Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sometimes you have to make choices. . .Nha Trang to Saigon

Written in Saigon, 11/30/2012 (a Friday evening)
Weather here is quite warm in the afternoon, but cools to just pleasantly warm by early evening.  There's a full moon tonight in an otherwise unbothered sky, with a good breeze moving the air through the city.  You could make excuses to be out under that moon for quite a while if you wanted.

There is a time in life for writing about life and there is, I submit, a time when it is better to forget about the writing (no matter how important it might seem) and simply go out and live.  So I've written a bit the past few days, an email or two needed answers and I've scribbled in my diary of course. . .but mostly for the past few days life has been on the road and pestering the locals, especially if they have anything to do with building boats, or offloading fishing boats or selling ice or pretty much of anything on the waterfront.

The route from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City could be very straightforward, but it doesn't have to be.  Just as well. . .and it could probably be done in one long day by a determined long distance rider, though perhaps not.  You might get to within 40 km of the city in a day and then have to admit you'd never make it through the traffic jam on the approaches to the city in time to make it all in one day.  But that's entirely beside the point.  Our route this time was straightforward enough, just not direct.  From Nha Trang, it was a pretty easy day's run down Highway 1 and the beautiful beach road through the sand dunes to Mui Ne, just north of Phan Thiet.
The not really new any more road along the beach and the sand dunes north of Mui Ne.  I have a long and affectionate relationship with this road. . .it's a lovely 40 kilometers.
I was mostly wanting distance, so there was one stop for a small can of Red Cow on ice when I got sleepy in the early afternoon, then another, wonderful stop in the town of Ca Na (say the "a" sound as in "apple", flat accent) where I finally found the boat harbor I knew had to be there (one new vocabulary word this year has made a huge difference. . ."cang" means "PORT".  Oh good grief.  Thus on down Highway 1 to the town of Thai Hoa, where we left Hwy 1 for a bit and made the sea and sand dune run on into Mui Ne.  When they first opened the road (I actually rode it full length BEFORE it was open and got centerline stripe paint on the seat of my bike when I gave the stripe painter a ride back to camp. . .but that's an old story now.)

There were a few chores in Mui Ne, and I tried to fall in love (not "three a week" like some young men, but now and then it does happen. . .we'll get to that in a bit) and (besides falling in love) made an interesting mistake. . .though no real harm done. . .we'll get to that too.   After a heart rending farewell to my new love (it was a short affair) we moved on to Phan Thiet and continued my absolutely unblemished record of getting thoroughly lost in that dad blamed town.  I'd buy the city fathers the road signs out of my own pocket if they'd just put a few up, honest!!  Excuse me, I get a little worked up over Phan Thiet and the fact that you can't get there from here, or rather you can't get through there from Mui Ne.  There's only one cotton picking road out of town anyway, so why not put up a sign to let poor innocent strangers find it??? Thank goodness the people are so sweet about giving directions.

Anyway, having made it past Phan Thiet we had to rejoin Highway 1 for a short while, about 50 km I think, until the town of Thon 1B.  Maybe it's not really a town with a name like that, but it's a settled spot.  There's a sign there that you'd think would read "Ham Tan" or maybe "Hwy 55" or some such from looking at the road atlas, but no, it comes right out and says "La Gi", which is where you're trying to get. . .so all you have to do is be awake when you drive past the sign so you can double back and run down Highway 55.  And then we get to La Gi.  It's a fishing town with a few outlying resorts down the beach and some interesting variations in its fishing fleet.
The back side of the Harbor at La Gi.  This is not too hard to find, but can be impossible to get home from.  Odd.
 I visited once before (acting on a not very anonymous tip that I'd be glad I did), and found that the town is located at an energy vortex that apparently bends the streets around so that no matter what you're trying to find (like a left-behind day pack) you really can't backtrack without a local guide.  So I approached it with a certain reserve, rather like a once-bitten fellow, somewhat shy on the second go round.  As it turned out, like the disappearing bookstore in the backstreet in Berkeley (the one that the dragons from Dungeons and Dragons inhabit) like that shop, there's a secret to La Gi.  Okay, I'll spill it right now, we already have a lot of things hanging.  On your way back from the boat harbor (either side, and it does matter), you simply have to find the Chua ("pagoda" in English) and turn right on the green light.  Otherwise you twist into an alternate reality and disappear into the coastal plain and may never return unless you can get directions from a local djinn.  Er. . .I need to check my bedtime fiction, it seems to be getting into my day-life recently.  Anyway, since it was the tallest and easiest to find and nearest the road back out of town (which also disappears at times) I selected the best hotel in town.  $11 the night.  With AC, and a specially set up fan (since I don't really like AC at night) and WIFI and hot running water and a toilet that actually works well. . .I think that checks all the boxes.  Oh and also a window overlooking a middle school.  Shucks, that was worth the $11.  The kids are really cute in the mornings.

