Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hanging Around Ha Tien for a day or three. . .

Written from Ha Tien, which is about as close to Cambodia as you can get without falling in.  November 30, 2013.  Weather fine, pleasant breeze, scattered to broken overcast late in the day.  Nice place here by the sea.

I came back from the island with a major case of indecision on my hands, and not all of it mine.  The  archaeologist had been contemplating rejoining me for a delta tour after her serious work elsewhere, and I have been very interested in getting to Phnom Penh in time for another conference, and the timing had some interesting problems. . .so, needing to catch up on a lot of writing and sorting of photographs, I got off the boat from the Island and trekked straight back to the hotel here in Ha Tien, re-established my internet connection and settled in to work.  Now the indecision is over, the archaeologist is heading north, the paper is off to the editors, I'm heading west and tomorrow morning will be time to go.  So before we get all involved with crossing borders and trying to remember how to say "toilet" in Khmer, I think I'd best tell you at least a little about Ha Tien.

Ha Tien has largely re-made itself since 2005 when first I passed this way.  Then you rattled into town on the tag end of QL80 across, no kidding, an old US Army pontoon bridge.  The racket even a little motorbike makes on such a bridge is amazing, banging and clanging loose connections from pontoon to roadway segment and back again. . .I'd love to hear a tank or 5-ton truck go across.  But that's all gone now, there's a lovely new high rise concrete bridge across the river (which makes it a lot easier for the boats to come and go to Phu Quoc, among other things.  In 2008 they were rebuilding the ratty old waterfront, driving sheet pile and casting concrete seawalls and so on, even building a new fish market.  I expected it would turn out to be a Fisherman's Terminal sort of place, but that wasn't the plan. . .Fish in the fish market, certainly, but they come in from the fishing port upriver a couple of kilometers, so all those fish ride up past town in a boat and switch to a truck to come back to the market.  Oh well, it makes for a clean and pleasant smelling promenade.  Unlike a number of other towns in Viet Nam that have remade their waterfront in the past few years (and if they have a waterfront, they've probably remade it), I never knew Ha Tien well enough to be sad about whatever it is that's gone, I can just enjoy their efforts at a pretty riverfront walk and a new hotel and restaurant zone surrounding the new markets.  Markets, as in separate new buildings for the fish market, the dry goods market, and the meat and vegetable market.  We're still on the edge of the delta here and the superabundance of food in the markets is astounding, but more, the brand new, brightly colored market buildings surrounded by the brand new, brightly colored hotels. . .makes for a brand new brightly colored sort of town.  That's fine, down the 2nd street back from the water and far enough to be well past the new tourist zone, you can still find my favorite little hotel here. The young people who run the place have two more kids now (three total, all girls and cute as bugs ears) and they're still some of the sweetest people I've met.  The rooms are clean and bright, the fans and internet connections work, the hot water. . .well, you don't really need hot water much this far south.  There's even a tiny desk with its own tiny chair.  So the paper got written (and so did a few more articles for the website, keep your eyes on for the next week or two).

Besides the fishing boat harbor, the boat yard, the wide expanse of river, the splendid inexpensive street food, the corny movies on the hotel's TV downstairs. . .besides all that, Ha Tien has two interesting Buddhist temples.  One is the highest on a mountainside I've ever climbed the steps to. . .but not otherwise too stunning.  The other is absolutely stunning, gorgeous, done by a real artist of an architect, built by master craftsmen, and maintained and gardened by loving hands.  I didn't understand more than a little bit of what I was told, but there are 21 people in residence, 13 kids (some just six or seven I think), six nuns and 2 priests.  Maybe.  Anyway, not to worry about how many of what category, the kids were too cute with their almost shaved heads (they leave a ponytail off to one side in front on the novices, the grown ups shave their heads completely) and the nun who showed me around was very nice, but the stunning architecture, statuary and air of the place was unbelievable, without doubt the finest religious building and grounds I've ever seen.  And, naturally, my photos don't begin to do it justice.  To begin with, the light was too bright for the camera to take in all the range of brightness, so I have washed out highlights or blank shadows. . ,take your pick.  Still, if you can never come here to see it yourself, you can get some notion from them.

I'm to cross over into Cambodia later this morning so must go now.  Here are just a few photos.
There are three separate windows framing this Quan Am. . .after you've passed through the main area of the sanctuary.  I've seen nothing like it anywhere in Viet Nam.  The photo doesn't begin. . .

Novice going by in a hurry

Or, if you prefer quiet serenity. . .

Well. . .as I said, it doesn't begin to do justice to the building.  Never mind.  and I don't seem to have anything good at all from the entrance and exterior. . .h'mm.  I'll make time to go back by on my way to the border.

Look closely at the rowing position. . .port side oar is way aft of starboard.  WHY?  They're all like that here.

A really pretty little "Thailand boat", still near Ha Tien

Looking upriver from the top steps of the tall temple. . .can't believe I made it to the top.  No, I won't tell you how often I stopped. . .

