Thursday, March 8, 2012

Trying to Get Out of Hue

Written from Quy Nhon 3/8/2012--Weather wonderful, clear skies, bits of white clouds, stars at night, no haze at all (you can actually see the mountains!!).  But that's here and now, and in order to get here I had to finally bestir myself and get out of Hue.  At least this time it was only my own inertia (and a few explicit tasks to accomplish) that kept me in town.  I finally got it done fairly early in the morning two days back and have spent the past two days pushing pretty hard toward the South. Let me linger in Hue just a few minutes here and then we'll get on the road.

You may remember last trip, while I was basically under night time house arrest in Hue waiting for my passport to get back from a trip to Hanoi for some bureaucratic nonsense having to do with having tried to get into Laos after having given up my Vietnamese visa. . .and being rejected by Laos.  It was sort of a "man without a country"  situation for an hour or two there, then ten (I think I used the word "gruesome" before, and that fits) ten gruesome days hoping my passport would eventually emerge from the mill.  In any event, I was free to come and go during the day but had to be back in my hotel at night. . .not some other hotel. . .only the one I was last legally resident in.  So I wore out the wheels on the motorbike riding any road I could find out of town. . .and still get back by bedtime.  That lead to detailed exploration of "the Island", and that in turn lead to my needing a bottle of mineral water on a hot afternoon and thus stepping into Thanh and Duy's coffee shop and meeting their daughters, the perfectly delightful 2 year old Bao Thi, and the blind and autistic 7 year old Bao Vi.

I'm a fairly hard case and not easily moved, but that young girl, locked in her own head by her blindness somehow got me.  She's profoundly blind, her eyes obscured and usually closed, but that would just be an inconvenience if it were the only problem.  The autism. . .ah yes that makes it a serious problem.  Anyway, I visited several times, and tried bringing  out a`pair of cuddly white stuffed dogs. Bao Thi, at two,  was intimidated by them at first but shortly picked out one and carried it off.  Bao Vi explored one for a bit and then went back to her normal business, tearing up sheets of paper and twisting the bits between her fingers. She doesn't speak or count, but cheerfully finds her way around the house with her hands waving to "spot" obstructions, toes feeling the floor for important changes, goes quickly up stairs and down (and it's a winding staircase), and she dances if someone turns on the stereo in the coffee shop.  She figures out where she is, walks to the middle of the room, and twirls and twists and bows and bends until the music stops. 

Bao Thi is four now and still just a fine kid, nothing wrong at all except she's shy around bearded strangers.  Two is a normal age for onset of the autism and Bao Vi had been apparently normal (except of course for the blindness) until she was nearly two.  She'd even begun talking.  But stopped.  So, without saying anything to anyone, I'd been very fearful for Bao Thi.  No problem.  Bao Vi is nine now, bigger (though still very thin), lively in her odd way and seems to have given up on tearing up all the paper in the world.  Now she loves to find her dad and sit down next to him (and push her little sister out of the way if need be).  Her hair is long enough now to hang down in front of her face and she likes to sit very still and move her head slowly side to side so the fine black hair brushes across her face a few strands at a time.  And motorbike rides!!  She's discovered the joy of flying on a motorbike behind her dad (with Bao Thi sitting on the very tip of the seat in front of him and holding onto the handlebars).  Those are the things she likes. . .but there are many things that frustrate her and bring out a most ghastly scowl  for a moment.  But then it passes and she's on to something else.

In this fouled up miserable beautiful wonderful world, you have to ask Why?  Why do these things (all the tragedies, great and small) why do they happen?  Why can't we make it all right?  Why can't I let go of it?  Don't know.  Don't know.   It's enough to make you cry.

So, to the extent it could, that got taken care of, and Northbound in a few weeks I'll no doubt stop and take them up on their offer of a dinner before I go (Thanh is a splendid cook, so I'd be a fool to miss it).  My good byes got said at the hotel and I met Mr. Can for a last coffee and breakfast together.  It was vegetarian, since it was the middle day of the lunar month (first and middle days are vegetarian for Vietnamese Buddhists, who take a practical approach to such things).  And I got out of Hue.

