)


Dragons on stairs and ramps just seem to be necessary, even at the shrine of our Lady.

The red bridge to the island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Hanoi) at Christmastime (add red and green lights to a red bridge and some greenery and. . .)

So, what exactly IS "life size" for a goddess?  An admittedly mythical one??

This is how it begins, a block of white marble and some big saw cuts. . .and a sledge hammer

And it ends thusly, with emery cloth and later (maybe) jeweler's rouge!

Is he for real??

now, that's pretty. . .smuggled in from Cambodia with fake paperwork. . .an expensive little thing here!

One very small corner of Bat Trang ceramic village.  

Clay slip goes into the molds

And the pot comes out...but how did it get to be hollow?  I need some explanations here!

Adding the pretty blue pictures. . .they were printed on tissue paper and dabbed onto the greenware with a damp paintbrush.  Water, I think. . .

Pleasant low level of chatter with an occasional phone call.

Ah yes, getting the platter out of the mold. . .tricky!
Dragon and Phoenix. . .very traditional Vietnamese (Chinese. . .) design
Hanoi Cathedral--The quiet before the bells. . .

The lights quietly came up. . .as the bells began to peal!

Oh my goodness...restored in Saigon, a 1970's Motebecane "Mobylette".  Separate chains for the motor and the foot pedals, a true "mo-ped"

the young man who brought her to Hanoi declined to pose with her, but teased the young lady until she got on to for the camera.  Just lovely. . .both of them (though only the bike was sure she wanted to pose)!

And right down the street. . .a CD 90...a little more recent, but an Asian classic Honda. . .

A load of bagged cement no doubt, headed downstream to the Port of hanoi

And an empty. . .probably a sand barge. . .bound upriver with a bone in her teeth.  Remarkably efficient hull shape running light. . .hardly any wake and moving very well.

Perfection in the art of loading a barge.  Sink her, just not quite all the way!  Sand to feed the concrete plants and plasterers of the city. . .Huge volumes every day!

I ate roasted corn midway on the bridge. . .picnicking with young lovers.  A Hanoi treat! 

Portrait of a dog. . .from Long Bien bridge.

Pineapples should be a good buy over New years

Rush hour traffic on the ring road. ..not bad really. . .you should see it in the Old Quarter, or the financial district, or. . .yes.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Long Cold Run to Hanoi

Written from Hanoi, December 21, 22 and 23 2013.  Weather clear and cool, but not the biting  cold we had for a few days.  I feel I might owe you a short apology for the last post. . .it was a bit of a disjointed mess. So, I'm Sorry, but I've been busy.  Okay, that's over.  Oh, and if you think you have already read it, you might want to go back and have another look.  I've added quite a few photos and straightened out some of the other issues!

In essence, I suddenly got that annual feeling that I was too far from Hanoi (and the airport) too close to time to fly home.  At this time of year there aren't a lot of seats available, so if you miss your chance you might get to wait quite a while for another seat.  I haven't missed a  flight in a number of years, and that one wasn't my fault (headwind from Seattle, got into Seoul without time to change planes. . .).  Anyway, the annual sudden sense of urgency having set in, there was nothing you could do to keep us off the road, which was a road very short on internet opportunities, so even had there been time to write to you, I couldn't have.

The route I chose, without consulting the Vietnamese Consulate in Louang Prabang was the easier of the two I've used before. In essence, I did so because of my horrific memories of the alternative route farther north but shorter.  In 2009, it lead to a ferry crossing (barge and tug or a big canoe, depending) across the Ou River, then 60 odd km of horrendously bad, deep dust road, interspersed with unimproved water crossings and minuscule (scary narrow) bridges.  At the time it counted as the hardest ride I'd ever made it through alive.  I now know that it's been improved a little. . .the ferry is replaced with a major bridge over the Ou, the dust is paved and the water crossings are all civilized bridges.  The Vietnamese Consul in LP would have told me that if I'd asked. But no, I couldn't be bothered, so, early in the morning of the 17th of December, we took what had been much the easier road six years ago.

