Saturday, April 1, 2017

Northbound on the Ho Chi Minh Highway--more or less on the western edge of Viet Nam

Written (or at least started) in Ngoc Hoi, which is also, or at least used to be, called Plei Kan and which Google Maps now calls Plei Can.  Take your pick, the current road signs all call the place Ngoc Hoi.  Anyway, it's evening, after supper on the 30th of March, 2017 and my stuff is drying out nicely here in the room.  I personally only got a little damp in places.  The rain, when we finally didn't dodge it, was torrential for fifteen kilometers or so. . .doesn't slow the bike much, but I slow her down to allow for visibility problems (a face shield and eyeglasses, both wet on both sides and only one fore finger for a wiper).  Fortunately, in a downpour like that most of the local folks know somewhere they can get under cover, so traffic slacks way off.  On the other hand, everyone else is flying about half blind. . .a lot of people ride without a face shield, or even sun glasses here. . .and it's hard to see with your eyes closed against rain like that.

This is the little town from which you can go a few km down the road and take your pick of a route to Laos (close by) or Cambodia (a little farther, and only used by local people. . .no passport service available, though I've never tried, so things might have changed.  The funny thing is that when you are riding out of town, if you miss the not-too-prominent sign, you'll keep going straight on what you thought was the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL 14, also called AH 17---"QL" means "national road" and AH means "Asian Highway"). . .and yes, I still get confused looking for the wrong signs, but less so these days.  Anyway, if you miss the sign and go straight, you end up at the Lao Border, whereas, if you wanted to stay in Viet Nam (we will, tomorrow), you should have made a very unlikely looking hard right. . .as though you were leaving the highway.  Go figure.  Suffice it to say that over the years I've made the mistake both ways. . .most recently, headed to Laos, I made the hard right turn and carried on.  I didn't know about the Ngoc Hoi name change nonsense and was eagerly hoping to start finding "Plei Kan" signs (which you won't anymore, anywhere).  It actually sank in within a few km's. . .I suddenly realized what that right turn had meant and therefore that I was speeding off in the wrong direction, headed for (more of) the wrong country and the afternoon was wearing thin.

Anyway, it's a nice little town, picking up a good bit of hotel and restaurant business from the traffic to and from Laos, and I've settled on one particular hotel the last couple of trips, run by a young couple with a little boy.  He was a newborn last time I was here and his mom looked pretty ragged, mostly staying in bed and letting dad do some work. . .she looks a little perkier now, and even puts the kid down now and then.  He's 20 months old now.  H'mm.

Speaking of kids, at lunch yesterday a gentleman toddler fell down right next to my chair and began wailing as they will.  I didn't think about it, but just got up, picked him up, rubbed his knee and patted him on the diapers.  Stunned silence, and then a very careful smile.  My goodness.  Mom was impressed and let me carry him around for a minute or two.  I'd make a good grandpa.  Maybe.
On the road northbound toward Ngoc Hoi. . .Squash maybe?  Or something else entirely?  Central Highlands farming.

Marvelous road in this stretch, this is the economic center of the Highlands, coffee and tea capital of. . .well, Viet Nam at least. . . and this is the road.

You can play a lot of games with the way the rubber trees line up--not just rank and file, but diagonals as well. 

There were markets right near the hotel two nights running.  I love market photos. . .We'll call this one "Ducks for m'Lady".  She'll probably pick the black and white ones.  I'd take the sweet brown duck myself.

An awful lot of useful stuff is made out of plastic here  now. . .I just like the colors.

Flowers, vegetables, meat and fish. . .abundance these days,


One small shop.  The country is full of such shops.  I still like the colors  
But I digress.  Life goes on, the highway runs through the hills, the hills are all covered with farms (with darned little rice. . .think coffee, rubber, tea. . .and some tree crops and smaller stuff I still don't know what is.  There's no jungle at all in this latitude (it was all jungle when I was a kid) it's all farmed now.  Some of the farms are enormous. . .miles of rubber trees stretching over the hills beyond the curve of the earth.  Coffee plantations are more variable. . .some are huge as well, but there's a lot of coffee grown in back yards and tiny private fields.  I've been through this part of the world when thick windrows of coffee berries were drying on every flat surface available, raked and re-raked to keep them drying evenly.  Today though there are just thin layers of beans, not piled up in windrows at all, just sort of scattered on the drying floors. . .and only here and there.  I need to know more about the time table for coffee growing I guess, I'm feeling pretty ignorant.  This IS the first time I've seen wide areas of coffee in bloom. . .it's quite pretty with its crinkly green leaves hanging down and the line of blossoms on each branch.  I'd swear I took several photos of it, but can't find them.   Good grief.

