Friday, May 8, 2015

Mai Chau then Down to the coast and south a ways,

Written from Cua Lo, about 400 feet from the beach and half a mile from one of my favorite little boat yards here on the northern coast.  It's late evening on the 6th of May here.  I fly home in nine days and that's now figuring a great deal in my day to day planning.  On the one hand, I don't want to spend a week in Hanoi just practicing getting ready to leave.  On the other hand, I want to be there when the plane leaves.  Distances can get to be very time consuming here, so I'm a little hesitant about getting too far south.  However, after all the time I've spent in the far north and in the mountains, I decided I had to go check at least part of my normal trapline of boat yards and harbors down on the coast, so instead of looping back up into the mountains on yet another obscure highway (it was close, I almost went), I headed down out of the mountains by way of Moc Chau and Mai Chau.  Moc Chau has been an elusive goal for some years.  I most recently got within striking range by struggling up a horrifically bad road on the Lao side of the border to a remote and closely guarded border gate that would have lead directly down hill into Moc Chau.  It would have if they would have let me cross there.  It is a border crossing, with guards, and local people with the right local paperwork go back and forth and marry across the line and visit in laws and so forth, as they have since before there was a line.  White guys do not.  They sent me back down that horrific road to the two-canoe catamaran ferry that took the very last of my Lao money. . .and I hustled back to town quite a distance before dark to change $20 more for the night.  It all worked out, but I've been wanting to see Moc Chau ever since.  I've seen it now.  A great bakery!  We'll go with that. There was a banana cream bun (sort of a sponge cake with white "cream" sticky frosting and chunks of cooked banana. . .and a coconut bun. . .thick tasty strips of coconut in a pastry that closely approached perfection.  A very nice lunch!!  Actually, it's a mountain town, all the people around are mountain minorities of one sort or another (Thai, and others I think) and the mountains are right there, though the town itself is level enough and there are some rice paddies around as well. It was too early to stop though, so, full of buns and fresh petrol we went on down and South to Mai Chau.  Now, Moc Chau seemed to be tourist-free, except for one Englishman who had been out in the sun too long with the mad dogs and taken to hitch hiking around Viet Nam while carrying two back packs.  Mai Chau on the other hand has been discovered and thinks it's a very good thing.  What a difference!!  It was too late to go on by the time we got to Mai Chau, but I'm glad. . tourists and "lodges" and a "traditional village" that is 50% shopping area (shopping for all sorts of mountain-people handicrafts that is, absolutely none of it made in China). . .all that sort of thing and the place is still just fine.  Rock climbing, kayaking, trekking. . .my goodness, makes me feel lazy just riding a motorbike, but still, I liked it.  I'm not sure what triggered the popularity in the first place, but it could be just the green of the rice paddies that fill the level country between the hills.  It's a green that will no doubt show up "unnaturally" green in the photos, but trust me, it's really green.  Velvet.  Lovely.

I've mentioned my LEFT knee have I not?  Misbehaving, causing hate and discontent in the joint and so forth?  It forced me into a $15 hotel in order to get an elevator. . .but that let me enjoy a treetop canopy view that would have been out of reach ordinarily.  I just don't do that many stairs all at once any more (Okay, I did a climb of 54 steps to a room in Dalat in January just to get a desk to work at. . .so it can be done, but I didn't do it for pleasure!! and yes, I did count the steps, every single time I went up them.)  The knee was fine then though, this is a new complaint.

We almost spent a second day in Mai Chau just to look around, but I find it really hard to stay in one place when the bike is running well and there's an endless road just ahead, so we bought a new bedspread and left.  Er. . .and a crossbow.  I did mention the handicraft shopping zone didn't I?   What with squeezing the bedspread into the waterproof bag and the waterproof bag into the carry all and lashing it all on the horse. . .we were a little late getting out of town, and then the trouble began.