 It leads north out of Louang Prabang almost to Oudomxay, less than 100 km, then an opportunity presents to turn East on a smaller road (which is what we needed).  From there, in a short ways, 30 or 40 km,  you reach the little hamlet where the highway crosses the Ou River, (oh, the sad sad Ou River!!  May the damned dam builders rot in some hell where the rivers still run through their valleys to mock them!!).  The little town there is called Nong Khiaw, which is confusing, since the maps are likely to show it as "Muong Khoa".  The two are actually separate little towns, and Muong Khoa is the larger of the two, but it's purely a river town, the roads don't go there, so Nong Khiaw is where you would park your bike to take a boat (scheduled or private!) to to go to Muong Khoa. The last time I passed through the river was low and sparkling clear and (five years ago now) there were two traditional rock solid mattress guest houses without windows, one set of (very nice) thatched bungalows on a hillside, a restaurant, and the boat terminal and a few ladies selling snacks on the street.  The bus would stop at the bridge head and let anybody off who was bold enough to try it.  Today. . .there's a full fledged bus terminal with its own guesthouse and restaurant, a dozen or more other guesthouses or sets of bungalows, all manner of restaurants. . .and very many tourists.  It deserves the attention.  The setting is superb, a rushing rapid and rock strewn river running through a splendid valley that's almost a canyon, steep and jungle covered, with tiny gardens along the river banks. But the people there this year will be the last to see the river running free from end to end.  There are to be several dams along the river to make electricity for China and the first has already begun.  The river has been navigable down to Louang Prabang, 160 kilometers, forever, with white water in places, but the little freight and passenger boats have carried on the trade.  A string of villages along the river has been home to people who have farmed and hunted on the mountainsides from time out of mind.  Now. . .the end is in sight.  The river will become a string of lakes with a silty muddy ring of bare shoreline below the last of the trees in the dry season.  There will be roads and traffic and the villages will move or die and the silt will settle out and choke the lakes and. . .but there will be dams.  Anyway, I almost stopped to watch the river, red with silt and swollen out of its low water banks, rushing by the rest of the day, but decided to push on.  It was too early in the day to stop and too far to the border and on to Hanoi.  But since it was there (there has to be some good come out of tourism) I ate a splendid Chicken Masala with garlic Naan in Deen's Indian Restaurant almost on the river's edge!  After that excellent lunch, in Muang Khoa it was another good run of fifty or sixty km into a very small mountain town at another bridge, this one over a lesser stream, without the magnificent setting of Muang Khoa, with no tourism or facilities whatever and without the impending doom for its stream. That was far enough, and the next little town along the way would have been much too far to make before dark, so we stopped there in Vieng Kham.  It's not the sort of place you'd choose for an extended vacation, but it's a sweet little town in its own way.  There must be five hundred school kids, and they all smiled or waved (or, in a few cases, pointedly ignored me) as they walked home from school in the late afternoon.  There's only the one street of town, the highway (such as it is), though there is a village square sort of place down near the bridge.  The town must be a bit over a kilometer long, though only 50 meters wide.  There are two guest houses (the town has a big H on the map, so I was expecting something of the sort).  One of them is masonry and the other is see through planks.  It was getting amazingly cold as the sun got low in the sky (mountains cut off the day early) and I took the solid masonry place in hopes of  less of a cold wind blowing through.  The rooms. . .were just big enough for two cots and a place to stand between them, but the cots had nice mattresses and quilts to die for!  They know how to deal with cold nights there, and just as well!   The shutters over the grill-work windows were wired shut for the winter, but the lights worked well, and the sun was going anyway by the time I'd carried in my things.  The bathroom was at the end of the hall, a pair of stand up toilets, each in its own stall, and a third stall for a shower head and a sink.  Not bad really, and my room No.5 was right next door.  There was one other party in the house that night but we never came up with a scheduling problem for the facilities.  I was feeling a little sorry for myself, spending the night in such cramped and unlovely quarters, but truth to tell, I slept very well indeed that night and woke up wide awake and ready to go.  Oh, the hrose?  She slept in the entry hall next to the couch and coffee table.
Just clear of Louang Prabang, prosperous lowland farms, an easy road, a bright (if cold) day,  just lovely!

This is actually quite a substantial little home with a large yard. . .there's really nothing inferior about woven bamboo siding in an environment where shade, coolth and ventilation are the priorities eleven months of the year.  

