Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mui Ne, the end of the East Sea coast for now.

Written (to start at least) from a lovely tropical garden outside the doorway of my guesthouse about 3 km from Mui Ne town, toward Phan Thiet, through which we will pass tomorrow.  It's the afternoon of the 27th of March, 2017 and this will be the end of our southbound run down the East Sea coast from Halong Bay in the North.  The bike has run 2800 km since we've started, but that counts every little ride along the way, most of which were "there and back" rides (so double the distance) and some were simply diversions from the straight and narrow.  We're really about 1250 or 1300 km of highway travel in any one direction, so there's been some serious sight seeing along the way.  From here we could continue on pleasant small roads along the coast to La Gi and Vung Tau, but it's time to start making some serious decisions, and I'm still dithering.
My Mui Ne guesthouse for many years.

But how we got here. . .it was almost easy actually.  The first leg was Quy Nhon to Nha Trang.  When I was young and full of beans that wasn't a particularly long day's ride, but at this point, it will do nicely, enough after all.  There was the small matter of the big camera's repair scheduled for completion at 11:00 which shaped the morning in Quy Nhon.  After standard packing (about 15 minutes if everything is spread out all over the room) after packing, I was out for a splendid breakfast egg sandwich. . .some of everything as well as two eggs stuffed into a baguette.  She just kept smushing it down until she got it all in.  Good sturdy bread crust or we'd have had a blowout.  There was time to write up the diary in a very modern coffee shop with real chairs and tables and every day Vietnamese prices (I've learned to look for coffee shops away from the tourist zones. . .noodles and sandwiches too for that matter.)

Anyway, the camera was ready with its lens retraction mechanism fully functional and its optics all spruced up when I turned up to claim it at 10;45. It's a major excavation down to the little printed circuit board that had failed, so most of the camera is available to be dusted off when you start to put it back together. . .no dust spots on the sensor.  Parted from half of a week's travel budget and still sighing, I pointed us out of town to the south along the coast and we were gone.  This is another of those really lovely rides, frequent seascapes to dream about later, enough back and forth along the sweeping curves to keep interest high, mountains to the right, cliffs and ocean to the left, just a lovely ride.  There's a lot of variety in the day, some riding through flat rice fields, but usually with rugged, brushy mountains close by on on one side or the other.  About a hundred km from Nha Trang you climb right up into the hills and ride along a cliff top road that, on those rare occasions you get to travel it alone, is just stunning.  This trip the heavy truck traffic, climbing hard up to the cliff top level over and over,  mixed with lots of buses and cars, everyone pushing and shoving (though mostly staying in line and alive), there wasn't a lot of time to be gazing out to sea.  I only pulled off to the side once and tried not to flinch while I took my photos with four wheeled death snarling and honking by, at my elbow.  Ingenious local people have run pipes up the mountainside to pick up water from the several streams that drain off the heights, and hooked the pipes to hoses and offer to wash the trucks and pigs as they come by.  That would be fine except they also let the nozzles spray straight in the air when they're not working. . .what else do you do with all that water??  but the fine mist carries all along the road and messes up your face shield and glasses.  Darn.

I had to get off the road a ways to see what the coast looks like. . .just past Cam Ranh a few km.

This thumb of rock stands at the peak of the hill and you can see it for miles coming southbound.  

Traffic passing within inches of my hip pocket while I focus the camera. . .nerve wracking, but what an island!!  Almost to Dai Lanh, southbound

The clifftop ride ends abruptly when you drop down into the little town of Dai Lanh.  This is a town with some severe limits, the ocean on one side is non-negotiable, and there's very little room between the ocean and the highway. . .and even less between the highway and the Railway. . .and the railway is right at the steep side of the mountains.  So it's a long skinny string bean of a town,albeit with a number of quite good little restaurants along the way and several guest houses now (only one the only time I've stayed here, years ago), but the town is more than just worth visiting at least once in a life time.  If nothing else, the restaurants and the beach make a good combination.  This trip we slipped into the port district (there wasn't a port district when we first came here, but now they have a very respectable port dock jutting out into the bay and a lot of fishing boats load ice and unload fish here these days.  The big surprise this year is that they're replacing the old port sea wall with one very much like what is being installed at Xuan Hai back up the coast.  They've had a hardened seafront for several years. . .the harbor is an anchorage, not a beach-launch site, so a hardened shoreline has less of an impact on the fishermen's lifestyle, but there have always been a lot of small homes and shops too close to the tide line.  Perhaps the new sea wall will make a difference for them.  At the moment it's a gosh-awful mess, but that's construction.
Sitting on the end of the port dock at Dai Lanh

Look at that tented storage area on top of the cabin. . .haven't seen that before, but I think it must be just a warm weather-fair weather thing. . .

The pagoda in Dai Lanh. . .still under construction last trip, in business now!

