Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cam Pha, one last time and then Sam Son???

I'm still in Hanoi, it's Monday the 25th now, with departure still holding for the 27th. The traveling is over for me, but my story is still back behind me a couple of days, so let's pick up where we left off, just leaving Cat Ba Island (why would anybody do THAT for goodness sake??).

I clearly remembered studying the sailing schedule (long time ferry rider, wants the schedule firmly in mind) and marking down the 1:00 PM departure as the one for me, so made sure I was there in plenty of time at a quarter to. The ticket sales lady was asleep on a bench in the shade. The soft drinks and cookies lady was asleep on a proper if somewhat broken down bedstead behind her stand. This isn't so unusual here, right after lunch in the heat of the day and all that, and a bedstead in a place of business is entirely normal. Most places of business turn into residences in the evening and a bedstead is often the only piece of "furniture" in either one, other than the display case or sales counter. Nonetheless, it seemed odd for a place with an impending ferry departure. Twenty some Vietnamese were quietly sitting around entertaining themselves one way or another. There was no ferry in sight. And I arrived on my motor bike to break the monotony.

Usually my conversations with Vietnamese who don't speak English are conveniently limited by the limits of my needs. Once I've paid for my sandwich or thanked someone for directions, I'm usually free to go, having explained, if asked, that I'm married, have 2 daughters, am 64 and so forth and so on. . .having been reasonably polite in other words. This was a different sort of situation. I was there for the duration. They knew it. I knew it. My vocabulary just wouldn't expand to fit the requirements of the situation, no matter how hard or how long they tried.

Vietnamese tend to be very sweet polite people but there's always one in any crowd anywhere that doesn't know when to stop, and in this case one of the others had to tell him to "leave the poor foreigner alone, he just doesn't understand. . ." and amazingly enough, he did.

At the appropriate time the ticket lady sold me a ticket, the Port Captain got out his radio and answered somebody just out of sight behind an island, the boat emerged, we got on, and everybody else went to sleep except for the skipper and me. The skipper watched really fuzzy rabbit-ears TV on a large but ancient set on the wrong side of the wheelhouse. The boat groaned and growled and bellowed and sort of moved off toward the city. The bilge pump was clearly keeping up, all was well with the world, and in due course we arrived. A strong swimmer could have kept up and given us ten minutes no doubt. . .but I'm not, so I rode. Besides, the swimmer couldn't have brought my motorbike along.

There was a fun delay to help five pretty young ladies and one lucky young guy change a tire on a new Toyota mini-van stopped on a steep hill. They'd found the jack but couldn't get it out of its storage hole (you have to back it off a little, at the factory they jack it tight into the storage hole). It was actually great fun and, with a committee of ladies reading the instruction manual aloud to the young gentleman, we got through the whole procedure. None of them had ever changed a tire before, so once I got the jack and lug nuts loose I basically functioned as a cheerleader and safety director. Chock the wheels??? I suppose!

Thus easily to Cam Pha through the afternoon traffic, nothing really to report other than the continuing sense of amazement at the new bridge. It jumps off of a tall hill on the south side and continues upward for the longest time over the narrows before arcing down to a landing a little lower on the far side. The big shipyards are on the inshore side of the bridge, and they'll be able to build any ship they want without worrying about the clearance under it. It's a cable stay bridge, with two enormously tall concrete towers on the centerline, almost painfully slender, first one, then another as you cross the bay, and a single pair of cable sets running to terminals in the center of the roadway. Riding up it you can hardly believe all that concrete and steel is held up by nothing but what you can see, but that's really all there is to it, a beautiful thing, even if it did put the ferry boats out of business.

Thence to my hotel there on the main street of Cam Pha, a modern bustling town up the hillside from my harbor and the boat builders in an entirely different world of ATM's, WIFI, trendy coffee shops and all the trimmings. It is emphatically NOT a tourist destination, most certainly not for foreigners. The oldest son of the house met me on the sidewalk, clearly delighted I was back, insisted on carrying my bag and installed me back in the hall-balcony room I'd had before, the least possible number of stairs to climb and a pleasant spot overlooking the neighboring coffee shop. The coffee shop is a very high class sort of place, and expensive, but with a monster TV with permanent soccer games and easy chairs to die for in a country of small stools!! And really, I suppose eighty cents isn't all that much to pay for a nice cup of hot sweet milky tea with lemon and icewater. It just seems like it here. Anyway, I made it down to the waterfront before sunset, checked the building sites, where there's lots going on, and then took advantage of the setting sun to take some pretty silhouette photos of a few boats. . .and the last of the light to get some men and boys re-tarring the inside of a small rowing basket. As I was leaving a real Vietnamese photographer arrived with helpers, a tripod and a big video camera, set it up and began to deal with the sunset properly.

I was up with the sparrows in the early morning and down to the beachfront market where the fishermen and townfolks were busy as always, fish coming ashore by the boatload and bras and underwear, vegetables and fruit, kitchen knives and rubber boots and whatever else you might want on a fishing boat. . .were on display and selling briskly. I gave it no attention this time, but went straight to the water, made myself visible and waited just a minute for the right boatman (eager, and with the right sized boat) to volunteer. He was quick to do so and we were shortly off, for the same $5 per hour, but without the noise, vibration or range of travel. The harbor here is what I wanted though. There are any number of the traditional Chinese style boats with the squared off noses and another sort with a type of fishing gear I'd never properly documented, a true bulldozer sort of arrangement that shoves a net along on the bottom in shallow water, with a pair of long poles rigged forward, each one with a skid or ski on its tip to glide along the mud. The biats are otherwise typical Northern type traditional double enders, but their gear is remarkable. With their long antennae (you can't help but think of a VERY large cockroach when you see them) they are condemned forever to anchor away from everybody else where they have room. In any event, my choice of boatmen was superlative, he was a great oarsman and very responsive to what I needed. If I suddenly asked for a hard turn to get a better angle on a particular boat, he just did what I asked with a grin, even if he'd clearly been heading somewhere in particular to show me something. . .he even got the idea of "best angle for interception" and neatly headed off a boat leaving harbor to place me just up-sun from the boat at point of closest approach. . .very neatly done, even though he had to stroke hard for a bit. I admit the boat was a little worn and weary looking, but no worse than many, and never leaked a drop. Altogether splendid. By 7:30 it was all over, the sun was getting higher, and I was up in town looking for breakfast and an oil change for m'lady. I found a passable egg sandwich and the bike was satisfied too, so we returned to the waterfront building sites by 8:30 and pestered the builders for a while. There's been lots of progress since I left a month ago. The keel that was dragged down to the site, dumped off its cart, squared, trued, scarfed and set on blocks the day I left is now a boat and they're starting to caulk it. One month to that point, surely in the water and gone in two. In fact, two of the boats that were building when I left are gone already. That little bit of marginal waterfront sends a lot of boats to sea in the course of a year! Interestingly, the bosses were the same and a few of the hands, but there had been a lot of turnover in the passing of a month and many of the workmen were new, and even perhaps new to the work. I watched as the old master I've known the longest showed one youngster how to do one of the simpler tasks. Such turnover must be a problem, and probably reflects the low wages the work provides.

And thence to the open road again, on to Sam Son, or so I thought. The scheme was to run back up the highway as far as Uong Bi, then cut off on Highway 10 toward the South, without running all the way back to the Hanoi area to rejoin Highway One Southbound. It looked good on paper. Honest. However, it was very slow going for the most part, lots of towns with terrible congestion and traffic, some rough roadway, though not all that bad. . .and not very pretty. The lower Red River delta is of course deathly flat and the road runs straight as can be, you expect that, and miles and miles of rice fields, pretty green enough, but awfully plain. But the industrialization took me by surprise. It's all in the outlying areas of Haiphong, the biggest port in the country, and so I should have realized that there would be a lot of industry. There is. Huge factories, some with terrible smoke stacks (though that is rare)and all of them basically ugly. A big cheap industrial building just has a hard time being pretty I guess. Besides, wherever a limestone mountain jumped up out of the flat lands it was half carved away to support a nearby cement factory or crushing plant. . .or both. But mostly, it was simply slow traveling and my day ran out on me before I ran out of road.

At dusk I took a wrong turn. In retrospect it was well marked "Co Le" on a big blue sign. . .and that's where it went, down what will someday again be Highway 21, to the town of Co Le. For now it's more of an experiment in motorbike destruction and dust generation. A construction zone to end all of them, it was terribly rough, chuckholed, muddy wherever people had watered the road to try to hold down the dust, horribly dusty everywhere else. The bike became a rolling geology lesson, alternating strata of varying materials and my beard shed twenty years of aging to become a young man's again, dark brown. As were my eyelids and nostrils and private places behind my ears. It was dreadful riding and, though I was certain I was going astray, I was equally certain that I had to continue, it was too far back to the last town with a hotel I'd seen, so we carried on bouncing and crashing into holes and dodging everyone else. In such a potholed mess there's usually ONE better winding route, and both streams of traffic would like to use it. A bus passing through the throng has no good choices, but simply plows ahead, horn blaring, bikes scattering ahead of it.