Ha Tien from way up across the river.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Little Horse on a Big Island

Written from Duong Dong (pronounced YOU-ung Dong, the soft southern "D" in YOU), Phu Quoc Island,  27 November, 2013.
After three years of saying I hoped to get to Phu Quoc, at 0820 yesterday morning we were on the ferry headed that way, the Horse down on deck with  twenty five other bikes, a few SUV's, one limousine and a bunch of trucks (exactly as many as could be fitted on board to be precise).  I started upstairs and was floored.  There is seating for at least 400 people in the passenger lounge.  Three monster Video screens, a pair of monster speakers (yikes) and windows for about 40 of the 400. . .give or take a bit.  It was to be a nearly 3 hour voyage by the time we loaded and unloaded (bikes come and go first. . .trucks. . .unstack very carefully).  It didn't take long for the Vietnamese comedy talk show to get me to go stand and keep company with the trucks.  There was exactly one spot to lean on the rail and watch the sea go by.  Nobody fought me for it and I almost enjoyed the drip from the cabin air conditioner.  H'mm.  The sea was marvelous.  I've only a little experience of tropical seas, and have loved them.  This started out a little brown colored from all the flooding rivers, but soon turned clear emerald green (not the insane blue of open ocean).  Flying fish are magic, and they really do fly.  I knew that from my trips in Mexico, but it was wonderful to see them again.  And there were "needle fish" (no, i'm sure that's not the right name, but it fits).  They don't actually fly, they run across the top of the water on their tails and jump from wave top to wave top.  They must be two feet long, much bigger than the flyers, and very skinny and sharp nosed.  They flash silver as they run.  There were fishing boats of course all along the trip, and their buoys, and occasional seabirds and one sea eagle (a very different  bird from the black, long tailed sea eagles of the far north of Viet Nam.  I've seen several of them since, big birds of course, short tails, brown wings, golden under sides and white head and neck.  Striking and pretty, with wings very much like an osprey's.  Might they be close relations?  Dunno.

Then we arrived.  Welcome to Phu Quoc, the mud is red.  Oh goodness.  The concrete wharf was the end of the pavement.  The ferry and its terminals are all brand new I think, so I wasn't too alarmed that they hadn't had time to pave the terminal itself, but this is an island highway and i expected it to be at least sort of paved. . .narrow maybe, broken up maybe. . .but not primordial mud.  And clay.  Red.  You may know how i feel about falling down in wet muddy red clay.  I was not immediately thrilled.  That was the good part, the terminal at least had thrown down some more recent dryer material on top of the slimy road bed.  The road outside the terminal. . .not that you could see.  Still, it was ride-able and we tagged on behind four local folks making good time down the sort-of-dry road, shifting back and forth from side to side to follow the dryer, smoother ribbon as it wove in and out.  There was no opposing traffic.  Worrisome.  And the road got progressively worse, until I felt it was time to say goodbye to my mirrors. . .they always break when I dump the bike, so I said goodbye and we kept going.  The penultimate challenge came when my four leaders pulled off onto somebody's front porch and doubled back around behind the house. . .I hesitated at the top of the road bed (dismayed by the steep mud slope, not to mention the narrow porch and the very very narrow path alongside it).  The gentleman of the house flagged me vigorously down off the road and gestured toward that narrow path.  We were like the pig in the parable. . .committed. . .so we went.  Somebody had just bushwhacked a trail through the jungle roughly parallel to the road, minor stumps still sticking up, machete chopped, and the ribbon of trail wound among them through the high brush.  It was definitely brush-busting riding and bouncy, but the footing was good.  Then we came back to the road.  The road bed was at least three, maybe four feet above the jungle floor, and all of it was red clay.  The first three of my leaders slipped and slid but scooted right up.  The young woman ahead of me with the huge baskets on the back of her bike took it easier and bogged down.  Spinning her wheel she slid sideways.  The whole works looked bad, so I put down the kickstand and started to go to the rescue, but she gave it full throttle, slewed around and went, slinging red mud everywhere.  whew.  She also pretty well wiped out the little ledge of a clay-mud trail the other two had used. I backed the little horse up a step or two, picked out a slightly different angle of cllimb and we went.  The horse just walked up that slope like she knew what she was doing.  Lovely.  The rest was a little tough, maybe 100 meters of deeply rutted clay with some water in the ruts. . .we didn't so much choose one to run in as settled for the one we ended up in.  I "paddled" with my feet, left and right, and the horse kept herself upright.  And then we came to the four lane freeway.  Only in Viet Nam I think.  There were probably 50 total vehicles on that boat, and maybe five bikes and a SUV coming out from town, but we had four full lanes with a 40' wide median to run on.  Gracious.  It was a fine morning, moving on toward lunchtime, white cumulus clouds around, looking a little black ahead.  It was 29 km on into town, and the cloudburst didn't start until the 16 km marker.  So we arrived in town, spattered with red clay, fenders dripping like blood, and soaking wet.  We've done that before.

