Sunday, November 30, 2014

Home to Hanoi from Tra Co--Through Tien Lien and Lang Son

Written from Hanoi, 30 November 2014--weather still warm with some nice sun breaks at times.

I've ridden to and from Halong City a number of times, almost every year, and almost always the same way. . .back the way I came.  That's definitely the most sensible way, but not necessarily the prettiest (nor does it always have the worst available road).  Once, several years ago, I determined to make a run through the northeast, all along the Chinese border through the miserable cold rain and mud.  It was an alternate solution I won't recommend, but this year I decided to come back from Tra Co in much the same way. . .at least as far as Lang Son.  From Tra Co there's no choice but to ride back to Mong Cai, and not much choice thereafter.  You can either go north into China (not me) or you can go south on highway 18.  I'd run low on Vietnamese  money (the stuff spends too quickly!) and stopped to change $100 in the incredible and incredibly expensive Majestic Hotel just down the street from the main international gateway to China.  The doorman was pretty straight faced when I rode up the long ramp to the Porte Cochere and left him my bike.  He was worried about how much money I might want to change, but when I said "only $100 USD (say it "OOo Eh Dough" with maybe a tiny bit of "s" on the end of the "Eh") he smiled and waved me over to the front desk, where the young ladies handled the matter in a few seconds from the petty cash drawer.  The room rates were posted in gold on a purple velvet screen--the top room at $4,000,000 VND per night (close enough to $200) and the low end room (in a garret I suppose) was only $80 USD.  They did not have my reservation, thank goodness.  Anyway, I got photos of the hotel itself, what might be the first casino in Viet Nam, and the line of people queued up to cross into China.  It was a very long line, all on foot, including many who looked as though they were going to work for the day.  It would be interesting to understand the local cross-border economy.

The Majestic Hotel in Mong Cai, tallest thing around anywhere near here!

And that's the front door.  You don't park your motorbike in the lobby, but they change $100 bills from the desk clerk's petty cash envelope.
I'm not sure if this is a shopping center or one of the casinos. . .I know they're close to the border, you wouldn't want to let the Chinese tourists get too far south with all their money.

The lineup to get into China in the morning.  H'mm.  Going to work?  Zoom in and you can read the Chinese for "Welcome to China" or whatever. . .through the arch at the end of the street.

We had a long ways to run, though I still didn't know if it was a one day run or two, down the hwy 18 as far as Tien Yen, then a right turn back up north and west to Lang Son on Hwy 4B and then. . .options offered. . .but in the end we chose to run South from Lang Son all the way home to Hanoi on the Northernmost leg of National Highway 1. . .QL1 to regroup and begin the march southward to Hue and a meeting with the first Sailing Club in Hoi An two weekends hence.

The ride south from Tra Co is easy and pleasant enough.  The highway is marginally big enough for heavy traffic but doesn't seem to get all that much, so you're mostly dealing with local people on motorbikes, a few cars and now and then a bus or a flock of them, all balled up behind the slowest, looking for a chance to pass.  That brings up your biggest single risk as a motorbike here. . .you may have a wide open lane ahead of you and drift into semi-awareness as the bike just hums along the open highway, but that open lane ahead of you looks just like a PASSING LANE to anybody stuck behind a string of oncoming trucks.  Beware the inter-city buses and the Lexus SUV's!! One moment it's an open lane ahead as far as you can see and the next it's filled with tons of high speed steel flashing their headlights at you.  Yikes.  Move over or die.  At least your options are simple enough.

