Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Most Beautiful Road In Vietnam

I woke up early and well rested. My apprehension about my hotel was unfounded. It was an uneventful evening and peaceful night. I did not eat anything for breakfast because I was eager to get back on the road. Someone must have known that I was passing this way, because they placed these multi-colored flags along the highway to welcome me. 
I passed over this large river, but I did not catch the name. I stopped to glance over the edge at these wooden boats. Some of the boats appeared to be for transporting people and goods and some of the smaller boats appeared to be fishing boats. 
I knew that I had a lot of ground to cover today. Luckily the highway was in good condition. And, the view was not bad either, mostly rolling hills broken up low lying fields of corn, rice and some other crops that I could not identify. 
When I passed this river I had to stop. Cau Troi... I think that they were trying to name the river after me, but spelled my name phonetically. 
I could not tell if this crop was tea, tobacco or something else. 
I was following a local motorcycle for a while. He was nicely dressed in trousers and a button down shirt. All of the sudden he stopped his motorcycle, almost in the middle of the road, and leaped at something on the side of the road. When I passed him I could tell that he had caught something by the tail, but the body was still in the bushes lining the side of the road. I slowed down and circled around. I thought that maybe he had caught a big lizard. By the time that I made a complete circle he had pulled the animal out of the bushes and was hold it. It was a snake. 

The guy was very excited and pretty happy with his freshly caught prey. 

He was smiling so much that I do not think he was even concerned that the snake was biting his hand. In the picture you can see that the snake is firmly biting him between his thumb and forefinger. 
The snake was pretty large, maybe about six feet or two meters long. I could not tell what type of snake it might be. I was looking more at the man's hand that was bleeding and the snake's head that was hissing at me. The snake definitely had teeth, but it did not appear to have fangs like most vipers. The man said something to me.  I think that he said, this is a BIG one. I smiled at him and shook my head in agreement. I just wanted to acknowledge that he was pretty awesome. 
I rode on. Around lunch time I passed through a small village and found this roadside restaurant. The place was packed with people. It seemed like they catered to families and large groups. I was the only single person in the place. I sat down at a large table designed for 8 or 10 and asked for a menu. 
I ordered soup and barbecue pork. The meal came with this little bowl of items that I think were water chestnuts. I ate one, but I did not like the taste and texture. The soup and pork was good. 

It was raining outside so I decided to take my time to eat and just enjoy the moment. After a while a large group of maybe 30 people entered the restaurant. It was kind of a mad scrabble by the staff to accommodate the group. The owner and the staff were scurrying around.  I looked at the owner and gave him a nod of my head. I was almost, but not completely finished with my meal. However, I wanted to let him know that I could finish my meal and vacate my table to accommodate the large group. He smiled back. He brought me my bill and removed the charge for my drink. It's funny how much a nod or smile can communicate. It is nice when simple gestures are rewarded with a smile or kindness. 
It just so happened that by the time that I paid my bill, the rain stopped. I continued on my journey and was treated to some lush green scenery with mountains in the background. 
I rode through this valley that seems to wind through these protruding mountains as if were an obstacle course laid out by God. 
I loved the simplicity of these wooden houses. Just by looking at them I could tell that they were built to withstand rain and harsh weather, but also open enough to allow the breeze to circulate within the structure during the hot and humid times... a house that breathes. 
Tile roof, wooden walls, concrete floor, tall enterior, open patio. 
Water, grass, trees, valley, mountain, clouds, sky, sun. 
Fields of corn against a backdrop of tall ridges. 
While passing through this area I told myself that I would have to remember the beauty of this rustic place. The road was smooth and twisty. The scenery was superb. After riding for a few hours in the rain, the clouds parted and I was warmed and dried by the afternoon sun. For me, I think that it was the most beautiful road in Vietnam. 


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Northern Vietnam... The Ho Chi Minh Highway

Before I started this little motorcycle adventure some of my Vietnamese friends advised me about possible places to visit and routes to take. Most of the routes they suggested passed along the main highway that runs along the east coast of the country called the A1. 

I would always ask them about this other route that I could roughly see on some maps that ran through the west part of the country and that was called the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH). All of them would tell me the same thing. The HCMH was supposed to be very beautiful... but dangerous.  When I asked them if it was dangerous because of the traffic, they would say... No, there is less traffic. When I asked them if it was dangerous because of the terrain, they would say... A little but, it passes through the mountains. When I asked them if it was dangerous because of the obstacles like potholes or animals they would say... A little bit, you have to watch out for all of those things. So, I would ask, what makes it so dangerous? They would reply...  


One friend even advised me that if I traveled down the HCMH to not pull over by the forest, but to only pull over at the gas stations. It sounded ominous. 

