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.

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