Anyway, after three days of giving the bike an entirely easy time, I picked up the pace now and then, got her up to 60 (that's km, not miles per hour. . .call it 36 miles. . .which is the national speed limit for motor bikes and really a pretty nice speed to see the country at) and we purred along.  The new motor is indeed a little stronger than the 110 I've been used to. . .pulls much longer and steeper hills without bogging down.  I loved the old Little Horse, but this New Horse might just be an improvement!  We ran down the 83 km from Mong Cai to the junction with QL4B at Tien Yen in a couple of hours, with low islands and salt marsh on the left (to the East) and rolling hills ahead, behind and off to the right.  This is (thankfully) not coal mining country, no rail road tracks or black dust and no power plants, just farm, plantation and hill country.  It's not spectacular, no crashing surf on beaches (no beaches. . .shrimp farms maybe. . .) just a gentle rolling countryside with a good road, something to approve of!  At Tien Yen we had rolled through young horse's 800th kilometer, so she got her first oil change.  They'll come up every 1000 km from now on, but that first one is important to be early.  The duty was done in a family sort of place. . ."Rua Xe, Thay dau" the sign says. . .Wash vehicles (usually just bikes, but they had a white sedan on the sidewalk being finished up when I arrived) and Change Oil.  That's the Northern Vietnamese sign for that line of work (it's different in the South).  While grampa drained the oil and lubed the chain, the daughter of the household showed off her yearling boy-child in his bouncy chair on wheels (why don't all kids go cross eyed with those dangling things right in front of their faces I wonder) and grandma picked him up so I could see the whole Boy. . .no pants, so we could be sure of the facts.  Very cute kid.  There are a lot of very cute kids here, and everyone seems to love them to pieces.  I think I once saw a child swatted, but that was extraordinary.  A scowl from Mom is usually all it takes.  But I digress.

Highway 4B had a debt to pay me from that first trip.  It's 99 km from  Tien Lien to Lang Son, with two small towns en route, and on that first trip I'd slipped and staggered and splashed through one long red mud construction zone almost every inch of the way.  However, as you came to each of the small towns, the construction ended with fine new pavement on in to town and I, celebrating, stopped in BOTH OF THEM to wash the Little Horse.  That's correct. . .both towns en route and finally when I got into Lang Son.  Each time the bike and I were covered in red mud and grit.  Each time I believed the road when it said that was all.  Each time, as we rode out of town, sparkly clean (well, she was, I wasn't) we were a km or so downrange when it all started again, slipping and sliding and all but splutting full length in the mud.  Sigh.  It was a dreadful 99 km, and it kept up that way 100 km on the other side of Lang Son.  I figured the project HAD to be finished by now and surely, with only local farm traffic, wouldn't be wrecked again already.  Yah Sure, You Betcha.  Well, I was ready to give it up, turn around and go back the way I came at the first sign of that sort of thing this year (no, it's not a swamp in Laos, but that red mud is pretty awful).  I kept an eye on the undercarriage of every vehicle that came from up ahead. . .but they all looked pretty good. . .and we kept going.  Oh, there was a stretch of five or ten km that was unpaved and dusty with outsize potholes, but we only slowed down a little bit.  And this time, having time to look around instead of constantly dodging mud holes, I saw what a lovely bit of country this is.  Again, it's not spectacular, the Alps or the Savannah, but warm green well-watered countryside full of farms and farmers (who mostly even keep their livestock off the highway).
Pretty green farmland, rolling hills, corn and veggies going well in the old rice paddy, a good countryside

A fine road really, a little bumpy maybe, but the traffic. . .and the scenery. . .not bad at all.
Nice yellow house.  My right foot still quivers when it sees those red-topped posts.  Dang that hurt!  Years ago now.
I stopped for photos now and again and one time was caught red handed by a whole posse of kids who were THRILLED to meet me.  ENGLISH.  They could practice English.  Wow.  Where ARE you from (a verb by golly!)??  AMERICA!! (screams of delight and big smiles) You American?? (no verb, but heck, we're rocking!)  You speak English??  Er. . .well. . .yes. . .and how old are you and what state are you from and what city and do you have any children. . .wow.  Somebody's grade school is doing danged well out in the sticks of Lang Son Province.  What a treat.

Great Kids!  English, complete with verbs!  Wow.  And they liked us. . .

Old (tall) rubber trees and younger ones.  There are a lot of rubber trees in Viet Nam.  

Doing laundry at the dam.  I'll bet they beat those shirts on the rocks. . .
Upland farm, no rice paddy here.

