Vũng Tàu: Further than I thought

Brian Tue, 2016-05-24 17:30
Vũng Tàu' harbour—not the afternoon!

I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam for a doctor's appointment a couple Fridays ago (nothing serious), and had to return the following Monday.

What to do? Well, Vũng Tàu's only 84km away, why not go there for the weekend? Simple! It'd take, at the most, 2.5 hours, even if traffic was bad. I'd actually been on this route before, in 2013, and it was easy, even though it's in a country whose signage is, for the tai (foreigner) a challenge. And, unlike 2013, this year I"ve got a phone with pretty good GPS. What could go wrong?

Well, there's a general principle of the universe involved: If you're going somewhere in a foreign country, thngs/events will conspire to take you all day.

First, my memory of how to find the tunnel on Vo Van Kiet (a major arterial in HCMC) under the Sài Gòn River was a tad, er, rusty. I got my motorcycle onto the wrong ramp, and it took me on a bridge over the river into an area of suburban HCMC I wasn't familiar with. It was, not to put to fine a point on it, traffic-heavy. I toughed it out for a while, but at some point, I realized I wasn't going to get lucky, and chance onto some street that'd take me where I wanted to go. So, time to consult the GPS.

And here's a crucial element of this story. My eyes are as old as I am, and I can't just whip out my phone and consult the GPS. I have to find some significant shade, or I won't be able to see a thing on the display. (When my son was younger, he used to scoff at how high I'd set my phone's brightness. "Eats up the battery, Dad." "Easy for you to say," I'd say.)

Unfortunately, it's not so easy to find shade in Viet Nam—almost every significant piece of shade around these parts already has someone in it. It's valuable! So every time you want to consult your phone, you have to travel a few kms until you find a piece of shade with no one in it.

And here's another thing: Looking for something on the side of the road in Asian motorcycle traffic is a ticket to trouble. It takes your attention away from the 1,000 things that can go wrong very quickly right in front of you. Plus, the folks on motos behind you don't understand you're looking for something—they already know where everything is—so low speed and inattention is confusing to everyone.

But I found a place, and consulted my smartass-phone's GPS, and discovered very quickly that I was never going to get where I wanted to go from where I was. That part of Viet Nam has quite a few land masses separated by quite a few rivers, and not so many bridges from one mass to the other. So no choice but to go back to HCMC proper, and find that freaking tunnel.

Sounds simple, but not so much. I'd gone too far trying to tough it out to re-create my route back. So I ended up crossing the Sài Gòn on a different bridge, which I later discovered was to the north of the tunnel. After consulting my GPS, I u-turned, and headed back.

A few consultations with the SAP later (each one involving a search for shade), I rediscovered the secret: to get to the tunnel, you take no ramp from VVK, you just continue on it, and there it is!

So home free, no? Well, no.

Turns out QL1 (Quốc lộ, "route") is vastly different from what it was three years ago. Much more construction, many more exits, and many more signs that point you somewhere you've never heard of and you don't want to go (as far as you know). Frustratingly, for us foreigners, highway signs rarely have the highway numbers, which westerners usually rely on. So, many more consultations with the SAP (and one entry into a u-turn I didn't want to make), and I found the exit my Google Maps route had pointed me to. Just one problem—the road I'd proceeded down easily in 2013 has been converted into an expressway, and no motorcycles allowed!

Aaaccckkkk! That was a bit of a setback. Plus, I was beginning to get worried about how much gas I had. (My VN motorcycle doesn't have a gas guage, or a working speed/odometer). So I got off the highway and looked for some gas. In what must be a first for Asia, I drove all over the place looking for some, with no luck. Not only did I not find a gas station, I didn't even see one of those side-of-the-road stalls with a "xang" (gas) sign. By now, I was beginning to feel things were lining up against me. By some stroke of good luck, I stopped into a giải khát (coffee and drinks place) where the guy spoke some English. He told me I should continue up QL 1, and there was a turn-off up there, somewhere. (Asian directions are always, to my sensibilities, pretty vague.)

Last chance, I thought. If I don't find it pretty soon, I'm going back to HCMC.

I hung on longer than I thought I would, mostly out of inertia. But suddenly there, as big as anything, was a sign that pointed me to QL51, the route to Vũng Tàu! Huzzah!

From there it was relatively simple, but when I got to Vũng Tàu, it was 4:30pm, and a 2.5 hour trip had extended to 6.5 hours.

My plan for a lazy Saturday afternoon on the beach in Vũng Tàu—foiled!