Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Return to Lai Chau and the countryside around

Written from Lai Chau city on a cloudless bright morning before breakfast, the 3rd of May, 2015.  H'mm time has passed, this has grown, and the struggle to upload images has delayed publication.  It's now early morning on the 6th of May and time to get this out the door.  I also have a good internet connection. . .so hang on, this may be a bit bumpy.

Lai Chau province, not the city particularly, is the reason I'm here now.  I passed through this region for the first time en route home from Cambodia and Laos in January.  It was pouring rain the whole time and the cloud base was uniformly just above the valley floors.  Now and then the fog would rise a little and let me see that there were steep and rugged mountains around, but when the road climbed into them it was a matter of taking off my glasses to be able to see at all as the mist condensed on the lenses too fast to wipe off and riding these roads with two layers of misted plastic between you and the oncoming world is beyond stupid.  I see fairly well without the glasses, and certainly much better without them in fog.  One of the choices in January was to return to Hanoi via the route through Sapa, a road I'd never seen.  Sapa is high.  In summer it's cool, which is why the town is there and why it's full of touristss (full is not a relative term in this instance, it's a near absolute).  In winter, however it's very cold, snow occasionally falls on the mountain (Phanxipan)  just above the town, and it's always either raining, or just about to rain.  I'd wanted to ride the road from Lai Chau to Sapa, but looked up from the road below the cloud base and realized the whole distance would be in dense fog, as well as the rain, so nothing to see, including whatever I was about to hit.  And so, in January I turned down a little road I've ridden before, Hwy 32, which wanders well out of our way but finally winds its way into Hanoi.  It climbs now and then to get over a ridge of hills, but by and large it's a river road, following its various rivers and creeks in their wanderings.  I can hear it calling this morning, known, friendly, extremely lovely in places. . .in many places really, and I've never seen it in the spring of the year, but much of the reason we're here in Lai Chau this morning is to see large chunks of the country that are not on the way anywhere. . .and perhaps to find our way down another wanderer we've never seen before as well, Hwy 6.  So for now at least I'll turn the horse away from the sweet little river road and we'll try our luck elsewhere.

Oh.  Yesterday. Yes, the ride from Bac Ha to get here, which included the road from Sapa down and down to this little city among its own mountains.  Well, there is much to tell and little.  The little?  The road I once knew as a red mud and rock nightmare, from QL70 up or down the 24 km to Bac Ha, a disaster the first few times I pushed up that way, is wide and fine now.  It still has to climb fiercely to get that high that quickly, and so, coming down yesterday it was a swift and very economical ride on smooth pavement.  There's barrier rail in a lot of places you used to treat with serious respect, and usually even some ground a foot or two past the railing.  A nice ride, but it won't make you panic unless you've been very foolish.  Good old Hwy 70, my route into this country and home again for many years, so often hammered out of existence by the heavy traffic to and from the main border crossing into China at Lao Cai. . .was in fine fettle, all groomed and smooth and much wider in places.  One of the construction episodes that rendered it nearly impassable a few years back, when they dug up the shoulders of the road for many miles and installed open topped wheel trap drainage.  . .looks like old hat now, really  under nice control.  Unlike the early days of those concrete ditches, when you'd see a truck or a bus stuck with two wheels hanging over air a little above the floor of the ditch quite often. . .people have learned I guess and I didn't see a single such wreck.  Closer to Lao Cai it's divided four-lane now, amazing.  Getting through Lao Cai and out the other side toward Sapa. . .the phone to the rescue.  Always in the past I've missed the turnoff(s) at least once, usually more.  Lead by my native guide (and a compass so when he told me to start "Southeast on Nguyen Hue" I knew whether or not to turn around). . .lead by the native guide  as I was saying, we just rode through the labyrinth, made the correct (very un-obvious) exit from the big traffic circle, and rode up the mountain.   The run up to Sapa is a 3rd gear affair for the little horse, with an occasional use of 2nd to get us around a particularly sharp hair pin.  We passed slow trucks and were passed by Camry's and mini vans with loads of tourists headed uphill.  It was a bit busy, given the winding road and the tremendous amount of traffic.. . .it takes a lot of service vehicles to support a city and this is the only way to get there.   We didn't stop.  I've been in Sapa in fall and winter, never seen it on a day like yesterday I admit, but. . .I just didn't feel the need for that much company.

