Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Western Ho Chi Minh Highway, from Thanh My to the outskirts of Hanoi

Written from a small town called Ngoc Lac, about 120 km from the edge of Hanoi on the Ho Chi Minh Hihway (not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh TRAIL, which is mostly in Laos and Cambodia)
It's the 5th of April, 2017.  We've just completed four days on the road with very little human contact during the days.  It's been a series of more or less long jumps through very thinly populated country, well, until yesterday.  Let's dispose of yesterday. . .back into lowlands, riding a pleasant road, well enough traveled, but still not that much traffic. . .getting close to Hanoi, it's what you have to expect.  The scenery yesterday was almost all plain vanilla (oh dear) Vietnamese upland farming, maize, squash, sweet potatoes and still, a lot of crops I don't recognize outside of a soup bowl.  Sigh.  We rode 230 km in easy stages (figure a full day in this sort of travel is 300 km, 400 km is a huge effort and guarantees saddle sores. . .or by comparison, 200 km in the mountains is a long hard days work. . .it's a big variable.  So that was yesterday, and today will be the steadily increasing grind of traffic and industry as we move toward the city.  Interesting to do, it requires a lot of concentration, but not terribly pretty (though parts of today's route actually are lovely, running through valleys with limestone mountains on either side. . .and the traffic shouldn't be all that bad until we actually get into the city.  This is my favorite route into the city, especially from the south.

The route since leaving Thanh My has been along the westernmost road in this part of Viet Nam, some of it merely a little isolated, and some of it nearly empty of humanity. . .but not quite.

 A quick summary. . .from Thanh My (after the false start and the thunderstorm) the road leads through mainly steep mountains, most of which are still covered with jungle. . .riotous growth of trees, tree ferns and vines, seemingly impenetrable, though the mountain people live and work here. . .amazing.  There is in fact a town called P'rao, and it's a pretty nice little place.  There are at least two "rest houses" and one of them looks really nice, though I didn't stop to check the mattresses.  Fuel is easily available, if only from a street-side hand pump.  It's 57 kilometers into the day, so we were still going strong.  A Luoi (where we visited as a day-trip from Hue earlier) is another 112 km, so we got there sometime after lunch hour and ate lunch.  Late, but that's fine.  Then on to Khe Sanh, another 163 km which made a good full day out of it.  The stretch from P'rao to A Luoi includes my infamous broken toes, but you've heard that story, and my red and white concrete post is gone. . .replaced by nice new galvanized steel guardrail, so I can't even show you the scene of the wreck.
Leaving Thanh My, the first thing you do is cross the river.  If you'd ridden up from Hoi An you'd have ridden alongside this river for a long ways, but this is the first (only??) bridge across.  On to the North!

One last look at the river and then we're gone.

A different sort of community house, , with a lot going on around it.  But it's still in good shape. The "horns" on the peak of the roof reappear as a theme on more modern, concrete and corrugated roofing versions, one I saw, even has air conditioned offices.  Times change and the mountain people aren't so wild any more!

Miles and miles of this.  A wonderful place to be alive on a motorbike.

Closer look at the tree ferns. . .the trunks are about 10" in diameter and 30 feet tall.  Amazing!

The ghost of government past.  I have no idea, but it's clearly an old government structure, stripped of roof , windows and doors, very much in the middle of nowhere.  Who knows/?

Another waterfall complete with tree fern.  

Jungle and mountains (and wet clouds)

A giant among tall trees!

There are two tunnels toward the end of the really remote stretch.  After this one (which takes you into a different watershed in very short distance) you'll start to see people and farms again,

Like this--mountain farm, terraced rice fields.  Oh gosh.  Lovely

This ride is really a lot about running water in the mountains.

Uh. . .something went badly wrong here.  The dam is complete structurally, but almost none of the equipment is installed and there's nobody around.  Something did not work out.

And this is the end of the Ho Chi Minh Highway for a little ways.  The road T's into a major corridor from the Vietnamese lowlands into Laos and Savannakhet.  13 km to the left is Khe Sanh, the jumping off point for the Western Route.