The rest of the day was great.  Liked the first hotel we looked in (though it is $15/night, which is a lot for me to pay), the rain quit, sky turned blue with puffy clouds, sun was hot, street steamed, I left the horse to stew in the sun and went walking, found lunch, stumbled into a black professor from South Africa who was walking through the market with a bemused look on his face.  He was in town to give a presentation at a conference. . .using computer modeling and mobile apps to predict drought conditions.  I kid you not.  He was great fun to talk to and walk with, only 4 days from Johannesburg, never even imagined a Vietnamese market, couldn't believe ice and condensed milk in coffee, thought everything was fabulous. . .a fine companion.  We walked and talked the whole afternoon away.  I spotted a Cao Dai temple, always a fascinating thing, and always friendly toward visitors.. . .we went in and were given the grand tour, including being shepherded into one of the two steeples and turned loose to twist our way up the ladder stairs to the top, way above the town.  Magic, even without the religion.  Cao Dai is a Vietnamese-only thing I believe, sort of a cross between Roman Catholicism, Buddhism and I know not what else.  Their saints include Victor Hugo (?) and their basic tenets are "Humanity and God, Love and Justice. During the war they tried to stay neutral between the Communists and the Americans. . .had their own army based in Tay Ninh province. . .and didn't fare too well after the war.  Now. . .doing better.  It was a wonderful visit, ended with ice water and warm tea (which went onto the left over ice).  Duong Dong is split by the Duong Dong River, which was crossed by a low bridge in times past.  That's gone now, there's a horrible construction site and detour where it was. . .and a small barge with hand rails is doing duty as the Duong Dong River Floating Draw Bridge.  The whole danged bridge goes away and lies against the bank for a while and the boats rush through both directions.  Great photo ops!  Anyway, we said good byein late afternoon and he'll be on an early morning flight headed home.  Jet lag and  Culture Shock!!

So even with the red mud, it was a fine day.  Today was certainly no worse, though maybe not so exciting.  I actually hired a motorbike taxi guide for four hours and got a quick intro to back roads and beaches of Phu Quoc.  Now I understand why so many people want to come here on vacation.  Truly gorgeous beaches, lined with small guesthouses and seafood restaurants, lounge chairs and kayaks waiting above the tide line, crystal clear water and white sand (what happened to the red??)  But I didn't come to read a book under a palm tree in a lounge chair. . .so I drove him hard until he came up with three boat yards.  That may be the total for the island. . .no. . .I'll bet there are others.  Two of these were pretty good, with beautiful new construction going on.  My gosh the planking they're using. . .2.5 inches thick and lengths over 65 feet, two feet wide and wider. . .basically free of knots.  Wonderful planking and timbers lying in stacks around the yards.  Lots of interesting details to write up, check in a week or so and we'll try to get a good report up for you.

What else? A Nuoc Mam factory, what an aroma (and fabulous taste. . .Phu Quoc nuoc mam is considered the best in the world, at least on Phu Quoc. . .) A monkey at a pearl farm. Pretty double ended beach boats, a Buddhist temple getting a new ornate entry gate, with young men doing amazing things with cement. . .sculpture and art. . .with amazing precision.  Beautiful work.  I pestered them several times during the day.  A fourteen year old in the nearby coffeeshop (bussing tables for her mom and dad) who would not give up on my Vietnamese.  She'd ask a question six ways until she finally got a useful answer from me.  All the while four young men in flat athletic shoes were playing the game of kick the plasticky clicking birdie (with the white feathers) back and forth. . .but doing it behind their backs.  It doesn't photograph well and is unbelievable while you're watching it.  One fellow would make a hoop out of his arms and let the birdie fly through the hoop. . .and return  it with a kick behind his back AND IT WOULD GO THROUGH HIS ARMS AGAIN OUTBOUND.  Some people are pretty darned athletic! An absolutely fabulous rice dinner stand on the sidewalk a kilometer from the hotel. . .charcoaled chicken leg on a bed of rice with all sorts of garnishes and veggies and a bottomless jug of flowery iced tea. . .for $1.35.

But the roads are so bad I don't want to risk the horse on them beyond the pavement or at least the well graded gravel and we've managed to get to everywhere I'm willing to take her. . .so we're moving on.  There's a lot to do and see between here and Hanoi and just four weeks left to do it in.  So tomorrow after lunch we'll get on the other boat, a high speed hydrofoil called the Superdong II (it's pretty impressive, looks a bit like a 747 without wings. . .).  It does the trip in half the time for twice the money, you have to sit inside and. . .it leaves from a paved road end.  Yes.  Chicken.  I just don't want to arrive back at the mainland, coated in red mud with a burned leg, a busted off mirror and a bent foot peg (at best).  So we'll drive in fine fashion on pavement and they'll figure out how to get her on board. . .747's don't have ramps for cars.  But they say they can take her.

Still Water in the River.  Sometimes my reality gets a little rippled. . .
The sanctuary, Cao Dai Temple, Duong Dong

From the "steeple" of the Cao Dai Temple

A rather better than average dragon. . .the head of a hearse!!

Cao Dai Temple from across the street. . .a little ornate, but nice!

An artist of a plasterer. . .really lovely work, way up in the air

A Khmer style boat rigged to push a net ahead, which I thought was a northern technique.  H'mm.

More Nuoc Mam than we could use in, er, 200 years?  300??

Really, way up in the air!

Pretty little double ended beach boats, sorting net

Gorgeous timber just lying around in stacks, really nice workmanship.

