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.|
|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.|
|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.|