Sunday, December 9, 2012

The better part of valor. . .

Written from Hanoi, 12/9/2012
So. . .there I was at 18,000 feet trying to nurse the old bird over that notch in the Andes just one more time, rocks in the pass so close you could touch them from either wingtip and snow and ice below. . .when the left hand engine made a very unpleasant noise and the whole airplane started shaking . .I knew what it was when a black streak of oil crept nastily back from the cowling and over the wing. . .we were going down.

Oops.  wrong story again.  Let's see. . .try this. .  .there I was at 60 kmh, humming along nicely within easy reach of Hanoi in the next half hour, almost alone on the freeway from Phu Ly when another fellow on a motorbike passed me going the wrong direction on the shoulder. . .and flagged me vigorously to follow him.

I wasn't sure what sort of thing was going on, but it did seem a little odd, so I took an easy chance to hang a U turn on the freeway (only used about half of the thing, it's a good big road) and drove (also on the shoulder) back the way I'd come. . .he'd pulled up and was waiting.  I won't try to get the translation exactly right since I only got about 80% of the Vietnamese in the first place, but the important part was "Turn Around and Go Back!  Police Ahead!  Must Go Back!  I said something inspired like "I have to go back to Hanoi" and he pointed out (I'm pretty sure) that I'd have to walk to Hanoi if I got to the Police road block and they took my motorbike.  H'mm.  That IS their favorite enforcement technique. . .they use smallish trucks with lift gates.  One policeman can load your bike while the other writes out your ticket.  Great.  What else to do? I followed him. . .so there I was at 55 kmh going the wrong way down a Vietnamese Freeway. . .and this was supposed to be better than what??  Oh well, it was only 5 km or so back down the road and I couldn't help but notice that there were no other motorbikes in the mix of busses, trucks and fancy cars flying past us going the right way.  Things change and we must adapt.  Further enquiries have revealed that certain "high roads" are no longer open to motorbikes.  I wonder what all that involves???

Anyway, it all went fine.  We just rolled on up the shoulder to the on ramp, smiling at the oncoming horde, and went Off the On ramp just fine then through the under crossing and west half a kilometer to the old highway (looks a lot like a city street now, but it runs right along the RR line, where it always has).  We stuck together (was he babysitting me do you suppose) until we were well into the Hanoi suburbs. . .he passed me one more time and waved a thumbs up and I rode the bike through the city to our turn-off and thus with another turn or two to Hoan Kiem Lake, through the fun intersection where you must pay attention and on to the hotel, all before noon. He was very good help I suspect.

But I've jumped ahead.  The day and a half in Hue were mostly a rest period, with some fun work delivering new photos (the last of the ones from Thuan An I took on the way out of town) and some good time spent writing on the table in the hotel front room, but mostly it was a chance to relax from the constant traveling and say goodbye to friends.

Sometimes traveling as I do, certainly as a part of the world, but very apart from most of the people around me, a few moments come out of the whirlwind of sight and sound and leave me feeling very happy with it all.  It's hard to tell such a thing to someone else, but, out on the Island,  I stood for a long while watching a harsh surf beat on the beach below the dune crest at the end of Kiet 6 (I think it would translate to "Alley #6)  in Thuan An village, unusually alone with myself and the Little Horse.  More often, if I stop in such a place, surrounded by homes and people, a crowd will quickly gather to see what I am. . .which is fine of course, but the peace watching the violence on the beach below, as wind driven breakers swept in off the sea and gnawed away at the base of the high dune, that peace was precious and the sea was marvelous to watch.  No fishermen had put to sea through that surf, the beach was full of idle boats, all deserted but for one couple mending net to the South.  I turned back to the bike after a bit and as I slid the key into the ignition switch, an incredibly beautiful young woman, dressed as though she would go to work in an elegant office downtown, with a chiffon scarf wrapped around her neck that set off her coloring so well. . .such a young woman walked past me within five feet without "seeing" me and stood exactly where I had stood and looked out over the same surf I had watched--and watched in her turn for a long moment, then turned and walked very slowly back down the sanded lane to me and deliberately smiled.  We spoke of nothing in particular for a minute or two, in Vietnamese mostly (she spoke English well I think, but very softly), then I showed her the photograph I'd taken of the ancient old man and the toddler in the street just behind us a few weeks ago. She laughed and took the thing and walked briskly a short ways and called out (even a pretty Vietnamese girl can peel wall paper with an unamplified voice if need be).  That produced my crowd. . .the grandmother of the toddler (truly a little kid) with the kid in her arms. . .and her neighbor and a friend from down the way. . .which brought out the camera of course and produced some fun photographs.
So, is that "Victory", "Peace", or the Cub Scout Salute?  Big smile from Mom anyway.

