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.

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