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