Uh, yes, Just what do you suppose you're doing? How about the clutch?  Are you sure you've thought this all the way through?  I might better move the bike.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Run Across Country, headed for Phu Quoc Island

Written from Ha Tien, Kien Giang province, November 25, 2013.  Weather was pleasant at daylight, clear and not too hot, very hot at mid day and cool again in mid afternoon (say 3:30 or 4:00) when the daily thunderstorm passes through.  Find a place to write or something. . .just don't try to ride until it's over (usually 4:15 to 4:45 or thereabouts)

The past three days amount to a complete passage across the delta, starting north a ways at Phan Thiet, through Saigon, into the real delta country at My Tho, then south and west across the delta to Rach Gia and finally, today, on into Ha Tien.  From here, after three years of saying I was going to, I will finally take the boat over to Phu Quoc Island.  But that's tomorrow, This is about just getting close!  That first leg, from Phan Thiet, through Saigon and on toward My Tho really isn't much of a pleasure.  There's a ways at the start of the day that's pretty easy going, but pretty shortly you start to get into the far outer outskirts of Ho Chi Minh, and it only gets worse after that.  I was determined this trip to avoid going right through the middle of the city.  I always get lost there and that gets tedious.  There is a bypass road.  It IS a terrible traffic mess, but at least you keep going where you need to, not around in circles.  I don't know which fork in the road was the wrong one, but I entered the city, as often before, across the Saigon bridge.  Sigh.  Now I have to say that Saigon Traffic has a bad rap.  It's busy certainly, but nothing outrageous.  The main arterials are mostly divided with impregnable side lanes for motorbikes, and the cars are happier with a lane or two of their own. More important, the street signage is 100% perfect.  Actually, it's better than that.  Not only are all the corners signposted, but essentially every building has its full street address clearly shown either on concrete or on the awning.  Phone numbers too if you want them.  So there's a lot good to be said.  This time, knowing I had a ways to go before starting the wander through the maze, I simply carried on in the protected bike lane for quite a ways and then spotted a good place to pull over to the curb and plot my course.  I have a tourist map, a good thing to have under the circumstances.  I think it shows every street and most of the named alleys in the city.  It indicates statues, radio transmitter towers, roundabouts. . .a lot.  So I write out a list (traffic buzzing by, the occasional helpful local looking over my shoulder), a list, as I was saying,  street by street, turn by turn, noting roundabouts, bridges (named!!!) and anything that'll make it easier ("Lake & Park on Left at turn" for example).  Then put away the map, put the list in my shirt pocket and we're off.  It worked.  I no longer "ALWAYS" get lost in Saigon.  One safe crossing does not a native guide make, but I'm pretty proud of it.

Then you emerge from the well ordered life of the city onto the highway again.  It's the most miserable stretch of road in the country. . .perfectly nice pavement and so forth, but an unbroken chain of heavy transport going both directions hordes of motorbikes and city buses.  Of all the heavy traffic, they're the only thing allowed in our motorbike lane.  They want to run in the highspeed part of the lane, over on the left, but they want to let their people out or pick them up at the curb.  They do this a lot.  If you're beside one as it heads for the curb you won't see its turn signal.  Fortunately, the turn signals are wired to a horn that sounds sort of like "WHEE Up. . ." frequently.  Hear it and move, that bugger is coming over!

It does get better, very very slowly, and by the time you're within 30 km of My Tho it's pretty livable again.  The countryside is country more or less. . .still lots of activity, but not the wall to wall commercial and industrial mass that you start with.  The worst of the traffic pulls off and goes somewhere else, and you're left with  just a busy ride in a semi-urban setting.  Ten km from My Tho, in the evening rush hour already it's suddenly just fine.  Wandering through the city, finding the river, then the long park and the sharp turn at the side channel of the river that runs by the market, down a few blocks, past the bridge, into the market, left turn and another block and pull up into the hotel lobby. They remembered me from one night last year.

There was time for a walk along the river and a glass of mineral water with lemon juice and a whole pot of tea (really nice tea) while I sprawled in a deck chair with my feet on the bank and the river freighters going by.    I ate Bun Rieu Cua with Mam. . .a delta specialty (yet another noodles and meat and veggies and herbs and seasonings sort of thing--the mam is pungent but good) I found it at the foot of the street and sat at a little red table on a little red chair on the sidewalk at the edge of the market in the dark.    It was a very good day and a lot of kilometers to have run, something over 200, including Saigon. . .H'mm.

It's interesting to reflect though that when I came down with dysentery in 2005 it was in Ben Tre, yet  another 10 kilometers farther than My Tho.  I was terribly sick for 3 nights and 2 days and when I finally could ride again, weak as I was, I rode in one stage from Ben Tre to Mui Ne, another 18 km more on the far end of the trip, so about 38 km longer ride. I was terribly weak and all I remember of the trip was being nauseated by every whiff of smoke from burning weeds or trash or. . .so help me. . .from the terrible stink of drying fish along the road.  (Normally I don't mind that aroma at all. . .).  When I got to Mui Ne I spent 3 days more, either dozing in my room or swinging in a hammock under a palm tree, only moving when the sun moved my shade. Then I moved on.  I suppose I was 8 years younger then!

The feeling of the Delta is unique in my life.  The air is full of the smells of growing things (some of  them pretty strong!).  Water is everywhere, flooding the rice fields, filling little channels along the roadway, running hard down some canals that carry a constant stream of traffic. . .and now and then you come to the River itself.  It's enormous here, chocolate brown and moving quickly to the sea.  The markets are filled beyond imagination with a superabundance of good things to eat. . .fresh fish from sea and live ones from the river, meat of all sorts, live ducks and chickens, an absolutely unbelievable display of vegetables and fruits, rows and streets filled with it all. . .and then there are the dried and preserved things.  Unbelievable abundance.  The air is warm and the sun is hot, people wear loose clothes in beautiful colors, street stalls are everywhere selling wonderful flavors for very little. . .but the place is flat.  I mean, really flat.  As in maybe a few feet above the river. . .everywhere.  You get to go up 15 or even 20 feet to go over some bridges, and the new suspension and cable stay bridges over major branches of the river take you way up in the sky where you can see for miles over the very very flat land.  I like hills.  Rocks.  Steep places and switchbacks on my roads.   So I'm ambiguous about the delta.

