Thursday, November 29, 2012

What About Nha Trang?

Written from La Gi, two days later, on Thursday 11/29/2012

If a fellow spends two days in Nha Trang, he must have something to say about it.  Let me think a minute.  Somewhere I've already ranted about the new harbor front promenade that has replaced the old fish market on the northern bank of the northern river mouth harbor, not to mention the dredging of the sand bar that used to provide such a spectacular morning informal fish market.  For a time that was probably the best fish-boat show on the whole coast.  A hundred or more boats would roll in off the South China Sea, their crews bleary eyed from working all night and ready to sell whatever and get some sleep, while the bumboatmen and the fish wives were wide eyed and ready to buy it all and carry it ashore and sort it and ice it and pack it away on bicycles and motorbikes ever so quickly, and all of that in plain sight from the comfort of the new bridge across the harbor mouth.  You could stand on the offshore sidewalk and watch the boats converging from all the Eastern points of the compass, lining up in the rock-bound fairway and under the bridge, then you could scoot across 4 lanes of traffic to the inshore side of the bridge and watch the bumboats swarm around them as they slowed in the harbor.  Some over eager skippers, unwilling to wait to transload into a shore boat, would simply run their boats aground on the sandbar and hand the catch overboard in bright plastic baskets.  Either way it was a delight to watch, furious activity, acts of daring do by bumboatmen and fishermen alike and excellent boat handling all around.  Well.  They have just a little more waterfront promenade now and a few more coffee shops to line it.  It's not like Nha Trang didn't already have THREE WHOLE KILOMETERS of the finest sort of white sand beach, every inch of it groomed and landscaped and lined by a waterfront promenade. . .nope, they really needed that extra 400 meters.  Dang.  But what the heck, they do a nice job of it and if you didn't know what was gone. . .you wouldn't miss it!
Actually, a lot of the boats still tie up there below the Cham Temple complex, they just don't put on the performance for tourists every morning.  I suppose to be fair I should admit that where you had to hire a boat and take a boat ride (if you could find a boat to hire) to get a good look at the fleet, now you can ride your bike along the new promenades and park anywhere along the way and stop and have a good look.  So much for picky complaints.
You can still take good   boat photos from the new waterfront promenade, it's only the chaos of the old fish market that's gone.

The most spectacular thing about Nha Trang other than its God Given white sand beach and beautiful blue water (it really is that blue and beautiful) is how fast it's changing otherwise.  There are new hotels replacing old hotels all over the place.  Little old funky hotels are being torn down and new ones ten times as tall are going up.  The tower cranes make good landmarks as you run up and down the miles of confusingly similar hotels and shops. The landscape architects tried to help, with interesting variations on how they prune the trees. . .my hotel was near a stand of flat topped pines, easy to tell from the pyramid shaped pines down the way.  Oh, and it was located between the ongoing hotel demolition site (to the North) and the new hotel construction site with the yellow tower crane (to the South).  It was in a cul de sac with five other little hotels just off the waterfront drive (and much quieter than a hotel right on the Ave), so I was careful to line out very prominent landmarks to find my way back.
A few hotels. . .the view out one side of my room in Nha Trang.  This is only a very small sample, but it gives you an idea.   
The standards are high and the prices are low, and the whole world comes here to play in the sun. Half the signs are in English and a great many are in Russian (keep in mind that when the US was embargoing Viet Nam the Soviet Union was the country's biggest friend, culturally, politically and economically, so a LOT of Russians know about Viet Nam as a holiday place!!).  The interesting difference is that the Russians I've met can speak English and I can't speak Russian.  H'mm.   So anyway. . .the place is really clean, up to date, well set up for visitors of any sort and is just plain nice.  You can get by on $20 a day, room, board and entertainment (that would be me, the last of the big spenders) or you can be treated like royalty and do all sorts of exciting and unlikely things for a bit more.    There's even an amazing tramway that flies you up and over the harbor to an offshore island where. . .I'm told. . .there is lots to do. . .er. . .a big hotel, many restaurants, and video games???   The fellow who was directing traffic (no, I could not park my bike right there, but I could practice English with him if I wanted) was a great potential tour guide, and really very sweet about sending me off to the parking lot instead of letting me leave the bike right in the middle of things.
I wasn't kidding about the cable cars. . .they go ACROSS THE HARBOR to an offshore island.  Ships go underneath without even looking up!  It costs $25 to ride, an astronomical price for most Vietnamese people, but a great many take the ride.  It's very popular.  Pretty amazing one way or another.
But the best part of Nha Trang may be all the rest of it.  It's really quite a large city and has a lot going on away from the waterfront tourist zone.  It's not really EASY to find your way around, but with a little attention to the compass, the mountains and the street names (if you have a good enough map or a good enough memory) then you can find your way pretty well, and it's small enough that aimless wandering will eventually bring you back to someplace you know.  Maybe.

I did finally find where they sent the fish market, across the southern river (the town lies between two river mouths, one of them right in town where it was easy to find, the other one south of town and not quite so obvious to a casual visitor.  However. . .if you follow the signs for the new road to the airport in Cam Ranh (and you should, it's a gorgeous cliff-top freeway winding along above the sea like something from the best of Southern California). . .if you follow the signs, as I was saying, you cross the southern river on a fine new bridge and if you turn left (I seem always to be making sudden left turns) you find yourself in the new harbor. The place is quite the change.  It's organized, sanitized, straight up and down and square left and right.  Well, almost.  There's a long concrete dock where boats lie to discharge fish and take on ice, a correspondingly long covered sorting and icing shed, so that fish come straight off the boat, get trundled or slid as the case may be under cover out of the sun, covered with ice if they're to lie there long, and then shuffled on out the other side of the shed where the trucks wait with their doors open.  All the while the big blocks of ice keep coming.  There are big ice chippers everywhere, blowing ice down into fish boats or into piles to be shoveled into trucks or onto piles of fish. . .a very very busy place.  You leave the place feeling like you really WOULD like to eat a fish that had been there.  Some fishing harbors tend to leave a strangely contrary feeling in your gut.
Offloading sharks and rays at the new fish market pier.  The pier goes on for a thousand feet or more, all very proper and modern.  Darn.
And I found at least one small yard and the walled off and security gated back side of a large shipyard and boatyard.  The small yard at least was a lot of fun.  It's wedged in beside the bridge abutment of the new bridge, with almost room to build a boat if you're good at organizing space.  So they're building a matched pair of large boats and rebuilding the whole front end of a middle sized one.  What would you expect. They're also doing really nice work, excellent fit and finish, attention to detail, and they're having a lot of fun doing it.  Of course, I, with my beard, my belly and my camera stumbling around the crowded little place probably provided more light entertainment than they get in an ordinary day.
This is what you call proper space utilization.  I'm not sure the scaffolding comes up to OSHA standards, but it held my weight and only bounced. . .a little.  These people are building really good boats. . .excellent timber, beautifully fitted and fastened.  Rather odd framing I admit, but it obviously works.
Short summary:  Nha Trang is a superb place to be for beach fun of any sort (Question: How do you play volleyball in the sun and the sand? Answer:  Enthusiastically!)  Get your scuba certification here (water like that to dive in? Oh my), ride the cable tram, bake in the sun, swim in the easy waves, watch the pretty girls/handsome guys (your choice) go by, practice motorbike riding in medium traffic (nothing like Hanoi or Saigon, but busy enough to be good practice). . .and come here to meet people from anywhere, eat haute cuisine or great street food (or are they much the same thing, just with or without the napkins?) and choose restaurants from anywhere you can think of.  Okay, no Ethiopian places yet. . .so there's a niche market  you could jump into.  Or go shopping for almost anything you don't need (pearls? opals? silks? a T-shirt that says. . .anything you can imagine, how about a sarong or a sari? a Swiss watch from China?  or a Swiss watch from Switzerland. . .).  My gosh.  I had no idea.

