Wednesday, December 10, 2014

South and South again. . .Cua Lo and Dong Hoi and the Devastation of Highway 1

Written from Hue, the 9th of December 2014 and I'm still way behind on writing to you and the weather continues miserably wet too much of the time.  Oh well, we'll get out of the rain sooner or later. . .or rust.

Anyway, picking up the story where we left off with Mr. Loi in Sam son. . .we've gone onward and southward on Highway 1 to Cua Lo, an easy half day ride most of the time.  We backtracked from the beach to the bypass highway around Thanh Hoa City, 16 km more or less, and buzzed off down the road to the turnoff to Cua Lo (Say that "Koo-Uh Law").  It wasn't too long before we came to the first bit of re-construction going on, but it was pretty well managed.  We didn't slow down all that much during the day and there were stretches of open road to give us a break. As it happened, the very bit of highway that holds the turnoff to Cua Lo was one of the worst cut up of the construction zones, but something about the little road running off east of the highway caught my eye.  There was no sign (there's been a good big blue and white "Cua Lo That-a-way 6 km" sign there since. . .er at least 2006 that I know of).  I pulled off the road into the loose gravel on the opposite shoulder and stared hard.  It sure looked like my road, the bit of a hill to the left looked right . . .a fellow stopped to stare at me for a moment so I asked him, and yes, it was my road.  I took it, happy to be out of the construction zone, past the two factories on the right and rolling through the quiet countryside, past rice fields, homes, small roads and the steeples of Catholic churches that look like they came from France.

The first time I came this way the road was not yet a road, though it had the sign. It was a graded sub base that should have been paved at least a year earlier.  The intervening time without pavement had left it in utter ruin, huge holes, rivers running across it, mud in places deep enough to be scary. . .six km of that.  Now it's a glassy smooth wide road, two lanes and two shoulders and they aren't skimpy.  It runs through flooded fields much of the winter, though I've been there to see them bright and green.  Once, the year I first found out how deep of water the little horse could cross, the fields were flooded over the tops of all the smaller roads, only the top of the highway was still above water, and downtown was flooded knee deep for a km or so.  Today wasn't all that bad. . .smooth familiar road, wet fields, but even the dike tops still showing.  It felt very good to be back again, Cua Lo has been a fine place to visit down the years.

The two northern river-mouth ports and their adjacent beach resorts, Sam Son and Cua Lo, pose an interesting problem for the motorbike rider.  They're too close together to amount to a day's riding, but they are sufficiently different, in a number of ways, to make them both attractive destinations.  Only about 150 km apart by road (less by sea), you'd think they'd be very similar places, and broadly speaking, I suppose they are.  Each lies along a sandy beach that stretches from a river mouth north of town.  Both have large fishing fleets (though Sam Son's is larger).  Both have a long string of beach front hotels and seafood restaurants (most of which, in both cases, are abandoned in the winter).  Both have distinct Vietnamese neighborhoods essentially separate from the tourist industry, focused instead on fishing.  So if we're talking about dreary, rainy, windy off season beach resorts, there's nothing to choose between them.  If we're out chasing boats and boat builders though, the differences are a lot of fun.

Some differences:  For one thing, there doesn't seem to be any beach fishery at all at Cua Lo.  All the boats tie up when they're home in the small tidal creek mouth that enters the main stem of the river a km or so above the mouth.  The main stem of the river has a major concrete wharf and frequently entertains moderate sized ocean going ships, commonly loading shiny white limestone, but I don't know all the cargo that passes there.  There's a road through from the hotel zone to the fishing boat harbor through that port zone and I've passed through in the past without undue comment, but once years ago I stopped on the bridge over the mouth of the creek to photograph a fleet of fishing boats coming and going below.  Port Security arrived, stopped their car and stared at me very hard from under their uniform hats.  I looked beyond my fishing boats to the edge of the big concrete pier out in the river and realized my background had been a very large ship of some sort.  I put the camera away, smiled brightly, kicked the bike in gear and scooted.  They didn't give chase.  Nowadays there's a locked gate across the road much of the time and I always go from the hotels to the fishing boat harbor by way of the diagonal road that threads through the first part of the Vietnamese town.  No troubles that way!