This sort of small, minimalist house is not uncommon.  Sturdy enough to stand up to whatever weather, but probably not what the folks have in mind for the long term.  Let's come back by in ten years and see how they're doing, I wouldn't be surprised if this transmogrified into a kitchen lean-to behind the new house..

This little valley actually looks like it might have been terraced for rice, but none planted, not even any seedling beds.  H'mm.  I don't know

Aside from the rubber trees in the background. . .I'm ignorant.

Rubber in the back ground, coffee on the upper right. . .er. . .and some other stuff.  Just no rice!

I've stayed here, just a block off the highway, bu not this trip, we just kept going.

Towns in the Central Highlands tend to be big and wide. . .real estate is perhaps not so dear as it is down on the coast.  Anyway, there seems to be more room .

This is what it looks like a lot as you ride along.  

Any informed guesses here?  It's two crops right?  The tree and the vine.  But I don't know them.


Really good road.  Not thrilling, but easy to travel on and maybe stay alive.

A nice little house in the Central Highlands.  Some are bigger and some aren't so nice, but this is a good average "nice" house, made out of masonry blocks including any interior walls, and most likely these days with a welded roof truss structure.  Some are still covered with red clay tiles but many are roofed eiher with corrugated metal or corrugated cement board.  The metal rusts. . .not sure how fast, some of it looks good still.  
But I keep dodging the main point.  Yesterday's short ride from Gia Nghia to Buon Ma Thuot and today's much longer ride from BMT (a lot of people use that abbreviation) had this in common. . .dull scenery and easy riding.  There was no drama. . .barring a couple of odd maneuvers by distracted riders and a few trucks with lethal horns and bad manners. . .and the scenery looks a lot like one long upland farm, on rolling hills.

Looking at the map, the names are great, some of them historically  (war time) horrible, but they definitely evoke the mountain people, not the ethnic Vietnamese.  Here's the string of beads since yesterday:  Gia Nghia (okay, that sounds Vietnamese, but hang on), Dak Song, Dak Mil, Buon Ma Thuot, Buon Ho, Ea Drang (also called Ea H'Leo), Chu Puh, Chu Se, Ia Bang, Plei Ku, Chu Pah, Kon Tum, Dak Ha, Dak To and Plei Kan (okay, that one is called Ngoc Hoi now. . .and yes, that does sound Vietnamese).  If you have a map open to this part of the world it's even more evocative. . .away from the main highway the names are almost all "ethnic".  But the towns they name are nice, mostly quite clean, modern Vietnamese towns with all the shops and facilities you'd expect to find. . .and nothing that startles.

A great many of the people up here are a lot darker skinned than you're used to seeing down on the coast, dark brown to nearly black, though with pretty much the same range of facial features and the same sort of hair as the coastal people and the lighter skinned people up here.  I wonder if the skin color is a function of genetics or simply living in better sunshine and working outside a lot??  But I do note with certainty that babies around here usually ride in woven slings wrapped around their moms (or very rarely, a modern dad) and a lot of stuff (e.g., produce, firewood, banana tree trunks, tools and umbrellas) gets carried in nice woven pack baskets with painfully thin looking shoulder straps.  You don't put one of those baskets on like a back pack though.  You set it on the floor (they're made to stand up straight) and squat down in front of it, slip your arms into the straps, and stand up.  Oh dear me.  Not in this lifetime! On the other hand, the houses in the countryside certainly look like Vietnamese houses and the livestock and farm equipment all looks familiar.  I think you'd probably find that there are a lot of ethnic people here, though I wouldn't want to guess what ethnicity, but they are well integrated into normal modern Vietnamese life.  It wasn't so when I was a kid in the Army.