It wasn't quite full dark when we came to Co Le. I was immediately delighted with the large stream of school kids on bicycles streaming out into the countryside. Any town with that many kids in school had to have a hotel. I thought. . .or hoped. But it was true, there were two of them, side by each at the far end of town, and one of them still had two rooms. No white men come to Co Le, perhaps ever. No tourists, even Vietnamese, come here. The hotel was purely for wandering salesmen and truck drivers with a good command of the language, but somehow I got by, feeling a) pleased to have found any place at all and b) sorry for myself that it was such a miserable dump in such a dreadful little town. For shame.

Washed and brushed, and determined to make the best of it, I went out into the dark town and began to look around. I was definitely an oddity, but the friendliness coefficient was very high. . .people were nice. I walked by a "book shop", the sort of place you buy school supplies and the like, but not books as such. . .and a delightful fifteen year old young lady stopped me with really clear English, and not just "Hello, where you from?" Her first question was "Why do you come to Co Le, it is not famous for anything???" No indeed, but how do you say "I came here because I made a stupid mistake and I'm truly sorry?" Better just to say that you wanted to see all of Viet Nam. . .and she almost believed me I think. Anyway, she asked if I'd been to the temple yet, which of course, I had not. Tonight, as it turned out, was the last night of a four day festival at the temple, and she felt it absolutely necessary for me to see it. . .the big event of the year! So I was squired all around the town by the bounciest young lady you could imagine, full of questions about America and traveling in Viet Nam and Barrack Obama and who knows what all, a very sweet chatterbox, with really quite good command of the English, given that she'd never met a native-speaker before and got her accent from TV. All I can say to young English speaking bachelors, is beware Co Le for the next few years if you value your freedom. Her Mom, on the other hand, thought fifteen minutes down a dark street with a foreigner was probably too much and called her on the cell phone to summon her home. She was very concerned I'd be lost if just left to my own devices, but I (correctly this time) assured her I'd make it back to the hotel just fine.

The festival? The temple itself was open and full of supplicants and incense smoke. Outside in the grounds a large pagoda seven stories tall perched on the back of a concrete tortoise in the middle of a lily pond, and a tall white Quan An (the lovely lady Buddha, goddess of compassion) stood apart in a quiet garden. It was all surrounded by the carnival crush of vendors and hucksters selling the worst soft of carnival trash, and gambling stall operators. . .ring tosses, bowl tosses (toss the plastic salad bowl to cover the prize. . .good luck), a shooting gallery (with "rifles" shooting wooden peas with a whacking spring in their barrels), a number of dice games. . .a sort of plastic tablecloth spread on the groud divided colorfully into squares for each of eight animals. . .a covered plastic bowl with three dice inside (each face a different animal) and a crowd of eager gamblers squatting around. Put your money on an animal, wait til everybody's in, the dice are shaken, the lid tapped, the dealer checks to be sure everyone is ready and the lid comes off. The money gets redistributed as the dice indicate and they do it again. The bets were amazingly large, fifty cents or a dollar, the price of a meal or more than one, but. . .There were others, a small roulette wheel sort of device, and perhaps most intriguing, a game where the players all sat in folding chairs, each behind his own desk in an open circle around the dealer, who stood in the middle. . .each little desk had a stand on top to hold the large cardboard cards of the tricks and to hide the hand of cards behind. A beer or a glass of something stronger with a small drum and drumstick were close to each player's hand. The dealer produced and called out a card, the first man to whack his drum took it and put it, with his matching cards out onto the stand and the game moved on. It was clearly a serious and complicated affair and I've no idea how it came out. Serious gamblers don't necessarily like a stranger standing behind them staring at their hand.

Later, wandering around the nearly dark streets looking for supper I found four pushcarts selling crispy roast pork by the chunk. That would make a fine supper, and did indeed, all by itself. But I wanted a banana too for some reason and asked if there were any to be had. No. . .none now, all finished for today. So I strolled along window shopping (the street one block off the highway was much less grimy and probably the real main street of town). A young man cleaning a beautiful old treadle sewing machine in a shop offered it to me, cleaned up, for $10. It was a Chinese model, from its data plate, made in 1994. It would have made a very awkward souvenir to carry on the bike, but truly, it was a lovely machine, perfectly smooth running and shining black with gorgeous gold gilt all over. Butterflies and flowers among the scrollwork. I left it for someone else.

Passing the push carts again fifteen minutes later, I was rushed by an older lady with a large handful of bananas. . . the tiny little things with the exquisite flavor. . .grabbed by the elbow and dragged into her living room, where a family of ten or so were sitting at table sipping tea. It wasn't a sale. The only foreigner in town wanted bananas, they had both bananas and tea and were being properly hospitable. I sat, ate bananas, drank tea and worked at understanding their English and using my best Vietnamese. When the bananas were gone and the vocabularies exhausted the young man of the house escorted me down the dark street to an internet shop! So much for feeling sorry for myself for landing in a dump. What gracious lovely people, and really, the hotel room was perfectly nice too in its own way. I went to bed feeling quite pleased with the world.

The rest of the story is inglorious, rather a whimper than a bang. I got the bike up and loaded early and we were under way in the dust and mud by 6:30, without a single photo of the town other than a moody shot of the temple last night (I feared for the trash and debris in the morning after daylight, hazy and gray as it was). The traveling continued very slow through hard going in construction zones and small towns. The buses trying to keep a schedule through the mess became maniacal. Never over-caring about the safety of motorbikes on the road, they became positively inimical ". . .move or die damn you!!" was clearly their motto. They no doubt had to get someone to hold down the horn so they could drive the bus, but one way or another they managed both and proceeded up the roadway at speed, bouncing and swerving and blaring. We small fry scattered on demand. By ten I realized that the work I wanted to do in Sam Son would keep me too late to make Hanoi by dark, or even the freeway entrance at Phu Ly. I stopped and thought it through, I really wanted to be home in Hanoi close to the airport on Monday for the Wednesday departure. . .lots to do and the question of having time to recover from problems. . .something I get very careful about toward the end of a journey. Thirty four kilometers short of Sam Son I turned around, pointed the bike at Hanoi, and put her on autopilot. There were still many km to cover and trucks and buses to dodge, but it was all road I know well, up Highway One, homeward bound.

There were a few good stops. . .to visit with a tinsmith boatbuilder who makes the tiny tin boats that individual fishermen use in roadside puddles. He and his wife live in a lovely small home beside the highway. . .they built it 30 years ago and have taken care of it well ever since. She sews minnow and mosquito nets and he builds boats and dippers. They served me tea and small talk while I leaned back and loved the timber and bamboo framing of their old tile roof. The house is one large living room, chairs, a table, two beds and wide doors onto the covered patio. A separate kitchen stands at one end of the patio and the storefront at the other. His little boats sell for about $20 each and take him a day to make. I doubt he sells one every day though, there were three standing out front when I was there.

Later, stopped on a bridge to photograph a big steel power barge nosing up the river, the bridge shuddered underfoot, and moments later a large dust cloud rose up to obscure the flanks of an enormous limestone quarry a ways up the valley. I guess that was the Bang to finish the trip.

So, home to Hanoi and departure chores. There's a little more I'd like to write before we go, but if not, goodbye for now. I'm glad you came.

An Unintended Ferry Ride, Four Spanish Firefighters, and One Astronomer. . .

Dateline Hanoi, Sunday, October 24th and three days until departure. I've been under the radar the past few days, on the road out to the northern leg of my boatbuilder's trapline, where I didn't have wifi and the keyboards in the internet shops I DID find were so awful I made do with short replies to assorted urgent emails and didn't write much at all. Actually, I was up early, on the road or in the field all day and ready for tea and bed early every night, the best sort of traveling.

But as of 3:30 this afternoon I am back in Hanoi for the duration. It's sunday evening now, after a fine but hazy day, almost black at times, although I'm not sure whether it was atmospheric or just dust from the road construction I was going through. We'll get to that later.

I'm getting to the point I'm not sure it is wise to plan a trip, even a short one like this. My scheme was to run up to Cam Pha, a solid half day's ride, spend necessary time checking the building sites, see about hiring a boat or maybe two (a chase boat and a target) to get some good "under way" photos of a particular boat type I need, and then to proceed to Sam Son, a really long half day's ride south, or so I thought, by way of Highway 10, rather than running all the way back to Phu Ly to pick up Highway One. Once in Sam Son I was to check on the three large Northern style boats building on the beach, at least one of which should be getting very close to launching. H'mm.

So that isn't what I did.

In the back of my head the thought lingered that, if I'd understood the conversation well enough (it was part English and part Vietnamese and a month old already) I'd been told there was a new ferry service between Cat Ba Island and Luan Chau island. Cat Ba is the biggest island in Halong Bay and most of it is a national park. The rest ought to be, the whole place is just plain gorgeous. . .it's the same wild limestone mountain tops that make Guelin China so famous, but without the level rice paddies. Or, to look at it from the local standpoint, it's a whole island covered with the mountain peaks that otherwise are sunken all around and make up the 3000 small islands of Halong Bay. I know, it's really something more than 3000 islands, but I'm not counting, and anyway, after the first few hundred. . .you'd lose track.

