Saturday, March 31, 2012

The End of the Road. . .again. . .sigh

Written in Hanoi, Saturday, 3/31/2012.  Weather is pleasantly warm but quite gray.  No rain.

And this is it.  I've just come from Mr. Dung's mechanic's shop on the Dike Road and given up my motorbike for another year.  It has to be said that she started just as perfectly and ran just as smoothly (very smoothly) and turned into his parking spot just as tidily as she's been doing the past six weeks.  Then I switched off the little engine and handed the keys to Dung.  Sigh.  But no tears on either side.  It's been a good ride.  No new scratches on the bike, a few very minor adjustments and one sort of important repair (that wheel bearing. . .would have stopped us at some point no doubt).  Final odometer reading was 13,123 km, versus a start this year of 7413.  So, not quite 6000 km.  Pretty close to 3600 miles.  A good ride all told.

But that's today, and there's been a little work between the last post and here.  Actually, it was a rather odd sort of week in and out of Hanoi, Hung Yen Province, Bai Chai (Halong City) and Bai Tu Long (Bay, in this case I think would be redundant, since I'm pretty sure "Bai" means "Bay" anyway, but to be perfectly clear, Bai Tu Long is the large island covered bay just north of Halong Bay).  Circumstances had me at one point riding in regal splendor on a day long expedition into the absolutely flat delta country between Hanoi and Haiphong (and a bit South).  I'd be guessing, but I think this is about the story:

A very wealthy gentleman and his wife, daughter and three grand kids in various combinations have been drinking morning coffee, tea, and/or milk at the same coffee shop (68 Bat Su) that I do any morning I'm in Hanoi.  We've spoken on occasion and they've always been interested in the fact that I'm always writing a diary as I sip the morning cup and munch the morning baguette. . .at my miniature corner table under the fan.  Uh, yes, I am sort of a creature of habit I guess.  Anyway, out of the blue last week Mr. Son, as it turns out his name is (we'd never exchanged names, only pleasantries before), Mr. Son as I was saying, informed me that I needed to visit Hung Yen Province and He would see to it.  He said it would be on Wednesday and I said that would be fine but didn't worry about it.  So time passed, I went to Bac Ha and home again and voila it was Tuesday morning in the coffee shop.  Mr. Son (impeccably groomed and covered with grand kids) got up to confirm that I would be ready on the morrow at 0730 (we both usually finish coffee about then).  I was a little surprised (but shouldn't have been). . .and suddenly realized I had another appointment set up in Halong City with an old Boat Builder who needed to be interviewed for the forthcoming book (that counts as work, sort of).  There was no denying Mr. Son had the prior claim though, so I confirmed and hastened home to undo the damage at Halong City. 

This could get to be a long story, but leave it that I got the schedule worked out and met Mr. Son (and tribe) at coffee on Wednesday morning as scheduled.  Within a minute or two of the appointed time a young man appeared with the car keys, the daughter and grand kids departed (with the nanny) afoot and the rest of us proceeded to the car.  I got the right front seat.  Big car.  Dark windows.  Air conditioning.  Wow.  This isn't your standard poor man's motorbike!  We drove quite a long ways across town and pulled into an office complex that included an aerobics gym and valet automobile washing, cleaning and fueling.  My oh my.  Mr. Son and I sat down to tea and were shortly passed by and then joined by a most extraordinary man.  There were no introductions, until the newcomer, all black shorts and silver chains with a shaved head and a physique asked where I was from.  America.  "Ah. . .I am an American Colonel.  Kentucky Colonel.  I am a Pilot."  I made appreciative noises.  He and Mr. Son talked at length and then. . ."In 1972 I shot down two American airplanes, the first time it was ever done in Viet Nam."  Over Hanoi? I asked.  "No, in the South".  So, I asked again, you were flying a MIG?  "Yes, a MIG 21.  They were Phantom F4's."  And that was that.  I didn't brag too much over my exploits driving a jeep and shooting pictures.  We both lived through it and we can drink tea together now.  One thing more. . ."Last year I was in America and I saw Seattle.  It rains a lot, but pretty.  I was with the Ministry of Air Force visiting Washington DC."  And that was that. 

