Thursday, September 30, 2010

The run up Highway 14-The Ho Chi Minh Highway

Dateline: Hue, September 30, 2010, day 23 of 49 for the trip. Rain most of the day, quite heavy at times, though never a true tropical downpour.

When last I wrote I'd gotten one day north of Saigon on Highway 14, interrupted near dark by a downpour. That became a defining pattern for a day or two. . .beautiful (cool!!) mornings, puffy clouds in the middle of the day, generating a few real thunderheads by midafternoon and going for broke about 4:30 or 5:00, an hour or so before sunset. I'd have been more or less happy to keep it that way, but the last day of the trek north back to Hue was different. Gloomy morning followed by rain at times and occasional downpours, with sunbreaks at rare intervals. Pretty ugly skies at times, never did get any dramatic views of the thunderclouds, just the black underbelly gushing rain. My raingear flunked. Marmot's best single layer Goretex, has never been REALLY good, but never flunked quite like this. It reminded me of the brown dome tent I took to Ireland on my bicycle all those years ago. It was great for keeping the water in the bedding after the rain stopped.

After you once get clear of the Saigon metropolitan sprawl there's very little chance to go astray on Hwy 14, the signage is usually unambiguous at any sort of an intersection or Y in the road. The big white arrow on the blue background with the Hwy Number and the next big town on one side, the little white arrow off to the side (or whatever) with the little town's name the road in question leads to. Usually there would be no temptation. . .red dirt lane on your left, two full lanes of asphalt straight ahead. Uh. . .could I hear the choices again please?? However, if someone is using the big blue sign to hang a big blue tarp from in order to run a roadside pop and coffee shop. . .you might miss it, and if it were the only 90 degree turn in the highway (with the road to Podunk going straight ahead) for a hundred miles, you'd be forgiven for taking the wrong road. Fortunately, the Vietnamese in general are keeping up the traditions of kilometer markers with the highway number, and distance to the next town and so forth, every 1000 meters more or less. . .so when the next km marker turns up as QL40 instead of QL14 you get really suspicious. The back of the blue sign was perfectly obvious coming from the other side, and when I stuck my head under the tarp, sure enough. . .big arrow--hard right, got it.

This is an entry that doesn't need a lot of verbiage I think. I'll post several photos instead and summarize as follows. We already discussed the rain, but keep it in mind as you read. The highway (?) is a pretty good bare two lanes of asphalt for most of its length(usually no shoulder and often no place to put one anyway) , but the 100 km or so from Thanh My (where a sensible person would turn off and run down the river road to Da Nang anyway) to A Loui (say that "Aw Loooey") is very steep mountain country, densely forested and uninhabited so far as I've seen. It apparently gets very little traffic (I saw nobody at all for over 30 minutes at one point) and not surprisingly, not a whole lot of maintenance. I rode through that stretch once in 2005, rode up from DaNang in fact, headed generally toward Hanoi in blissful ignorance. It was a brand new road then, having just not quite lived through its first rainy season. A fair proportion of it (oh, not really, but quite a lot in one place and enough to be a problem in several places along the way) some of it anyway had slid off the mountainside and down the canyon and dammed up the local rushing creeks. . .which made for difficult motorbike riding through the area and no doubt messsed up the ecosystem in the creek, though, with the rain they get there, I'll bet it didn't last long.

The county road crews, or whoever does that work here, had been out getting a temporary goat path pushed through the slide areas so I made it that time, just to smash my right foot later that afternoon between the (strong) footpeg and the (immovable) concrete bollard on the side of the road as I skidded in pea gravel on a tight curve. . .really bad foot from that, lasted for months and still hurts when the weather's wrong. So on this trip, five years later, I was curious to see how the mountainside came out and also to try to find the place where that particularly nasty concrete post lived. The mountainside has been plumbed and paved. They basically plumbed it with a mile or so of perforated drain pipe and concreted the whole hillside for a couple hundred feet straight up. The pipes discharge all over the face of the concrete and the water is lead to sluiceways with stairsteps (must look spectacular when it's raining hard. . .just drizzling when I went by this time). It looks like it'll work until it undermines. Fixing it then might be a real chore. I don't know what else you could have done though really. . .taken the rest of the top off the mountain so there was no more to slide? Lot of mountain up there.
As for my foot bashing post. . .not to be found. I rather think he's been replaced with one of a series of Jersey-curb type barrier on particularly nasty curves. They probably got tired of fishing American scooter drivers out of the canyon. It would, seriously, have been a good place to die that time. I stopped just a few feet from the edge to contemplate my smashed foot and think about how much better it would feel after it stopped hurting. . .but another few feet would probably have saved me the trouble entirely. Long ways down. Lots of hard things to bounce off of. But that was then. I'm more careful now, really, I am.

So. . .daily routine: we got up, got fed and watered (some very nice scrambled egg sandwiches on the roadsides around here. . .they do nice things with cilantro, cucumber, tomato, hot sauce and mayo on a baguette. . .and the scrambled egg is an interesting variable, but always tasty. Good start to the day, followed usually by a cup of iced sweet milky coffee (you have to try it, but it's marvelous, if expensive) and a pot of bitter hot tea that comes for free with the coffee (??) though sometimes it's not bitter after all, more flowery. After breakfast, a quick pass through the hotel room to finish packing the bag (I'm actually pretty well organized, place for everything and everything fits sort of lifestyle on the road), checkout, return the key, retrieve the passport (be sure to get your own), get the pack strapped on the back of the bike, slow down at the local gas station and spend $4 or $5 for the day's running. . .and then go out and cheat death and dodge thunderstorms. Take photos during breaks in the rain. Stop for more coffee. Stop for lunch, go out and cheat death some more, keep an eye on the thunderstorms after about 4:00 pm. Find a hotel before the thunderstorm finds you (no misses yet, though there was one town with just one hotel to choose from. . .but it was a very good one). Eat, sleep, get up, do it again. Cover 1100 km in three days more or less, call it good.

The country ranges from rolling hills through steeper hills to precipitous mountains. There are gorgeous little waterfalls running down granite slopes or bouncing through boulder gardens at the bottom of incredibly steep ravines (even in the photos, which usually flatten such terrain, they still look steep). Wherever the hillsides are just sort of steep they have been planted to trees or shrubs of some productive sort or another, tea, coffee, rubber, and several things planted in rows and columns whose names I don't know. Anywhere there's a flat spot there is rice. Almost flat spots get corn or pumpkins or something of the sort. There are towns every 30 to 50 km, small usually, very pleasant, very unused to seeing foreigners. There's a lot of Vietnamese travel these days though, so even the smaller towns usually have a guest house of some sort, and two of the nicer hotels I've stayed at were on this run.

The morning markets on this inland road are fun, so much of their produce and fish has to come in from elsewhere. . .but every day before daylight there will be trucks parked around the central market area, nice fresh sea fish on the tail gate, or lowland vegetables. . .and whatever else needs to come in from lower, warmer climates. The central part of the markets are usually given over to dry goods (if the tarps can keep the goods dry in the rain) and the sidewalks all around are covered with local produce and fresh meat, much of it still squawking or quacking. Poultry and fresh water fish are bought alive if at all possible, only beef, pork and goat come pre-killed and cut up, though visibly freshly so.

