Saturday, January 17, 2015

Messing around in (and around) Hanoi

Written from Hanoi, the evening of the 16th of January 2015, where the weather continues just fine (though all the local people are freezing I think. . .wearing woolly coats with fur ruffs and collars).  It's foggy or overcast and cool in the morning and just pleasantly warm (if you're from Seattle) in the afternoon.  I certainly would have been happy to have this when I was slogging through the soggy Northwest a week ago, but. . .anyway, it's nice now.

I could take this quiet moment and just list all the places I've walked (I must be an eighth of an inch shorter anyway. . .just from wearing off shoe leather) and ridden in search of one thing or another, but I have seen some fun things and taken photos of some of them. . .so how about if I skip the lengthy talk and just show you some of my favorite photos from the past week. . .

Finding this fellow and watching him dissect my favorite camera down to its smaller bits and pieces was my first order of business once I was back in Hanoi.  Sometime after the 6000th photo and 19,000 of riding through whatever came, she stuck her tongue out at me and went on strike. . .Er. . .well, stuck her lens out at me anyway.  I always care a "spare" but not the quality of this old Canon. . .I'd made do with a substitute for too long, so spent half a day or a bit  more finding this gentleman..  It took him most of two hours, $30, and a miniature wiring harness he actually had in stock.  Wow.  The poor camera was spread over all of his workbench and a couple of nearby shelves before she started going back together.  There were no screws left over, I watched.

Tet is less than a month away and the decorations shops along one long street near my hotel are stocked to the brim.

Sometimes only a nap will do.  I pestered a lot of shop keepers the past few days, but let this one keep sleeping.  Had I been a prince of course, it would have been different.  

This one is for my Uncle (Aunt really) Margaret, who has collected blue and white ware for years.  This is just a tiny bit of the selection in Bat Trang village. . .where most of Viet Nam's crockery comes from.  

Rinsing off the out-door display at a main street shop in Bat Trang "ceramic village".  The presence of clay and clay slip is felt everywhere. . .the stuff is either being poured, turned or sculpted in every back alley workshop for a long ways (village??  I've seen smaller towns!!)  However, it's also dusty when it's not raining, so the outdoor displays need freshening every day.

I really like this particular wall. . .it was sculpted all in one piece, low relief, then cut artistically into small puzzle pieces to fire and glaze.  In use, it would be set like tile into the wall of a home or shop.  $350 for this one, and a crate to pack it in and the freight for half a ton of crockery. . .I could easily be persuaded!

Or I'd like these cranes. . .

And this little town scene is sweet, though the artist got carried away with the curves in the roof lines!!

The narrow streets don't show in "Google Maps" but thread all through the town.  This would count as a major thoroughfare.  Interestingly, the entire "pottery village" is on the wrong side of the levee, looking right at the Red River and must flood in many years.  heck, the city on the RIGHT side of the levees manages to flood now and then. 
Leave the bike in low gear or 2nd and just idle through the streets and lanes.  Lovely.
I dismounted and strolled a while by the river side and up a brick lined lane.   It became obvious she was shadowing me, hiding behind columns, walking ahead and then waiting til I caught up and passed, or just following a discreet distance behind.  Never a smile, no eye contact, no greeting.  So I stopped and asked her about the small pagoda across the street and she answered me with a lecture that went on and on and on. . .and which I understood . . .almost not at all.  Sigh

And she never really smiled, all through the lecture or the photos I took.  An earnest and sweet child, just not going to smile at white guys today.  

Well, the name of the town is "Bat Trang" and this is clearly a bat. . .but the word isn't "bat" in Vietnamese, so I suppose it's just one of those little coincidences in life.  Fun though.

These are not artificial!  The flower market opens right around midnight by Long Bien bridge (the one that was designed by the same fellow as the Eiffel Tower).  Many of the flowers go directly from the truck to motor or push bikes and move out onto the streets to find their home for a day.  If you stand still a while they'll come to you.   The roses certainly only come from Dalat. . .other flowers perhaps from nearer.  You can grow a rose in Hanoi, but it takes dedication.  In Dalat, they grow them by the mountainside.

I've never actually attended the fruit and vegetable market, if there really is one for the whole city.  I think perhaps, unlike the luxury flowers, the veggies come in from all sides and all over.  In any event, there's no need to go out for days produce, just keep an eye out on the street and it will all come by as the day goes on.  Meat too of course, and fish and crockery and shoes and toilet paper.  Mind you, it's fun to go to the market, but if you can't leave the house for a bit it's quite all right.

Across the river from Hanoi on the way to Bat Trang, a very large and recent pagoda-school complex occupies a quarter of a city block.  In many ways it is very different from typical pagodas around the countryside.  I, of course, don't have any idea of the significance of the differences, though the monks and nuns and laypeople seem to be very much the same as in any other.  In any event, it's a very pleasant place to visit and think a while.  One must of course remove one's clod hoppers when going inside, but that's fine.  

Among the statuary, to the left of the large golden Buddha, is this calmly fierce person riding a lion and carrying an unsheathed sword.  

But to the right is this kind and gentle lady riding a peace loving elephant, Quan Yen I think.  Someone help me with the imagery here!
Fun roof and balcony lines in the large new pagoda complex. .  .

They have a large arbor filled with orchids and flowers. . .

It's not Bougainvillea, but the color is right and it's pretty enough to count toward your total I think.  He who dies with the most bougainvillea. . .

These may as well be house plants from home. . .but if so, they're bigger than I'm used to seeing there.

A pet store on a bike.  This is a common sight in Hanoi. . .less so elsewhere, or perhaps I've just missed them.  Contemplating all those bags of fish and water swaying above the rear tire of a bicycle. . .is enough to cause sea sickness as well as free surface effect combined with  a huge overturning moment. . .the people do not execute wild maneuvers with the bikes loaded like this!!  This is a push bike, but I've seen the same arrangement on a Honda.  Omigosh.

