Monday, March 20, 2017

A quick 120 km up the mountain to A Luoi and back

Written from Hue, the 20th of March, 2017
The day dawned clear with the threat of serious heat before evening, but this isn't about today or today's weather.  This is about remembering the first trip, 2005, when I first saw the road we traveled today.  To set the stage a bit, I was enroute from Hoi An to Hue, an easy ride on the highway, heck, I've done it both directions in a single day.  There's a "better" route though, around three sides of a square, westward from Hoi An at the sea, up into the mountains to the Ho Chi Minh highway, then north to A Luoi along that road, and finally down into the lowlands again to Hue.  That isn't what I had planned, let's back up a little further, I'd intended to run along the HCM highway (everybody uses "HCM" for "Ho Chi Minh" here) I'd intended to run on at least as far as Khe Sanh which is just a town now, not a combat base, or the sight of unbelievable bloodshed.  But, I'd planned to overnight at A Luoi for this night on the road.  A Luoi is another of those terrible forgotten places from the war, where the North Vietnamese, on the way to Hue for the Tet offensive in 1968, met American and South Vietnamese forces and the two sides tried to pound each other into dust.  But again, today A Luoi is just a town along the highway, and from the size of the printing on my map back then I was pretty sure it would have a few hotels to choose from.

The Ho Chi Minh highway was brand new that year, the stripes on the pavement were fresh white, the mountains were untouched other than the road cuts, there was no development, no villages or gas stations, just jungle and a wonderful new twisting road through the mountains.  I was riding my first Vietnamese bike, a rebuilt Russian "Minsk", which was up to the job more or less, and I was completely enjoying the smooth new asphalt and the well graded curves.  Looking back to my diary from that day I admitted that I was "drunk on the road". . .that is, drunk on the curves and the mist in the canyons and the intense green jungle.  It was truly marvelous riding, all alone.  There was no traffic at all, coming or going for many miles at a time.  It's as though they'd built the road for me and were holding it open until I'd made my passage.  I doubt it gets much better than that.  There was a problem though, someone had spilled half a load of sand along one lane of the road on a steep curve.  I had been setting up to use the whole curve as I saw each one coming, as though the perfect  road surface would last forever.  That's not a wise assumption, and it cost me dearly this time.  I couldn't hold to the sweep I'd planned through the curve and also stay upright, so I widened out the turn, but since I'd already planned it for the speed I was at, which was just right for the perfect surface, with the slightly slippery sand underfoot, the bike and I slid inevitably to the outside of the curve.  This was a bad choice, though the only one.  The outside of the curve was lined with brand new concrete posts set about 5 meters apart, pretty close, each one painted white, with a red top.  Beyond those posts was a long ways down the mountainside. . .and very very steep.  There was only a little shoulder before the curve of posts, and we were soon on it.  I was selling off speed as fast as the old Russian drum brakes would take it, but we were still moving well when the right footpeg struck the post it had picked out.  Fortunately, I'd kept my foot on the peg, so my shoe and my toes took the bulk of the impact and the damage to the bike was really limited. . .the peg bent back a couple of inches, but nothing worse.  The bike came to rest with her front wheel at the drop off, at least an inch or two to spare.  I sat there and hurt for a while.  I had no curiosity about what was in my shoe. . .rather, I assumed there were some loose, sheared off toes in there and I wasn't interested in shaking them out.  After a while, I got the bike going again (she'd died during the fuss) and got back on the road.  There wasn't much else to be done, so far from nowhere and nobody around.  I used my heel to operate the brake pedal and amazed myself at how much a squished foot could hurt.

Which brings us (after some other minor adventures, including the only would-be-but-too-drunk highway robber I've ever met here) which brings us, as I was saying, to A Luoi.  Now, I haven't mentioned it, but i'd spent the past few days in Hoi An helping celebrate Tet, which, as national holidays go is a cross between Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July, all squeezed into a week more or less.  Everyone goes home for the holidays.  In this case, as it turned out, that included the staff and management of the only two guest houses in A Luoi.  They were there, that is, the guest houses were, but they were padlocked, with no sign to indicate anybody would be back the night.  Dear me.  I'd really been looking forward to getting off the bike and concentrating on hurting, but given the lack of accommodation, I turned the bike around and headed down to Hue on Hwy 49.  It was late afternoon when I started down the canyon, long shadows, deep light, and at least two hours to run down the mountain, but, of course, when you must. . .you do.  I think surreal is probably about the right word for this ride, with the light fading and the foot in the shape it was, but even so, even with the foot screaming about every bump on the road, as we came down off the mountains I was completely taken with the road, endless curves, hundreds and hundreds of curves, some of them down terribly steep switchbacks. . .tiny bridges with very interesting abutments and grading, and the light failing.  It was a fabulous ride, the sort you dream about while you're stuck in an office somewhere.