I seem to have gotten side tracked in La Gi, let's get back to the route.  From La Gi we stay on Hwy 55, though first we have to find its continuation. . .as I said, it  apparently isn't completely stationary, or maybe you can only see it when you're in the correct frame of mind (pure of heart? No, I guess not. . .) But we did find it after the bike got her bath (fooling around in the sand around La Gi made her feel itchy and she was complaining about her chain and one thing and another, so she got a for real washing from a man who took it seriously. . .).  This year (and this day, to be specific) we remembered my day pack (she keeps asking me if I have it every time we leave somewhere. . .didn't approve of the night ride I guess), so unlike the last time through, we had no excuse to come back, not even a new love.  And so the 80 km to Ba Ria, almost all on a lovely small rural road (the aforementioned Hwy 55), which morphs into a suburban monster a mile or two out of town.  Actually, it morphs into a small and manageable suburban monster road before Ba Ria, but ever so gradually grows and matures into a FULL FLEDGED HORRIFIC CITY TRAFFIC MONSTER way before Bien Hoa. . .and almost all the way into Saigon.

Then a funny thing happens (I've seen it before).  You've spent 20 km inching forward breathing nearly pure diesel fumes (mixed only with some minor amounts of dust, since nobody is moving fast enough to raise any more. . .) and only moving now and then when some minor seam opens ahead of you for a second (longer than that and it's gone. . .somebody else got it) and you gain a little.  Then, crossing some magic line, the traffic politely divides into a column of smoothly moving cars and trucks in two lanes on your left and you and the hundreds of motorbikes you've been sharing paint with for the past hour flow quietly into a completely separate (and barricaded to keep it that way) lane all to yourselves and the entrance into the city itself is something a child could do.  Of course, no child would have lived through the approach, but that's another matter.

So we arrived in Saigon in plenty of time for our chores (it was just past two in the afternoon when I lugged the luggage (THAT'S why they call it that.  . .who'd have thought it??) and the day's challenges really began.

But we need to skip back to Nha Trang for a moment.  I tried to leave the hotel and the young lady at the desk wanted to know if I would go to the airport at Cam Ranh.  I said no, I didn't think so, I was going on to Mui Ne.  She said, yes, you can go to Mui Ne in about six hours but you should go to the airport in Cam Ranh.  I said "why"?  She said "Because" and hesitated, and then said "Why NOT?  It's very beautiful!".  Well, I'd scouted the road out of town the night before and found a new escape route and now it dawned on me the full text of the sign at the turn was "Sam Bay Cam Ranh". . .and I hadn't bothered with the "Sam Bay" (say it "Sum Buy") part. . .but that's "airport" to the rest of us I'll bet.  Some one check me on that. . .but May Bay is an airplane, so if Sam means er. . .well, it's not "cang" which means water-port.  H'mm.  Anyway, it was gorgeous, a brand new four lane cliff top expressway, overlooking the blue blue sea, divided almost every inch of the way, with breaks in the divider only where it was safe to build a scenic viewpoint with enough line of sight for traffic to have a chance. . .but no traffic!  So, leaving Nha Trang, by all means go to the Cam Ranh airport, just turn off about 8 km short and move back over to Hwy 1 and carry on.  Oh.  If you can, arrange for a pair of artistic local boats to round the rocky point at the scenic view point for you while you're there.
The view from the first scenic viewpoint on the new road from Nha Trang to the Cam Ranh Airport.

Here's a wider view.  The coast from Quy Nhon all the way to Mui Ne (at least) is really just splendid, and you can even see it now and then!

And the two stops. . .once for a can of Red Cow as I mentioned. . .in the same little roadside restaurant in the desert where the Mountain Hmong people have been transplanted (I still can't imagine, mountain people from the rainy cold highlands transplanted en masse to the Baja California type lowland coastal desert). . .in the same restaurant, as I said, where I stopped last trip and didn't ask if the Hmong crossbows on the wall were for sale.  Madame recognized me before I had my helmet off (the beard I think, or maybe the smile?) and was ready to feed me a full lunch again, but furnished the necessary Red Cow instead when asked.  The crossbow and 2 full quivers of darts would be $300,000 VND.  $15 USD.  I didn't buy it.  Maybe I'll have to run back through there. . .I've always wanted one, and that one is really nice.
It's an unusually well made Hmong crossbow.  They're actively in use for hunting small game, but many of them are pretty poorly done.  The feathers are actually folded palm leaves.