Next, a good night in Khe Sanh (it really is a border and highway town and quite hilly, so it's a fun place to walk around in the evening, uphill and down.  In the local pagoda two dogs did a ferocious bark-attack trying to drive me off while a third came running up and demanded to be petted.  I lasted several minutes the first time (the ferocious barking never slowed) then got set to leave and the little guy stopped me and wanted more.  Knew what he liked. . .behind the ears was best, but ribs and tummy and under the chin. . .all good.  Okay, so the dog made the night.

Onward from Khe Sanh one either goes the Western route through some of the most isolated landscape in the country. . .or the eastern route. . .still nice from what I've seen, but not the same mountains and quiet.  I'd picked up enough information to think the western route, not without potential problems, still was a valid choice, so that's how we went.  The crux of it is the distance (the total is right about the maximum the little horse might run on a fuel tank. . .not considering mountains) and the lack of resupply or support opportunities.  It's 95 km to the first thing that seems like a small town on the map, a place called Tang Ky, and I'd assumed that would be the point to refuel. . .and I had that slightly wrong.  Tang Ky is a tiny settlement, probably a dozen or two families scattered along the road. . .maybe more, but not many!  There's no obvious fuel, but by asking, I was introduced to a young man with a large jug of gasoline and a lemonade pitcher.  $2.50 per pitcher.  I've no idea what it held,  but $5 worth filled the tank, and that was the end of the first worry.  And of course, 4 km down the road was a real gas station and a tiny restaurant.  Oh my.  That changes a lot!  So don't worry about fuel, the trip is do-able from that stand point.  On the other hand, that still leaves you the problem of distance and isolation. . .nobody for many many kilometers, and essentially no traffic (there's an easier way to anywhere from here. . .).  All along this stretch any sort of mechanical difficulty would almost certainly precipitate an overnight bivouac, and that is our one big weakness.. .not ready for that at all.  But the bike has been rock solid except for the one flat tire (not her fault she says) and it seemed a reasonable chance, so that's how we went.  As it turns out, the "highway" here is a narrow road, a strip of concrete (very nice concrete mostly) only ten feet wide or a bit more. . .with gravel or asphalt shoulders another five or six feet on each side. . .and that's plenty.  You don't meet another vehicle for miles and miles, not even a bike!

With a full fuel tank and two whole roast pork sandwiches still in the back of the bag, we kept on going past the real little settlement and shortly came across Adrian.  As it turned out, he'd left Khe Sanh about half an hour before we did (there were three more riders I think, planning to make the run behind us).  Adrian had stopped for photographs which is a very natural reaction to what was all around us, and after a short visit we rode on together.  He'd bought a very used bike in Saigon and gotten this far but seemed happy to have a companion. . .so we rode together from that no-place in the middle of no-where until I said goodbye to him at the hotel he'd booked in Hanoi, which means, for the next few days, when I say "we" I mean the four of us. . .two small horses and two old men.  What the heck.

The hotel in Khe Sanh, right next to the Honda dealer (oh, to drool!) and the telephone and computer store (Thegioididong translates "World of electronics". . .biggest chain in Viet Nam I think.

Nobody around, but the doors open.  . .so I sat down and started writing up my diary.  Coffee came shortly after.  
That "table" with the tree. . .is really a gold fish pond, and this is another, right on the floor.  wow!

Mountain ladies with produce early in the morning.  They sold out fairly quickly, perhaps largely to wholesale buyers consolidating their small lots.  

Running water in mountains. . .that and fog or mist. . .is the story of the day.

This. . .is a large part of Tang Ky, the settlement 92 km from Khe Sanh.  

n the event, the second leg of the day, the long one, took us until only a short time before dark, but with time to find the Phong Nha Cave National Park Tourist zone. . .a nice sized little town alongside a navigable river, consisting entirely of hotels and restaurants. . .oh, and a good mechanic.  The mechanic changed the horse's oil again, (we keep going past the 1000 km marks), adjusted and lubed the chain and adjusted the clutch. . .and maybe he got it right at last. . .it's better now anyway.  Meanwhile a young lady selling sodas and beer behind me played pleasant music on the radio while I filmed a tour boat running by in the river