Luan Chau island on the other hand is just a hilly bump about a mile from the mainland and conveniently connected by a manmade causeway which probably has a lot to do with the projected plans to turn the whole thing into a mega resort. So far, they're making progress, but don't hold your breath. Since the turnoff onto the causeway is just before you get to Halong City which is just 24 km or so from Cam Pha where I was headed in the first place, and since I got to the turnoff at about 2:30, it was obvious I had time to check out the ferry situation and still make Cam Pha in time. They've installed quite the road system on Luan Chau already, though half of the Y's have one arm blocked off, but they've put up nice bilingual signs to lead you neatly through the future golf courses and condominiums, past the two functioning (sort of) hotels down to the San Diego-Cabo San Lucas class future marina with the monster clubhouse and restaurant and rows of shops and condominiums. . .none of which are QUITE finished yet, but you might hold your breath on some of it, it's really close. The ferry terminal is at the far end of the marina right where I'd have put it and the ferry was just pulling in when I got there. I bought a ticket and rode on without even thinking about it, that's just what you do when you ride up as a ferry pulls in.

So there I was on one of the rustiest, slowest, loudest old slabs. . .wait a minute, I think I already told you about these boats. I don't know what happened to the other four or five of them, but two at least of the old Bai Chai-Hon Gai boats that used to run across the narrows in the middle of Halong City (Hon Gai on one side, Bai Chai on the other) have been purchased, their pilot houses painted, and put back to work hauling a few motorbikes, a few people, and one or two four wheeled vehicles at a time across to Cat Ba (they used to carry immense crowds across the narrows in a steady stream no schedule, just bump the landing, lose your cargo, load another and go). You can still spit through their bulwarks anywhere you want, their rubrails are still rusted entirely away, their hulls are as bony as an old range cow (you can see every rib perfectly well) and the styrofoam is still crumbling out of their ring buoys and rafts, the potted trees are still growing on the ends of the upper deck (one in each of 4 corners) and they haven't sunk yet. It's almost inevitable that they will, but not yet, and for $2.50 each way on a flat calm day I think It was probably worth the risk this time. Besides, the water's warm enough to swim in all day if need be and you could probably grab a piece of wandering styrofoam if you were thinking about it in time.

If you've never been to the Island you'll probably not believe the stories about the scenery and the quiet roads and the pretty beaches and cheap hotels and on and on and on. They're mostly true, and best of all, the horrible night club with the all night really loud disco and karaoke bar right behind the hotels. . .it's gone now. I'm sure you can still dance and sing all night long if you want, it's that sort of place, but you CAN'T keep me awake all night any more. At least not that way.

The harbor on the island offers easy access to the open water of the South China Sea and it's absolutely swarming with wooden fishing boats, as well as the peculiar oval tar-coated bamboo basket boats that are one of the trade marks of the Bay. It has a little marine railway for emergency repairs, but they don't do new construction and not much in the way of serious repair work, so it's not terribly interesting. However, there are a few makers of the basket boats and shortly after I got off the ferry I caught one of them just starting to put the wooden framing into one of the larger baskets (18' long), that will eventually have a six horse diesel engine and vibrate hard enough to loosen your teeth. Just that set of photos would probably be worth the trip, but the fellow has a whole back yard full of daughters, four by easy count and probably a few I missed. . .ranging from a pretty teenager (VERY camera shy) to a toddler and a kindergartener (a little clown who thought I brought the camera just for her).

I also hired a little motor boat and went out hunting for active fishing vessels. That's always a frustrating effort, the boats are expensive to hire ($5 per hour, or, from my standpoint, most of a night's hotel rent) and there are never enough fishing boats easily available and posing with the light in the right position and. . .well you can see how that would be. You scan the horizon standing on the town dock, nothing but fishing boats and islands with nice morning light, how can you lose. You hire a boat and leave the harbor, the horizon is empty and the sun is directly overheads. . .you can see one measly boat of the wrong sort disappearing behind an island, which looks dead flat in the available light. There's nothing around but the beastly black baskets with their rock crusher engines. Heck, they're painful to listen to from half a mile off. I came back with a hundred or so photographs of nice limestone cliffs emerging from the water. . .and a few boats, so it wasn't all that bad and we were only gone a couple of hours.

But the boat chasing was just part of the fun on Cat Ba Island this time. There was a standard issue pair of bicyclists on the ferry with me, that is, tanned, fit, eager, interested, sweaty and tired. She collapsed in the shade on the passenger deck and didn't stir until we got to the island. He and I visited a bit and compared notes about Irish music, northern Laos, that sort of thing. Discussing the Island, I was very modest but made sure he knew I'D BEEN THERE BEFORE. . .and was willing to blather on about the place at length. I forgot about three quarters of the hills on the island (it's a MOUNTAINOUS MOUNTAIN TOP sort of island, and I couldn't remember the hills???) and the route is straightforward, not a problem, only two roads on the island and they both go where we're going. . .er. . .well, sort of. So they found out. . .The hills were for real, it was 26 km, not "about 20" and the main road across the mountain from the ferry port (er, well, the boat launch ramp if you insist) to the town (where ALL the hotels are) was closed for reconstruction of one of the steepest parts (it used to be great fun on the motorbike I now remember, lots of steep switchbacks and fabulous views). Mind you, they were already on the boat, I didn't invite them into the trap, I just maybe didn't quite prepare them for what they'd let themselves in for.

In any event, when I came to the construction zone, found out about the detour and realized they'd have to backtrack 8 km to make the start of the detour if they ran all the way to the drilling and blasting and bulldozing. . .so I hastened back toward the ferry terminal to warn them and describe the first leg of the detour (I said there were two roads after all and they both DO go where we're going). . .but, what with my photographing boatbuilder's daughters and so forth they hadn't been all that far behind me and THEY had recognized the detour signs and ASKED the right locals and simply turned off and headed for town when they got to the detour, while I was up trying to get the bike to be a mountain goat in the construction zone. Okay, so I rode a long ways back before I thought to stop and ask anyone if they had seen a couple of French people on fancy bikes (all Europeans and most Americans are assumed to be French until further proof is offered here). "Yes, they passed here about a half hour ago. . ." So I caught them five km short of town just getting out their headlamps and staggering, but they made it in, showered and found the rest of their party in time for a late supper.

I've belabored the story a bit because it was funny at the time, me being the expert and wrong on most counts, then being the big helper and wandering around the island for an hour trying to find the poor lost foreigners who had simply followed the road signs and gone where they needed to go. . .you have to appreciate the Fates' sense of humor sometimes. But it gets better. The whole party consisted of four firemen from Madrid and one wife. . .an Astronomer (I kid you not) who is currently enduring the slings and arrows from having discredited a recent major announcement in Science and Nature Magazines. . .having to do with a (drum roll please) newly discovered planet. . .which turns out to be just a small star peeking out from behind a bigger one, which can be proven somehow or another I assume. I tried to use my Spanish (which truly, is quite a bit more extensive than my Vietnamese) but all that would come out at the supper table was a mix of the two, so I gave it up and they very politely kept me up to date on the conversation with periodic translations into English. Four firemen! and a renegade astronomer. . .goodness what fine company you stumble onto when you're out on the road.

We ate day-old croissants and brioches and raisin buns with hot sweet milky coffee together at the Vietnamese French bakery, for an early morning breakfast but I left later after my boat ride, while they toured the island on rented motorbikes (they'd been rubbing their legs subconsciously at the breakfast table)and then started for Hanoi, the airport and Madrid.

I did get to Cam Pha, but that was later. We'll discuss Sam Son in due course.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

So much for the End of the Road

Dateline: Hanoi, the 20th of October, 2010, one week from departure for the States, under sunny skies all day. My goodness, who arranged for that I wonder? I'd about decided to come home early by a week or so and thought I'd probably reached the end of this year's road. However, somewhere in a poetic moment I wrote that the waterways and roads of Southeast Asia go on forever and . . .and this isn't the end of this particular road quite yet.

I went trekking across Hanoi on my first day back in town, map in one hand, compass in the other, and a couple dozen helpful locals trying to keep me on the right road. . .it was one of those routes that didn't look too bad on the map but turned out to have a lot of one way streets involved. We motorbike riders frequently fudge pretty hard on one way streets in Viet Nam (in fact, there's a large class of street in Hanoi that's one-way for cars but NOT for motorbikes), but in the middle of the capital, out in the main business districts. . .it's really frowned on more than not. Anyway, Kim Ma street is really a big street once you find it and the city's street numbering system is perfectly reasonable, so, once I found Kim Ma street, finding Korean Airlines was perfectly easy. Talk about underground parking, have you any idea how many motorbikes you can squeeze into the basement of a high rise??? Wow. It's no wonder people put decals and fancy seat covers on their motorbikes here, it's not vanity at work, just a halfway gesture toward finding the darned thing again some day. Fortunately my little bike is sort of abnormal, not a proper motorbike at all, rather a really dinky motorcycle, and a bit taller than most and anyway, they parked me near the front entrance, so we were reunited shortly after I came downstairs (in an elevator!) from finding out that Korean airlines has no seat availability at all before my scheduled departure. I could leave LATER than planned but not earlier. Very well then, slow down on buying presents and plan one last dash through the countryside. That's about where we are now.