I think I said it was an odd day and I wasn't entirely certain what all was involved.  At that point an articulate and eager young man walked up, sat down, accepted the keys from Mr. Son who then waved the two of us off to the car, which had been fueled and wiped down by this point.  It seems what I had was a personally conducted tour by the "Assistant to the Chairman".  Chairman. . .which would be Mr. Son.  Well, I knew he was a wealthy man, also the top dog of. . .er. ..I'm not sure what Corporation. . ."Green-Planet Joint Stock Company"  it said on Mr. Anh's card.  Now, in the normal course of events here, I would call him "Em" or "little brother" and he'd call me "Anh" or "big brother", or, really, more likely "Bac". . ."Uncle" since I'm so much older.  No matter, he's stuck with "Anh" for a name, so that's what I get to call him. . .not that it's a problem.

And the oddness of the day continued, particularly since I didn't have a clue as to what was up.  This was a classical case of "go with the flow. . .and hope to hear the waterfall first".  The ride out of town was another route out to the Haiphong highway, Highway 5, which I know from a different bridge (almost all rides out of Hanoi start by crossing one bridge or another).  Shortly we turned off toward the South and rode on across unvarying tracts of rice paddy, with occasional dusty villages and towns along the sides of the road.  There was nothing whatever of "scenic" value.  Nothing in any way out of the ordinary.  Nothing but green, wet rice paddy.  It went on a long ways.  Then we arrived at a small city with enormous avenues.  Empty, dusty enormous avenues, lined with blocks and blocks of isolated government buildings.  We'd arrived at the provincial capital of Hung Yen province and proceeded directly to one of the very large government buildings standing inside its walls and gates.  It was the Ministry of Travel and Sport, responsible for, among other things, encouraging investment in tourism in the province.  We were met and tea-ed and smoked at by the aging Deputy Director of the Ministry and then turned over to an absolutely delightful young lady who was introduced as Ms. Hien, the Assistant to the Deputy Director.  Stop for a moment and remember who I am and what I do. ..dirt, rain, motorbikes, grease, rubber boots, rotting fish, diesel oil. . .that's me eh?  Enthroned on a rosewood armchair in a potentates office?  While a lovely young lady listens to instructions on what to show me?  The flow. . .go with it. . .so we went.  We saw two lakes, one of which has an island covered with white egrets.  We saw a total of four temples (really very nice ones, gold gilt, red lacquer, marvelous timberwork structure and tile roofs. . .) and one old street (really old, and actually quaint enough to maybe have some tourist attraction to it).  Then we were almost late for lunch and went hurriedly back across town to the Province People's Committee's Guest House (a BIG, apparently empty, hotel that looked like. . .er. ..a government building).  We were fed a huge and glorious lunch and plied with strong drink (I don't do that any more, which always makes that part of the ceremonies more interesting. . .but touch the lips with the stuff and try not to cry from the fumes in your eyes. . .you can get by it).  And then we went out and looked at another temple, this one dedicated specifically to Confucius and his 14th century Vietnamese disciple  Chu Van An (for whom streets are named in most Vietnamese towns. . .he's responsible for good luck on examinations among other things, and any student facing finals would be foolish not to drop by his place and burn a few sticks of incense politely).  And then the charming Ms. Hien left us and we drove back to Hanoi.
The details of the structural and ornamental timber work are worth study.

On the porch of. . .er, I think this is Temple No. 3. . .and the lively looking one is Ms. Hien (Assistant to the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Travel and Sport. . .and a delightful hostess).

Hung Yen.  If 1200 temples and/or shrines will make it a popular tourist attraction, we're on to something.

The next day at coffee it all became clearer.  Hung Yen is Mr. Son's home province and the President of the Province is his good friend.  He's trying to figure out how in heck to bring a little tourism to the place to help the economy.  I'm supposed to have a bright idea.  I am, after all, nearly a professional tourist in Viet Nam.  Wow.  Dead flat.  Boring as heck.  De populated. Covered with rice.  900 square kilometers and (what was the number???) 1400 temples and shrines. . .so what do I suggest???  Jeeminy.  A golf course?  A casino?  Disneyland???  I'm not much help.

I'm also about to be late for my re-scheduled meeting 5 hours away in Halong City.  So. . .the ride out to Halong is very familiar.  I've ridden it, once, sometimes twice on every trip I've made here (it's a great one night shake-down trip for a new motorbike, if nothing else, disregarding its status as one of the natural wonders of the world. . .) so I'll pass over the ride.  One bus made a serious pass at me.  There were no fatalities on the road, the bike ran well, my saddle sores. . .well, they're actually improving, with all this lounging around in air conditioned SUV's. . .