But the photograph I wanted, the extraordinarily beautiful young woman. . .shook her head "no". . .and smiled when I put away the camera.  Sigh.  You'll just have to imagine her in your own mind's eye, a lovely person.  Sometimes it's like that, and nothing else to do.  But I'd rather have her smile and no photograph than the photograph without the smile.    

Anyway, in due course the urgency of returning to Hanoi and the proximity of the airport overcame my comfort in Hue and after much discussion with the Hotel family (who always seem to want me to stay one more day. . .for no particular reason usually) I finally got away late with all my laundry clean and at least most of my good bye's properly said.  That was on a Friday, the 7th of December, a week before flyaway, and at least two days from Hanoi. . .time to go.

The day was cool to begin and became much colder as we went.  It's December in the North of the country, so it was to be expected. . .and the road was mostly splendid, in great condition and not all that much traffic, almost all of which was well behaved, so it was a very good day for traveling once I stopped and put on more clothes.  At 55 kmh the wind is not warm at all on the Little Horse.

Evening caught us at Ha Tinh, well short of Cua Lo, where I'd hoped to spend the night in a small hotel with the most delightful people. . .where I spent the wild night of the Typhoon back in 2010 and whence I pushed the bike through the town, knee deep in flood water.  But that was then and I was fairly caught in Ha Tinh, which is much larger than I'd realized, a small to middle sized city, not just a town, with a wide variety of hotels spread out along the highway (and back from it) for a long ways.  I chose the worst I think.  It was a fine looking old building, three lots wide, with traditional balconies full width and nice detailing.  Once it had been a very good hotel.  No more.  It was late and I was tired and it didn't seem so bad at first (and in fact the mattress was actually quite comfortable. . .a thin pad over a lattice of bamboo splits) but things went from not bad to. . .er. ..well, not very good.  There was no room key.  There was a TV set.  There were two teenaged boys living in a cubby hole under the stairs (they were good young men really, helpful, though they smoked constantly) and the room I'd been given, the last on the first flight of stairs, was normally their day-room, and smelled of their smoking. . .though that soon aired out.  However, they hadn't finished watching the Kung-fu movie on the TV when I moved in, so, standing in the hallway, they pulled the drapes away from the window, reached in and got the remote. . .and turned it back on. . .that's a first.  They watched absolutely motionless (and put away their cigarettes when I asked) and continued to watch until the last wire had flown the last Chinese magician across the rooftops to devastate the bad guys with incomparably improbable Kung fu.  . .then they snapped the machine off (the remote had been sitting on a table under the window where I'd normally have set up the computer), said good night and went back downstairs.  M'gosh.  When I went out for a late walk (and dessert I hoped, though nothing turned up), I protested the lack of a key to lock the room.  The older youngster stood proud and told me not to worry, nobody would get past him to my room.  And he was good to his word.  I could go on complaining, but. . .what the heck.  I actually ended up liking the two boys quite well, and the rest was perfectly bearable.  In the morning, riding past at least a dozen other hotels though I couldn't help sighing.

