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.