Or you could hang out in the little boat yard and find out how to build a fishboat.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

From Hue South to Nha Trang, with a few stops. . .

Written from Nha Trang, 11/27/2012, where the weather is fine and fair and quite hot in the afternoon.

The great adventurers all seemed to chronicle their journeys by "a day's travel", that is, they might say something like "the edge of the world lies there, just one day's travel past. . .and there they would give the name of some godforsaken place they'd been.  It's a universal unit of measure that works as well for Englishmen with their dog sleds heading for the South Pole or Italians slogging across Asia looking for silk.  It is a measure that eludes me on this trip.  Depending on the vagaries of the surface of the road, the curiosity of the rider, the attractiveness of the scenery, the misery of the weather and the functioning of a small motorbike, somewhere between 200 kilometers (120 miles) and 400 kilometers (a whole lot of miles!!) you come to the point of calling it a day's travel and you find a hotel.  Not terribly precise.

However, taking all those variables together, you find that we've had pretty good traveling, but we haven't gotten all that far, so "a day's travel" has shrunk a bit.

By and large the road has been in pretty good shape. . .with a minor exception or two.  I've managed to keep my attention on traveling a good part of the time, but some little side roads and boat moorages just demand to be seen, so I've no doubt cut down the progress a little that way.  The bike has run like a sweetheart, can't blame anything on her and the weather has cooperated wonderfully. This is the end of November, but we are south of Hai Van Pass now, so well into the warm and sunny South.  In fact, it's been hot enough in the afternoons to burn the backs of my hands and my ankles when I rode without socks and gloves.  It's nice to ride without socks so you can readily enter pagodas or people's houses. . .with socks on it's a good deal more bother.  However, the bike makes me pick my feet up and my pants legs hike up a bit and without socks or really good sun screen. . .voila. . .cooked ankles on the western side!  The gloves just look funny.  They were originally knitted for the use of people who unload fish for a living. . .white cotton, inclined to ravel out. . .especially where I cut the finger tips off so I can handle the horn and switches and such.   Dorky basically, but they keep the sun off and I'll wear them hereafter.  Promise..  So it must be the scenery that's held us back.

As far as scenery goes, I started right off by getting dessert before dinner when I left Hue.  There was a good excuse. . .I had one last photo to deliver 10 km down the island from Thuan An.  Then of course it made no sense to back track to Hue, 20 km when it's only another forty-some back to the highway a long ways south of the City.  I just added on the 12 km to get to the island and the 11 km to get back to the highway, so really, the 41 km length of the island was all distance made good on the course.  Don't check my math, we made it one way or another.  The island is a little slow, I admit, it isn't highway cruising, poking down the narrow island lane (I still think it's fun to call it Hwy 49B, even if it's only 12' wide), but it IS one of my favorite rides and it made a wonderful start for the day.  There was a problem of course, dropping off one photo I ended up with four more to take back later. . .an old man (handsome old dog, if a bit wrinkly), a beautiful young lady, and the umbrella seller and her daughter, back asking pretty please for an update.  I originally took their photographs in the midst of an afternoon rainstorm while I bought an umbrella from the front porch shop mom runs.  As I consider the matter, I may be the only itinerant portrait photographer in all of Viet Nam.  H'mm.  I lose fifty cents on each portrait, but make it up on the volume. . .
I'll have to go back to deliver it.

Once you leave the island, you're still 11 wonderful kilometers from the highway, so enjoy it.  The mountain runs almost clear to the water along this stretch and the little road winds along and up and down the flank of the hillside above the narrow strip of coastal farmland, so you get some quick uphill and down climbs and some excellent curves, fun riding with wonderful views on a sunny day.
On the mainland hillside above the Inland Sea, there are 11 km to run
Down this sort of road. . .

Finally back to the highway, you might get to stop and wait for the train to arrive.  Here we use the "train is about due now so I'm closing the barrier" method of preventing squished motorbikes and buffalo carts.  It was a short wait for me this time, but some of the people seemed a little over eager to get going. . .they might have been waiting a while.  After you make the left turn onto the highway headed south, you only have 30 or 40 km to run and you come to probably the prettiest little bay on Hwy 1. . .Lang Co  (watch me carefully here and see what I have to say about Dai Lanh in a day or two).  I've stopped and photographed every sort of angle to the bay and the simple fact is it's just a small body of water behind an ocean barrier sand bar with mountains at each end.  You can't really take a picture of it.  I mean. . .I guess. . .that nothing I've done has done it justice.  You top over the last bit of the low pass before the bay and get a first view.  A little closer the bay takes shape, a large oval of flat water (and very shallow. . .think clams and crabs. . .yes).  Then, closer still and down at the pool's own level you catch the reflection of the mountains and the sky and all the time you keep rolling, past the restaurants strung out along the bay, their dining decks built on spindly legs over the water, and then you're into the town and unless you slip off onto a back road the bay is lost to sight.  And in town, if you don't turn uphill into a hotel-resort's entry drive, you won't catch sight of the sea.  (They don't run you off if you DO go look, and I'm sure they'd rent you a lovely beachside room if you asked, even if you arrive on a dirty motorbike.)  This time there was a bus blocking the really lovely view from above the bridge out of town, so I just kept on going over the mountain to the South and stopped a few miles away to see if that gave the right perspective.  Nope.  You'll just have to go see it yourselves.  Worse news yet. . .it was too early in the day to stop for lunch, so no fresh shrimp or clams or crab for me. . .I rode right by some of the best open air seafood restaurants on the whole  route.  Darn.
Climbing up Hai Van Pass and looking back at Lang Co.  A feast of fine things!

And then there was the glorious climb up over Hai Van Pass, the great divider!  It stands at the far southern end of the mountain range that bounds the river of frigid air flowing through the Himalayas from out of central China all winter.  To the north of the pass is cold and dreary three full months of the year as that cold northwest wind rolls down the Red River valley and spreads out over the delta. . .lifting the warm moist air from the South China Sea up and holding it there, dripping and drizzling through the northern Winter.  Beyond the pass lie Da Nang, Hoi An and all the sunny south land, bright and beautiful through that same winter.  There's a tunnel now that runs for a long ways under the mountains and carries all the heavy traffic away from the steep and winding road up the pass.  Nowadays only fuel tankers (not allowed in the tunnel), tourist buses (wouldn't want to miss the views or the souvenir sellers at the summit) and the motorbikes use the old road. I don't know why we don't get to go through the tunnel, but I wouldn't trade the pass for a dark and dismal tunnel anyway.  So, what used to be a death-defying challenge to the murderous pig trucks and their kin is now a (mostly) fabulous climb up the side of the mountain with the sea spread out below you and views north and south that go on forever as you double back and forth over and over again gaining altitude. (He said "mostly". . .there are still the tankers and they behave about like any other truck.  . .and the tourist buses have a wide reputation for eating motorbikes for supper. . .but COMPARED. . .it's lovely now.)

Even on a sunny day there will probably be a little cloud layer right in the summit and you'll have a few minutes of cold and damp before the long sweet run down the far side, into the south.  This early in the year it was still nice and warm on the northern slopes, so I didn't have the winter time thrill of stopping halfway down the mountain to take off rain pants and sweaters and extra layers.

All of this mind you was before lunch!