And still the road is a joy, running mostly in river bottom land, level and just twisting enough to be delightful.  The mountains though are ahead, and soon there'll be no more level ground, anywhere!

The Ou River at Nong Khiaw with the freight and passenger boats tied up below the boat terminal.  Here is where you would leave your bike to go to Muang Ngoy if that were your destination.  The Ou isn't really flooding, but she's just above her low water banks and running really hard.  At times she's a crystal clear stream and the local women pan gold from the gravel bars.

Up in the mountains beyond Nong Khiaw now, the days of level ground are over.  From here on it's either up or down, and often very quickly!  The ridges are cold and the valleys a little warmer, though that will change tonight!

The first sight of Viang Kham, much smaller than Nong Khiaw and essentially completely un-touristed.  No restaurants (though two very good noodle shops),  and two, very primitive, guest houses, with REALLY hard mattresses and a toilet at the end of the hall.  One of cold masonry and the other of drafty boards.  Your choice!

The bridge at Viang Kham. . .the heart of town really.

You need to know that the horse was going lame by now.  Her repeated dunkings in water and mucking in mires and running with mayonnaise in her crank case (instead of oil) back on National Road 18a were coming home to roost.  Her headlight circuitry was fouled up. . .good brake and turn lights, but no head or tail light. . .so we were stuck with daylight riding.  She'd begun eating oil like I eat noodles. . .lots and often.  Her carburetor had something sticking part time in the low speed jet so sometimes she would decline to idle and just die at low rpm's.  I wanted to get her at least to Samneua, a real town with real facilities for repairs, mechanics who have an opportunity to work on a variety of bikes, and parts supply. . . (and hotels and restaurants, but who's looking?).  I'd watched mountain mechanics at work with a sledge hammer and a rock (straightening the swing arm on an old Honda, but still. . .) and I didn't want them sorting through the horse's electrical system or her carb!    Samneua is, in any event, the obligatory jumping off point for a ride across the border into Viet Nam.  It's 85 km of bad road (magnificent scenery, but awful road) to the border at Na Meo and another 120 on beyond to the first place to stay in VN, and it's all rough mountain riding, on roads blasted by too many heavy trucks, so we were looking to make Samneua somehow the next day, and before dark!

Little mountain towns like Vieng Kham don't get up early in the morning, so after a lovely noodle dinner for me, a new tank of gas and a quarter liter of fresh oil for the horse,  I bought a can of Nestle's coffee (freshly made from concentrate no doubt) and two packages of cookies (tiny little things really) and was ready to ride by 0630 at first light.      

This is weaving country incidentally, the women sit at big square looms and do magic with cotton thread.  They do a pulled ikat weft sort of weaving with occasional bands of impossibly intricate brocaded ornamentation. . .wonderful painstaking hand work.  There are two separate difficult techniques. . .The weft for the ikat portion is tightly bound in  skeins, and passed through a series of dye baths to produce an intricately colored endless thread that seems to make no sense as you see it separately, but when it's woven into the warp with proper attention to detail, it produces all sorts of lovely repeated patterns.  The Indigenas of Guatemala do the same sort of work, perhaps even more intricately.  However, the ornamental bands of brocade work are something else again.  I've watched it done and still don't understand exactly how it happens.  One way or another it's a remarkable level of skill and artistic (usually) effort.   I looked at a number of looms already put to bed for the day as I walked down through the town waving at school kids, but didn't have a chance to pester a weaver.
Winding bobbins for the shuttle, an endless job for a weaver.  The wheel on the left is the drive wheel, the bobbin is by the lady's left hand and the skein of weft is feeding from the wheel at the right.  

They didn't know enough to be afraid of me. . .

Looking up the length of the town.  The highway curves enough you can't see far.  All the more reason to slow down in these small villages.

A really nice house in Viang Kham, and one of the largest shops.   Masonry ground floor and wooden upper story, a typical arrangement in Laos for really nice homes.

The standard arrangement for a Lao loom, not so different from Mexican or Guatemalan looms, though the Mexican weavers will most likely be working with wool, not cotton.  This is brocade work showing.

