Sunday, March 4, 2012

Two Long Days on the Road, then Parties in Hue

The two long days on the road fit my preferred solution to life.  The parties (yes, more than one) are rather out of character.  Bear with me, I have excuses.  Sort of.  Let's go back for now to a misty, not really raining sort of morning getting out of Sam Son.  I did run out to the shipyard at the river mouth before I got going, which gave the damp air time to think about it.  It decided to keep doing it for a while longer, so I rode through the 10 or 12 km of road repairs back to the highway from the coast in the wet.  Plastered all forward facing surfaces, including visor, exposed pants leg (rain pants and right boot didn't quite meet.  Sigh), eyeglasses (take them off), eyeballs (blink more) and so forth.  However, that was soon over and the road on beyond Thanh Hoa was definitively not under repair.  In fact, it was pretty good, grading into just dandy as the day went on and the weather dried nicely.  Skipping ahead to the last hundred  km or so into Hue on the second day, it was a gloriously good road.  To be so happy!

 Skip back to the first day out of Sam Son. . .To begin with, I skipped the harbor at Cua Lo.  It would have added a day to the ride, and I've already documented the whole place (and fleet) in tedious detail.  So I rode on by even though there seemed to be breaks in the clouds and patches of blue sky out toward the coast when I passed the turnoff.  Perhaps I'll stay there on the trip north and skip Sam Son. . .decisions decisions. 

I simply rode on until I got worried about finding a hotel for the night.  I don't drive at night here if it can possibly be avoided.  No death wish.  So I stopped at Anh Ky, which is. . .er. . .well, not much, but it had a guest house and what I think must have been an old Communist Party hotel.  The guest house was full and the hotel was crowded, but they gave me a room for SEVENTEEN DOLLARS.  That's WAY over my budget.  And it wasn't all that wonderful a room, though the water in the shower was at least warm, the bed was fine. . .and they had 2-bars of wifi that only cut out often enough to make you cuss.  My neighbors sat out in the hallway to get a better signal, but Vietnamese men can squat comfortably for hours and type with the laptop on the floor.  I'd die.  So I stayed in the room, sat in the funny little "easy" chair and typed on the tiny table that held the teapot and TV.  My laptop is quite small. . .just as well.  

I went out hiking and looking for supper (rice porridge with chicken, cilantro, lime, chiles. . .really very good, and chocolate and marshmallow cookies.  What can I say?  They're called "Choco-Pie" and you can buy two in a little cardboard box (or 24 in a big box. . .).  I munched my cookies into the local Yamaha showroom.  Think Toyota or Honda showroom. . .big, white and red building (they're all the same color scheme) two-stories tall, with display windows at both elevations, a big floor display, a rack of gorgeous brochures with all the technical details and very exciting photos.  . .and a good salesman on the floor, even that late in the evening.  He patiently showed me every single model (lots to choose from, and they are lovely machines)!  The prices new range from $900 for a pretty ordinary air cooled 4-speed motorbike to $2200 for the top of the line. . .water cooled, 4 valves, bells, whistles, a 5 speed transmission and the biggest motor available to most people here. . .135 cc's.  They'd sell like hotcakes in the US. . .if only we could get them!

There was a crew of workmen from India living in the hotel, dressed for working in traffic, orange and reflectorized jump suits and hard hats. . .good personal protective equipment. . .perhaps they are electrical line men. . .the Vietnamese don't need help with their roadwork. . .but boy do they need to add electrical distribution capacity!  Fun though, watching that crew in the hotel kitchen in the morning, crowding in among the hotel staff to smush garlic and chiles in a mortar and stir scrambled eggs  and slice tomatoes and mint and so forth. . .they definitely were helping out in a large way.  The final product looked quite good. . .stir fried noodles with the scrambled eggs, tomatoes, garlic, mint, cilantro. . .and who knows what I missed, all served over mounds of white rice and washed down with large glasses of hot tea.  I don't think I did as well, but I wasn't invited to their table.  Perhaps I should have tried harder, they seemed friendly men.  Several were young and handsome and the kitchen maids didn't seem to mind.