We did stop at "Thach Bac", "Silver Waterfall", which is really just white like any other lacy waterfall jumping down a mountainside, but I'd been there before years ago on a winter's day excursion from Sapa and met two of the most charming young ladies of my experience there, Mai and Thu, 27 year olds then on their very first vacation trip from Hue to Sapa and very full of beans.  I eventually met a dozen of their friends at a series of superb meals in Hue when I found my way there.  Grown and gone I suppose now, I haven't seen them lately, but I stopped at the waterfall (surprised to find it lay on my route) and looked around.  Then there was a straggling row of home grown tent-stalls to peddle a small sample of local cooking or handicraft, a trail up the side of the falls and down the other side, with a closed ticket booth.  Nothing more.  We ate a hard grilled egg (shell on) apiece and had something to drink.  They'd come out from the town 3-up with a local taxi bike driver, but Thu road behind me on the way back, no doubt fearing for her life with a white guy driving.

Yesterday under glaring sun (though it was just pleasantly warm there at 1800 meters above sea level), I found a full fledged restaurant, public toilets, formal shop-stalls, and a line of hundreds of local ladies and their kids selling all sorts of produce and handiwork along the far side of the road, and hundreds of fellow tourists.  I am one after all, if a bit odd.  I actually bought a Hmong gentleman's hat for the asking price ($3) and pleased three ladies thereby.  I actually like the hat quite well, it might do for a fall and spring hat at home, though it's dyed navy blue (almost black) and I think that might be the reason so many of the local people have such odd dark skin around their collars and hair lines.  We shall see.  I might look good with a dark hairline. . .if I had any hair.

And at last, the 70 km of road I'd never seen before, down through the mountains to Lai Chau, was just stupendous.  That's all, nothing more.   I'll show you the photos if I ever have a high speed internet connection again. . .the phone just doesn't manage and even though my hotel last night was one of the finest I've ever stayed in, the wifi was for beans. . .and so nothing to show for now.

And now we have internet by golly (skip back a page or two and be sure you've seen all the photos)   This is a small town a long ways from the flagpole, and the internet is blazing fast.  Go figure.(Time passes, nothing happens, internet connections are awful again, time passes some more, still no progress. . .wait!!  Someone is opening the computer!!  It's the 5th of May and he's already forgotten where he was back then, but he has internet again. . .)
This takes you all the way from Ha Giang (where you've already been) to the edge of the map past Sapa, way up in the mountains.

And this finishes off that long day from Bac Ha to Lai Chau.  Unfortunately, I seem to have found the real limit to loading images here. . .so there are a couple more map pages you'll have to wait for.  Sorry.  

The market in Bac Ha.  A real production line for noodle soup.  Two cauldrons of soup, a major chicken and beef chopping area, two other cauldrons (boiling) for dishes (??!!).    It was oddly expensive though, more than in Hanoi, and not that much better, though the noodles were home made and pretty special!

Well, he didn't get pork grease all over the window anyway.  The hotel's younger son.  The older was a proper gentleman, at least two years older.

A really nice little one-storey timber frame home going together.

Fifteen columns and a bunch of beams. . .then the wooden infill for the walls.  There will be large openings in the gable ends for ventilation, and windows as well.  Shade and ventilation 10 months of the year, shiver for two.  H'mm.

Jointing each edge and using the 10" joiner to surface each plank on each face and to a final thickness. . .a thickness planer would seem like  a good idea, but these huge joiners are common all over the country.  They fed me lunch, and would have kept me to talk to all day I think.  Very sweet people.

I was right in January.  There are mountains here even if I didn't really see them.

Throwing away altitude like there was no tomorrow. . .zooming downhill from Sapa toward Lai Chau.  Ragged country!

A really nice driveway. . .leads to a small village.  Rough terrain for farming though.

Running down the last long slope into Lai Chau in late afternoon, much warmer. . .very much warmer down here, out of the high altitudes around Sapa.

And on into town.  A lovely ride from one end to the other.
Then there was the 3rd of May, a Sunday here. . .but the internet access from my lovely hotel was rotten and I didn't write a thing.  So here we are catching up:

Written on the 5th of May from a surprisingly bustling little town 7 km off the "Ho Chi Minh Highway". . .Thai Hoa it's called.  I didn't really come here on purpose, I was simply trying to make distance southward down the DHCM  and it got late before we came to any place on purpose.  So we came here at the suggestion of the young lady who sold us a tank of petrol out on the highway. You need to know that acronym by the way, "DHCM". . .it's "Duong Ho Chi Minh", which is Vietnamese for "The Ho Chi Minh Highway".  I'll use it a lot for a while (the acronym AND the road) .

However, it's also the fifth of May now and I've a bit of catching up to do.  Internet access has been pretty desperate for a couple of days. . .text gets out but not photos.  Add to that some pretty long days out on the road and I don't have a lot ready for you.  So. . .with apologies, here are some edited bits from letters to m'Lady Wife.

