Monday, April 30, 2018

Cao Bang: The Road, the Ride, the Rest

This is Cao Bang from the seat of a mountain bike (or mostly I guess standing next to a mountain bike, since being a not terribly serious cyclist, I usually get off the bike to take pictures.) 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Cao Bang: The Scene

Last weekend I went to Cao Bang Province, a mountainous out-of-the-way place along Vietnam's northern border with China. As far as I know, Cao Bang is mostly known because of a big waterfall which straddles the border with China, Ban Gioc Falls. It is sort of the end of dry season and the water was pretty low, it is not exactly the Niagara River running through there, but it was nice to see anyway. Our homestays were fun and the scenery was amazing. The trip was mostly about bicycling, but the photos in this post are meant to be simply about Cao Bang in spring.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Ba Vi by Bike

It has been quite awhile since I went to Ba Vi, like five or six years I think. So I thought I should go again, and that I should pedal, since what's the point of having a MOUNTAIN bike unless you ride it up a mountain sometime? So Ba Vi National Park is a mountain. Basically just one road goes into the park, climbing from the entry gate a distance of about 12 km to the end of the road, from which it is a short hike to either of two peaks, both with small temples on top of them. The road climbs to a point just shy of 1,100 meters altitude. That's a much bigger hill than I've done before on a bike, but it is a road not a trail (therefore smooth-ish not too steep) and - at least on this particular Saturday - well traveled. Rather too well traveled for my taste, but anyway.

Leaving Hanoi it took quite awhile until my legs really felt warmed up - I could try to blame that on the cool weather recently which I've been enjoying so much, but in fact it would mostly be due to me not riding any distance for a long time. I rarely ride west of Hanoi, and the distance to reach Ba Vi is a good part of the reason I hadn't ridden there earlier. Getting near the park, I stopped at a roadside shack for a bowl of phở, I've learned to really appreciate road-side phở when I'm riding bike. (In fact I don't eat phở very often in my normal routine.) It is light enough to eat a big bowl without feeling to heavy in the stomach when I get back on the bike, and it seems to give me some energy to work with too - beef and beef broth to keep me going!

Just before the park entrance I stopped to get two bottles of chanh muối to supplement my bike bottle of combuja. Good thing too, because they were all empty before I got to the top. The traffic back-up at the park entrance surprised me, but I didn't actually have to wait in line very long, it was just crowds of people milling around aimlessly and parking cars in the middle of the road before going through the entrance.

Once through the gate and past the tour bus parked right inside, I started up the hill and the crowd thinned out. Or at least stretched out. At numerous wildflower beds along the road on the first section, lots of people stopped to take pictures. It seemed busy, groups of young people mostly, passing me in packs of motorbikes, yelling out encouragement as I pedaled oh so slowly upward. I saw two cyclists coming down the hill - they looked like pros with all the fancy kit and nice road bikes, but then, even I look slightly less foolish when I am going downhill! I did see one other cyclists, coming down when I was near the top, who slowed down to tell me that I was almost there.
There is a "resort" at about the 400 meter mark, and there was a wedding being held there and crowds of folks wandering around the pine forest and taking selfies in the middle of the road. I kept on going, in the hope that I would find a quieter and more scenic spot for a break. One friendly fellow, who passed me three times on his motorbike on the way up, kept asking if I was going all the way to the top, the answer to which I didn't really know. The plan was to keep going until I decided to stop, whether it be at the top or at some breathless, cramped-up-legs spot along the way. I stopped for breathers frequently and had something to drink, almonds, boiled eggs with salt .... But I didn't stop for long because I knew, in that case, I wouldn't get started again! So I got to the top - after probably 11.5 kilometers in granny gear, I got to the top :D

There was a gusty cool breeze up there which was indescribably refreshing. Since I was last up there, they built a biggish car parking lot there and some more buildings for selling snacks, food and đồ lễ to take up to the temples, but it remains mostly tree-covered, and since it was indeed the end of the road, I got off the bike and told my legs that it was time for them to do whatever cramping and collapsing was necessary, and be done with it, cause we're only halfway!
To make up for having run out of chanh muối, I got six bottles up there and sat on the wall at the edge of the parking lot, relishing the breeze and the view (though it was fairly hazy, you couldn't see that far), and ate almost all the food I had brought along. It was brilliant. I did not hike up to either of the peaks, I can do that next time.

