Halfway on the road from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau you turn from highway 51 onto Hoang Sa road, and the land opens up on both sides. You come upon salt marshes, with their mixture of sky, island clusters, waterways, briny sea and pungent drafts of dried fish. Views here are expansive: tufted grass, mangrove clumps, an occasional boat docked next to makeshift homes, become dots upon a larger canvas of sky and marsh water.
It took two hours to get you here on motorbike. Two hours splitting the road with careless cars, packed buses, delivery trucks loaded twice their heights with wood, metal shutters, construction sand and pebbles that bounce out their useless tarp covering and pelt you and motorbike the entire way there.
I was following the route for motorbikes suggested by Tom from vietnamcoracle, avoiding the busy highway 1 and taking the Cát Lái ferry for an experience (on a hot day, buy some sugarcane juice from the ladies selling them just before boarding, it’s worth the 5,000 dong!). It had been several months since my purchase of Bumblebee 2.0, a one year old Yamaha Nuovo, and I wanted to test our ability to handle non-city driving. The drive is turned anxiety inducing by the fact that I’ve not yet purchased my motorbike license for driving here. However, it was eased by my sense that driving outside the city couldn’t be any more dangerous than driving within it. It might actually be safer for me to drive out 110 kilometers to Vung Tau, than to stay in the city and battle weekend traffic to my usual haunts this weekend.
As expected, the worst part of the route was the road getting me out of the city. Once the ferry docked, the street grew larger; occasionally a divider with planted shrubs or trees separated the cars and trucks lanes from the motorbike lane (this wasn’t the case with most of the drive, just some). As stressful as it was to share the roads with honking mac trucks tumbling down the avenues, or cars that pushed onto lanes reserved for motorbikes, it was more relaxing not to have pedestrians to dodge, or motorbikes going against traffic on bridges and the like.
After the ferry, the road leads onto HL 13, a two lane highway passing directly through a major industry zone of Dong Nai, called simply, 2 Industrial Zone. This complex is a connected series of hulking factories and warehouses of firms both local and international. Lining one side of the road are gigantic lots making steel, construction cranes, rocks, textile, and so on, the list of products runs long.
Incongruous herds of cattle occasionally ventured onto both sides of the road, posing in front of hulking beams of concrete and steel, standing under long lines of electric poles running parallel to the highway, lines that provide these complexes with the power needed to run their massive machinery. Opposite from the factories, shops selling com binh dan, pho, cafes and restaurants have popped up, benefitting from the mass of workers that must roam throughout during lunch time. Factories are followed occasionally by stretches of complexes that seemed like they’re built as housing for the workers, apartment high rises that seemed out of place in a relatively rural countryside. If one stops one’s bike and looks, one notices roads that stretch far inward; warehouses and factories beyond warehouses and factories, all forming an area that on google maps is larger than district 1, 4, and Binh Thanh of the city combined. Here is the new industrial heart of the country, and I was just part of the rush of afternoon traffic rolling through, too tentative to slow down and take pics as I passed.
It’s difficult to picture the labor of both machine and men inside these gigantic spaces, cavernous halls that must rumble with work but is silent from the outside, drowned out by the noise of truck traffic. Other than the metal and concrete shells sheltering this labor and various signage indicating what’s being built inside, one doesn’t see many people on the drive over. The spaces felt empty, a ghost town of controlled labor, and yet inside it must be humming with activity. The contrast to this were the farmers and laborers I encountered as I neared Vung Tau. On my loop into Hoang Sa road and through Long Son island, workers covered by white baggy clothes were out laboring underneath a sunny sky.
On Long Son island, salt farmers have used the marsh land next to the road to build long, shallow ponds of sea water, each of them collecting the dull grey of dirt and sea water, then turning white as they dried and left their salt residue behind. Other fields were tinged metallic orange, a result, I would read later, of various variables, from salinity to the microorganisms that live in the water. These farmers carried large rakes as I passed, pulling the sand clusters onto the banks to form large clumps of salt, dunes of material for collection later.
The crest of the last bridge before Vung Tau gave me a vision of the expanse of salt marsh, seawater, and the mountains beyond, all in one panoramic view. Below me fish farmers have built interlocking piers, with walkways propped up by green and blue barrels, each forming complexes of gridded enclosures housing fish, each joined to a large, metal roofed building. As I paused to take some pictures of the scene, three men fished with rods and hanging lines dropped down the long depth towards water. A lone barge slid its way below the bridge, carrying construction sand towards the city. A dozen minutes more, and I was taking the long, empty tree-sheltered drive into Vung Tau city proper, cool under their shading, my most pleasant leg of the drive.
Next time, I’d love to try the suggested loop from Saigon to Mui Ne, swinging up to Da Lat, and back home, but it’s much longer, and more perilous. One deals with a rise in elevation and the potential hazards of inclement weather is ever present as one nears Da Lat. For now, I’m happy with this first jaunt out to see the factory spaces and salt marshy countryside of Vietnam’s southern region.