It wasn't serious trouble, not a swamp in Laos or a Caterpillar trail in Ha Giang . .nothing that serious, but it was a 20 or 30 km long major construction zone that was pretty tough in places.  There were a couple of moments when it seemed I would dump the bike in wet clay.. .the contractor and the locals were all trying to keep down the dust in the neighborhoods and there was a river handy, so no limits on the dust control water.  Wet rutted clay, however, is no friend of mine.  In any event, we were free of it in an hour or so, I wasn't watching the clock.  Thereafter the day was a lovely road down out of the last of the foothills and onto the coastal plain. . .flat and thus, after one missed turn that worked out fine anyway, we came all at once to salt water.  I'd been needing that.  The intersection where my road (QL 217) met the big QL-1 at a town called Dien Chau  gave me 3 choices, Hanoi to the left,  Ho Chi Minh to the right, and a bathing beach straight ahead.  That was easy!  And very profitable.  I've no idea how many times you'd have to leave Hanoi, ride clear around the north of the country from East to West and South, then ride to the coast in time to see a hundred fishing boats closing the coast right in front of you, but the odds are against it.  In my case, being somewhat of a Vietnamese boat nut, for all of those hundred (give or take a few) boats to be of a local design I'd never seen before anywhere after ten years of looking. . .the odds are really poor.  Or maybe I exaggerate my understanding of the subject. Anyway, they are really distinctive boats with outrageous (nothing else to call it) high bows and low freeboard amidships.  I watched them enter the river mouth right in front of me, grand stand seats if you will, and then the river turned south and inland and they disappeared into the distance.  I chased them for an hour before I finally found the right road into the interior, a couple of km inland actually, where a cacophonous fish market was in full swing and the boats were still arriving.

I finally decided I had enough photos. . .even found two little boat yards with examples hauled out for repairs, so I was able to get passable under-body photos. . .and finally rode the last 40 km southward to Cua Lo, which has been one of my favorite boatyard towns for years. . .fishing village at the north end, long usually (in winter) abandoned hotel strip for 3 or 4 km south along the beach.

Things change when it gets hot in Hanoi.  The city sends down hordes of sweaty beach seekers, who arrive, take up hotel rooms, buy or rent fluorescent orange and green life jackets, tie them around their kids, and troop out to the beach.  The big vacant lot is a permanent carnival.  Every hotel is busy, every bit of sidewalk anywhere near the beach is a cafe.  All the restaurants are full (but still close before 7:00 pm. . .go figure!  Anyway, I have a recent favorite family hotel there,  3 generations including a few kids, their handsome dads (one of whom runs the place) and pretty moms. . .a grandma and (though I missed him this time) a grandpa who is just my age and served in the NVA at the same time I was in the US Army and in roughly the same neighborhood.  Nobody there speaks a lot of English, so I'm no doubt missing some interesting stories, but. . .okay.  They swept me up and in an put me in a room fast enough to make my head spin (and my knee ache. . .the elevator was down for some odd reason).

So. . .I struggled all evening and half the night between reasonable caution and commonsense on one hand and a strong urge to visit friends and the island coast just east of Hue.  Hue is another 386 km the wrong direction. . .that is, 386 additional km away from the airport.  In the morning I packed the bike and rode back to the highway, ready to ride to turn right, north to Hanoi, but the horse turned left and loped off with me hanging helplessly to the handlebars.  Whatever was she thinking??  She ran all day, skidded into four different petrol stations and told me to give them money, then before I could gather the reins she stretched out to her whole 65 kph (er. . .40 mph) and just purred.  My behind became sore and my left knee ached something fierce and still she ran along through the glare and the heat (it was close to 100 officially, and that wasn't near an asphalt paving machine), and so we came to Hue on the edge of a large thunderstorm and. as much, the edge of night.  It was a long hard day, with 140 km of miserable paving and grading going on, and she wasn't even panting.  Just trotted up to the hotel, jumped the curb as though she owned the place and told me to get off her back.  We have an occasionally fraught relationship.

So now it's the 8th of May in Hue, I've been to the coast, seen some of my friends (and missed some), scheduled an interpreter for a visit in the morning, and am now dithering between common sense and discretion (okay, call it a night bus ride back to Hanoi tomorrow night) or continuing my ten-year long habit of somehow getting back to town in time on my own bike under her own power.  It will be interesting to see how this works out.  I have NOT asked the horse if she'd like to ride in the belly of a bus with her mirrors in her pockets and an empty gas tank. . .I know how that would go, but she'd live through it and we'd be back in the city two days earlier and not a whole lot poorer.  By the time you run 800 km of petrol through her motor and pay for a couple of nights in highway hotels, the $700,000 VND ($35 USD) bus fare for the two of us doesn't sound that bad.  There is, you see, an opportunity to revisit Halong Bay (near Uong Bi) with Ms. Cuc, to visit a village where EVERYONE is stated to be a boat weaver!  And there are supposed to be some ancient temples built in the truly traditional style I could photograph.  But not if I'm flogging a tired horse up the stinking hot highway in heavy traffic.  H'mm.
Maps are starting to be a big deal. . .it takes a lot of them to track all this.  Running at 65 kph all day tends to use up a lot of real estate and besides, Blogger cut me off before I got you caught up last time anyway.  Hang on.  Here we go:

