Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hue to Hoi An (supposed to be an easy ride. Ha!)

Written from Quy Nhon on Tuesday, 12/16/2014, in a gale of wind (northerly) and driving rain. Or rather, rain you shouldn't try driving in. . .

The fact that I just barely posted that mess about Hue from Hoi An you would be justified in asking why I'm writing from Quy Nhon to describe life in Hoi An. I've simply been too busy living the past few days to write about life, and trying to stay at least somewhat dry. Fat chance.

But now to catch up. We left Hue with a nearly empty tank in a light rain, with the full rain gear on. Besides last year's rain coat and pants which aren't really waterproof any more, I've gotten us what would have been called a “cycling cape” in the 1890s, basically a poncho with a hood, with the front cut long enough to drape over the handle bars. In bicycling days (again, in the 1890's and early 1900's, and don't ask me how I know, but I do) they were generally made with thumb loops so you could hold onto the handlebars and the cape without having to think about it. Nowadays, 99% of Vietnamese riding capes simply drape over the mirrors, headlight, turn signals and and handle bars and count on the wind of their progress to keep the flapping thing nailed down to the front of the bike. Now and then you'll see a gust of wind from some other angle lift up the front of one and flip it up over the driver's head, resulting in a sudden maneuver involving arms, brakes, swerves and so forth. Usually it works out just fine, though you get pretty wet that way. Anyway, I joined the one percent in this regard, paid fully double price for one made of real coated fabric, with a large clear panel in front for head lights, turn signals and dashboard. . .and two neat slits cut and hemmed to pass the mirrors through. Not only does that return the mirrors to useful status, it also serves to really control the front of the cape. Nifty. Now, in a driving wind, when you're driving 60 kmh, nothing really keeps you dry, but if you have on the whole outfit, rubber boots, raincoat, pants, and then put the cape over everything. . .and cap it with a full face helmet with a clear visor. . .it's pretty good. The difference between cape and no cape is, well, neither rain nor wind get through to the zipper or collar of your coat (the cape has a hood which slips into your helmet with your head and makes a good neck seal) and a whole lot less water pools under your sit bones. It's roughly like putting up the top of an old Triumph or MG two seater without bothering with the side curtains. It's a lot better than not, but it's not up to modest modern automotive standards.

Anyway, I went out of Hue via the Island, stopped for gas, then to borrow a wrecked old plastic rain cape from the umbrella store (and enjoy a fond farewell. . .such sweet people!). Wrapped the backpack and it's carry all cover in the scraps of cape and kept it all pretty dry for the day. Just as well. The rain only let up a little now and then, carrying on as it was bound to do, since I'd promised to be in Hoi An the next day. He who constrains himself to a schedule is likely to get wet (at least). Paused briefly for one last look at Thanh's new baby boy. There's a long story to Duy and Thanh and their kids, but they've become excellent friends without our being able to communicate terribly well. Their older daughter is blind and autistic and would have been a lovely child. My heart broke when I first met her, but now she has a brother and sister and they're both fine. Their parents are the best you could imagine, so one last chance to coo at the baby was the least I could leave with. And then it was into the storm and keep at it. The inland sea behind the island was barely visible through the rain (heck, hardly anything was visible through the rain swept visor). I took my glasses off and stuffed them in a pocket, fogged up and full of raindrops. My distant vision is still good enough without them, and I don't need to read fine print while I'm riding in storms. Lang Co, that incomparably lovely lagoon behind the long sandspit and the ocean, just before you climb up Hai Van Pass. . .not just mist shrouded this time, as it often is, but largely obscured, with low cloud hanging just above the water. Hai Van Pass itself, a stunning climb up the flank of the mountain, one of the grand high points of most any trip on Hwy 1, was a dreadful climb this time. The wind sharpened itself on the mountainside and whipped a downpour all around and through us as we went. . .and then we climbed into the cloud. Usually I think of fog as a still and drippy sort of thing, but not this fog. We climbed into the cloud base and the wind and rain if anything actually increased (we were, after all, higher on the mountain). The visibility dropped to tens of feet. . .20 feet at worst, sometimes as much as 50 feet for a moment. The switchbacks toward the top are really sharp and only the white line showed where the road was, the rest was just a foggy watery blur. Twice I skidded to a stop to look around and find the white line again going into switchbacks.