Actually, getting out of Hue is a very gradual thing.  You're about twenty km out of the center of town and  it still feels a lot like "town".  In fact Hue sort of shades into Phu By, where the old American airbase is now an international airport.  And finally, after a good bit of Phu By you really do get out of town.  My saddle sores seem to have settled down to a dull roar (don't ask me about bandaids on saddle sores if you want to think of me as a dignified sort of person). 

I don't think I've introduced you to The Bike. . .She's a Chinese copy of a 1970's Honda "Win 100", in part even with interchangeable parts.  Her electronic ignition is no doubt a big improvement though.  She seems to manage the load she has to carry and just hums away the kilometers.  Consider that it's quite a load, me and my bags, with  my complete tool kit, rain gear, rubber boots, sun hat, sweater, swimming trunks, computer, three cameras, two guide books (which I haven't used in 2 years but can't leave behind) and the assorted chargers, spare batteries and so forth required to make all the electronics work.  There are enough pills and insulin in the bag to choke a horse and last me the whole six weeks.  I even brought a spare shirt and a a spare pair of jeans,  four spare socks (2 pair) and some underwear.  You wouldn't think she'd carry all that and a toothbrush, but she's quite the little machine.  She weighs at least as much as I do, but not much more, has a 110 cc motor that must produce some horsepower, but not very many, a four speed transmission that's a little harsh, but also a heel and toe type shifter so you can stomp her into gear either direction. . .and it's not really all that bad.  Those four gears have gotten her up to almost 100km/hr on one occasion when I was curious and there was a good opportunity.  That was level ground and no wind, but it took her a while to wind up that tight.  Normally you think of her as a 50 or 60 km/hr sort of person, speeds she can keep up all day long without a whimper.  In fourth gear she'll climb most paved highway grades, but sometimes you have to drop her into third.  If the switchbacks are too steep you might have to find 2nd (and she'll pull any hill she'll stick to in 2nd).  First gear is just for digging out of holes and getting away from stoplights smoothly.   All that and she carries enough gas to last all day. . .and routinely turns in 100 miles per gallon.

So, with the bike running superbly, the weather warm enough to want your sleeves rolled down to prevent terminal sunburn and a marvelously smooth and well maintained road, the past two days have been about as good as this sort of thing gets. 

The country South out of Hue is lovely once you break out into open country. The mountains loom close on your right hand and the sea is never far away to your left.  In places you run along right beside it and in others the mountains squeeze down tight to the water and your route takes you way up the side valleys looking for elevation to get over the high ground.  There are two major climbs, the first just before the beautiful lagoon and beach at Lang Co.  It's posted at 8% grade in places, that is, 8' of climb or fall in every 100' of travel, plenty steep, and about all the bike will pull at speed in high gear.  When you have to slow to make a switchback you'll have to shift down, but no matter, this is a short little climb and well worth the effort for the the view out over the shallow lagoon behind the barrier beach and the town of Lang Co fitted in between.  The surf beats on the outside, but the lagoon inside is all but perfectly smooth, and amazingly shallow for many square miles. 

It was too early to stop for lunch this time, but I pulled into my favorite restaurant there (the one owned by the Khmer lady, whose photograph on the sign hasn't gotten a day older in the time I've been passing by) and had a glass of sparkling water to wash down a can of Red Cow.  While I sipped and stretched and stood instead of sitting, I could see at least six ladies sitting offshore in the shallow water, feeling through the sand for clams.  Lang Co is a wonderful place for clams, oysters, crabs. . .and ocean fish too of course, there is an active fleet fishing outside. 

The hotels along the barrier beach all look pretty posh for a poor motorbike tourist although  I once pulled up in the entrance drive to one of the nicest, and they didn't run me off, (though the gardener looked a good deal more civilized than I) so maybe I'm being too shy.