A fine old rammed earth home with a new concrete block lean to added off to one side.  The rammed earth holds up really well if you give it a good roof, and dissolves in a few years once the roof is gone.  No toxic anything.  H'mm.
It was a fine and peaceful (if somewhat bumpy) ride through the early afternoon.  I still didn't know where we'd end up for the night, but decided against continuing on to Cao Bang up further into the North on QL4A. . .and rather turned left onto an enormously wide avenue running straight south.  I figured it had to be a main road headed out of town (or to the Chinese border I suppose, 10 km or so the other way, further north).  Anyway, we stopped and asked a straight faced young man where the road to Hanoi was (with a grin).  When he realized I'd asked in Vietnamese and had given him a lead in for a good reply, he made a grand gesture and gave me to understand that this very road, the one on which we stood would lead directly into the South.  Well. . .what he said was more or less ". . .this one is it. . ." but the manner of the speech was grand.  I matched it with prolific thanks and waved as we buzzed off.  That was the whole list of instructions for getting back to Hanoi, and when we got out onto the highway (having stopped to give the New Horse something to eat) and we saw from the first kilometer marker we came to that it was only 143 km to Hanoi and not yet 1:30 pm. . . we could do it lying down.   So we said at the time.  We did not know about the traffic or the occasional road repairs, but still 143 km or 85 miles more or less in an afternoon. . .should be easy.  For that matter, I've been familiar with the southern 35 km of this road for years. . .it's the first part of my routine ride out to Halong City and back, and it's all gorgeous wide open four lane expressway with impenetrable median barriers (so you don't get massacred by oncoming trucks being passed by oncoming buses being passed by oncoming Camry's. . .three or four deep).  If any great part of that 143 km was in such easy riding, it would be a piece of cake.  It wasn't.  In fact, it was just a wide 2-lane highway completely filled with traffic much of the way all the way to my old exit.  H'mm. Still it was good enough riding if you paid attention, and the scenery was magnificent for a long long way from Lang Son on the South.  The road itself stayed entirely on flat ground, but on either hand, sometimes very close by, vertical cliffs of limestone jumped up into the sky.

Limestone cliffs. . .actually, that's a quarry site, the white scar on the mountainside to the left.  There's a cement plant at the end of a long conveyor belt way off to my left, across the highway.

Don't waste level ground on housing, farm it if you have it.  The house goes on the hillside.  A pair of typical small farm houses, made out of stuccoed cement blocks.  Not as cool as rammed earth I think, but not as dusty maybe. . .

Farm the flat land. . .you can't even walk on some of the hills!

Steep.  Very steep!
In the nature of things on a 2-lane highway one catches up to a slow truck (or several of them) now and then.  One then slows down to their speed (driving under does not work and going around is not always wise).  Opportunity arises however, and you take that opportunity, twisting the throttle hard to get full benefit of all those magnificent 125 cc's and get past the truck(s) in question without splutting on the front bumper of the next oncoming whatever.  You then wave jauntily (or not as you prefer) and buzz off down the highway at your intended 55 or 60 kmh.  If you're a strong willed and self disciplined person you then continue on without delay until you come to the next slow truck.  On the other hand, some of us, less well disciplined and lacking somewhat in moral strength only continue to buzz along until some slightly different or more colorful or taller mountain, with perhaps a brighter colored house in the foreground. . .or whatever. . .presents itself.  Those of us who give in to that sort of temptation pull off onto the shoulder (assuming there is one) and haul out the camera.  Sometimes we can snap the photo, holster the camera and be gone again without being re-passed.  But often, no, we're too slow or it has been too short a time since our last reckless race around the slow trucks. . .and they roll past while we stand there.  On the third or fourth event of this sort, when we've passed (at enormous risk to life and limb) and raced on and stopped to photograph and been passed in our turn and then resumed the chase and passed again. . .on the third or fourth event of this sort, as I was saying, it is not surprising when the lead slow truck greets us with a blast of his mega horn as he thunders past in his cloud of diesel smoke.  Perfectly reasonable really.  I mean, he might have felt a fly swatter was the correct tool to use on a buzzing insect like the New Horse and me.

We were all going to Hanoi, and we all got to know each other by the end of the day!

The end, as it always does when you come in out of the countryside into the city of an evening, came on gradually, the traffic thickening, actual stop lights cropping up, kids on electric bikes turning up on the shoulder of the road heading into town. . .all the signs of the city.  Then it crushes in, you reach an off ramp you want but can't get to it.  You follow the other motorbikes along the shoulder, up onto the side walks, squeezing past trucks that were trying to squeeze past other trucks and were all but stuck against the guard rail. . .lean out over the guard rail and your mirror will clear his fender (he's not moving at all fast). And then, oddly, onto the main street bound into the city (not out) and the traffic drops to nothing your direction.  It's easy for 20 blocks or more, to the huge round about and then through the big city steets to the bridge, across the River and down onto the ring road around Hanoi proper, only a few blocks up to the old Long Bien bridge overpass where you can double back southbound and edge over to the right, under the up ramp, into the side streets.  One more turn to the right and you've only a few blocks to push through the absolutely solid mass of people, bikes, motorbikes and taxis all pushing along both directions. . . And when you get there, there's a little space in front of the dentist's office that is the front of the hotel.  You signal your turn, watch for a tiny break in the traffic and jump the bike up onto the curb.  You're home.