So that was day one.  Day two. . .the weather started out gray again but by noon it was SUNNY AND WARM.  I knew I wanted to go south.  The road was splendid all day with hardly a chuck hole or a puddle.  It's glorious springtime here, the rice is well started (around Hanoi it's just barely transplanting time) and the fields are a rich deep green.  Where there's no rice there are fields of vegetables. . .lettuce, cabbages, kohlrabi (is that how you spell that?  i'm sure that's the right name, a green lump of a thing with leaves out the top?  Anyway, it's lovely springtime here and with the weather warming nicely, it is wonderful riding.  The bike, incidentally, is running perfectly, and adds to the pleasure, just humming along eating the miles.  Er.  Kilometers. 

On the road near a small town called Xuan An, which is quite near Vinh which is a good sized city near the mouth of a considerable river, the Hoi, which runs quite a ways inland and apparently is crossed by low bridges I spotted a new genus of river boat.  You ask how I know the bridges?  it's made obvious by the very low houses on the sand barges I spotted unloading.  I first spotted one of the barges just rounding a bend while I was at speed on the bike.  By the time I backtracked, stopped and fetched out the camera it was too late.  Sometimes I'm not quick enough!  However, there was a good second chance a few minutes later.  The barges are quite sweet little vessels, to remind you of the English canals and their pretty little "narrow boats".  The crane doing the unloading was even more interesting though, a locally home-built little thing, it had a big basket of rocks for a counterweight, and hand spliced cables with cable clamps for backstays!  It was run with electric power, so complies nicely with the "Green Ports Initiative", but I'm not sure it's been OSHA certified lately.  Though the bucket is not terribly large, the barges are so tiny that a crew of women lands the bucket each pass to keep from banging up the boat. 

Oh. Sorry, didn't mean to get into so much detail.  But you know, that is the sort of thing I come for. . .or at least some of it.  Still, I wish I'd gotten the one that got away around the bend.

Lunch reaffirmed a lesson or two.  First, the best lunches on the road are usually at the between-towns bus stop places.  Second, always pick a place with one or two busses (indicates a good following among the drivers) but not many more than two (chaos. . .not a good thing when you're a foreigner with minimal language skills).  So I picked one with just a single bus and hit it perfectly. . .everyone had just been served, there was still good hot food left in the kitchen, and the staff had time to show me around.  I pioneered the method 40 odd years ago when I spoke even less of the language and it still works.  Walk into the kitchen and look around you!  But don't overdo the instructions. . .indicate some general preferences, then retire to the table or go wash your hands (ask, it's not always obvious, but it's always there) and await the outcome.  I swear, when I give too detailed an order it doesn't work as well. If the cook is given a little latitude and wants to please. . .you'll be happy.  This was a particularly good lunch, a pile of rice smothered in tofu, tomatoes, sauteed pork (juicy and nice), some nice herbs and salty fish sauce with chiles. . .as well as a bowl of vegetable leaf in chicken broth sort of soup, with a large percentage of the vegetable leaves being fresh mint!  I don't normally appreciate this watery salty stuff with leaves in it, but today's was very very nice.  Mint.  H'mm.  I washed it down with Red Bull.  Full tummy and steady drone of motorbike for another 175 km. . .could be really sleepy in the afternoon.  The Vietnamese name for the stuff by the way is only slightly different. . .Bo Huc. . .Red Cow.  Somehow not quite the same.

The bus had an unusually large number of young families, so there were kids to photograph between bites.  Fun.  Altogether a fine lunch with a pleasant crowd.  When the bus loaded up the driver laid out a square of carpet below the door and put a big laundry basket next to it.  You darned well take off your shoes before you get in his bus!  It was one of the luxury sleeper buses that run long distances day and night. . .the seats (2 deep and 4 across) sort of raise up for sitting and sort of lay back for sleeping.  Not bad, but not on a par with the best class of train I think.  I got away before they did, but they passed me like a quick thought a bit later. . .gone.

The afternoon was wonderful riding through pretty countryside, but. . .how many times can I say that before you get bored.  In the end, I rode down the familiar thickening city streets of Hue, to the sharp turn when you come to the river, along through the park with the ramparts of the citadel on your left and the sand dredges running upriver to discharge among the dragon boats with their tourists.  To the bridge, across and turn left onto Le Loi Street, past another few blocks of riverfront park and then into the hotel district.   Right down Chu Van An Street to the hotel. . .and I'm home in Hue. 

It's late.  I'll explain about the parties when next I write. 

Oh, the photos. . .the Yamaha salesman, misty morning in the countryside, green rice in the countryside, the river barges and the funny little crane, and kids caught me from the other side of the road.  Good night.

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