It's really a nice way to display gold fish for a while  If they look a bit lazy and there's a customer handy, it just takes a nudge of the bag to show they're plenty lively.  Decanting an individual fish from a floppy bag is a neat trick, but not to worry, the young lady can manage it.
Name this Tune!  or motorcycle anyway.  Several knowledgeable people started by calling it a BMW and then backed off when they looked closer at the motor. . .pretty obviously a Honda engine from say 1965 or 1970.  My bet is it's a German frame (or a Russian or Chinese copy maybe) whose engine died conclusively and has been replaced by the Honda.  Definitely a dinosaur in any event, and no, I wouldn't trade my Chinese bike for her.

Between Hanoi and Thai Nguyen on Highway 3.  The white stupa and Buddha are pretty obvious from the road, but the compound is hermetically sealed.  It's certainly a different statement of the theme!

A really busy little corner of a stream.  Looking at the map, it might be "Song Cua" or "Cua River", or maybe not.  North of Hanoi on QL3, en route to Thai Nguyen

Offloading bagged cement (?--I can see the bags but can't read the labels) in the foreground and loading coal in the background.  Busy bit of river.

A boiler in the back room of a big restaurant. . .

runs live steam to these cooking vessels, where the cooks can simmer (or vigorously boil) huge pots of dinner. . .or warm up a single portion (my fish and sweet and sour ribs, just for example.  Excellent spicy ribs.  Indeed!)

These ladies were working their way steadily through a whole barrel of these fish.  Scaly buggers, they take a lot of work to get ready for the table.  The two youngsters (and the manager) really thought I should marry the oldest of the three and take her with me.  My usual excuses worked.  Sort of.  Anyway, I got away safely and only as married as I was before.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Closing the Loop, Home to Hanoi from the long road.

Written from Hanoi on the 14th of January, 2015--Hanoi, where the weather is presently lovely!  Cool overcast mornings have been clearing or at least thinning enough to let the sun shine through a bit and warm things up by early afternoon.  Where was this when I was out on the road north of here??  Actually, the good weather started on my last day southbound into the city, so here we go!

In the early evening (late for me to be settling in for the night) on January 10th we rolled right through the highway frontage of the little town of Nghia Lo and out the far side.  The last thing on the right hand side was a very nice looking hotel, which looked like it might be well beyond our means, but this far out in the sticks I'm not afraid to stop and ask.  It was a little expensive in fact ($14), but wonderful.  What price clean white sheets after a month without?  And a little heat in the room (they must have run a heater earlier in the day. . .some of these air conditioning units work both ways).  The room was on the ground floor, the mattress was perfect, the bath water hot, the comforter in its pure white cover was soft and smelled good, the furniture was really nice. . .what a lovely place.  Well, there was no writing desk, so I got my standard back ache from hunching over a little (lovely) end table while perched in a (very nice, upholstered) side chair while I wrote.   The staff was splendid (friendly, cheerful, efficient), everything worked, my gosh,  What can you  say.  You may conclude that not all hotels in the small towns were that nice, though really almost all of them are pretty good, certainly a lot better than sleeping on the shoulder of the road!!

Just as I was contemplating supper in the hotel resrtaurant, (I'd already been for a walk and knew there was nothing of my usual sort anywhere close) just exactly as I was contemplating supper. . .the lights went out.  I thought that might be a bad sign, but not so.  The restaurant (across the parking lot from my room) just got out the fluorescent camping lanterns and a handful of candles and went right ahead with dinner.  Perhaps the dinner was a little less than wonderful.  Rice, sauteed pork and steamed greens. . .not a bit of garlic or onion or spice or nuoc mam or. . .I think they took one look, figured they had to feed a finicky white guy and made it truly bland.  I talked them out of a bowl of nuoc mam with some red chile in it. . .which helped. . .but still.  Yes, but still, it was served perfectly in my own separate dining room (a rowdy bunch of Vietnamese businessmen got their own dining room too, next door).  In my private dining room I could have accommodated. . .er. . .say nineteen of my favorite traveling companions, but they missed dinner and I'm used to eating alone.  That was the last night on the road, pretty wonderful, but the next morning was even better.  For one thing, the rain had mostly stopped.  A stray drop fell now and then, maybe after hanging around in a tree overnight, but no real rain.  Wow.

More importantly though, the bike needed some attention and I couldn't help but notice that the countryside we'd been passing through was very well populated with her very close relatives.  Heck, most of her family must live around there!  First of course she got a real bath. It is not for nothing that every other business establishment along the first half of that street was a car and bike wash.  They were all already working at 0700 in the morning!  Everybody that came  in off the road last night. . .came in muddy.  How odd.  They scrubbed her with high pressure water, soap suds, brushes (down to tooth brush size for special places) and rags.  She made a big muddy spot on the sidewalk where they worked, but came out looking like a new dollar. Then we went looking for a mechanic's shop and found not one, but two, side by each just across from the market.  It turned out, by the way, that the town was much more extensive AWAY from the highway than it was along the highway, so we had a pleasant exploration down a street that claimed to have the market only 800 meters ahead.  I doubt the highway frontage, all strung together, came to 800 meters!