But the big deal for the day was the boat harbor in Ca Na.  You've seen a photo of a boulder strewn hillside in Ca Na before (page back through last year's ride if you can't remember it), but not the boat harbor.  The building in that photo is a Nuoc Mam shop. . .factory and sales outlet combined. . .and it's only one of maybe thirty of them in this little burg in the middle of the desert.  So think of what you need to make nuoc mam. . .cheap fish, and lots of it. . .cheap salt and lots of it. . .warm sunshine (to get the fermentation going) and barrels for the fish to rot in.  That's it.  So there had to be salt ponds and a fishing boat harbor.  You can keep the salt ponds when you find them, they're all the same. . .but the harbor is mine!  Wonderful!  You wouldn't believe the size of the fleet, hundreds and hundreds of boats, and they're grand!!  They're all very much alike, 17 meters long, 5 broad, and 2 deep (draft, not fairbody depth).  I  got that by asking by the way.  My experiments with my new tape measure have not been well received by my audience.  I think maybe the law likes to measure boats with a steel tape when they're figuring out taxes. . .or something like that.  Anyway, there were two immediately obvious boat yards and one of them provided a near perfect sequence set up.  There was one of the typical boats just getting started. . .keel laid, keelson bolted on and sprung into place, the stem (a big hunk of wood) braced off and bolted on and  all the bottom frame members bolted onto the keel or keelson.  Period!!  Absolutely conclusive.  Then there were two boats each a little further along, so the sequence of construction is very clear up through completely planked up.  I'll put together a full fledged article for the website next month at home. . .but here's a taste:
The earliest stages of construction of the dominant style of fishing boat in Viet Nam. The full length one-piece keel was laid on blocking to keep it straight and level, then a lighter keelson bolted onto the keel to carry the stern up and make the space for the rudder and propeller.  The lower frame members were pre-notched for limbers and bolted to either the keelson or keel.  And the boat is ready to build. . .that's the foundation.  On the right you can see another boat perhaps a few weeks further along, with the side frames added and planking well under way.
More exciting perhaps, these men were doing superb work with gorgeous materials.  There is a big band saw slicing long pieces of tree into absolutely beautiful timber.  The workmanship on the boats is truly first class. . .with the right coat of paint we'd he talking "workboat yacht quality" or better.  It was really impressive and people were only too friendly.  What a fine stop.  I almost went looking for a hotel to see if I could do some more tomorrow. . .but the bike kicked up over that so we moved on.
This is what they're building.  Oh.  And no blueprints anywhere around.  

Mui Ne, you may already know, lies at the end of almost 40km of desert road through white and red sand dunes, past rocky headlands and sweeping bays. . .and the town itself is set on a prominent point that provides shelter from the prevailing wind for a large fleet of fishing boats, basically of three types, which I've already documented to pieces.  It also provides a gorgeous dramatic view of the enclosed bay with the fleet all anchored there and I've photographed it until it flinches when I pull out a camera.  So has every other tourist that's ever ridden the tourist highway down the coast. . .but I keep trying.  I have one photo that will do for the cover of the book if we ever get there, but you never know, I might get the tide and the light even better someday.  Not this time though.
Mui Ne Anchorage.  Probably the most photographed spot on the Vietnamese Coast.  It's hard to get it really right.

But I mentioned the small matter of a love story.  You now how it is, guy strolls through town, wanders past an innocent looking sort of place, looks through an open doorway and sees something that makes his heart stop.  He stops (with a stopped heart, what did you expect, a sprint??) he stares (maybe open mouthed, or maybe with stars in his eyes, depends on the movie eh?)  Anyway, some tiny spark of recognition and instant affection flies across the distance between and he straightens up, adjusts his tie (or whatever), brushes the hair out of his eyes (if he has any) and casually (you have to be cool at a time like that) saunters across the road.  I was right. She was really cute.
REALLY CUTE, and really in very good shape. . .easy to fall in love!
 Shiny black, with the chrome on her 35 year old wheels still bright and clean, hardly any rust on her chromed handle bars, her seat (so nicely shaped) obviously newer than the rest of her. . .and her motor. . .h'mm.  sort of in pieces all over the floor.  I don't think you'll have seen one of these if you haven't been to Asia.  I've only seen them here that I can think of, and only rarely. . .she's a mid 70's vintage Honda CD50.  Wow.  Not only that, but the mechanic who has her torn down has a 100cc top end to replace the 50cc's she was built with, so she'll be the cutest little giant killer you ever saw in a week or two when he's done.   I was thoroughly smitten.  (was?? can you say "AM"??)  I'll be needing something dainty and easy to  manage in and out of parking garages in my next incarnation working in downtown Seattle, and they don't get much more petite or maneuverable than that.

