Sunday, November 30, 2014

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.

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