Almost all real traffic these days goes through the tunnel. Motorbikes and fuel tankers are prohibited though, and we share the pass with a few tour buses and some SUV's who want an experience. That day, what little traffic there was, was marked by dim fog shrouded rain blurred headlights. Only at the last moment could you actually make out the body on the bike or the shell of the car. The tankers at least you could hear from a little ways away. Nobody was driving fast. Hellish riding.

And then we rode through the summit, not seeing the souvenir and snack booths or the old concrete bunkers, just the light bulbs glowing in the rain and fog and a miserable tour bus right beside the road (did anybody get out I wonder??). Shortly thereafter, on the downhill run into Da Nang, we broke out of the fog and left the cloud base above us on the mountainside. The rain may have slackened up a bit right away (normally you count on sunshine and puffy clouds on the southern side of the pass). Sigh. By the time we passed through the City it had dropped to a mean drizzle and visibility was a mile or more. Life seemed more likely then.

I always get lost passing through Da Nang. In my mind it's a fairly simple path to follow. On the ground, it becomes a maze of city streets or alleys at the least failure of your attention. It's a clean, modern city doing its best to be a pretty and interesting place. There are nine bridges across the river now, the one I think of as the “new” bridge is pretty old by comparison. Most recently, there's a high suspension bridge over the very mouth of the river, high enough to admit the tallest ship these days, and serving to move the container freight from the Port out of the city north or south without having it clog the city streets. It's a lovely thing, as suspension bridges usually are, slender towers and the catenary of the cables and the slender roadway arching across the skyline. But it's not the finest sight. . .that has to be the new cable stay bridge at street level. . .one side of the span supported with a single row of cables like the strings on a harp, but the other side hung from the same central tower by two rows of cables, reaching down to the deck on either side and fanning out. What a lovely thing! Then there's the dragon bridge! It's not so grand and glorious, rather it's a dragon that breathes fire every night on schedule. The story goes that the man with the power to make the decision which end of the bridge would be the head and which the tail (it seems to have mattered to a lot of people) had the remarkable good sense for a man of such power, to convene a council of old men with opinions on the matter. . .and let them decide. Thereafter, he decreed, there would be no more discussion of the matter, and so far as I know (which isn't very far), that's how it has been. Anyway, the head is there and the tail is at the other bank and (though I've not seen it yet), I'm sure it really does breathe fire every night. Da Nang!

Having gotten thoroughly off the correct route, I ended up getting a fortuitous guide to show me the way out of the city southbound on Hwy1 again (how did it get away from me??) And I moved very much closer to a smart phone with gps.

So at last I rode down the familiar flat road beside the river and into Hoi An. This time I didn't go straight to the hotel (I have a new favorite there, but that's another matter) but rather to the Red Sails restaurant (40 Bach Dang St) where I met Mr. Dai. . .and later Mr. Binh. Thus began two really busy days. I'll just outline it briefly, the details would bog us down. . .
Having met Dai and Binh and figured out the morning schedule, I had to find the hotel and rode right to it and was shown to the same room I liked last year. How 'bout that! Thence to the evening meeting of the first few people to turn up for the sailing club (and a really nice dinner). . .back to the hotel where a chance remark lead to an hour's conversation with a Polish Scotswoman. . .one of those really delightful odd chances for a talk with someone you've never met but have lots to say to. In some ways, I've always thought, it's not surprising such strangers can stand and talk in a hotel lobby for an hour. . .we've pretty well self-selected for just what sort of people we are. . .travelers. Anyway, email, bed, breakfast (with the young lady from Scotland), diary, to the university (quite close by) for a 0900 meeting (Mr. Binh is promoting a maritime museum for Viet Nam and is working to get the Hoi An Liberal Arts school involved with the Da Nang technical University (think Naval Architecture) to set up the museum in Hoi An, or nearby at Kim Bong. Actually, to digress for a moment, Kim Bong is right now a live museum, with superb traditional boat building skills casually on display in work shop sheds and out in the open air all along the river bank. But to un-digress.  I spoke for five minutes or so while Mr. Ai did the translating like a pro.  He's the most fluent English speaker I've known here since Ms. Nga went to the states.  More about Ai in a bit!  From the university meeting, to a planned lunch spot which was too full (That's Hoi An) to the Hoi An Market a block away for a great lunch, with most of us clumped in two groups in separate parts of the market lunch hall. . .probably 20 or 30 stalls to choose from, all of them excellent. Usually I manage a big glass of mixed fruit and coconut milk topped with toasted coconut from one particular stall, but somehow. . .oh well, next year maybe. The lady we picked out served the loveliest Mi Quang. . .white rice noodles topped with half a dozen garnishes, two or three bits of special sauces and a pinch of herbs. Not to die for. . .that's over doing it, but really good!