Continued in Thanh My, 165 km further en route.  It's now late evening on Friday the 31st and today included a first. . .we'll celebrate in a moment.  The weather forecast was pretty clear about the rain. . .we were going to get it. . .okay, but not at day break, which was clear as water.  There was a bit of fog as the sun rose but it soon burned off and the sky was bright blue and cloud free.  We got up and got going a lot quicker than usual and started off down the road, or actually, shortly, up the road.  As it worked out, it worked pretty well, as long as you're happy with that 165 km day.  That actually was just the morning's run, and it was lovely. This is a big change from the past two days in farm country.  All day today was in mountains.  More or less gentle to start, but soon rising into really steep and winding roads with almost no farming at all.  This is not the Central Highlands Coffee and Rubber capital of anywhere. The bike thought a lot of the climbs were pretty darned steep and wanted 2nd gear at times to keep moving upward, but the views were wonderful and we made all the climbs without having to get into first gear.  Actually, the bike will climb out of anything she'll stick to in first, so I never worry. . .just stay patient. . .we'll get to the top in a bit.   The sky stayed really blue and clear for most of the morning, with just a few innocent looking clouds off ahead of us, sort of peeping over the near edge of the mountains east of us.
Leaving Ngoc Hoi. . .right after the necessary right turn.

These community houses, built like this out of timber and bamboo and lashings and thatch, are getting scarcer these days, though this one is obviously being well taken care of.  I've only seen one actually occupied once years ago. . .there were twenty odd kids and a couple of grown ups watching a very small tv. . .I'm not sure that's a traditional use for the community house, but. . .
Structurally this is a little confusing.  It's actually a functioning three-span suspension bridge and perhaps one tower from a now defunct/missing bridge, or perhaps, a damaged and replaced tower from the present span.  In order, from the low tower on the left edge of the photo, that one  is the last before the active left hand tail hold.  The second is one of the two primary active towers.  the third. . .I should have gone down there to be sure, but it certainly looks like a secondary bent directly supporting the low point in the suspended span.  If so, that's a new trick for me.  The fourth is a little bit of a mystery. . .it's not in service, and may have been a temporary replacement, since there's another capsized tower lying on its side there.  The fifth is active, a main suspension tower,  What looks like the sixth tower is actually something else entirely, maybe a tree being propped up?  The real last sixth is a secondary suspension tower, right next to the little round tree and only clearly visible if you can zoom way in.  The right hand tail hold is not visible, further to the right.  How's that for a neat puzzle?

Just an incredible little valley amongst the mountains. . .if there's a bit of flat ground that will hold water, there will be rice.  On the left edge of the photo is a mom with a kid in a sling on her back. . .pulling weeds?  Something bent over enough the kid is looking at the rice anyway.  



First waterfall of the day
Second waterfall of the day
And on the other side of the road. . .going down fast!
Downstream from a hydro dam a fish pretty well needs to learn to walk.  worrisome.


But by the time we rode into Thanh My, the weather was getting set for the big show.  Large black clouds were cresting the hills to the North and East and growing really quickly, black and purple on their undersides, with sort of a blown out haze of white around the edge.  Rain, with wind, started looking like a good bet, though we ate lunch in fine sunshine down in the old town center (half a click off the highway down a hill).

It was barely 1:00.  We were both well fed (she was ready to overflow, don't know how he got that last bit in the tank).  The sun was still shining (where we were) and there's a town called P'rao along the route ahead in about 50 km.  It might have a guest house, but it's not a sure thing. (going on the size of the name on the map. . .it's a borderline font size. . .might. . .or maybe not).  I've been that way several times over the years and I don't honestly remember ever seeing the place.  H'mm.  It's 150 km to A Luoi, with a bigger type font and two hotels that I know of.  That should take four, maybe four and a half hours in this terrain.  We have five hours til sunset. . .call it five and a half until too dark to want to ride.  We went.
Still looking pretty nice here. . .

Er, kind of ugly over there. . .