In Sam Son there is only one real boat yard (and it's had to relocate in the past 2 years).  On the other hand, both quite large boats and big sailing rafts are built on the beach in Samson but none in Cua Lo.  In Cua Lo there are two main boat yards in the creek mouth harbor, one right next to my infamous bridge, the other on the opposite bank down an invisible lane.  I've ridden slowly down the little side street that parallels the waterfront on that side of the harbor past what seemed to be a solid wall of walls, many and many a time, trying to find a way into that boat yard, all with no luck.  This year I focused the camera at maximum zoom and shot straight across the harbor into the yard, looking at two bright new fishing boats standing in frame on the ways. . .I was not to be denied again.  On the far bank, then, I poked into the first serious looking heavily gated warehouse business I came to, smiled, rode past several amazed people, a couple of them in very nice clothes. . .and stood astride the bike looking around as though puzzled and waited for somebody to come run me off.  It didn't take long.  The gentleman who approached me had the air of a boss.  Not a mean boss necessarily, but someone with authority who knew that white guys on motorbikes didn't belong in the middle of his facility.  He didn't look all that friendly, but I was on a mission.  I pulled out the camera, pushed the display button and the photo came up.  Two new boats being built, somewhere nearby.  While I was fumbling the camera he was looking grumpy, but when I held it up for him to inspect he shielded the screen with his hand and stared.  And grinned.  Almost laughed I think.  He pointed next door.  I looked next door.  Nope, no boats.  I shook my head.  He said something fast and boss sounding and handed his briefcase to a young man, walked over to his motorbike and punched the starter.  We were on our way.  I suppose it was 50 meters and he stopped at an opening in the walls that might have been five feet wide.  Maybe.  He  pointed down that winding slot.  I couldn't see any boats.  Heck, I couldn't see around the first corner.  He looked at my indecision, shook his head and lead the way, past that corner (it wasn't that sharp, more of a bit of a bend really) and shortly through another hole in another wall and into the boat yard.  I looked once at the crowd of bikes and timber and bits of machinery in there and parked outside.  Walked in.  My guide the boss was shouting and waving at a short gentleman standing up on the scaffolding around one of the boats, the boss boat builder, as it turned out.  I've no idea which one said what but I was shortly escorted inside the front office, sat down on a rosewood sofa (the solid wood sort, no cushions at all) and served tea.  So far so good.  He thinks he might have a rich foreigner who wants to buy a boat.  I think  I just want to take a few photos and measure a couple of things.  After a few minutes and a bit of tea (bitter, very bitter. . .they like it strong) somebody came in who needed the boss boat builder's opinion.  He went off in a great hurry and I tagged along.  This was a really busy yard, there must have been buyers waiting for both boats and there was a lot happening fast.  I got my photos and stayed mostly out of the way and somehow avoided more tea without giving offence, but meanwhile my boss from the warehouse place had disappeared and my bike had been shuffled into the thick of things by unseen hands after all.  Besides the glow of success from finding an invisible street (albeit by essentially dirty tricks) it was worthwhile from a technical standpoint.  The boats were far enough along it was obvious they would be another pair of the same sort of boat that is most popular there, a broad-sterned variation on  an old traditional design, modified to work well as a motor boat.  They were being built differently however, from the sequence used in the other yard across the bay, which I have documented at some length the past two years.  In short, the boat type is pretty rigidly set here in Cua Lo, but the means of achieving that sort of boat is subject to a lot of variation among different builders.  H'mm.  Is that too much information again?  Sorry.

I stayed at a different hotel this time.  My old guest house has been sold and the couple I liked has gone, so I was in an open frame of mind for a change.   I was buttonholed when I rode into town at the intersection of the beach road and the highway, a prime spot for local people waiting for tourists who need hotel rooms.  The fellow on his bike took me only a block down the street to the big hotel next to the internet shop I used in the days before wifi.  I'll be darned.  At least if I stay there it'll be easy to find my way home in the dark. After all, I always managed to find the internet shop.  It gets really dark in Cua Lo at night in the winter.

The room was nice, the rate was low and as it turned out, the family was thoroughly enjoyable.  There were three generations resident in the hotel, Grandma and Grandpa (he'd been in the Vietnamese Army in 1971 (and ten other years) in Bien Hoa. . .that is to say, at the same time and place I'd been.  And no, we never met then, that I know of.  He's a year older than I, so I politely called him "older brother" ("Anh", and he called me "Em", little brother). . .Vietnamese doesn't really have pronouns like "You" and "me". . .rather, they use the family relationship names, "uncle", "aunt" "older sister" or younger, and so on, determined almost entirely by your relative age. They are are an important part of being polite. . .and darned hard to get right.  Ask me someday about the difference between "little sister" and "sweetheart" and how much trouble you can get in over that one. . .but I digress again.  There were grandma and grandpa, two brothers (the hotel manager and the city accountant) and their wives, and (I think) all four associated grandkids. . .two per son, a remarkably symmetrical boy and girl child for each couple.