It's actually a lot of fun at the end of the trip, once you have the spokes tightened in the wheels, the oil changed, the wheel bearings lubed, the chain replaced and a new tire put on the back where you ran into the chuckhole under water ($32 total--no, not the tire, that was for everything), and after you've done the preliminaries to getting a new set of false teeth (lowers this time) then there's nothing left to do but try to find things to take home to wives and so forth.

There are probably a thousand silk shops in Hanoi, and probably more than one of them had exactly what I wanted, but I didn't find that one, only found the ones that had something similar to what I wanted. So I got one young lady silk shop operator to send me off to the silk market to buy whatever fabric it was I thought I had to have for her to make the stuff I knew I wanted. . .Anyway, the silk market is in an upstairs corner of one of the largest indoor Vietnamese markets I've ever seen or imagined. . .a huge place, full of absolutely everything, arranged with one entrance and a hundred narrow alleyways, and three levels to get lost in. Better yet, there's a sky bridge to a second building, so you can get lost two places at once without ever touching the ground. And then you get to try to remember where you left the motorbike. Oh my. But in any event, then I learned all about buying silk at the silk market. Or rather, I got a C-minus in Silk 101, the introductory course.

Let's start with the grades of silk available. There's the silk you're used to seeing in the silk shops, which the gentleman in the silk market calls "silk MIX". H'mm. That, in a single color is about $30,000VND per meter (call it $1.50 per yard and you're close). That grade, at the same price, is available in two different weights (at least) one suitable for making ladies clothes from, the other suitable for linings to suits or similar uses. . .a good deal thinner. Then there's a similar grade, also a mix, that's shimmery and shiny and one color on one side and another color on the other side, with both colors visible when you get the light on it right. . .nice stuff, worth between $40,000 and $45,000VND per meter. . .and then, looking very much the same, there's SILK. It, too comes single color or two-sided, and the price starts about $120,000 per meter. You have to be careful which stack you pull things from if you're buying enough for a bedspread. . .but of course, you or I would have more sense than to try to pull a bolt of this stuff out of the stack it's in. I hope. Can you imagine a stack seven or eight feet tall of folded, not rolled, not on a nice cardboard bolt core, just folded to about a 14" square, maybe three or four inches thick of fine slippery silk. . .and then imagine grabbing one of those folded bolts in one hand and pulling it out of the stack and hoping not to have the whole works come down around your ears and the individual bolts to go slithering off across the floor. . .heck, there's even a stairwell they could slide down. The kids helping out in the silk shops just do it. They don't want help, don't want you to put you hand on the stack like you thought it would keep it from doing something terrible, just stand there and admire the skill and audacity. And when you're through sorting through and laying a fold of the green-gold against the blue-purple to see how it looks and trying both of them with the incindiary red-yellow-gold and making a general mess, they don't want you trying to fold it back up correctly. It's their trade and they're good at it. You just bring money and dimensions. I've been educated.

It wasn't enough to go to the market once, I've been three times now, the second and third time I rode on a moto-taxi. For fifty cents each way I didn't have to try to find a place to park. . .or to try to find the place I did park again afterward. It was a perfectly good bargain as far as I can see. Besides which, riding on a taxi bike I had both hands free to run the camera. Nothing earth shaking, but it'll give you a notion of what the ordinary daytime traffic is like around here. The hour at dusk, which is when many people are going home, six o'clock or so, is the worst. There are so many bikes in so little space going so slowly among the cars and trucks that If you were to have a heart attack at one end of the street you'd probably still be right way up on your bike at the far end. . .there's nowhere to fall over. Normally driving is not considered a contact sport, but in the Old Quarter during the evening rush. . .well, a little elbow and mirror contact is the least you should expect.

It hasn't been all false teeth and silk though, we've been on several romps around the city and out into the suburbs (??), well, outlying areas anyway, across the old Long Bien Bridge that carries two lanes of motorbikes, pedestrians and pedal bikes these days instead of cars. . .as well as the Southbound railroad tracks, and then North and South both, along the dike road, which is under construction again, and not terribly passable in places. That and there are trucks hauling armor rock as fast as they can to excavators working along the river bank placing stone in a broad bench just above the present water level. . .makes for interesting motorbike riding. There's another new bridge started across the river below town, and if it were a General-Kiewit joint venture it would just about be Kiewit's turn, the piles are driven and the batch plant is set up.

Fleets of power barges are still hauling sand and gravel from local pits to the big batch plants in the city and smaller boats are still bringing in cement from the limestone country downstream. The coal docks are still just as grimy as they were before. . .the Port seems perfectly happy hanging onto the edge of the city, and somewhere over there in the maze of tiny streets I stumbled on two different little urban temples, pleasant quiet places, with all sorts of food growing in their little ornamental gardens.

But we're outa here, the bike and I, the teeth won't be ready for final fitting for a couple of days, the silk will be sewn in three or four, there's nothing left here in the City I want to do, so it's off for the open road. I'm still dithering tonight(the bike doesn't vote) on where we're going, so I'll have to let you know when we get there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Two days in a storm. . .

Dateline: Hanoi, back “home” again in my ground floor room. This may be the end of the road for now, I'm still looking over various options, but the weather is definitely foul and travel the past two days hasn't been just difficult, but actually moderately dangerous. The storm that began in Hue, the second of two in two weeks, was a modestly powerful “tropical storm”. . .ergo, a hurricane that never grew up. Thank goodness, it was/is mean enough as it is.

I last wrote from Dong Hoi, half a day's ride north of Hue, where I was rather pleased with myself and the countryside and enjoying being surprised by how nice Dong Hoi actually is. Next morning dawned, but only barely, the night going from wet and dark to wet and almost dark. Tremendous volume of rain falling and a strong Northeast breeze, 20 knots or more, steady. That's a cross-headwind from the right, and the sparkplug on my bike is on the right hand side. . .more about that later. . .though I still don't understand everything I know on that subject.

The riding, while miserable enough, was basically uneventful. There was minor water on the road frequently, but nothing more than puddles really, the general level of the water was still on the order of a foot below pavement grade on the highway. Traffic was perhaps a little lighter than normal, not surprising, conditions were worse than normal by a good bit. The fields all around were flooded to or above the tops of the paddy dikes, but generally that's not a bad thing for this country, the people and the crops are used to water. There was a certain amount of water in some homes, to cover the floor with a few inches, and boats were out working all around in places people normally walk. Most of the local roads were under water, so motorbikes tended to be parked at the edge of the highway. . .people waded from there to wherever. I managed to make a reasonable day out of it, though less than I would have under normal conditions, rode into Vinh about three in the afternoon and looked for hotels. I've never stayed in Vinh, which is not a tourist destination, though a prosperous looking provincial capital, and certainly no lack of hotels, many of them 3 stars or more. I, of course, never stay at a hotel with more than one star, and am inclined toward guest houses with none at all, but I checked in two different three star hotels. . .$20/night in one and $22 in the other, either way, more than three times my budget, but it certainly is instructive. Either of them would have been ridiculous luxury. However, I was contemplating the possibility of being flood-stranded for a week or more as a real possibility and didn't want to settle into something that expensive for such a long stay, so kept looking. In the end, having been disappointed in the low-end places that were available, I ended up riding on another 13 km through a solid wall of water to Cua Lo, one of my favorite beach front towns. H'mm. It was basically abandoned and boarded up. . .one restaurant showing a light when I rode into town, six inches of water on the main street, with six inch white caps. The tide gate at the head of the creek was surrounded entirely by water, flowing over a wide front freely into the creek and hopefully out to sea. There's room in the sea, but it was getting very wet on the land side. A ferocious sea was pounding on the normally sheltered beach inside the island at the mouth of the river. Altogether, a daunting sight, but I was pretty well committed by this point, it was getting dusky already and riding in the dark in such conditions was beyond my ambition level considerably.

The guest house I've liked before was astounded but delighted to see me and made a big fuss about putting me into the only ground floor room. . .how 'bout that. My host repeatedly touched my knee and pointed to the room and grinned widely. I stood there and made a huge puddle on the floor of the reception room (also the family living room). They also had a car load of lost Koreans to put up for the night as well as their three Vietnamese escorts, so the house was full and a big supper was laid on. . .that was a fine thing, and I wasted no time at all volunteering to help eat it. In the end they brought me mine on a tray in my room. I'm not sure exactly why, whether the Korean party took up all the space in the dining room (actually the garage, but they have tables and tableware and such stored against one wall and can set three or four tables for guests at need). It was a lovely dinner. . .fish in spicy sauce, squid with vegetables (the one people call morning glory vines, though it's not the same as our morning glory if that's what it is) and fried tofu with tomatoes. . .and a soup. . .and rice. A better dinner than I usually get!