The next morning (the 18th of December, if you're keeping track) did not so much dawn as simply grayed a little lighter.  The fog was down on the pavement, visibility a hundred feet or so, dripping like rain off the leaves of the trees above the road, and cold!  Oh so cold!! I put on two shirts, my sweater, the rain coat and pants, my half gloves (oh poor little finger tips!!) and had to kick start the horse.  She wasn't too eager to go anyway, with all her problems, and the cold finished off her interest.  But she roared when I kicked so we left town in the murk, not looking back.  No one was around to say goodbye.

The ride through the fog was bitter cold, about 1 degree Celsius I heard later and my face plate and glasses were useless with the mist, so I rode with nothing over my face and eyes but the blast of the cold wind. Even with all those clothes, and riding rather slowly in honor of the fog, it was hard to make things function. . .fingers, feet, things like that.   From the bridge in town the road climbs quickly up the mountainside to run along another ridge for quite a ways, and for a while we rode along a magnificent winding little road with the rising sun pouring down on top of a mountain studded sea of shining white clouds.  I was just almost too cold to hold the camera, but not quite.
A sea of peaks above the fog in the sunrise.  Some things you pay dearly for, but are worth the cost.
That didn't last, and we were back down into dripping fog until the sun got high enough above to burn it off.  Thereafter the day was bright when we were out of the shadow of mountains and forest. . .and the scenery was non-stop fantastic, ridges, valleys, flying down into valleys, crawling around the switchbacks (so steep you had to go as slow going down as you would going up. . .going up you climb in 2nd gear with the motor working hard. . .going down the motor idles and you lean hard on the brakes!  Up on the ridges you run along nicely.  The valleys. . .what valleys??  There was usually a bridge over whatever stream was running through and an immediate climb back up again.  In every tiny village or hamlet we passed through the entire population was out, on the side of the road or actually on the road bed, huddled around bonfires, trying to get warm.  The little bamboo homes mostly do have a small box of dirt inside for a hearth, but to try to warm up the whole family, a bigger fire is in order, and that has to be outside.  As the day went on and the sun worked on the temperature you couldn't help but notice that nobody sat on the shady side of anything!  It was a really long day, but  nothing really to report.  We pulled into Samneua just before 4:00 in the afternoon, took the first (really lovely) guesthouse that didn't look impossibly expensive, and went to find a mechanic.  The horse was ready.  We rode away with the lights working (we still won't deliberately ride at night, but the ability to do so at need is not a small matter!) and a few other minor things seen to.  The engine overhaul she needs now will wait until we get to Hanoi and the home shop.  We hope.
A mud slide that stopped neatly halfway across the road.  Many ran clear across and were removed just enough to let the two wheels of a truck run through.  We ran in the ruts in that case.

The town we couldn't get to the night before. . .several nice looking guest houses, a real restaurant (though her noodles were not as good as last night's) and internet (or so said the signs).  I've spent the night here before, and visited the hotsprings down the road.  Actually, this is the town where first I was photographed while photographing local people.  Cell phones have changed the rules!

Sweet little garden patch, tiny house and a granary (even smaller).

If it can be farmed someone is farming it!  Much of the jungle is cleared and set to agriculture, but at least this trip there was no jungle burning.  At times the whole world is blanketed with smoke and flame.

AH HAA!  A new species of motorized river canoe.  No time for measurements, but long and skinny is still the correct description. . .three planks and a motor. . .yes. . .but they've done the planks differently!  

They started out quite suspicious of my camera on the canoes, but when I turned my attention to them and motioned for everybody to crowd together, they were all smiles.

A prosperous little country village, not far from Samneua now. . .the day is going well, but still cold.  People are not sitting in the shade!

The littlest weaver of the trip.  I didn't know how to ask her age, but she might have been ten or twelve and was doing nicely with the pulled ikat technique.  Unlike her sister, she needed to use a stick with pins in the ends to keep her weaving the right width.  I've done that.  Her simpler product only costs 2/3 as much as her sister's master work.

The older sister, a real master of the loom, at her work.  I'd already decided not to buy any more fabric, I have a drawer full at home.  So I only bought a little, enough for one skirt.  Lovely work and delightful people.

