After my time in Phong Nha, I rejoined the Ho Chi Minh Highway West and continued north. The dramatic terrain also continued for a way, but eventually the land flattened out. In the next three days I passed up the throat of Vietnam, and into the brain stem.
I didn’t make so many photos in this time, and I would say that this ‘neck’ part of Vietnam is less spectacular than other parts. However, I met memorable people at each place that I stayed.
One the first day I set course for Phố Châu. I wanted to see what else was on the western roads because it had been so excellent so far. There was more traffic but it was still unbusy. Rain came in the late morning but I passed through quickly. I forgot my raincoat at the restaurant where I ate lunch, and didn’t realise until I was an hour beyond.
There was a helpful young man at the hotel where I stayed, and he helped me find a nice new raincoat. I would lose this one too the following week. This guy took me out to dinner to meet his friends and spoke about the importance of English. He had been learning only a few months and was still at a beginner level, though he was able to communicate well. There was so much that he wanted to say, that he talked even while we rode together on his bike, slowing down each time he thought of something to say.
The next day took me west then east through Thái Hòa. The western roads were very quiet and felt quite far from civilisation, though it’s not really the case. The country is so narrow here that I passed within of a few kilometres of Vietnam’s western border, and ended up on the eastern side of the country, despite my destination being nearly straight north of where I set out.
I did have a bit of a crisis with my camera when the mirror suddenly stopped re-cocking. The latch wouldn’t catch the mirror and it would return to the top. This was quite troubling for me as the camera is expensive to repair, and apparently more delicate than I had hoped. Despite the care I had taken to preserve it, the camera had evidently taken enough damage to stop it working properly. It could still take photos, and I could still reset the mirror manually (though I had to remove the lens each time to do this). That evening I took my little pliers and bent the latch to a position where it would catch the mirror again. However this likely affected the focus – when the mirror isn’t in the correct position, the image on the focussing screen won’t have the same focus as the image that goes to the film. This worried me for the rest of the trip. In hindsight it wasn’t too bad, and after having the camera repaired I’m still terrible at manual focussing anyway.
That day I didn’t have a particular destination in mind, and just drove until the sun started to set. I ended up at a guesthouse a little north of Thái Hòa, where the family invited me to have dinner with them. We had fairly long conversations using Google’s voice translator, which worked remarkably well. I think it works a lot better with a northern Vietnamese accent, as I haven’t had the same success with it down south. I busted out my Instax camera, which is always a people-pleaser. Unfortunately it fell of the ladder which was our makeshift tripod. The family was so apologetic and even offered to pay for it, but it only got a little crack in it and still works well to this day. I really enjoyed my stay here and it remains one of my favourite examples of the benefits of ‘going local.’
It was a very wet morning when I got up. The area around Thanh Hoa has a lot of rivers and the rain was absolutely bucketing. I travelled many bridges and raised roads that provided paths though the swollen streams. One vivid memory I have is giving a lift to middle-aged lady. She happily jumped on between me and my pack (strapped to the rear half of the saddle), forcing me to kind of squat in front of the saddle, over the metal rack. It was a very uncomfortable position, especially when we hit a bump – the force of it would travel through the part of me closest to the rack. After a couple kilometres of this I couldn’t keep myself from vocalising the pain. Mercifully, the ordeal came to an end before we had some kind of accident and the lady thanked me happily. I’m fairly sure there was no lasting damage, so all’s well I guess.
That day I aimed for Tam Cốc – but before that, I took a detour to a place recommended in Vietnam Coracle (that Bible for all journeymakers in Vietnam) – the old Hồ citadel. This was the seat of power for the Hồ dynasty for a short time around the year 1400 and later used as a fort. Now it’s a rice farm, though most of the outer walls remain, in a rough square shape with a gate in each wall. It was very quiet place with only a handful of visitors.
After some pleasant wandering around this place, it was a couple hours’ ride to Tam Cốc. The rain had stopped but I was very happy to arrive and have a hot shower, a hot dinner and some hot tea.