When I was a young man I had very little to do with the delta, just an occasional trip with my interpreter-bodyguard to visit his family in Ben Tre, but I remember it quite differently than it seems now, with frequent long views across endless rice paddy.  Eight years ago when I first began wandering through this country I followed much of this same route.  Then it was built up all along the banks of the straight canals (look at the map and think of all the dredging that took!!) but you could still see quite a lot of the water as you rode along.  Viet Nam has 90 million people now, and they're having really cute kids at every reasonable opportunity, so it's getting a bit more populated somehow.  You can ride for miles along QL80, one of the major 2 lane roads through the countryside, and not see the canal that runs along it more than a glimpse now and then.  It's astounding, but I think it may be as much as 40 or 50 kilometers of buildings, houses and shops and workshops, built brick to brick except at intersections and bridges.

All that comes to an end about 20 km outside of Ha Tien.  You come into a town much like a hundred little towns you've been through in the past two days, turn a corner, and there's a river full of fishing boats, ocean going fishing boats, and an open bay beyond and just at the river's mouth. . .a great hunk of rock.  After riding two days through untold acres of flat mud, the sight of a proud rock standing beside the sea is enough to make your heart beat. . .and the boats.  Seagulls and salt water and maybe a sea eagle.  From that point on you're never far from the sea and its smell and the hills begin to come out to meet you.  Ha Tien is at the end of the delta. . .or just a mile or two past it.

Random things seen on the road the past few days:

At a stoplight:  A young husband settling his young wife on their motorbike.  She's sitting on the back seat of the parked bike. He's just finished tying a pretty green flowery blanket around her neck, draped over her front and into her lap.  Her arms and the tiny baby they're holding are hidden under it.  She's sitting bolt upright.  He put  her helmet on her head, reached under her chin to find the strap and clicked it.  The light turned green and I left.

Charlie Chaplin on TV in the sanctuary of a Khmer Buddhist temple.  The head monk of the establishment was watching spellbound.  It was actually great. . .I've seen very little of Chaplin, and never before in a Buddhist temple.

A fast river boat with two truck batteries, a lady passenger and a skipper going quite briskly down the river playing a Bach organ piece on a horrible loudspeaker loudly enough to break glass or synchronize heart beats. . .and so distorted it might have been anything (I'm betting on the Bach, just because it's so unlikely).

A drunk young man being frog marched off the road where he had either been trying to flag down a bus or maybe attack it. . .followed by a weeping young woman.  (No, everything is not perfect here, or always fun, and alcohol is a problem after noon for a lot of men).
Very small corner of the My Tho market. . .every day. . .so much food!

The size comparison tickled me. . .but the young man was so casual about that canoe,  and sitting so high up in it.  My goodness!  Some, just a bit wider, with a square stern, have MOTORS.  M'gosh.

At long last. . .I've been wanting a photo of one of these fish transports running light for years!  Saw him coming, passed him, ran until I found a bridge, got on it, GOT HIM!.  They flood down until the tires are wet, the whole midsection is basically a fish tank.  The family lives on a slotted floor above the fish.  Their market--load at fish farms, offload at markets like the one at My Tho. . .sometimes takes a few days, but the fish are happy while they wait.

6.5 meter Mekong canoes. . .fast.  Very fast, with a long tail outboard motor.  Tippy. . .very very tippy. . 

Would you buy a new canoe from these people?

Now this is a really nice place to sit, write, eat a baguette (stuffed with eggs, pate, margarine, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, red chili. . .) and drink super sweet milky coffee.  Rach Gia, near the ferry terminal.

The prettiest little power scow you're likely to see this week. . .with the muddiest tractor.  There are a great many of these little work horses, but few this freshly painted and pretty

They thought it was hilarious, me hurrying to take a picture of a boat. . .A BOAT FOR GOODNESS SAKE. . .like what planet is this guy from??

Massive funeral, banners, brass band, people strewing paper money, formal mourners, and a team of men with shoulder straps actually carrying the huge and ornate  coffin (mother of pearl dragons near life size!) 

A very small, very new Khmer Buddhist temple

The sanctuary. . .Charlie Chaplin movie on the TV (that's the bad guy).

A Rock by golly!  and Sea Boats. . .enough of this river stuff!

