Friday, March 2, 2012

A Hard Day on the Road-Hanoi to Sam Son

Written in Sam Son—3-1-2012

Sam Son is about the closest seaside resort to Hanoi, and for me, at least, a great deal more. It's home to a large fleet (or several medium sized fleets, depending on your outlook) of diesel powered woven basket surf boats, or at least boats that still look a lot like baskets. Even more fascinating, it's just about the last home of the Thanh Hoa Province fleet of sailing rafts. I've written about both sorts of boats at some length on the website (and a considerably greater length in “the book”, so if you're really interested, hit the website ( or wait for the book to come out. . .but don't hold your breath!) Anyway, woven boats of one sort or another are by no means rare along the coast, they're simply more durable when bouncing off the bottom in the surf than any sort of wooden boat. They give instead of breaking, and, waterproofed with tar or resin and dung (buffalo by preference), they are easily re-sealed if anything shakes loose in a bad landing, so they've survived competition from modern sorts of boats wherever the men fish through the surf.

Unfortunately, the only local basket boat maker I've spotted has switched to fiberglass. His boats still look right, even from pretty close up. . .but don't be deceived! He has been using an existing basket hulled boat and simply laying up the fiberglass directly on it, so the resulting boat looks just like the outside of a real basket ON ITS INSIDE, and like an out-of-focus basket on its outside. Since a freshly tarred basket looks pretty “out of focus” anyway, it's really an excellent imitation. We'll have to wait a few years to see how they hold up, though maybe the pleasure of a leak free boat for a while will offset the displeasure of a boat that cracks like an egg when finally bounced too hard. Actually, he's fitting the same sorts of wooden interior framing that is traditional in the woven boats and that night add just the needed reinforcement to make surf landings survivable.

And the sailing rafts. . .they go back a long time, reported by the French naval captains exploring this coast several hundred years back. . .and reportedly relatively good sailors (though they thump hard into a head sea). The modern variant is not really a bamboo raft at all and not a pure sailing vessel either. They carry a big Chinese diesel engine running a propeller on a “longtail outboard” sort of arrangement, so the propeller can be hoisted up out of the water when they're landing. They're still rigged to sail, some “schooner” and others “sloop” rigged. . .two masts or one. . .but I haven't spotted any that still mount the traditional dagger boards that let them sail upwind. Now they sail upwind (or in a calm) with the diesel engine and use the sails, if at all, downwind or at most across it. They aren't really bamboo rafts anymore either. All you can see is bamboo I admit, but the bamboo just provides some structural strength and shape to a raft of scraps of white styrofoam trapped between the bamboos!

There's also a major river-front boatyard a mile or so out of town, with some lovely larger boats, both traditional style and the more modern “Motor Fishing Vessel” types, so I've been here before, and almost always under the same circumstances. It's winter or early spring. The sea is often rough and it's cold. The place is set up to house and feed ten thousand tourists and. . .I'm the only one in town. Most of the hotels and restaurants are padlocked. The beach is empty of anything but the working fish boats. There's not a hiker or a swimmer and absolutely not a sun bather anywhere to be seen. The white ponies that are normally painted to look like zebras and saddled with western saddles made of plastic leather to give tourists rides up and down the beach. . .aren't painted at all. . .and they're out wandering the town unsupervised, looking for free grass. One is going to pop soon and she'll have time for maternity leave before the real season starts.

I stopped first in my normal hotel, which has a pleasant roof-top balcony sort of place I'm fond of, but right now the place is not set up to have guests. The gentleman of the house, having given me the long-lost-welcome back (it's been 16 months after all), hurried around trying to make a room habitable, but when, among the dreary, slightly grimy surroundings I flushed the toilet and it flooded all over. . .I gave it up, put my pack back together and said goodbye. He understood, and nobody else in the family had seen me, so it was an easy escape. Loose then, I used my favorite technique for a new town. . .drove down the seaside strip of hotels, past the big ones to another clump of smaller ones, slowed down, and waited for somebody to flag me down. Sure enough, at the Dong Duong (say it “Dong Zoo-ung”) the lady of the household ran out in the street waving vigorously. And sure enough, the place is lovely. It's actually about $5.00 out of my price range for the night ($15.00 and I try to never pay more than $10) but it's nice enough to make it right.