It was a funny visit to the mechanics.  It was as though I'd gone to the doctor for some help with a runny nose and then remembered I also needed an appendectomy and a little brain surgery. All that was on my mind to begin with was her floppy chain. . .needed oil and adjustment.  Before we were finished she had a link removed from the chain, and the chain adjusted and oiled, a new gasket for the gas cap, not just a new tail light bulb, but a new bracket and reflector, she'd had her carburetor tweaked and brakes adjusted and. . .now I'm forgetting what all.  Oh.  She got a new set of hand warmers.  No kidding!  I've seen similar but much heavier and fancier muffs on the handlebars of commuter bikes in Seattle.  These seem to be a local product, probably made by an off-duty dress maker. . .soft and fuzzy inside, hard and hopefully water tight and. . .er. . .pink and flowery. . . outside.  That's not the whole list, but you get the idea.  These fellows mostly work on precisely the sort of bike I ride.  They had all the necessary parts on the shelf and knew all the solutions to all the problems.  It was fast and very inexpensive.  I went for breakfast down behind the market while the mechanics worked and provided some inexpensive entertainment for the normal clientele. . .mainly ethnic minority people, mountain folks, who probably aren't minorities at all just here.  I came  in for a lot of cheerful comment until they realized I understood most of it. . .then it really became fun.  They were, as I've come to expect, really pleasant people, and totally astonished that I could speak or understand Vietnamese at all.

So we left the beautiful hotel and the wonderful mechanics behind and rode toward Hanoi on QL-32.  I'm pretty sure we should have managed to go the whole way into the city on 32, but somewhere (actually I'm pretty sure exactly where) we zigged when we should have zagged and took a detour on DT-316, a very much smaller and less maintained little road. . .for 24 kilometers.  It was perfectly fine really.  There was a lot of mud on the pavement from time to time, tracked onto the little highway (very little) by trucks running in from the country roads.  Well, I guess DT-316 IS a country road, but it was mostly paved.  The feeder roads. . .are mostly sticky mud when it rains. Anyway, it was a non event.  We rejoined 32 and crossed the Da River (a big tributary to the Red R.) on a new bridge  and followed the highway as far as lunch and then straight into the city without further ado.  For a long ways it was just a little busier every kilometer, but still pretty quiet and pleasant and out in the country, and it was in just such a quiet country stretch that we stopped for lunch in a very country-sort of little place that advertised "Rice and Noodle Soup", or "Com-Pho" as it's usually written here. Usually that really means just noodle soup. . .but she in fact had rice and quite a nice blue plate special.  The Vietnamese call it "Com Dia". . .rice and whatever the cook has a lot of. . .but it's the same idea as the daily special.  It was good (and not bland!)--sauteed veggies with garlic and chile and pork with garlic and onions and chile and. . .nuoc mam sauce with ginger and chile and there was chile sauce on the table instead of catsup and. . .you get the idea.  Add some crispy pickled cabbage and it was. . .Tasty.  The cooking arrangements were something new to me.  The lady had a standard sort of electric rice cooker near the door between the kitchen proper and the restaurant itself.  After that though, the arrangements were less power-dependent!  She cooked over an open fire laid in a raised hearth. . .a concrete slab just below her waist level, so she could store dry wood under the hearth and also tend her pots at a comfortable height.  The most unusual part (for me at least) was that the fire was in a proper chimney, all masonry (plastered smooth, so I can't know the material, but likely red bricks).  The chimney, like the few you do see in the colder parts of the country, is rectangular and tapered uniformly from the size of the hearth to an opening perhaps half or less the size, somewhere just above the roof line. It drew very well, there was no smoke at all in the room. . .very unlike most cooking fires in this part of the world, where there is no chimney and the smoke just seeps out through the thatch or the tiles. . .making a very startling sight at times!

The shop next door was a tiny beauty parlor and the beautician brought her client and some neighborhood kids over to watch me eat. . .great fun, white guys are amazing. . .they even eat with chopsticks like people.  Wow.

It really is fun being an elephant on a motorbike some days.

The scenery stayed beautiful for a long ways, and it was about 125 km out of Hanoi that we found water wheels working!  How cool.  These were not the giant elegant constructs I'd been hoping to find further north, and in fact two of them weren't even the same concept.  To digress, the big ones I was hoping to return to up somewhere near Dien Bien, operate on the principal of using the flow of the river running under the edge of the wheel to make it turn. . .duh. . .a simple "undershot" wheel.  They use the rotating wheel to lift water directly. . .individual "buckets" made of a single node of big bamboo fill with water when they get dunked, carry it up to the top of the wheel as the wheel turns, and pour it out, usually onto a sheet metal receiving platform, from which it is funneled into a split bamboo trough and runs out into a rice paddy and voila. . .you have water lifted up out of the river by the river.  Well, two of these much smaller ones worked that way, and two did not.  Okay, I admit it.  I didn't realize that at first.  I saw the two that were just small versions of what I'd already seen and cheerfully moved on and photographed the two that. . .aren't.  But didn't really figure out how they do work.  The split bamboo "pipeline" is still there, but no bamboo buckets lifting water or splashing it out on a receiving platform.  In a "gee I feel dumb" sort of way I have to assume that the wheels are operating a pump to lift water and I just can't see it in my photos.  I even took some movies to make sure I could spot the various operating features. . .but I can't.  Darn.

Well, the ride into the city was, as it always is, suddenly horrendously busy.  It goes from "just a little busy" to "Omigosh".  Hanoi is a big city.  Bigger than I know I'm sure, but in this case we were still 45 km out of town when it became seriously city-clogged traffic in a "city" environment, on a main thoroughfare, with four lanes of traffic and shoulders, with stoplights too.  Goodness.  It just tightened up as we rode on in.  I, as always, the peak of fashion in my mud caked raingear and rubber boots, as always, blended seamlessly with the beautiful young people headed home from their offices in their thousands. . .wearing their exquisitely neat, clean and proper (or not so proper) office outfits on their spotless motorbikes.  I always do it this way, arrive in the afternoon rush hour, covered in mud (no blood this time) and riding a filthy bike.  Everyone else wears cute little city helmets with plaid racing stripes or pink "Hello Kitty" logos and I wear my beat-up whole-head helmet with the visor shoved up out of my face so I can see past the mud spluts.  Most of them don't stare.

