Sunday, November 30, 2014

Home to Hanoi from Tra Co--Through Tien Lien and Lang Son

Written from Hanoi, 30 November 2014--weather still warm with some nice sun breaks at times.

I've ridden to and from Halong City a number of times, almost every year, and almost always the same way. . .back the way I came.  That's definitely the most sensible way, but not necessarily the prettiest (nor does it always have the worst available road).  Once, several years ago, I determined to make a run through the northeast, all along the Chinese border through the miserable cold rain and mud.  It was an alternate solution I won't recommend, but this year I decided to come back from Tra Co in much the same way. . .at least as far as Lang Son.  From Tra Co there's no choice but to ride back to Mong Cai, and not much choice thereafter.  You can either go north into China (not me) or you can go south on highway 18.  I'd run low on Vietnamese  money (the stuff spends too quickly!) and stopped to change $100 in the incredible and incredibly expensive Majestic Hotel just down the street from the main international gateway to China.  The doorman was pretty straight faced when I rode up the long ramp to the Porte Cochere and left him my bike.  He was worried about how much money I might want to change, but when I said "only $100 USD (say it "OOo Eh Dough" with maybe a tiny bit of "s" on the end of the "Eh") he smiled and waved me over to the front desk, where the young ladies handled the matter in a few seconds from the petty cash drawer.  The room rates were posted in gold on a purple velvet screen--the top room at $4,000,000 VND per night (close enough to $200) and the low end room (in a garret I suppose) was only $80 USD.  They did not have my reservation, thank goodness.  Anyway, I got photos of the hotel itself, what might be the first casino in Viet Nam, and the line of people queued up to cross into China.  It was a very long line, all on foot, including many who looked as though they were going to work for the day.  It would be interesting to understand the local cross-border economy.

The Majestic Hotel in Mong Cai, tallest thing around anywhere near here!

And that's the front door.  You don't park your motorbike in the lobby, but they change $100 bills from the desk clerk's petty cash envelope.
I'm not sure if this is a shopping center or one of the casinos. . .I know they're close to the border, you wouldn't want to let the Chinese tourists get too far south with all their money.

The lineup to get into China in the morning.  H'mm.  Going to work?  Zoom in and you can read the Chinese for "Welcome to China" or whatever. . .through the arch at the end of the street.

We had a long ways to run, though I still didn't know if it was a one day run or two, down the hwy 18 as far as Tien Yen, then a right turn back up north and west to Lang Son on Hwy 4B and then. . .options offered. . .but in the end we chose to run South from Lang Son all the way home to Hanoi on the Northernmost leg of National Highway 1. . .QL1 to regroup and begin the march southward to Hue and a meeting with the first Sailing Club in Hoi An two weekends hence.

The ride south from Tra Co is easy and pleasant enough.  The highway is marginally big enough for heavy traffic but doesn't seem to get all that much, so you're mostly dealing with local people on motorbikes, a few cars and now and then a bus or a flock of them, all balled up behind the slowest, looking for a chance to pass.  That brings up your biggest single risk as a motorbike here. . .you may have a wide open lane ahead of you and drift into semi-awareness as the bike just hums along the open highway, but that open lane ahead of you looks just like a PASSING LANE to anybody stuck behind a string of oncoming trucks.  Beware the inter-city buses and the Lexus SUV's!! One moment it's an open lane ahead as far as you can see and the next it's filled with tons of high speed steel flashing their headlights at you.  Yikes.  Move over or die.  At least your options are simple enough.

Anyway, after three days of giving the bike an entirely easy time, I picked up the pace now and then, got her up to 60 (that's km, not miles per hour. . .call it 36 miles. . .which is the national speed limit for motor bikes and really a pretty nice speed to see the country at) and we purred along.  The new motor is indeed a little stronger than the 110 I've been used to. . .pulls much longer and steeper hills without bogging down.  I loved the old Little Horse, but this New Horse might just be an improvement!  We ran down the 83 km from Mong Cai to the junction with QL4B at Tien Yen in a couple of hours, with low islands and salt marsh on the left (to the East) and rolling hills ahead, behind and off to the right.  This is (thankfully) not coal mining country, no rail road tracks or black dust and no power plants, just farm, plantation and hill country.  It's not spectacular, no crashing surf on beaches (no beaches. . .shrimp farms maybe. . .) just a gentle rolling countryside with a good road, something to approve of!  At Tien Yen we had rolled through young horse's 800th kilometer, so she got her first oil change.  They'll come up every 1000 km from now on, but that first one is important to be early.  The duty was done in a family sort of place. . ."Rua Xe, Thay dau" the sign says. . .Wash vehicles (usually just bikes, but they had a white sedan on the sidewalk being finished up when I arrived) and Change Oil.  That's the Northern Vietnamese sign for that line of work (it's different in the South).  While grampa drained the oil and lubed the chain, the daughter of the household showed off her yearling boy-child in his bouncy chair on wheels (why don't all kids go cross eyed with those dangling things right in front of their faces I wonder) and grandma picked him up so I could see the whole Boy. . .no pants, so we could be sure of the facts.  Very cute kid.  There are a lot of very cute kids here, and everyone seems to love them to pieces.  I think I once saw a child swatted, but that was extraordinary.  A scowl from Mom is usually all it takes.  But I digress.