And then there was Da Nang.  At least I didn't get lost trying to get through the city this time.  It's gotten a lot easier with the new direct-exit from downtown that runs along the rail line South (a dandy hint you're headed the right general direction . .right next to the RR to Saigon? What was your question?)  You only have to be looking in the right place once to see the excellent highway sign and the rest is easy.  I guess the flip side of that is that you only have to miss one sign and continue on forever on the wrong road.  H'mm.  Anyway, by contrast, the first half dozen times I tried to get through Da Nang I managed to wind up lost and asking directions every time.    Don't ask, I don't know.  Cities just do that to me.  Da Nang is a big, fine, modern city with famous beaches, the old American Air Force and Navy bases (now turned generally to better or other uses), a brand new beautiful suspension bridge that puzzles me a little. . .it lifts you up over the river mouth and the southern part of downtown, but I haven't figured out how to get up on it or what it connects to what.  No doubt it's not just for looks though.  Or maybe it is. . .it's lovely.  But I've never wanted to spend the night or explore much beyond the river mouth harbor.  Cities do that to me as well.  And so we rolled on through the day.

For most tourists on this route the next stop is always Hoi An, and most of them love the place.  Well. . .years ago there would have been no hesitation about stopping in Hoi An.  The first two years I visited I wrote rave reviews each time, it was a magical place then, though already the change was starting.  One Tet Night (Vietnamese New Year, and easily the most important holiday of the year) I spent in a funny little hotel there, just a few blocks from the town pier, the river, and the wonderful market.  I spent that new year's eve wandering up and down the candle lit streets, watching a fleet of paper boats, at least a thousand of them, carry their single-candle cargoes drifting across the harbor. . .gentle people offering me fruit and candy from the sidewalk altars by their front doors, later sitting in a peaceful little hotel with people from China, Australia, Europe and Viet Nam, all of us talking about  home and other new years and the interesting things we'd seen.  It was a marvelous night and I'll remember it well for years.  But too much has changed in Hoi An these days.  They've torn down  a grand shipyard to make room for a hotel, but haven't built the hotel yet.  They've torn out whole old neighborhoods out along the beach and are building condominiums as well as hotels.  My old gentle hotel in the old quarter has gone upscale  It's a multi star sort of place now and didn't have room for me anyway last time I was there.  Grumble Gripe Complain.  The old architecture is still there around town, the old Japanese, Chinese and French buildings from ages ago are protected by their UNESCO World Heritage status, and so is the French Patisserie and the French restaurant across the street.  Still there, sort of. . .but they had to do something to serve all the new tourists from the new hotels, and the upstairs billiards bar with its superb really FRENCH baguettes. . .is now air conditioned seating for the restaurant downstairs.  Sigh.  Hoi An. I miss you.

So we carried on into the evening to Quang Ngai.  I've never stayed there before.  Heck, I've never been into the town.  When the highway was rebuilt, before my time, they ran it just west of town so there's no inconvenience at all, you drive right on pas on your way somewhere else.  I'd never seen the place and had no memory of passing it, though I've been there many times.  Well.  To begin with I blew it about the river.  I mean, a river shows on the map, flowing by the city and on into the sea not too far away.  I was expecting a river.  You know, water, boats, docks, that sort of thing.  I got sand.  Oh, there's a little water going by, enough to float a good sized fleet of little sand loading pumps that are moored in what little water there is.  They have small diesel powered centrifugal pumps on deck and a discharge pipe goose-necked up to pump directly into the hold of a sand barge.  And there are sand barges, ugly steel things (okay, they have a nice curve to their rudders and their bows turn up rather nicely, but still, rusty, steel, square boxes. . .with pretty ends I guess).  But they haul sand I'm sure.  Nothing was working when I went by, so I've nothing to report in that regard.

Quang Ngai itself, on the other hand, was quite a surprise.  It's a Province Capital, sort of like a super County Seat in America. . .with government offices and the businesses that follow along.  It's lively and modern and full of fun people doing interesting things, full of bright shops selling any sort of thing you might want, including a lot of high end luxury goods.  A really flat flat screen TV is ideal in a small Vietnamese home. . .takes up almost no space and er, keeps the kids busy?  Oh. Well anyway, there were not two or three but a great many shops filled with them (have you ever seen thirty soccer games going at once and all of them at least 32" across??
Quang Ngai at Night--the light just turned green!

What a sight!  I ended up with a very nice hotel room and a good supper from a rice-dinner shop, the sort where you get a plate full of rice and then get to point at goodies in the sidewalk stand to top it off (pork, chicken, fried fish, dried fish with chile, duck eggs, morning glory greens, lots of goodies). . .for a dollar or sometimes two.  Oh.  And che.  Not just one che seller that I had to hunt for, but che being sold everywhere. . .good che, all the right flavors, including "just fruit", with and without coconut milk and toasted coconut.  By the time you'd walked two blocks you realized it was going to be serious hard work making up your mind about dessert.  Dear me.

And here I watched a battle royal between two Thai lightweight fighters.  They were a small part of the goldfish shop, sitting in a row on the shelf with a poker card between each jar and its neighbor.  I admired them long enough the proprietor arranged a proper display. . .selected two jars for complimentary colored fins and placed them on a stool top at eye level for me.  Wow.

Short summary:  as a boat watching stop, give Quang Ngai a miss.  If you want to watch people, on the other hand or shop for flat screen TV's or gold necklaces or chandeliers (no kidding), have at it, and the accommodations are excellent in all regards.  Put it on your list.  Photograph the sand barges for me please, I didn't do it. (ugly. . .they're ugly. . .I have my standards).

That was Saturday all day.  Sunday morning we were up and around in good time and on the road.  I was flexible in my mind. . .there were a number of possibilities for a destination for the night, not including the destination we finally reached. . .but that's part of the fun.  I'd thought we might get to Tuy Hoa and was pleased with that idea, it's another of those places I've been by any number of times without bothering to spend any time or look around.  From the map it was pretty obviously a fishing port of some significance and might have a boatyard. . .so a worthwhile destination.  Didn't get there.  To begin with we slowed down considerably around Quy nhon.  The road into Quy Nhon from the highway is another pleasant little side road, though a lot busier than the Island.  One of its largest pleasures is the row of little open air restaurants grilling pork and chicken on open fires on the shoulder of the road about halfway into town.  Chemical warfare.  No one who passes that way at lunch time goes away hungry!  On my first stop there I resisted almost all the way past the whole string of them, but caved in in time for the last one.  Very good in memory (and two cute kids to try to photograph). . .and it's still that good today.  There's a knack to eating this particular sort of thing. . .not all that hard to do poorly, but if you act helpless you can get the lady next door to show you. . .and then keep you supplied as you go.  Basically you're served a plate of meat cut into little slices or chunks (depending on which meat you chose).  Then there are the accessory items. . .a plate of the rice paper wrappers we make "spring rolls" out of, a plate of crunchy fried noodles wrapped in fried "spring roll" papers, a plate of herbs, leaves and grasses. . .er. . .you know what I mean. . .a large variety of flavors, all of them green except the shredded carrot.  The short version:  crush up the crunchy fried noodle things onto the dampened rice paper.  Add meat.  Delicately pick out precisely the right blend of all the greens.  Roll tightly.  Dip in sweet (and hot if you can stand it) sauce, and eat.  Repeat until you run out of something vital.  Wash down with mineral water if you're not drinking beer that time of day.  Try to get a photo of the kids. . .and get back on the road.

Quy Nhon is another place that has really changed a great deal in my time.  I'm not so bitter about it here as I am at Hoi An.  In short, what the City has done is bulldoze a dreadful waterfront slum neighborhood, a stinking unsanitary fishermen's and boat builder's shantytown really, and built a beautiful waterfront park that stretches the whole width of the city's sea front.  It's quite nice.  If you'd never seen the life in the shantytown or watched the men launching large fishing vessels down the beach at low tide on their temporary trolley, you'd just love the place.  It's a beautiful bay and makes a fine sandy bathing beach, and the investment has run into town like a river, building five star hotels (and lesser hotels too, thank goodness) and good seafood restaurants and. . .but the boat builders have gone somewhere else entirely and I haven't found them again.  The shanty town, goshawful as it was, was fascinating and the people were lovely.  It was there that I met a grandma at her own funeral. . .I just stopped to listen to the strange funeral music for a while, a screaming oboe helped out by a 2-string fiddle (which can have quite a nice sound) and a battery of percussion devices, gong, drum and wood whacking device that makes a funny "Tok, Tok, Tok" sort of sound when you whack it.  Anyway,a gentleman I assume was her eldest son, a fishing skipper, took me by the arm and into the small front room of the house where Grandma's coffin was lying, with her farewell altar all laid out at its feet, with her portrait and her fruit and wine and incense burning.  She had been a fine looking old woman, and well loved no doubt.  Then they fed me tea and an orange and sent me on my way.  But really, it's a very lovely waterfront park now.  I just hope all the people found their way to new and better homes.

