I've been saying goodbye to Viet Nam off and on now since 1971 and 1972. In 1971 I knew I had to come back or go AWOL, and my Uncle's army wasn't kind to those who went AWOL. In 1972, only a few months later really, I first understood I loved the place, and thought I'd never see it again. I think it was then, getting on the "freedom bird" to fly home to the States for good (I thought) that I wondered a bit about why. Part of it was no doubt simply that she was letting me go home alive. It's probably the same reaction that's observed at times in released hostages who somehow empathize with their recent captors. . .but that wasn't the whole of it at all. I just simply liked the place. The food was fabulous, the scenery was often beautiful (more so then than now I think, there's a lot of jungle gone and cities sprawled in the years between), the people (except those actively engaged in trying to kill Americans) were incredibly industrious and wonderfully friendly, and just beneath the color of their skin they were all people like me. And it was all so different than life at home.
That all still applies I think. I'm tickled that once again the little horse and I have ridden through all those kilometers with all those opportunities for catastrophe. . .and got away alive. Not entirely un-marked of course, but the horse will end up with a new just about everything out of it, and I'll heal up from my minor bumps and scrapes shortly. Nothing broken, not even anything important bent. Not bad.
There are still frequent moments of exquisite beauty along the road between the problems of the dense population and the often dreadful ongoing pollution. Truly, I would take a five year stabilized tour of duty as the commisar of garbage for Viet Nam. . .with the power to make things happen, if they'd offer me the job. Somebody must have that job already, or a number of somebodys. . .but it's a major uphill battle. Far too many towns, not all of them so very small, have no place to put their garbage, so it ends up on the roadside at the edge of town. Oh so sad. Somehow a market has evolved for some of the rubbish. Glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans are carefully scavenged out of the curbside pickup by quiet people with gunnysacks on bicycles or on foot. Cardboard, old fertilizer sacks, and scrap metal of any description, a huge volume out of the total, all gets carefully sorted and sold. . .the signs are all along the highways and in the towns. . ."Mua Phe Lieu"--"Will buy Recycleables" and trucks come to pick up the gathered stuff and pay for it. But what of the plastic bags, the national bird of the country, flying free over every hectare and perching in any tree they like? Or styrofoam boxes, used once for a lunch and liberated thereafter to roam?
I'd best get off my soapbox. They're not hiring old men for the job anyway. But the beauty is still there, and the people, just as industrious and cheerful as ever, and welcoming and polite to an old guy on a motorbike.
When you cut out the nonsense though, what has brought me back the past eight years is the endless network of roads and guesthouses and the little horse to ride on them. I must have a gypsy somewhere in the family tree, or a peddler or a tinker or just a bum. . .I think I am never so happy as when I get up on a fine morning, throw my bag on the horse (and watch her stagger and then catch her balance), tie it down, and slide into the saddle. Even if that fine morning is wet or cold (or heaven help us, both at once), still, setting out in the morning, now knowing what the road will bring, saying goodbye to pleasant hosts (or dusting off my feet from the house of the occasional grump) and moving on through the landscape. Coming at evening to a town I've not seen before is getting to be a rare experience now. . .there's still a lot of country I haven't seen of course, but on the major routes, I know the roads and towns pretty well now. So pulling into town well before dusk, finding my way to a remembered good guesthouse or hotel and being met by bright remembering eyes and obvious delight "You're back to Viet Nam Again!! I'm so glad to see you!". . .that's a fine thing as well, with stories to tell on both sides, weddings and new babies since last year or old folks gone, and where have I been and what have I done?
So I love the place, but after a time I can hear home calling again and now I'm joyful with the anticipation of home and friends. Perhaps that too is part of the love of being gone, the joy of returning to the familiar life at home to see it, for a while at least, through different eyes. The same eyes that have gulped in the sight of sunrise over fog filled valleys pierced by black mountain tops. . .those same eyes can see the lanes and woods and houses of home and handle them with greater care and understanding for having ridden all those miles away.
But what did I do? It seems every year I spend a page or two itemizing every Hanoi museum or shopping trip or minor adventure, and I did them all again this year. There was a two-day, few hundred kilometer run up to the Northeast, where tourism and coal are doing well and boat building has hit a terrible downturn, a grand meeting with a young lady who is now an old friend at "Indochina Junk" (the nicest of the nice tour boat companies in Halong Bay), and long talks with other friends on other matters. I listened, unbelieving, to the peal of bells in Hanoi Cathedral on Christmas night and sat a while with the finest zen statue of the Buddha I've seen in a monastery out on the dike road south of the city.
I had to make a hard decision about the Little Horse. To spend the money to make her right again after what we went through in southern Laos. . .or to hand her over to the auction and be done with it. I pondered how, and for how long in the future I'll be able to come back and put the bags on her back and ride out of the city in search of (reasonably survivable) adventure, and in the end I couldn't sell her, so she'll be doing very well indeed the next week or so, and I'll be back to ride her.
|You can still get married in a Camry, but Mercedes is the new benchmark, and no more plastic flowers too!|
|Not the smallest ferry on the Red River, but she's on the list|
|Country town, northern Viet Nam (on the way to Halong City from Hanoi)|
|Dragons on stairs and ramps just seem to be necessary, even at the shrine of our Lady.|
|The red bridge to the island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Hanoi) at Christmastime (add red and green lights to a red bridge and some greenery and. . .)|
|So, what exactly IS "life size" for a goddess? An admittedly mythical one??|
|This is how it begins, a block of white marble and some big saw cuts. . .and a sledge hammer|
|And it ends thusly, with emery cloth and later (maybe) jeweler's rouge!|
|Is he for real??|
|now, that's pretty. . .smuggled in from Cambodia with fake paperwork. . .an expensive little thing here!|
|One very small corner of Bat Trang ceramic village.|
|Clay slip goes into the molds|
|And the pot comes out...but how did it get to be hollow? I need some explanations here!|
|Adding the pretty blue pictures. . .they were printed on tissue paper and dabbed onto the greenware with a damp paintbrush. Water, I think. . .|
|Pleasant low level of chatter with an occasional phone call.|
|Ah yes, getting the platter out of the mold. . .tricky!|
|Dragon and Phoenix. . .very traditional Vietnamese (Chinese. . .) design|
|The lights quietly came up. . .as the bells began to peal!|
|Oh my goodness...restored in Saigon, a 1970's Motebecane "Mobylette". Separate chains for the motor and the foot pedals, a true "mo-ped"|
|the young man who brought her to Hanoi declined to pose with her, but teased the young lady until she got on to for the camera. Just lovely. . .both of them (though only the bike was sure she wanted to pose)!|
|And right down the street. . .a CD 90...a little more recent, but an Asian classic Honda. . .|
|A load of bagged cement no doubt, headed downstream to the Port of hanoi|
|And an empty. . .probably a sand barge. . .bound upriver with a bone in her teeth. Remarkably efficient hull shape running light. . .hardly any wake and moving very well.|
|Perfection in the art of loading a barge. Sink her, just not quite all the way! Sand to feed the concrete plants and plasterers of the city. . .Huge volumes every day!|
|I ate roasted corn midway on the bridge. . .picnicking with young lovers. A Hanoi treat!|
|Portrait of a dog. . .from Long Bien bridge.|
|Pineapples should be a good buy over New years|
|Rush hour traffic on the ring road. ..not bad really. . .you should see it in the Old Quarter, or the financial district, or. . .yes.|