But it is not to be I fear.  Wiser heads will prevail.  Our stars are not crossed.  Once she's been modified to that extent I'd either have to become a Honda surgeon to keep her running, or manage to get a work visa for one from Viet Nam, not to mention the supply train of 40 year old Honda parts.  There has to be an easier way to get a really cute ride. . .but. . .I'll never forget her, how she looked over shoulder and smiled at me. . .oh gosh.  And all those new CC's.  Oh my.
Dishwasher catching up the back log while I had breakfast. . .Mui Ne
Oh.  The mistake, other than falling in love. . .I finally asked at the little guest house at the very best overlook out over the moorage and YES, they had a room, and not only a room, BUT A ROOM WITH A VIEW! To be specific, the window of my room (of course it was my room. . .small, old, rather oddly furnished, what did that matter?? I took it without a thought) that window, as I was saying, looked straight out into the harbor, out across all those hundreds of gorgeous boats, out past them to the open sweep of the sea beyond the headland, the wind darkened white capped sea, the magic sea peopled with. . .uh.  Yes, I suppose I'm getting carried away again.  Besides it was cheap,  $7.50 the night, with a fan and a towel.  They did not mention (and I forgot to ask) that the young men who really are out to make a mark in the fishing industry locally like to get an early start, say, oh, maybe something like 02:28 in the morning (that's just before 02:30 in case you've never been up then).  The boats around here are all diesel powered now, and they all use the same brand of muffler.  None.  And I had the best, most romantic, incredible view of their invisible boats making their invisible racket for about an hour as, one after another, they got under way.  I got up at 4:30 and wrote for a while.  Couldn't get back to sleep.

So that was Mui Ne.  And we discussed getting through Phan Thiet.  We did the obligatory stop on the bridge to check the two known boat yards.  The one I've figured out how to get into had several boats up for overhaul and bottom paint though nothing I still need, but the yard I've never been able to find (I mean, you can LOOK right at it from the bridge, but you need to be a sparrow to get there from the road I swear). . .that one. . .had three of the ocean going passenger and freight boats up for painting too.  I'd have liked to photograph them from close up, I've never seen them out of the water before. . .but no.  No wings.  No can fly.  How in heck do they get anything in there??  By water?  Maybe so. . .maybe so.
As close as I could get. . .Phan Thiet, ocean-going freight and passenger carriers that run a regular service to offshore islands. . . big sturdy looking boats, but very plain accommodation.
Then there was the problem with the psychic energy vortex or whatever it is in La Gi yesterday.  I plotted this out pretty carefully, marked down that hotel well, then (with my luggage all still strapped on the bike, so that we'd all be lost together if it happened again) and made a pass down the road a ways, enough to feel like it was a good test, and rode straight back to the hotel.  Done.  We checked in and settled in AND I TOOK THE LUGGAGE OFF THE BIKE.   That usually makes me into a very careful man. . .you can't imagine how much fun it would be to be lost in a new town with all my good stuff in a hotel whose name I've just forgotten and which I cannot now find, and no, I've never done that.  Ha.

So my first pass was through the main side of the harbor, where the fish market is and the ice house and sure enough, it was where I left it.  Good start. Then out of the harbor complex and back to the road, through the narrow (and quite nice) fishing town streets to the arterial I'd left behind (a very slightly bigger street, and still pretty small) and soon I crossed the bridge at the tail of the harbor and recognized (oh yes?) the turnoff to the back side (north side?) of the harbor and turned down it.  It's not really a street, rather a sand and rock lane. . .alley? running down the back side of the harbor with small temporary looking houses on the landward side.  Suits the little horse just fine, though I wouldn't bring anything bigger.