Three Hundred thirty eight kilometers in 9 hours elapsed time.  Ah!  No wonder, we forgot to eat lunch!

An Introduction to the New Horse--North and East yet again, but further than before.

Begun on November 28, 2014, in Tra Co at the Northeastern tip of Viet Nam--within easy reach of China by. . .er. . .rowboat?  

But we should back up a ways, it's taken me three days to get here from Hanoi though not by a very direct route. The New Horse sat in the hallway below my rooms in the Hotel wondering where I'd gone for several days. First there was actual work to be done via internet, but that only took three days. Thereafter a single day of meetings with naval architects, newspaper reporters and the Vietnamese Fisheries Dept. turned into two more, for which I walked or took moto taxis across the city. I've concluded that if you want adventure, go with the map and the bike. If you want to be on time for an appointment. . .take a moto taxi. After you've seen the route once you might want to take the map and the bike (with the compass of course if the sky is murky). Anyway, before it was over the new bike had been in the stable way too long and I'd begun to get noticeably antsy.

So we got away three days ago about ten in the morning with an open ended trip plan toward the northeast. The first night was to be in Cam Pha, just north of Halong City, and we managed that without a problem.

In fact, we managed a small adventure en route (nothing with blood or broken bikes, just a neat bit of work). You need to remember, what is it, three years ago now, I begged the loan of a low flying speed boat and its pilot from the owner of “Indochina Junk”, which is the premier tour boat company in the bay, and went chasing off many miles into the islands to visit a floating museum (in a floating village that had a floating school for that matter) and in that museum was a unique display of hand made models of the old style sailing junks of the bay made by an old retired boat builder who had actually made the full sized boats when he was a young man and in consequence, those models were priceless documents of a totally vanished way of life. . .and now they're on record. It's a long story, but the day went really well, largely due to a lady named Ms. Cuc, who decided it was a worthwhile thing to do, so she pushed it through the system and made it happen. We've been friends ever since and I've been remarkably lucky at catching her where she shouldn't have been. Last year, for example, I didn't know it, but she'd taken on a new line of business and was spending all her time developing a Rural Village Tour for the best clients of the cruise boats. She'd been spending her time, that is, in the village not in the office. So on the only day she'd been in the office in a long time I casually dropped in to say Hi and Thanks again. . .and caught her. This year (not that I had any idea) she's been working on a new crew training program, to teach new crewmen the secrets of being floating bar tenders, cooks, waiters, deck hands and so forth, and making the tourists happy. It's been a full time job and she hasn't been out to the village much at all. It seems the village is doing very well even with her in the background. It's a fascinating place to begin with, historically important (the Viet Minh began and based their war of independence from France there) and it's architecturally interesting with traditional, old style Northern farm houses with their fish ponds and acres of rice fields and scenic limestone mountains popping up out of the rice paddies in the middle distance.  (Okay,I admit, that is a cement factory you see nestled next to the hole in the mountain. . .)  Add all that to the new water puppet theater (a North Vietnamese specialty), the interactive (I mean, you have to work) rice milling and transplanting and fishing and cake making operations, not to mention the four luxury overnight guest rooms for really special guests and the steady flow of cruise passengers on their way back to Hanoi. . . and its doing very well indeed. Day before yesterday Cuc realized it was the first day that guests would be doing home stay with village families so she finished in the city early and went streaking off to the village to make sure it went well. I, on the New Horse, out on the highway, accidentally spotted the direction sign to the village and on a wild chance, turned off the highway, wandered the kilometer and a half of too many turns, got to the village. . .and caught her again. They fed me lunch, The tourists arrived (in a fleet of luxury vans) we watched the water puppets (you just have to be there, but I'll show you a photo), Cuc brought me up to date on the village progress.. . .and that was it really. She invited me to stop by the office in the city again soon, perhaps to see the newest cruise boat. . .the new queen off the fleet, much bigger and more modern than the old boats. And so we got back on the road (I did NOT get lost in all those turns) and since the day was getting noticeably older, we ran straight through Halong City on the highway, over the magnificent new cable stay bridge (it's gorgeous, two cable supported spans way up in the sky, all supported on two concrete needles stabbing far far overhead. . .and the view from the top is worth stopping for, though perhaps not to die for, so be careful how you get off your bike up there. . .)

