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.

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