Thursday, January 16, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 10 – Tay Thien, San Duong, and Thai Nguyen

It was a pretty chilly night, but my main complaint is that some hotels have a mattress that is only one inch thick, so for all practical purposes means you are sleeping on a wooden board. Of course “complaint” is a relative term, because I actually slept like a baby. Nonetheless it took me some time to get going, together with a couple of cups of coffee. But I got going, and by 8 am I was descending from my lofty village back into the lowlands.
I headed north from there, with the idea of going all around the mountain massif. Fortunately I am a nosey traveler, and when I saw a gilded portal in the distance I headed for it and discovered it was the entrance to the Tay Thien recreating area, still in the Tam Dao National Park. Tay Thien is a long, deep canyon whose headwaters are at the highest point of the range. The valley is as wild and scenic as any of the great river canyons of the Sierra Nevada, but is also some sort of sacred valley where many temples and a mosque are located. The Vietnamese took a page from the Chinese National Parks, so a very modern teleferic takes you from the valley to the high mountain peaks. The view is absolutely fantastic, and all for a measly US$ 9, round trip.
Once I got to the top I confirmed my feeling that I took this trip a couple of years too early. The Vietnamese are busy reconstructing their bomb-ravaged land, and everywhere you see evidence of brand new boulevards, hotels, and residential developments being constructed. The same is true of Tay Thien, where al the temples are being reconstructed, regilded, and made ready to receive thousands upon thousands of tourists. Alas, once again I was the only one there to take advantage of all these preparations and brand new infrastructure.
Back on the road I continued north, in what turned to be a perfectly good local road with almost no traffic, and the lofty metamorphic block gave way to a limestone terrain with a well developed karstic geomorphology. I enjoyed myself enormously feeling like a motorcycle ace as I pushed my speed to 100 km/hr (well, that is what it felt lie to me, and since the speedometer of my motorcycle doesn’t work there are no ugly facts to convince me otherwise).
After a good run of about 50 km I joined Highway 37 at San Duong and the traffic started to deteriorate. Passenger buses are a bit of a nuisance, but the real offenders are the 12-wheelers, which are heavily loaded, slow, and feel the need to swerve over the whole width of the two lanes, so you have to be very nimble to pass them with about 2 inches to spare. Add to that the construction that is taking place all over the country and you can imagine how frazzled we scooter riders can be.
I finally made it to my destination for the day, the hub town of Thai Nguyen. I thought the name could mean Thai People town, and was looking forward to the possibility of finding a nice Thai restaurant. On first blush it looks like a regular highway town, with all commercial activity limited to the sides of the highway. Fortunately I have become very adept to identifying possible hotels (a multi-story restaurant with a hotel counter on back) on the fly, so I was confident I would find a place for the night. And I did. Out of the corner of the eye I spotted a likely place, even if it didn’t conform to the general model. I made a u-turn (scary on the face of the swarm of scooters coming my way), and drove into the atrium of a maison de la Belle Epoque, where the grand old house has been converted into a comfortable hotel. The back “patio” is a vast garden where no less than three restaurants offer al fresco dining. I sat in one of the tiny tables and tried to order something different than the usual fare of Pho soup (noodle soup with thin slices of meat, bean sprouts, and basil leaves). The young waitress did her best to understand what I wanted, but despite my best efforts all she kept repeating the mantra “noodles, noodles”. Oh well, I like Pho soup well enough, so I nodded amiably and hoped for the best. And the best did come: a tasty stir fry with noodles and fried egg, with a generous cover of stir fry veggies and beef. Heavenly!
After dinner I went for a walk, enjoying the back streets and their feeling of well being and bonhomie. Yes, Vietnam is a poor agricultural country, but it is developing an urban middle class that at least locally is doing quite well. My steps also took me to the university, where lots of young men and women were walking back and forth from one class to the other. It was good to see that the new generation is getting prepared for the challenges ahead.

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