Saturday, February 25, 2012

To and Through Cam Pha

It's Six o'clock on a gray saturday afternoon in Cam Pha, which is sort of a coal-gray sort of place anyway. Let me digress a little. Thinking back to yesterday morning in Hanoi, that new SIM I got for the phone put me in touch with Mr. Cuong in Halong City, though he was just going into a meeting and we had a really short conversation to start. Mr. Cuong is a friend of an acquaintance and (I think) a professor of something teaching in the local university at Haiphong City. You can check me on that later. In any event, he has yet another friend, or rather an "associate" who is a historian of, you guessed it, Boats. Specifically the history of the people fishing in the Halong Bay area from prehistory up through the 1960's, and he has something to do with a small museum in one of the floating villages out on the bay. No, really, I'm not chasing a daydream here, this could be a really interesting contact. I hope. We agreed to meet on Monday after further telephone conversation on Sunday, so yesterday (Friday, in case I'm getting this confused) I got the bike and myself organized and we rode to Cam Pha.

I used to think the run from Hanoi to Cam Pha was a nice easy ride. Something's happened since then. Either they've lengthened out the route considerably or I've gotten soft or something. It still only takes about five hours to run down the distance,so the bike does it fine, it must be me. Anyway, the route is: out of town across the southern bridge over the Red River, but then a right turn at the big traffic circle a mile or so through the city, which puts you on the freeway to the big port city of Haiphong. . .for a few kilometers. They've finished the approach to the new freeway northbound to China (Hwy 5), and it's well signposted if you know you're wanting to go to Bac Ninh. . .which is actually the next biggish town down the new road and also the turnoff for the road we want, Hwy 18. . .which if you don't miss any further signs at a dozen or so forks in the road will eventually bring you here. So the navigation is pretty easy.

The scenery? Well, getting out of Hanoi is basically city combat driving in the middle of the day. Lay your ears back, keep your eyes open and behave yourself. When you turn up onto the new freeway northbound it's a shock. No traffic to speak of, at least not in the context of downtown Hanoi, a median barrier that takes the word "barrier" seriously (there will be NOBODY coming at you from the opposing lanes, at least not alive). It's wide open country, almost no development, just miles and miles of rice paddy, truck farms, duck farms (have you ever seen a thousand white ducks? Tried to herd them??) and the occasional backside of a village. The freeway has cut right across the landscape like a string-straight concrete canal and nothing has been developed along its banks. People on the freeway need stuff though and the locals along the way have begun to make it all work. Signs, hand lettered and braced against cardboard boxes say things like "Sell Gas", "Fix Tires", "Food", "Noodle Soup" and especially "Sell Gas and Fix Motorbike" (combined). The merchandise or facilities (whatever they may be) have to be kept on the other side of the crash barrier, but the signs tend to creep over the line. The tools for fixing a flat are usually in plain sight on top of a barrier post, and the barrels of gasoline with ther glass 5-liter cylinders on top are pretty obvious. There's always a house somewhere nearby if there's a sign for "Food" or "Noodle Soup". Otherwise it's a very long ways between stops!

I'd filled the bike, we didn't have a flat and I didn't get hungry until much later, when we'd turned off onto Hwy 18 and run a good many kilometers. Actually, if was my sore seat that finally drove me off the road into the comforts of a small open air restaurant for a cup of supersweet milky coffee and a bowl of pork hearts noodle soup, which was excellent. The cook-waitress-dishwashing person sang freely while she worked. Friends joked (about me do you think?) and altogether it was a cheerful place. Also. . .the red plastic chair was full sized (??) and didn't bear on a sore spot. Luxury!

No doubt one of the high points of this ride, which is almost entirely on flat delta land, is that little by little you come into outliers of the limestone mountains that jump straight up out of the rice paddy. The first few are all alone (er, and also mostly being nibbled away at by cement factories)just a solitary mountain with nothing else in sight but flat land, but as you go along the clumps of mountains get thicker and by the time you finally ride out of the flat delta floodplain into the hills that border the sea, the vertical sided mountains are all around.

But, spectacular as they are, they're seriously outdone by the new Bai Chai to Hon Gai bridge that now joins the two halves of Halong City. It's utterly stunning, a cable stay bridge that takes off from cliffs on either side of the narrows. A simple pair of pylons, unadorned tapered concrete needles carry the suspension cables on the bridge's centerline with two lanes of traffic and a sidewalk on each side in a great arching leap across the water. I really liked the old grumpy growly ferries that used to swarm across the narrows for twenty cents or so a ride, and I'm sure the waterfront merchants on both sides miss them. . .but the bridge is spectacular. It's also the beginning of the end of the long day as you fight your way through the downtown traffic at the far end and finally out onto the open road north along the coast.

It's really built up all along, rather in the way that highway 99 runs between Seattle and Everett. . .always busy and built up, but not really downtown traffic. School and work were both letting out when we passed by and it was a genuine rush hour, motorbike style, with people making crazy decisions about left turns and intersections. . .just as a matter of course. I think the only univeral rule of the road here is "DON'T HIT". Short of actually running over somebody (or something), most anything else you want to try is fine. Just pay attention and believe what you see. Yikes.

