Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Busy day in Hue, then North to Hanoi

 Written from Cua Lo, about 392 km north of Hue. On 3/19/2012, Monday. Weather warm and hazy overcast, varying through the day from nearly blue sky to rather threatening, but no rain. Passing through Vinh toward Cua Lo there was a sudden temperature drop and it was misty-almost foggy the last 10 km to the coast, Northerly breeze.


Yesterday was a very busy day in Hue. Arriving the night before last in the afternoon and finding my normal hotel clear full (all three of them actually) there was a certain amount of lost time getting me escorted over to an alternative hotel across the river that was stupendous. It was the sort of place I normally don't even look at, but with my normal hotel pulling strings in the background it was suddenly very affordable. Wow. So, threw my stuff on the bed, rinsed off and rushed out to get my day pack rebuilt. . .the bottom was about to fall right out of it again. It's getting very close to needing a full rebuild with all new bottom material, perhaps this season still, but I'd hate to get it fixed so well that I don't need to hunt down dressmaker's shops to have it fixed in. It's all made of lightweight ripstop nylon (from REI no less) and it's been on my back every day of every trip I've made out here. There's not a stress point on it that hasn't failed, the bottom has been re-sewn, the hem of the drawstring, the terminations of the shoulder straps, both at the back of the neck and down at the hips. . .I'd doubt there's any original stitching still holding any of the larger bag. Getting that pack sewed back together has really been a fun way to meet people (always ladies, often pretty ones, frequently with cute kids) who NEVER have to deal with tourists otherwise. An elephant riding a motorbike (my usual occupation and appearance here) has nothing to compare with a big white guy in a dressmaker's shop in Viet Nam, and perhaps even less in Laos. I don't think I've ever had it sewn up in Cambodia. . .it lasted to Luang Prabang in Laos on that trip!
The daypack at work yet again. . .and yes, that's a treadle machine, most dressmakers use them in preference, but canvas workers use big Juki power machines as a rule.

Well, this dressmaker's shop had a cute 6-year-old (guessing here) who wasn't terrified and didn't realize the camera in my lap could take her picture from there and I have the fake camera sounds turned off anyway, so she all but posed for me. It was dim enough lighting that most of the shots were spoiled by blurring, but I got three that were fine. So, with that done, I made a bee-line for my current favorite photo printer at the edge of the Boat Trip part of the city park near the hotel. He promised to get them out by 9 in the morning (that should be simple, but he insists on Photoshop-ing them to lighten the skin tone to the Vietnamese preferred standard, and incidentally to even out any lumps in the face. Vietnamese portraits tend to all look quite a bit alike. I struggle with it but generally give up on the skin tone, there's no doubt the lighter the better as far as your victim is concerned. (Years ago I did a really stupendous 11x14 portrait of one of our office ladies in Bien Hoa. It was superbly sharp and very realistic. She was a lovely young woman and it was a really good likeness. She burst into tears when I showed it to her. She had a blemish on her cheek I hadn't dodged out and she looked “so dark and ugly”. I went back to the dark room and reprinted it as required, no blemish and light skin. . .much better. I do eventually learn from life.) As for lumps, my kids are usually pretty smooth faced, but when he tried to take out the puckered cheeks of one shot when the kid was deliberately pulling a funny face, I raised a stink.
The dressmaker's daughter. . .

With Funny Face.

I called Thanh on her cell phone to let them know I was back in Hue, as promised, and after a struggle we settled on a lunch at their house (and coffee shop) the next day at 11:00. That was really hilarious. Thanh has absolutely no English and my Vietnamese is geared heavily toward my needs as a motorbike traveler. Trying to set up a dinner party is not part of my normal needs. Face to face we do remarkably well, since both of us are willing to play charades and be a little silly to get a point across. ..but on the phone, there's no visible body language and pantomime is very difficult. Nonetheless, that 11:00 became a hard milestone in the day's schedule, and since it's a solid hour's ride from the hotel, 14 km out to the beach at Thuan An and then another 18 km down the island (a very lovely but very slow ride, in honor of the very dense population along the road), things earlier in the morning were starting to look busy. Can and I had coffee and breakfast together, then he ran off to the office. I went scooting over to the big market across the river and bought myself a really cute fuzzy dog with a tee-shirt and a (yuck) Barbie doll sort of thing, though bigger. Blond hair, blue eyes (that open and close with long eyelashes), bosoms, shoes and clothes and alternate clothes, all of which two different toy store-stands (deep in the dark interior of the market) agreed would be absolutely perfect for a 4 year old. Bao Thi is 3-3/4, so, against my better judgement I bought the thing. The dog was a wild shot, hoping it might please a 9 year old blind and autistic girl.