And then it ended.  It wasn't supposed to end, so I was a little surprised and stopped and stared at the way ahead.  Which didn't go.  Subconsciously I must have heard the giggling behind me sooner than my main brain picked up on it, but eventually I got it.  Somebody was amused behind me.  Actually, a whole porch full of people were amused.  They were being amused quietly, I admit, holding it in, not guffawing or anything rude like that, basically trying to be quiet while their sides split.  Now, I'd bought a little plastic bag of boiled peanuts (boiled??) and had them stuck on my handle bar.  The porch full was snacking on something and drinking beer.  They beckoned me to join them.  I did, plopping my soggy bag of peanuts down next to their platter of coconut peanut brittle (oh yes! and ask me about ginger peanut brittle some time).  That was a good move.  Half an hour later I got away and found the right turnoff a bit further down the lane and ended up where I'd hoped to and that's another story.
People don't come a lot sweeter than these. . .and I provide pretty good free entertainment.

Well, it's not as fun as a porch full of people maybe, but it'll give you an idea of my lifestyle as a PhD candidate in Boat Ethnology (if there is such a thing, i'm it).  First I stopped and took advantage of some of the subject vessels moored near shore along the sea wall for some easy photos, then moved to the nearby boat yard where two large local fishing vessels were up for bottom work and a third was trying to get that way, with much bellowing of engines and pulling of lines and shouting of orders.  They got it done, though they stopped for a bit to grab lunch after they got the boat actually centered up on the launching cradle on the railway.  Meanwhile, I hired a boatman (poor choice this time, he just couldn't or wouldn't do it my way and he wasn't taking photos either drat him), so I bailed out of that partnership and went it alone back on the beach, all very professional and objective and so forth.
He rowed very well with those bare feet (they all do in La Gi Harbor) but he would not row where I wanted to go.  Sigh.
The ox cart bringing the 50 foot long chunk of heavy tropical hardwood down the sandy trail to the building ways was interesting.  Fifteen men (no, I didn't count, but that's close) alternately raised or lowered one end of the big stick by brute weight to clear assorted obstacles, while the bull (verified) plodded down the beach and over the winch wires (they had it dogged off for lunch, but still. . .).  Quite a show, and it was the only sort of truck you'd have gotten down there, or back out.  They're not fast, but it's pretty hard to stop one of those red oxen.  Beautiful creatures by the way, with big brown eyes (always have been a sucker for big brown eyes. . .).
They aren't as much fun to watch as the ponies with their dump-carts, but they're amazingly sweet tempered (unlike some of their bosses) and really strong.  Not fast. . .we're not worried about fast here

The energy vortex and the alternate reality?  Yes.  Well, we got really lost, I mean, out in the country-where'd-they-put-the danged-town kind of lost.  The worst part of that sort of lost is that moment when you realize you're being delighted by seeing the same things because you were lost there a half hour ago.  At that point you know it's time to consult locals.   I've already told you the secret to that particular energy warp, just remember the stoplight by the Chua and you're golden.  In a more general sort of way I'd suggest you always (make that ALWAYS) take a business card ("carte visite". . .say it "carta vizz-EAT") from the front desk when you leave.  If they don't have one you're staying in a really small hotel.  Good luck.

The run from La Gi after the bike wash was just plain lovely until the traffic jam trying to get into the City.  I knew it would be like that, and I'm not even sure it was as bad as I've seen.  Half of the country is trying to get into or out of Saigon. . .even if they're still in Hanoi really (and the other half is trying to get out).  Saigon is where the money is.  End of story.

I always study maps and guidebooks before trying to get into or through Saigon and I've found there's a certain Zen like state you enter when you pull over to the side of the road and spread a map and a guide book out on the handle bars.  The world whirls around you, sometimes close enough to flutter your map, and local help may (just "may" it's not a sure thing) stop to see if they can help.  But one way or another, all the fuss goes away and you can study the map and the street and the compass. . .works pretty well, just don't be in a big rush.  Getting out of town I usually make up a list of street names, turn directions, bridges and traffic circles (they show well on the $1.00 tourist map you can buy from almost anywhere. . .why doesn't Phan Thiet. . .oh never mind).

The arrival scene at my hotel in Saigon is something out of a movie.  This is the absolute center of Saigon's backpacker tourist zone and all the bus tours drop off and pick up their loads here.  In the afternoon and evening the buses that left Hanoi yesterday are offloading the survivors (yes, they're nice, really nice sleeper buses, but 24 hours??? Oh wow.  The place is a madhouse, mostly all the time.  I pull in, dusty or muddy depending on the day, squeeze through the incredible volume of motorbikes, cars and buses  up fairly close to the curb, and catch the attention of the security guard who is also the doorman for the hotel.  He acknowledges with his permanent smile (I think he really likes his work) and sets a guard on the bike, I climb the stairs, there IS one room left and I grab it.  It would make good movie footage if you had a handsome star and maybe he wasn't quite so road-worn.
In the quiet of early morning you can hardly believe the afternoon pandemonium, but just wait!!