The mornings are definitely cool at this time of year. . .riding in shirt sleeves is not attractive until the sun is over the edge of the sky, but those first couple of morning hours on the road are delicious.

After weeks on Highway One, the fresh air on the mountain road comes as a surprise. So many things to smell, and so many of them delicious! I have no idea which flowering shrubs or trees make some of the sweet smells, but they are lovely anyway.
So, Highway 14 is not the best route in Viet Nam, but it is without doubt the most pleasant route from South to North between Saigon and Da Nang. The 100 km or so between Thanh My and A Loui. . .is worth the effort, but shouldn't be regarded as basic transportation. You'll have to try it yourself.

I'll be around Hue until Sunday morning as it now stands, getting my laundry dry, letting my saddle sores heal up a bit and waiting to cross the Lao border on straight time on Monday at Lao Bao.

Oh, and if you haven't seen it yet, my long-awaited article in Wooden Boat Magazine is now on news stands, and we've gotten a short added article on the sailing boats off Hue posted on the website at Go have a look!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Decision Time and Turn Around

Dateline Eah T'Linh, (also apparently written "Ea T'ling" or just "Eatlinh", clearly a non-Vietnamese name, this is montagnard country), about forty km short of Buon Ma Thuot (Also "Ban Me Thuot"), which is where the thunderstorm caught me forty minutes before sunset this afternoon. On the map, it must be about 250 km North of Saigon on Highway 14, though I haven't taped it out. This is September 27th here, the 20th day of 49 of the trip, and I'm not headed South any more, but I'll get to that in a minute.

When last I wrote I was in Quy Nhon feeling sorry for how much things had changed and Nha Trang, where it wasn't so bad because it had already changed. . .hope I didn't sound too down, but Quy Nhon was a bit of a shock. Anyway, from Nha Trang South to Mui Ne-Phan Thiet is an easy run and a lot of it through pretty country, including a stretch through granite boulders littering the mountainsides that make you think you're in Baja California. Actually, the climate is almost that dry and prickly pear cactus and palm trees go together nicely and the afternoon thunder storms against the mountain sides (all of which missed me) are spectacular.

If you're headed north out of Mui Ne it's pretty easy to find the new coast road and follow it along beside the breakers northward, thereby rejoining the highway about 45km north of Phan Thiet and saving yourself quite a long backtrack. It still doesn't show on any map I've seen but it already has kilometer markers and a highway number. The first time I stumbled on the road it wasn't really open yet and I ended up giving the center-line stripe painter a ride back to the work camp. He started to decline but, me being a true gentleman and he being out in the middle of nowhere with with a brush, an empty pot of paint and nothing to drink on a hot afternoon, he changed his mind and hopped on. I should have listened. It took most of the rest of the trip to get the paint off the bike. Anyway, it's a gorgeous ride for twenty odd kilometers, the red and white sand dunes on the land side, rocky headlands out in a blue sea that seems to always be breaking. . .on miles of perfect beaches. As I said, it's easy to find from Mui Ne, basically just keep trying to get out of town Northbound until one of the roads actually goes somewhere. Three or four tries should do it. Coming in from the South though I'd never managed it before, it's a very quiet little intersection sneaking up on Highway One in the middle of a small town, but it's gotten easier lately.

As the kilometer markers showing the distance to Phan Thiet started to get down in the mid-forties I started paying attention, then noticed the red colored ridge of the hill running along the road a quarter mile off to the left and "Red Sand Dune" clicked in the back of my head, and just when I was about to feel like the brilliant explorer and find the road head all on my own the big new blue and white sign reading "Mui Ne That Way" came up. It will be easier to spot from now on. So I didn't have to run all the way into Phan Thiet and come back the twenty two kilometers to the beach guest house. I rode along with that beautiful stretch of desert coast with the blue breaking sea on one side and the scrub and cactus covered dunes on the other. There were fish boats off shore and, er, well, busloads of tourists, I mean thirty busloads of tourists, doing something about a grand opening at one of the new hotels along the way. Oh well, I guess I have to share, and nothing could spoil such a beautiful ride, not even my saddle sores.

Mui Ne is the site of one of the most beautiful landscape photos I've ever taken, on a good sunrise morning some years ago now, standing on the hill above the bay with the hundreds of bright painted boats perfectly highlighted by that early sunlight full of golden highlights, against the darker sea and shore. I wanted very much to see if I could improve on it though, since it was originally shot in 35mm and digitized. So in the late afternoon (the light all wrong), I only paused to see that the crowd of boats in the bay is still much the same, bought a shell from a young lady too sweet to say "no" to, and went on to the guest house. It's a very sweet little place, across the street from the beachfront, two long low buildings facing each other across a beautiful flower garden, with spotless little rooms and friendly people, though I couldn't make the wifi work. (good grief, wifi in paradise??) Out on the beach a Vietnamese social director for one of the nearby resorts was MC'ing an incredibly goofy game for a bunch of vacationers. . .trying to toss a ball across a badminton net with ten men holding the hem of a table cloth, while their wives and girlfriends on the other side tried to catch the ball on another table cloth without dropping it. Funny and loud, but not what I came for. A ways up the beach in front of the fishermen's co-op they were just finishing a set of a beach seine and had a nice basket of tiny fish to pick up and carry away and the fellow who charcoal grills seafood on a tiny brazier had a bucket of scallops, a jar of lime juice and green onion tops and another of brown sea salt. Ten scallops for a dollar, my goodness, and the first one (just a taste) didn't count in my ten.

Sunrise came in due course and I tried for the photos and no, didn't really do as well this time, the tide was too low and the small boats were still out, but I got some that will be worth having, then rode around and poked down tiny footpath streets to find the beach accesses on the Northern shore of the bay (I'm getting bolder about riding down footpaths among houses, there has always been a place to turn the bike around so far). There is actually a good operational marine railway there that I'd not seen before and they had three small boats up for bottom work. Their business is impacted though by the very wide, hard sand flat that bares along that beach and is perfect for careening the larger boats. That's a hard way to get your bottom work done, you work when the tide is low and sleep when you can, but the yard bill is much less so there were several boats up getting a shave and haircut on the cheap.

That was about it for Mui Ne, I packed up and left, thinking I might make it well south of Saigon in the day ahead, which would put Rach Gia within a very long day, or possibly two and thence Phu Quoc by the ferry. I was starting to feel pressed for time, but still couldn't help stopping on one of the bridges over the small creeks in Phan Thiet and getting some more good photos of the fleet that ties up just below the bridge. There, where it has to have always been, just across the way and downstream a bit, was a boatyard with three good looking examples up on the hard. It only took another half hour to work my way in through the maze. People kept trying to stop me, looking alarmed, but I'd show them the photo of the boatyard from the bridge, explain that's where I was trying to get, and they'd just point me in the right direction. Worked just fine!