By supper time I'd already scouted the town and realized there was darned little in the way of restaurants or noodle stands available, so I started early suggesting I might like an invitation to eat with the family.  At first that got poo-poohed, but shortly things started to break loose and I got the invitation after all.  I love it when this happens!  And no, I have no shame and will invite myself to dinner any time I think I have a chance to pull it off.  It's always a good idea!  It was fun to watch the two sets of parents.  They were all four obviously in love with their kids.  One of them, a little girl of six or so, was a real clown and her Mom clearly thought she was the finest kind, laughed a lot and teased.  Really pleasant company.  But having spent the afternoon getting my boatyard information and nothing else really happening in town. . .I  packed our bags and we left again the next morning, full of baguette with scrambled-after-all eggs inside.  I really don't like the omelet version very much at all and usually try to get the cook to just turn the eggs over and spread them around into the bun a little with the chopsticks. . .but sometimes you just enjoy what comes.  This time the young lady broke the eggs tidily into the deep pool of hot oil and let them splutter a moment. . .I figured things were going my way and relaxed.  In the blink of an eye she picked up two slices of tomato and plopped each one tidily into the yolk of my pretty eggs. . .and smushed them flat.  Then she chopped it all up and put the gooey mess in the bread with some cucumber and cilantro and a bit of nuoc mam and some secret fuzzy stuff that I think is shredded dried salted pork, but could be most any sort of salty fuzz.  I should quit griping, it was delicious and the baguette was perfectly crispy on the outside and still warm.  It just wasn't what I thought I wanted when I ordered it.  Oh.  I was full of baguette.  The horse got filled with 92 octane as soon as I finished eating.  She's generally patient, just don't push her too far (or you'll push her. . .).

Looking straight across the harbor at Cua Lo.  This was my ticket to finding the invisible lane that leads to the boatyard, what, eight years later.  I'm slow sometimes.

The beautiful red cattle are simply made for pulling, the yoke fits perfectly over their shoulders.  They're sweet gentle animals.  Not oxen, the bulls are left whole and still they're pleasant.  The dangling testicles provide a convenient gas pedal for the driver.  . .he prods a bit with his foot and suddenly we can trot.  H'mm.

The typical Cua Lo Fishing boat, with the typical "push ahead" gear they use to scoop fish up out of the top of the water.  Sometimes they come back nearly sinking with fish heaped high on deck.

In the impossible boatyard, work going ahead quickly on two boars.  This gentleman is fairing the frames with chisel and mallet, each frame must welcome the plank perfectly or the whole structure is weakened.  There's a lot of this work in a new boat.

The view from astern as she takes shape.  The boats in Cua Lo are iron fastened, often galvanized bolts.  The workmanship here is to a high standard (workboat not yacht of course, but well done).  If you had such a boat built with stainless fastenings it would be a very long lived and useful  sea boat.  As it is they seem to last about 20 years with maintenance. 

I had enough time in the murky afternoon to play the tourist for a bit and went out onto the dramatic rocky point with its lighthouse and artistic rocks.  It costs a dollar to park and walk the trails, at least if you're a tourist.  Local kids were fishing way out on the rocks, but I didn't see them land a fish.

Looking back from the top of the rocks, toward town and the catholic church right in town.  It's quite new, I saw it building perhaps four years ago. 

When last I was inside here this was just a raw structure taking shape.  I was offered the opportunity to fund a pillar for $100, or a stained glass window for a bit more.  Much of it in fact is funded with money from America.

The less said about the road between Cua Lo and Dong Hoi the better.  Sigh.  There was a dreadful amount of really difficult construction going on and the pattern of the work puzzles me still.  It is perhaps possible that there are a dozen contracts or more between the two towns and each one is going ahead at a different pace and in a different sequence.  Or maybe it's that the engineers felt the public needed to be kept alert as they thread their way through the maze. Local folks, having to live with the disruption for a long time and put up with the widening of the right of way (which inevitably means the narrowing of their front yards, or even their living rooms) and the installation of the new drainage system (a sometimes-covered concrete ditch along the roadway) that temporarily (?) leaves them either jumping across or perilously driving their motorbikes across two-plank bridges.  Some of those temporary bridges are made of thin concrete without a lot of reinforcing, and I saw more than one that had buckled in the middle under the load of a motorbike and rider.  Just a bit scary.  Anyway, the local folks along the way came up with lots of ways to work around the mess, and some of them were pretty startling. . .mostly having to do with using the supposedly blocked off portion of roadway until it became really impassable. . .then precipitously joining the rest of us on the detour.  Yikes.  Once there was some confusion over which side of the roadway was the detour and which was out of service, so we ended up with two lines of two way traffic, buses, trucks, water buffalo and all, occupying the full width of the developing road, and all of it just about equally ugly.  Worse, individual drivers, deciding they'd made the wrong decision, crossed over (through the oncoming traffic) to rejoin what they figured was actually the right place to be. . .but the problem was, people on both sides, going both directions were making those choices, so we were constantly braiding traffic across four lanes of desperately un-driveable road surface.  Pretty ugly.