However, I've documented the boats in Quy Nhon to the point nobody wants to talk about it any more so I contented myself with a quick visit to the fish market pier, which seems to be finished now. . .though the new container port and pier nearby is still growing as we speak.  That's been a long project, going on three years now and it's still not clear just how it will be configured.  No doubt they have it figured out and it's not my project anyway.
Okay, just one Quy Nhon harbor photo this trip. . .

The new road along the cliffs and seaside leaving Quy Nhon is still one of the best buys on this tour.  There's no excuse in the world for going straight back to the main highway with its traffic, noise and complete lack of seascapes.  So, simply continue down the new waterfront promenade on toward the South.  It's a little odd that there isn't any good signage, so if you carry on right to the end of the waterfront drive you'll have to double back a little bit, but there's only one place the road can be, so keep looking up toward the hillside and shortly you'll find the start where the road climbs steeply out of town.  The views ahead and behind just keep getting better as you go.
South of Quy Nhon

There's a major bridge where the entirely new segment of road meets an older segment and you veer off to the left.  Coincidentally, there's a lot of shrimp farming going on all around there and inshore fishing from small vessels.  The sailing boats are gone of course, but their motorized descendants are sweet lined double enders about 25' long. . .but there are also some really lovely little double ended rowing boats, the composite style of basket and wood boat that was once typical of the area.  They are still often woven from the split bamboo and waterproofed with buffalo dung and tree resin. . .I know, it sounds odd, but it's true and it works quite well, it just took me a while to figure it out and then I found all the French authors had written about it years ago.  Anyway, there's a new and modern variation.  The wooden upper structure is done the same as it's always been but the body of the boat is made from blue plastic barrels!  Segments are cut from the barrels to suit the shape of the boat, riveted together (like the shell of an armadillo) and married to the wooden upper works.  It works, and no buffalo dung!
So sweet! And she's made from old oil barrels. . .
And here's her older (traditional basket made) sister. . .a little bigger too.  Row with your feet!
Fifty years ago these would have carried sails, not a diesel.  They're still lovely, just deafening now.

As the day continued I assumed we'd make Tuy Hoa for the night and started to plan it that way.  Then the road went all to heck (I said there was one exception).  This was an unusual sort of road condition.  By and large the surface was still fine, mostly good pavement.  The problem was scattered potholes that were terribly deep and sometimes clustered together in gangs and sometimes quite large.  For a motorbike the risk was to actually hit one.  One was all it would have taken to wreck a bike moving at any speed, so there was no choice but to slow to a speed that allowed detection and avoidance.  The trucks felt they could skip the worst of them by weaving in and out and playing chicken on the highway but a few tried to carry on as though tires were immortal.  One didn't make it.  I came on the wreck I think some time after it happened, and without a full investigation I can't give you the details, but essentially a mid-sized freighter caught a big hole with one front wheel, which pulled him to the left somewhat and no doubt initiated rotation around his long axis.  The timing to the next hole must have been such that the springs of the truck had recovered from the initial rotation and reversed it, so that the second hole came at a perfect time to increase the rate of roll and the rest was history. . .even the big trucks should slow down for some chuck holes on this road.

So we didn't get to Tuy Hoa.  A little less than an hour before dark we were 30 km north of the city and driving through a small town with several small hotels.  It was a no brainer.  Riding in the dark on a road populated with truck-eating chuckholes was not a good bet.  The road, of course, might have gotten better, but what the heck, nobody was waiting for me in Tuy Hoa.  We stopped in Chi Thanh.  This is a little embarassing, I thought we'd been making better time than that would indicate, so I picked the next little town off the map and wrote up the diary as if that is where we were.  Wrong. And I wasn't very impressed.  There was no scenery really (though a quick ride out of town away from the highway showed the prospect of a small hill and valley countryside beyond. . .) and the services and amenities were. . .well. . .lacking.  I suppose there was at least one of anything you REALLY needed, so we didn't starve.  Oh come on, by walking a ways in the dark I found a delightful little che stand that would (and did) make both pure fruit che as well as a sweet dessert, cold and nice.  And there was a young man selling banh bao, steamed bun filled with pork and half of a hard boiled egg. . .so it was really one of my favorite suppers and not all that far to walk.  In a small town (heck, in many larger towns), walk in the street, the sidewalks can be dangerous in the dark. . .think missing sewer covers for example.  So I wrote an unflattering diary entry about the wrong town and went to bed half grumpy when the wifi wouldn't work well (wifi in a dinky town in the middle of nowhere in Viet Nam. . .in a Five Dollar Hotel?? good grief).

The bike loved the place though, the young men in the bike shop across from the hotel swarmed all over her, replaced the droopy left turn signal, tightened a few things that were hay wire and replaced the missing muffler nuts that were causing the odd rattling vibration in mid-second gear. . .for $2.25 USD at the current exchange rate.

And when I tried to leave in the  morning the front desk couple took me firmly in hand and showed me a faded photo-mural on one wall of the reception. . .a weird and beautiful rocky headland with surf breaking on it. . .an extraordinary formation really, columnar basalt all twisted and distorted. . .and large.   It was only 15 km from town down what turned out to be another really wonderful countryside road through small villages.  Ganh Da Dia it's called.  Da means Stone I know, maybe I can find a translation for the rest.  Probably something like "Magnificent Headland" or something similar. . .it even shows on my road atlas with the red star symbol for "point of interest".  Indeed.
Ganh Da Dia, near Chi Thanh
And the road to get there. . .

So we actually left Chi Thanh, having hiked around Ganh Da Dia a bit (hot already in the sunshine!) at 9:30.  Made Tuy Hoa easily before 10:30, so we'd have made it last night. . .and missed the Magnificent Stone Headland (that's not a final translation, but will do for now).  Tuy Hoa is a nice modern town these days, with a minor river mouth fishing port and a ship and boat yard out on the isolated southern bank of the river (I don't know how you get there, not the way I tried anyway).  We moved on.

This whole stretch of coast is mostly "quietly pretty", with occasional bursts of "really nice".  So we come to the cliff-side road that leads into Dai Lanh.  This is the narrowest little string bean of a town.  It's bounded on the uphill side by. . .er. . .the hill, which is pretty steep.  At the foot of the hill is the railroad and beyond the railroad a narrow bit of land to try to thread the highway through and still have room for some town before you come to the long gorgeous white sand beach that fills the bay.  The beach must be about 2 km long, a gentle arc, well sheltered by the headlands at each end, and the bay filled with fishing boats.  It's changed too of course in my time.  There's a new modern fishing boat pier jutting out from the shore at the northern end of town, a fine addition for the boat crews, who can land their catch directly into the trucks now rather than ferrying it ashore in their basket boats. . .a huge improvement no doubt.
The new fishing boat pier at Dai Lanh and the beach to the South.