It took me over two and a half hours (in granny gear) to get up there; and after eating, drinking, communing with the breeze, and recovering up there, it took like 45 minutes to get down - including two side roads, one of which was just a dead end and the other going through and old French colonial era village of sorts - atmospheric ruins but on that day packed with people, motorbikes and trash everywhere (I have to go back, on a weekday, to recover my sense of wonder about that place!)
The ride back home was surprisingly uneventful. Still windy, still kind of far, still all flat. Had two cups of mia đá, the rest of my food, and another chanh muối. I like the idea of riding up a mountain like Ba Vi, but oddly enough, the rides on which I've done the most climbing remain shorter rides to another area where the hills are a mere 200+ meters high, but the roads/trails are dirt and go up and down and around, adding up to more work in the end. In any case, it was a lovely day out on the bike, and now I know where to go when I have the urge to spend two and a half hours in granny gear.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mountain Reflux

The now-almost-familiar 35km up to the odds, ends and coffee shop at the bottom of Ham Lon went by quickly, early morning traffic was light and I pedaled an easy pace on my way to that place where I met Charley on the mountain the last time. The lady making coffee remembered me, even months after the last time I was there; remembered me for speaking Vietnamese and for riding solo from the middle of Hanoi out to there.

After my caffeine pick-me-up, I went past Ham Lon around to the back of this mountain I was looking for. A few wrong turns later I found my way to the road which, on Google's map, goes up where I had given up finding my way down the last time. The path heads straight for the mountain then turns and follows along the foot. I startled a lady walking a herd of cows down the path. Passed a hilltop with grass clipped short and a lot of zigzagging trenches, I wondered if it was to collect runoff water from mountain or for military training or what.
The path got muddy and suddenly I was in someone's back 40 compound, with shacks and chickens and pigs and three very professional dogs. (For those who don't know, vietnamese dogs do not say "woof woof" or "bow wow" they say "gâu gâu", which sounds like and means GO! GO!) I jumped off the bike so they could see I stood on my hind legs and tried to talk reason with the pack. GO! GO! GO! No luck. And no owner appeared to call them off, so we kept on negotiating. GO! GO! GO! The path kind of went down into the pigpen and I could see there was no trace of any route going up where I wanted to be. So I negotiated myself back the way I had came, gingerly, until the chief puppy was the only one left and was getting tired of yelling GO! GO! at me, so he gave me enough space to hop on the bike n put some distance between us. 

On the way out I stopped to ask the cowherding lady if there were any paths up the mountain there, and found that she was mute, so I didn't get detailed directions, but she got the message across - go around the block. And by the way, herding cows in the fog at the bottom of a mountain seemed to suit her, she seemed pleased, somehow! 

So I went in a half circle to the next road heading into the mountain. I had kind of expected that first road to dead end, but I don't remember seeing that pack of dogs (or the tongue-lashing they gave me) on the map. I did look carefully at the map beforehand, and I knew my second option up was a steep climb. Where the road ended I went back through a meadow to where the steep bit started. Aside from there being no path here, this was far too steep to ride on, so it was a shockingly slow clambering ascent, dragging and heaving my bicycle along, to reach the top of this ridge. 
The ride up to this point was a bit cool, there was some mist and fine rain as I was coming out of town, and I kept my pace relaxed so I'd have some oomph left to get up the mountain. But before I got myself and my bike up the side of this hill, I was well drained of energy. Standing on this steep, scrub-covered slope trying to catch my breath, I looked back down where I'd come from. Couldn't see the meadow anymore through the mist, but when the breeze blew I could see the ridgeline over above where my first choice road had ended. Fog below, mountains above, and near perfect silence. I kept climbing.

With a certain degree of elation, and relief for the reputation of my map-reading skills, I eventually reached the top of the ridge to find an actual path following the ridge up into the forest. After I got up into the forest proper, the reputation of my map skills got all fuzzy again as I spent the next two or three hours quite lost. 
I ended up coming down into the wrong valley - the next valley further away than the one I was aiming for, and one with a few pig herds and goat herds, some lumbermans' shacks, a few very slippery cow pies, and a lot of scrubby forest picked clean of anything valuable I guess - anyway it was a valley and I did come out the bottom on the Hanoi side of the mountains, so it was all good.
Back at my foot-of-the-mountain cafe, I took a long lunch break and cleaned the mud off my legs and bike chain. Pedalled home without cramps, and with the satisfaction of knowing that, now that I've gotten up that side of the mountain, the next time I go back I can just follow the road and leave the bushwacking for people with more energy!

Now it only took like 6 or 7 hours to do the ride, but three weeks for me to get around to posting the pictures and post-script on it... Too much to do!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Charley Horse Heaven

Having a week off for Tet, I found time to do a bike ride which I had been thinking of ever since I got to ride Núi Hàm Lợn Trail. The ride up there was cool, with a bit of mist, almost rain some places which had me a bit worried, but in the end I got only slightly damp and the day turned out perfect for riding. With an early morning start, the bike rode smooth and quiet with less than normal traffic on the road, due to Tet holiday.Following the same route I had taken to Ham Lon, I then cut around the end of Soc Son Mountain, which was a nice road through cool dense forest. There are several ‘eco-lodges’ there and I saw a pack of fellow cyclists out for an early spin, along with a few groups of local people dressed up and walking around the village, for Tet visits I suppose.