Just somewhat prosperous homes along the way, not the desperate places up on the far ridges, but still fairly small and simple.  Is that so bad??

On from Samneua, December 19th 2013
I came this way in 2008 on a different horse, so the Little one can't be blamed for what happened when we got out in the bitter cold and fog next morning.  I stalled, I admit, while still feeling pressured to be on the road to take no chance of being stranded short of the first guest house in Viet Nam by nightfall.  Getting through border crossings is not predictable here and may take a long time, but it was SO COLD!! It actually snowed that morning in Sapa, the highest town in Viet Nam.  We didn't have snow, but the temperature was recorded at ONE DEGREE CELSIUS again.  That's nominally two degrees F above freezing, but tell that to my fingers!  When we found the first noodle shop opening for the morning at 0630, they brought me a tin pan full of charcoal glowing bright red. . .set it next to my chair, where it warmed one leg and both hands while the coffee water boiled and the soup came together.  The waitress came and warmed hands and nose too and we shivered at each other.  It was really hard to leave that little fire when the noodles and coffee were gone.

I tried to buy a pair of full gloves from the first shop that opened its shutters, but the young lady had none in her basket that would go over my hands.  She wasn't going to miss the first sale of the day though, so peeled off her own and sold them to me at the going rate.  I put the half gloves back on over the top of hers and couldn't think of any excuses to stall any longer, so we rode out into the (almost) freezing fog and got really cold on the way to Na Meo, the border, and Viet Nam.

But I was letting the horse off the hook for the day's misadventures when the cold weather got my attention.  It was a two goof day, which fortunately is quite uncommon.  I had, as I said, been this way in 2008 and remembered the route pretty well.  I thought.  There is only one Y in the road on the Lao side, about 30 km from Samneua, and I remembered it well, very obvious, with a sign and everything.  This morning I missed it.  In the five years passing it had grown some tall shrubs and for whatever reason didn't even look like a road to me. The fact is that five years ago I'd also taken the left side of the Y, but then it was on purpose, an attempt to cross into Viet Nam at the Moc Chau border gate (which didn't work, it's not a gate for foreigners and doesn't have passport controls).  However, 20 km or so down the fork this 2013 morning I suddenly very clearly recognized a spectacular terraced hillside on my left. . .and I knew where I was and I knew it wasn't where I was supposed to be.  That would explain why the road had been getting so rough as well, it really didn't seem like the approach to even a Lao international border gate.  So we backtracked 20 km.  Great start to the day.

But we did get to the border gate (80 km of really rough road from Samneua) at 11:30, so in theory we had over six hours of full daylight to get down out of the mountains and into Viet Nam where we'd find guest houses and all the nice things one wants at the end of a day.  The Lao border police however, were out to lunch and weren't expected back until one.  Yikes.  A few heavy freighters and a flock of motorbikes were already rafted up waiting.  It looked like a long lunch break for a bit!   Now, I'm generically opposed to corruption and graft and wouldn't dream of bribing a border guard myself, but if a really rich gentleman in a Hummer with a cargo of rich passengers wants to go up to the restaurant on the hill and wave passports in the air with money sticking out of them and the captain of the border police feels it's worth his time to cut his lunch hour short and come stamp those passports, then. . .well. . .I'll put my passport in the stack and smile.  We were all out of there by 12:30, clear of all the formalities and rolling down the road in Viet Nam.  Only somebody (or a whole lot of somebody's driving big trucks) had completely wrecked the little mountain road (which we might as well start calling DT217).  It was far worse than the Lao side, something I'd never have imagined.  Oh well, we plowed on downward, dodging bomb craters and drop offs through the cluster of Vietnamese mechanics, restaurants, gas pumps and so forth that cling to the border.  I kept thinking it was just a local problem there in the border zone and would certainly come right in a short while.  I kept thinking that for hours actually, though hope eventually began to fade.  It was in that environment, a devastated road through really steep country that I apparently missed what should have been the only turn for many many miles and began a long wander.  There were no km markers for a long way, and when they began again, they certainly didn't look right.  I was on DT507, not DT217.   Goodness, that was a shock!  What should have been, even with that bad road, a fairly short afternoon turned into an almost-to-dark day and an amazing variety of roadway from brand spanking new wide road through stupendous scenery to what was no more than a rutted muddy streambed up a steep hill.  Actually, that's the opposite sequence. . .the muddy rutted climb (with boulders) was only about a kilometer from the start of the new road.  At the top of that dreadful climb I stopped to breathe and let the horse think.  There were three young people cutting bamboo stalks into precisely measured short pieces (about 30" long, though I didn't measure them).  As the horse and I staggered to a stop on the top of the hill and they stared at us in amazement, I announced in a loud grumpy voice that this road was stinking awful (my Vietnamese still doesn't extend to cursing. . ).  They didn't laugh or anything rude but made it very clear that everything was about to be much better in just a little ways. . .and that's how it was.  From that low (high?) point in the day, the road was fine.  Steep maybe, and very winding, but gorgeous and brand new, or not even quite finished in places, but still, just fine.