I'd never entered the city on Hwy 32 before.  None of the landmarks meant anything to me.  The map and the cell phone agreed that I just had to bore straight south into the city and I'd pass within a few blocks of Hoan Kiem Lake and home. . .but trying to figure out just where I needed to veer off and make a little easting. . .that was the problem.  In the end the cell phone did the trick and lead me along until I started recognizing street names and suddenly I was there, riding along the lake shore, on very familiar ground.

So, we did a victory lap around the lake (it's a very busy one way boulevard, so there's not a lot of choice) then turned off at the north end of the lake to slip into the crush of the Old Quarter.  After forty seven days on the road and with 6,986 kilometers on the new odometer we rode up to the hotel, waited a moment for a break in the traffic (okay, I just made a break, it was rush hour), nosed the bike into the curb and jumped her up onto the sidewalk.  While I stripped off the rain gear and started to unstrap the big bag Khoi came down the hallway, threw back the door and welcomed me "home again!!"  The long ride was over for another year.
The morning road out of Nghia Lo toward Hanoi, still way out in the sticks and lovely scenery.

A very nice Home along QL-32 south of Nghia Lo--like many Khmer stilt houses, its stilts are concrete, with timber construction above, but a thatched roof, not tile or corrugated.

QL-32 running past a dramatic (if very small) limestone. . .lump?  Not a mountain.

Okay, those might be mountains, really big lumps anyway. . .beyond an idle rice paddy
This is a strikingly different farm house, not a sort you will see often.  I wonder very much what ethnic group the builders belong to, and where, if anywhere, it is a common type.  Very nice timber construction, but I think the "front" of the house must be on the other side, clearly a balcony and a porch overhang there anyway.  H'mm.

Here's a fun detail of a roof structure on a small lean-to off the end of a large wooden home. . .note that the timber rafters are almost completely  hidden in the other structure, . . then transverse bamboos, whole, at about a foot center to center,  THEN a solid mat of smaller bamboos (whole again) running the same way as the rafters. . .and then the tile.  What's funny is that this style of tile has a projecting lip or lug on the under side that serves to grip a square-cut wooden  lath that keeps the tile from sliding off the rafters. . .but I can't spot the lath here.  Darn.  It has to be there. . .I think.

Getting close to lunch time, southbound on QL-32, before the new bridge over the Da River (Song Da).  Intensive land use, with carefully managed hillsides above the fields in maize, cabbage and misc. veggies.  The paddy dikes probably mean that they get a rice crop every year too. . .that's a normal pattern, a crop of rice when the water is available, then dry land vegetables and maize for a second crop.  Not as rich farmland as the deltas, which are super abundant, but a prosperous countryside anyway.

The younger contingent of my lunchtime audience.  She wasn't going to stand for the camera but the beautician from next door told her not to be silly. . .He didn't express an opinion, but did stand still.

The beautician from next door.  She's fifty and has two sons. . .you just simply have to know these things when you meet a stranger, how else can you make conversation?  She just about talked my ear off while I ate. . .and oddly, I understood a great deal of it.  For one thing, we're back in the North again, where I can "hear" Vietnamese, and Vietnamese people mostly can understand what I say.  In parts of the country the dialect is different enough I can barely make myself understood.   Oh.  That's the excellent cook disappearing in the background.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The photos are posted on the previous page, please go back and look!

A quick note.  It's late fternoon on the 13th of January, We're safe in Hanoi and the long ride is finished.  We've been here 40 odd hours already, got the good camera and the day pack repaired  and ran a number of other errands.  There's just a little left to tell and I'll write again in a bit to do that, but the short version is. . .we came to the end of the road, 14 km short of 7000 km showing on the odometer, with nothing to report. . .well, not much anyway.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Closing in on Hanoi. . .it's been an interesting ride!

Written from Nghia Lo, in northern Viet Nam on the tenth of January 2015. . .photos added on the 13th, in Hanoi, with a blazing fast internet connection!

It has been an interesting ride, as in "may you live in interesting times".  Or to put it nicely, I've been too busy living to have the time to write about it.  On the other hand, I expect to make Hanoi, or somewhere not far off sometime tomorrow afternoon.  The distance is not too far if the road and weather conditions cooperate.  There are no guarantees on the road. . .that's been a huge variable lately, with a lot of distance made good easily and fast. . .and other mileage earned by serious effort (accompanied by occasional terror).  The weather will be cold rain and we're marginally prepared to deal with that.  Today I wore everything I own except a spare pair of jeans and my last clean shirt. . .tomorrow we put the clean shirt on under the other two, it was pretty chilly today and forecast to be a whole two degrees warmer tomorrow.  Mind you, we'll take the two degrees, but twenty would be more like it.

So how to deal with the fact that I've ridden well over a thousand km since I've really written to you?  I'll give you a list of dates and locations and you'll see we've been busy:

January 5th--Pak Kading to Vang Vieng, Now that was an interesting day.  Nice weather, warm and dry, and good roads most of the day. I intended to bypass Vientiane and did, just not quite the way I planned to!  It's a nice place as capital cities go, but it's still a city with a big tourist operation and way too many one-way streets, some of which run into each other head on.  In any event, when I came to a Tee into a prominent thoroughfare with an arrow one way pointing to Vientiane and the other way out of town, I took a moment to consult with my cell phone (I will learn, eventually, I think) who confirmed my choice, so we turned away from the city thinking it must be the mouth of Hwy 10 to cut off the city and take us to Hwy 13N.  I'd expected Hwy 10 to be better signposted, but it wasn't.  It wasn't Hwy 10 that is, and therefore not signposted.  For a bit that northbound road whatever it was, was an under-construction 4-lane to somewhere, but after a 10 km mud and pothole extravaganza it morphed into a pleasant country road and then abruptly into a really small purely dirt road that was an amazing amount of work to ride. . .there were whee bumps and huge holes everywhere ("whee bump"  any bump that makes your kids say "WHEEEE!" preferably  without chipping your teeth),  The cell phone insisted it was right and we'd find Hwy 13N just ahead. . .in a ways.  And we did, but it was a lot of work.  No matter, once we rejoined 13N, Vang Vieng was in easy reach for the afternoon and Luang Prabang was way out of reach and there weren't any other real choices. . .except for the lake town. The lake town is sort of a one of a kind string bean along the northern edge of a large reservoir, a long line of dried fish shops and snack shops (I suppose I'm repeating myself) and small restaurants. . .and a hotel.  I've stayed there once before. . .it's a pretty basic hotel overlooking the lake, and thereby missed a chance to stay at a really gorgeous old hotel just beyond the lake.  I did stop there this trip to see, but though the room was delightful, it was up a very long and steep set of stairs and didn't have wifi, which I really wanted  (ed note:  he is really getting spoiled, used to be delighted with an internet shop full of school kids).   So we rode on.  We rode into Vang Vieng in time to see THREE, not one but THREE hot air balloons making their final approach for the evening.  Heck, most resort towns feel like they've made it if they have ONE hot air balloon overhead.  Three. . .and it's not even the high season.  More about that later. . .