Sometimes you just have to go to really know... so I went. 
The Ho Chi Minh Highway or Ho Chi Minh Road (Đường Hồ Chí Minh) is a highway in Vietnam. It runs from the north to the south of Vietnam, west of National Route 1A. The highway was named after Hồ Chí Minh.
The route roughly coincides with the Ho Chi Minh trail that existed during the Vietnam/American War. The trail was a supply route that the Vietnamese army and Vietcong used to supply their war efforts. 
It is a two-lane highway, really just a two lane road, that runs from Hoa Lac near Hanoi to Ngoc Hoi in Kon Tum Province with a total length of 770miles (1,234.5 km). Typically every few kilometers the route is marked with red and white roadsigns. 
Once in a while there might be a road sign. In the provinces of Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên-Huế and Quảng Nam, the road divides into two separate roads: Ho Chi Minh Highway East (HCME) and Ho Chi Minh Highway West (HCMW). HCME is a well-traveled road with many trucks, towns and restaurants along it. There are few steep hills on the HCME, with the exception of the portion of the highway in Quảng Nam just before it merges with HCMW. Conversely, HCMW cuts through extremely mountainous areas with steep hills and few gas stations. Consequently, all heavy traffic avoids these portion of 
HCMW. Decisions, decisions... which way to go?
At times heavy-rain washes out small segments of the HCM Highway, making it impassable to trucks and cars. I came across a few of these washouts, but rode through them on my little moto. 
Many farmers allow their pigs, goats, buffalo and cows to graze along the roadside, and they frequently wander onto the road, so drivers must be careful on this stretch of the road. This was my first sighting of miniature Vietnamese pigs. 
When the highway was first built, a small portion of HCMW within Thừa Thiên-Huế and Quảng Nam passed through Laos, but the highway now stays completely within Vietnam's borders.
It did pass through some national parkland which consisted of a forest made up of giant bamboo. NO ROBBERS!
There were a few villages, but they were few and far between compared to northern Vietnam. 
For much of my ride this day it was raining. I rode through the rain because there was not much traffic. And maybe in the back of my mind I kept thinking about robbers lurking in the forest. Once I reached this small village I took a break from the rain. 
Decisions, decisions... HCM to Lam Kinh.  Song Am would take me into Laos. 
After riding for hours through the mountains the land flattened out to become planes. 

I was getting tired so when I passed by the area of Nghĩa Đàn I pulled over. There appeared to be a town a few kilometers off the main road. But I could not be bothered to ride that far, so I found a roadside hotel and checked in. 
After settling in to my room I noticed this sign was posted on the wall. 

Oops, I may have just checked into a love hotel. When I inquired how much a single room would cost the owner said 180,000 dong (US$ 8.50). I checked out the room and it was nice and clean. Only after I settled into the room did I notice this sign on the wall all in Vietnamese. The first line reads, "Trong vong 1 gio dau 80,000" which translates to "within 1 hour 80,000". The second line translates to "each additional hour 20,000". 

Oh well, I thought to myselfi... this might be an interesting night. 

The best news... NO ROBBERS!... just lots of very friendly people. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Field to Market

As I continued my way south I came across field after field. Some fields were being prepared for planting such as this ricefield.
Others look like they were ready to be harvested, like this tea field.
This was definitely a very rural community. The houses were pretty basic, they were wooden houses on stilts with thatch roofs. 
Hmmm... what do we have here?
Harvested corn laid out along the road to dry. 
What is this?
Lots and lots of peanuts also drying under the mid-day sun. 

When traveling through a country I like to see what is produced as agricultural crops. I feel like it gives me an insight into the local community. Agricultural crops are not just products, they are what people eat, they are what people trade, they are what people talk about and they are what is important to that community.

... rice, tea, corn, peanuts.
I took it easy, but rode almost a full day. I ended up in the town of Hoa Binh. I checked in to a hotel and went for a walk. I stopped in at a small restaurant and ordered a simple dish of fried rice. After, I found a little coffee shop and enjoyed a mango smoothie for dessert. 

Tomorrow I would try to find the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Not what I wanted, but what I needed.

It started off as a rough day. I was running behind schedule and I had not planned out my route. From Nghia Lo I started down the road and made my way south. I ended up in the town of Yen Bai. 

At this point I realized that I was lost. I had traveled about 40 km or 25 miles in the wrong direction. On this rough and winding road 40 km took one and a half hours. I would have to backtrack. One and a half hours in the wrong direction, one and a half hours to backtrack. That meant that I had wasted three hours of precious daylight. I was upset with myself, I was physically tired and for some reason I was sleepy too. 

I eventually made my way back one and a half hours to where I needed to be to the town of Van Chan. How had I missed this intersection? 