She must have found a shrimp shop out there. . .loaded so far down she was wallowing at every touch of the rudder as she came up the river

Putting the boat away at the end of the day. . .thunderstorm moving out over the sea.  Mui Nai beach, near Ha Tien.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Traveling quickly for a bit. . .but a great day around Mui Ne

Written from My Tho (south of Ho Chi Minh City about 80 km), 23 November 2013, weather generally o'cast with breaks.  No rain where I was. . .and not too hot, pretty good traveling weather.  But that was today, and I wanted to talk about Phan Thiet and Mui Ne just a bit, so back to yesterday:

Yesterday was a full day on the road running back from Phan Thiet to Mui Ne and then on beyond on the not so new now coast road as far as the amazing fresh water lake in the sand dunes. . .and back again, so something over 100 km  to arrive at the same hotel room, but it was a pleasant place.  I was determined to find any active new construction (boats, not hotels) and I found hotels being built, not boats.  Sigh.  But the weather was truly lovely, puffy white clouds in a blue sky (okay, some of those clouds had lightning in them, but they didn't rain on us).   It made for pretty seascapes and bright colors on fishing boats.

Phan Thiet is a harbor town with a large and interesting fishing fleet and at least 3 boat yards that I've documented. . .and not a scrap of new construction in any of them, just lots of maintenance (a good thing by and large. . .maintenance).  It's the only big town or small city I can think of that Lonely Planet says to give a miss. . .kind of sad, the town is perfectly nice, though they have an odd idea about breakfast eggs.  I ask for a "banh my op la" which almost anywhere in Viet Nam will get you a fried (or scrambled) egg in a split baguette, with cucumber, pate, margarine, soy sauce, cilantro, grated daikon and/or carrot. . .you get the idea, a rich and varied breakfast treat. . .for about a dollar, or less.  In Phan Thiet the same request gets you two eggs frizzled on the bottom and raw on the top still in their little tin frying pan. . .and two baguettes to eat with them.  Oh. . .also a lot of salt.  I worked on that a little, and maybe they'll get the idea now.  Goodness.

But on to Mui ne. . .Mui Ne lies on a rocky peninsula sticking out from a long coastline of sand. It's a stunning location with a superb bay lying at the foot of the town.  The overlook with the paved stairs down to the beach (it's a long hike for an old guy) is probably the most famous "beach scene" in Viet Nam, a lovely bay, charming village and probably 300 fishing boats anchored at any given moment, all sorted by size and type ("don't you anchor that dragger here, this is a squid fisherman's block. . ".or some such).  Tourists line up 20 deep to photograph it.  You need to be there early on a slightly hazy morning to get the best photo though, not mid afternoon.  

It's almost 23 km from Phan Thiet to Mui Ne and essentially every inch of the way is white sand beach, covered in hotelsm, guest houses, restaurants and beauty parlors (with or without massages).  Some of the hotels and restaurants are very very up scale.  I saw one place with two golf courses bragging that they have rooms starting at $2,500,000 VND. . .about $125.  Starting!  And they were bragging!!  All the way down to places I've stayed for less than $10.  Quite a range.  Russian is the third language all along Mui Ne beach. . .Vietnamese first I think, then English. . .and close behind (based on signage anyway) Russian.  I think the letter "pi" from Greek is also the letter for "P" in Cyrillic. . .They way they spell pharmacy is suspicious. . .A"pi"teka. . ."Apothecary" pretty much. .

Mui Ne itself is still very much a Vietnamese town.  No tourist spots at all, only one guest house I've noticed (and it's NOT a tourist place), a really great bike mechanic's shop but the little horse simply isn't needing much since she got her new battery. . .I let them oil and adjust her chain. . .all that running the day before in gritty rain let it wear a bit, and she wanted to say hi to him anyway.  And there's lots of good street food and coffee, just nothing set up for tourists at all.  It shows real dedication I think.

They call the terrain "sand dunes", which I suppose is strictly correct. . .they were probably placed by wind action after the sea ground up whatever to make so much sand, but now the "dunes" are a bit more like "hills", with quite a lot of cactus and scrub brush to anchor the sand most places, and very little in the way of migrating dunes, certainly nothing like the Sahara.  It's a dramatic and pretty scenery though, with the bright red and very white sands (the dunes are either red or white. . .don't ask, I've no idea yet).

But I didn't start this to write about scenery. . .I have a new boat to show off.  You've perhaps heard me complaining that people are building fiberglass tubs to replace the round, woven bamboo boats on the coast and at Mui Ne last year I saw the first DIESEL POWERED ROUND FIBERGLASS TUBS.  I was offended.  I admit they work amazingly well, they just look awful and they'll last a long time and desecrate the beaches and be abominations. . .but otherwise they're fine I guess.  Obviously they suit a lot of the fishermen.  Well.  This year we have a new variation on that theme and. . .this is painful to admit. . .I like them.  These are essentially the same sort of thing, a fiberglass tub, BUT it's different.  Sort of.  I mean, it's a boat, not just a tub.  It has a bow and a stern and sometimes a proper skeg for its stern tube and a nice (usually but not always) traditional wooden rudder.  Yes, I admit it's a little short. . .9'6" to be precise. . .and a little broad in the beam. . .7'3" and it's pretty deep for its length (as is the 8' diameter typical plastic round tub), 41" deep forward, 31" amidships, 39" aft. . .that's really a lovely sort of sheer line. . .well, compared to a flat round tub.  Anyway, I think they're cute.  I usually prefer Pretty, but in the absence of pretty. . .cute will do.

So here are a few photos at random from around Mui Ne and Phan Thiet.
This is the only boatyard I've found in Viet Nam that I CANNOT get into.  There is absolutely no obvious land access.  I suppose somebody's back door must open onto the work area, but there's no sign on the front door, and there's no opening in the solid wall of houses and gates for 500 meters.  Probably nothing I wanted to see anyway and the grapes are no doubt sour too.