Highway 4B had a debt to pay me from that first trip.  It's 99 km from  Tien Lien to Lang Son, with two small towns en route, and on that first trip I'd slipped and staggered and splashed through one long red mud construction zone almost every inch of the way.  However, as you came to each of the small towns, the construction ended with fine new pavement on in to town and I, celebrating, stopped in BOTH OF THEM to wash the Little Horse.  That's correct. . .both towns en route and finally when I got into Lang Son.  Each time the bike and I were covered in red mud and grit.  Each time I believed the road when it said that was all.  Each time, as we rode out of town, sparkly clean (well, she was, I wasn't) we were a km or so downrange when it all started again, slipping and sliding and all but splutting full length in the mud.  Sigh.  It was a dreadful 99 km, and it kept up that way 100 km on the other side of Lang Son.  I figured the project HAD to be finished by now and surely, with only local farm traffic, wouldn't be wrecked again already.  Yah Sure, You Betcha.  Well, I was ready to give it up, turn around and go back the way I came at the first sign of that sort of thing this year (no, it's not a swamp in Laos, but that red mud is pretty awful).  I kept an eye on the undercarriage of every vehicle that came from up ahead. . .but they all looked pretty good. . .and we kept going.  Oh, there was a stretch of five or ten km that was unpaved and dusty with outsize potholes, but we only slowed down a little bit.  And this time, having time to look around instead of constantly dodging mud holes, I saw what a lovely bit of country this is.  Again, it's not spectacular, the Alps or the Savannah, but warm green well-watered countryside full of farms and farmers (who mostly even keep their livestock off the highway).
Pretty green farmland, rolling hills, corn and veggies going well in the old rice paddy, a good countryside

A fine road really, a little bumpy maybe, but the traffic. . .and the scenery. . .not bad at all.
Nice yellow house.  My right foot still quivers when it sees those red-topped posts.  Dang that hurt!  Years ago now.
I stopped for photos now and again and one time was caught red handed by a whole posse of kids who were THRILLED to meet me.  ENGLISH.  They could practice English.  Wow.  Where ARE you from (a verb by golly!)??  AMERICA!! (screams of delight and big smiles) You American?? (no verb, but heck, we're rocking!)  You speak English??  Er. . .well. . .yes. . .and how old are you and what state are you from and what city and do you have any children. . .wow.  Somebody's grade school is doing danged well out in the sticks of Lang Son Province.  What a treat.

Great Kids!  English, complete with verbs!  Wow.  And they liked us. . .

Old (tall) rubber trees and younger ones.  There are a lot of rubber trees in Viet Nam.  

Doing laundry at the dam.  I'll bet they beat those shirts on the rocks. . .
Upland farm, no rice paddy here.