The rain thundered on the tin roof of the front porch all night, but I only heard it when I opened the hall door to listen. A tremendous downpour went on and on. Dawn just barely came, it went from pitch black out to just gray. The water in the street was to the edge of the front porch, over a foot deep. I began to be a little concerned.

However, after a long thinking and stalling period, I loaded the bike and got into my rain gear. Oh, wait a minute. . .forgot about the rain gear. It was inadequate yesterday, but not terribly so until the long cape tripped me riding the bike up onto the curb in front of a hotel and we all fell over (the cape, me and the poor little bike). Fell over into the gutter. Into about a foot of running water. Great. Just great. Broke a turn signal lens and ripped the cape (made of a nice rubberized nylon fabric that tears really easily I guess). My dignity was already pretty well shot. . .just wandering around in a blue nylon tent is enough to do that for you. Merely ripping the tent wide open doesn't materially change your status. The point however, is that I'd bought a new rain jacket in the Cua Lo market last night after I arrived and, having torn the rest of the lower half of the ruined cape off at the waist (it made a good little parka at that point) I put it on over the new jacket. A futile gesture, I admit, but it made me feel better for several minutes.

The bike plowed down the hotel's street to the main drag without a hitch. I kept her in low gear and pushed the water fairly gently out of the way. The exhaust sounded silly, blowing bubbles behind me, way under water, but the motor just kept pulling. Then we got to the main drag. It was deeper, confined by the curbs on each side, and worse, by the median planter. It was running hard toward the main intersection in town. . .a place we had to get to and through. We plowed on. The water got deeper. I looked down and saw the sparkplug completely under water and the bike still running. I shut her down before the water killed her, put down the kickstand in the river and got off to push. It was four long blocks through that end of town, but I had company. Several other bikes, with very wet riders wading just as I was. It was early, still sort of funny. Any day that starts like that. . .might get worse, you never know. Anyway, walking up the beginning of the highway out of town the water gradually shoaled and in four blocks, as I said, we were standing in just a few inches, with clear road visible ahead. . .I climbed back on, pushed the starter button and she started. I hardly believed it, had already been eyeballing the shopfronts, looking for a bike mechanic who might have a compressor that could blow out the water early on a sunday morning, but she didn't need him, started and ran and off we went. I figured the worst was over.

Oh well. It was actually clear sailing from there to the main highway, 7 km of brand new road built well above flood level. I had thought it was flooded countryside the night before, but after that additional ten hours or so of that sort of rain. . .it was truly flooded. Except for the distant hills and the highway roadbed, it was wet. Individual houses, built on their individual fills at roughly highway grade were still dry. . .barely. Others, built lower on the flood plain were flooded. Period. I congratulated myself on my foresight and fortitude and kept plowing along, knowing that Hanoi rarely floods. . .if I can just get there.

I stopped to buy gasoline when I got to the highway. A young man there was just heading for Cua Lo. I told him about the water. He rolled up his pants legs to the knees. I shook my head, not enough, sat down on the bench by the gas pumps and raised my legs, one at a time, so the water ran out of my boots. Too heavy as they were. He rolled the pants up one more notch, but that was the best he could do. . .might do the job.

There was clear road for another several kilometers, the road still about a foot above the water level, and there was a steady, if small stream of traffic coming toward me. . .at least the road ahead wasn't cut in the immediate future. We purred along through the downpour as though it didn't matter at all. I suppose the little motor might even have liked it, an instant upgrade to “water cooled”. Wow. The next setback was ugly. We all but plowed into the back of a line of trucks and buses stopped on the highway. Worked our way up along the shoulder to join the motorbikes near the head of the line. For whatever reason, the road dipped below the water and the water was running hard across it. A car was stalled about floorboard deep in the middle of the low spot, which was perhaps 150 meters long, and only one large vehicle could get through at a time. When a large vehicle was coming, his wake was enough to frighten the motorbikes. So we basically sat and watched, with now and then a motorbike taking the chance. One stalled and bailed out to push, but another went through. The stalled bike was a scooter sort, with a lower engine than ours, and anyway, I was getting a little cocky about how well the little gal would run in the water. We went. It worked. The current tugged and pulled at the bike and I got a better appreciation for the concept of “washed away and drowned” but there was really no problem. Out the other side, starting to feel like we probably had it made. . .surely wouldn't be anything worse than that.

Ran on another few km through the downpour, wind howling and blowing us around. But it was from the right, so, since we were riding on the right shoulder, we had two full lanes and a shoulder before we would have blown into the water. . .people on the other side going the other way had only a short distance to go before the drop off!! In any event, it was a big disappointment to come to the next stretch of flooded road. This one was much longer than the one before and deeper in places (actually deepest right where we started, with the strongest current there). Again we ran past the line of stopped trucks and buses, joined the motorbikes staring at it, and decided it wasn't that much worse than what we'd already done. I swear, we ran for hundreds of meters with the engine swamped and she just kept plowing along, blowing bubbles and shoving a huge wall of water. Very impressive performance. The pavement wasn't damaged under the water, and the last few hundred yards were only a foot or so deep. I kept her in low gear anyway, you have to show a little respect.

That was really it, the worst of the worst for the day. There were some serious challenges in towns where the engineered drainage was totally overwhelmed and the gutters and median planters shaped the overflow into roiling rapids, but nothing over a foot or so deep, so though it was interesting, it was all passable.

And, no kidding, the sky lightened up and the rain stopped about 60 km short of Hanoi. I rode into town on a mudball of a bike, wrapped in two layers of rain gear with the tarp around my pack flapping (it is delaminating and leaking now, after a fine career to date). All around people were riding in their shorts, skirts, and shirt sleeves. It wasn't gorgeous mind you, still dark and cloudy. . .but dry. Until after supper. So, I'm getting things organized now, looking at probably changing my departure to this coming friday (it'll take that long to get everything done that needs doing before I go), and should be home again, dried out, shortly thereafter.

On the other hand, it looks like the rain has stopped this morning, the corridor outside the room is dry again (it's open to the sky, though 4 stories tall). Maybe I should run up to the mountains for a couple of days while I'm here. I'll check the forecast.

Loose at Last

Dateline: 15 October 2010, Dong Hoi, Quang Binh Province, Viet Nam, 160 odd km north of Hue on Highway 1. (Check back tomorrow for a photo or 2 and more news. I'm on a slow connection here and can't load photos. Lots more to tell but neither the bike nor I drowned. . .So here's what I wrote 2 nights ago w/o internet:

Wow. I'm out of Hue. Mind you, I like Hue a great deal, and more, I really love the sandy barrier island that stretches from Thuan An 35 km or so on to the South. . .may have to buy a house there someday, but enough after all, this was supposed to be a big traveling trip and I SPENT TEN DAYS IN HUE waiting for my passport to come back from Hanoi. Now, I grant you, Hanoi had a small matter of the biggest celebration in 1000 years of its history. . .or so it seemed, and a lot didn't get done in Hanoi for several days there, including processing my passport, and all that was perfectly understandable (if also a little frustrating, it wasn't MY party after all) but then there was the matter of the Post office in Hue. For whatever reason, they just couldn't get that registered special delivery letter out to the hotel. . . so for two days after they acknowledged that the envelope with that number on it had been logged into Hue I still didn't have a passport or a visa.

I think I'd done a pretty good job of managing my anxiety, continuing with my field work and photography and just plain touristing,. . .up until yesterday evening, but, when I'd spent the afternoon knowing that the document had been logged into Hue's Central Post Office (which is all of six blocks from here, or maybe seven) and waited with the cell phone set to vibrate AND ring loud while I wandered around trying to distract myself with tourist traps. . .and nobody called from the Hotel to tell me the thing had come. . .I suppose I started to show. When I got back to the hotel in the early evening the young lady who was responsible for the paperwork, was on the phone with the Post Office, speaking in a loud and rapid voice, not making any reassuring sounds at all. . .Perhaps my anxiety showed. I stood there watching and listening until she hung up and just raised my eyebrows to ask what news there was. . .and there wasn't any of course. Her name is Hong, by the way, which is another name for “Rose” in Vietnamese. She's the senior desk clerk at the hotel. . .and one of my favorite people in Hue for the past several years. But my staring intently and listening hard had gotten to her. . .be honest, I'd been nervous and worried for three days really, one way or another and no doubt she'd noticed before. Now she let me have all the facts at once “. . .Everything is okay, you will see, your passport is fine, I know, the envelope is already here in Hue, you see, this is the number, I got it from Hanoi, they check with Post Office Hanoi and already the envelope has arrived in Hue, at the Post Office, and I called the Post Office in Hue and they said the man with the special envelopes had already gone out to deliver, all over the city and he will bring it here for you and just because of the celebration in Hanoi, things went slow in Hanoi and they did not do your visa as fast as always, but it is done and the passport is sent back already and already in Hue, I know, I have done this many many times and this is okay, but you watch me and stand there and it makes me nervous so I don't want to see you, you will see, your passport will be here I know.” She wasn't crying but I was starting to worry. I held out one hand palm up and smiled at her. . .told her I wasn't angry at her at all, just worried. She put her hand in mine, I squeezed, she squeezed, we both smiled and said “OK. . .” but the damned passport still didn't come by bedtime.