With the toys in hand, I made a pass by the Kodak shop and wonder of wonders, they had my prints ready to go, so at 9:40 I headed for the dressmaker's shop (which is right by the Huda Brewery on Le Loi street, on my normal route to the beach anyway). You have to understand that we had not agreed entirely last night on just how to repair the pack and they'd done it their way. . .so when I drove up and began unpacking the thing again, they were looking pretty dubious. However, the photos were a big hit (she is a really cute kid and those were three pretty good portraits. . .) and then of course I had to shoot Mom, who is a truly beautiful young woman, and, with her daughters' portraits in hand, cheerfully posed for me.

At ten o'clock sharp I turned off Le Loi and onto the road out to the island, so should have had about seven minutes in hand, riding conservatively. On the edge of Thuan An town (just before the big bridge onto the island) a pavilion was set up on the bank of the little stream that flows there and several hundred people were spread out up and down the banks. There were banners and a police presence managing the traffic out on the road and a police boat anchored in the stream. I was quick to understand for a change. On an earlier trip through Hue I'd found a boat builder who normally built aluminum and wood composite boats for daily use but he had also showed me a racing canoe, all woven bamboo and polished and painted tar. . .and explained how they race with big crews for special festivals. I'd stumbled onto the finishing line without even knowing there was a race or a festival, and I had seven minutes in hand. The canoes came around a bend and into long distance telephoto range five minutes later. I shot the finish, excused myself (half a dozen bikes had packed in behind me), backed out into the road and got under way again with about a minute still to the good.

The finish line--winners get to keep a red banner. this one out of order. . .this is the winning boat resting on her laurels.  I barely avoided the party going on when they spotted me. . .they'd been celebrating for a while!!

And the finish itself
The ride down the island is one of my favorite rides anywhere. It's almost completely un-challenging except that you must be terribly alert to avoid running over somebody or their dog or their chicken or their child. The road (which goes by the name of Hwy 49) is really narrow and the houses mostly open directly into the street, many with no front yard at all, or very little. The shops stand back a few feet, but the fishmongers and vegetable vendors and the ladies with deep fried treats set up right on the road's edge. The water buffalo take themselves to the fields and home, but they generally stay on the shoulder. The locals ride half again faster than I do normally and you don't see a lot of road kill, but I'm really opposed to it myself, so never ever push it on the island.

Well, not all the road on the island is crowded, there is some countryside too.  I was trying to get the third person, another young lady, on the bicycle on the far side. . .towing by holding hands with the one you can see.  It has to be a disaster waiting for the impact, but it's a popular way to get the bicyclist home too.
I got to the first turnoff off the island two minutes after I was due to turn up for lunch. That's not good. The turnoff off the island is a couple km PAST Thanh and Duy's place. I must have been gathering wool or just enjoying the scenery too much and driven right past. Yikes. Timing was everything and I over-ran the drop zone. Oh well. In the event Thanh and her sister were still putting finishing touches on the banquet a half hour later, so no harm done. It was a marvelous meal (Thanh is truly a great cook and was clearly showing off). There were separate little plates for squid, fish, baby pork ribs, fresh and cooked vegetables, oh dear. I'm not remembering half of it. And the sauces. . .hot, salty, sweet and sour in combinations. The only problem is that (and I should have remembered this, though I don't know what I could have done about it) they eat on the mat on the floor. They can do that all day, I've watched them at a party. Then they can just stand up and walk away. If I sit through a meal you need to hire a crane to get me on my feet again. Oh well. It was worth it and I managed without the crane, though it wasn't pretty. They all pretended not to see that part.