The hope for that second day en route to Hanoi was that I would stop in Cua Lo anyway, to check on progress of the two local style boats under construction there, and perhaps have breakfast with my friends in the Hotel.  That much was easy and delightful. . .then that I'd continue on to Sam Son and likewise check on the progress of the boats a-building on the beach there.  That too was easy, but by then it was becoming apparent that I'd not make Hanoi in just the two days I'd planned, especially since I knew the road from Sam Son on at least to Ninh Binh would be awful. . .it was awful southbound and it hadn't been long enough for any serious improvement yet. . .that sort of rebuild will take a long season.  And so it was.  Just Awful.

There's something about the conditions in a major construction zone that brings out the inner madman in many drivers. The frustrations of narrow lanes, horrible jolts and jars, the inability to make schedules and the overwhelming dust and grit get to be too much for ordinarily perfectly nice people, and they become risk takers.  Now, it's one thing for a man on a motorbike to take risks against the moving steel mountains, zipping precariously on nonexistent shoulders past lurching trucks and buses to win a few extra lengths toward his goal.  If he fails and the risk comes due, it is probably only his own bike and body that will suffer and perhaps die.  However, when a bus driver or a trucker decides to become a risk taker and somehow gain an advantage of some sort (though he can see an unbroken column of traffic moving at the same horrible pace for half a kilometer ahead). . .when a man in charge of such a large machine takes risks in such close quarters, things can become suddenly very bad for the small fry.  That's me.  There were over 60 km of really harsh construction conditions, and it showed.

We stopped the night in Ninh Binh, and as though to compensate for last night's hotel, this one, picked at a distance on the far side of a little square urban lake, one block off the highway, turned out to be lovely, or a little better than lovely.  There is a balance in life eh?  What's more, though it wasn't immediately obvious, the hotel sat on the edge of a simply delightful neighborhood. . .one long street with a few short side streets opening off of it, filled with life and light, clean and pretty, lots of good food, nice people.  . .oh my goodness.  It was a very pleasant evening!  In the hotel it became clear that Ninh Binh is by no means just the last big town before Hanoi, it's quite a fine destination in its own right, with some magnificent scenery around and history of its own. Look up Tam Coc for example. . .exquisite limestone mountains rising sheer out of rice paddies, with a river flowing through. . .not just the rice paddies, but through three of the mountains as well (if I understood correctly).  To think I've ridden right past Ninh Binh two dozen times in the past years and never looked to either side. .  I owe the place an apology and a detailed exploration.  Perhaps next year, this year is all but spent.
Progress in Cua Lo, coming along nicely.
And in Sam Son the new boat is really getting close
From the 2nd floor balcony--lovely hotel in Ninh Binh
Small street in Ninh Binh, the lady has beach balls, barrettes, hair clips and toys. 
Street life in the evening--Ninh Binh

Which brings us to the roads northbound into Hanoi where we began.  The construction mess continued all the way to the junction at Phu Ly, within 45 km of Hanoi, and though I looked for the mouth of the old highway I did not see it and thought no more about it until we were nearly home and the gentleman rode to my rescue from the police roadblock and we rode by other routes back into the city.

As always, there will now be a short period of hunting around for things to bring home. . .in the past that's included such trinkets as a full set of metric T-handle socket wrenches, a large pair of kitchen shears (the Vietnamese cooks use scissors for a lot of things you wouldn't think of. . .very effective) as well as small scissors for trimming beards or sewing thread.  There have been quilted silk jackets for ladies (very successful) and antique ceramics for Aunts and Uncles. . .as well as extra suitcases to haul it all home in.  That's still ahead, and there may be a day to run back to Tam Coc. . .we'll have to see, but it might be do-able, either on the bike or perhaps on a tour bus (me?? Never say Never. . .).  But the end is in sight, and my cardinal rule, always to leave time to recover from problems, means the wild adventuring is over for the year.

I'm glad you came along, it's been a good ride.