But I digressed again. From lunch to the river (leaving the bike and her saddle bags on the sidewalk under the watchful eye of the parking lady). At the river. . .er. . .this isn't very glorious. . .into the kayaks. I thought to take a stern seat and enjoy handling the boat. . .a big plastic tandem sit on top. . .but there turned out to be a problem. . .Settling into the seat (blue jeans) I soon found that the drain in the center of the seat serves to flood the seat when the person in the seat weighs. . .oh, let's say 180 pounds to start with. H'mm. I got out before the boat sank and moved to the front seat. Now, I've spent a lot of time in kayaks over the years and usually love it. This worked out differently. My hips could not deal with the angle of dangle required and it turned out to be an agonizing paddle over to Kim Bong. Doggone. My stern man was a good sport and when I couldn't even paddle to amount to anything. . .he just plugged along and got us there. Well. They say a fisherman's life is a wet butt and a hungry gut. I wasn't hungry and I'm not a fisherman anymore, but I sure fit the damp posterior requirement and. . .oh well. But the tour of the island boat yard (which I've often photographed without the owner giving a presentation (or even permission) was particularly worth while. For one thing, I managed to confirm a long-held suspicion. You'll be happy to know that the builders here do in fact still peg the planking of their boats together with 2” long square bamboo pegs from plank edge to plank edge at about 8” on center, just as I had surmised last year but couldn't really prove.  

From the boat yard to the owner's house to meet his wife and kids and see two precious old books he's collected. . .one a really rare copy of the old “Blue Book of Junks” that the US and SVN govts published in '63. . .in lovely condition. I'd never held one before, only seen electronic copies. It's a primary source for my understanding of the development of the current boat types here. . .kind of like getting to hold the Gutenberg Bible or maybe the Rosetta stone for a bit. Thence to the waterfront pub. Well. Vietnamese style. It's a rudimentary sort of building with a rudimentary sort of kitchen that can produce wonderful stuff to eat. There's a small stage with an amp and two big speakers (oooh. . .) and a guitar, but no band that day. We sat and ate and drank (and some of us smoked. . .) and passed the time until it was well dark and most of us had managed to slip away home, wherever that was. As it turned out, I rode back to town on one of the little blue Hoi An-Kim Bong ferries. The ferry fleet was carrying a crowd of city-goers back to the island that time of night but we (three of us), and one other bike rider were all that turned up to go city-ward. The starter growled, the engine barked, and there was silence for a moment. Then the starter snarled with vigor and the engine roared and we were off. Surely they must use amplifiers to get that much sound out of one single cylinder diesel engine. Goodness. Somehow I ended up invited to come on day two of the club meeting. . .to hang fenders on the coast guard dock at the mouth of the river. How many fenders do you suppose I've hung off of how many docks or barges? In 36 years. . .a few. Why not a few more here??
And at last for the evening, a shopping trip with one of the “guest service staff” from the hotel to buy a smart phone. I was determined to buy a $60 used iPhone 3gs (read the reviews, knew the pricing, mind made up). My young native guide is a geek on the side. He was gentle but firm. I wanted an Asus Zenphone 4. Much more phone, less than $100 brand new with a 1 year warranty, much better everything etc etc etc. I ended up with a Zenphone 4. With a month's internet service (pay as you go, no contract) it was still, just barely, under $100. Whew. Now I'm dangerous.

