And then you pass the big generating plant and climb a little hill, the road narrows a bit, traffic drops off to nothing but you, me and the few big trucks running all the way to Nanning in China and you run along with mangrove swamps (muddy at low tide) on your right and to the left, little rounded hills planted to some sort of broad leaf tree that might be rubber, though I'm not sure. . .and finally you come to the mouth of QL4b just before Tien Yen. You simply turn off QLl8 and suddenly it's just lovely country. The sun peeks through the overcast here and there, the mountains turn bright green, where there's level ground that will flood there's bright green new rice growing, and where the fields won't flood there's maize well along, already shoulder high on a man. And of course, where there are fields there are farm houses, and so I went from slow in the coal dust and traffic to slower among the farm houses and fine fields and fair mountains. And that's all there is to report. I got waved at now and then, some kids shouted HELLO, a very nursing mother dog ran across the road in front of me, swaying as she ran and I didn't hit her, the weather got pretty warm, the sun shone through occasional breaks in the clouds, it didn't rain and I stopped a lot to take photos. I did discover what may be the first problem with the whole "taking photos of farmhouses" program, which is supposed to include interior shots of the more interesting homes if possible. The problem may turn out to be. . .farm dogs. Some of them are clearly telling me "Hey You. . .don't come any closer or I'll bark some more and run away again and bark some more and maybe I'll have to bite you. . ." Others don't seem so uncertain. They have a clear cut mission statement that involves eating me alive. H'mm This may pose a problem for the production and photo team. Anyway, it was a lovely run once we turned the corner. I wouldn't wish the first part of the morning on much of anyone though.
And then there was the second day, the 27th of April, from Lang Son to Cao Bang (a big city, almost in China) in time for a late lunch, then on another 44 km into Nguyen Binh, a small town, that is to say, a very small town, further up in the hills, and also almost in China, but without a nearby border crossing gate.
I was up and around reasonably early in Lang Son, paid way way too much for two coffees in the shop down the street from the hotel. . .they saw me coming I guess. . .but had a lovely bowl of chicken noodle soup. This is not your Jewish Mother's chicken noodles. . .not with fish sauce, mint, basil, lettuce and red chiles. . .but it's a good way to start the day. So, fed and watered and paid up at the hotel, we were on the road early. It was a remarkably easy day for navigation. Credit goes to the carefully coordinated use of both the paper map (okay, it's plastic) and the telephone, combined with some judicious advice from the young gentleman who served me lunch and got me firmly started out the right one (of six) exits from the roundabout outside the rice bowl place. I think the phone would have managed without the other two this time, it was right on the money all day (how DO they do that??) but the view from the ground was pretty vague, and really, the phone only works if you know what to ask it! So you really do need the plastic map too. Anyway, we did not get lost and it was basically a marvelous day in the mountains. This is most definitely in the mountains. There was only one long hard climb for the bike, but at least three long and surprisingly steep descents, from which I figure we must have gradually climbed a long ways at least twice in order to come to these drop offs. My ears popped several times during the day. I'll show you a photo or two and you'll see. ..they were mountains. We had hair pin turns and sweepers, and sometimes some really nice road to ride them on and other times not so much so. I got to thinking at one point, staggering from one side of the road to the other, dodging chuckholes, there must be an engineering formula to figure out how much chuck holes slow down each class of traffic. . .I mean, the old Freightliners and Macks from California (Mejia Brothers Trucking?? California plates still on the bumper??) they slam through and hardly slow down it seems, but we motorbikes and the Camrys and small buses can't do it. I'll bet it's a surprisingly small number. Somewhere around 1% of the road surface I'd bet. . .1% of the road surface in chuck holes and ordinary traffic slows to a crawl. . .who knows. But it's a real effect. You'd be better off at that point with a gravel road and a road grader to patrol it, but once it's paved that's probably not happening.
But the worst of the road wasn't any great distance, 20 or 30 km I suppose. Mostly it was just perfectly nice riding, especially later in the afternoon. The last 45 km into Nguyen Binh, after we left the China and Hanoi traffic in Cao Bang, was all but pristine mountain road, smooth fine asphalt, and wide enough for both of us. Normally in this country when you are riding a good road surface you are simply waiting for the inevitable. . .it'll go all to heck. The only question is whether or not you'll see the drop off coming in time to slow down for the first big pot hole. Ths afternoon it didn't happen. We rode right to the hotel in the center of town on fine road. It's worth writing home about!
And speaking of riding, there was an exceedingly rare event today. . .I ran past what must have been a motorcycle travel club from. . .who knows where. . .going the other way! There were at least ten bikes, all very similar, big, heavy road cruisers, definitely not Vietnamese bikes or Vietnamese people. They were all correctly dressed in proper motorcycle gear and had tinted visors on their full face helmets, though enough were open visors that I could see they were fairly tanned Asian people, including several wives or girlfriends riding 2-up. . .and the bikes were all really well equipped with good luggage and chrome, not re-worked military canvas stuff like mine. No matter, we knew who we were and we all waved and one of them gave me a pumped fist. Wow. That's a first!
Back to business. . .we were looking for houses and we had houses in plenty. . .I mean, of course there were lots of houses, the place is full of farmers and charcoal burners and otherwise employed country people, but there is variety! We aren't into the countryside where the houses have great big shaggy roofs with smoke coming out of the thatch, and there aren't that many up on stilts yet, but there are some interesting house styles here and interesting ways of siting them on the land (though mostly it's obvious. . .farm the level ground if there is any. . .and stick the house on the side hill somehow.
H'mm. I suddenly realized I need to get out and find some supper before they roll up the street here (yup, one street, this is Nguyen Binh, and if you can find it on a map you have a map that's good enough to tell the weeds from the flowers. It's a small town. I'll be back.
(time passes. . .it gets really dark, there aren't any street lights here and a lot of front doors are closed for the night. . .more time passes, you begin to get worried. . .then finally, somebody opens the computer. . .it's him, he's back.)
That was close. Aside from the cook eating the left overs I was the last man in the last rice bowl place in town, and they rolled up the street behind me as I walked back to the hotel. Let's look through some photos:
On second thought, let's not! That was five minutes grinding gears and nothing uploaded. I'll get this up tonight as it is and we'll add photos from the next big town I suppose. Nguyen Binh must have a very small cell tower. We DO have internet access. . .but apparently we don't have much band width, or is it filament diameter?
|A substantial frame and a good tile roof. . .bamboo lattice closure on the wall. Airy and almost free. Not bad.|
|I really can't tell, is it adobe block or rammed earth? Both are fairly popular where we are going next week. The roof is corrugated cement board (probably not "asbestos board" any more). The brothers really wanted me to stay and talk. Sigh.|
|It's a done deal, he's a trucker.|
|You keep adding rice and then it dumps all at once and you can start over. great fun!|
|Some people didn't finish supper before they came I guess. Dad just kept interrupting. Dang.|