But first, a pop quiz!!  Here you go (this is multiple choice):
The setup. . .you're working on the front porch of your house minding your own business when a foreigner (you can tell) drives up and begins photographing your house (which is like 100 others within a few miles. . .) without saying a word or anything.  You. . .
1.  Call the police.
2.  Slip inside and get the shotgun & 2 shells (don't want to just wing him)
3.  Tell him firmly to move on, and then call the dog.
4.  Invite him in for lunch with yourself, your husband and your two daughters (11 and 14 and absolute charmers).   Ply him with crispy fried river fish, rice and tiny little shrimp (slightly sweetened), salad greens and ice water (when he declined the beer).  Have the daughters take turns fanning him when he looks hot.  If they are too busy eating, fan him yourself. Keep the ice water coming. Show him the whole house, including the bedroom (it's the whole upstairs, and a gorgeous place).
5,   None of the above.

There'll be a re-test later when you aren't expecting it.  Life is, after all, a class in which the lessons are repeated until they're understood.  (quote from somebody smart, not my original thought)

So now I not only have to worry about farm dogs, but also excessive weight gain.  This farmhouse project may have too many problems.

So,  skipping back a couple of days to May 3rd.  Here's my official report, slightly re-touched:
Today's route was the reverse of my trip home from Laos last year, well, part way anyway. I turned aside at Muang Lay in order to see QL6, a route I've never seen before. A good choice as it turns out. . .so far. I'll be on it all day tomorrow too and it's not a big road, so the possibilities are endless and not all good. But today was good, with just enough tension here and there (around construction) to keep me awake in the sunshine. Good mountains, good houses being built (and just standing there), some nice people. . .and earlier in the day I got to see the sites of my most frightening adventures from last winter in sunshine with the war half won. . .or something like that. I think they'll finish the stretch of road in question in another six months, given weather, but i'll bet the mountain keeps throwing problems at them for a few years after that. It's not an easy thing they've tried to do and I think it likely they won't really have the war won even when there's no more battle to fight. Gravity is patient. Anyway, it is far enough along to be easy riding for the most part and only a little nerve wracking.  It's still a steep slope perhaps 300 feet high, but they've shaped a lot of it and it's only re-slumped in a few places.  They've widened the notch across the face of the worst of the slide rock and built up a little berm on the edge of the drop off, so, unlike January, it's not an immediate opportunity to slide off and down into the river. 

The route was:  from Lai Chau to Thuan Giao (say "Lie Chow to Two-un Zow")--North a ways on QL4D to QL100, as far as the mouth of QL 132, which looks small but interesting--but we didn't follow it up, rather backtracked to 4D as far as Phong Tho (say "Fong Toe"), thence South on QL-12 to Muong Lay, the stretch I was talking about above, which was purely terrifying in January in the driving rain while they struggled with a sliding mountainside while the traffic tried to get through some how.  At Muong Lay itself (which would repay a serious visit I think) the map is quite incorrect.  It shows two different possible ways to move onto QL-6, when there's really only one.  QL-6 climbs fiercely out of the valley and where they show the 2nd access would be something like a 1000 foot leap.  No way.  We stayed on QL-6 all the way into Tuan Giao. . .not much choice!

The ladies in this part of the world wear their hair up in a big (sometimes very big) bun on the very top of their heads.   I've never known (too lazy to find out. . .) their ethnicity and the meaning of the hair style.  I've just thought of the area as "Ladies' Topknot country".  They wear long black velvet skirts, cut straight from the hips down, topped with tailored blouses, sometimes severely white, sometimes quite brightly colored, but not in the way of the Flower Hmong.  Obviously they like to wear matching outfits, so you'll sometimes see a pair or a group of 3 or 4 all wearing identical blouses, walking along the roadside talking away.  Very attractive people, tall and slender and graceful (balancing all that hair on top of their heads , h'mm).

And now I know. . .the ladies with the big topknots of hair are married women of the Thai minority group. I seem to remember from my visits to the Museum of Ethnology that there are several groups of "Thai" or "Tai" in Viet Nam, but this is my first field interview. . .so I'll remember it. My informant was the desk clerk at last night's hotel, who explained really nicely that when a Thai woman takes a husband then she wears her hair that way. "Nguoi Kinh" (ethnic Vietnamese, as she is) never do such a hair style.