"Bald Quy", or "Quy, the Artist". . .the last in a line of 14 generations of traditional boat builders!
 And the visit with the Old Boat Builder???  There were several stumbles between the plan and the final version  of the day, but. all worked out.  My scheduled interpreter, Mr. Hai turned up five minutes early, but, er, hadn't confirmed our arrival time with our intended victim.  No matter, I'd stopped by the gentleman's house (that would be Mr. Quy, or "Bald Quy", or maybe "The Artist, Quy"). . .I'd stopped by his house, as I said, on my way into town on Thursday night, so at least he knew I was in town and would be by.  He's one of the great many Vietnamese who cannot understand my Vietnamese.  Some do, and compliment me on how well I speak.  Others can't hear a word I say.  Oh well.  That being the case, however, an interpreter was vital to the interview. . .hence Mr. Hai.

So we proceeded to Mr. Quy's house and found it empty.  No matter, the other half of the plan was a speedboat ride to a floating museum in (naturally enough) a floating village somewhere in Bai Tu Long. You'e looking for the connection here. . .the museum houses the bulk of Mr. Quy's output of careful boatbuilder's models of extinct traditional fishing boats from the area. . .it all makes perfect sense eh?  The village and the museum are floating because there is no land that is not vertical.  These islands are gorgeous to look at or photograph or do Chinese Ink Paintings of. . .but even a developer from California would have a hard time figuring out where to put a subdivision.  Straight up and down.  H'mm.
The houses in Cua Van floating village are all built on rafts. . .a wooden framework supported on blue plastic barrels.  Most have an attached fish-holding-net-pen as well, and of course, a fleet of boats.  People don't walk very far at once in this town.

Vertical rock. . .Cua Van.

One corner of Cua Van floating village. . .actually, the three largest buildings are the school.

Last night after checking in to the hotel I'd managed to catch the excellent Ms Cuc (I think you met her once before, the assistant to the Owner of Indochina Junk??) and, somehow, she'd put the speedboat ride together on a "whenever you can manage it" basis. . ."just call my cell phone and I will call our Staff and they will be ready for you".  She was good.  I called from Mr. Quy's front porch (in front of his empty house) and we rode across the big bridge to Hon Gai city and to the offices of  Indochina Junk, where, after buying the gas for the speedboat (all that the company charged for an extraordinary effort to help out my book-writing) we got on board a little scrap of white fiberglass with a brand new 100 hp Yamaha outboard holding down its stern.  Three of us didn't impress it.  We flew.  I don't know how fast such a combination goes, but we were 40 minutes en route over a glassy sea with the tachometer holding steady at 4700 and the wake. . .well, I don't normally ride in speed boats, but it was a very pleasant ride. 

The Cua Van Museum collection of Mr. Quy's models.  He also has models in museums in Japan, Korea and Europe (assuming I got that right)
The museum was very small, very nice, well maintained, and had the models as advertised.  Time was passing and we were getting rapidly later. . .so I photographed like a mad man.  Given the conditions (not much light) and the rules (don't touch or move the models). . .it went well.   The models are documented.  Check the website sometime soon and you'll see.

This crew needed a ride to the city.  . .and we were going that way.  The oarswoman took the boat ashore and we took the rest on board.  I liked standing up best anyway.
And so, back again (I said at the top of the page, this was a strange period of time. . .) across that glassy sea, but this time we stopped and picked up a boatload of women and kids who were trying to hitch a ride to the city to pay last respects to a dying grandfather. . .would I mind if we took them???  Heck, I was already happy standing up and there seemed to be enough room and as long as we kept the rpm up we weren't going to sink. . .couldn't get deep enough into the water.  So we gathered them up and went flying back on our (suddenly) errand of mercy.

Safely back on dry ground (safe?  on motorbikes? in Viet Nam? h'mm) safely back, as I said, we finally connected with and tried to interview Mr. Quy.  It went.  I got some answers and one bit of insight I'd been looking for. . .but. . .call it lack of interviewer preparation. . .or maybe inadequate translation. . .or. . .just the way it worked out.  It was a little frustrating, though quite friendly and soon over.

And that about brings us up to date.  I rode back to Hanoi, cleaned up, ate supper (green papaya shreds with sweet and salty sauce, bits of barbecued meat (of some sort) and slices of cucumber with sprigs of mint. . .not to be missed!!  "Bun Bo Kho" is what the sign said over the doorway I bought it from.

Today I bought a suitcase and put my motorbike in storage.  Tomorrow I start the long trek home.  There'll be a post script in a few days, photographs and some last thoughts for the season. . .I can't post photos from this internet shop and my little travel computer has swallowed a bug and won't do internet, or much of anything else either. . .so. . .it's all but over now.  I'll be home soon.