I stopped for coffee at house-front shop selling snack foods and incense, where the lady brought out the standard tiny plastic table and chair to set out in front of her shop for me. I enjoyed coffee in the fresh morning air, while neighbors dropped by, or simply held their conversations across the road, discussing the day’s plan for a community trip to some pagoda. After divulging the usual ice-breaking information (year of birth, nationality, marital status, number of children, monthly salary..) to the neighbourhood troop of Aunties who marched over to inspect me, I kept on riding. Speaking enough Vietnamese to communicate is obviously useful, but it also means that as soon as I start speaking Vietnamese, I am immediately engaged in a conversation when, sometimes at least, I wasn’t really looking for a conversation, but just a cup of coffee. I can, however, always go back to my tourist roots and order my coffee by pointing and grunting! 
After my breakfast break, I quickly got into the section of the ride that I came for. A bit more paved road, some concreted path, some well-worn dirt track, and finally to the beginning of my forest road. It turned out to be just like I expected it, based on the satellite map picture; the quarried-out end of a mountain with a gully running up the middle of it, which eventually turned into a sort of road. Weaving along the edge of some mountains, this road led up into a valley with a reservoir down on my left and the mountains up on my right.
The first stretch was a rough ascent, big rocks with steep, loose sections, and bare rock which  was ribbed, apparently from drilling, which resulted in some surprising sideways sliding of the tires. Parts of the route were heavily overgrown, and in a few places bits of path had fallen into the abyss, but mostly it was a wide path. From almost the beginning of the ascent, there was very little evidence of any use of this path. The scenery was surprisingly rugged, considering it is only about 40km from central Hanoi, and after the initial steep ascents, which according to the map reach some 240m, the road improved. It appeared to be maintained from the upper end of the valley. Some sections looked to be recently built, or rebuilt, which was curious as there was no settlement or road connection to anywhere for quite a ways - the only exception being a concrete walking path apparently coming up from the valley floor to end, with two concrete chairs for viewing the scenery, at the edge of this rough dirt and rock road.
I missed the turn I had intended to take, which would have cut back lower down along the same side of the valley to bring me out at the dam, and instead dropped straight down into the valley where a road crossed the reservoir, and then I followed the other side of the lake down to the dam. I took a break at the dam, with quiet scenery and fresh water, some chocolate, and long-rise sourdough rye bread (not many things can make that bread better than it already is, but exhaustion can). All very reviving for the weary legs.  
Just below the dam another dirt road cuts back up the opposite side of the valley following the edge of the mountains, going up to about 160m. This one was in a bit better condition, however my legs were in decidedly worse condition. Slow climbing. Some slow walking too. This road, after levelling out somewhat, curved along the mountainside with gorgeous views over the reservoir, and farther up the valley, over forest and bits of farmland below. The cool misty air made this part of the ride a true pleasure, and I kept on saying 'this is amazing' to myself every time I came around a bend and saw the next stretch of road. I startled a couple of cows browsing on bushes beside the road. After a touch of belligerence they ran down the road in front of me, eventually cutting down through the woods toward the valley.
At the far end of this road was more climbing, and at the top of one more rise which I stubbornly pedalled up instead of walking, both my legs locked up with cramps. My instinct was to try to walk a bit to get them to loosen up, but I really couldn’t bend my knees, the thigh muscle above the knee was pulled so tight. And so, in spite of how it felt, I couldn’t help but laugh at how silly I must have looked (had anyone seen it), me leaning precariously on my bike and pushing it along while swinging my legs along like dead limbs. It did occur to me, before the cramps (we call these Charley Horses where I come from...) eased off, that if I would have to walk like that all the way back out of the woods it would have taken like a day and a half!
After the cramps went away, I found that I was apparently at the end of the road; although there was a kilometer marker by the path, a few steps further it just stopped and there were thickets and nothing resembling a road. Since my legs were at the end of their road, and my bike was at the end of ride-able road, I decided to give up on my original idea of coming out on the other side of this hilly forest and circling around the end of it to return to Hanoi, and instead went back out the same valley I had come up. I did, however, drop down to the edge of the lake as that way was flatter, and there were a few houses and villages there - comforting in case those legs locked up again and I needed help getting back to civilization!
Fortunately, the legs mostly cooperated, and since they had finally gotten my attention with that bit of pegleg hobbling in the forest, I took it easy. After crossing the dam at the end of the reservoir, I rolled downhill on small countryside lanes which eventually led me to a road home. Stopped at a village shop for a drink and to eat the rest of my supplies. The proprietor was a friendly lady who was happy to sell me coffee (instant) for about 15 cents a cup if I mixed it up myself, and who wanted to talk about the war, and who wanted to know if I sent money home to support my parents.
Back on the main road, the return ride to Hanoi was slow. Apart from me being exhausted, the bike was misbehaving as the sprocket seemed to be about to retire from active duty. In any case, I made it home in one piece. I do, though, have to go back up there now sometime when I am a bit better prepared to see if I can find out how to get out the other side of the forest...