Seawall construction in Dai Lanh. . .precast units locked together with cast in place concrete.  The berm on the right is just the beach sand dug up to make a coffer to work behind. . .ocean on the other side.

From Dai Lanh on into Nha Trang it's pretty plain riding until you're about 18 km from the city, when there's a choice to get off the highway and take the cliff top and water front ride the rest of the way into the city. . .I never do anything else any more (I might not even remember how the old, main entrance works any more), this is spectacularly pretty riding and a pleasant un-winding after what seems like a long day on the road these days.
Rolling down the highway, rice wherever it will work, mountains otherwise (steep and scrubby mostly)

Nha Trang is of course famous for sea food restaurants. . .these are fresh off the boat.

Somewhere near Nha Trang there's a black and tan billy goat with a grin.

My favorite hotel room from years past was actually available, a corner room with a window and a balcony sort of walkway outside. . .so that was easily settled.  The price is up to $12.50 USD now, but that's still fine for such a pleasant place, only half a block from the beach and direct access to little Russia just a block or so away.  Little Russia. . .my name. . .but a real place.  Or maybe it's just that I don't know my way around Nha Trang well enough and if I did I'd know that Nha Trang is really just a suburb of. . .er. . .somewhere in Russia.  Almost every shop sign or window dressing is at least Russian-Vietnamese. . .and might include English too.   There are Vodka shops with every brand on earth, , ,and whiskey too of course.  There are shops selling all the "American" sports clothes brands, Nike, North Face and so forth all made in Viet Nam. . .with big Russian tags.  There are big, good looking blonde kids (guys and gals) outside most of the restaurants and boutiques, handing out Russian flyers and reassuring the visitors that this is the real place.  I had one short but funny conversation with a pretty young blonde lady, not in Russian or English, but we both had a little Vietnamese.  Good grief.  She was handing out flyers for an Indian restaurant, that looked good until I read the right hand side of the menu.  Nha Trang is no doubt the Russian vacation capital of.. . .well... .Viet Nam for sure, and maybe the whole world.  If I understand correctly, a Russian person can step onto a plane in frozen snowy Moscow and get off it at Cam Ranh (just down the coast 28 km, a regional airport), change into a bikini and hit the beach without delay or a visa or. . .not bad.

Nha Trang also has a vigorous and gorgeous fishing fleet but I've spent weeks over the years here and have a really complete photo collection.  For this trip, Nha Trang was just a fun overnight stop, strolling through Little Russia, trying local noodles and a fruit dessert they called "Thai" che. . .mostly just cut up fruit with some coconut shreds, some sweetener and some ice. . .very nice, but I like Hue che better. . .

One big treat was another ramble through the incredible  silk embroidery gallery whence came the wallpaper on my computer at work. . .the place is full of simply stunning images, often back lit and with hidden meaning behind the silk fabric. . .you have to look twice most of the time.

Probably the biggest treat though was meeting Semen, an 11-year old kid from Russia, traveling with his grandmother and her friend. . .about whom much could be said.  She has a body shape much like mine (er, let's just say, "abundant"), though feminine, a grand sun tan, and a collection of bikinis.  Awesome.  But Semen was a treat.  His English is still a little limited and he is very precise about his use of vocabulary and sentence structure. . .and he's a darned thoughtful young man.  We broke the ice that evening after supper and had a longer conversation in the morning while saying goodbye (and promising to write) so we'll perhaps become pen pals--or whatever the right term is for people who write these days. . .no pens involved of course.
Semen--a really bright 11-year old from Russia.

But that was it for Nha Trang this year. . .a really good but double priced bowl of noodles and beef, and a glass of coffee and two iced teas to write the diary over . .just four blocks from the beach, and safely into a Vietnamese neighborhood. . .with no other tourists immediately obvious.  And thus to the highway.  The road out of Nha Trang is a little hard to find the first time, but the signage is actually pretty good if you know that "San Bay Cam Ranh" means "Cam Ranh Airport". . .and then, if you're paying attention you're lead by the nose onto a cliff top road (they do those a lot) 28 km straight to the airport, and 5 km later right onto QL-1 and you're on your way south.  A kid could do it, especially if he has a phone.