So. . .day two in Hoi An. Diary, then breakfast (with the Scotswoman again by pleasant chance), including, er, well several cups of the Hotel's excellent coffee. Which hotel you ask? Uh, just a moment, I'll look and see. . .yes, I kept their card. . .Phuoc An Hotel at 39 Tran Cao Van street. . .stay there when you visit Hoi An, unless you have a lot of money to spend. . .then stay there anyway, it's quite nice. Anyway, just a minute, the lights went out. . .ah. Tweaked the bulb in the desk lamp and it's back. Good. Then picked up by Mr. Ai (from Saigon, and a driving force in the boat club) and. . .to drink coffee for a bit to give his lovely young fiance time to join us. . .and thence to. . .er. . .drink coffee with her for a bit. . .and by about 0900, to the coast guard dock out at the end of the land at the river mouth by the light house. I must have needed the coffee. . .no jitters. This could go on quite a ways. We hung fenders (two local men, a welder and a fisherman (to tie knots. . .he was good) and Mr. Dai (from Red Sails) whose specialty turned out to be cutting holes in tires. . .Mr. Ai, Ms Tran and Me. Then lunch, then a ride to Da Nang in a BMW. . .what the heck, Ai is a banker. . .where I got introduced to the last of the old sailing ghe nangs still floating. None of them sail any more (though that may change, Ai is rebuilding an old one and has already chucked the diesel engine). But there are a number of the old sailing boats fishing under diesel power these days. They had the most spectacular rig of any Vietnamese sailing vessel and were amazing sea and sailing boats. I thought they were extinct so the personal introduction was a delight. Actually we got ferried out to a newly freshened one anchored out in a large fleet of smaller fishing boats. . .and I managed to get water over the top of my boots when we came splashing ashore. I've seen the little round basket boats scoot in on the small surf before, but this was the first time I got a good ride myself. . .like sitting in a big garden basket to go boogie boarding. Fabulous. What a rush! Surely that's enough, but really, there was more.

From the boats to an afternoon snack of big steamed squid (chewy and very mild flavored) dipped in fish sauce with red chile (not chewy. . .and not mild). Thence in the late afternoon to a coffee shop where Ai's 14 year old son works a shift when he's not in school. It's an English-only coffee shop set up just to encourage Vietnamese students to do better at English. You slip into Vietnamese you're out on the street! Yikes. Native speakers (that would be me) on the other hand are prizes! What a kick. I sat in on a circle game. The game starts with a word. The person to the right of the word has to come up with a related word. . .fast. . .and so it goes round and round. In this circle a handsome young guy from Canada was refereeing and seven really bright Vietnamese kids. . .and one old geezer. . .kept it moving. The way it works is that the word you have a great follow on to. . .is too far away and by the time it gets to you the word is something else entirely. . .so you stumble and somebody says 5. . .4. . .3. . .2. ..and you spit out something and the game goes on. If you lose you have to pick out the new first word. Oh. No repetitions.

And that's not all. Ai was threading his way through the city to show me most of the night-lit bridges and take me to the bus station for a trip back to Hoi An when he spotted the Hoi An bus going the other way down the main drag. . .a quick U-turn (only in Viet Nam I think) and off in pursuit. Finally the bus made the mistake of pulling in to the curb to pick up a fare and Ai nosed the BMW in to pin him to the curb. I started to jump but Ai told me to relax. . .the bus wasn't going anywhere until I was on board. Right. Only in Viet Nam! So the bus conductor (the driver only drives, the conductor handles the money) asked me for $100kvnd, $5.00 usd. Not right. I dumbly handed it over and sat and grumped to myself. She sat down halfway back in the bus and we got under way through the city. A few more fares to pick up and we were out on the highway. I turned around in my seat at the front of the bus and stared at her. She stared back. I didn't back off. She stared back. People were noticing. Finally she got up and came to me. . .”May I help You?” in quite good English. “Give me $80,000 Viet Nam Dong please.  ” I came back in passable Vietnamese, in effect offering to pay $20,000 VND for the ride. “NO NO. . .English again, $50,000 VND for ONE”. . .”you paid me $100,000 VND and I will change you $50,000 VND and so forth, both of us flawlessly polite. I held out for the $20,000 fare, but finally a lady across the aisle stopped chatting with the driver and told me that $50,000 was the same as Vietnamese people pay. So we settled. It was late and I was tired and it was getting to be a bit much. . .but there was still a little more.

The bus doesn't go to the old quarter, it stops at a bus terminal on the edge of town, so there was still the negotiation over the fare for a moto taxi into town and after that a walk through town as things closed, looking for supper. I ended up with a baguette sandwich (good fillings) on a hamburger bun, they were out of baguettes but had some buns left. And a half hatched hard boiled duck egg. I eat them for old time's sake. I used to impress the pretty girls when I was a young guy, slurping the salty liquid from the shell, then spooning the odd colored bits of very young duckling out to eat. It's perfectly nice food, just looks really gross. Actually, it still works, just not quite the same way. The sweet young lady perched on her own stool with her own duck egg across from me told me in impeccable Midwestern English that "Westerners don't usually like this one". No. . .mostly they don't, but that was fun. And the old lady was about the last person serving anything on the street. And I got the last egg.