I don't know what the carefully measured and split pieces of bamboo were all about, but there were hundreds of people engaged in that work for many kilometers along the way.  The local supply of 2"-3" diameter bamboo was taking a terrible beating, though the stuff grows really fast hereabouts.  I saw a number of official signs starting with bold letters with the Vietnamese for "THE RULES" (a phrase I know well, it's on a notice in every hotel room in the country), and the countryside was so completely undeveloped except for the new road, I suspect I was riding through the middle of a national nature preserve or national forest of some sort, and the bamboo cutting, being so intense and coordinated must have been a lot like the first day of fishing season. . .only for bamboo.  Who knows??

And then the horse threw her chain!  That is a very bad thing for any bike to do, whether it's your six year old's new two wheeler or a motorbike like mine.  You can quickly fix and adjust your kid's bike but it's potentially catastrophic for the motorbike.  It's not uncommon for the chain to jam up inside the drive sprocket cover and crack the engine case, which is simply "game over".  I assumed at first the chain was broken, it had only been on three days and was brand new, so the thought that leaped to mind was that the new closing link had lost its circlip and we'd shed the connection.  I did not have parts to fix that, and we were an extremely long ways from anywhere with a bike shop.  Oh dear.  But there was no use standing there and crying (though it did occur to me), so I began taking the luggage off the horse to get a clear view of the problem.  And then (flourish of bugles and clatter of hooves!!) the cavalry arrived.  Well, four young Vietnamese gentlemen rode up on their way home from whatever.  I waved the leader down and, while he struggled to understand what in heck I was (white guy on a motorbike WHERE?? HERE??  YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING!) I began fumbling with the chain.  Well, to make this reasonably short, the chain was not broken, nor was the engine destroyed.  The new chain had "stretched" enough to become seriously loose in just the 3 days of (hard) riding, and managed simply to jump off the rear sprocket.  While I discussed maps and routes with two of the young men the other two spread my tools out on the road and put everything right.  No kidding.  I am continually delighted with the sweetness and helpfulness of the people here.  Ten minutes after the apparent disaster we were rolling through the splendid scenery as though there was nothing better in the world.

I had no right for it all to work out so well, but maybe this was the opposite side of the coin from my disaster on National Road 18A, and the route I took, though it brought me back to "civilization" about 30 km farther south than I'd expected, and apparently added almost 100 km to my ride for the day. . .was really delightful.  Everything worked just fine.  The basic route finding technique was consistent for the day even if not very scientific. . .just keep going downhill.  Sooner or later you'll get to the Gulf of Tonkin, and I know the coast pretty well.  Maybe I do need a gps. . .

There was a bad moment or two when we pulled into Thuong Xuan (say it "Two-ung-Sue-un" more or less) which was the town in which I hoped to find a guesthouse. It was getting noticeably late in the day and the first guesthouse I saw had a large bus parked in the yard.  Oh dear.  And yes, they were full, but the lovely little hotel a few hundred feet further down the road and up an alley, was all but empty.  There was a whole street of little noodle and rice shops in town, each with its own specialty, and of course, a gas station, so we were well fed and beautifully bedded for the night after all.  It's best to be good at what you do, but lucky isn't bad if it's all you have!