The other big climb for the day is over Hai Van Pass.  Earlier in the year when I've passed this way it's always been the same, you climb up the north side of the pass in mist or rain and fog, wearing everything you have.  You crest over the summit, wave at the souvenir and snack vendors that were hoping for a tour bus and swoop down into Da Nang, warmth, sunshine, blooming flowers and the South.  In winter and spring it's lilke turning on the lights!  I'm late this year and Spring has already gotten to Hue, but the weather south of the Pass is still markedly "better".  It's full summer here, though not as hot as it will be.  Where the rice is just coming along nicely in fields around Hue, south of the pass there's already lots of rice drying by the roadside and truckloads of rice straw moving around the country.   Flowers are everywhere, the white egrets are out walking their cattle, and most delightful, the sky is clear and the mountains are out.

Normally I'd have stopped in Hoi An for the night, but I pushed on another couple of hours to Quang Ngai, arriving just an hour before dark, which comes very very suddenly in this latitude.  I wasn't looking for a particular place to stay, just that it should be on the south edge of the city for a relatively easy get away in the morning.  When I passed a temple on my left hand with a large white Quan Am in front I took the next hotel I came to, which looked fine anyway.  Quan Am is the female "goddess" of compassion, really, a Boddhisatva, a person dedicated to the welfare of all living beings and not a "god" at all.  She and the Virgin Mary are pretty much in the same business, trying to relieve our fears and take our problems to higher authorities, assuming there are some.  Anyway, I always find the tall white figure comforting and often stop to pay respects. 

In this case, the temple only houses four old monks and a few lay students and helpers.  It's main function, other than as a house of worship, is training and growing trees in concrete pots and platters.  It's a more practical version of the Japanese bonsai tradition, since these trees and shrubs will actually give shade or flowers or fruit to the rooftops and paved yards of people.  I had just finished tea with the 80 year old monk who found me wandering around the premises when I realized something interesting was happening right in front of the Quan Am.  One of the trees was leaving.

Actually, it's quite straightforward.  To make a smooth operation out of it you need two motorbikes, each with its own hand-truck type trailer (wooden frame and motorbike wheels with a steel rod for an axle, they carry huge loads).  The crew of four men arrived on site with a monstrous tripod made of 2" pipe on the back of one trailer.  It's heavy enough to be hard for just the four of them to raise, but they get it done.  Then to walk it into position directly over the tree is straightforward, moving 2 legs at a time.  One leg has a set of "ladder rungs" welded on, and the head rigger slung a chainfalls that had to be 50 pounds over his shoulder, with the chains and block in a canvas bag behind and the gearworks ahead of him.  At the top he hooked the gearworks into a waiting padeye and lowered the chainwheel chain and the load block carefully down amongst the branches.  You can guess the rest. . .they set two straps and evened them up, took a strain on the hoist and easily lifted the half ton of tree and pot off of its base, manhandled the base away and shoved a trailer in under neath.  The concrete pot was a bit too big for the trailer deck, so its feet were set on dunnage.  The pieces of the concrete base were (barely) manhandled on the second trailer, the tripod taken down and blocked up and tied down on top of the bases and the crew was ready for the road.  There was a small matter of the gateway being too low by a foot to clear the tree top, so they had to un-hitch the trailer and tip the tree and trailer WAY forward and sort of persuade the tree top to bend over from a perch on a ladder (which of course was in the way of the trailer's forward motion, but they had that figured out too).   The motorbike pilot needs a runner alongside to help keep the bike and load upright until he's straightened out and going down the street. . .then he's on his own.  Great fun.

I need to be out on the road, this has taken longer than I thought. 

The Photos:  The road stone quarry (business); My home hotel in Hue; The Mouth of the lagoon at Lang Co; A different sort of sand barge; A small street on the island (the bike on the left); Second youngest hotel grand daughter playing with toilet paper (don't say spoiled); Rice Paddy and homes on the edge of Quang Ngai; Rigging and trucking the tree.  I seem to have lost Hai Van Pass somewhere. . .will add it here. . .
Oh, and the young lady who shared my lunch on the road. . .she was very sweet, and careful not to get any finger in with her pork chop. 

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