This is most of a day's run from Lai Chau to Tuan Giao, which we've discussed before.  You'll notice that the border we're following now is the Lao border, we've finally left the Chinese border zone.

This little fragment doesn't turn up on any other of my maps, so you get a whole lot of countryside we didn't see this trip.  Note the proximity to Hanoi.  At one point there we were within 180 km of  the city, but kept going south and stretched it out.

Tuan Giao over night, then on south and east, getting farther from Hanoi all the time, still pretty much in mountainous country, though not at a particularly high altitude.  We could have gone through Dien Bien Phu, or we could have run into Hanoi on QL32 which I dearly love, but I'd never seen this route before and it was well worth the effort.

After ticking off a series of "first visits" along Hwy 6 and 15 I made a wrong turn out in the country somewhere (I mean, you can see exactly where, but it isn't that obvious on the ground).  I'd begun asking which fork in the road lead to DHCM, not thinking about QL217, which does in fact cross DHCM a ways north of where I'd intended.  No matter, this was a new stretch of 217 for the two of us and it was a perfectly nice little road.  DHCM is a road of national importance for some reason, if only because it has George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both in its name.  Whatever, it's a lovely wide 2-lane highway in good condition with vey little traffic.  It does wander a good bit and it's new enough there aren't a lot of towns or services right on the road, but except for one notorious stretch of 200 km with no services whatever, it's really a mighty nice way to go north-south if you're not in a big hurry.

And this gets us to the coast at Cua Lo after our harbor hunting exploits at Dien Chau.  From here to Hue is just a run down Interstate 5 from, oh, say the Canadian border to about Portland, Oregon.  Except about a third of the distance is a construction zone at the moment.  I could really learn to dislike road construction. . .but I guess, without it, my motor bike touring would be pretty limited and a lot blander.  H'mm.  The next fourteen photos are from Thuan Giao to Mai Chao:

From here to the end of the mountain country we see a lot of infill of the "under house", whether it's masonry or timber.  There are some real artists among the carpenters in these hills.

This photo earned me a tour of the interior and several cups of tea and a glass of ice water.  You can't tell from out here, but the masonry simply swallowed the wooden columns.

This one is particularly interesting in that the brickwork infill between he columns is being brought up so early in construction.

This is the house next door and no doubt indicates what the new construction will look like in a month or three.

And then there's this sort of thing. . .ethnic Vietnamese I think, recently built on a prominent hill top. . .somebody is doing pretty well!  

Moc Chau really is a lot more than one good bakery, but if you're passing through be sure to try their coconut buns and their banana cream pastry.  So nice. . .

A much smaller/different porch overhang than some. . .though it's still well covered by the spreading eaves.

The outskirts of Mai Chau, green grows the valley oh!

Near the shopping zone outside Mai Chau, this nice house is most interesting in that it is being re-erected.  I couldn't figure out why it had been taken down or from where. . .but except for the porch, all of this structure has been up for some years somewhere else.

Good night at Mai Chau.  The tremendous thunderstorm starts in an hour.
So now some morning photos in Mai Chau. . .and then the road to Thai Hoa:

They called it "banh my chau". . .the banh my is the baguette (lightly toasted) and the "chau" is the egg (in the pan it was fried in), the "suc sich" (sausage), which really is a hot dog, the little pile of liver pate and the cucumber, all sitting in a meaty broth that may or may not be related to the pate.  A first for me! A dollar and a quarter.  H'mm.

Really big, really well made cross bows.  Deer hunting anyone?  

Thai weaving,  Note the delightful rack for shuttles with various colors of threads. . .quickly change stripes as you go!

Thai weaving for the tourist market.  The scarves are $5 each and take a lady a long day of constant weaving to make.  

The weaver and a son (grandson perhaps) from upstairs.