Anyway, it arrived this morning on a motorbike at about 10:00 in a driving rain. I clutched it to my bosom, paid my enormous hotel bill (that's not fair, they didn't begin to charge for all the help, friendship or free dinners with the family, but ten night's hotel bill is still ten nights!) and packed my bag to leave. The bike already had a clean and oiled chain and a crankcase full of nice new oil, so she was ready to go. We were short the snorkel and wetsuit though, and the bike doesn't look like she'll float when we come to deep water. H'mm. Now that I'm ready to travel it seems we're looking at a five day forecast of typhoon and side effects. It's going to be wet.

The hotel family wouldn't let me leave until I'd eaten an enormous celebration lunch with them (everybody in the hotel has been sweating that passport the past 48 hours) and then it stopped raining so I could load the bike and say goodbye. Wow. At ten past twelve we rolled over the bridge and out of town Northbound with a full tank of gas and not a care in the world. That lasted til we were well north of Dong Ha (60 km north of Hue). Then the first drop of rain hit the face shield. It was the first of a great many. So, into the raingear. . .I have to get somebody to take a picture of me in the new get up, but it does keep you pretty darned dry. . .compared. . .maybe the rain was too busy laughing at the bald guy in the blue tent riding the motorbike and forgot to soak in.

It was a lovely ride through the flat and saturated countryside, with the bike purring like a kitten and really pretty easy traffic. The rivers en route were already full or out of their banks from last week's typhoon, so this one had a great start. Boats were out catching fish in all the rice fields, including a new sort of marsh canoe I'd not seen before. With the water this high they were working the fields right up to the highway, so I got some good pictures by holding my hand above the lens and praying hard (I had on the wrong camera for today's weather). And so we came to Dong Hoi, which is a provincial capital (Quang Binh Province) and a pretty good sized town.
I had no intention of liking Dong Hoi. I've ridden through a number of times headed up or down the coast and never even stopped for coffee. A trusted associate once told me the place was a dump and that was that. I think I've been had, or maybe she just got a room in the wrong end of town or. . .who knows. I found a perfectly nice hotel (with an elevator and part time wifi) and there were manyl to choose from. In any event I didn't even take off the rain gear, but went out to look around before dark.

And of course, the first thing I noticed was that the river is just full of bright beautiful fishing boats. . .a large fleet of them, rigged for every sort of fishing they do around here. . .great fun. And I found the waterfront drive that goes all along the river bank four lanes wide (with a nicely planted median between) past dozens of nice looking hotels and clear to the mouth of the river and on beyond along the beach, oh, and it goes right through the middle of a great fresh market. Just beautiful. Actually, looking closely I can see it's brand new and growing, the plantings, the tiled walkways along the river bank, the new four lane street with the centerline planter. . .it's much the same as the new waterfront parks in Nha Trang (where the fish market used to be) and Quy Nhon (where a mile of the town used to be). But I didn't have any attachment to whatever it was they tore down or dug up to build this new waterfront park, so it seems lovely to me, which, I suppose, proves the planners and managers who made the decision to spruce up the entire country's waterfront are probably on the right track after all. Anyway, it's howling outside and a good sized sea is banging into the coast, and, what with the river in flood and ebbing out like crazy, there's a horrific mass of breakers at the mouth. No doubt a boat could get out through it, but it wouldn't be a sure thing! Nobody was trying in any event. I have to admit the beach is a mess and nobody's going sunbathing right now. It's been flooding in every river drainage around here for a while now and a great deal of trash has come downstream, floated out to sea and gotten washed up on the beach by the onshore gale. There's a lot of it, but it's mostly good firewood, so in a few week's time it'll no doubt all be cut up and put to dry.

The rest of the program for the day was dinner, tea, and a tiny plastic cup of yogurt for dessert (it was raining way too hard to go looking for the local che stand), enough time to write this. . . and that should do it for today. It's good to be on the move again and I'll tell you what we're going to do next as soon as I figure it out. Weather is going to be a big factor though!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Picnic with the Ancestors

It looks like I'll be leaving Hue shortly, so this is time to wrap up loose ends before we get on the long road again and things start changing really fast.

First off, my invitation to come to a special event with the Blind Girl's family turned out to be a very big picnic with the Ancestors. Based on the number of live people who turned up, there must have been quite a few ancestors involved. In fact, it was apparently a day on which lots of people had lunch with their ancestors. Several other family memorial structures were also full of picnickers and good things to eat. These structures are scattered up along small lanes among the pines and cactus on the crest of the sand dune that makes up the offshore side of the island, mixed in among actual grave sites and tombs.

Ah, but I've gotten ahead of myself. I was originally instructed to turn up at the coffee shop at eight in the morning to proceed from there, which meant leaving Hue before seven, it's a bit of a distance on a small crowded road, so I'd been up since five getting organized for the day and was actually a few minutes early. Thanh, the Blind Girl's mom was already gone to the picnic, as part of the cooking team. Duy, her dad, settled me into one of the easy chairs next to the couch in the living room and Bao Vi, the Blind Girl herself (we'd finally been properly introduced), was busy wriggling all over the couch. Perhaps not seeing makes you less susceptible to vertigo, but whatever the reason, she was as much at home standing on her head, draped over the back of the couch or flopping around anywhere on it as she is standing up. Then someone put music on the stereo out in the coffee shop and she got quickly up, navigated to the end of the long coffee table and made straight from there to the center of the living room. . .and began to dance. She doesn't use a great deal of the dance floor, but enough, turning and turning. It was lively 4/4 music and she made a full turn in eight beats, little bare feet turning her around and around, thin arms waving in time in the air, tiny hands twirling, bending and swooping with her body as she turned, smiling broadly. When the music suddenly stopped, so did she, and stood there, her head cocked on one side, eyes unseeing of course and waited for it to come back. And it didn't. So after a while she began again, a little slower, turning and twisting and bending and swooping and sweeping her arms and danced in silence in the middle of the room.

Then it was time to go and Duy and I started out into the coffee shop and she demanded his attention, held his arm with one hand and fluttered her other hand around in the air, wiggling all over. He very gently took her hand from his arm and told her we were going and she immediately reached over, found my arm, grabbed my wrist and felt my forearm with her free hand. . .and found the hair. I've much more hair on my body (except on my bald head) than any Vietnamese, and obviously more than she'd ever seen before. She patted and stroked it for a moment and DID NOT pull it. A kid I could really like. But we left and she went off with her grandma.

So back to the picnic. . .which was held at the "family memorial structure" which is the size of a small house, but very elaborately finished like a pagoda, and has only one main room, containing, not graves or any thing of the sort, but rather just three very ornate altars, a large gong and a large red drum. The whole front of the building opens up to let in the light (though it's wired for electricity and there are colored lights for candles on the altars) and a wide porch and patio extends clear across the front. For want of a better word, let's call the big structure a "shrine", though you might just as well call it a picnic shelter, it works very well for one.

There was nobody there with enough English to explain to me what it all was about, but some things are pretty obvious. Out in the front yard of the shrine was a pretty ordinary sort of small shrine for the dead people like you see in many front yards here, a miniature house and courtyard on a pedestal under a small roof, where, early in the morning a full sampling of the picnic dishes and drinks were set out for the ancestors, along with a few cigarettes for the dead old men. As it turned out, neither the ancestors, the ants, nor the flies ate much, so later in the day that food (and a whole lot more) was spread out for the still alive among us. It was simply a family reunion picnic for about 120 live people, all more or less related if you include shirt tail relatives. . .and an indeterminate number of ancestors.

There must have been a formally planned starting time, but about ten o'clock the old men began putting on their ceremonial over-shirts, "ao dai" (say it "Ow Yigh" as in "sigh")which are, actually, very similar in concept to the lovely dresses women wear here on formal occasions or to go to the office. They have a high tight collar, they're buttoned up one side, with long panels fore and aft hanging down to the knees, and the man's costime requires their odd formal Vietnamese hats as well.

A youngster fussed with a powerful PA set and a couple of fiendish speakers with feedback (which he shortly tamed). The ceremonies went on for about half an hour, beating on a gong or a drum (but not both at once) and performing recitations addressing the ancestors, of which I understood not a single word. . .a job done entirely by the oldest men, from 62 to 84 years old, the bunch I later ate with.

The rest of us more or less quietly sat around on the porch or in the yard outside the shrine, mostly wherever we could find a little shade, and visited. At one point, on my own, and separated from my sponsors, I was offered two different wives, or both of them. I made my usual objection that I already had a wife and was immediately introduced to a gentleman with three wives (all sitting with him amicably enough) and ten children. I think the thing was a trap, but M'goodness, THREE wives? TEN kids???. Anyway, I got out of it by claiming that I couldn't really handle one wife properly and more would be completely beyond me, which caused a certain amount of amusement all around.

