Thursday, April 30, 2015

A ride to the Top of The World. . .er. . .well the Top of Viet Nam anyway.

Written from Ha Giang City, where I can finally load photos. . .not quickly I admit, but this is a big improvement. It's early morning on the 30th of April here, and I was up late last night putting photos into the last post. . .page back and look please.  

As for the past two days, we've been to the top of Viet Nam and back again and it was incredible. My goodness what a ride. I speak of the “top of Viet Nam” and that's correct if you're talking about furthest north.  It's not actually the highest mountain in Viet Nam, we'll get pretty close to that peak perhaps later in the week around Sapa (that highest mountain is called “Phanxipan” in some spellings I've seen, and is pronounced like “expensive skillet”). But the road we've just run the full length of,  QL-4C (what a prosaic name for such an exquisite route!!) is a 200 km long inverted V running from south to north and back again, basically between the cities of Cao Bang on the East and Ha Giang in the West passing through a number of small mountain district towns and coming quite close to the geographic northernmost point of the country. 

There's an interesting comparison to make between the two ends of the country. The far South of Viet Nam, around Ca Mau, a long ways from here more ways than one, is the flat tail end of the Mekong Delta--basically very flat sea-level mangrove swamp except where it's dry enough to be rice paddy, which isn't very dry. By contrast, to give a quick notion of the northern tip of Viet Nam to US audiences, I'd bring up “Going to the Sun Highway” in Glacier Park in Montana. . .if you've been there that will help with the visualization, except for the glaciers.

So, this is the road around the perimeter of a large Vietnamese salient into China.  They can't fight over the border around here, it's so steep you can't stand on it.  The road tiptoes along narrow ledges carved out of the rock of mountainsides, with the river (or whatever) far far below and the peaks far above. Mostly the slopes around you are steep enough that if you stepped off the road you would roll rather than fall cleanly, though if you rode a bike off the road you might fly quite a ways before the first bounce. 

I'm having serious trouble here trying to write about something I've just seen that was simply incredible and delightful. This is not just a ride through some mountains or alongside a really deep river canyon, I can do that any time and just enjoy it. This is a truly magnificent landscape, and made much more so by the evidence it presents of human capacity to flourish in truly difficult terrain. To speak of this as “vertical”, aside from one incredible thousand foot high wall you see in the distance, "vertical", as I was saying, is not quite correct. There are actually slopes and on many of them it is possible to stand upright without holding on, so. . .not vertical. Yet it is a very steep terrain even in its gentler places. . .and stony! Mountains are made of stone of course, but often the stone is content to lie in large masses and not intrude so much into the meadows or the sharp lines of ridges. Here the stone is everywhere, great boulders and small, making up much of the surface of the land. Between the extreme steepness of the sloping ground and its cover of stones, you would simply conclude that humans can never bring this land under cultivation. But in fact, every inch of the landscape that is in any way accessible is planted in maize, and the maize is doing very well. You cannot do this sort of thing with a large tractor, nor even a small one! A cow can pull a plow on some of the much gentler slopes and where that's possible, she will do it (wearing a little basket on her nose. . .mustn't have her snacking on the maize). Much more of the land though is farmed by hand. The universal tool is a hoe, of which there are several sorts, no doubt different from each other for reasons I'll not guess. The work seems to involve a constant round of visiting each plant on the side of the mountain, chopping its weeds and heaping a little soil back around its roots and moving on to the next plant a step away, step by step all across the face of a mountain.

There are not isolated farmsteads here, not like ranches in the American West, scattered over hundreds of square miles. Rather there are literally thousands of family farmsteads scattered everywhere over the face of these mountains. You might think (I certainly did when I first considered it) that these must be desperate people, pushed here beyond the limits of human endeavor and barely living somehow, but the houses they've built into the sides of the mountains are mostly pretty nice. . .and obviously parts of functioning farms. How incredible! And the clothes they wear as they work are bright and clean and women's gaments often covered with sparkles and the shimmer of fine fabrics. There is silver in their ladies' hair and dangling from their throats. Their kids are plump (if sometimes a bit grubby). They stand tall and walk proudly and you'd be hard put to keep up with them on foot! I've been well aware of the mountain people here for a long time and admire them a great deal, but seeing them thriving in this incomparably steep mountain region was stunning. The kids smiled and waved at me a lot. If I stopped for a moment I'd most likely have to play 20-questions for a bit. That was fun too.

It's not a short ride, not even the very best portion. . .it runs on and on, and seems longer yet since speed is out of the question. You are sharing this narrow road with a lot of traffic. That's like Glacier Park too. It's not a “wilderness experience”. It may be a wilderness, or at least a very wild place we're riding through, but we're doing it in the company of. . .a lot of other pilgrims. A pilgrimage to the mountains. . .it's the same both places. In the two days we spent in the area I met people from all over Europe, the US, Japan. . .and all over Viet Nam. I think my favorite bunch was a gang of middle aged doctors and their better halves from Saigon who stayed in the same hotel I did and ate breakfast in my coffee shop.  They were having the time of their lives seeing the mountains of Ha Giang and the northernmost point of the country, clearly checking off an important bucket list item.  High on their must-see list (though they clearly understood why I wouldn't be detouring to go see it) was the actual northernmost point.  It's marked by a flag on a tower, a big, Vietnamese flag, with a backdrop of China going on forever. . .but no Chinese flag. It would have been a 35 km round trip up a side road to see it for myself. The photo on the hotel wall will do for now.