Much more common sort of stairwell.. . pretty steep, with the treads a bit too widely spaced for my taste.

Headed down and out of the mountains

Placing concrete in a new barrier wall.  Note the roadway we're using.  H'mm.

This part was dusty.   Compared to wet clay I like dust.  And I don't like dust. Pretty nice wall though!

This is the pop quiz house.  

A truly lovely living space upstairs, very nice detail work,  beautiful pattern in the thatch.

My eleven year old guide after having shown off the house.  NOT a common stairwell detail.  Wow.

Technically lousy photo, shows the kitchen (a separate masonry building with a common open wall to the house) and the eating platform.  Note the fans, momentarily out of service, they did a good job of cooling us all off (though I got way more than my share)

And a 56 year old ethnic Vietnamese home with a small beer and soda business out front.  The gentleman had obviously had problems with white guys before and was marginally impolite to start.  When he realized I understood his prices and spoke a little VNese that changed and he was very gracious.  A drop dead gorgeous home, with rich furnishings visible in the interior.  I didn't feel comfortable pushing him though, after the near-hostile start, so you don't get to see them.  Tons of mother of pearl inlay in rosewood though!
And now for the road from Mai Chau well and truly down out of the mountains at Thai Hoa

Rooftop vista.  Note lightning rods.  They are not ornamental.

And just like that we're out of the mountains and the people around are all ethnic Vietnamese, Nguoi Kinh.  

And a low-land river, complete with some quite nice little dredges.  This one is set up to accept round rock of about 3" diameter and wash the sand and small rock over the side. . .sorting out the bones as it were.

Absolutely the prettiest welder that ever gave me an ice cream bar.  That's a whole box of them at the lower right.  Really nice coconut flavor and smooth as can be (not necessarily common amongst Vietnamese ice creams that are very far from the city.  

They are less than a month into the build of this dredge.  22 m long and 5 m in the beam, about 2 m overall depth.  That seemed to be the whole crew.  They can eat a lot of ice cream in a short break.

Right next to the new dredge, a concrete block making outfit.  A fairly powerful electric motor drives a hydraulic pump to compress and vibrate a very dry mix. . .which they then liberate from the machine and stack to cure.

Not a soul around anywhere and all locked up.  Seemed to be a seminary off to the right, but again, nobody moving in the mid day heat.

Small and old, but still being kept up nicely.

Anybody have a name for these?? Gorgeous flowers in quite large trees, very common for a 100 km or so.  These were at the edge of an old, partially abandoned village that reminded me a lot of parts of Ireland 20 years ago.  Still clinging to life, but not the vibrant happy life I've gotten used to in the mountains.

Ireland?  Viet Nam.

I'll close for tonight with some coast photos. . .my new species of boat at the foot of highway 217 and a few from an afternoon at Cua Lo:

I wasn't kidding, they're really distinctive boats. . .you wouldn't mistake them for anything else I've known.

He needed parallel parking instructions, bumped pretty hard.  They seem to be really tough little boats though

Yes, they have a very lively sheer.  I guess!

In Cua Lo boatyard, the danged thing would not roll.  The boss was doing something with a hydraulic jack and kept asking for more push.  They invited me.  I shoved.  It went (I know. . .it would have gone anyway, but still. . .)

There she goes.  That's the boss with the big hat.  Wet all over more than anywhere else.  Really hot out.

A new breed of fishermen, put their boats together on the beach every evening before they go.  I've no idea why, but they strip absolutely everything out of all the boats every trip and put them back together to go out again.  With one bamboo exception, the new boats are all fiberglass with thin little bamboo ribs.  From the looks, probably all from the same shop.

A used Honda motorbike engine!  Air cooled, no water intake. . .if it will last in the boat.  H'mm.

That's a big load, fiberglass with bamboo ribs and deck.  They were staggering, but helped each other.

No, I'm serious.  He's putting in the prop shaft and the cooling water intake J.  No rudders, they all steer and scull with a paddle.

He's hooking up the cooling water (nice little diesel)


  1. So much beautiful wood work in such beautiful homes, lucky man.
    And the new boats, again simply beautiful.
    well found Ken

  2. Hooray for the KP "but still" it moved factor--a force to be glad about--Ibuprofen or not.

  3. Hi Ken: Is it possible to contact you by email. I want to ask a question or two about boat builders in Vietnam?