Monday, December 17, 2012

What did he do with five days in Hanoi??

Written from Seattle, still a bit travel-worn, 12/17/2012 (on the far side of the International Dateline)

To begin with, I didn't spend five days in Hanoi. . .there were two other trips involved, but both of them ended up back in Hanoi in time for bed.

I finally checked off  the box titled "Bus Tour to Phu Lo and Tam Coc". . .which involves wandering around an old imperial complex sort of place for a while in the drizzle, then a fantabulous boat ride through three caves after the drizzle gives up.  We'll skip painful details about the old imperial complex in the rain, it's not the highlight of the trip, though it must have been a lovely setting for the imperial court once upon a time.  There's not enough room for a real imperial city though, and that first Emperor, having figured out the space problem, moved the whole works to Hanoi after a bit.
A gorgeous setting, even in the rain. . .but where to build a city?

So, on to the caves. . .they are actually pretty short segments of the boat ride.  Going THROUGH the caves is definitely the least scenic part (pitch black, or pretty close, in the middle), but the visual effects going in and out are stupendous, and so is the scenery in between.  My Geology 101 class is a long ways behind me now, but I'm pretty sure this sort of limestone cave and sink-hole country is called "Karst Topography" after someplace in Germany (amazing what an ancient mind retains instead of stuff it needs).  Be that as it may, the local tour companies call the trip "Halong Bay in the Rice Fields", which brings the discussion pretty much full circle, since the guide books sometimes refer to Halong Bay as "Guelin China in the Ocean".  This is the same sort of completely vertical countryside you'll also find in parts of Laos and in a number of areas around the northern arc of Viet Nam. . .vertical cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the surrounding terrain, topped by scenic windswept trees. . .but this is the only one of the lot where you can take a boat ride through three of the limestone mountains in one day.  This wasn't a particularly wonderful drizzly gray day to be doing magnificent scenery in, and the rice fields were bare and flooded well over the tops of the paddy dikes.  People were tending fish nets while wading around the rice fields rump-deep in the water, so it was a bit more like rowing along a narrow lake among the vertical cliffs and then simply rowing into the cliff.  At a guess, the water was 30" or so above normal stage (enough to flood the fields entirely) and that made the caves JUST BARELY high enough to row through without banging tourist heads on limestone ceilings, as well as cutting down the light inside.
Not the prettiest day, but a magnificent landscape.  The rice paddy is flooded over the top of the dikes, which means the roofs of the caves are. . .The boatpersons (ladies and gentlemen both) row with hands or feet (note the backrest) and power the little prams along for two hours like a steam engine. . .slow and steady, no breaks.
Pretty low. . .no bumped heads though.
Ah yes.  Light at the end of the tunnel. . .

And still it was stupendous.  It wasn't just me, there were 20-odd people in our bus and it wasn't the only bus there.  .  Everyone used up megapixels like crazy and everyone was floored.  It's hard to imagine the trip on a day with blue skies and green fields.  It'd take your breath away, but judging from the number of the little aluminum boats tied to the quayside, roughly enough to float a large army, you'd also have lots and lots of company.  Perhaps gray and drizzly wasn't all that bad.
A slow and gloomy day in December. . .lots of boats available!

But there's a downside to this tale.  It involves the 100-plus kilometers of road between Hanoi and Tam Coc, of which half or better is still under major re-construction (refer back a chapter or two for a grim description).  Taken all together, that comes to six hours of  bus riding for a 2-hour boat ride.  Tam Coc is located just a very few kilometers from downtown Ninh Binh, which, if you recall is where I was the day before I rode the last lap of the trip into Hanoi.  That was a lovely hotel I stayed in at Ninh Binh, set in a lovely neighborhood full of really nice places to eat and interesting neighborhood scenes and. . .so I sat on a bus for six hours to come back.  Dang.  Nobody ever said I was a genius at planning itineraries.

And of course there's an up side too.  The finest thing about most bus tours is the fun people you meet and visit with as you go along.  This trip was no exception.  There were two bright young ladies from Germany, a couple from Hong Kong, a few Vietnamese from the South (boy did they pick their season oddly) and the prizes of the day. . .a gentleman my age from Sweden who has half convinced me to visit India and a brother-sister pair (dynamic duo indeed!) from Jakarta, who've made it clear I have to visit Indonesia before too long.  We talked the miles and hours away and made a dent in half the world's problems.  Nonetheless, next time I pass through Ninh Binh I won't leave so quickly, and I won't have to come back by bus.