And then, under way at last, I suddenly realized I wasn't really on the highway anymore. Wrong turn somewhere. Checked the compass, carried on a ways further. The street became a narrow lane. I started asking, and really, it wasn't that bad. I'll never know exactly where I'd been of course, but with help from just a few native guides I was back on the highway before too long. . .and that's when the trouble started. My mind kept running through the days to Phu Quoc, the probable stay there (minimum 3 days, it's about the size of Whidbey Island back home)then the time for the ferry ride off the island (another day) and the long run back north to the Lao border at Lao Bao and I realized it just didn't fit.

To summarize, we've made it from just shy of the Chinese border in the north as far south as Saigon, all along Highway One, almost the full length of the country, 1800 kilometers if I'd stayed on the straight and narrow, nearer 2500 as we'd actually done it. So I realized I had to make up my mind, Phu Quoc Island, which is normally stated to be better than Phuket Thailand twenty years ago, or, in any event, the nicest beach and scenery area in Viet Nam. . .or to return to the mountains in Northwestern Viet Nam and Northern Laos, which I have been missing very much. I admit, the crowds in the beach resorts along the coast and the crush of traffic at times on the highway have made me hungry for open country, steep hills and rushing water. So I'm headed North now, turned off on the outskirts of Saigon last night in a driving rain (it'd been fine all day, just got wet when the evening thunderstorm figured out where I was headed)and started up Highway 13, headed for Dong Xoai and the start of highway 14. Headed north now, yes, but of course, having come so far south we've a long ways to go. Not to worry, we're going up Highway 14, the "Ho Chi Minh Highway" that follows the Western border of the country more or less, all the way from here to the far Northwest, with a few exceptions. I've seen part of it before, but for most of that run I was all but deathly ill, and all I can remember now is rows of rubber trees, dust, a dreadful road and a variety of less than ideal toilets every day and it ended with a smashed foot when I ran the bike off the road on a mountain curve and hit a guardrail post. In better health this time and absent another crash, it should be a good run, and at the end, real mountains and wild rivers (not to mention long skinny boats to run them). I'll stop in Hue for a day or two (should get there on Thursday I think) to get a Lao visa and collect the map I left in Hanoi (it's been sent on to my hotel in Hue. . .truly it's good to have a friend in Hanoi if you're going to insist on breaking legs and leaving behind maps and so forth). Then from Hue it's only a single day's ride to the border at Lao Bao, a crossing the next morning and I should be on the Mekong at Savannakhet that night. Er, not to plan ahead or anything, but it should be do-able.

Oh. Did I mention the bike wanted a new clutch for breakfast? It cost two hours sitting around the shop drinking sweet coffee and watching. And twelve dollars. She's happpier now.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Things Change, though Others Endure (boats in this case)

Dateline Nha Trang, September 24, 2010, day 17 of 49 of the trip. Nha Trang is a major city, was once a very major American facility, located about 500 km North of Saigon on the coast, at the mouth of at least two rivers. But that's tonight. Yesterday I was in Quy Nhon, which is another 200 km north more or less, so let's back track briefly.

Quy Nhon (pronunciation "Kwin Yun" more or less) was, in recent memory, a fairly quiet fishing port, with a very vigorous fishing fleet, which implied a pretty vigorous boat repair and maintenance culture and an extensive getting-the-fish-to-market sort of infrastructure. North and south of it however, Vietnamese cities were becoming modern, up to date, rich even, all by doing tourism. Quy Nhon lagged behind, and I enjoyed it. There were always a few foreigners at Barbara's Backpacker's Hotel, so you could count on a good conversation in English (Barbara used to be a New Zealander. . .probably hasn't changed still, though she's been in Quy Nhon a long time now). Besides that, there were a few hundred Vietnamese beach goers at any given time, and enough hotels to take care of them, mostly nice little two or three storey affairs. That was four years ago. I suppose I could tell you the story about the time I rode my Minsk (motorbike) up the ramp and into the lobby at Barbara's and almost didn't stop in time at the registration desk and then, getting off (we're talking about inside the hotel here, with a couch and an easy chair and so forth) managed to tip the bike over on myself. No one noticed, or at least no one said anything. That sort of place, and that sort of time. But that was then.

So (no, I haven't forgotten where I was going with this, just follow along, it's still early), so, as I was saying, there was at that time a shanty town, to be gentle about it, along the waterfront for about half a mile, filled with fishermen's families and the wives and kids of guys who built and rebuilt boats just above the tide line. Normal tide line anyway, heck at times the whole shanty town was below tide line. Some of the shacks were pretty substantial, two stories tall, real tin roofs, not just bamboo and cardboard (though there were some like that). It was a very lively place. I was invited to a funeral there once, and pretty well compelled to photograph grandma's portrait on the altar and the incense and food and such, and of course the casket, which was pretty substantial and very nicely finished. Funerals and weddings are like that here, if you wander by you're likely to get drafted. At the weddings there's always beer and whiskey or brandy and generally some very good food, but at a funeral it will just be tea and cookies unless the deceased was really important, in which case there might be quite a banquet. The funerals last longer too, two or three days and the nights in between, where a wedding is just a one-day affair, except for the aftermath of course.

Anyway, it was a very interesting shanty town, if not overly sanitary. I lost a shoe in a ditch I didn't notice once and wasn't at all sure I wanted it back. It washed though, and my foot didn't fall off.

Well, the city fathers had their eyes on that shantytown five years ago and when I dropped by four years ago they'd already made a start on it, pretty well wiped out the town and started building a waterfront staircase and promenade, though the boatwrights were still repairing and building right where they had been forever. I could see where it was going clear back then though I had no idea how far that direction it was going to go or how fast. . .and I haven't been back since until night before last.

I rode into town like I knew where I was, turned right at the coast guard station in the back harbor (which is where you get to if you follow your nose in from the highway) and came out on the bay front drive just as I remembered, but right off I could tell something was wrong. The bay front drive used to be twelve blocks long or thereabouts, died out as it came to where the shantytown had been. I could plainly see, as soon as I turned the corner, the doggone thing runs clear around the bay now, all the way to the rocks at the far end. I've no idea how many neighborhoods that wiped out, I never pushed my way clear around to the far end of things, the streets got pretty narrow. Not now! If you'd never seen it four years ago you'd think it'd been planned and developed over a number of years, beautifully groomed plantings (how DID they get the trees that big this fast??) and literally miles of parklike waterfront. No shanty town. No Barbara's (well, actually she has a restaurant now, with dorm beds, but it's not the same), no kung fu school, and worst. boat repair yards. Oh sigh. I finally found a room (on the third try) in a hotel with an ELEVATOR (now my knee liked that I'll say, who's against progress??)and a balcony view of the bay (past a monstrous Korean hotel, but still).

