Monday, November 25, 2013

Run Across Country, headed for Phu Quoc Island

Written from Ha Tien, Kien Giang province, November 25, 2013.  Weather was pleasant at daylight, clear and not too hot, very hot at mid day and cool again in mid afternoon (say 3:30 or 4:00) when the daily thunderstorm passes through.  Find a place to write or something. . .just don't try to ride until it's over (usually 4:15 to 4:45 or thereabouts)

The past three days amount to a complete passage across the delta, starting north a ways at Phan Thiet, through Saigon, into the real delta country at My Tho, then south and west across the delta to Rach Gia and finally, today, on into Ha Tien.  From here, after three years of saying I was going to, I will finally take the boat over to Phu Quoc Island.  But that's tomorrow, This is about just getting close!  That first leg, from Phan Thiet, through Saigon and on toward My Tho really isn't much of a pleasure.  There's a ways at the start of the day that's pretty easy going, but pretty shortly you start to get into the far outer outskirts of Ho Chi Minh, and it only gets worse after that.  I was determined this trip to avoid going right through the middle of the city.  I always get lost there and that gets tedious.  There is a bypass road.  It IS a terrible traffic mess, but at least you keep going where you need to, not around in circles.  I don't know which fork in the road was the wrong one, but I entered the city, as often before, across the Saigon bridge.  Sigh.  Now I have to say that Saigon Traffic has a bad rap.  It's busy certainly, but nothing outrageous.  The main arterials are mostly divided with impregnable side lanes for motorbikes, and the cars are happier with a lane or two of their own. More important, the street signage is 100% perfect.  Actually, it's better than that.  Not only are all the corners signposted, but essentially every building has its full street address clearly shown either on concrete or on the awning.  Phone numbers too if you want them.  So there's a lot good to be said.  This time, knowing I had a ways to go before starting the wander through the maze, I simply carried on in the protected bike lane for quite a ways and then spotted a good place to pull over to the curb and plot my course.  I have a tourist map, a good thing to have under the circumstances.  I think it shows every street and most of the named alleys in the city.  It indicates statues, radio transmitter towers, roundabouts. . .a lot.  So I write out a list (traffic buzzing by, the occasional helpful local looking over my shoulder), a list, as I was saying,  street by street, turn by turn, noting roundabouts, bridges (named!!!) and anything that'll make it easier ("Lake & Park on Left at turn" for example).  Then put away the map, put the list in my shirt pocket and we're off.  It worked.  I no longer "ALWAYS" get lost in Saigon.  One safe crossing does not a native guide make, but I'm pretty proud of it.

Then you emerge from the well ordered life of the city onto the highway again.  It's the most miserable stretch of road in the country. . .perfectly nice pavement and so forth, but an unbroken chain of heavy transport going both directions hordes of motorbikes and city buses.  Of all the heavy traffic, they're the only thing allowed in our motorbike lane.  They want to run in the highspeed part of the lane, over on the left, but they want to let their people out or pick them up at the curb.  They do this a lot.  If you're beside one as it heads for the curb you won't see its turn signal.  Fortunately, the turn signals are wired to a horn that sounds sort of like "WHEE Up. . ." frequently.  Hear it and move, that bugger is coming over!

It does get better, very very slowly, and by the time you're within 30 km of My Tho it's pretty livable again.  The countryside is country more or less. . .still lots of activity, but not the wall to wall commercial and industrial mass that you start with.  The worst of the traffic pulls off and goes somewhere else, and you're left with  just a busy ride in a semi-urban setting.  Ten km from My Tho, in the evening rush hour already it's suddenly just fine.  Wandering through the city, finding the river, then the long park and the sharp turn at the side channel of the river that runs by the market, down a few blocks, past the bridge, into the market, left turn and another block and pull up into the hotel lobby. They remembered me from one night last year.

There was time for a walk along the river and a glass of mineral water with lemon juice and a whole pot of tea (really nice tea) while I sprawled in a deck chair with my feet on the bank and the river freighters going by.    I ate Bun Rieu Cua with Mam. . .a delta specialty (yet another noodles and meat and veggies and herbs and seasonings sort of thing--the mam is pungent but good) I found it at the foot of the street and sat at a little red table on a little red chair on the sidewalk at the edge of the market in the dark.    It was a very good day and a lot of kilometers to have run, something over 200, including Saigon. . .H'mm.

It's interesting to reflect though that when I came down with dysentery in 2005 it was in Ben Tre, yet  another 10 kilometers farther than My Tho.  I was terribly sick for 3 nights and 2 days and when I finally could ride again, weak as I was, I rode in one stage from Ben Tre to Mui Ne, another 18 km more on the far end of the trip, so about 38 km longer ride. I was terribly weak and all I remember of the trip was being nauseated by every whiff of smoke from burning weeds or trash or. . .so help me. . .from the terrible stink of drying fish along the road.  (Normally I don't mind that aroma at all. . .).  When I got to Mui Ne I spent 3 days more, either dozing in my room or swinging in a hammock under a palm tree, only moving when the sun moved my shade. Then I moved on.  I suppose I was 8 years younger then!