It's cut the beach in two of course and displaced a few waterfront shanties, but by and large probably a fine thing.  And now there are four hotels, two on the waterfront (understated, old fashioned places, quite nice looking), one on the far side of the railroad tracks at the south end of town (the only one I've stayed at, perfectly nice, all on the ground floor, with a dense garden of bonsai and garden sculptures) and finally the tall skinny one squeezed in by the bridge at the north end of town, between the creek, the road and the railroad.  I've always eaten lunch in Dai Lanh when I pass through if it's anywhere near lunch time.  There are a number of candidates offering noodles, rice and seafood of one sort or another.  I've always eaten in one particular spot, shady, back a ways from the road, fans aimed at the tourists, and good fresh fish or squid to be counted on.  Squid this time, and two bottles of sparkly mineral water.  Very fine, although the price keeps going up.  Odd about that!

And so, in three days' travel we pulled into Nha Trang.  I'm beginning to think that the appearance of a motorbike with a young man trying to lead you to a hotel is simply not a bad thing.  I am inclined to reject that sort of help as a matter of course, but this is now the third time I've given in and had a look and been very pleased.  I've always stayed in the same hotel three blocks off the beach in Nha Trang and I've always been recognized and treated very well. . .so I really had no interest in the young man's offering, no matter that his sister runs the front desk.  He insisted and I couldn't really deny him without a certain amount of rudeness, so went to look.  H'mm.  Nice room.  Half a block from the beach.  Nice big window (a grill, no glass) Ten dollars a night (twice the price of Chi Thanh, but this is Nha Trang for goodness sake).  But I said "maybe" and rode over to my normal place.  Nobody knew me (a first) and the room was up 4 flights of stairs (nothing available on the elevator side) AND there was no view out the small window.  Good enough, I took the new place and have been very pleased indeed.

So what can you say about Nha Trang?  It's well known from Moscow to London and Buenos Aires and Sydney and New York and Delhi. . .It has to be the premier seaside resort in Viet Nam, which means it's probably the nicest and least expensive big resort city in the world.  I'm sure you can find a hotel here for stateside prices if you want, but my $10 per night sort of place is much more common, and thoroughly likable.  The beach runs for at least 3 km in a straight line, and all of it is groomed to perfection every night, raked clean and smooth for the morning swimmers.  The whole 3 km is beautifully landscaped with every sort of bush and tree, and most of them trimmed and tidy as can be.  The town has every possible service on offer and anything you might want or need to buy.  You can (and perhaps should) scuba dive and snorkel in crystal clear blue water (not all beach towns have water like this. . .no big rivers dump silt anywhere near here!!).  You can go on a "Booze Cruise" and come back sunburned and surrounded by drunks if you want, some of them really cute and not terribly over dressed. . .not that I would do such a thing when there are boats to be dealing with.

Nha Trang has a river mouth harbor fringed with rocky reefs and crossed by a really pretty little bridge that made a wonderful place to photograph the fishing fleet coming and going.  The fish market used to occupy a long low building along the waterfront on the north bank of the river just inside the bridge, and there used to be an informal fish market on a sandbar right under the bridge.  And now. . .oh dear. . .the sandbar has been dredged away, the fish market has been razed and replaced with. . .yet more waterfront park.  There are still several hundred boats stuffed into the river mouth, though now they lie in tidy ranks along the new esplanade, and the joyful buying and selling in the sunrise is over. . .or rather moved.  All this happened two years ago and it's taken me this long to figure out where all the action has gone. . .down the coast to the southern river mouth (no  reefs, incidentally) to the new fish market, all clean and modern and up to date, with easy access for the trucks to the sorting and icing shed, easy access to the ice house for the boats (no more delivering ice in desperately overloaded small boats, it comes in small trucks right alongside), altogether a major improvement for the fishermen, the fishwives and the truckers. . .but it's not the same eh?  And what are the tourists supposed to photograph in the mornings now?  They'll not be wandering around the new fish market I think. . .it's not quite that sort of place.

And that brings us to today.  Other people are loading bikes and moving on already, it's nearly 9:00 in the morning (I've been writing since 05:00 except for a quick run to the street for a very good omelette (two eggs, tomatoes, cucumber and cilantro with a crispy baguette on the side. . .with sweet iced milky coffee for. . .er. . .a dollar and a quarter.  Across the parking lot in a bricks and mortar place pretty young tourists were having the ten dollar version on white linen.  I can do without the linen and crystal for now.  I'll add a few photos and leave you.  There's still a lot of country to see this trip.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Minor Misadventure--no harm done

Written from Quang Ngai, 11/24/2012 and Nha Trang 11/27/2012
However, this has nothing to do with the run down South from Hue. . .That's taken up all the daylight the past few days and I'll bring you up to date on the travels in a bit, but this is just a short note to do something about my reputation as a great adventurer. . .Yes.

I spent a good part of the morning November 23rd writing, locked in my room with the computer and the fan while the world went on without me. At lunch Mr. Can (the hotel's owner and the President of the Board of the local rock quarrying company. . .and a good friend) announced that he and I would go "for a pleasure ride" starting at 2:00 in the afternoon.. . .on my bike.  Can has been a splendid host the past few years, so I was perfectly happy finishing lunch, cleaning up the details of the writing (uploading photos is more work than writing the stories!) and at 1:55 I went down to get the bike a bite to eat too. . .no idea how far Can wanted to go or where.  Mrs. Can was in the lobby as I went out so I told her I was just going to go buy gasoline and I'd be right back, so if Mr. Can comes before I'm back. . .you can see how it was.  She, always the well informed wife, looked at me as though I'd really lost it and informed me that Mr. Can was working and would not be going anywhere with me that afternoon.  H'mm.  He'd been really clear at a quarter to one.

Down the street a few blocks, a short wait in the bike lineup, a full tank (good for about 120 miles, which is longer than my bottom is happy with) and back to the hotel. . .where Mr. Can was explaining things to his Lady with a sheepish look on his face. Oh my.  Regardless, we were shortly underway and Can started me on the route out to Thuan An. . .a route I know, and the bike will just about take herself there if I let her have her head.  Two km short of the bridge though Can signaled from the back seat for a sharp turn to the left and off we went on the other half of Hwy 49B, northbound just barely on the landward side of the  tall white sand dune that runs the length of the "island".

So I took the slack out of the reins and started her out across the low country toward the "other island".  This one really isn't an island though, it's the same sort of land form, a long white sand dune facing the South China Sea and sheltering an extensive region of flat rice paddy and a tangle of waterways leading off of the inland sea. . .but it's firmly attached to the mainland at its northern end and you can access it (with some difficulty) from several points along Highway 1.  I kept the bike around 50 kmh (30 mph) except through the occasional small village, where we had to stop at times for traffic. . .buffalo and ox carts as well as tractors pulling wagons, ducks, chickens, independent minded oxen and cattle and dogs, the normal traffic here in the countryside, and. . .motorbikes of course.  It's not quite as compact as the island south of Thuan An I like so much, but charming anyway and surprisingly different.  I'd only explored part of it before, in rainy weather and high water, I had to give up when the water covered a low stretch of road deeper than I wanted to ride the motorbike through.  The land is so flat behind the sand dune's crest that once the paddy dikes cover it is just a single sheet of water split by the crest of the road.  When that goes under too. . .I turned around.

This time is different, a long stretch of dry weather (not counting the occasional thunder storm) has left the fields high and dry for now, and the "island" is looking very nice indeed.  So this time we ran to the point where Hwy 49B (all 11.5' of it) turns and heads across the bridge to the West and its junction with Hwy 1, and then rode on to the North on local roads.  I still had no idea where we were going and, once we made a few turns off 49B, no idea at all where we were, other than about 40 km north of Hue.  Not to worry, I had the ultimate local guide riding behind me and keeping up a running commentary as we went.

I could go on for a bit about the scenery. . .but this isn't about scenery, rather, we're here to put to rest my reputation for fearless adventuring.