The back harbor is being rebuilt too, big pile driving rig putting in 120' pipe piles at a passable rate, though I think they could really pick up production. It's a nice rig in any event, huge hydraulic cylinder to set the angle of batter fore and aft. But the fishboat harbor is still fully functioning, even if badly torn up at the moment. I watched late into the evening while they emptied out a good sized boat, with a huge catch of mackerel, fish about 18" long, every one the same, compact and stream lined, thousands of them, all coming up out of the hold in plastic baskets, which passed from hand to hand, up to the ladies who took the ice from the ice chipping machine, rinsed the fish (now that was some INTERESTING water) and got them into nice fresh ice and into stacks to go in the back of the waiting trucks. The men packing ice and shoving it through the chipper could hardly keep up and people were everywhere doing something with fish in a hurry. Somehow, a team of five women on stools with notebooks kept up with every fish. . .or at least that's what they were trying to do, in all that flurry, who knows how it really worked out.

But the big discovery for the visit to Quy Nhon was the survival of a sort of particularly beautiful rowing boat I'd thought had disappeared years ago, and only knew of it from the illustrations in the old 1943 book on Vietnamese boats. But in the early morning sunshine, there were two of them just sitting waiting for me on the foreshore, oars mounted, tidy and well kept, beautiful little boats, peculiar for the sweet curve of their ends and the fine detail work in their building, wooden topsides, woven bamboo basketry for the bottom, delicate little ribs on tight centers, simply elegant. That made up for Barbara's. . .sort of.

The road from Quy Nhon to Nha Trang includes some of the loveliest coastal scenery on all of Highway One. You could cheerfully ride back and forth every day for a week and probably still see something really lovely from a slightly different angle. Certainly your eye wouldn't get tired of the changing seascapes as you went. I've been that way a number of times over the years and you'd think I'd know every island as it comes out from behind the mountainside as I ride by, butno. . .they still take your breath away. Then there's the little town of Dai Lanh, crouching at the foot of the mountains, blocked in on one side by the highway and the railroad (which couldn't get any higher up the hillside) and on the other by the Pacific Ocean, it's a jewel, even, after a fashion, up close. It's having a tourist boom too, now has two guest houses, not just the one I stayed at before, but otherwise. ..still a fascinating fishing town. I had a $2 lunch there, shrimp and squid and pork chop, soup and rice. . .and a bottle of sparkling water, with my own private fan to keep me from melting. It is warm these days if you slow down below 30 km/hr.

Nha Trang. . .you'd think it couldn't get any more touristy, it's been that way for a generation at least, since GI times, but it continues to put on airs. My old two-storey hotel is now 8 or 9 storeys high and costs $30 per night!!! Three stars my. . .er. . .behind. There are still tons of really good little $10 hotels though and I stumbled onto a particularly good one next to a really good Indian Restaurant. H'mm. Lose weight??? I don't know! Besides that, they've dredged out the sandbar at the mouth of the harbor, where the fish boats used to land a large part of their catch, and torn down the fish market itself, all for. ..a river front promenade, as though the five or six kilometers of ocean-front promenade were not enough. . .h'mm. I'm not sure where they land fish now. I DID manage at last to find a land route around the old airport (though I never saw the airport for all the buildings around) and out to the river mouth South of town. It's a veritable rabbit warren, and I finally gave up on the street I was following (though my map clearly showed it going through to the other side and the bay) when it got to be about three feet wide and all rock and sand. . .and going sharply uphill. I think I'd found the other end of it the night before and gave up from that end too. The locals navigate it on their motorbikes clearly enough, but my motorcycle is a bit bigger than the average and so am I. . .chicken too. I stopped to visit and be sure I was where I thought I was and the gentlemen who studied my map for a long time finally concluded I was in fact where I was, but they were really amazed at the map. . .and me.

Now it's time to be Southbound again, from Nha Trang, it's a good day's riding on to Mui Ne/Phan Thiet, and from there another two to the ferry port at Rach Gia. I'm running out of time if I think I'm going to northern Lao too. H'mm. About to be decision time I think. I may not get to Phu Quoc Island after all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dodging Dancing Dogs and Eating Che

Dateline: Hoi An, a measly 125 km and three hours south of Hue, off of Highway One a few kilometers, or looking at it another way, 25 km South of Da Nang on the coast. That's a slightly messy description, but so is the route in here from the North. I'm finally getting smart enough to ask early and often though and drove straight here this time. So this is September 22, Wednesday, day 13/49 of the trip, the weather was hazy hot all day (yesterday was blue-sky clear until the thunderstorm got all worked up in the evening).

I finished up what needed doing in Hue (though I could easily spend a week dawdling from one beach to the next, checking on the local surf boats and beach restaurants). Rough life here in the sun. The thunderstorms in the evening are pretty spectacular, but I've still managed to be inside every time one really drowns the neighborhood. What I haven't managed to dodge is the dog dancing, or Dancing Dogs. They're everywhere at the moment. It seems there is some sort of mid-year festival that works on the lunar calendar, so since the lunar new year was about six months ago that puts the festival about now. The only part of the festival that impacts traffic is the dog dancing teams, of which there are many to choose from. Unfortunately, they only work from dusk onward, so all my photographic attempts so far have come to lots of blurs and electronic noise. No real pictures. The "dog" usually has four legs,which look suspiciously like a teen-aged boys legs in shiny satin pants covered in "feathers" or flounces or...h'mm. He has a large round head with prominent tufted round ears, large, fiery eyes, and a vigorously flapping lower jaw (or is it maybe a tongue??), and quite the glorious cape of a hide. . .lots of color and spangles involved.

The team consists of the orchestra, that would be the large drum, the small drum, the cymbals and assorted pairs of drumsticks, since at least two people get to play the average drum (one might confine his attention to the leather head, two more might beat on the barrel staves). The beat is really fast and loud is the only setting on the dial. The dog, however, has problems. Apparently, for all his big eyes he doesn't see very well, so he has an assortment of assistants to keep him properly focused. At least one will have a fancy fan. . .not to mention a very large red head, a black (or it might be brown) farmer's outfit, and an enormous pillow belly, which gets used in slightly obscene gestures, or can be used to bump non-donating foreigners vigorously. Another fellow has what must be intended to be a video game avatar leader. . .sort of a tinsel star arrangement on a stick, which apparently the dog can see pretty well. . .it's used to get his attention and keep him on target. So, a victim, or rather a recipient of blessings, is chosen, usually a business or residence. The orchestra takes up positions in the street outside and sets the mood. . .loud and fast. The Dog, the dog leader and the fan waving-big belly people advance on the house with a great deal of bouncing and prancing and refocusing (no you dumb dog, over here. . .) and then the serious dancing gets going. It's at this point that the difference between a bunch of neighborhood kids and a serious martial arts team surfaces. The kids prounce and collect their fifty cents or dollar and prance away. The martial arts men put on one fabulous show, and that's when the traffic stops. Mind you, I wouldn't mind ordinarily, but given the state of my bowels and the proximity of the lightning and the darkness of the sky, I could have chosen another time to watch the show. . .but some things you don't choose, and I did stay dry one way or another. In case there is any doubt about the traffic getting by, an added five or six men stand up a bamboo pole in the middle of the street, fifteen feet tall or so, provided with a few hand and foot holds for the dog to climb, and four or six guy ropes for assorted crew and audience to tail off on and the dog dances right up the pole and, OSHA be darned, stands on the topmost rung and puts on quite the show. When the crowd is appropriately impressed, he sheds his head and hide and does a kung fu descent that looks like a chiropractor's nightmare. Meanwhile the head and hide have grown new legs and disappeared into the house or store front and the serious extortion has gotten under way. All the while of course the racket from the orchestra is carrying on, and the crowd isn't always quiet either. If that isn't enough to keep everyone interested, the very best groups will have a plywood dance floor about four feet square held up at shoulder height by half a dozen spare pairs of dog's legs, and somebody's really talented five or six year old, maybe three feet tall standing straight, with a great big red head and a pillow belly under his miniature farmer's outfit will dance round and round and bump and grind up there above the crowd. Some of them have obviously studied Michael Jackson. And then it's all over and you can try to break out and get through to the hotel. Until you come to the next team setting up in the street.