It was a genuine relief when we came to a stretch of truly one-lane road guarded by really truly guard shacks with barricades and radios to control the flow.  Best of all, the motorbikes were given a free pass.  All we had to do was keep out of the way of the oncoming traffic and we were free to go, and in each case there was room enough.  Wow.  Oh, some of the bus drivers were a little rude and took their piece out of the middle, which made our counterflow bike-lane pretty skinny, but it worked even so.  You can't blame those guys really, they drive an impossible schedule up and down the country through so much construction work. . .they must get combat pay, surely.

As at Cua Lo, the whole town of Ron, where I first saw those long ended beautiful (but very rough) old style fishing boats nine years ago. . .the whole town, as I was saying has been de-signed by the road construction.  All the kilometer markers are gone in the new lane widening, the old sign at the north edge of town likewise, it's just another stretch of construction devastation with a few more houses than usual along the way.  The bridge, quite an attractive arched concrete sort of thing from a distance (sort of an example of ugly form work up close) is somehow masked for construction of the two new lanes on the West (upstream) side, and every one of the boats in the anchorage above the bridge were modern. . .not the traditional style that drew my attention in 2005 in the downpour.  I almost rode by without realizing where I was.  The construction effort is that overwhelming.  On the far side of the bridge I brought us to an abrupt halt and stared hard.  Without doubt, the little lane running off downstream was the entrance to the actual town of Ron along the southern river bank.  We made that turn and spent a happy hour photographing the stormbound fishing fleet (the northerly gale continues).  Every inch of  moorage space was filled and over filled.  Boats everywhere and squeezed into places you wouldn't think it could be done.  There was no new boat building going on in the field next to the little boatyard at the end of the harbor just before the mouth of the river gets really rough and the complex sandy rivermouth bars begin. . .what an entrance! I'm just as glad I don't go to sea from Ron.  Not only was there no new construction, but they've built a nice concrete volleyball court in one corner.  There's still room to build good sized boats though, not a problem.  Except where would you tie up a new boat these days in that crowd?

The Highway 1 of the future.  There isn't much of it finished yet, but long stretches are in progress now.  The barrier is almost uninterrupted, which will prevent many terrible head-on collisions, but of course it means the local people will circulate both directions on each side of the barrier.  Really, that's fine, it's already normal, and the vehicle going the "wrong" way is always as far over to the side as he can get and going (usually) pretty slowly.  

Even in the rain and construction zones there is occasional real beauty. . .a quiet river full of lotus.
The new volleyball court by the boatyard in Ron.  There's still room in the field to build a pair of big boats, as they have in the past.

A tiny part of the fleet in the moorage at Ron with the gale howling out of the north and the river bars breaking wildly.  These boats in the foreground, diesel powered baskets with wooden rims, are becoming more common these days, some of them covered with fiberglass instead of the traditional sealers of tar. . .or buffalo dung and tree resin.
We rolled the odometer through the next 1000 km and the new horse got her second oil change.  The old oil was pretty clear after its tour of duty, smelled right, and there was no grit on the drain plug.  Things are looking good in the engine room.  I forgot to get her chain lubed at that stop but made a note to get it done shortly.  That statement should be accompanied by ominous mood music.  Sigh.

And Dong Hoi was a treat this year.  The weather was off and on wet, sometimes really wet, but I got out along the river front to the river mouth and the beach running back toward the north.  It was blowing a gale out of the North the last two days, so the sea was heaped up into wild white capped rollers out to the jagged horizon and the river mouth bar was wild, breaking hard clear across.  I was sure nobody would be coming or going, but the next morning I saw three 60-foot class deep water fishing boats, good looking well kept vessels, steaming sedately up the river a few hundred meters above the mouth.  They had to have just come in from sea across that terrible bar, there was nowhere else they could have come from!  Splendid vessels really, even if they aren't traditional at all.  Good is good, even if it's pretty modern.  And they're pretty enough really.   The Vietnamese care about "Pretty" and the boats must be making enough money to pay for paint.