There's a town called Ca Na along the way to Mui Ne and Phan Thiet where I've found the harbor in the past but not the town. . .don't ask, I can be pretty dense at times.  Anyway, if you stick strictly to the highway Ca Na consists of a dozen nuoc mam factories (dense?  the aroma is dense!), one gas station and a little later, a beach front resort (too upscale for me I think).  The harbor is actually a large dredged basin and the town is on the far side of the basin, away from the highway.  It's also a complete maze of tiny streets, though none of them seem to dead end at stairs, which has happened to me elsewhere.  Anyway, having seen there was in fact a town there on G. Earth, I was determined to explore it, and having entered it and wiggled my way to the beach, I even managed to find my way out again. . .but it wasn't pretty.  There's also a brand new cliff top road (they do these really well, and there are more every year to explore) running back north, way above the ocean, which was whipped white this particular day, strong northerly winds for the past few days have raised a big sea just offshore.  But the important thing about Ca Na this year was the flat tire just leaving town.  No kidding.  Oh well, the bike can pull herself along if I walk alongside and feather the clutch, so we don't ruin tire and rim, and a local gentleman walked along with us, offering continuous encouragement by miming pumping up a tire and pointing ahead.  It was about a km UP the highway out of town, and plenty hot, but the tire got fixed (two little sharp pieces of wire???) for $1.50 USD, and the coffee while I watched was $.75. . .and my local guide asked for a dollar.  Pretty easy solution really. . .I carry everything I need to do the job, but it's a lot of work and I'm not well practiced, so, if needs be, I can probably fix my own flat tire in the middle of nowhere, but I don't look forward to doing it!
On the new cliff top road near Ca Na. . .new vistas!!

To make nuoc mam you need fish and salt.  Here's your salt, the fish are out there.

Making sea salt. . .evaporation ponds and sunshine.  That and a lot of raking and shoveling to collect the white crystals off the bottom of the ponds later.  Acres and Acres of ponds.

The road from the fishboat harbor. . .back to the highway at the end.
After a 1 km push. . .a tire patch man and a glass of iced coffee.  H'mm.  Better him than me!

Almost to the coast near Mui Ne.  Battering cross wind (no, you can't see it, but trust me)

the ride from the Ca Na to Mui Ne only requires that you pay attention to how far you've gone and whether or not there are large sand dunes close by on your left.  Not the first dunes, but the second (depending on what you call a large sand dune) will be red, and there will be a good blue and white highway sign on your right, indicating Mui Ne 40 odd km away to your left.  If you miss that then you'll end up riding clear into Phan Thiet on QL1 and having to backtrack on the Mui Ne road, a lot of extra riding, and you'll miss all the wonderful beach front riding along the coast.  However, on a day like this you'd also miss the horrendous crosswind for the first leg, from the highway in to the beach, about 15 km, and positively harsh cross wind. . .no wonder our gas mileage had been so good out on the highway where it was a straight tail wind most of the time!!

Mui Ne is one of three places I've run off with the hotel room key in the past.  In one instance I doubled back the same day and spent another night in the same room, after apologies.  Another key I eventually ended up discarding, there was no identifying information on it and I'd not written down even the name of the hotel.  In Mui Ne, I carried off a key with a tag and the little guest house's name on it. . .no address. . .but back in Hanoi weeks later I wrapped it up and took it to the post office addressed to the Name and something like "3 km south of Mui Ne Town" for an address.  The post office took it and by golly delivered it.  And thus I became facebook friends with the young daughter of the house.  She has since gone off to college (so I missed her on two trips through) and gotten married and had a baby (he's five and a half now) and moved back to Mui Ne to help with the guest house and start her own boutique. . .and is doing very well, thank you!  So it'd been 7 years at least since I rode off with the key and we'd not met in the inbetween, but when I rode up and settled the bike, she spotted me as I took off my helmet.  The bald headed beard is pretty memorable apparently.  Anyway, it was a fun reunion, with lots of visiting and filling in history.

Messing around Mui Ne I revisited all my favorite spots (this is a favorite spot, period) and found things more or less in order.  There's been a lot more construction between Mui Ne and Phan Thiet, so there are very few easy accesses to the 23 km long beach unless you're staying in a beachfront hotel (my guesthouse is across the street from the beach).  There's another new beach front highway too, extending the run all the way from Mui Ne back north to Phan Ri Cua, which isn't right on the main highway, so I've never bothered with it. . .too much of a rush to get to Mui Ne.  The new ride through the dunes (no cliff tops here, but great dunes) is pretty sand spectacular, and the little town at the harbor is just fine. . .tight but not tiny streets, good lunch (okay, it was too big, but really good, and late in the day, so I was starved and ate it all and then wondered if that had been really wise.) and for me at least, a great find. . .yet another species of small fishing boat I'd not seen before.  I haven't been here to chronicle the history, but it seems likely this is the product of the local factory making round and almost round one-man fiberglass fishing boats.  The new species is much much bigger, not 7 or 8 feet in diameter, but more like 18' long and 9' wide. . .a big sturdy boat, with a diesel engine and a lot of real timber structure.. .and molded over a basket. . .impressive.  So we have some new boat photos to archive.  They won't make it into the book, it's already in the hands of the translators and layout people, but I'll spread them around.