Early morning in Pak Kading, I'm looking for breakfast and people are still sweeping up the overnight bus mess and getting fires going to cook on.  No coffee yet!

This is what has happened to all the ox carts in the country.  Their wheels have turned into furniture and yard ornaments.  You can make a lovely fence out of them. . .there are a few oxcarts left, but very few.  The rototiller type tractors have taken all the work.
Lao quick-food. . pre cooked on the charcoal. . .you can just take it with you cold in a plastic bag, or have it put back on the fire for a few minutes to warm up and eat it with a plate full of hot sticky rice.  Very tasty stuff.  The young lady served me supper and breakfast.  

How the other half travels. ..a luxury cruise ship on the Mekong.  Not something I'd want to take to sea though.

Check last year's blog.  This large Buddha is making excellent progress, nearly finished now.  I did not ride up the mountain to see what's inside.  Perhaps next trip. . .(I think that's a man-sized door by his navel)

An excellent lunch stop en route on hwy 13N. . .the gentleman was very careful to make sure I got everything I wanted in my bowl of noodles. . .and nothing I didn't.  (four kinds of meat, tomatoes, herbs, lettuce. . .and more) Very nice people.

Young man and canoe at the lake town. To be clear, the motor has been left ashore and he's paddling stern first, with the transom out of the water. . .not a bad solution really.

What I would call reef-net rafts. . .or maybe dip nets or. . .h'mm.  On the lake.

Lovely old hotel just north of the Lake Town on Hwy 13N.  A LONG flight of steep stairs to what would have been my room, a really lovely, gracious old place, but. . .no view of the lake, no wifi, and those stairs.  We rode on.  For shame.

I guess I photograph this home every time I pass by on the bridge.  Just lovely, and maybe someday I'll get just the right light.  Actually, this is pretty good late afternoon light. . .about 20 km from Vang Vieng, Laos on 13N

Late and early. . .take your photos then, wherever you are!

You can tell we're getting close to Vang Vieng, and at least part of what has created the ultimate northern Lao party town, mountains to rock climb on, a river to tube or kayak, and hot air balloons. . .m'gosh.  Also every sort of restaurant you can imagine, bars, pubs, karaoke palaces. . .hotels and guest houses 'til you can't count them. . .amazing place, and they've put the lid on the all night heavy duty music.  Thank goodness.

I just barely made it to a viewpoint to catch sunset in Vang Vieng this year. . .no second chance, I was gone down the road before it got up again.

January 6--Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. This is where northern Laos begins.  In fact, it's one of the premier rides in the country when the road is passable.  Leaving Vang Vieng you ride for a ways in the Song River valley, flat floored but walled with limestone monoliths on either side. . .stupendous scenery and easy riding.  Soon though you climb out of that and into the mountains themselves, higher and higher.  It's nothing but curves and switchbacks, daunting climbs and descents that can be too fast.  Fabulous fun when the road is in any sort of shape.  Not this year, the road is in the worst shape I've seen it in.  Passable, yes, but rough and broken.  The land is so steep that the houses perch right on the side of the road with their front feet dug in to hold on tight and their hind legs way down the hillside behind. . .and I'm not exaggerating a bit.  Heck, most of them have their front door opening inward just to avoid having it ripped off by a passing truck.  Kids look both ways before they step outside.  Well, actually they often don't, so you really have to be on the alert.  In the past many of the homes seemed pretty minimal and poverty stricken.  This year, though there are still a lot of small bamboo homes, there are many more with a prosperous look about them.  I truly love this ride and enjoyed every moment that I wasn't dodging a bomb crater in the road.  To give you a sense of the place, it's a major improvement for a neighborhood when they finally manage a public spigot from a cistern that catches water from a spring or stream somewhere further up the mountain.  There are many more such local water supplies now, so people carry water only a short distance by and large, and the water points make popular social spots where people visit while they bathe.  Beautiful people I would note, light brown skin, shiny black hair, the men magnificent, muscular and shining with water drops. . .the ladies very discretely bathing with their long wrap around skirts tucked up over their bosoms. . .long wet hair and smiles and laughter.  They can change clothes with complete modesty with those skirts. . .get the new one on underneath and a blouse on over the top and then slip the wet one off and away.  Voila!  The first time I came to Luang Prabang I'd been traveling every day solidly for 30 days.  I stayed for five days and it wasn't enough.  I've been back since and still love the place, but this trip was crazy.  I'd decided I had to make up some of the distance to Hanoi or risk missing my flight. . .so we arrived at 3:00.  I took my old hotel room again, took the bike for an oil change  and checkup (tighten and lube the chain, replace the tail light bulb etc) then went out on foot in a rush to see my favorite spots quickly. . .very quickly.  I made it to the top of mount Fu Si (138 stair steps in a single flight, then 190 more spread out over the face of the hill. . .) just in time for the obligatory "sunset over the Mekong" photos and a moment of peace and quiet in the oddly deserted little shrine at the summit. . .then (after the rubbery-legged descent) a walk through the night market, an avocado and chicken (??) baguette, a quick note home and. . .ready to leave in the morning.  That's fast.
And I guess I photograph this house and the river every time I see it too.  Looking for perfect light.