Sadly, I'll probably only be here tonight, though I've been looking forward to Sam Son for months. Last trip through there were a pair of brand new, almost completely finished traditional fishing boats just above the high tide line, probably scheduled to launch within the month. I've been hoping there would be another at an earlier stage of construction I could photograph this time, but alas, nothing on the beach. In fact, it's really close to nothing going on at all. If it weren't for five soccer games, there wouldn't have been any traffic on the main drag at all. . .no, I'm not talking about fans, I'm talking about the games in progress in the street. Mostly they play in the intersections, since it's hard to play soccer on both sides of a median barrier. . .and there's a planter-barrier most of the length of town, so they fill up the intersections pretty completely. The goals are deliberately downsized to account for the smaller playing field, the more formal ones actually made out of rebar and netting and of a size for a 12-year old to carry out into the street and put where he wants it. The informal games make do with a few paving stones laid out in a goal-sort of pattern about five feet across. Either one works fine.

I'm telling you all this because there's so little to tell about the day. The run from Hanoi down here is never a beauty trip, though there are some charming spots along the way. Today (and for a long while now I suspect) they're destroying the highway and everything near it. Actually, that's not quite right. Consider the freeway. I DID manage to figure out the new approach from the old highway in Hanoi to the “new” (now six year old) freeway route southbound. The approach and on ramp structures are finished now and much less obvious than when they were a big construction project. More surprising, the signage is almost completely uninformative, if there is any. However, after two false starts I spotted a Hanoi-Thanh Hoa bus (Thanh Hoa is the province town for the province of Thanh Hoa, which is where Sam Son is. . .) so I stuck to his bumper up the ramp I'd been rejecting on my first two passes and away we went. When in doubt, follow an appropriate bus, if one comes by.

It's about 40 km (I've never measured it, but it's less than an hour I think) of very restricted access freeway (that is. . .one off-ramp in the whole distance, or maybe two) and it's not too heavily used, so it's pleasant easy running through almost entirely agricultural countryside. You just don't want to have any problems. The road was new when I first came this way in 2005, so it's not brand new any more, but still in quite good condition and still has absolutely no development along its banks. If you have a flat you either fix it or walk.

Up to my last visit, the freeway came to an end just north of the town of Phu Ly. simply petered out into desperately crowded and chunked up 4-lane urban road, with a sudden abundance of food, gasoline, tires, all the good things in life.

Today, however, if you're not awake, you blow right by what used to be a no-options exit and continue on onto the “Viet Nam Expressway Corporation” road. Holy cow. The asphalt is still warm I think, absolutely unblemished, brand new signs (including an ominous one every few km's that says “For SOS dial. . ..” For good reason. There is absolutely nothing around. After a mile or two it dawned on me that I'd made some sort of mistake. Or it seemed like it must be. I know the Phu Ly exit very well (an excellent restaurant for one thing, and I never forget those) and it gradually came home to me that this new super road is intended for people REALLY going somewhere. I wanted off. Kept going. Still wanted off. Kept going. Oh my. Finally came to a sign that said “Interchange 2 km” (I know that's what it said because it was by golly bi-lingual!!). I got off. It was less than a kilometer to the old road. The old road was destroyed. Actually, physically, ripped up and piled all over itself. That didn't stop the public from using it, we just had to dodge around the excavators, bulldozers, graders and rollers and try to keep out from under the dump trucks.