Looking back across the bay toward the tourist side.  This is a very shallow, shelving edge of the bay out by the point, in constant use for cleaning bottoms and doing quick work on propellers and rudders.  Some day it will be a superfund site, with tons of TBT and Lead and Copper.  For now, thank goodness, it's just a good place for a fisherman to take care of his boat.  Red sand dune in the far distance.

This isn't top of the line by any means, only 2 swimming pools and no golf course.  But it's kind of photogenic.  Sort of.

A good look at a big sand dune down the coast a ways.  Cactus, scrub brush, and a gorgeous beach for miles.  This is along the "new" coast road beyond Mui Ne to the North, where they've only had six years or so to build hotels, so it's still fairly wild.  The first time I rode this stretch it wasn't open to the public yet.  I picked up the man who had been painting the centerline stripe, complete with his bucket and brush and hauled him back to the construction camp.  I had white paint on my black saddle for weeks after that.  

It isn't so much that life in paradise is awful, she was just really peeved at her older brother and her mom.

There she is, the Better Tub-Boat (or is it Boat-tub).  Not all of them have proper eyes though, this one is well within tolerances to be called a TRADITIONAL Tub.  er.  boat.  
So here's a tiny part of the fleet of tubs. . .nice ones I insist. . .good traditional running gear (well, the rudder hanging is a bit odd) and great traditional paint (note the entirely correct traditional art work on the anchor fairlead forward (uh, that's to the left, the end without a propeller)

A nice busy boat yard (you can drive right to this one, it's just inside the breakwater (on the north bank, opposite the fish market wharf) at Phan Thiet.  There are hundreds of boats in the harbor, so this place is always busy, but nothing new building.  Actually the boat on the left is getting a new cabin and already has most of a new stern. . .that almost counts as new work!

And these are Linh and Mai (on the left).  Two of the sweetest little beggars I've ever met.  Someone has taught them how to ask for money ten different ways, and to keep at it until your tourist drops.  I'm a tough nut, but this one was hard.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Odd Bits from Nha Trang

Written from Phan Thiet, November 22, 2013.  Early morning sun from a mostly clear sky.  But that's today, yesterday on the other hand was pouring rain for 230 kilometers, from Nha Trang here.  Warm enough not to get dangerously chilled, but danged uncomfortable anyway.  That's been the story the past week, a lot of rain, mixed mostly with dark overcast.  Sigh.

Nha Trang continues to evolve and get busier.  Traffic on the main streets is now as dense as in most of Hanoi, and a much larger portion of it is un-trained tourists, which makes for occasional moments of terror as you realize that the fellow approaching at twice anybody else's speed is a gentleman from Russia and clearly doesn't know the ordinary rules of road behavior here.  Your first impression on seeing traffic here is that there are no rules and it's a total mayhem situation.  Not true at all really.  The rules are just a little different and they start from two rather interesting points.  First, everyone is entitled to use a public street, not just rich people with cars.  So if you need to move a few cattle from here to there and it's close enough for them to walk, they're going to walk.  Why would you rent a truck??  That extends of course right up through the range of mobility from Ox carts (oxen pull heavy loads. . .slowly, but they pull) or horse drawn carts (faster and more fun, but not as heavy) up to bicycles and motorbikes and so forth.  The other point that takes a while to pick up is that the rules of behavior are worked around the fact that the motorbike, not the car is the basic unit of transport.  Millions and millions (over 80 million registered in a country of 90 million men, women and children) of motorbikes.  They don't have any special right of way mind you, but the observable rules are based on their mobility and speeds.  Anyway, once you understand how it's supposed to work, it makes your life on the road a good deal nicer.

In any event,  Russian is probably the second language in Nha Trang.  Some businesses in the tourist zone don't even bother with French or English any more, just Russian in their windows.  Or, if the sign is in Vietnamese and English, it might be out of date.  A "Juice Bar" with a solid wall of Vodkas for example. . .well. . .it IS juice I guess, and it wasn't just vodka, there was a little whiskey and brandy down at the far end.  It's only fair of course, when the entire rest of the world turned their back on Viet Nam, and China tried to grab a bit of the North, the Russians were "helpful".  So it's cold in Moscow now and very nice here if you don't mind the rain.  The upside of all that is that I can recognize a few words in Cyrillic now. . .Taxi, for example. . .and Coffee, for sure. . .oh. . .and Vodka.

Wildlife--not something that often comes up in discussions of Viet Nam--it used to be abundant I believe, tigers, elephants, that sort of thing, deer and wild oxen and all manner of birds.  But I had an interesting contact with local wildlife on a run back along the coast road from Cam Ranh to Nha Trang.  The Archaeologist was riding 100 meters behind, about where she likes to be when we're on the road, and she saw it all. . .I, on the other hand, being right with myself, missed all but the climax.  I "drive" the road a good ways ahead, and having identified any likely problems, keep moving my attention on down the road.  So I didn't see the little bugger launch himself across the road ahead of me.  My vision picked him up at maybe ten feet ahead and ten feet off to my left and moving very fast to the right. . .way too close and too fast for me to do anything about it.  So I just braced for the impact and dropped the throttle. . .and he made it.  I might have gotten a little  of his tail hair, but no more than that.  So. . .he was almost as red as a fox in summer time and as big as a smallish dog, body and tail together might have gone to three feet.  He had a sharp little nose and a long bushy tail sticking straight out behind him.  The overall impression (if you've been on the big island of Hawaii) was "Mongoose!"  but. . .he was too big and too pretty.  Mongeese (?) are not all that good looking but this fellow, if he'd let me, would have been worth looking at for a while.  The Archaeologist was just waiting for the crash and thinking about bandages and so forth, and she was sure I must have touched him at least. . .but no.  We all got out of that one alive.  Oh.  No, no photos of him, whoever he was.