Northern Lao Beautiful, out of Vang Vieng an hour or so northbound

Early morning side-lighting the limestone cliffs.  North of Vang Vieng

Way way up in the sky, the high point of the road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang.  I'm standing with my back to a passable restaurant. . .call it one star for the food and five stars for the view.  This is as clear as I've ever seen it.  Stupendous mountains in the distance.

Big brothers are so cool. . .the kids at my lunch stop between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

And this is the whole audience.  I'm very funny, or interesting at least, when I eat.

Southeast Asian reflectors to indicate a stalled vehicle. Heck, this bus was becoming a permanent establishment, waiting for parts and more help.  A good enough place to live in the meantime, a VIP bus is pretty plush, and the driver has it to himself now.

By golly, a new subspecies of Lao canoe. . .oh, wait a minute, I'm not doing that am I??  I guess I am.  H'mm.  And I have gps coordinates for it too.

That's the context.  The Lao mountain people can navigate anything that's wet.

A nice little sundries shop and some nicer homes.  The high country just isn't as wealthy as the lowlands are, but they're looking more prosperous in general this year.

Just another Lao mountain, between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang

These are really very nice little homes, and a good bit of rice drying by the roadside.

Coming into Luang Prabang, an elephant and an excavator sharing a construction company compound.  

My Luang Prabang mechanic's wife and daughter.

A little help is a good thing when you're strapping on the kid (setup time for the night market in Luang Prabang)

That will do it. . .you're on board!

Luang Prabang pagoda, over the top of the night market pavillions. . .not night yet, so there's no crowd and nothing for sale yet.  Come back in an hour though. . .

Looking the other way, old French buildings, Luang Prabang

Cute kids. . .all over the world, I know. . .these are in Luang Prabang, on my way up the stairwell to Mount Fu Si 

My obligatory sunset over the Mekong from the top of Mount Fu Si. . .328 stair steps to the top, and the same back down again.  Dear me.

The strangely lonely shrine at the summit.  Hundreds of photographers for the sunset, but no one to contemplate the Buddha.

January 7th--Luang Prabang to Oudomxay (all these names have various transliterations, you can't claim a spelling error!)  After yesterday's awful road conditions I was ready for more of he same but the first half of the day was simply a piece of cake, sweet smooth roadway through lovely lowland scenery, the run was all in the Mekong and Ou River bottom lands or nearby foothills. . .lovely to look at (though not the drama of the mountains yesterday).  Then at Pakmong a familiar sequence repeated yet again.  Pakmong is an intersection town, where we could go directly east to the Xamneua and the Vietnamese border as we did last year, or continue north and west to Oudomxay en route to a border crossing near Dien Bien Phu in the far northwest of Viet Nam, my plan for this year.  As we left town we were riding on perfect brand new, not even paint striped road with fancy new drain ditches at each shoulder, all faced with hand laid rockwork.  That's always scary, not the rockwork, though it makes a fearsome bear trap where there ought to be a road shoulder,  but the newly completed road work.  Sure enough, it only ran a couple of km out of town and broke down into a massive construction project spanning the entire distance (over 80 km) to Oudomxay.  Oh my gosh.  It was horrendous.  The dust level was beyond anything I've ever seen for that distance,  The earth was particularly dry, not a drop of rain in a while (it's the dry season in Laos) and the soil turned into a powder the lifted in huge billows even  from the passing of a motorbike.  A truck or bus or SUV raised veritable thunderheads of white dust and there was no wind to blow it away.  The hundreds of men laying stone work and mixing concrete were living in that dust all day and eating it and sleeping it all the time.  It boggles the mind.  Yet if they'd have applied enough water to lay the dust it would have made a skating rink of greasy mud out of 80 km of road.  It was slow and truly dangerous at times.  With no wind to clear the air and a steady passage of vehicles of all sorts, visibility often dropped to a matter of just a few feet.  You could not see where you were going, or what was coming at you.  When it got that bad I just steered toward where I thought the edge of the road might be and hoped nobody would find me.  At one point there was a fresh landslide that carried a tree down across the road.  When I got there there were 30 or more vehicles (no other motorbikes) all stalled on each side of the slide.  There was, however, room for a motorbike to scootch under the tree and along the toe of the slide and on down the road.  For a while I had no company at all!!  At the end, we all had to line up and wait again while the road crew up ahead spread out and roughly placed a half mile of new base rock.  We waited an hour or a little more and they finally let us loose.  Et voila, we were in Oudomxay in ten more minutes.  I needed food, fuel and a bed for the night.  The food was haphazard but fine, the fuel was easy and the bed turned out to be in a really nice, classic old guest house, with some of the most beautiful wooden furniture (a whole wall of cabinets, TV nook, hanging locker. . .wonderfully carved and finished, and a real desk with a chair of all things). . .all for the same $10 I've often paid for a dump.  Goodness, you have to like Oudomxay.
Mom, you're pulling too hard!  Getting the grand daughter of the house off to school.  I stayed here (and took her portrait) when she was a small baby,  Big kid now.

Ou River in a quiet mood, just above it's entry into the Mekong

Ou River, feeling a bit livelier, a few km upstream from the mouth.

Ou River, bamboos, fog. . .h'mm.

Veggies under plastic, new rice starting beyond.  Ou river valley

Seed beds of green velvet rice. . .and newly transplanted paddy in the background.  Ou River valley, upstream from Luang Prabang,

Breakfast stop in Oudomxay, after the horrendous ride the night before.