We arrived at a tiny village market, completely empty under it's tile roof, and Can told me to wait a minute.  He disappeared around the back of what looked like a cow-barn and was gone a short while. . .and came back with a large package of incense.  H'mm.  Still no clue about our "pleasure trip" or our destination.  He climbed back aboard and waved me down a very narrow paved lane.  The land here was dry and pure sand, white and shiny, with a great many small shrubby dark green trees blocking the view to the sides. . .just the straight ribbon of white concrete road.  Can pointed with his bundle of incense over my shoulder and said  "Four kilo-met farther is shrimp farm, very beautiful. . .stop here!!"  Nowhere.  Oh well, I'm just the driver on this run.  Mr. Can, all smiles, gestured around and said "This is my home Village" as he climbed off the bike and I put down the kickstand to follow.  Sand and random shrubbery and the narrow little road.  Then I started to notice graves all around, low, round mounds, mostly quite small, enough to cover a short person or someone nicely curled up. . .all of them recently combed and weeded and looking very tidy amongst the shrubs.   Can started briskly off to one side among the shrubs with me following like a useless tail. . .and quite abruptly we came to a larger grave, a formal "tomb" as I've been calling them.  There was an ornamental stone wall around a plot of sand, with a single gateway and a carved marble tablet, in Chinese as well as Vietnamese script.  A long list of names was engraved down the polished stone and Can ran his finger down the list and stopped half way down and smiled. . ."Tran Van Can". . .my name. . .my grandfather. . .all my family."  And that was it, or almost.  Can gathered a small pile of twigs from the ground, lit them and  from the bright little flame lit the joss sticks as well.  Once the big handful was smoking properly (why do joss sticks smell so nice and tobacco smells so awful?) he paid his respects to Grandfather's grave and a few at a time, planted more of them in graves all around. . .aunts and uncles no doubt.
Mr. Can at his Grandfather's place.

Can's grandfather's formal tomb in the background, and an aunt or an uncle or. . .
Every grave around was spotless and tidy and freshly raked.  The marble and granite tablets though were uncommon.  Mostly the round graves were alone among the small trees.
After a short while we got back on the bike, back tracked toward the little market building and turned down yet another lane, this one innocent of any pavement, simply well packed sand, but with houses around.  And so we stopped at last at Can's brother's farm house and the plot developed a little further.  There was a "wedding tent" being erected on the threshing floor in front of the house.  The canopy was up and the portable fans were being clamped to the framework.  The hearts and bows and flower panels weren't being attached though.  This was the setup for a funeral, Can's father's funeral to be specific.  There was a good bit of family already around, besides the tent-erectors. There was an older lady preparing the lime and leaves to chew and arranging them neatly on a tray, people were chopping and slicing and Can's oldest brother was there, quietly seeing it all come together.  It didn't seem a terribly sad group, rather, you'd say a bit subdued maybe, but very happy to see Can arrive out of nowhere with a white guy for a driver.  So we shook hands and sat and drank soda (there were 15 cases of beer warming in the sun on the porch, and three of soda) and talked a bit.  Can translated a little now and then, but mostly I did what i do when there is real conversation around me. . .sat and absorbed the place through my quiet eyes.  As sometimes seems the case, this did not feel like the time or place for gawking photography, so I can't show you the simple altar that dominated the room (the best room of many Vietnamese houses will have a tall altar with perhaps a few photographs of old grandparents or (sadly) a young person. . .and a bedstead of solid hardwood and perhaps a table or two.  Such was this one and we sat at the table while the work of preparation went on around us. At some length we got up for leave taking, shook hands and smiled at a few more people and started for home.  I was a little interested in the angle of the sun, but if nothing bent nor broke we should get back to Hue about dark, and that would be fine, the last few km into town are well street-lighted and there would be far fewer buffalo and ducks on the road.

We ran back to where QL49B made its turn over its bridge toward Hwy 1 and Can waved me off that way, saying we'd take a different road "mot duong khach. . ." to get home.  We were headed due west then, into the sun, away from the sea (I generally manage to keep track of where I've left the sea and can usually find the road I want that parallels it. . .pay attention here).  At a cross a few km on we made the left turn that took us back South toward Hue across the absolutely flat countryside (we literally had to go up a bit to go over CULVERTS.  And so began a really pleasant ride, more wooded, with back yards full of bananas and papayas and other sorts of taller greenery.  There were more little villages and it seemed generally a lusher and more prosperous landscape we rode through.  It should have been about 41 km from the crossroad back to the hotel, 30 some km to the edge of Hue.  We had run over 25 km when I realized I'd left my daypack behind.

Right.  My daypack, carrying such minor things as much of my money, my bike registration, my map, diary, road atlas, compass. . .and insulin.  I've wandered off and left day packs in more places than I'd like to admit, but this was a particularly bad case since I'd put so much into it rather than having it all strapped and hidden about my person as I normally travel.  It only took a moment to explain to Mr. Can and he just waved me back the way we'd come and remarked that it would only be half an hour. . .or so.

I'd held the bike to no more than 50 kmh during the afternoon run, but with the sun now within two finger spans of the tree line in the West, I shook out the reins and let her run in the long straights among the rice fields, the speedometer needle quivering around 60 kmh (36 mph, and pretty much the speed limit everywhere for motorbikes) and the bike loves it.  She'll run well over 80 and I've pushed her hard at times for much of a day when need pressed, but on this narrow lane with the light going quickly, 60 was fast enough.  Mr. Can hung on.  His back must have been aching by now, we'd been on the bike most of the time since 2:00 and it was past 5:00. . .now and then I could feel his helmet pressing between my shoulder blades as he stretched his neck and shoulders. . .and I suppose that's how I slipped past the turnoff without his noticing.  He came fully alert when I put the brakes on hard and pulled the bike to a stop at the edge of a strange little bridge. . .made mostly of woven rebar and spanning a 20 foot wide ditch.  We'd not been this way before.  Can craned his neck around the front of the bike and stared. . .then waved me around and back the way we'd come.  The sun was below the tree tops now, though still quite light out.

I could drag this out a long ways with flowery description.  We saw a lot of countryside in the settling dusk.  At one point, having taken very clear directions from three men at a crossroad, we came abruptly to a point where the road disappeared beneath murky water for 200 meters or more.  Can agreed.  We weren't going to cross that.  He had on nice slacks and I was clean and dry.  We back tracked again, Can asking directions at every crossroad (there is an amazing network of small lanes in that flat country. . .)

And so at length in almost full dark (just a westerly glow in the sky, though you could still see fairly well) we came back to the farm house and found much of the family gathered, the men seated in three arcs on one side of a temporary outdoor altar at the edge of the tent. . .the ladies on the other (those who weren't in the kitchen).  Everyone was delighted to see Can, though everyone remained seated and just waved and smiled and made small comments.  The oldest brother, who is a fine, tall impressive man, he must be 70, though he is farmer strong and still unbent, was dressed now in formal attire, the man's black knee length coat with its high Mandarin collar and its coat tails slit to the waist, formal black silk pants, and the traditional black velvet hat, all the marks of a serious man about serious business.  He was kneeling at the indoor altar on a reed mat, rigid and silent, his bare feet behind him, his back straight as a ruler.  At length he bent his head down to the floor, his hands to either side, still silent, and stayed thus for a long time.  When he stood at last he did not acknowledge any of the rest of us (Can and I were seated at a table near the center of the men). . .rather, he walked straight to the outdoor altar, loaded as it was with food and drink, and knelt again, again praying bolt upright a long time and again with his forehead pressed to the mat in front of him.  At last he stood and very softly rejoined the world around him, having done some significant part of saying farewell to their father.

Can followed him on the path from the indoor altar to the outdoor in his turn, though his pauses for prayer or meditation were much shorter, so a few minutes later we were actually ready to say farewells again and resume our travels.  The elder brother was standing off to one side, so I walked deliberately up to him and offered my hand.  He smiled slowly  and took my hand in both of his and said softly "hen gap lai". . ."see you again".