There are white egrets here in their hundreds. . .often earning their name "cattle egrets", hanging out with cows.  The question, how many egrets are needed for each cow?  It depends on whether the cow is walking around loose or if he/she is tied to a peg in the ground and dragging a rope.  Five will cover the work if the animal is walking free. . .one for each foot and one for the nose. . .that way no bug or frog gets away, the egrets are REALLY fast with the beak. If there's a rope. . .well, that just depends, how long is the rope??

If you've read the right part of the website ( you'll know that I have seen a lovely big boatyard upstream from the Cham Towers in Nha Trang. . .upstream of the old bridge.  You'll also know, if you read the fine print, that I'd never been able to wind my way through the maze back in those little streets to find the place.  This time, with the Archaeologist wanting to see every possible boat yard in case there was some remnant of an ancient technology to photograph, we persevered and got there.  It is now absolutely certain that all their timber comes by water.  Unless they have helicopter delivery.  The little streets are just barely wide enough to turn a bike around in and SO crooked.  Anyway, they're a delightful boatyard with a good crop of new construction going. . .but it's all the typical Modern Motor Fishing Vessel, so she turned up her nose at it all and we went looking elsewhere.  Some people are hard to please!

One of the elsewhere's turned out to be a tiny boatyard, most of it under one low roof, where the gentleman had just begun building a 6 meter long by 1.6 meter wide "canoe" shaped work boat. . .wooden sheer strake to define the shape, held in place with braces and turnbuckles. . .and rolled steel gauge metal (heavier than "sheet metal" but not yet "plate".   He said it would be finished tomorrow!  So we came back, actually for 4 days running.  He was not kidding, he had completed the steel shell by the next evening, but there was still a lot of work to do on it (boat building is like that. . .the hull is only maybe 1/3 of the work).  So we kept coming back and it was my last stop on the way out of town yesterday.  It was all finished except for the engine and rudder. . .and he said he'd finish that too in another two days.  Amazing.  Less than a week start to finish, and it'll be quite a workwise litle boat.  Built to carry sand I think. . .people dig it off the shoreline and bring it into town to sell to masons.

The corollary to "I've left Nha Trang" is that the Archaeologist has gone back to work at Hoi An, so from this point forward, it's just the Little Horse and me again.  But Nha Trang was a joint effort.  I've often said I wouldn't encourage anybody to come along with me, for fear of promising them a good time and ending up getting them squished by a pig truck or some other horrible fate on the road (dysentery anyone?).  I still agree with myself, but traveling with someone like the Archaeologist who is well able to fend for herself was quite pleasant.  I'd have her along again if it worked that way, even if she doesn't like papaya and lime.  How can you not like papaya and lime I wonder. . .very odd.

Okay, it didn't rain all day every day. . .and we saw a few things besides boat yards

She's a very unusual Quan Yen, longer hands, much slenderer (the more normal representation is noticeably chubby).  This is a hillside Chua along the highway, just North of Nha Trang 28 km or so.

Evening of day one. . .the Archaeologist interrogating the builder

I almost bought a boat like this one once. . .the fellow said "she has a little soft wood in the bow."  Yes.  I see, well, they can fix it.

A really little half-basket rowing boat--the blue topsides are wood, but the darker material below is basketry, perhaps a Vietnamese innovation not seen elsewhere. . .and very effective!

Just really typical Nha Trang small fishing vessels, essentially unchanged since sailing days. . .well, except for the motors and the paint and. . .no sails.

And this is the typical larger fishing vessel, though she's had a fabulous trip.  She's down so far forward with fish that her propeller is almost in the air aft.  Not in a sinking condition, but mighty well loaded.  We used to say of such  a load that ". . .they found the fish market out there!"  Indeed.

One Look and the Archaeologist was ready to leave. . .no old style boats here.  I stalled a bit.  Really nice big modern MFV's.  We found dozens of them under construction and hundreds of them in the harbors. . .this is the shape of Vietnamese fishing these days. The timber comes from Laos whenever we asked.  Viet Nam has largely been shorn of its large wood.

Evening-Day Two, only this little dab left to finish the "planking".  And. . .it's all riveted too.

And evening of day 3. . .gunnels on, thwarts added, all the steel finalized and sealed (well, almost, he finished before he quit for the night.  It looks like a mixture of sand, dung and varnish, but who knows??  He called it "Chay"

We provided supper time amusement while we tried to find out where a certain canoe came from. . .far away. . .at Song Cau.  We'd been to Song Cau.  Found a key there actually!

And here's the morning of day 4.  All finished but for the engine and rudder and they were to happen in the next day or two.  She'll sell for $12 million VND, or $600 USD more or less. . .about what I paid for the Little Horse when she was new.