As I was passing through the town I noticed a bicycle shop. I thought to myself that I should stop and purchase a bicycle tire pump. After getting lost on a rough road I thought to myself that I should prep a little better for these types of situations. When traveling by motorcycle I always like to have the necessary tools and equipment for roadside repairs. I had most of the basic tools and two spare inner tubes in case I were to get a flat tire. But I didn't have a pump to inflate the tubes. So I stopped at the bicycle shop to see if there might be one for sell. 
This smiling gentleman came out to greet me. He could tell that I wasn't his typical customer by the way that I was dressed and the way that I was acting. I greated him with a hello in Vietnamese. Then I pointed to one of the tires on a bicycle and made a pumping action with my hands. I'm becoming an expert at pantomiming. He understood immediately that was looking for a pump. He nodded his head yes and showed me a electric pneumatic pump that he had in his shop. I pantomimed that I needed a small handheld pump. He shook his head  right and left indicating that he did not have one. But he pointed across the street at a hardware store and indicated that they may have one for sell. I thanked him and walked across the street to the hardware store. I called out but no one responded. Then the gentleman walked across the street and called out for the owner. The shop keeper emerged. The gentleman explained that I needed a small hand pump. The shop owner directed me to one aisle of the store and pulled out a footpump. I indicated that I was looking for small handheld pump. The shopkeeper eventually pulled out a bicycle hand to foot pump. The pump was not exactly what I was looking for, but it would meet my needs. And it only cost 40,000 dong or about two dollars. So I bought it. 

As I was walking back towards my motorcycle the gentleman made a gesture to me. He moved his hand as if he were holding a cup and lifted it toward his mouth.  I smiled at him and shook my head... Yes... I needed a drink. I was parched and really beyond just thirsty. However, I thought that he was telling me that I should go into the small grocery store next door a buy a drink. So I started walking in the direction of the grocery store. But then I realized that he was actually inviting me for a drink inside his house. So I turned around and I followed him.
Inside the living room we sat across from one another. There was one child playing on the couch and another child playing on the floor. Soon a woman walked in and the gentleman explained that she was his wife. The gentleman then began to prepare some hot tea.

I can only speak and understand a few words in Vietnamese. But over three or four cups of hot tea I learned a few things about this man and women. 

I learned they were a couple. I learned that they had one son and these children were their grandchildren. The television was on, and the program that was showing was a Vietnamese program about travel within the country. So I assumed this gentleman liked travel stories. I showed him the list of towns in Vietnam that I had visited and was planning to visit. He seemed to appreciate the journey that I was on. It is amazing what you can share and learn with gestures and a few words. 
In the end, what became important wasn't about what I learned about this man, his wife and his family nor was it what I shared about myself, my family and my journey.

This gentleman didn't have what I wanted, but he gave me what I needed. When all I really wanted was a bicycle pump, he showed me kindness. When all I really wanted was a cool drink, he showed me warmth. Was this man a mind reader? I don't know. But at that time and at that place, he gave me just what I needed... humanity. 

I do not know if it was the break from riding, time out from under the sun, the stillness of the moment, or the three or four cups of tea that I drank, but when I began to ride my motorcycle again, I felt very alive. For the remainder of the day I rode like the wind.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Northern Vietnam... Sa Pa to Ngai Lo

After spending a few days in Sa Pa I decided that it was time to start heading South. Since I did not speak the language in Vietnam I used a method that I devised while riding in South America. I would look up the name of a destination that I wanted to visit and then write on a piece of paper the destination and all the little towns in between my current location and my destination. Mostly it would be the names of the towns that fall on crossroads. This way, if I were to ever get lost and were to need to ask for directions I could simply point to the next town on the list and generally a person would know how to provide me directions by pointing. If I were to ask for directions to my final destination, the directions could get too complicated. But one town at a time always seemed to work just fine. The list above was a simple example of this technique and just happened to be the route that I chose to follow on this particular day. 
As I headed south, I passed by some amazing scenery. The road was in decent condition and very twisty. I decided to ride fairly cautiously because it was rainy and cloudy. There was one section of the route through the clouds where the visibility was probably less than 100 feet (30 meters). Luckily there was not much traffic. 
I pased by a number of waterfalls, but only stopped at this one to take a photo. I was enjoying the ride too much to stop. 
After riding through the mountains for a couple of hours the land began to flatten out. There were still a number of terraced rice fields, but the valleys were now wider and more expansive. 
A number of times I would see a large group of motorcycles parked along the side of the road. At first I thought that perhaps a group of riders had pulled over to to rest or socialize. 
But then I realized that the motos belonged to the group of workers that were planting the fields nearby. In Texas you might see a similar scene with pickup trucks pulled over to the side of the road. Here in Vietnam you see motorcycles... the true workhorses of Vietnam. 
While I was on the side of the road taking photos of the rice fields this striking lady walked by. She was dressed in an outfit that consisted of both modern and traditional clothing. I think that she pulled off the look nicely... Vietnamese nouveau chic. 
I think that she was just as curious about what I was wearing as I was about what she was wearing. My style might be considered retro moto renaissance.
Many of the fields in this area were still being planted. It actually allowed me the opportunity to see how intricately the terraces were constructed. The terraces followed the contours of the land and flowed naturally one into another... fine sculptured masterpieces. 

I rode until I ran out of day light. I ended up stopping in a small town called Ngai Lo.