However, there is a traditional-ish sort of slightly smaller boat going together on the river bank just down stream from the hotel I ended up in.  It's early days yet and without getting a look at the design drawings (if there are any) I'm not really sure, but it looks like it will turn out to be a nice looking boat of a style that's fairly common there. . .transom stern, raking stem, long low foredeck, wheel house aft. . .very workmanlike, but with a sense of slender delicacy that's missing from the big distant water boats.  Rather like the difference between a teenager and a dignified elder.  (Bet they're not all that dignified in the sort of sea that's running out there now!!)

One of the nicest things about Dong Hoi this year was the tire repair shop that was only about 30 meters from my hotel.  I picked out the hotel largely because I needed to get the bike unloaded so I could push her on her flat tire to somebody who would fix it.  Fortunately it was quite a fine little family-run hotel and pleasantly inexpensive.  If I walked out onto the balcony next to my room I even had a great view of the river.  And anybody can push a bike 30 meters.  They fixed the flat for a dollar and were pleased to have the work.  H'mm.

Okay, that's all true, but Dong Hoi is really turning into a very nice sort of river-front and beach town, at least at the southern end.  There's quite a long business district along the highway and it's all quite clean and tidy.  I actually like the place quite a lot, now that I've stayed there a few times and taken a while to look around and see what it is.  Next time you're passing through, stop a day in Dong Hoi, have a long walk along the river and go on out to the beach.  If you're lucky, sit and watch the fishing boats run that bar.  I'll bet it's interesting even in milder weather.  Oh, you won't miss the big market.  It's just downstream from the highway on the north bank of the river (where all the riverfront hotels are for that matter).  You really have to slow down. . .sort of saddle-walk the bike through the street between the main buildings of the market. . .but park your bike and stop at the bakery.  Whatever you get at the bakery, take it next door to one of the coffee shops and have a cup of something good to drink (Lipton Yellow Label, hot, with sweet milk. . .yum...or of course the Vietnamese coffee, just not in the evening eh?)

In the river near the mouth at Dong Hoi, here's a lovely little surf boat, very similar to beach boats a ways further south, but she's not set up for landing through the surf. . .no means to pick up her ends to rotate her up out of trouble.  And she's painted in the local Dong Hoi style.  Pretty and very able, she will live in rough water.

And here. . .for contrast, just down the river bank, is a butt ugly descendant of the lovely lady above.  No doubt very serviceable, this tin tub (yes, that's galvanized sheet metal you're looking at) is a direct conceptual descendant of the timber and basketry boats, and as long as she doesn't have to land on a beach and dent her tin she'll be a workable enough. . .tub.

Two boats you'll see in Dong Hoi--a really skinny river boat that typically will fish with long square net arrangements lying on the bottom. . .and a nice, somewhat traditional sea boat in the background.

I couldn't tell what they were fishing for in the tiny lily pad pool next to the hotel, but it was a very careful and slow effort.  Tadpoles maybe?  I did that.

What a B-52 does to a 100 year old church. . .preserved as a silent indictment to aggression.  Hopefully there was no mass in progress.

Misty morning on the river at Dong Hoi, the shovel-front variation on the local river-fishing boat getting it's fish trap straightened out for the day.

A quiet evening at a building site on the bank of the river by my hotel in Dong Hoi.  The lumber is mostly "Philippine" mahogany, lovely stuff, though softer than a lot of boat building woods in use in Viet Nam.  

A long look at her framing.  She's built on a central flat plank "keel" with a solid stem bolted on forward.  Almost all the floor timbers are in placer and the garboard (first plank above the keel) is almost fitted.  She'll be a sleek thing, long and lean.
The ugly tub in the foreground, two of the pretty local day-boats in the back ground.  This is what is building on the river bank near the hotel.

This is very early days, just the keel, the stem and most of the floor timbers.  The garboards are bolted to the stem and cut to almost the right shape lengthwise, but still being worked into place.  This is the most difficult plank on the boat usually, since it twists 90 degrees from the stem to the stern, usually in a very short distance.

Fitting the garboard up near the stem (where it's already bolted off.  This is the hard part, getting 2" thick lumber to twist where you want it, without splitting.  There are clamps, wedges, a chain fall working a wooden scissors shear clamp and a stout wooden toggle bolted through the plank, all urging the plank to go where it needs to be.  The builder slips a saw blade between the planks and works hard to make them fit tighter, Tedious work, requiring a lot of judgement.  Way Cool. 

And this is not about boats. . .the first bit of the throng at the market.  That's the main street along the riverfront, down which I must go to get home to the hotel.  My goodness.  Saddle walk the bike!  Stop at the bakery (they also make excellent baguette sandwiches. . .with eggs in the morning.  And coffee shops handy too.  

And some days you're not sure you really wanted to go for a ride.  These are genuine free range birds, and appropriately chewy when cooked.