The feeling of the Delta is unique in my life.  The air is full of the smells of growing things (some of  them pretty strong!).  Water is everywhere, flooding the rice fields, filling little channels along the roadway, running hard down some canals that carry a constant stream of traffic. . .and now and then you come to the River itself.  It's enormous here, chocolate brown and moving quickly to the sea.  The markets are filled beyond imagination with a superabundance of good things to eat. . .fresh fish from sea and live ones from the river, meat of all sorts, live ducks and chickens, an absolutely unbelievable display of vegetables and fruits, rows and streets filled with it all. . .and then there are the dried and preserved things.  Unbelievable abundance.  The air is warm and the sun is hot, people wear loose clothes in beautiful colors, street stalls are everywhere selling wonderful flavors for very little. . .but the place is flat.  I mean, really flat.  As in maybe a few feet above the river. . .everywhere.  You get to go up 15 or even 20 feet to go over some bridges, and the new suspension and cable stay bridges over major branches of the river take you way up in the sky where you can see for miles over the very very flat land.  I like hills.  Rocks.  Steep places and switchbacks on my roads.   So I'm ambiguous about the delta.

When I was a young man I had very little to do with the delta, just an occasional trip with my interpreter-bodyguard to visit his family in Ben Tre, but I remember it quite differently than it seems now, with frequent long views across endless rice paddy.  Eight years ago when I first began wandering through this country I followed much of this same route.  Then it was built up all along the banks of the straight canals (look at the map and think of all the dredging that took!!) but you could still see quite a lot of the water as you rode along.  Viet Nam has 90 million people now, and they're having really cute kids at every reasonable opportunity, so it's getting a bit more populated somehow.  You can ride for miles along QL80, one of the major 2 lane roads through the countryside, and not see the canal that runs along it more than a glimpse now and then.  It's astounding, but I think it may be as much as 40 or 50 kilometers of buildings, houses and shops and workshops, built brick to brick except at intersections and bridges.

All that comes to an end about 20 km outside of Ha Tien.  You come into a town much like a hundred little towns you've been through in the past two days, turn a corner, and there's a river full of fishing boats, ocean going fishing boats, and an open bay beyond and just at the river's mouth. . .a great hunk of rock.  After riding two days through untold acres of flat mud, the sight of a proud rock standing beside the sea is enough to make your heart beat. . .and the boats.  Seagulls and salt water and maybe a sea eagle.  From that point on you're never far from the sea and its smell and the hills begin to come out to meet you.  Ha Tien is at the end of the delta. . .or just a mile or two past it.

Random things seen on the road the past few days:

At a stoplight:  A young husband settling his young wife on their motorbike.  She's sitting on the back seat of the parked bike. He's just finished tying a pretty green flowery blanket around her neck, draped over her front and into her lap.  Her arms and the tiny baby they're holding are hidden under it.  She's sitting bolt upright.  He put  her helmet on her head, reached under her chin to find the strap and clicked it.  The light turned green and I left.

Charlie Chaplin on TV in the sanctuary of a Khmer Buddhist temple.  The head monk of the establishment was watching spellbound.  It was actually great. . .I've seen very little of Chaplin, and never before in a Buddhist temple.

A fast river boat with two truck batteries, a lady passenger and a skipper going quite briskly down the river playing a Bach organ piece on a horrible loudspeaker loudly enough to break glass or synchronize heart beats. . .and so distorted it might have been anything (I'm betting on the Bach, just because it's so unlikely).

A drunk young man being frog marched off the road where he had either been trying to flag down a bus or maybe attack it. . .followed by a weeping young woman.  (No, everything is not perfect here, or always fun, and alcohol is a problem after noon for a lot of men).
Very small corner of the My Tho market. . .every day. . .so much food!

The size comparison tickled me. . .but the young man was so casual about that canoe,  and sitting so high up in it.  My goodness!  Some, just a bit wider, with a square stern, have MOTORS.  M'gosh.

At long last. . .I've been wanting a photo of one of these fish transports running light for years!  Saw him coming, passed him, ran until I found a bridge, got on it, GOT HIM!.  They flood down until the tires are wet, the whole midsection is basically a fish tank.  The family lives on a slotted floor above the fish.  Their market--load at fish farms, offload at markets like the one at My Tho. . .sometimes takes a few days, but the fish are happy while they wait.

6.5 meter Mekong canoes. . .fast.  Very fast, with a long tail outboard motor.  Tippy. . .very very tippy. . 

Would you buy a new canoe from these people?

Now this is a really nice place to sit, write, eat a baguette (stuffed with eggs, pate, margarine, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, red chili. . .) and drink super sweet milky coffee.  Rach Gia, near the ferry terminal.

The prettiest little power scow you're likely to see this week. . .with the muddiest tractor.  There are a great many of these little work horses, but few this freshly painted and pretty

They thought it was hilarious, me hurrying to take a picture of a boat. . .A BOAT FOR GOODNESS SAKE. . .like what planet is this guy from??

Massive funeral, banners, brass band, people strewing paper money, formal mourners, and a team of men with shoulder straps actually carrying the huge and ornate  coffin (mother of pearl dragons near life size!) 

A very small, very new Khmer Buddhist temple

The sanctuary. . .Charlie Chaplin movie on the TV (that's the bad guy).

A Rock by golly!  and Sea Boats. . .enough of this river stuff!

She must have found a shrimp shop out there. . .loaded so far down she was wallowing at every touch of the rudder as she came up the river

Putting the boat away at the end of the day. . .thunderstorm moving out over the sea.  Mui Nai beach, near Ha Tien.