It was just about 5 hours out of Hanoi when we turned off the narrow highway and the little bike growled and grumbled along the waterfront of Cam Pha. For me, for the first year or two, Cam Pha was an anomalous ugly place, waterfront property on the edge of a Unesco World Heritage Site, with the incomparable mountain-islands of Halong Bay in the background, but the foreground filled with ugly almost-development, hotels and bars and karaoke joints, some nice homes and some shacks, all scattered among the weeds of unused lots, a would-have-been waterfront pleasure drive with street trees every ten meters, all grotty with debris and broken pavement, the trees ungroomed and unloved, really, an unlovely spot. However, right on the rubbly edge of the raw fill pushed out in the bay was an ad hoc boatyard with a small gang of boatwrights making traditional wooden boats by hand out of scraps of wood. The old man who ran the gang fed me tea and chuckled to see me photograph his boats and write my notes. His dogs growled at me and his workmen wanted their pictures taken. I came back time and again to smiles, handshakes and more tea. I spent the night once in one of the hotels nearby and never looked up the hill for the town, though I suspected it was there from the size of the typeface on the map that named it Cam Pha.

Later I rode up the hill and found the main street of town, running parallel to the highway, hemmed in with the railroad and highway below and the steep to mountainside above, but a nice sort of town, or a small city really, running along for several kilometers, only a few blocks wide. I found a hotel I liked there, with a nice coffee shop next door and some restaurants and noodle stands around. . .and got to know the place a little better. I've never seen another white fellow here, though surely they must come through at times. It's only 23 kilometers to Halong City for goodness sake and only 130 on beyond to the border crossing at Mong Cai, with all of China beyond that. But still, I've never seen one here. Perhaps it's the coal dust.

Well that was then. The old man is gone this trip, his shack empty now. But one of the younger men who had started another launchway just down the beach a ways has expanded and has a pair of big horizontal band saws making lumber right on site. The old man's spot and the bit of land next to it have been taken over by another builder, a burly man, much younger, and very serious. There are five boats building right now and great flitches of lumber scattered around everywhere.

The old man built boats with the traditional Vietnamese one-piece stem-bottom plank-keel-sternpost, right up to the last boat I saw him start. That one had a separate timber stem bolted to the bottom plank. . .and a little different shape to the stern, though perhaps you wouldn't notice, it was a bit flatter in the run to carry a bigger motor a little better. Maybe he just got tired of the change and retired, they tried to explain it to me this morning, but I don't have the vocabulary I needed. Today all the boats abuilding there are the more modern style. But I have my photos from before.

So, what about Cam Pha? For one thing, you say it "Come Faw", but with a little bit of an upward tilt at the end of each syllable. It's a very linear town, trapped between the sea, the highway and the railroad on the low side, and the mountains close at hand above. So it runs on for a good long ways. If you turn toward the water you're likely to run into the coal port, or the conveyor that feeds it (running for miles I think, from the mines out to the dock). It's a dusty town and my lungs are a little unhappy about that, though I prefer the dust to the black slimy mud that comes with the rain on the road. Aside from my boatyard there's not much for a tourist here, the entire waterfront seems in the midst of development, demolition or decay. The main streets of town have all the shops anyone could need, and far more mobile phone shops than anyone could possibly want. The restaurants are all meat and rice or noodle places where you can get a large meal for a couple of dollars, but nothing fancy I've seen. There are gorgeous homes on the hillsides and a few bizarre mansions, but there are also grim Soviet-era concrete apartments. . .though they are thick with cute kids and friendly people. . .still, "ugly" hardly gets the point across. But they're fading into history I think, bright new apartment buildings and ordinary pleasant homes are really more common now. The two fancy coffee shops next door to my hotel have a selection of wifi bands, and monster screen TV's with either music videos or soccer. Some of the English music videos are HORRID (what must they think of us??), the Vietnamese videos tend more toward sentimentally sweet or very "song-and-dance". To me the football still all looks the same. It's as likely to be two teams from England or Singapore as it is local games.

There's a company in town bottling soda, beer and a wonderful local sparkling mineral water, one of the best I've had. And if they have natural mineral water to bottle, not surprisingly, there's also a hot springs resort, but it's a well guarded secret. I asked at the hotel for a massage spa and was handed to a motorbike taxi man who hauled me along a twisting route up through the upper side of town and onto the flank of the mountain to. . .the hot springs and attached facilities. Like many developed springs, it's hard to tell where the water comes from, but it's piped into a modest swimming pool which is always full of Vietnamese soaking and surrounded by Vietnamese cooling off. There is a nice looking hotel and two rows of massage-bath rooms, each with its own tub fed with the hot salty water. The massage staff wear nurse's uniforms, white and professional and for $11 you get a thorough working over. Ah yes. Their training seems to involve a severe chapter in pressure points too. Yikes!

The people in town are uniformly sweet and curious, and many have at least a little English, something more than just "HELLO!". There's an odd thing I've noticed here: Someone, maybe the owner of a sandwich stand, will ask me a few introductory questions and get answers she can use. Other customers will then ask her questions to ask me. . .which she does, and when I can answer, she repeats my answers back, usually verbatim, but sometimes with a bit of commentary. The other person invariably then addresses another question through her. . .and so it goes. Funny. Of course, I always run out of answers eventually. I can handle "Where are you from?, Are you married? Where's your wife? How many kids do you have? Boys or girls? How old? How old are you? Any grandkids yet? How long have you been in Viet Nam? What do you do?. . ." About then I run dry.

I'll be leaving Cam Pha today and moving just back down the road to Halong City. Hopefully will meet Mr. Cuong and the Boat Historian tomorrow.

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