When we finally got around to the eating I held my own for a while, sitting with the old men (I guess that's appropriate now)reaching around the circle of dishes to pick out just the morsel I wanted next off of a dozen or more plates of good things to eat. Then I realized I had a real problem. Everytime I tried to stop eating for the day more food turned up in my rice bowl. The only thing I really wanted to do was get up off the floor and let a little blood back into my legs, but nobody was getting up yet and everybody was feeding me the best of what was left. I had to sit there, dying, cross-legged on the floor and keep eating and drinking orange pop. It was orange pop or beer, and even at my worst I couldn't handle beer that early in the morning.

The food was all absolutely delicious (especially after dipping the various bits of meat and vegetables in the various hot spicy dipping sauces), and there was a great deal of it, but finally they gave up on stuffing me (getting stuffed themselves I'd guess) and we all got up, or rather, they simply got up and casually walked off and, over a period of minutes, I persuaded my legs to hold me up again and staggered off to find something to lean on. I could do this quite well wen I was a youngster, but that was then.

So there I was at 11:00 in the morning, stuffed full and before you knew it, packed off down a tiny side street to a cousin's house to take a nap. I'm still not sure what prompted that, even as full as I was, I'd only been up since five and wasn't sleepy yet, I thought. . .and stone cold sober. . .but I fell asleep on the couch anyway as instructed and woke up half an hour later to the sounds of a Vietnamese seven month old complaining to his 18 year old aunt about things in general. Loudly. Opening my eyes I found the empty living room I'd been put to bed in held two young women, the 7 month old and a young gentleman in his twenties trying to interest me in a large piece of sugar cane. I smiled at the ladies, scowled at the yowling kid and tried the sugar cane. Believe it or not, after all this time in the tropics, this was a first, a two-foot long piece of corn stalk as thick as a shovel handle, with a hide like fiberglass and a chewy pulpy middle. You don't eat it, you peel the fiberglass off the outside with your front teeth, then take a bite of the pulpy inside, squish it with your teeth, chew a couple of times and spit out the great bulk of it onto a plate on the coffee table. Oddly enough, the juice is just pleasantly sweet. I'd always imagined it would be overwhelming, but not so. Very nice really. H'mm.

About then the Blind Girl's family turned up on their motorbike and I was hustled back into my shoes and onto my own bike and off we went. Unbeknownst to me, Duy, her dad, had been in the picnic mode the whole time, and what beer I didn't drink, he had. Thanh and the two year old hung on tight behind him and I just tried hard to keep up on my own bike. He knew the twists and turns and it wasn't easy riding but we all ended up alive at their house and coffee shop and be darned if I wasn't put to bed for another nap. We all were. It was after noon by then and hot out, but still two naps in one day??? On the other hand, I'd wanted to see more of Bao Vi and she hadn't been at the picnic at all (which made perfect sense) and now she was still at her grandma's, so. . .it was either give up, or go back to sleep. Be darned if I didn't go back to sleep, this time in a spare bedroom upstairs on a thin pad on a tile floor. You really can sleep on such a thing, though it seems unlikely! Perhaps that's why though, half an hour or so later, hearing quiet voices downstairs, I was awake again and went down to find three generations of them sitting on the floor visiting. . .Bao Vi, her Mom, and HER Mom. Thanh turns out to be the most persistent communicator I've ever met trying to get across the language barrier, with her very few words of English and my pitiful Vietnamese. . .and the dictionary...we managed a fairly fruitful conversation for half an hour. She quickly figured out that I simply can't "hear" Vietnamese very well, so she began writing things down full length. I'd identify what I didn't know, she'd try an alternate word, I still wouldn't get it, but by then we usually had it narrowed down to the point the dictionary was a reasonable proposition and we'd go that route. I asked after Duy and she said simply he would sleep for a long time, so I took my leave.

I stopped by again the next day to drop off some photos from the picnic (I got one very good portrait of Duy's father at the dinner table) and a pair of white stuffed dogs for the girls, ate a quick lunch with them, and said goodbyes. They were extremely pleasant people, and Bao Vi, the little Blind Girl, could melt a heart of stone.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Truong Tien Bridge in Hue

Dateline: Hue. Yes, Hue. Today the paperwork is supposed to finally hatch, the passport and visa should be in the express mail office about six blocks from here, some time this afternoon. It's the twelfth of October, and I've been here long enough to vote I think, but there hasn't been a dull moment. Graduating from being one more blank tourist face to being part of the local scene has been really fun. Last night one of the gentlemen who sells paintings on silk in the street and whom I've gently refused, with long explanations about the motorbike and traveling with a backpack (to which he has steadily insisted that his silk paintings will do fine rolled up or even folded and then are very very small). . .anyway, after the third failure of his sales effort he's given it up and only smiles and waves at me now. . .but I've not gotten to the point yet. . .last night he was sitting on the sidewalk in front of a snack shop on Chu Van An Street (where I live) with a friend, each sitting on a plastic stool, with a pair of beer glasses on a third plastic stool between them and two empty Huda bottles sitting quietly alongside, waved me over, shook my hand (with his good hand, his other is horribly scarred from fire I think) and told me he didn't want to sell me anything tonight, just to drink beer, would I like a beer? So. . .the cyclo drivers and most of the motorbike taxis know now not to offer to take me to a brothel, the photo shops know how I want my prints made and laminated, the sandwich maker starts my breakfast scrambled egg before I'm even off the bike, the coffee shop brings me tea and iced coffee when I walk through the door, the hotel staff comes to fetch me to the supper table with the family, it's all very pleasant. Still lots of surprises of course, no end of the discovering things. This morning, for example the waitress in the coffee shop, who had given no previous clue, suddenly helped me out of a vocabulary blank in fluent, slightly accented American English. She has a 4-year degree in Tourism from Hanoi university, which involves English and at least one other language for the full four years. Good grief.

But I have wandered from the point. I've shown you very little of Hue. So here are some photos of the Truong Tien (older) bridge in downtown. It's not that old really, according to the plaque on the end of it it was built between 1991 and 1995, which means it was probably sponsored by the Soviets. It IS a riveted truss structure and spans some 402 meters with six spans. Very pretty bridge, and nicely integrated into the park on the hotel zone side. For photographers: the exposure turned out best, wide open, at f2.8 for 1.3 seconds (longer seemed to lead to degradation of the image without increased brightness). With the Canon G7, oddly enough, manual focus at inifinity, which might have seemed sensible, resulted in blurring, so the autofocus was allowed to work and did quite well. A riverside park bench did duty as a tripod, with a 2 second delay to allow vibration from triggering the shot to die down. . .a lot of fun to figure all that out and get what I got. As for the bridge, the display is continuous after dark as late as I've been out. The colors change constantly, sometimes segment by segment, sometimes all at once, usually by fade-in-fade-out slide show style. My favorite color is the red and blue blend of purple, but it doesn't photograph as well as some of the brighter colors. The scene along the river front is very busy at night, with boat women vying for your attention to come ride on their dragon boat, people with magical scales that weigh you, measure your height and tell you you're fat. . .or otherwise of course, people selling all sorts of kitsch on mats on the sidewalk, lovers sitting and plotting, old people strolling, noodles, apples, sweets and drinks. . .all pretty much in the dark, or rather, the not very bright. On a warm dry evening it's a fine place to walk and think.

While I'm writing. . .Several of you have asked about my leg and how I'm getting along. That's sort of a mixed bag. The originally damaged leg is in general quite a bit stronger, I've been good about pursuing strengthening exercises. Now, on a good morning I can knock out 200 repetitions of a hard kick upwards (lying on my back with the thigh vertical, kicking with the lower leg. . .exercising the quadriceps directly). When I got here 20 reps was a lot, so that's good. Range of motion is still fouled up and may be permanent, with the wad of scar tissue adjacent to the knee cap, I just can't straighten the leg completely with muscle power, though it will go if i throw it ahead. So if that were the only problem we'd really be in pretty good shape. Regrettably, the sympathy pain in the left side achilles tendon has given me a severe limp and that fatigues my lower back and hips in just a few blocks walking and there doesn't seem to be much I can do with it. Sigh. That and the bad knee persists in occasionally simply collapsing under load, on stairs, jumping from boulder to boulder (very close!) and that sort of thing. I've only actually fallen once though, and that was from putting on my rainpants in front of a coffee shop. I got the first foot in (anybody can do that), started the second foot without having anything to lean on, the foot caught immediately on the damp fabric and I knew at once I was going to go down on my right side, so just sort of let the legs collapse and did a neat karate roll, ended up on my back with the legs and pants in the air. . .what the heck, as long as I was there, wiggled the pants on over the rubber boot, rolled over and stood up. I always do it that way, don't you? So. . .I'm getting on fine with my gimp, but it is a very good thing I have the bike at my beck and call, or we'd not see a great deal. On the bike I'm whole, fast and nimble. On foot. . .a gimped up old guy people feel sorry for.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Run up to A Loui