Which brings us to the 20th of December and the last leg back into Hanoi, and perforce a short discussion on "Duong Ho Chi Minh", which translates as "The Ho Chi Minh Road", NOT "The Ho Chi Minh Trail".  The trail lies almost entirely in Laos and Cambodia, along with the remnants of bombs and mines we poured into the area during the war years.  The trail was actually a wide network of alternative trails and byways and footpaths through an excruciating landscape of limestone peaks and steep mountainsides.  The "road", a modern day route, lies entirely within Viet Nam, and now extends from Hanoi to Saigon essentially uninterrupted, but not uniformly developed.  It's a western route and includes the route through the Central Highlands that I frequently use for the northbound part of my journey home at least as far as Hue.  If you've followed my earlier trips, you might remember that in the stretch just above Hue I've encountered massive landslides, missing roadways, a broken foot (concrete post on a curve) and other minor problems.  So I've never tried the route north of Hue and on into Hanoi, though I've often crossed it or followed it for a short ways looking for scenery.  Therefore, I was a little reluctant to hazard a trip on the HCM road on into Hanoi and was contemplating what was clearly a longer route out the well-known QL-1 (think Interstate 5) route I've used before, even knowing how horrible it usually is for the last 100 km into Hanoi.  The lady at the hotel strongly urged me toward the HCM Road instead.  I must have asked her three times if it really was good enough road, but her patience held and we went that way at last.  What a splendid route!!  It's a wide 2 lane road, almost entirely level, though running through amazing limestone mountains and cliffs.  You could believably set the throttle on 60 kmh (or more if the law allowed) and let the bike run with the reins loose, just wide, easy curves, and hardly any climbs or descents. . .a very fast 150 km in short, leading to an amazing new route into the city.  I'm not convinced it's one of the routes sh own on my maps, but whatever it is, it has four  lanes for automobiles and four lanes for motorbikes (and never the twain shall meet).  Dead level, dead straight, running due East into the heart of the city.  Wow.  Of course, I'd never been that way before and the horse was coughing and limping, so it wasn't entirely carefree, but with the mid day sun shining down the streets from the south we ran straight into the city from the West and onward, ever Eastward through the traffic, past sky scrapers and shoe shine men, noodle shops and pet stores (and everywhere, people selling warm jackets!).  Sooner or later, if we kept going East we must encounter the ring road and the river, and when we did, I'd know where we were and how to get home.  In the event, we came to the ring road only a block upstream from the old Long Bien bridge, a landmark I would know in the darkest night, only a dozen easy blocks from home.  What a fine end for a fine ride!

The total for the trip comes out to about 7450 km, or 4,470 miles.  Had I managed to keep the little horse out of the mud and water she would no doubt have come into town at a canter, but even as it was, with almost 29,000 km on her odometer with me, and all the abuse in Laos, she came in head high.  Limping a little, but still going strong.  We turned off at her usual bike wash (they always charge us half again the going rate, she never comes in just reasonably dirty, but it's still just $1.50 and she comes out sparkling).  From there to the shop was only a block or two, so I loaded the baggage back on her and we went around to let them know what she needed.  A quick trip by the hotel disposed of the bags and she went back for serious work.  They spent the rest of the day on her, tore the engine and carburetor down, putzed around with the lights and fuel line, bought her a new piston and rings and all sorts of small pieces to go with.  At times there were three mechanics working on her, the boss (Mr. Dung), and the youngest (he's more than an apprentice) were working four-handed on the motor while the next senior mechanic took her head apart and reworked the valves.  By quitting time she was going back together.  I had other errands to run early in the morning on the 21st, but when I turned up at 0930, the little bike was sitting on the street, nosed in to the curb and chuckling quietly to herself.  It's an unvarying rule in this shop that any new motor, whether brand new or just newly rebuilt, has to run idling for a full day, with people periodically dousing the cylinder and head with water to keep it cool.  I'm not sure if it's really necessary, but I'm not one to argue with these mechanics, they know their work, so I spent much of the day watching the comings and goings of the shop and splashing nice clean (no mud) water very carefully on her motor, as ordered.  On the morning of the 22nd, we left for one last romp up to Halong Bay and back, but that's another matter!