Somehow in all that I ended up with over a hundred photos, many of them boats I'd never documented before, in Da Nang, the city I always get lost in. It was a mighty good day despite the occasional rain.

And thus to bed. Morning again, diary, breakfast, packed bags, retrieved passport, loaded bike, got a hug from the Scotswoman with the Polish name and got out onto the road south yet again. . .in the rain.

Thanh (Mom) and her new baby boy.  Now if I can just find the piece of paper she wrote his name on for me.  Oh dear.

Coffee in a really nice coffee shop, Hoi An.  Coffee number, er, maybe 7 (?) for the morning.

Setting the net one handed while sculling (rowing with just one oar) with the other.  Standing up.  In a tippy canoe.  Wow.  

Rattling and banging on the gunnels of the boat to make a racket to stampede all the stupider fish into the net.  Again, sculling one-handed and moving right along thank you.

The welder pointing out that he'd just finished that loop and it might be hot.  Yes indeed.  That's Ai from behind and the old retired fisherman (in charge of knot tying) getting ready to hang a tire.

Omigosh. . .an "eco tour".  They went ashore on the offshore sandspit and hiked through the casuarina trees and along the tide line.  Clearly having a good time.  While we hung tires on an old concrete dock.  H'mm.  

The welder trying to figure out where his electricity went, Ai holding the tire and Dai (master of hole punching) making a better hole.  Two holes to hang the tire and one in the bottom to drain out the rain and spray.  That's correct.

The old fisherman, the rope, and the "everybody has one" machete with a hooked blade.  These are often darned sharp and used to cut all manner of things. . .from apples to modest sized trees.  

A modern fiberglass over bamboo sort of basket with a good sized single cylinder diesel inboard.  These come in various sizes, the largest are very big indeed and have a lot of wooden framing.

These would be "small" and "medium"  "Large" is quite a bit bigger and used on the open sea.

What happens to a bamboo bottomed boat if you don't take care of her

And here's an old bamboo boat that's been well taken care of.  The bamboo basketry wears out in four or five years.  Staring at the arrangement of the ribs and thwarts and the clamp board that holds the basketry to the wooden topsides I concluded it couldn't be done.  The old fisherman assured me it was simple.  The trained eye of a construction estimator occasionally just doesn't get it.  Sigh.

Upstairs in the fishing family's lovely home, an wonderful relic of sailing days.  This (and you'll have to go to to get a description of the functioning) is a "bow center board, over 15' long, it slotted was used like an ordinary centerboard, but slotted into the stem (bow) and arching back under the boat.  Along with the rudder, it kept the sailing vessel from just sliding sideways rather than going upwind to get home.  This, and the basket bottom that encouraged it are peculiarly Vietnamese innovations. . .not found elsewhere I think.

The old fisherman and the grandson. . .there's a generation missing here.

The missing generation--getting ready to take us out to the big boat anchored offshore in the fleet.  The old man actually paddled us out.  After we launched through the shallows and got away from shore, he passed the paddle through a rope loop that tethered it to the rim of the boat, giving him two hands on the paddle handle to really move the boat along.  It carried five of us with a lot of capacity left.  And it surfed into the beach with a whoosh when we came home.  Lovely!

Ai and Tran. . .wonderful hosts and darned good amateur tour guides. . .

One among a great many.  This one might be called a "not round" boat. . .I think the Vietnamese translates into "skinny round boat" , but if so. . .that's not really too close. . .it's ALMOST round, but with a real front and back. . .

An almost round boat under way at speed. . .and an old sailing ghe nang in the background with her net out on the end of her outrigger poles, soon to be off fishing.

The present generation on board manning the bilge pump.  She doesn't leak, it's just been raining a lot.  Interestingly, most Vietnamese traditional boats had "open" decks. . .good for walking on or working on , but not intended to be watertight.  The modern pump, made of ABS pipe and a socket-weld reducing Tee moves a lot of water fast.

Thoughts to live by on the wall of the coffee shop.

Native speakers (of English) are in great demand here.  Don't just sit there, get into a word-circle game.  A blast!

Frosty made from plastic cups. . .very cool (pardon the pun).