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.

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