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|
|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.|
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.|
|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.
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.|