A fine old rammed earth home with a new concrete block lean to added off to one side.  The rammed earth holds up really well if you give it a good roof, and dissolves in a few years once the roof is gone.  No toxic anything.  H'mm.
It was a fine and peaceful (if somewhat bumpy) ride through the early afternoon.  I still didn't know where we'd end up for the night, but decided against continuing on to Cao Bang up further into the North on QL4A. . .and rather turned left onto an enormously wide avenue running straight south.  I figured it had to be a main road headed out of town (or to the Chinese border I suppose, 10 km or so the other way, further north).  Anyway, we stopped and asked a straight faced young man where the road to Hanoi was (with a grin).  When he realized I'd asked in Vietnamese and had given him a lead in for a good reply, he made a grand gesture and gave me to understand that this very road, the one on which we stood would lead directly into the South.  Well. . .what he said was more or less ". . .this one is it. . ." but the manner of the speech was grand.  I matched it with prolific thanks and waved as we buzzed off.  That was the whole list of instructions for getting back to Hanoi, and when we got out onto the highway (having stopped to give the New Horse something to eat) and we saw from the first kilometer marker we came to that it was only 143 km to Hanoi and not yet 1:30 pm. . . we could do it lying down.   So we said at the time.  We did not know about the traffic or the occasional road repairs, but still 143 km or 85 miles more or less in an afternoon. . .should be easy.  For that matter, I've been familiar with the southern 35 km of this road for years. . .it's the first part of my routine ride out to Halong City and back, and it's all gorgeous wide open four lane expressway with impenetrable median barriers (so you don't get massacred by oncoming trucks being passed by oncoming buses being passed by oncoming Camry's. . .three or four deep).  If any great part of that 143 km was in such easy riding, it would be a piece of cake.  It wasn't.  In fact, it was just a wide 2-lane highway completely filled with traffic much of the way all the way to my old exit.  H'mm. Still it was good enough riding if you paid attention, and the scenery was magnificent for a long long way from Lang Son on the South.  The road itself stayed entirely on flat ground, but on either hand, sometimes very close by, vertical cliffs of limestone jumped up into the sky.

Limestone cliffs. . .actually, that's a quarry site, the white scar on the mountainside to the left.  There's a cement plant at the end of a long conveyor belt way off to my left, across the highway.

Don't waste level ground on housing, farm it if you have it.  The house goes on the hillside.  A pair of typical small farm houses, made out of stuccoed cement blocks.  Not as cool as rammed earth I think, but not as dusty maybe. . .

Farm the flat land. . .you can't even walk on some of the hills!

Steep.  Very steep!
In the nature of things on a 2-lane highway one catches up to a slow truck (or several of them) now and then.  One then slows down to their speed (driving under does not work and going around is not always wise).  Opportunity arises however, and you take that opportunity, twisting the throttle hard to get full benefit of all those magnificent 125 cc's and get past the truck(s) in question without splutting on the front bumper of the next oncoming whatever.  You then wave jauntily (or not as you prefer) and buzz off down the highway at your intended 55 or 60 kmh.  If you're a strong willed and self disciplined person you then continue on without delay until you come to the next slow truck.  On the other hand, some of us, less well disciplined and lacking somewhat in moral strength only continue to buzz along until some slightly different or more colorful or taller mountain, with perhaps a brighter colored house in the foreground. . .or whatever. . .presents itself.  Those of us who give in to that sort of temptation pull off onto the shoulder (assuming there is one) and haul out the camera.  Sometimes we can snap the photo, holster the camera and be gone again without being re-passed.  But often, no, we're too slow or it has been too short a time since our last reckless race around the slow trucks. . .and they roll past while we stand there.  On the third or fourth event of this sort, when we've passed (at enormous risk to life and limb) and raced on and stopped to photograph and been passed in our turn and then resumed the chase and passed again. . .on the third or fourth event of this sort, as I was saying, it is not surprising when the lead slow truck greets us with a blast of his mega horn as he thunders past in his cloud of diesel smoke.  Perfectly reasonable really.  I mean, he might have felt a fly swatter was the correct tool to use on a buzzing insect like the New Horse and me.

We were all going to Hanoi, and we all got to know each other by the end of the day!

The end, as it always does when you come in out of the countryside into the city of an evening, came on gradually, the traffic thickening, actual stop lights cropping up, kids on electric bikes turning up on the shoulder of the road heading into town. . .all the signs of the city.  Then it crushes in, you reach an off ramp you want but can't get to it.  You follow the other motorbikes along the shoulder, up onto the side walks, squeezing past trucks that were trying to squeeze past other trucks and were all but stuck against the guard rail. . .lean out over the guard rail and your mirror will clear his fender (he's not moving at all fast). And then, oddly, onto the main street bound into the city (not out) and the traffic drops to nothing your direction.  It's easy for 20 blocks or more, to the huge round about and then through the big city steets to the bridge, across the River and down onto the ring road around Hanoi proper, only a few blocks up to the old Long Bien bridge overpass where you can double back southbound and edge over to the right, under the up ramp, into the side streets.  One more turn to the right and you've only a few blocks to push through the absolutely solid mass of people, bikes, motorbikes and taxis all pushing along both directions. . . And when you get there, there's a little space in front of the dentist's office that is the front of the hotel.  You signal your turn, watch for a tiny break in the traffic and jump the bike up onto the curb.  You're home.

Three Hundred thirty eight kilometers in 9 hours elapsed time.  Ah!  No wonder, we forgot to eat lunch!

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