So that took up one of our five days.  Another was spent riding halfway back to Halong Bay to visit a statuary store.  No, bear with me, I wasn't buying statues, I was looking for a shipping agent.  Remember that sweet little thing back in Mui Ne, the one with the shiny black gas tank and the new 100 cc motor?  She's still in Mui Ne, sadly enough, but there may be another as lovely somewhere around.  So, still, a marble statue store??  Actually, it's more/worse than that.  The place is just about precisely halfway to Halong Bay from the city, and since that's a 3 hour ride in a tourist bus and the tourist buses all leave the city right after breakfast (or before if you slept in) then one and a half hours into the ride it's time to let the tourists out for a potty break and another cup of coffee and while you're at it, let them order a statue and a ceramic vase and a silk embroidery as well as a few panels of glorious lacquer work. . .that sort of place.  It may have the very nicest public toilets in Viet Nam.  Heck, they may be the nicest public toilets you'll ever see.  But I'm sort of missing the point here.  They do stock and sell a lot of really beautiful marble statues, your choice of religions, Catholic or Buddhist.  You can choose Mary or  Joseph or Jesus of the Sacred Heart blessing all and sundry.  There was even a museum quality copy of Michelangelo's "Pieta", one of the most heart rending sculptures on earth.  Or do you prefer a Buddha or Quan Yin? And in what pose?  How large?  Or, again, if you prefer lovely women you can buy a Venus in several variations including the armless de Milo or any number of more modern ladies en dishabile. . .or temple dogs or dragons or little boys peeing into space. . .you get the idea.  If it can be carved and polished in white marble they have it and you can have it at home in Podunk, wherever that may be.  They ship tons and tons of marble off all around the world every week, and I have been very favorably impressed by the very bright young man who is the sales manager there.  This all makes sense really.

One little 250 pound motorbike to Seattle wouldn't even be a challenge.  Come to think of it, small boats and anchors or steering wheels and propellers would be pretty easy too.  I needed to talk to the young man again.  As it turned out, we talked a long time on a slow morning before a bus load of late season tourists caused enough of a fuss he had to leave me. So if you want to ship a motorbike or a bamboo boat or whatever home to wherever, we have a solution.  

Yes, you say, but you left the pretty little lady behind in Mui Ne, so why the fuss about shipping motorbikes?  That would account for two more days of the five actually.  I put out the word on the street corners near the home hotel in Hanoi that I was looking for a CD50 or a CD90 to take home to America.  "CD" you may recall, is the model designation for that series of Honda motorcycles, of which, the 50's and 90's were without doubt the prettiest (the 125's and 250's are actually kind of ugly).  Having put out the word, I sat back and waited to see what the gentlemen of the motorbike taxi brigade could produce.  This was not a cheap proposition.  Hanoi is big.  What few restored or otherwise pristine CD's there are in the city seem to be at a great distance from my hotel.  Distance costs time and money, especially during rush hour.  But my gracious sake, what a fun way to see the City, including neighborhoods the tour buses have never heard of!  I went through $25 in motorbike taxi fares very quickly and only came up with three possibilities (and one of them was REALLY pretty). . .but in the end I was defeated by an interesting if innocent quirk in the Vietnamese paperwork system.
A 1970-something Honda CD90--new paint, new seat, 55,000 km showing on the clock (2nd time around you think? Third maybe?), nice smooth engine (started 1st or second kick every time), $700 USD.  Plus about $400 freight and handling to Seattle by ship. . .and then she'd have been crushed for lack of paperwork.  She's still in Hanoi.  Sigh.

Actually, as I now understand, I went at it all wrong.  If you want to buy old HONDA motorbikes in Viet Nam and have the paperwork all tidy for proving they're older than 25 years then you should have gone looking in Saigon, not Hanoi.   (Never mind that the model in question hasn't been produced for 30 years, without paper to prove to US Customs that it's older than 25 you have a real problem and a crushed motorbike.) So, the interesting quirk. . .when a bike is re-registered in Viet Nam the police retain (and destroy?) the original document and produce a new one for the bike, identifying it in great detail by color and model and engine and frame number. . .BUT NOT BY MODEL YEAR.  The only date that shows on the new document is the date the registration was done.  Now, there's one more piece to this puzzle, but it's simple enough.  Before the 1980's (when the CD was already moving into history) Honda had not imported bikes to "North Viet Nam". . .we were maintaining an embargo of the country remember. . .so all the CD's in Viet Nam were imported into "South Viet Nam" first (before 1975) and only later moved to the North.  Thus, though I never saw it and it might not be the case, the little Lady in Mui Ne may well have had her original or maybe second registration. . .with the necessary date intact.  The local Hanoi bikes though had only moved north more recently, and the only dates that showed on their documents were all too recent to suit US customs.  Oh well.  It would have been a real scramble anyway, so late in the game.

So what of the other days?  There are two left to account for I think.  Put them down in the record book as rest, saddle sore restoration, general chores (2 separate loads of laundry come to mind, storing the bike for next year, saying good bye to all sorts of people). . .and looking for presents for people at home.  There was a little time for afternoon naps, but not all that much!

The flight home?  Easy as such a long haul can be I think, back to the "real world", family, friends, and work for another year or more.  And is this the end?  I'm getting older (and poorer) too.  But I didn't sell the bike.  I hung my helmet up on the hook in the long hall of the hotel and hid a couple of things up on top of the wardrobe in my room to wait for me.  I told Grandma I'd see her next year (she is SO old now, I only hope it's true). I argued with her over how many bananas and apples I really needed to take to the airport (she'd packed a large bag!) And then I left.

We'll see.