Che, on the other hand is entirely delightful. You've probably seen a weak watered down version of it in Little Saigon in Seattle (if you're from Seattle, otherwise pick your own Little Saigon). The stuff we get there comes in clear plastic cups, some beans or corn or some such and a little colored agar agar maybe or a grape or two. . .with some sweet rice and a dollop of coconut milk, it's a lot better than nothing, but Real Che, on the street in Hue (or Cam Pha, or Hanoi or. . . for that matter)comes on a table set out on the sidewalk (or in the wide doorway of a restaurant)and is at least ten or twelve kettles full of sweet and sticky or gummy or syrupy treats and a vat of crushed ice. You can buy it in a plastic bag, but you can't eat it that way, it has to be in a glass. . .so sit down and use the lady's glass, don't try to run back to the hotel with it, it'll melt. If you're lucky and obviously crippled up the dishwasher will spot your problem and trot out his own full height chair so you can sit in comfort (and see all the kettles). I'm at no disadvantage here, everybody chooses by the point and shoot method. Either that or they take pot luck and let the lady-in-charge put in a dollop of everything. Not a bad choice, but my favorite is the bananas in tapioca syrup mixed with the white fresh coconut chunks cast in the middle of the tapioca balls in a light sugary syrup. The purple agar agar doesn't seem to have much flavor to me, but the multi colored is nice. The yellow mush is very nice and you might want a dollop of that on top of your bananas. . .or not, the lady seems to think you should have at least a little of the purple mush underneath your coconut milk and your brown crispy toasted coconut flakes (neither of those are optional. . .they go on top of every glass). What with the half glass of crushed ice to start with. . .well it's hard work, but it has to be done. Oh, and it's 25 cents a glass. . .Oh dear.

The most fun however, is comparing Che from town to town like vintages of California wine eh? The stuff in Cam Pha for example was mostly extremely sticky until you mixed it with the ice and coconut milk, then it was only pretty sticky. Loved it.

All work and motorbikes make Ken a dull boy. Add Che. Repeat if necessary.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dateline: Hue, September 19th, day 12 of 49, Hot and clear early, became partly cloudy with obvious thunderstorms around in late afternoon. So far I've stayed dry.

When I ran out of time and energy late last night I still hadn't said anything about Hue or actually arriving here. Hue is a very special place to me for a variety of reasons. I've always been very well treated here one way or another, they do “tourism” very well. And I have a few friends here. . .two young ladies I met years ago up north when they were on holiday, 25 year olds then, who invited me to call when I got south as far as Hue. When I did, they gathered up all their classmates (at least the seven who were still single) and treated me to fine dinners and desserts and tours of the town. Wonderful, and it's kept up every trip since. The city itself is just a big town, not very city-ish at all, and the biggest industry must be the Huda Brewery, a mile or so down Le Loi Street. It was the imperial capital and still has a lot of that aura, the old citadel, a huge moated walled enclosure with a whole town inside (and the War museum with a pretty good collection of GI hardware looking a bit the worse for wear) and the surrounding countryside holds a variety of Royal tombs and Prominent Pagodas, all well worth seeing even if you're (like me) not really a tourist. The Perfume River flows through the middle of town and a glorious beach is only a short ways away. Boats are everywhere.

I got here about 11:00 yesterday after an easy ride from Dong Ha,took up residence in the same hotel I've used the past several times and was accorded an appropriate welcome.  The head desk clerk has been here as long as I've been coming.  She's a young woman with an attitude, and the first time I was here she got into it hot and heavy with a tourist after I'd been here a day or two.  She won the argument and the gentleman left, which was clearly mutually satisfactory, then (obviously still full of adrenalin) she turned to me and said something like "So you don't think I very nice no?" going from old memory and not doing justice to her level of fluency.  I replied that I thought she was very nice indeed (though she's quite the boss around the hotel, she'd been perfectly sweet to me) and you should have seen her face. . .she asked just once more to be sure. . ."you think I nice??" and I assured her I did.  Since then I have done no wrong.  This time I turned up, she was busy, head down behind the counter, somebody told her she had a customer out front (normally they jump up to make sure you don't get away if you're having second thoughts).  She spotted me and literally jumped up and down and shouted.  That was Fun.  Then after I explained about the broken leg and she gave me the lowest room in the building (3 flights lower than I've had before, but with very low ceiling. . .) she tried to help me up the narrow stairs, saw that wasn't working, then snatched the pack away from me and actually managed it up to the room.   

To start with I got the bike looked after.  My bikes love Hue.  The fellow with the shop at the corner is really good and really fast and almost gives it away.  It's purely point-and-shoot and pantomime, but we communicate just fine.  I needed the exhaust pipe gasket replaced and one of the nuts that holds the pipe on. . .thought she was getting a bit loud. . .and the right rear turn signal re-attached, the bolt wiggled loose somewhere and it was drooping at the end of its rubber stalk.  The brake light bulb needed replacing. . .I guess that's all really, for $1.15 more or less.  The turn signal actually took him ten minutes or so, the exhaust less than five, including the test run, and the brake light bulb was just how long it took him to find the bulb from the lady next door with the parts shop.  I'll have him change oil and lube the chain just before I leave.

Next I went in for a shave and haircut. . .she shaved the back of my neck with a razor. . .scary but bloodless and  I let her take a bit off the beard,  it flies all funny in the wind up behind my face plate and scares small children when I stop.  I don't think she'd cut a beard before. . .went at it pretty carefully!

Then it was out to the beach (12 km of pleasant country road) to check on the surf boats nearby.  I didn't go riding down the island, saved that for today actually, but it looks like nobody's fishing off the Thuan An beach, the boats are up high and there are no nets in evidence anywhere.  There were some nice traditional boats (wooden) from inside the bay out working off a rocky point about a mile south and a bit offshore, but they didn't come by close enough to photograph as they headed for the pass to go in.  It wasn't unduly rough, but the wind is definitely still Southeast, onshore monsoon.  I sat and drank a glass of bubbly mineral water in the shade and watched waves. You could spend time doing that you know. . .