I was behaving well in honor of the New Horse's new engine so we went slowly and didn't get into Cam Pha any too early. The new motor had been “run in” by idling all day in front of the shop the day after I turned up in town, but she hadn't been out on the road at all, so she got an easy first day (and a second and mostly a third really). Her heart is old school cast iron technology, and such motors greatly appreciate a easy start in life. . .lets them rub off the rough corners of the castings gently. Time enough to hurry later.

 Cam Pha is the civilized face of the local coal mining country. It's a skinny town, caught between the bay, the highway and the railroad downhill, and the hills (steep ones, full of limestone and coal) er. . .uphill. It's probably not 700 meters wide anywhere, but must stretch for 5 km along the hillside, a bustling tidy modern town with two high class hotels and a few that suit me too. There is a semi-wasteland between the highway and the salt water, an odd place, partly vacant lots, partly dubious hotels, karaoke parlors and bars, and partly quite nice homes, with a bit of ordinary retail scattered in pockets here and there. It's all been laid out in streets, and there is a park with a pond and benches, but there's also a dreadful bit of waterfront, weeds, loose fill, debris. . .and some ad hoc boat yards. Those boat yards were the first place in Viet Nam I found traditional wooden boat building going on and for the first 7 years I visited, a number of master builders kept from three to seven boats building all the time, completing each one usually in a month or two. Last year when I turned up the place was essentially idle. The last two boats I'd seen building the year before were lying half afloat at the water's edge, unpainted and unsold. Ouch. A few men who knew me waved from where they were putting together a big raft for a floating restaurant. That was it.

This year it's all but over. There are three old wrecks up among the weeds along the top of the beach getting one last rebuild before the end. One of them might be worth the effort. There is one bit of new construction going on. One man, working mostly alone is building one of the smallest sort of local boat, putting it together with the last scraps of junk wood and the worst workmanship I've seen anywhere in Viet Nam. There are only a few men working all told and for that matter, most of what was boat yard space with building projects always going on. . .has filled with squatter's shacks, so there'll be no more boat building there in the near future.

On the bright side, the young boat builder with the albino face (he's working on one of the wrecks) and his young wife, the lady who sells soda and beer from a shed by the first building site, the ones with the really cute little six year old boy in school and the (now three year old) little girl refusing to smile at me on the table. . .they're expecting a third and they're thrilled. They used to live behind a curtain, right in the end of the shed with the table and the cooler of drinks, but they've moved now, into one of the little shacks. She calls it a “real house” and smiles hugely.

So I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but Cam Pha, source of so much of my understanding of northern boat building looks like it's come to the end, for now at least. I suppose I'll check back another year to see. But given what I've learned in offices in Hanoi, that the government is actively discouraging small craft fishing and construction, it seems unlikely I'll see a comeback any time soon. 

What with one thing and another I didn't get away early the next morning, and so wandered back to Halong City for the day rather than moving farther north.  There was more good visiting at "Indochina Junk" ("Junk" in this case means "Tour Boat", not garbage. . .I was there just in time for the daily return and departure of the whole fleet of 15 boats.  It's an amazing operation, what with several hundred tourists coming back from their cruises and just as many going out for theirs, trading berths on the boat for seats on the luxury bus and vice versa, crews coming ashore and crews going out, captains picking up their crew and passenger lists and food and drink going out while bags of garbage and suitcases and backpacks come in (and go back out) and everything and everybody gets sorted out into the right boat or bus by pretty young ladies in ao dai (Vietnamese lady's dress up dress) with clip boards and smiles. . .the pandemonium starts at 11:30 when the boats all anchor just off the terminal and it's all over by 1;30, with the buses gone (many of them out to the village tour) and the boats steaming majestically away.  What an organization!  

In any event on the third day out we ran north the rest of the way to China, all but the last 100 meters anyway.  Crossing into China is not something I'm in a hurry to do.  Fairly well documented rumor indicates they won't be pleased with a white guy riding a Vietnamese bike through the gate.  Actually, to all appearances, they don't welcome Vietnamese guys on Vietnamese bikes either.  H'mm.  No matter, there's lots to see on this side of the line!