The only reason we stopped in Saigon was to meet the people who make the beautiful boat models that have a link on the website.  They've been fun correspondents and I wanted to make personal contact this trip.  Yes.  Well. . .the older gentleman with the geriatric motorbike I ended up hiring was sure he knew the address. . .I had it written out in long form, street name and number, district and ward. . .and I had the map. I mean, we did make it eventually, I can't complain.  The local motorbike taxi men have a union agreement that they'll always help a fellow union member.  We cashed in on that something tremendous. . .stopped over and over again (and kept getting sent back more or less where we'd been the stop before) and finally, after asking the same group of coffee shop customers the same questions for the fourth (no, i'm serious) time, we drove up to one last xe om sitting on the right hand side of the street (say it "Seh Ohm". . .means the "hug vehicle" literally. ..motorbike taxi) and went through our whole rigamarole again.  He pointed across the street and there it was.
Fun things happen at stoplights when you're riding behind a Xe Om. . .hands available for cameras and  concentration available for negotiations with mothers. . .This was a 35 second light and I didn't even start the negotiations right off. . .almost made all the wandering around worth while.  The kid, by the way, shows all the signs of proper parental concern, the dust mask to keep the lungs clear, sun glasses to keep the bugs out of the eyes, a helmet. . .this kid is set!
My people weren't there.  Hadn't gotten my email I suppose.  So I met Miss Minh with her excellent English and looked at the fabulous models they have on display.  If you've seen a really gorgeous model of a Chris Craft or a clipper ship or an old sailing yacht, something just too pretty to believe, and accurate. . .they probably made it.  They ship about 600 "pieces" a month from a little workshop out North of Bien Hoa.  We spent I suppose an hour or more getting there and fifteen minutes getting back to the big market by the hotel.  It was still light.  My driver was frazzled and felt he had half again the agreed price coming (it had been a HUGE effort to find the place I admit).  I gave in with reasonably good grace and he was gone in a heart beat.  I'll bet he thinks twice before he looks at my notebook again.
They're just gorgeous models.  The blue sloop is almost as tall as I am.  

Which brings us back to choices.  I was sitting here at this lovely little writing desk (it's rattan with a woven top covered with a tight fitting sheet of glass held in place by a picture frame of peeled bamboo. . .and it's the right height and the chair works with it) sitting here, about ten paragraphs back, when I realized just where I was and what was no doubt going on out on the street and that I hadn't had any lunch and. . .so I chose to go out and be in Saigon.  There's a wonderful city park right across the street from the hotels. . .it takes up what, three city blocks.  Trees, paths, flowers, and places to practice specific sports and do specific exercises on public (cast iron) exercise machines.

Look closely. . .he's just whacked the thing and it's headed back where it came from, with deadly accuracy.  It's like ballet!  Mere mortals just kick the thing back and forth, but these people (some are ladies) are extraordinary!
The fellows playing "kick-the-feathered-thing" were doing their Olympic class show.. .the rules let ordinary people just kick the danged thing.  These people, who perform every night, I'm told, won't return a volley unless they can do it with a backwards kick. . .over the shoulder. . .unreal.  And the skaters. . .oh my goodness.  They have a little space on the pavement marked with white spots about 30" apart, upon which they set plastic cups upside down and then they skate forth and back at blazing speed (or agonizingly slowly with twirls and cross steps and. . .)  with their feet cutting unimaginably precise patterns through the cups.  They knock one over now and then and it is so lovely to see them skate by at speed, feet spread to straddle the row, snatching up the stray and plopping it down precisely on the spot it left, whirling as they do it.  They're amazing.  I had to go back to the room and grab the camera with its movie function I'd never tried before. . .how lovely.

Well.  I wrote until midnight last night.  It's 7:00 now and I've been at it again for an hour and a half and I want to do about 8 hours on the bike today (I'll not tell you where, and perhaps, just maybe, I'll actually get there.. . .it's a long day and a route I don't know well at all.)  So it's time to add a few photos and maybe a video. . .and get out of Saigon.  You should be here.