Breakfast stop from the opposite vantage point.  Wide rice noodles, chicken and lots of veggies.  Lovely start to any day.

January 8th--Oudomxay to and through the border to Dien Bien Phu, still in fine weather.  From Oudomxay to Muang Khua has been more or less easy for several years, but from Muang Khua onward it was different, a hellish ride the only other time I made it.  Back then it started with three people picking up the bike and setting her in a canoe for a ride across the Ou river,  Then there was deep dust (filled my shoes) and rough rocks for 60 km of mountain road, interspersed with various water crossings. . .a ford that stalled the motor, a muddy ford that was slippery as all get out, a bamboo bridge less than a meter wide, so forth and so on.  At the time it was the worst days ride I'd ever done.   Now there's a wide concrete bridge over the river and all the smaller streams, the road is newly paved and you can really enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery all around.  What a change!  The border formalities were purely pleasant (I'd have cheerfully started a shooting war that first trip, the Lao border officer was a bare faced highway robber, so I'd been primed for the worst.)  Not only were there no extra charges, there were no fees at all even though there was a fee schedule posted in the window at the Lao office. All I got this year was a smile and an invitation to come back!  Once the Vietnamese officer saw I had a proper document for the motorbike, he was all smiles and help too.  Wow.  The ride down the mountain into Dien Bien Phu is interesting, narrow and rough in places, but perfectly do-able.  Dien Bien itself is a big town with all the services you'd need.  I took a small room in a small guesthouse and found myself eating supper  with four young men who were sharing a single room downstairs.  They wouldn't let me pay a thing and it was not an inexpensive meal.  Goodness.

The road from Oudomxay to Muang Khua was paved in the past, but much battered by traffic and land slides.  Now it's in lovely shape and you can enjoy the scenery at your leisure.

Sorry, can't pass them up. . .in a messy pond by a small farm house.  

Old style, floating bridge over the Ou.  Good enough for motorbikes, and no, I don't understand how it interacts with boat traffic.  Not a drawbridge I think.  Perhaps the fast boats jump it??

Omigosh.  An entirely new species of racing canoe at Muang Khoa.  And one racing canoe implies others of its kind does it not??  How have I missed this for so long??  Or is it a new thing?  In good shape, obviously in service recently, completely different structure than typical Lao and Cambodian racing canoes.  The ornamentation along the gunnel is derivative though, related to the dragon scales on many racing canoes.  Somebody needs to do a thesis on this one. . .no, not me.

The old ferry crossing.  Now it's in service as a landing for the tour boats running up and down stream.  These are not "slow boats".  If anything, you'd call them hot rods, megaphone exhaust and lots of horsepower, they scoot, even with a full load!

The sort of canoe we crossed the river in last time across.  Never again I think!

Not the sort of canoe you'd like to paddle very far, but for drifting downstream into a mooring, not too bad.  He ended up giving her a shot of power after all though, to nose her alongside.

Main Street, Muang Khua.  The new bridge and the bus traffic from Viet Nam added to the traffic up and down river is really boosting the economy here.  It helps that the new sewer system is finished now.  The streets were all destroyed last time I was through. . .torn up for new pipes.

That means "mechanic's shop".  Er. . .well, something like that.

The last time I rode through here the road was a desperate struggle with dirt, mud, wild water crossings and rock.  Now it's a really lovely new road, complete with bridges over every little creek, not a single ford.  Look up and love the views!

A road, speed limits (18 mph in this case) and power lines.  Oh my gosh!!  The road to the Vietnamese border, 2015.  You should have seen it in 2008.

How you deal with 2 way traffic on a one way bridge over the Ou.  You scoot over and tuck in your rump.  I wonder if I could ride across that or if I'd pass out from terror.  H'mm.  Maybe I'll never have to find out.

Across the border and back in Viet Nam. . .back down in the valley headed into Dien Bien Phu.  The road out of the mountains is slightly hairy on the Vietnamese side, but the border formalities were pure pleasure.  Enjoy the sunshine, this is the end of it for a few days.  Sigh.

The road into Dien Bien Phu. . .through endless farm land.

Too cute to leave out. . .in Dien Bien.

January 9th:  Dien Bien to Lai Chau by a crazy way-north then south again route up Hwy 12 and down Hwy 4D.  Heavy rain and wind all day.  Yup, welcome home to Viet Nam.  Darn.  Hwy 12 was mostly fine, with just occasional bits of repair work or places where repair work was badly needed.  at a town on the banks of a newly filled reservoir near the junction of 12 and 4D things went downhill fast.  The actual road above the town was terrible and reached a decision point between a water crossing of undetermined depth and bottom for 100 meters, or the same distance through visible soft and rutted mud.  I went for the soft mud and made it.  I'll never know what was under the water, or how far down it was, but an SUV did splash through at the same time I was slipping and sliding in my mud.  I gave him the right of way at the end, though he would have taken it anyway no doubt.  Hwy 4D thereafter was incredibly difficult.  I expanded my understanding of off road riding several different ways and kept the bike right way up and moving ahead.  Wow.  The climax of the day, though not the end of the terrible riding, came when a small group of 4-wheeled vehicles and four other motorbikes waited with me for more than an hour while a big bulldozer built a new road across a brand new rockfill between the mountainside above (where drilling, shooting and excavating were continuing) and a rushing torrent of swollen river 150 feet below.  When he finally made it across the new "fill" and back bladed his way out of sight, the flagger held our tranche of 4-wheeled vehicles back to wait for the other end to send theirs through, but waved the motorbikes on through to ride counter flow through the oncoming trucks and SUV's.  The "road" was only two cat tracks across rough rock.  The rock from above continued to roll and slide down onto our new road, hard, fast, and all sizes. . .it was too much like a shooting gallery and we were the ducks.  As far as I know though everybody from both sides made it across and onward.  The trials continued, but nothing as hard as that.  I rode as tail end Charley to the other four bikes the rest of the afternoon. . .there's some real advantage to that.  I could see them speed up and know we were into a better stretch. . .then see them bounce and slow down and be forewarned.  I could even get a good idea of where the best line through the mess ahead was by where they lead into the rough.  They didn't always get it perfectly, but they were good.   We rode fast through some very difficult ground and I learned a lot.  We (just the horse and I) rode into Lai Chau a little late in the day, still light, but not very, cold and wet.  I took the first hotel we came to, not the nicest facade, but it turned out to be one of the nicest on the trip.  A lovely big room and again, a real writing desk.  Usually (tonight for example) I perch on a chair and hunch over to reach down to a little end table to write.  What a treat to sit at a proper desk, especially one with pretty wood and nice details.  But there was scenery.  Oh my goodness was it grand, mountains, cliffs, big rivers, huge new lake (mixed blessings at best, but interesting and really rather pretty in a big-lake sort of way), fascinating towns and villages widely scattered (very low population here, mostly wilderness and new hydroelectric projects).  AND THERE ARE ALMOST NO PHOTOS.  Between the downpour and the extremely hard riding I almost never unbuttoned a camera case.  There's a potential up side to this though. . .I've pretty well determined to make a fair weather season to do nothing but explore this region in detail, from Dien Bien to Si Ma Cai.  That will include a lot of mountains and small roads, and I'll have to miss springtime in Seattle. . .but you'll love the scenery.
A major house raising party. . .Vietnamese mountain style, early in the day, not really frozen yet.