Back in town, I flagged down a boatwoman passing by in the river (so graceful standing up and rowing with a single oar on one side. . .they stand on the other gunnel and somehow it all balances out, the boat doesn't tip over and it does go more or less straight ahead. Interesting vectors no doubt!). Anyway, I made an appointment with her for an hour's ride in early light for this morning.  That didn't turn out so well. Hue has, for generations, had a large floating village of traditional boats filled with people working on the river over against the shore of an island in the river. . .really very nice boats and comfortable homes. I'd read a news article in an online edition of Thanh Hien newspaper over a year ago that said the city government was wanting to relocate all those people ashore and “clean up” the river. Last trip I'd gotten out on the river too late in the day and the photos are less than good. This trip the boats are all gone. What a sadness, and they only did it for us tourists! Terrible.

And It turns out that the river-flowing-out-of-the-cave boat trip I had intended to do from here would be much better done on the way back north if I use Hwy 14 and its sub routes.  That route goes within a few miles of the cave.  Even as I went through Dong Hoi yesterday I was within 30 or 40 km, but didn't know where it was.  A bus tour, (which admittedly avoids the risk to the bike of sitting in a target zone for 3 hours), costs $25 from here and takes 12 hours round trip.  A few wooden mini-dragon boats might not be worth the $25 or the long day.  Or is that any way to think about it?

It has dawned on me that I've spent too much time describing boats and harbors and the distance between points and whether or not the road was passable. . .things of great interest to ME of course, but on the other hand, what I'm seeing and hearing and feeling all day most days is another matter and I haven't been conveying that very well. So. . .how about if I don't try to sort it into good things and bad (I assure you there are both, this is the real world here!), I'll just rattle off whatever comes to mind about being on the road in Viet Nam, or rather, in this part of Viet Nam, mostly on Highway One, still in the northern half of the country.

A lot of the countryside is just plain lovely. Where it's flat there's rice, green and beautiful and well manicured. Where it's steep there are often forests of one sort or another, or rows of upland crops.

A lot of the countryside is butt ugly, cut up, clobbered with ugly dirtwork, many ugly buildings and shacks, billboards, signs everywhere, stuff in the road, junk piled up all over. Open cut mines slaughtering exquisite limestone mountains (er, don't think about West Virginia, the comparison doesn't help).

Some of the architecture is simply delightful. And they have a great way with color for their buildings. . .pinks, greens, blues. . .whatever! Government buildings are all a sort of off orange though. Distinctive.

It's hot almost all the time, screeching hot in the mid-afternoon if you don't get some clouds and/or wind. If you get light rain, don't even worry about your rain gear, just enjoy it. Being a water cooled machine has significant advantages. Be prepared to wipe mud off your face plate though.

It's dusty, not the highway itself, just a lot of the side roads. However, the traffic from those side roads and fields tracks mud onto the pavement and there you are. At the end of a day I always look a lot like a raccoon with black circles around my eyes, and we won't discuss my nose. A shower is always the first order of business when you get to town.

The rice is ready for harvest or already cut. Where it's still in the fields, the heads of yellow grain hang down almost to the ground, well below the spikes of green leaves that still point straight up. Where it's been cut it looks like the field has had a butch cut, neatly trimmed about 10” above the ground, still green and pretty. (It's all done by hand, so it's very tidy) For much of the route the rice fields seem to go on forever, though you can see mountains in the Western distance. There's no field burning yet thank goodness.

Flowers are everywhere. Bougainvillea, which first amazed and delighted me here forty years ago. . .I still love it; some sort of yellow flowering weed along occasional hedgerows that's spectacular; a purple morning glory that grows on the beach sand (it has leaves like a cactus almost but a glorious flower); a yellow blossoming tree in many yards, with flowers almost like a daffodil; hibiscus of course, almost all of them red-orange. But especially the Bougainvillea. . .arching over porches and doorways, climbing up old trees, growing into small trees of its own, glorious color!

The roadsides, especially near the towns, are covered in trash. The country desperately needs an anti-littering campaign for the next generation or two. It's the most normal thing in the world for a bus to pass you and someone inside, completely innocently, to discard WHATEVER out the bus window. . .SPLUT—SKID!

Weeds and garbage are burned on the roadside everywhere. . .two very different flavors of smoke, but neither of them terribly delicious.

Fish dry on the roadsides (well, lots of things dry on the roadsides, but only the fish are that odoriferous).

Rice is spread and raked neatly to dry on the shoulders of the highway (and in the paved front yards of the farm houses and anywhere else that is flat, hard, and exposed to the sun). You aren't absolutely expected to avoid running through it, but it's greatly appreciated if you'll try. On the other hand, if you get forced into it by a truck or a bus or a Camry it's almost as tricky to ride in as sand, which of course is impossible.

There are gas stations everywhere, and where there aren't any, you can usually buy a pop bottle of gas from somebody. Compared to Lao and Cambodia, fuel just isn't an issue. If you run out, shame on you, that was dumb, but you shouldn't have to push very far to find it .

The highway rest stop sort of restaurants are fabulous. . .great value, very quick service (they're set up to handle busloads of people in a hurry) and the waitresses are always fun to deal with. . .not that many elephants on motor bikes passing through.

And of course, there are Vietnamese everywhere. Lots of them. It's a very densely populated country now and that density is particularly concentrated around Highway One, or rather, the highway was built to serve the population. The traffic in the towns is very interesting. . .well, really, the traffic period is very interesting. There are no moments off guard, ever. The most innocent bit of open roadway ahead of you can become a deadly trap in fractions of a second. . .things change really fast and there are a lot of players!

That's just a start. I'll try this again another time and see how much more I can come up with without thinking.

A couple of things from the road. . .toward dusk yesterday, just a glimpse in passing you understand, but it was hilarious.  Mr. Large Buffalo ("Water" among friends) was up to his very comfortable ears in the right stuff, down at the bottom of a slippery grassy bank, perfectly happy with the world and seeing no worthwhile reason to get out of the water.  At the top of the bank, in her high heeled shoes and clean slacks the young woman of the household was leaning into the length of shoelace that normally connects Mr. Buffalo with the child he's babysitting.  It connects in fact to a large plug that passes through the septum of his nose, so it does get his attention when a small child tugs at it and suggests a different direction.  But after all, those kids play pretty rough and the young woman with the clean slacks and the high heels didn't seem to want to pull hard enough to cause a slip and fall (and slide and wet and mud).  So, as I departed at 60 km/hr on down the road though I could see her cursing, I didn't get to see the eventual outcome. . .but I suppose when she mentioned feeding his dinner to the pigs he probably came on up the bank. 

Later, mind numbing from eight hours of motor and wind, I glanced up to see a flock of thirty or more white herons directly overhead with the sunset in their wings, all beating perfectly together, all so beautiful. 

I guess I came for the boats. . .but I keep coming back for the road.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

And finally into Hue

Dateline: September 18th, 2010, day 11 of 49. Written in Hue, about 700 km South of Hanoi on Highway One, 1229 km on the bike so far. Lovely weather all day, with dramatic skyscape in the afternoon turning into drizzle at dusk. Not enough rain to really cool it off, but it's really quite pleasant.

