Friday, November 9, 2012

On the road--Northbound

Friday, 9th November 2012, Written from Cam Pha, on the shores of Halong Bay and the edge of coal country.
At home in my hotel in Hanoi, faithful laptop barely squeezing out two bars of wifi.  What you can't see is the wardrobe to the left and the very narrow bathroom.  That hallway is open to the sky, though you have to lean way back to see it, four stories above.  Yes, it rains in the hall. . .

 Last night I saw my Hanoi hosts out the door.  That's a fun change, they've been seeing me off to the airport for years, but this time they are headed to France to marry off their youngest daughter (note:  if you send your pretty daughters off to Finland to graduate school don't be surprised if they end up married to Frenchmen). . .so I helped carry a ton of luggage (they're going to PAY for that at check in, but it is a wedding party after all).  It's not as though there was no family left in the hotel though, what with the two physicians (the couple that held me upright coming down the stairs with a really bad leg) and their daughter and her brand new daughter and both dentists and Grandma. . .there's still lots of family on hand, but really, with all my chores easily  done in those first two days in Hanoi, there was nothing to hold me and a long road ahead of me.  So this morning I packed for the road and left. I've settled on a run up through the northeast and then westward across the northern margin of the country, just below the Chinese border.  The short term goal is a region (and a town) called Ha Giang (you say it "ha ZANG").  Although the whole northern arc of the country is mountainous, and Ha Giang does not have the highest mountain (that's near Sapa, where we may not get this year), but if Ha Giang is not the highest ground it's probably the steepest cultivated ground I'll have seen, and supposed to be the most scenic.  The flip side of scenic is that the travel posters show switchbacks that promise a very long slow grind up the mountainsides and brake burning descents.  We'll see.  I hope.

But I'm skipping ahead, that's still to come.  Today was a really familiar run through essentially urban or going-to-be urban someday sort of country.  Basically it is simply close to Hanoi and part of the Industrial area that stretches widely between Hanoi and Haiphong, so even though it's almost all really farmland and some pretty country here and there, the fact is it's really almost all dead flat (Red River Delta, Duh) and all along the highways are scattered large warehouses and factories.
I'm being unfair, this is one of only two coal burning power plants along today's route, there was a lot more rice field and countryside, but this does give you a hint of the flavor of these Red River Delta towns.  Some though are really quite pretty, with flowering gardens at the entrance of the towns.  

So. . .it's not really very pretty very often UNTIL you come to the first of the limestone mountains that rise up out of the fields on the edge of Halong Bay.  That's an amazing change, from really flat, to straight up and down. The visibility today, eastbound on Highway 18 was really quite good under the broken overcast and the ranks of the mountain-islands rose over the flat sea in a series of monochrome grays, darker up close and fading into the far distance, as though each was cut from its own sheet of cardboard and pasted up against the sky. . .a perfect Chinese mountain painting, lacking only gnarly pine trees and the occasional dragon.

In lieu of dragons you DO have Sea Eagles, enormous birds, nearly all black, with a very distinctive profile, much different from our eagles at home, these birds have swept back pointed wing tips and long forked tails.  They stoop down to the water though much as an osprey does, or a bald eagle, dropping with folded wings to just above the sea, then flaring out and reaching with dragon's claws.  I only saw them miss today, the fishing was not good while I was passing by.

I did not turn aside into the new city of Bai Chai on the southern side of the (incredibly beautiful new) cable stay bridge, but slipped off the  highway and into the busy (and craggy) downtown of Hon Gai, the old half of Halong City.  I hadn't been sure of my arrival time (and in fact, it was nearly two in the afternoon) so I hadn't called ahead to invite anybody to lunch.  I owe a substantial debt in Hon Gai, though I paid for the gasoline last trip for a manic speedboat ride across miles of bay to photograph a fleet of model boats. . .page back through the last trip and you'll soon find that day. . .Mr Dung and Ms. Cuc (his excellent assistant and translator) went to a lot of effort to see to it that it all happened just as I needed it to.  I owe them at least a good lunch (and I promise not to look at the prices).  But not today, Mr. Dung is in Haiphong all day and into the evening and Ms. Cuc is snowed under.  Tomorrow she's taking 20 tourists off to see the world and he's going back to Haiphong on other business. So next time I'll call the day before (and try to be on time eh?).  Oh, it's interesting to note that Mr. Dung was in Haiphong primarily to visit the family of one of his staff, to deliver a collection of money taken up around the office and through the fleet, to help the family through a rough patch.  Their new child has a serious problem and their old grandmother is ill.

And so, on to Cam Pha this afternoon.  I've been coming here, to the same awful scrap of post-development someday (no doubt) superfund site to check on a gang of boatbuilders who produce some quite nicely shaped small fishing vessels under really awful conditions.  When I first stumbled on the site in 2005 the old man who was then the master builder was producing a very traditional style hull in two sizes, entirely by eye, one after another one or two at a time. I drank a lot of tea in his shack for a few years and documented his work pretty well.  He's gone now, and the men who were working for him have carried on and expanded the business so that now there are really four different small operations, each building one, two or even three boats at a time.  What's really fascinating (er, if you're really interested in that sort of thing) is that they've been continuously modifying the old man's design and producing (I really think) a better adaptation of the old sailing type hull for its modern day service as a small motor-fishing vessel.  I'll write a full article on that theme for someday soon.  Stay tuned.
One boat nearly finished and another only two days along.  Actually, "nearly finished" still has to be caulked and painted, which is a great deal of work, and she still needs her machinery, but the woodwork is coming to an end.
One fun thing:  there's a tiny and impromptu coffee and soda shop on the edge of the building site where I've ;photographed a really cute kid.  I'd delivered photos after several different visits. . .so was warmly greeted by the lady of the house.  Page back through the last couple of trips and I think you'll see her as the scrawny mom in a lot of clothes with a really cute and lively 3-year old. . .)  Anyway, she pinpointed in seconds how long it had been since I was there by reference to her baby girl, now 11 months.  She was 2 months when last I was here.  Mothers are like that.  The boy, now 4, was at school "gone to study".  In America poor people don't send their kids to school at 4 do they?  These folks live in a small scrapwood and tin shack with a bed and the refrigerator for their sodas and beer (the coffee shop is under the tarp outside), no door or window, and borrowed electricity. . .but their healthy looking 4 year old is in preschool.  The republicrats need to think about that a little.  
They certainly grow fast!

Overnight break--now 6:30 on November 10th.  It's much warmer now than the last time I was in these parts and yesterday afternoon there was only a very little rain (enough to get the bike and my shoes thoroughly muddy, but not really wet).  The sky is not terribly dark right now, but the drizzle is heavy enough to have the road wet and most riders have on their ponchos. Oh Sigh.  The last time I tried this northeastern route it was very cool and very very wet at times.  For mountain scenery I'd really have preferred puffy white clouds and blue sky. . .h'mm.  For riding through the coal country (the next 30 or 40 miles the roads will be black and the black will stick on everything) I'm not sure if I prefer the dust or the mud.  I guess. . .we'll probably settle for black mud today.  I'll post a photo or two with this and then get some breakfast. There may be a scarcity of wifi over the next few days, so I'll post this while I can.