Lunch over, Duy had to go to work (he's an electrician when he's not a coffee shop host), so Thanh and I tried to visit a while, and then I delivered my dog and doll. I pulled them out of the daypack and Thanh spent a very vocal couple of minutes pointing out that I shouldn't do that sort of thing and the kids had too many toys and so forth. Bao Thi took her doll in it's factory wrappings over to the couch and very seriously opened it up and studied it. I got a very serious smile and a long wave out of the deal. Pretty cute. Bao Vi was off doing something else and we made no effort to bother her. If she doesn't end up playing with the dog, no doubt Bao Thi will. Heck, I liked the dog. Even the tee shirt.

I was almost off the island when I passed yet another motorbike seat shop, complete with new naughahide covers and nicely shaped yellowish foam seats waving in the breeze hanging from the eaves. I've passed hundreds of such shops and twice have used them to rearrange the padding in past bikes. Lights went on. Rebuild the seat and reposition the pressure points on my behind. Stopped. Nobody in the shop. Went to the house and called out for anybody home. Nothing for a minute, then stirrings. A drowsy lady emerged. I asked if there was anybody who knew how to “do that” and pointed at the shop. . .(that particular phrase does a lot of hard work for me). And so it began. It was an epic all its own, with the normal problems taking apart an inexpensive Chinese copy of an old Honda, but he figured it out, popped out all the old staples, had a hard look at what was on the bike (very different from the scooter-style seats he had hanging on display). We deliberated at length. The new foam blanks were 3” longer than my old seat. So it's easy to chop one up (they use a hand-held wide hacksaw blade and make it look easy). The front end of the new blanks was quite thick, to work with the sloping geometry of a typical motorbike-scooter. We poked and prodded and made cutting gestures here and there. He re-checked to make sure I agreed to the price, and the butchery began. Well, it wasn't pretty and he had to sew a new cuff on the front of my old upholstery to make it long enough to swallow the fatter padding. It also didn't work, which was apparent by the time we started to put it together. I rode it down the block and back to be sure, but it really wouldn't work. He understood completely (it didn't look like a motorbike seat and it wasn't). He took it all apart again, peeled back the naughahide and we reconsidered where to slice and prune. Well. It's not what I thought I wanted, and it probably isn't “right” but it's enough different from the old seat that it really does shift lower unit support points around and might, just might, get me through the rest of this trip. We shook hands and I left.

Back in town and back to my photo shop with the portraits of the dressmaker herself. They've done five batches for me in the past three weeks and know the drill, print to 5x7 and laminate in plastic, for $0.50 each. It was 3:30. I asked for them at 5:30. He promised 8:00 pm. I said not to bother, I had to leave in the morning before my victim would open her shop and nobody else could drop them off for me, so if he couldn't give them to me at 5:30. . .he agreed to 5:30. I didn't even mention natural skin tones. I'm sure I've forgotten a few moves in the day, but you get the idea. It was tightly scheduled and too busy, but enormous fun at every point. I picked up the photos, still warm from the laminating machine, at 5:29 and headed for the dressmaker's shop, about 15 minutes away. They were tidying up when I got there. Nobody moved. I didn't have the daypack, the photos were in my saddlebags, so that wasn't an issue this time, and anyway, m'lady no doubt knew I had them. I handed them over (with their properly lightened skin tones) and waited for applause. She made some sort of deprecatory remark I didn't understand in detail, which caught me flat footed, so I said (in passable Vietnamese, apparently) “If you don't want them I'll take them back!” at which she snatched them away and held them tightly to her chest with her chin tucked over the top and spent a solid minute saying thank you several different ways. If what she had said was that she was ugly anyway, someone needs to talk to her. So, they sat me down and fed me tea and chattered on and on and asked about my family in excruciating detail, stuff for which I have ready answers, so it went very well for a while and I got away before the spell collapsed. As I've said, being the traveling elephant on the motorbike who almost speaks Vietnamese and has the almost instant portraits is a pretty good racket.

The dressmaker's daughter's mom. 
But that was it. Mr. Can was feeling poorly, so I ate alone. That's worrisome, it sounds too much like an appendix, but he's going to the hospital in the morning after the staff meeting, a true boss, eh? I packed my bags down to the toothbrush and spent an hour uploading photos, and thus to sleep, with the road to Hanoi in front of me.