I've never seen it done, but it is fairly obvious that one first ties in a pony tail centered on the front part of the cranium somewhere, with all the loose ends caught. Then one twists and wraps and. . .er. . .uses magic I suppose, to make the tail disappear. . .then a little hairnet confines it all and a pin holds a 19th century silver Piastre or some other bright ornament to the face or side of the topknot. Except for the thing about motorbike helmets, it's really a nice hairstyle. . .and it keeps all that long black hair off your neck in hot weather.

And here's a page from an official report on the 4th of May:
Anyway, I intruded on homes again today. My original scheme, to get invited in and shoot details really is feasible. If there's a man home it should work fine. On the other hand, so far I haven't been shooting interiors, somehow it hasn't felt quite right yet. I guess I'm still feeling my way with intruding in people's homes. Mostly I get taken in, sat on a couch (hardwood, with dragons and phoenixes and so forth) and fed tea or cool water (which I prefer when I can get it...) I answer the basic questions and compliment people on their house and their kids/grandkids (always some around to be complimentary about) and sometimes get a good group shot at the front door as i'm leaving. This is always in response to my having stopped in front of the house and taken a few photos without anyone in sight. They, of course, have heard the bike stop out front and since nobody comes to the house they come out to see who it is. . .and not infrequently invite me in to "drink water" which can mean anything from water to tea to 90 proof moonshine. Typically the houses are a single open space downstairs with perhaps a partition to partially separate a small bed space, but just as often the bed(s) are incorporated into the general open space. There's always the couch-coffee table arrangement, and sometimes a cooking facility in a back corner. As often the galley is semi-detached off to one side. Here in the mountains the "family altar" is much less prominent or missing entirely. There really are cultural differences between the minorities and the Vietnamese. Twice the house has been completely papered with thin ornamental gift wrap type paper. . .wrapping even the columns. Usually not though, they obviously love wood grain as much as I do.

And here's the Lai Chau fire department's garden getting watered in the morning early.  How better to check your fire hoses???

It's carved from wood that looks a lot like old growth doug fir, not rosewood for sure.  Wonderful detail work, this is intended to be a family altar, with the sacred animals, dragon, phoenix, tortoise and unicorn (which doesn't look like a unicorn to me. . .).  It will cost $700 USD loaded on your motorbike. . .or other appropriate transport.  Takes about a month to make one.

A bigger brickworks. . .you make houses out of bricks right??  So I'm entitled to go see, right??  Nobody stopped me, though I frightened the young women unloading one kiln something terrible. . .they weren't expecting me it seems.

Finished brick, cool enough to handle now.
The brick slicer. . .an extruded stream of four possible bricks come from the mixer-squeezer device (think cake decoration with clay).  The guillotine device slams blades down through the stream of frosting, waits an appropriate moment and jerks the blades back up through the clay again, making eight bricks each pass. 

These ladies take the brick off the outfeed belt and stack them onto carts,

And this is where they go--Green brick stacked in the shade to dry

Trying to be artistic. . .interesting lines and rows and. . .well, I try.

Waiting for a truck,

Well, it's a house. . .a power house. . .generating at rather a low level I think, the reservoir is not overly full and the tailrace isn't racing at all. . .

How could you NOT want to ride here??

I need to find out what this roofing material is. . .seems sort of metallic from a distance and as though the various colors were deliberate shades of blue and gray.  H'mm.  No clue yet.

Sorry about the power lines. . .some things just can't be helped.  You get the kids and the porch, you have to take the wires too.  

Motor bike riding to die for.. .er. . .I mean, really nice motor bike riding. . .

Nope, not a house nor a mountain, but another hydro plant.  Goodness, but i think it's better than coal and they don't have salmon here.  

Glad I came back in better weather. . .

Oh yes.

It just goes on and on for miles.  Lovely

The columns still on temporary suppports, the permanent bases scattered around the jobsite.  They've poured flat footers below the columns for the bases to sit on.  This is how you want your house built.

It's a really lovely house coming together quickly now.. .ten months so far and maybe six months to go to move in.  Lots of detail work and careful framing of the joints.  They are not all done so well!

Rice terraces.  Compared to some, these are really easy.  Still.  Think of the hours with a hoe,  A water buffalo can plow paddy like this so at least that is not entirely by hand.

Running a rock crusher.  One man pouring water on the engine, the rest of the crew handing rocks from the big pile to the last man, who chucks the rock in the jaw.  No hopper.  No front loader. . .lots of work.  Wow. (and what an eye and an arm that last man has!!)  Note their living quarters on the hill behind.

It's so simple. . .build the houses where the rice paddy isn't.  There're no doubt a number of PhD's written on the siting and sizing of the little communities based on the size and shape of the available rice land. . .you can probably do all sorts of analysis.