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.