The road comes, quite suddenly, into lower countryside and the curves become more routine and houses appear here and there, with people trading back and forth on bikes and motorbikes. And so, I rode out of the hills in the dark (with my funky Russian headlight running on its magneto. . .bright when the revs were high, not so bright at an idle) and into Hue and back to a hotel I'd left a week or two before.  There was an Israeli kid there, a medic, just out of his military service, and after he convinced me to take off my shoe (and no toes fell out) he looked it all over and announced that I had broken toes. . .and there was nothing to do about it unless I wanted him to tape them together.  I wanted nothing ever to touch them again, so that was settled and the whole event passed into history, though I limped a long time afterward.

But since that time I've ridden Highway 49 up or down the mountain, or both, from time to time, just to remember that day, and the ride is still almost as wonderful today, even with a foot that feels fine.  On the last ride I made up and down the road, a few years back, it was in such bad condition that my host in Hue said it was completely broken and not to be attempted.  In the event it was pretty bad, with washouts and landslides both blocking the roadway and also carrying it away into the little river down hill, but the locals were still getting through and so did I.  Today was different.  The road is different.  As in so many places with dreadful road conditions in the past, this is a changed route.  The old bridges and water crossings are way up the canyons now and the new roadway sweeps in pleasant curves on new bridges.  The road itself is much wider and well paved for the most part.  It was an easy two hours and a few minutes up the mountain to buy a glass of iced coffee and a few quarts of gasoline and then it was a joyful ride back down,with the little motor just purring along down the grades.

We stopped to say thanks to Quan Am on the last leg into Hue.

There was actually a slight change to the program early in the morning.  I had spaced over an invitation from my Host here in Hue the night before to have breakfast with a friend and then swing by the road-stone quarry just to see how operations are going.  Oops.  However, I had some appetite left and this young lady made really good Bun Bo Hue. . .that is, spaghetti noodle style noodles in spicy (!!) broth with big chunks of well done flank steak.  Very nice.  

And then on to the quarry.  It is actually on the road to A Luoi, a few miles from the city center, but up a mile or so of really rough road, so I didn't mind being squired around in the company SUV.  My hotel host's day job is director of the stone company.  I've placed a lot of rock in my life, so it's a natural mutual interest.

Looking down into the pit.  where a track hoe is breaking oversized material before sending it to the crusher.  The material is granite, but not of a grade to make banks or stair cases out of. . .they crush it all for paving projects.  Actually, this pit is about finished  . .they'll close it next year and move the operation to another property a little ways away.  If I really understood correctly, this will be regraded and opened to the river and eventually turned into resort property.  The  floor of the pit is already below river level and will flood nicely  A resort. . .Oh my.
Back to the hotel, out of the SUV and off on my own on the bike.  This is about the first "pretty" on the way to A Luoi, a truly sparkly mountain stream, but it isn't cold. . .wouldn't do for trout.  It must be something else at high water, though I've never seen it then.

The old road had almost no guard rail of any sort, was narrow, with broken pavement and. . .this is different, but still great fun to ride.

Actually, this is the same little stream.  I think we don't change watersheds the whole upper part of the ride.  Once we're into the "pass" it's one long notch in the mountainside.  

The new bridges are impressive, especially considering the terrain and what the old road was like.  This was one of those projects that didn't "just happen". . .somebody had to do it on purpose.

Most of these land slide zones (there were many many of them in about 20 km of road when we first came through) most. . .have been armored now and the downhill scars are pretty much healed up.  The vegetation comes back quickly once the land holds still for a bit.  This is still active I think, fresh scarring uphill and down, but no sign of it on the road.  Either they had to repair the road or it cleaned up well after they shoved the overburden over the edge.  Yes, I know we don't do that, but it's still the norm in this region.  If you truck it away where would you put it anyway??  

Let me know if you get tired of mountain scenery.  Note the rubber plantation in the background.  

One of the old bridges further up the canyon.  This one still looks sound, but before they rebuilt the road there were some of these with the abutments out of plumb and the bridge bearings. . .well . .not quite right.  You got sort of an extra bump for free.
This Quan Am stands atop a tall hill above the river ten km from Hue City.  From the highway she stands cleanly silhouetted against the trees and sky and it's not too hard to find your way to the little road to meet her.  Quan Am is in the same business as the Virgin Mary, basically, helping out when you've gotten yourself in trouble somehow, "pouring the water of compassion out for the world'.   She often appears standing on a fish or a turtle (?) or simply walking on a wave and fishermen pay her especial attention.   

Zoomed in a little, you can see the bottle of compassion.  I think you can never actually see it pouring out, though I've seen wood carvings where it was quite clear, so perhaps if your heart is pure. . .That's actually the historical Buddha meditating on top of her head.  I've asked about it, but people think it should be obvious to me.  

And once again, maintaining an almost perfect string, I did NOT ring  the bell.  Sometimes I do bump them with my knuckles and then you can feel and hear the low low tone.  The striker just hanging there is certainly tempting though.

Pine trees, river, mountains in the distance. Hue is lovely except maybe in a thunderstorm, or when it's flooding during a typhoon or perhaps when it's just too hot. . .but other than that, I really like Hue a lot.  But we're leaving in the morning.  On to the South.

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