Okay, this doesn't do it justice.  You need to add the sound effects. . .constant thunder (though I didn't see any lightning here, that was later).

But I kept looking back over my shoulder to keep up my spirits. . .the way ahead was getting really dark.  Twenty km from P'rao (assuming it's really there) I stopped to check the time under way.  The silence without the motor was not silent.  It was constant thunder, not close, but very clear.  The black and purple sky was complete from side to side ahead and overhead though it was still pretty behind us.  This mountain riding is great fun, keeps you completely centered and alert, makes demands on your eyes and your brain and your reflexes.  That is, that's the case when it's warm and dry and pleasant.  In a tropical thunderstorm. . .not so much.

And so the "first".  I turned her around and ran from a rain storm.  Like any sensible horse, she was perfectly happy to head for the stable rather than into a storm, so she romped all the way. . .or do you suppose it was just me and maybe there was a lot of downhill??  Back in town (Thanh My) we had time to pick and choose hotels and finally settled in a pretty place with sweet people.  No desk in the room but there's an end table and a chair and they are working well enough.  The rain caught us here about half an hour after we got back, with nearby lightning and a lot of wind.  We stood behind a glass door on the second floor and watched it howl.  That was pleasant really, warm and dry, both of us under cover.  So was it cowardice or splendid good judgement?  As the rain tailed off (and the wind died) I went walking down into the actual town (not the highway face of the place) and got a lot of waves and smiles and a couple of remarkably good English-Vietnamese conversations.  Thanh My may be way out in the sticks (it is) but the kids are doing very well thank you.  And dinner was lovely and so was the cook and the couple at the other table was sweet and had a cute kid.  Just think, we could have been hiding under a tree somewhere past where P'rao is supposed to be.  H'mm  I rest my case.

We got back to town about 3:00 and it wasn't too scary yet.  By 3:30 it began to seriously rain. . .everybody outdoors made a mad dash for cover.  That lasted  nearly two hours, a lot of rain, continuous thunder and some very nearby lightning.  And then I went for a long walk on damp streets.  Nice evening, though it rained a lot until midnight.

There was one fascinating thing about this fiasco (I don't often ride 60 km just to get where i was to start. . .) on the way southbound toward P'rao and A Luoi I stopped to photograph a hydroelectric dam and power house at close range (from a convenient bridge we had to cross anyway).  There was not the slightest sign of water passing through the dam, over the dam, nor out of the power house.  The river was dry.  Yikes.  On the way back I almost didn't look, seen one, y'seen 'em all sort of thing, but I looked, and m'gosh, it was Raging River.  Someone down in Da Nang must have turned on one too many air conditioners.  Or something.
Nice new hydro electric dam, not doing a thing right now.

And an hour and a half later. . .we're making electricity.   I suppose I'm some sort of Philistine, but I really like hydroelectricity.  I'm not a fish of course, which may have something to do with my attitude, (or a salamander or a caddis fly or. . .okay, I get it) But still. . .no fumes, no CO-two, no SO-two, no ash fall out, no radioactive waste. and you don't have to frack your water supply to make it work. . . And you can turn it on when you need it and shut it down when you don't.  Add in wind and tide generators and we're really getting somewhere.  Excuse me, I have to take this soap box and go home now.
We're headed on into real mountains for the next while now, steep, scenic, isolated. . .probably very little traffic at all.  Actually, depending on a couple of decisions we have to make in the next day or two we may get into some really remote country along the Lao border.  There's actually a stretch just over 200 km long, with, I'm told, no settlements, no petrol, no tire shops, no mechanics, or any other ordinary help.  The little horse will go something close to 200 km on the fuel she carries and, in general, she's been really reliable this trip (not counting one sore foot).  We need to look into some of this in greater detail though!  Khe Sanh will be the jumping off place if we do it, and people there should be able to fill in some of the missing detail. . .if there's anything to fill in. . .or perhaps sell us a can for a gallon or so of petrol.  There are, of course, other routes but this is one of the big holes in our resume and this trip is likely to be the last chance to do anything about it.  200 km huh?  We shall see.  I'm really starting to like the "live to fight another day" sort of philosophy.

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