The parallel to Glacier Park extends to the run in and out. It's not that the countryside we rode through on our way to and from the top of the country was less than wonderful in its own right, it's just that, having come to the main event and having ridden through the best (er, well, most spectacular anyway) scenery we're likely to see for a long time, it's hard to keep the excitement at that high of a pitch over the rest of the ride. It was lovely, coming in from the southeast, basically starting at Cao Bang, though I didn't realize it until later. . .definitely into the right frame of mind at Nguyen Binh where we spent the night of the 27th. And then, really starting at lunch time on the 28th (that's yesterday now) when we stopped at a funny little town called Bao Lac beside a valley river. . .which made it a very limited place to put a town really, what with the river and the road competing for the available real estate. . .but it was absolutely humming with a market going on for a block or two on either side of the head of the bridge. . .lots of mountain people, a little livestock, lots of produce and a little moonshine (which is perfectly legal here, if not perfectly safe).  The sense of holiday and pilgrimage hadn't started yet, there was only one other white guy in sight when I passed through and far more people haggling in the market street than anything else.  I actually found an abandoned bakery a few blocks away that had to-die-for pastry.  I ate (no kidding) a "hamburger", that is, a paper thin fried beef patty, a layer of cucumber and mint with a little mayonnaise (??) and a single leaf of lettuce (a small one) served on a lovely slightly sweet sesame bun with the texture. . .of a pastry.  For dessert there was a flakey bean pastry (bean, as in the sweet green filling in a lot of Asian desserts, not green beans or kidney beans or whatever. . .).  The minty cucumbery burger was genuinely odd, but absolutely tasty.  If you'd never had a Whopper or a Big Mac you'd think this was the future of burgers.  Heck, you might anyway.  The flakey bean pastry was just simply lovely, period.  I carried those goodies to a closed coffee shop on the edge of the highway and got the whole upstairs to myself with a glass of really bitter iced coffee.  It went well with the sweet.  There were a number of good looking hotels in town and that lively market scene, I very nearly pulled the plug and spent the night, but something told me to keep going and it was just as well.  The ride on into Meo Vac in the late-day light was one of those "what we came for" rides (I didn't know then what was coming the next day, so was very high on what I had. . .a fine state of affairs!).

I could talk about this for hours but it's late already.  Let me show you some slides. . .Actually, it's getting pretty late and tomorrow is a potentially rough day as I go for a rematch with the Sin Man to Bac Ha road, which very nearly beat me down a few years back.  Rumor has it that the road has been greatly improved.  We shall see.  Meantime, this will be short captions for a bit. . .

Changing over to a local map from my road atlas.  These are the day to day maps, with enough detail to be pretty helpful.  We entered from the right side of the page and continued to the left. . .
A house.  Fun roof.  I said, it's going to be short captions for a bit. . .

Typical Ha Giang mountain terrain.

Erecting the frame for a new timber-frame house not far from Nguyen Binh.  I watched almost an hour and nobody was killed.  Amazing!


He made it, no stumbles.  

Another fun roof.  I suppose even red tile has to be replaced some day.

I tell you, it was a bustling lively market.  Where'd they all go??

This one checks pretty well all the boxes. . .except for the tile roof.  we need some thatch in our lives.

Maybe tile is okay after all. . .think of the tonnage overhead.

Just to remind you, this is the run in to the main event, nothing much to see here, a house, a hill, a few tidy terrace, ho hum.

Rather more houses in one place than usual. . .nice terraces.

Beginning to see rocks.  Those posts are cousins to the one that mashed my foot ten years ago.  I don't hold it against them.  Heck, I keep it as far away from them as I can get it.

House, rocks, maize, actually a pretty level expansive field.  

About to drop down into Meo Vac, maize everywhere
That's the run to Meo Vac. . .now for the Main Event, the northern leg of Highway 4C. . .

Okay, first a quick lesson in corn cultivation. . She pulls, he steers, everyone else hoes weeds and straightens up the plants the big galumpuses knocked over.  Heap a little soil up around each plant as you go.  Do it again.

That's it.  Cow pulls plow, gentleman discusses his plan with her, she does not eat the maize (wait til next winter, yes!) 

Drum roll, trumpet fanfare.  The main event started back there a ways.

It's really a long ways down there, and that really is too steep to farm, even for these people.

But these are nice enough fields to support a village.  You would not want to come home falling down drunk however.

The Ha Giang road department must be tired of retrieving strays from the valley floor wherever that is.  They've put up a lot of guardrail and keep adding every year.

As a motorbike rider I don't like these barrier blocks.  They're just the right height to snap your right leg as you catapult over the edge (having made a serious mistake), thereby guaranteeing you won't be able to push your bike back up to the road.

I posed with all umpteen of this family while they cycled a series of cameras.  Very happy tourists and the little gal was a complete clown. 

Winding down, actual fields sort of, not much in the way of rocks, headed toward Ha Giang City.

Wonderful wonderful old rammed earth home. . .apparently pretty old, and not badly cracked.  Look at those walls!!  Not quite 2' thick I guess, but talk about thermal mass. . .

Same house. . .I think I could have gotten an invitation to tea if I'd worked at it.

Headed south, toward Ha Giang city.

And here he is folks, the grand champion best ever scare crow.  Notice, no crows in the corn.

Too fancy to really be traditional. . .how about "in the tradition. . ."

Unreinforced stacked masonry blocks.. .should last as well as the adobe at least, and you can just order the blocks delivered and just stack them up. On the other hand, getting the delivery truck on the jobsite is a challenge  sometimes.

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