Dateline: Er. STILL Hue. Today is Sunday the 10th of October, and my paperwork is due back from Hanoi on Tuesday. Maybe I'll just skip the “dateline” bit for a couple of days. The weather yesterday was actually pretty nice, sort of hazy bright with some ill-defined blue patches spotted at times during the day, not really hot, even in the middle of the day, just nice. Today dawned nearly clear, hazy close to the ground, but mostly blue overhead and it became HOT by two. But this is about yesterday, when I rode up the mountains to A Loui again. I've made that ride now perhaps a dozen times one direction or the other. This is the road I had to ride in to Hue on the day in 2005 I smashed my right foot. After the wreck, I'd ridden another 50 km or thereabouts out of the remote part of the Ho Chi Minh Road where it happened, to the first town with a hotel. . .A Loui. Unfortunately, it was still in the Tet holiday for another two days, and the hotels were closed. Both of them. So I had to ride the 68 km down out of the mountains on little Hwy 49a, one of the most convoluted narrow mountain roads I've ever seen, and had to do it in the late afternoon and evening, with long shadows in the canyons to start, becoming dusky and finally dark as I got closer in to the city. I'd never been that way before and simply staggered into the center of the city by accident, with no idea of how I'd done it (and it's not all that easy even now that I have the idea firmly in mind). I don't like to exaggerate, but that smashed foot was simply terribly painful and I was thoroughly over-extended, had never intended to ride so long in the day, but I think I was still completely lucid, just very very tired and hurting a great deal. My memories of that ride down the canyons are remarkable and vivid, but dream like. . .I think I'd been drunk on mountain roads and fog and mist before the crash even, running for hours through the twists and turns and the steep land all around.

I could go on, but never mind, that was then in the growing dark. Yesterday was for pure pleasure on a little motorbike running to perfection and ideally suited to the job, climbing up out of the flat lands and into the hills in fine weather. . .altogether different. As I worked the little machine up around the bends and back into the switchbacks, I wondered if one of my bigger bikes would do better. . .a 110 is a very small machine for a man my size, but I concluded.. .no, bigger wouldn't suit me any better here. This is the sort of road on which a competent rider on a Ducati, with adequate motivation, could kill himself three or four times before noon, eat lunch at the intersection outside of A Loui (I like the food there better than the restaurant in town) then turn around, and die again several times on the way down. If the curves didn't get him, then the loose gravel would, or the chuckholes or the oncoming trucks or the narrow bridges. . .no, I'll stick with the 110 cc fake Honda from China. She snarled and growled all the way up without missing a beat or a shift, and putted and popped all the way down (except for the few places you have to climb back up after you've crossed some minor creek, the stream you're following down the canyon never deviates a bit in its rush downhill).

As it was, I had one very interesting moment with, of all things, a down bound beer truck, headed back to the Huda brewery in Hue with yesterday's empty bottles, a very necessary truck and I don't begrudge him an inch of the road he needs, but he was going a bit fast down the mountain and he was taking up a little more than he really needed and he wasn't leaving a lot for the rest of us and the shoulder in that stretch is pretty imaginary, so. . .well, it was an interesting moment or two. Nothing touched anything it shouldn't have, but there wasn't any great amount of space to spare anywhere. All this time I have thought it was a pig truck wandering around Viet Nam with my name on the bumper; asking everyone if they'd seen me. . .and it turns out it was a beer truck of all things. How ironic. On the other hand, there are those who've said all along that the booze would get me some day. Perhaps they didn't mean ten tons of empties. . .but the effect would have been the same.

As is sometimes the case, I found myself wishing for a toilet at inopportune times during the morning, and made, therefore, a stop or two “for a bottle of mineral water” that I might not have made otherwise, but had I just rushed by those coffee shops (er. . .potential toilets) I'd have missed a cute kid and a bike with training wheels (and his mom and dad and grandma). It turned into quite a nice visit, one where my vocabulary almost perfectly matched their curiosities, so I kept on rattling off my standard answers (America, 64 years old, yes, really, 64, yes, I'm healthy (small lies don't count), yes, married, wife in America, two kids, both girls, 30 and 34, construction engineer, yes, during the war, no, didn't kill any VC. . .)I can do those in my sleep and more important hear the several different ways they're routinely asked. A conversation like that, with a little discussion of the weather and the road (good? Bad? Closed?) and their kids (handsome, pretty, smart, how old? Oh, big for his age!) and I can create quite the good impression on the locals. Anyway, the toilet was excellent and in time and there was enough ice in the mineral water to do the job (not always).

Later I stopped to take a photo of a timber frame house about half built and found myself sitting down to eat lunch with a dozen or so Montagnards. They're not ethnic Vietnamese, though these days they speak Vietnamese at least as a second language (their kids go to school in Vietnamese, the TV is Vietnamese and so is the newspaper, so the various ethnic languages are probably one generation away from history now) but. . .like the Lao hill people, they eat a lot of their meat raw, mixed with spices (notably crushed chili, but also garlic and lime juice and green herbs of one sort or another) all pounded together in a mortar or finely minced with a knife. Such was the case. Duck, they said. Red in any event, but also, and unlike the Lao dishes I've had, utterly filled with crushed bone splinters. The flavors were fine and I'm not absolutely opposed to raw meat, but the bone slivers. . .whatever are you to do about them?? As I often have to, I paused in my eating, played with my rice and watched, but couldn't see anybody spitting out anything. I can't imagine they eat such a mass of sharp slivers. . .but I really don't know. I picked some meat out from among the bone and finally tossed the rest out on the ground, where two dogs took care of the problem. The rice was tasty and there was a thickened vegetable soup/stew too, so I had enough to be happy. . .and anyway, it was early and there'd be a chance for another lunch later, which turned out quite differently.

There was time enough in the day and I had the miles in me, so I rode on another good ways toward Khe Sanh on Highway 14, a road I'd traveled just once before, two years ago, so, though I remembered a lot, still, there was lots to see “for the first time”. For one thing, the gold panning and sluice boxing going on along the river bank, and for a horrifying other thing, the two horrible mechanical gold dredges idle in the midst of their devastation. They grind their way through the rocky, cobbly river bed, picking up everything, washing the gold out of it and piling it up behind themselves willy nilly. I suppose a good solid freshet will spread it out again, but I'm a product of “for the protection of juvenile salmonids” regulation, and the work of these gold dredges is beyond my beliefs these days. I understand it's much worse in Mongolia now, there's more gold in more rivers, and the dredges are much bigger, but we don't need to borrow problems. . .the Vietnamese ecology has all it needs dealing with recent development and resource extraction. Let's not start a rant though, other than the dredges, it was a lovely day and a beautiful countryside. . .though you can't help noticing that a lot of the mountainsides simply aren't jungle anymore. . .they've been cut and planted to commercially valuable shrubs and trees of whatever sort, to support the people. That's not the same thing as the gold dredges though!

My late lunch, at the intersection of Hwy 14 and little Hwy 49 there outside A Loui, was a simple plate of sticky rice with two nice pieces of pork chop in spicy sauce, some green beans with chilis and herbs, and a bowl of lovely salty soup. Very nice and just the right price. . .$1.25, including the bottle of mineral water (I drink a lot of the stuff these days. . .) and the cute waitress wanted to practice English.

The large resident female dog (I started to call her “the big beautiful bitch”, but somehow thought that might create the wrong impression, though it's absolutely correct) the dog in question anyway, a tall, well muscled, lean bundle of bone and whipcord, with teeth and an attitude. . .is still a virgin no doubt, despite the attention of lesser mutts. One came by to try his suit while I was eating. She would have none at all of his nonsense, leapt on him, threw him on the ground, seized him firmly by the neck and shook him. . .let him up, nipped him on the rump and showed him out of the restaurant. . .then came back in, yawned and stretched out on the floor. If she's to have a mate, he'll have to be more persuasive than that. And probably a lot bigger.

On the way back down I found a crew of ten or fifteen men and women loading a truck with logs. . .by hand. Granted they'd cut the logs fairly short, probably not over twelve feet long, and some of them weren't really that big, but by and large, it was a daunting job and they were getting right with the project. The women were stripping the bark off the logs off to one side with some wicked looking big chisels and prybars (though some were being loaded with the bark still on. . .h'mm. . .puzzling). The men picked up a log with however many men it took and marched it right over to the truck. Another crew of four in the truck dragged it on up in and then stacked it up, WAY up and waited for the next. Impressive. We exchanged a few comments and I expressed admiration and got under way again, only to find the road blocked by an upbound truck trying to get past another truck who'd made a serious mistake regarding how far he could back up toward the ditch. The ditches along this stretch are really V shaped concrete channels, and once you put a tire into one. . .well, it's not normally considered wise. The upbound truck got by and then so did the rest of us. No doubt the stuck truck will get pulled out eventually, but I'll bet his brake lines and rear axle don't enjoy the experience.

So it was a fine day, a lovely ride, lots to see and people to meet, and the best set of photos I've made of that run so far. . .nothing like sunshine or at least bright haze to light up the country.