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.