I last wrote from Sam Son, just leaving for Cua Lo, which is to say, from one river mouth harbor with a beach resort (Sam Son) to a Beach Resort with a river mouth harbor (Cua Lo) about 180 km road distance further south. I have been to Cua Lo once before, and thereby, as it often does, hangs a tale. I deliberately sought out a small guest house (though quite a very nice one) that trip and enjoyed the family that ran the place. I was actually on the inbound leg then, headed back to Hanoi to sell the bike and catch a plane ride home, and they, for some reason, decided they really wanted to buy that bike. I, on the other hand, didn't want to sell until I'd gotten safely back to Hanoi. Even a half day ride on a local bus holds a certain amount of terror for me, so I made excuses and said maybe I'd figure out how to get it down to them and so forth and we parted friends. I even remembered to give them the room key. So this time, when I rode up to the house on, to all appearances, the same bike (bear in mind it's been almost four years) the lady of the house took one look, laughed out loud and said “You still haven't sold that bike!!” (“Chua ban xe may ay!!”) I didn't fool her for long though, she looked it over, spotted the odometer and stared me down. . .”This one is a new bike!” Busted again. Nonetheless, I've found that being a returning hotel guest confers privileges and status you don't get the first time. . .only assuming you behaved yourself the first time, so I was very well treated again.

I've no real interest in beach resorts and have really pretty good documentation of the harbor and the boats so this was more in the nature of a quick check of the trap line, only a one night stand. I spent the afternoon at the harbor, where there was a certain amount of activity and a couple of good specimens hauled out for repairs (though no new construction in the yard) and patrolling the beach, where there was very little action offshore. One boat shoving a net ahead of itself on a pair of outriggers (I call them “push aheads” but “bulldozer boats” might be just as good a name), they scoop up anything in their path, about 30 feet wide and six or eight feet deep, but they look kind of ridiculous doing it. Other than that it was pretty quiet. I set up for an early morning departure, room and pack all tidy at bedtime, with a 365 km run to Hue, I'd need a long day on the road. I've done 420 km in a day on a twin to this bike last trip, actually also trying to get to Hue, but that was before the broken knee.

Then with the morning came perfect lighting, blue skies and gold highlights in everything, so I ran back to the harbor (ten minutes) with the camera and spent an hour and a half. Sometime earlier they'd landed tons and tons of tiny fish, stacked up in piles two or three feet deep all over the pavement of the fish market. The boats were finished offloading, but it was a very busy scene, with fish being sorted and cleaned and iced down and loaded in baskets or boxes and put on bikes and in trucks. . .busy. Good chance for photos. Lovely light. So much for an early get away. I was on the road by 0930, fed and watered and with a full fuel tank, good for over 200km, so, one stop for fuel, a lunch somewhere, and I'd have eight and a half hours of daylight to run in, still do-able.

I crossed the bridge at Ron just after 1300, still looking like making schedule, though it was starting to look tight. I've never crossed the bridge at Ron in good weather. Granted it was mid day and the light was high and harsh, but still, it was bright, the colors were screaming, and I'd written a lot about the fleet of traditional boats above the bridge. I'd never gone down through the town to the river mouth (in the rain and mud?) but had passed on by. I turned off downs stream on the southern bank, through the little downtown as it followed the river. Glimpsed fleets of more modern boats (still beautiful wooden boats, but not the long double ended low and lean boats that tie up above the bridge), kept on to the point where the street started to peter out and turned south along the back of the beach front. Or, to put it another way, kept on until I came to the boat yard where two magnificent new fishing boats were building, one fully planked, the other framed out and about half planked, the same boat yard where a dozen or so boats were hauled out so I could photograph them whole. Boats, I might add that I'd written about and surmised things that I could now see clearly out of the water. I parked the bike. It didn't take quite an hour I guess, but (though I didn't admit it yet) it put Hue out of range for the day.

No matter. If I hadn't stopped you'd never know that there are perfectly round inboard powered motor basket boats working every day. I mean. . .round basket boats are the most common sort of thing on the Vietnamese waterfront. . .perfect dinghies, they carry a lot, land easily through modest surf, (scoot rather than anything else, and how can they trip over their forefeet, they have none!) and wouldn't you rather roll your dinghy up the beach rather than having to drag it? However, I'd never seen a powered one before, and here was a whole fleet of them rigged up about like a seine skiff. In fact, these people do a lot of seine work, so it may well be that's exactly what they are. They look a bit odd with their rudders mounts sticking out like a tail on a tadpole. . .but the motor installation is perfectly reasonable. Once you're used to the idea of basket boats, the tricks for putting a motor in one seem straightforward enough and motorized “boat shaped” baskets are very ordinary here.

So by the time I was back on the road Hue was out of reach though I kept pushing along and didn't stop when maybe I should have. . .I don't think I'd ever photographed the sort of boat I saw up a slough of a river I crossed about four. . .long and skinny, high ended, a lot like the lagoon boats in the Hue area. . .but somehow the ends seemed odd. I'd have had to hike through marsh grass to get close enough and didn't stop. Maybe next time eh?

The rest is simple. I stopped in Dong Ha, a perfectly ordinary nice small city, a province capital I think, with a whole string of perfectly nice hotels and what turned out to be some of the best chicken and noodles I've ever had in Viet Nam. But the clincher. . .the hotel had an elevator. My knee loved it. This morning, after that fine chicken and noodles we got on the road and roared into Hue before eleven. Oh. We needed a new exhaust gasket and a nut to hold the tail pipe on. More of that later, it's way late. Good night.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A storm, A Portrait and a Bunch of Kids-Sam Son

Dateline: September 16th, in Sam Son (pronunciation: “Sum Son”), about 200 km south and a little East of Hanoi, on the coast, not far from the larger city of Thanh Hoa back on the highway. This will be day 9 of 49 once it gets going, but it's just 6:00 in the morning at the moment and I'm planning on riding south later in the morning. . .so, if this is going to get written, I'd best get with it.

Looking back a ways, on Tuesday I got everything together (er, well, almost anyway) and got out of Hanoi by noon. I deliberately ditched the big single lens reflex, left it at the hotel to pick up on the way home, it's just too awkward to ride with. I didn't intend to leave my road map in the zipper pocket of the camera bag though. Sigh. Well, I sort of know my way part of the way and no doubt I'll manage to replace it one way or another. With something.

It had been drizzly early but dried before noon so I went. It became extremely wet by 1:00. Sigh. Rode in medium rain, steady and wet most of the day, though it actually dried up as we rode into Sam Son. It's warm enough though that the rain wasn't all that unpleasant. It makes visibility a little iffy when mud builds up on the face shield. That was the sort of riding that doesn't count as “adventure” really, level road the entire way, starting with some of Viet Nam's best freeway, where motorbikes have a large shoulder if they want it but are expected to use a whole lane, leaving another lane for trucks, buses and Camry's, or BMW's or whatever. The upper crust is buying nice cars here these days. That only lasts about 40 km lout of Hanoi though and by a couple of increments the road soon gets back to the Highway One we knew and loved in years gone by, two lanes, full of traffic and NOT brand new. Really though, it's not that terrible of a riding surface. There are some horrible repair sections always, an occasional chuckhole (but you get those on the freeway at home eh?) . . .but the average customer here is a motorbike, so the road department looks at pavement from a motorbike's perspective. We don't like big chuckholes.