That's Mong Cai, a middling sized entry way into China and a bustling place with some high end hotels and casinos (Chinese love to gamble apparently, and don't at home. . .). I had no business there, but wanted to see Tra Co, a sand laden river mouth completely obstructed by shallows and bars, and consequently the home of a unique species of boat that's a raft that's a boat.  I suspect strongly that the original boat was truly a raft of bamboos, no doubt very similar to the ones at Sam Son south a few hundred km, but the current evolutionary end point is. . .er. . .well, a hybrid and an interesting one at that.  There's no hide bound tradition here other than innovation and experimentation, and lying on the beach at low tide (or floating anchored off at high) you'll find a large fleet (hundred? twice that?) of sturdy, shallow draft ocean going diesel powered fishing vessels (I avoid deciding if they're boats or rafts), that owe their floating entirely to styrofoam, encased in sheets of. . .no, I'm serious. . .the rubber materials that are used for making shoe soles.  It's not something you'll believe from my writing, but I have photos. . .

There's more to tell, but it will have to wait til we're back in Hanoi.  
So that's where the lettuce comes from. . .halfway from Hanoi to Halong

The story of how rice is grown, as told by water puppets at Yen Duc Village Tour.  The puppets come and go from behind the curtain. . .the buffalo splash and buck, the flags pop up from nowhere, and the narrator's disembodied voice tells the tale.  Drums, Lots of drums and clackers!

Rice stubble and shocks of straw.  The last of the new rice was drying on farmers' front porches as we rode by.

On the edge of Halong City.  I've taken this photo before, what a place for a hotel, but today there was SUNSHINE.   Wow.

A dreadful old wreck of a boat getting new planks scabbed onto ugly old ribs.  

Some of the worst wood and absolutely the worst workmanship I've seen.  Lo how the boatyard has fallen. . .sigh.

Desperate old ribs, dreadful new wood and. . .er. . ."creative" solutions to the problems.  If they pound enough caulking into her she'll float for another few years.  The end may be sudden though.  

A good part of the fleet of Indochina Junk at anchor for crew and passenger change.  The small one-cabin luxury boats in the foreground will actually sail, but most of the fleet is purely motor driven.  The old queen of the fleet, 3 decks and 3 masts, wooden built, is in the middle foreground.  In the near background to the left and farther out is the new queen, much bigger, with crazier rigging, and 28 cabins.  She's built of steel outside. . .gorgeous hardwood inside.  

Looking inshore from the new Halong City waterfront drive. . .it's actually a bridge in this stretch.

And looking offshore just a ways further down the waterfront.  The square decked things are actually  floating baskets, one with a diesel engine (on the right) and one with oars and a sun shade (on the left).  They're the most popular small boat on the Bay, by a wide margin.

Tbe new horse checking out the waterfront.  That is her full load (except for me) tools and rain gear in the side bags, everything else in the duffel on top.  She manages it very well.

The largest marble statue of Quan Yin I know of, in a large cemetery on both sides of the highway north of Halong City.  She must be nearly 40 feet tall. . .set in a finely manicured garden against the limestone cliff.  She's in the same business as the Catholic Virgin Mary, interceding for people in dire straits. . .generally speaking, she's in charge of Compassion. . .that would be the "water of compassion" she is pouring out for all the world.  

The very edge of a huge coal mine up behind Cam Pha, and two dredges picking up coal spilled into the river.  Don't ask about the turbidity, you don't want to know.

Three chickens (you can't see one of them in the back seat) on their way to a play date.  I think these roosters are raised specifically for their fighting ability, but they fight with gloves on. . .the spurs wrapped with strips of rubber band to make big soft clubs.  The fights are for noise and show, not blood and fried chicken as in Mexico. . .the birds are special pets, often carried around on one arm just for the fun of it.

A new style boat on the very flat beach at Tra Co.  In the afternoon you could walk three hundred feet out to sea with dry feet.  In the morning. . .the tide comes clear up to the trees.  The sand flats extend a long ways offshore.  You're looking at a wooden frame stoutly bolted together, and blocks of styrofoam sewn into rubber sheet material. . .the sort of stuff the soles of shoes are made of. . .add a diesel engine or two and you can go to sea in very shallow water and land safely on the beach.  Most likely the ancient parent was a bamboo raft with sails (once common along this coast). . .but that was then!!  I'll post a detailed description on in a while. . .it may be a month or so.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

One more time, Safe on the Ground in Hanoi!