So you need to know a little bit about Phong Nha Cave.  It's also a river, or at least a flooded cave, I'm not sure if the river runs through it or just sits in it.  There's not much current, which is a good thing for the boat crews.  They use the boats' engines to run from the tourist center a few kilometers up stream,but have to row in silence inside the cave.  Those are big heavy boats, usually filled with 12 tourists and the two person crew (to skip ahead, ours was a young couple. . .and they had their boat handling down to a T).  It's obvious they can be rowed, but you have to stand up to the work and put your back in it. . .especially if you are a very slender young lady.  H'mm.  Anyway, Adrian and I agreed we didn't want to spend the full amount to go by ourselves (it works this way:  you buy a ticket for $7.50, and you and up to 11 of your best friends can split a boat fee of $18.  Well, we never accumulated that many friends, but a young Vietnamese gentleman and a pretty young lady from the Netherlands put us up to four people and we all agreed we could afford that. . .so we went.  And oh my goodness is that a good thing.  This is a very impressive cave with its river and its wonderful stalactites and stalagmites (my Geology 101 comes back with a rush!) and the fabulous ceilings. . .well. . .I have some photos to show you and a little video, but you need to go for yourself.  A great part of the success is the lighting. . .it's almost all plain white, and that's a very good thing.  A cave can still be wonderful if the features are lit with colored floods, but when you see this one without blues and greens and reds. . .just the rock colors. . .you realize that's a better answer.  If you can get to this part of the world, skip anything else you have to, and go to Phong Nha Cave.  Actually, it's supposed to be less wonderful than the nearby "Paradise Cave".   I don't know.   We didn't go there as well. . .perhaps a terrible mistake.
The better half of the boat crew. . .slender but strong!  Here she's being the "bow thruster" to get our head out into the river while her husband starts the motor.  No neutral. . .when he gets it going, we're gone.

The last of the wild stretch, almost to Phong Nha Cave

The river, and limestone mountains.  The cave is upstream (to your left) a few km.  

Many many of these tour boats, all essentially the same (I counted 51 the first location, then spotted two more moorages with still more.  You WILL get on a boat!

Okay, no narrative for a while.  Six of us on board and nobody said anything. . .

Well. . .this is the skipper, back aft, rowing hard.  Now no more narrative.

Ceilings by Michelangelo. . .or God himself?

And back to the daylight. . .watery daylight I admit.

I haven't mentioned the weather en route, but a cave exploration was a fine use of the drizzly morning we had available.  We rode into the Phong Nha area the night before in the dry, but we were definitely damp around the edges from rain during the day, and fairly filthy with road muck.  After the cave trip we moved on down the road another 180 km in the afternoon, through light drizzle that gradually gave up and let us dry out.  The rest of the way into Hanoi (two more days on the road) was nice and dry, plenty warm in the middle of the day, but cool and pleasant in the morning and late evening.  . .and of course, at anything over 40 kph you make enough wind to be comfortable in quite warm weather.
Two full lanes and shoulders of a sort. . .but still no traffic.  Fantastic riding, even in the mist.

The little horse in her natural environment.  

The scenery.  What can you say??

Leaving the cave area we entered the real highway system again, though the Ho Chi Minh Highway is still one of the lightest used of all Viet Nam's main arterials. . .still, we were  back to a full width road with shoulders (sometimes) and a center line (er, well, sometimes) and some traffic.  And really, that's the story to Hanoi. . .riding for distance, but at an easy pace, with coffee breaks now and then and stopping for lunches.  The scenery is often really wonderful, limestone mountains standing up straight and tall at times, distant mountain ranges in the mist or haze, sometimes through wide valleys full of rice. . .nothing like the jungle mountains, but very pleasant riding.  Traffic simply very gradually stiffens up until about 100 km from the city. . .at which point it becomes work again, gets really easy for a time when you turn onto the new freeway into the city (eight, no EIGHT lanes, 4 for cars and 4 for motorbikes).  But even that gets crowded as you get into the city and then it dumps you out onto the surface streets and. . .Hanoi traffic is stupendous.  We arrived about 3:30, later than I'd intended, and got into the first of the afternoon rush hour.  Yikes.

But that was it.  Adrian and I parted at the front door to his hotel, and the little horse and I rode back to ours one more time.  We'll be here three days I think, then off to Quang Yen to study junk.  Or, a junk. . .the only one of its kind.  There should be some good photos!

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