Riding pretty steadily from 0830 to 1800, with a short lunch break and a very short Red Cow break and. . .a really short beach stop for a few photos of nothing new, it totaled 392 km made good. All in, over 41 km/hr average for the day. If you deduct 30 minutes (tops) for the stops, it's about 43.55 km/hr speed when running. Excellent road conditions and easy traffic! My previous high mileage for a day in Vietnam was 425 km run, in a little longer day, southbound on this same route, so probably about the same averages. It's not an unlovely route mind you, just not a particularly pretty one. An awful lot of rice paddy mostly, interspersed with a village or small town every little bit. There are bypasses built around the bigger cities now, which let you move very well where you used to spend an hour or more getting through downtowns. I used them this trip, though I don't entirely approve. You came here to, er, bypass the place??

A few schools manage to let kids out for lunch or dinner as you're passing, which adds to the spice. In this flat countryside all the kids ride bikes and seeing an entire school worth of kids strung out along the highway ahead of you as far as you can see, riding two or three abreast and skylarking like. . .er. . Kids, it's a sobering sight. You slow down to avoid conflicts of interest with sudden lane changers, but that means you get spotted. If you get spotted at the tail end of a kilometer of kids on bikes, it means you say hello. . .oh, I don't know. . .a lot of times before you get free.

Every now and then a bus tries to kill you and you end up way off the shoulder in the weeds, if there is anything out there. Otherwise you pull up on the edge of the ditch and call his mother names under your breath.

You see the white crest of the sand dune that backs up the beach off to your right fairly often-- it runs for miles, but you rarely get to look over the top of it. . .though there are some really pretty views where a small range of hills gets you up a hundred feet or so and you can see through the trees and telephone poles down to the water.

I contemplated stopping in Vinh that first evening, but really, it's a great big city, goes on for at least 7 km, with four and five star hotels and traffic and noise and no harbor. I held on for Cua Lo, another 14 km down the road, though the sun had set while I was getting through the Vinh rush hour (yes, there is such a thing), and even pushing along, I made the turn into the beach drive at Cua Lo with the last of the daylight and rode up to my old guesthouse.

It wasn't gone but it was drastically changed and dark. I peered through the new windows that closed in what used to be a broad porch. No llife. I sat the bike and stared a while. I really like the people there and had been looking forward to seeing them again all day. No joy. The desk clerk from the guest house next door came out on their porch and beckoned me over. I took her room and unpacked.

When I was walking out for supper (a desperate search in off-season Cua Lo, but noodles can be had), they spotted me from inside and came running out. Oh sigh. Well, it was a lovely reunion (I'd have to think it through, but in 6 trips I've probably stayed with them 6 or 8 times, including last trip, when the flood nearly kept me there (though that's another story.. .read back through the archives if you want the wet details). They walked me through their addition. My old favorite room on the ground floor has been incorporated into the newly walled in porch and part of the old reception area to make a really elegant L-shaped dining room (they used to serve supper in the garage before they put the bikes and cars to bed for the night, so this will be a big improvement). The ceilings were all done with knotty pine, carefully hand fitted in elegant patterns, the tables and chairs are full sized and the crockery all matches! It is impressive, though it means in future I'll definitely have to climb two flights of stairs to my second favorite room with the view out over the street toward the sea.

As it turned out, my alternative room this night was a bit substandard, but I forgave it for its shortcomings (a drippy bathroom ceiling??? and a rock hard pillow twice too thick) on account of the absolutely charming two kids who did desk duty until nine. It took them five or six trips to round up a towel, a toothbrush, a pair of D-cells for the igniter in the hot water heater and so forth, but they got it done with nonstop giggles. I wonder what they found so funny .


I've been dreading coming back through the 60 km or so of horrendous road work (from about Thanh Hoa to Phu Ly) since I rode through it going the other way a few weeks back. It was worth dreading as the day proved.

However, nothing could keep me away from the Cua Lo fishing harbor for a look before I left. The fleet was about half in harbor and half still at sea. Offloading the catch was well underway, one truck was nearly full of iced fish, hundreds, literally, of fishwives were taking the catch from the boats, getting it tallied, sorted, washed and either into trucks to head for the city or into their baskets to peddle around the town. I actually saw one fierce disagreement. . .which ended with one of the disputants upending the disputed box of fish and flinging the box across the pavement. The two of them proceeded to peel the wallpaper off the sky with their screeching while onlookers divided up the fish and left. Spectacular, and exceedingly uncommon. The town will no doubt talk!