So two days passed in Mui Ne and the surrounding countryside. . .a good time, enough riding, a good visit to my local mechanic to tweak the clutch and throttle adjustments and oil the chain, lovely noodles in the market in the evening (Mui Ne market in the evening is the place to eat!! your choice of too much good food, and the smiles are big and the prices are right.).  And then the decision:
Getting a small fishing boat ashore. . .getting the axle under the boat is the trick.  After that it's just horsepower to rush up over the sand.

Sunset at Mui Ne
Traditional wooden fishing boats (though a lot of them are coated with fiberglass these days)

Sand pines??  They look a little pine-ish, but no.

Phan Ri Cua. . .harbor taxi a lot like in Phan Thiet, run by ladies, using huge single sculling oars.  Slow and ugly (the boats!)

A new species of fishing boat, molded up town somewhere and fitted out here on the river bank.  Phan Ri Cua

And it's going to get a brand new China diesel!  Not a rebuilt!!  These power everything here, rock crushers, compressors, table saws. . .and fishing boats.  If I got it right, the boat, complete with motor and running gear, ready to go fishing will be just a bit over $5000 USD.  Impressive.

The decision that's needed: To continue south into the delta, a decision that implies a full day of terribly hard dense highway congestion into and past Saigon. . .followed on the return trip by another day just as bad.. . .probably the worst consistent traffic anywhere in country, and it's basically unavoidable if you want to get to the Delta.  Or not.  When I'm home I miss Viet Nam. When I'm here in country, I'm homesick for Seattle (well, not its weather).  When I'm along the East Sea I miss the mountains in the west and of course, vice versa.  There were reasons to continue into the Delta this year, but it would have to have been a very short visit. . .and I decided to do it, loaded up, and rode into and through Phan Thiet (just barely glancing at one of my favorite big harbors) and out onto the highway headed into the City.  I lasted about ten kilometers I guess, maybe a bit more.  The noise and stink and crush of the traffic (still just outside Phan Thiet, not even close to the City yet) was awful.  So I stopped the horse, dug out the map, checked out the alternatives again, and did a big U turn across all four lanes of the highway, headed back north to the junction with QL 28, and thence across the mountains over to the western edge of the country at Gia Nghia. So much for the delta!

It was  a lovely ride with one caveat. . .QL 28 doesn't really go anywhere important for quite a ways, so it has almost no traffic (wow!) and is pretty narrow at first, running through upland farm and garden countryside.  It climbs quickly as you head west, and narrows too, passes into forested land and steepens and narrows again and again, making a really tortuous path up into the mountains, and "path" becomes almost the right word.  It's paved the whole way except where it's stripped back for repairs (which are a bit tough, big rock, not yet compacted into the craters) but the scenery just gets better as you climb and the sky was blue with puffy white clouds.  Before we reached the summit (which wasn't all that clear really) the road was quite narrow and partly broken and I was starting to have visions of a really hard crossing, but it never got that bad and beyond the summit, clearly on the down slope, it widened out again to be a perfectly nice country road into Di Linh.
Eastern QL-28, an hour or so from Phan Thiet

Road narrows a lot as you climb toward the summit, rough stretches under repairs, which are rougher still!  Eastern QL 28 before the summit. . .before Di Linh

Coffee in abundant bloom

Di Linh sits at the junction of QL 20 and QL 28.  QL 20 is the main road from Saigon to Da Lat, so it's IMPORTANT.  And, as it turns out, once past Di Linh, QL 28 takes on a different role in life, it's the supply and support route for the big power house in this part of the world. . .and roads to power houses here are well taken care of.  This edition of QL 28 is high, wide, and handsome. . .easy riding through pretty mountainsides with the big lake reaching up into the canyons all around.  Made for a photographer who rides motorbikes!
Western QL 28, past Di Linh, headed toward Gia Nghia, the powerhouse is still a long ways ahead, that's a really big lake!

A hardscrabble farm no doubt, but coffee growing nicely.  This was jungle country when I was a kid.

To put a road through the mountains you have to make road cuts. . .and sometimes the uphill slope doesn't approve.  Water control and slope armoring are extensive, but weren't enough here.

The afternoon continued hot and the white puffy clouds began to look a little black and purple in places and about 30 km from Gia Nghia we found the first rain. . .great big drops whacking into the pavement and the face shield. . .easy decision, stop and change into rain clothes!  And so from a puffy cloud morning to a hard rain shower, we had a variety in the day, but we rode out of the rain before we got to town (though the streets were still running water).  I thought I knew where I was going in Gia Nghia, I spent a pleasant night here some years back, but that time I arrived on QL 14 (the main north-south road through this part of the world) and this time, arriving from the East, I couldn't find the old neighborhood.  Odd.  I wonder where it's moved to??  No matter, it's a big town and there are lots of good hotels. . .I liked the second one I looked at very well. . .coffee shop next door, a whole street of rice and noodle restaurants just beyond, and. . .a real desk in my room.  Wow.
And this is just the lobby! 

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