Which brings us to today, January 10th,  From Lai Chau via Hwy 4D and Hwy 32 to Nghia Lo.  Rain and cold all day, with a battering headwind through  two different mountain passes.  There were long stretches of fog when we climbed over ranges of hills between river valleys.  Though my route down Hwy 32 added 70 km to the distance to Hanoi, it kept us mainly in the lowlands and thus mostly out of the fog.  The alternate, shorter route via Lao Cai and Hwy 70 would have had long stretches, up to 80 km at a time in the clouds, and Hwy 70 is a main arterial between Hanoi and Kumming China, horrendous traffic and often battered into disarray.  It was an easy decision today with the cloud base so low.  The route over the mountains would have been miserable at best and you couldn't have seen a bit of the scenery.  Some day, perhaps very soon I will write an ode to Hwy 32.  It is a wonderful route through absolutely stunning scenery.  Though the road runs mainly through river valleys and often in bottom land, every curve (and there are hundreds) yields another wonderful view.  It's a densely populated region, every inch of even remotely feasible ground is under cultivation, with terraced fields reaching way up the mountainsides, indeed, often blanketing the entire mountain!  It's a looping wandering road, coming from nowhere in particular and eventually meandering into milder lands farther south.  It serves no industry and has no cities along it,  mostly only small towns and "townlets" as my Vietnamese road atlas calls them. . .little places full of Hmong and Thai and who knows what other ethnic people.  I was thoroughly chilled by lunch time and stopped in one of those hamlets at a tiny place that had a sign out for Com, Pho and Cafe. . .rice, noodles. . .and blessed coffee.  I went in and was shortly joined by the owner, a pretty young lady who quickly figured out she had a frozen old guy on her hands and proceeded to keep hot liquids coming to me as quickly as I could drink them. . .and warm my fingers around them and my nose over them. . .gosh I was cold.  I hadn't been shivering on the bike, though I knew I was over cold and was working hard trying to keep circulation going in hands and feet.  With hot tea in a big glass in my hands the shivering came on like the plague.  I couldn't stop.  When I set down the glass to pick up a coffee cup the table and dishes all rattled.  I didn't spill much though, I wanted it too badly!  She wasn't really set up for noodles or rice, but when I asked for noodles she got out her smart phone and called down the street and noodles arrived on a tray with garnishes a few minutes later.  All of it, the tea and coffee and refills of hot water (you can do pretty well with a second pass through Vietnamese coffee grounds, and the tea can stand several wettings) and the special delivery big bowl of meaty noodles was only $3.00.  I left feeling like a new man an hour later.  Just as well I stopped.  The road to then had been utterly lovely with hardly a break in the pavement.  Just beyond town the river had taken a piece of road for a snack and the road crews were borrowing space from the mountainside for a repair.  I thought I'd seen it all yesterday with the bulldozer and the falling rock.  Today I met the bulldozer coming at me.  I was in the muddy ruts and he was pushing rock to build a road base.  I had to get out of the his way and that meant even deeper mud. . and when he was past I had to climb over the rock wrinkle he'd left.  We did it.  That little bike is hard to stop in low gear and I did not want to let her fall over in all that mess.  But that was it, Thereafter the road was almost entirely good, only very occasional problems.  There were, what, four maybe, places where the whole road had settled vertically three feet or more. . .perfectly good road where it had settled and at both ends the highway went on just fine.  The 3' drop though was really startling.  We took them on the diagonal, going down and coming back up and it worked, almost easy.  But really startling!!

Anyway, there were almost no photos today in all that rain and wind and wonderful scenery.  I'll go back next year in a better season. . .April 2016. . .gosh that's a long time to wait.  The photos should be worth  it though!
What a way to start a day. . .driving rain and wind.  

One of the nicest hotels of the trip. . .a nice working desk, and quite nice surroundings, just a lot of rain to enjoy.  Lai Chau, Viet Nam

The view out the door of my late lunch stop, shivering hard enough to rattle cups on a table. . .and some of the worst riding of the trip just ahead, if I'd only known.  Well, I guess I'd have gone ahead anyway, too far to go back!

The young lady who kept filling my glass and cup with more hot liquids. . .and got me a bowl of great noodles from somewhere down the street.  The kids were an avid audience until m'lady got out the cards and distracted them.  They played with drama!
Imagine it green in the Spring.  I'll be back.
Rain, low cloud and fog.  no end to it. . .sigh