It was full dark, deep, velvety, starry but moonless, a fine night, but very dark.  I don't ride in Viet Nam in the dark.  Let me count the reasons why not. . .the following items come quickly to mind. . .Buffalo without tail lights.  Likewise dogs without reflectors.  Bicycles with neither.  Pedestrians in dark clothes, also without lights or reflectors. . .oncoming motorbikes with their headlights aimed high. . .an occasional car, sometimes with its headlights on high and its special cross country lights turned on as well. . .a wall of light that blocks all other vision.  Then there's the rice paddy alongside the road.  It's only a few feet down, but often very steep feet and the splash at the bottom is hard on things in general.  There is a white line at the edge of the roadway now and then, but mostly it's just the slight change in the texture from coarse paving to the gravel verge before the drop.  And yet people ride all the time up and down these lanes at night.  We joined them.

And that's really all there is to report.  It was fine.  The lightning in the clouds up over the Western mountains was far away and pretty.  The stars were bright and gradually the sky glow of the city emerged ahead of us.  We took the 49B all the way home this time, a route I know well most of the way.  There were innumerable tense moments, and what would normally have taken an hour I stretched out to an hour and a half.  We got up to 40 kmh (24 mph) now and then on the straights when I could flick on our bright lights a while but mostly we putted along peacefully at 35 kmh.  We didn't scare any pedestrians or bicycle riders, there was only one buffalo and he came at a good time when nobody was blinding me from ahead.  Can nudged me once at a fork in the road when I slowed, but otherwise we rode in the silence of the little motor's easy hum. Coming into the strange barren stretch in the last 7 km before the edge of Hue, the new roadway has white concrete edge-posts on both sides standing in the dark like an endless row of guards to keep you from running off into the dark water on either side.  Then the first bridge with its bright lighting, lifting us up and over the first strand of the inland sea. . .another few km and the second, smaller bridge and the abrupt right turn into traffic, and back in Hue.  We were home at 7:30, warm, clean and dry.  Can told me we would eat at 8:00 and disappeared to shower and stretch.  At 8:00 we ate.

I have no photographs to prove any of this.  But that is how it happened.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

An Ode to Thuan An and QL49B

Written from Hue, 11/23/2012--weather fine and hot with afternoon thunderclouds. . .

This is a song in praise of Thuan An and Highway 49B south along its island.  To begin, I have been assured by a fluent English speaking student from the local Foreign Trade University that it is not an island at all, merely a long piece of land.  He admitted that in fact the water goes all the way around this particular bit of land, but only just barely (the northern pass is usable for even larger fishing vessels, the southern pass is narrower and obstructed by sand bars, but still passable in most weather I think for 60' boats).  So, the point is that since it is not really an island it does not have a name.  I checked with people along the way, asking the name of "this island" and was each time told it was the Island of Whatever Village we were in. . .that is, Cu Lai, My Quan and Vinh Thanh (I didn't ask in each village).  So. . .this is in praise of the island without its own name, that runs for 41 km (25 miles or so) along between the South China Sea on one side and the inland sea that lies just east of Hue.  (note:  Google maps shows some different names for places than my Vietnamese road atlas. . .what is called Thuan An locally (and on my atlas) shows on Google as "Thon Thai Duong Ha"--search for Hue, then scroll east to the water.)

Hanoi is a mass of humanity in constant motion and endless noise. . .and it's often cold and rainy.  Hue. . .is also a very big town, with a great many tourists and a lot of noise. . .Twelve km away on an easy road through the edge of town and out into the country, you cross the bridge at Thuan An to that long sandy island.  It is well lived on too, but this is very different.  There's rarely much noise and often superb peace and quiet.  The long thread of the road (highway 49B. . .) stretches from one end to the other in (at the moment) smooth, unbroken asphalt, perhaps 12 feet wide. . .or a bit less.  A full sized dump truck will take all of it.  Along the way you run through busy little villages perhaps only one building wide on each side. ..with the inland sea close to hand on one side and the high sand dune of the center of the island on the other, drifting sand, sometimes light brown, sometimes stunning snow white, along the shoulders and sometimes onto the road.  There are trees and fields and old neighborhoods sometimes off to the side, with really tiny streets, built for buffalo carts and motorbikes and nothing more.  There are schools and more schools and children to fill them, laughing, waving shouting children. . ."HELLO HELLO, WHATYOUNAME??" or just giggling on their bicycles.  The tiniest ones, oh so small, white shirted and blue trousered with their red scarves and pink or blue sun bonnets and fantastic backpacks (would you prefer "Hello Kitty" or Superman??) walking solemnly along the road to and from class and waving when they spot you.  With apologies to Lake Woebegone, this is a place where all the young men are unusually handsome, the young ladies are extraordinarily pretty and ALL the children are way above average.

Well. . .except for one I guess.  This is where I met the little blind girl and her family some years back now.  Bao Vi she's called, with her baby sister Bao Thi and Thanh and Duy their mom and dad.  I met them all during a violent afternoon thunderstorm when I took shelter in their coffee shop, what, 16 km I suppose up the island.  Bao Vi stole my heart that day (though she has hardly any idea I exist).  Her twin brother only lived 4 days, and she, though she lived, is very different.  She's profoundly blind, with dull clouded eyes, but, I'm told, she was otherwise normal enough until she turned two.  She'd even begun talking then, but that was then.  She's almost nine now, and hasn't spoken since, though she understands Vietnamese well (VERY well, her mom says).  I think (in my complete ignorance) that she must be fairly high functioning autistic.  She loves music and can dance, swaying and twirling and waving her slender arms around in time.  She can find her way well around the house and the coffee shop, in and out of rooms, up and down the spiral staircase to the upstairs bedrooms.  She feels every bit of breeze and will go to a window, open it wide and slowly turn her hands and head in the air.  When she's angry she can shriek up beyond the range of human hearing (okay, so I'm old and sort of deaf. . .but really high anyway). She cannot feed herself and. . .according to her mom. . .she doesn't know how to eat some things, like a section of a tangerine. . .she'll just hold it in her mouth a while then give it back.  She loves her mom and dad both and they treat her so gently and sweetly, but. . .well, she breaks my heart.  Her baby sister, Bao Thi, five now, is perfect, pretty, normal and very shy, but will make eyes at me after a while.  I've brought them dolls and stuffed animals in the past but now their mom has forbidden me to do more of it.  The last stuffed dog I brought a year ago still has his ribbon around his neck!  I think he must live on a shelf.  They've had me out to eat and visit several times now, Thanh is a great cook. . .and will go to enormous lengths to communicate across the language barrier, writing things out in a beautiful hand for me to study, hunting through my dictionary, spelling words in the air and play-acting the verbs. . .while Duy loses patience after a bit and is prone to pick up the phone and dial his sister in Everett and ask her to talk to me for him. . .fortunately the phone rates have dropped very low these days!!  I think for fear I might photograph Bao Vi I'm forbidden to take pictures there. . .you'll just have to read for now.

So yesterday was a visit there. . .Duy and I went to photograph a new family shrine (what else could you call it??) .  He directed the photography in detail, framing each shot he wanted and suggesting different angles to show off the architecture, the paintings and the mosaics. . .and then on to a photo shop where he ordered prints from his favorite shots.
Resplendent and superbly detailed, there are mosaics made from broken glass and porcelain, paintings and enameled panels let into the walls--Duy's family pride!