Hanoi, November 23, 2014
The first time I posted that date line was nine trips. . .nine years back now. . .and things have changed!  That trip my flight out of Seattle was late enough we missed our connections from Seoul to wherever we were headed. . .all 300-some of us.  So, in my case, the car from the hotel I'd so carefully booked ahead waited and waited, hopefully holding up his "Ken Preston" sign until the last straggler walked past and didn't stop. . .and then he went on back to town alone.  Two hours later, when I arrived, I was on my own.  The taxi I found did know of my prospective hotel and delivered me to the reception desk a little after midnight.  Hanoi was very dark at midnight in 2005, not that it's full of wild night life now mind you, but then. . .it was dark.  Anyway, the hotel had done the only sensible thing when I didn't turn up on time. . .gave my room to the next man through the door.  Oh well, "This Hanoi, Many hotel in Hanoi!"  So said my taxi and proved his point a few minutes later.  Things began to look up for a while.  My "newly rebuilt" motorbike that year was a venerable Minsk (she called me "Kid" for gosh sake, how old do you suppose she was??).  She was pretty, with new green fenders and fuel tank and really, quite a lot of other new parts.  I watched her go back together from a bare (if somewhat wobbly) frame in just two days' time.  The frame never did actually twist out of line (that I know of), though she felt a little odd in tight turns.  More important, nobody could find the intermittent electrical problem that made her run badly or not at all from time to time, no matter how often they blew out her carburetor, adjusted her mixture or tightened the sparkplug wire.  That trip was one long leap of faith. . .I simply hoped. . .to get along with the People, to not get too lost, to not get hurt or sick (fat chance. . .the final score was one smashed foot and a dose of dysentery. . .), to find a place to sleep every night and gas when the bike ran dry. . .simply to keep an old bike running. . .the whole works.  And aside from the diarrhea and the sore toes. . .it worked.

That was then.  Now I've been back to the same hotel, run by the same delightful people for the past eight years.   When I get the taxi to actually bring me to the locked up front door of what looks for all the world like a dentist's office (it is) at midnight each year and reach high up to ring the doorbell through the steel shutters, I know who'll be coming to let me in and take me to my room. . .this year at a quarter til midnight I even got hugs from Khoi (the Physics Professor) and his next youngest sister.  Khoi is older than I by a couple of months AND a professor, so I have to be respectful, but I am older than all his siblings.  Age counts here!  In the years I've been coming, the Daughter of the hotel has graduated from high school and college, gotten an MBA, grown up, married, moved away and presented us with a grandboy. . .and now he's getting bigger!!  The old Grandmother of the house has gone from spry and sweet to really old and frail now, but she still smiles at me and sometimes hands me an apple (from Washington of course) for after-supper.  I'll buy her flowers again this year no doubt.  And no doubt one year soon will be the last for that.

As for bikes, I've ridden the same Chinese copy of a 1980's Honda the past 3 years--I called her the "Little Horse"--bought her new and liked her well enough to keep her, though that wasn't easy to arrange the first time.  However, last year's struggle through the swamp in Laos was really hard on that bike.  I filled her engine full of water several times in two days crossing rivers and mudholes and had to keep running her that way too long.  The oil, when I finally got to change it, was nice looking mayonnaise. I spent some money on her, hoped to heal her up, but she needed more than just a top end, valves, rings, piston and cylinder.  The bottom end was whacked too.    Leaf back a few posts to find that one if you haven't read it yet, it's a true tale of ineptitude and stupidity, an "adventure" survived only by great good luck,  good local people. . .and their tractors. So this year another brand new Chinese "Honda" was waiting for me when I got here.  She's very much like my old Little Horse, but with a slightly bigger engine (125cc, not 110. . .think of it as a 13.6% power increase and it sounds more important)  AND she has a real headlight! Not that the Little Horse didn't have a headlight. . . really she did, it just wasn't everything you might have wanted, and the few times I really needed a headlight (more adventures, but we survived them all). . .those few times, as I was saying, I would have liked to have the headlight we have now.  Maybe we won't need it again soon.