Anyway, Sam Son was just where I left it six months ago (this was the destination on my shakedown ride before the broken leg. . .) and I ended up in the same hotel room with the same rooftop view of the bay (a rather obstructed view, but still. . .). I had unfinished business here from last trip and had been laying the groundwork in Hanoi. While I was snooping around a boatyard at the North end of the town three young girls had been giggling and watching me (I'm really very entertaining if you haven't seen one like me before, what with the beard and the bald head and the belly). I was, however, surprised when they approached me en masse after ten minutes or so and handed me a 500 dong bill that had been folded intricately to produce a heart with a flower in its center, a very pretty little thing, and of course, quite unexpected. I made sure it was intended for me then thanked them profusely and, finished at the boatyard anyway, got on the bike and rode off. It was only later that I realized that among all the “good bye's” and “see you again's” there had been one little voice saying something about money. . .but by then it was too late to think that at least I might have offered to replace the 500 dong (the price of 2 small pieces of chewing gum, and the gum is often used instead of the currency). Oh well, I had other business to return for, a matter of a boat builder-weaver (basket boats you know) who planned to start a new batch of boats in a week, something I wanted to photograph, and which is now perhaps too late, at least here. In the six months I wasted healing up the broken leg he's switched to building with fiberglass. No kidding. A thousand years of work-wise tradition has come to an end just before I could get it down on film. Er, on digits I guess. I don't use film any more. But I didn't know that back in Hanoi, so I was still looking forward to getting back. Of course, I didn't just take the little girls' paper heart and run, I took their photos too, and that gave me a fine idea. I got three prints made, 5x7's, and laminated in plastic (any photo shop here will do that, in this climate it's a basic precaution against the photo simply dissolving). So I set out, right after cleaning up in the hotel, to try to find the three young girls in this town of. . .oh, I don't know, 100,000 people more or less. Instead I got lost trying to find the boat yard to get started. Got lost at dusk, which quickly turned into dark. Now, this is a flat coastal plain, with no local hills. The streets do not run strictly north and south and they do believe in an occasional cul de sac, probably not JUST to confuse me. No doubt I'd have sorted it out eventually, I did have my compass in pocket and knew I was north of the hotel and the hotel was just barely West of the Pacific ocean, so the theory at least was very simple. . .but I found a guide who jumped on his motorbike with a couple of small children and lead me back to the beach road in only six or seven turns. Voila. Then the rain got serious. The downpour was so heavy I was soaked through going four buildings down the street for a bowl of noodles, and it kept it up all night, with violent winds and constant lightning and accompanying sound effects.

Sunrise yesterday was just a gradual lightening of the storm. The beach was under quite the surf attack and the streets were running water like rivers. The storm sewers were completely overwhelmed, manhole covers bobbing up and down on their bolts and water gushing out of catch basins knee high. Fortunately, the Pacific has some excess capacity so there was somewhere for it all to go.

For all that it was that wet and wild on the beach, just after first light two of the local surf boats launched and got through the shore break, so I got out the new waterproof camera and put on shorts, sandals and the rain coat and went out in the rain and wind to see what I could do. Get wet for one thing, and maybe got some good footage too, if I can figure out how to look at it. Turns out I shot the wrong format, and can't watch it on the computer, need a HD TV. I've switched formats now, but the storm is gone. It actually turned into quite a nice afternoon, and my photograph delivery scheme worked fine.

I rode to the boatyard (what was so difficult at dusk??) and immediately spotted three young girls on bicycles. . .easily caught them, but of course they were the wrong three. No matter, I convinced them to wait a moment while I got the photos out of the day pack and that was the end of the matter. It's a big town but a small neighborhood and this three knew that three and, after a reasonable amount of excitement and consulting with parents and other adults around they lead me off into the maze (the small residential streets are not wide enough to turn a motorbike around in!!) and straight to what turned out to be Trang's house. Trang had already left for afternoon school (my guides were going to be late most likely) and her mother was not going to come out of the house. . .but the guides weren't giving up that easily and it all worked out fine. Someone ran off in pursuit of Trang and her sister while somebody else ran and got a younger sister of Chuy's who was still in range, which left Hoai, who will get her copy of the photo from Chuy in due course. All that took a while to figure out, but it got done eventually. When everyone who was coming finally arrived there were twenty some people in a very small room in a house with a completely flooded yard (the 2' deep fish pond was at least 3' deep and they were pumping it out steadily up into the street. . .used to this sort of thing I think). Trang showed me how to fold up the 500 dong into a heart with a flower (so now I have two), assorted family and neighbors examined the photos in detail and we did our best to have a conversation with all five hundred of my Vietnamese words. And then everyone realized all the kids in the neighborhood were going to be late for afternoon school, so I took Trang and Chuy's sister on the bike, and in six or seven turns and not much distance, dropped them off at school (more pandemonium. . .my elephant ears must have been flapping or some such), then everyone ran inside and I dug out the compass, established north versus south, and headed south. It worked. The rest of the day was about what you'd expect of me in a coastal town, the boat yard, the deep water docks, the beach front with the sailing fishing rafts and the basket surf boats and, special treat, three new traditional style fishing boats being completed up at the top of the beach, beautiful long boats, fifty feet long or more, high ends, sweeping lines, just lovely. And then, just when you'd have thought I'd had enough of school kids for a day, I was mobbed by a gang of at least a thousand (er, well, maybe fifteen) twelve year olds who had been playing a game of “break through” in their school uniforms out on the beach. They were hilarious, completely wound up, LOUD and unbelievably polite. At first it was enough to talk (scream?) and shake my hand and for brave ones to touch the beard and shriek. . .then one remarkably brave young girl tried to give me a hug and that was the breaking point. You haven't lived until you've been group hugged by a thousand Vietnamese school kids. At only fifty pounds each they don't seem that big, but in bulk they're quite a force. So, we did questions and answers and they clapped and cheered when I said something right. They asked how old I am, and as it turns out, in Vietnamese you can say “four” two different ways. The formal number is “bone” but you can also say “tooo” if the four is the final digit in a number (as in “64”). So anyway, Six is “sau”, so I'm “Sau-bone”, which is how I answered, to which they shouted back “Sixty Four!!!” but then I said “or Sau Tooo” and brought down the house, cheers and wild applause. You never knew I was that funny eh??

It was a very good day. Now I need to get on the road, and I'll try to post this in Cua Lo tonight.

Post Script. Forget posting a Word document in Cua Lo. There was passable internet, but not a word processor to be found. . .sigh. Here we go, from Dong Ha, about which more later