These family shrines, which seem at first like small pagodas, have altars inside in fact, dedicated to a wide range of family ancestors.  They're not tombs though. . .those are different, still impressive structures, sometimes housing whole generations or more. . .rather the shrines are just that, and somehow much more.  I've no idea what all they're used for, but for sure they're the site of big family picnics (I mean, really big, with grammas and grampas and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandkids of all sorts. . .only just that they're somehow part of the family).  I've been to one of those on a day when there were a number of them going on. . .lots of wonderful food, beer, soda pop and all. . .and all of it served up on the altars for the ancestors to have their fill as well.  There are hundreds of the shrines on the island, most of them much finer than the houses of the living people!  And tombs. . .literally, thousands of them I think, scattered all over the crest of the sand dune backbone of the island and down into the neighborhoods inland and toward the beach as well.  The living people and their ancestors people the long island thickly!
Thousands of tombs scattered anywhere that wouldn't do to make a garden. . .mostly up on the sand dune ridge.
Probably the busiest street on the island--downtown Thuan An, just across the bridge.

The sand dune ridge, feathery with small hardy trees that look a bit like pines with long needles, divides the island into two worlds.  On the east, the long sand beach and the fishermen and their surf boats.  On the west, the flat fields, salt marsh and the calm water of the inland sea.   There are neighborhoods that look toward the ocean--though one must be thoughtful about  how close one builds to the South China Sea.  It can eat away large bites of the beach and tumble houses and pagodas down into the waves.  So there are no "beach front" villas here.  Rather, the houses usually stop along the lane well before the crest and the lane turns into a track and then slides down to the beach in a fall of shifting sand.  Here and there old foundations and tumbled masonry mark the over-reaching that has come undone.  And on the beach there is bright sand and the surf boats.  The only shade there is made by man, under the propped up ends of the boats, or under tarps spread between them to work on the nets in the sun, or, here and there along the coast, in wonderfully shady little beach side cafe's where you can eat fish and squid and all manner of fine things. . .and drink beer or mineral water with ice. . .so fine in the heat!!
The South China Sea, Sun, Sand, Surf--and surf boats.

On the other hand, the backyards of the houses on the inshore side of the island are often wonderful gardens, tiny household plots and substantial farm plots alike, all carefully groomed and producing a great deal of food from well disciplined rows.  This is a shady world, trees overhead everywhere and large covered porches to the houses (good for rainy days too!).
Intensive gardening on the inland side of the island.

Yesterday after I left Thanh and Duy's house for the afternoon I carried on up the island to where road 10B leads off the island on a little bridge to the West.  You can't see the road I took on the internet, but there is a good narrow lane, drifted over here and there with skiffs of snow white sand, that leads the other way, some kilometers on to the Southeast and the beach. . .and there I found a large fleet of surf boats launching for a night's fishing.  I've documented their return from fishing before, loaded down and landing through the surf, but this was the first time I'd seen the fleet launching, one at a time and by twos and threes, through a modest surf and out to sea.  These are not small vessels, they're close to 30 feet long, eight to ten feet in beam, and must weigh a ton or more when loaded.  They're basket woven and tar sealed below, timber top sides and framing, with diesel engines of 15 to 20 horse power.  Teams of people, at least six per boat work to get them in the water and gone.  Here's how it's done, step by step:

1.  Move the light boat (norhing aboard) down to the water's edge.  There's a "cock's comb" at each end to take a lifting pole and four or six people can pick up one end of the boat and walk it down the hill.  Since the boat is heavily rockered end to end, picking up the higher end moves the boat's center of rotation downhill and walking the upper end downhill gains about half the length of the boat. So in a few rotations they move from the high tide line to the water.
Working the empty boat down the beach--wives and friends help out, it's heavy work.

2.  Load the boat with nets--two, three, even four large bundles of very fine mesh tangle net, enough for each boat to cover a long swathe of ocean.
Two, three, even four bundles of net go aboard, each bundle a huge mass of fine monofilament, floats along the upper edge, small weights along the hem.  

3.  Move one more rotation toward the water, perhaps shin deep.
Swing her around maybe twice more down the beach, until she's nearly floating and stern to the sea.

4.  Knock the lifting "comb" out of the rudder slot in the stern.
5.  Wait for a larger wave to loosen the boat on the slope and work her offshore, stern first.
6.  about waist deep the shore crew drops off and only the boat's seagoing crew continues.  They hold the boat stern to the sea, taking advantage of every opportunity to move her offshore and holding desperately to their gains when a larger sea runs in.
Just the boat's crew now, working her a bit further offshore, stern first.

7.   When things look good, the skipper jumps aboard and swings the long stern sweep into action, stroking hard to begin swinging the bow offshore (now that there's enough water to keep the propeller clear of the bottom).
This is a critical stage, only three men left to hold her offshore while the skipper swings her around, a big set of  waves now can cause problems. . .

8.  As the boat swings around to face the sea, the men in the water fight to keep her off shore and help her swing around.  When she's halfway around or a bit more the motor man climbs aboard and begins swinging the diesel over--he must get the engine rolling hard before he pops in the compression release and she fires off!  Still one or two men are in the water, nearly chest deep, struggling to keep her offshore as waves sweep in.  This might be an easy thing, or a set of larger waves might create havoc. . .but they hold on.
9.  The motor fires (look for a big puff of black smoke and you'll hear the reassuring chug chug chug as she goes).
10.  As the stern drops in the sea to a passing wave first one, then the other crewman catches a toe hold on the sponson and swings aboard, deep in the water one moment, high in the air the next!
They're Gone!

11.  The throttle surges ahead, black smoke rolls, the skipper climbs up into the stern and slides the rudder down its slot (some rigged the rudder before they launched) and. . .
12.  They're gone, out to sea!

I watched 30 or more boats, each with 3, 4 or five people aboard, put to sea in a modest surf, and so far as I could tell, without so much as a slip or a squished finger.  Very fine performance.  Half an hour after I arrived the beach was empty, with not a boat in sight except for a few unfit for sea up at the top of the beach.  All the shore crew gone out of the sun.  Quiet, but for the surf and sand and sea shells.

So. . .that day I rode on to the new fine bridge to the mainland at the south end of the island, stared a while at the mouth, Cua Tu Hien  (Cua "the mouth of" usually applies to rivers. . .in this case the outlet at the south end of the inland sea.)  On an easy day like today it looked easy enough to work through the sand bars off shore. . .but I've seen it angry and would not want to make landfall then, with a welter of breaking seas and no buoys to mark the channel. . .if there is one!
The view from the bridge over Cua Tua Hien. . .an inland waters boat, suited to the shallow sea behind the island, these never work offshore. . .they're too narrow and shallow.  The puffy clouds built up quickly into thunderheds! 

Riding north again in the late afternoon, with huge thunderheads building up against the range of mountains just inland, I began to wonder about getting home dry, though it was warm enough a shower would have been fine too.  I stopped, almost to Thuan An, in the village of My Quan (it shows as Thon My Khanh on Google I think) and turned sharply up the hill on the little lane that leaves from the market square and stopped right at the crest at one of my favorite coffee shops.  I'd been there on Tuesday and on trips before, finding friendly people and cold beer or mineral water each time.  On the first trip I took a particularly lucky photo of a particularly beautiful young lady playing some sort of game with a flock of friends at the next table.  No one noticed.  A few days later I brought that one and a few others back and handed them to the hostess to hand around.  Since then I've been very welcome and have been tasked with photographing all sorts of people.  This trip it was the hostess herself who had particularly asked I take her portrait, along with her dad and kid brother and her sister's boy friend (I think).  Anyway, I had a packet of photos to deliver, and again, I'd gotten reasonably lucky with the lighting and the smiles and the printer back in Hue had done a good job.

So. . .the rain missed me this time, though the clouds seemed very dark indeed, etched around by lightning flashes. . .and I rode home in the dusk to my room in Hue at the end of a wonderful day.

There are places in this world that strike awe in the heart, mountains and deserts and wild places. ..and others that thrill with their bustle and excitement of the city.  For me though, the little road down the length of this island with no name of its own is a very special place.  Wish you were here.

Almost home in the evening--and so was I.