The awfulness of the road made good neighbors out of most of us. We stayed in line (no room for passing on the cow trails through the piles of dirt and rock and sewer pipes) and we didn't blow our horns much. But there were a few of us who were really dreadful horses behinds. Those few made a really bad situation almost intolerable. Or fatal, depending on your luck. One dump truck driver, in particular drove with joyous assault, blasting the countryside with the vilest horn I've heard on any road machine ever, blasting it CONTINUOUSLY, while weaving from one lane to the other, shoulder to shoulder, deliberately threatening to sideswipe (and nearly succeeding time and again) everything on the road that was smaller than he (I'm a lot smaller and did not contest the matter at all, but that poor green taxi. . .) At one moment he'd be clear over on one shoulder promising imminent devastation to bicycles and school kids. . .the next on the far shoulder having aced out whomever it was that had been in front of him. I rode within a few hundred feet of him for a long time. . .for all his violence and vile-ness he probably didn't gain five vehicle lengths in five miles, just terrified everyone around him. At times like that I feel so strong an urge to shoot out tires or windshields or brains. . .it can't be good for my karma. There were other drivers trying to make a living delivering the goods up and down the highway and they were working at it hard enough to keep the rest of us really busy, but people like that dump truck driver. . .h'mm. Where's Clint Eastwood when you need him?? Sadly, the Vietnamese police don't really patrol to control that sort of behavior yet, though they've obviously gone into the drunk driver deterrent business. There are a lot of brand new billboards along the highway that are really simple. They show a highway patrolman administering a breathalyzer test to a slightly rumpled young man and the caption says. ..”drink beer or alcohol and drive a vehicle and you'll be sorry”.

I normally get pretty nervous about 40 or 50 kilometers north of the turnoff to Sam Son, afraid I've missed it. The signage in years past wasn't all that great and prompted that sort of nervousness. Today there wasn't any signage at all, since there wasn't any road side at all. They must be widening the road substantially in this present exercise, since not only had they torn up all the existing roadway, they'd even sheared off the fronts of buildings that came a bit too close to the alignment. However, I've been this way often enough over the years that I spotted the turnoff anyway and turned with absolute delight away from the destruction zone I'd been driving on for the past several hours (filthy and exhausting hours to be clear). The road from the highway into Sam Son is a delightful ribbon of pavement 12 km long, just long enough to wind down from the hullabaloo on the highway. Today I ran perhaps 2 km along the way and came to the construction zone. The road is utterly destroyed for the last ten km into town. There are ditches in the middle of the road, excavations for manholes gaping open on the shoulders and into the mddle of the road, stacks of pipe everywhere, piles of gravel, veritable trains of dump trucks, every size of excavator and dozer, a number of graders. . .all to within a half mile of the beach, constant detours and drop-offs and here and there monstrous mudholes. My goodness. I studied the map while I ate supper (in my last clean shirt, jeans and underwear) and I've about concluded the best way back to Hanoi next month might well be by train. That's not out of the question based on today.

The gentleman sitting next to me after supper said he was pretty sure the construction goes on ALL THE WAY TO HUE. That would make it the grimmest two days I've ever ridden through. . .straight ahead.
(Added the next morning. . .I got out on the beach at daylight and the fleet, rafts and basket boats, were all at sea, only a few lay-a-beds left on the sand.  A big gang of people was just finishing a beach-seine set, which didn't yield much (I've seen the same crew bring in most of a truckload, so it isn't always slim pickings).  Then I got out to the shipyard and the deep water fishing port.  A push-ahead type boat was coming up river with all the fish he could haul. . .well loaded, and a big deep water boat was offloading into a truck. . .had it better than half filled already and the ladies keeping tally had whole pages full of figures (they weigh every two or three plastic boxes as they come up, so every fish goes across a postage scale.  The buffalo had delivered a load of gear to another boat, setting up a new net.  The boatyard had two major vessels on the ways, about identical.  One is about half planked, the other not quite framed out yet, so they made good illustrations for 2 stages of the work.  The plank and frame stock was being cut out by a whole gang of men with big Makita sidewinders. . .awkward saws to handle, but powerful, and need to be, ripping thick slabs of hardwood!  The master builder was laying out frames with a single "ships curve" and by eye. 

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