Nine years ago when I rode out of Hanoi I wasn't at all sure where the edge of the world was, but I thought I might ride right off of it.  Now I know pretty much for certain that the actual edge isn't anywhere in Viet Nam, Laos or Cambodia (though there are still some corners I haven't checked).  Now I'm not faring forth into the unknown, I'll be riding down roads to meet old friends (and new) and check on boatyards (and brickyards and potters and wood turners and noodle makers and drovers and carters and makers of marble saints and concrete angels and who knows what other interesting sorts of people), and to see how tall their kids are this year and take another photo.  It's a very different sort of adventure now than it was then.  And yet, don't leave now just because we've been here before.  The road always looks different another time down it.  Typhoons and mud slides and construction (destruction?) zones and other such things manage to disrupt the most comfortable plans, and no doubt I'll wander off down the wrong road again (NOT into a swamp in  Laos, I promise) and being the wrong road it'll have its own adventures for us.  So it shouldn't be boring.

By now you're perhaps wondering why I'm spending so much time and verbiage on history and not starting right out with the first big excitement of the trip and. . .well. . .the fact is that I got here and went straight back to work.  I had it all worked out so everything in the office was finished, the presentation made, the document turned over, the hands shaken and the best wishes duly noted, BUT, as I went out the door, three days' more work landed in my in box.  The internet chased me down and I've spent the past 3 days holed up in my Hanoi hotel room (when not napping or stumbling out for a bowl of noodles) working.  You go 5600 miles, spend 18 hours in an airplane, develop some serious sleep deprivation, and as soon as you wake up the day after the midnight before. . .you go back to work.  Oh well.  It's finished now and we can get on with the original plan.  The new bike is here in the hotel, trying to get used to tucking in her mirrors to get through the doorways and sleeping in the downstairs hallway with the other household motor bikes, but she'll be fine.  Tomorrow we'll be busy around Hanoi and then off down the road on Tuesday.  Northeast I think, or maybe East first, to Hai Phong, and then north.  Then more north and west. . .maybe all the way along the Chinese border past Ha Giang and Lao Cai and south toward Dien Bien Phu and over into Laos.  The weather is still pretty good, the mountains won't be freezing yet.  H'mm.

I guess I'm exaggerating a bit, it's not been all work and no play, I've spent several hours the past three days walking around town.   Here are a few photos from those walks. . .
Little Kids. . .the Vietnamese are not going to run out of little kids any time soon.  Cute!

Sweeping out the temple courtyard.

And the moral of the story is. . ."don't gripe about the situation until you understand the bigger picture"  Cleaning the fountain in the big indoor market near the hotel.  

Flower bikes out on the ring road (near the mechanic's shop).  Their day starts about midnight, meeting the farmers near Long Bien Bridge at the main flower market. . .then out to make deliveries and go the rounds.  This is late afternoon.  Quite a lot of  flowers still to be sold.  H'mm.

Night market near the hotel. . .whole streets closed off for blocks and blocks and hundreds. . .no. . . .thousands of people shopping.  You'd be amazed what some people would rather have than money!  I lost a camera here one year, but I still go back.  It's really great fun, just wear your camera where you can keep track of it.

The crowd gets to be a bit much sometimes. . .but you can make a very interesting supper!  All sorts of special treats!!

Wedding photos (2 months in advance usually) at romantic spots all over the city.  Looking across Hoan Kiem lake toward the temple on the little island.  Professional photographer with a light handler holding the spotlight made this easy to do!

Candied fruit in the night market.  I DO understand good food. . .

Let's see. . .the family that clowns together. . .er. . .sticks together?  I don;t know for sure.  They were having a lot of fun on their trip to Hanoi though.
Lessons in eating Snail (why would you want to do that??)_That's a bowl of steamed snails with lemon grass, two dishes of garlic, ginger, chiles and I'm not sure. . .and two bowls of sweetened seasoned fish sauce.  The young lady will now demonstrate. . .

She's flipped off the operculum (the snail's front door) and skewered the little varmint with a needle sharp chunk of sheet metal. . .nasty little weapon.  The correct spot is just behind the crunchy part that sticks out the open shell.  Don't ask how I know about the crunch.  A toothpick helps.

And that's a perfect extraction. . .the whole snail, neatly rotated out of his shell.  Now it's just a short swim in the seasoned sauce and down she goes. . .
You have to admire it really, it's quite the trick.  Most of mine broke off halfway out, and no, you can't retrieve the broken off end.  It's gone.

There's the new bike, mirrors twisted every which way to get through the doors.  This is almost 100 feet into the building from the front door. . .down a little ramp and up another. . .through two really narrow spots. . .it's quite the daily ordeal.  Mostly we stay in hotels with nice wide open parking in the lobby, but here at "home" in Hanoi it's not so easy.