Sunday, October 24, 2010

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.

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