Offloading sardines in Cua Lo, about 6:00 in the morning and they'd been at it a while already.

It was a dark and threatening morning (carried through with the threat later on. . .sigh) but that seemed to provide good lighting, with fully saturated colors and good shadow detail. . .so I shot a good bit in a hurry. There's very little “new” there, (rather the opposite sadly, some of the old details have disappeared, including two entire classes of small fishing boat). I've documented the place and its fleet really well, but it's always worthwhile getting better photos. There will be a book someday!

And then to the road. My old hotel-friends met me on the street and sent me on my way with promises that we'd meet again, perhaps next year and I left. This time I didn't have to splash through a foot of water in the street outside, didn't have to get off and push the bike through the much deeper water at the low-intersection in the middle of town. . .just rode away. It was cool enough to want a jacket and the misty fog collected on my visor right away. It's enough to block visibility, but not enough to form beads and run off. . .add mud and you have a rotten visibility problem. That would describe most of the day's weather. It actually became very light rain for a while as we were in the worst of the new construction work. . .making a nice muddy layer over all forward facing surfaces on the bike and the body. Gritty going!

There were no beach stops on the route, but at one point about noon I suddenly realized (through a thick mental fog) that my blood sugar level had collapsed. Now, I'm not a “brittle” diabetic and rarely have serious low-sugar experiences. . .but now and then I get caught. Riding along, trying to read the road and the traffic and keep my visor wiped off, I simply realized it was all too complicated and I couldn't keep it straight. I was (just) still smart enough to know what the problem was and almost immediately spotted a house-front with a table out front and a display case with RED COW in sight. That stuff will get your blood sugars up in no time! When I tried to order a can, the lady of the household explained that she normally had Pho (one sort of noodle soup) and Bun (a different style of noodle) but she was out of Pho, so I'd have to eat Bun. I tried to explain that I just wanted the Red Cow but she started slicing meat and picking lettuce and basil leaves and I gave up and sat down. It was noon already, what the heck. As the Red Cow started to perk up my mental processes, I began to admire the old black and white portraits of a lovely young woman (one showed her in an army uniform cap and the other was absolutely ravishing). They were hanging on the wall with a very formal portrait of a young army officer. I was soon convinced it was the two of them, but many many years ago. Having regained some use of language by then, I asked if she were the young woman. . .and she was, and the fine young officer was himself (he had helped me off the bike with his one good arm, his other missing from the elbow down). The portraits dated to 1970, just before I turned up in country the first time. We missed each other that time. Thank goodness, we weren't on the same side. While I slurped my noodles they watched a Chinese drama on the TV. The Vietnamese voice-over was good I think, but the hero was forever talking on after the words stopped. Chinese villains are ugly and really mean!

Oh. As I was leaving I asked them to pose by the old portraits and they cheerfully got into position, but before I could get the job done a son came out of the back of the house in a hurry, with a clean white shirt for the old gentleman. They're a really delightful couple, obviously still sweethearts after all this time. She buttoned up his shirt and tucked it in for him and then the young son let the thing proceed. She squeezed his good arm and they both grinned.

And thus, once again, a few hours later, I rode in off the highway into rush hour in Hanoi, covered in mud and riding a mudball motorbike. The perfectly groomed office staff of the whole city was out in the street heading home or wherever, driving several million (seriously) spotless motorbikes in close formation, while I astonished and did not delight the masses with my tidy appearance. It seems to happen that way most of the time. It's all right as long as we're moving, but when we stop at a stoplight and they have to actually SEE me, it's another matter entirely.

I was tired and sore enough that the idea of riding again any time soon was very unappealing, and yet, I'd have to wash the bike before she could go inside for the night. . .so I laid a course first for my favorite bike-wash (truly, a hole in the wall) where the lady in charge stared at that rolling mess and announced I'd have to pay double this time. She's washed my bikes for six or seven years now when I've been in town, often having to do the job when I was riding in off of some gruesome muddy highway--so there was no point in arguing. That done, it was a short ride to the hotel, up onto the sidewalk in front of the dentist's office again (this time without tipping over the bike), unstrapping the bags and a bath. Oh yes, a bath.

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