Monday, December 8, 2014

The Road to the South, Hanoi to Sam Son

Written from Room 102 of the Hong Thien 2 Hotel on Chu Van An Street. . .in Hue.  It's a Sunday evening, the 7th of December already, but I'm way behind. . .so with the weather being a bit damp for enjoyable riding, I'll take some time and bring you up to date

People often ask, when they find I've been back to Viet Nam and Hanoi specifically for, er, nine times now if I simply ride the same route every time.  And, the truth is that such is almost the case, but not really.  There are only two north south routes through this north-south country really, one more or less parallel to the coast, Highway 1.  Here and there you'll find exquisite scenery along Hwy 1 and sometimes the traffic is bearable, but it's truly the main artery of the country and it's always under construction and almost always desperately busy.  The only real alternate is a network of roads collectively called the Ho Chi Minh Highway.  It is a deliberately scenic route, almost entirely along the western border of the country, with Laos or Cambodia further west.  These days it stretches pretty nearly all the way from just north of Saigon all the way to Hanoi.  Most of it is splendid.  Some of it is pretty rough, or has been in the past.  It is by no means a high speed throughway, though some of it in the Central Highlands is really pretty good that way.  It's a long way from the water though, so on the southbound leg of the trip every year, when I'm eager to check out all the boatyards I've found along the coast, having checked out the Halong Bay area (North of Hanoi), I run down Highway 1. . .along the coast.  First stop is almost always Sam Son.

Usually by the time I get to Sam Son I'm feeling pretty well beaten up, even if we're still right way up and going ahead under our own power.  That stretch from Hanoi south to Sam Son on National Highway 1 is one of the toughest stretches on the whole highway, it's always under construction for long stretches and it's always super over crowded with heavy traffic coming and going between everywhere else and the capital, Hanoi.

This year we skipped all that and came down the back way on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, which was by contrast just about pure pleasure (if you discount the rain. . .).  That's a pretty roundabout way to get to Sam Son I admit, but it was oh so much nicer than almost any Highway 1 experience and we were still into town way before dark.  It's "only" a 2-lane road, with shoulders, but they're good sized lanes and the traffic is very easy.  More. . .in the northern part at least it runs through gorgeous country, with the same striking limestone mountains off to the West and rich farmland on either side.  Farther south the scenery is a little plainer, but still peaceful and pleasant, even in a soaking rain.  Sigh.

Whenever I've been in Sam Son it's always been winter or late autumn, and the town has been pretty much shut down, very few hotels or restaurants open, nobody swimming (cold and windy, with rain. . .but otherwise fine weather for sunbathing).  Even the white horses that get painted with black stripes to look very much like a zebra so the summertime tourists can ride wild horses. . .even they get the winter off and roam around town like great lumbering friendly stray dogs.  There's a lot to eat on the winter time un-mown medians and street edges.  They look to be in fine shape and nobody bothers them, though I saw one disconsolately trudging home behind a human late in the day.  Work?  Yuck.

For a man bent on documenting fishing vessels and their construction, Sam Son is a jewel.  There's a long beach stretching from a large river mouth five km or so in the north to a tall rocky headland (with a fascinating pagoda on top) at the south end of the beach.  There is a huge fleet of small surf boats coming and going for nearshore fishing and an amazing fleet of diesel and sail powered "bamboo" (and styrofoam these days) rafts that trace their history back 300 years that we know of.  People often build boats or fishing rafts there, right on the beach.  There's more. . . North of town along the river is a massive fishing boat anchorage and an active boatyard, which always has a fleet of boats up for repairs and paint and often builds significant vessels as well.  Someday I need to see it in summer, though I'm told it's much more expensive then!

Anyway, in a small way the place is famous, for the fact that Tim Severin  built the bamboo raft he used to almost sail across the Pacific there in 1993.  He had a lot of help building the raft from the local Vietnamese who still today build and sail on styrofoam assisted bamboo rafts to go fishing, and he actually took one of the Vietnamese gentlemen with him as a deck hand (they were a fascinating bunch, an English adventurer, a Vietnamese fisherman, an Icelandic artist, you should read the book.). . .six men and one pretty young lady spent a hundred and some days going five thousand miles on a bamboo raft. . .from Hong Kong to somewhere a thousand miles from land off the coast of North America.  Fortunately there was a handy cargo ship going by as the raft finally started to break up when the rattan lashings rotted. The modern day Sam Son raft builders use heavy monofilament fish line instead. . .but that would have been cheating.

It seems I've gotten rather long winded, and my point was simply that I've recently gotten an introduction to and an invitation from Mr. Loi, the now 21-year older and drier Vietnamese member of the crew to visit at his home in Sam Son.  So even though the weather was grim and there were no rafts or boats building on the beach (yes, there was a good sized fish boat going together down at the river-mouth boatyard, so it wasn't a total loss) so even though, as I was saying, it was still a very interesting stop.  Mr Loi picked up quite a bit of English in 105 days at sea with Severin and his English speaking crew and he's happy to talk about it.  At a guess, if I have 500 words of Vietnamese (a reasonable guess) he might have six hundred of English, of which two are certainly "Bamboo Raft".  He came to fetch me from my hotel as soon as I called when I'd dried out a little and rinsed off some of the grit.  He has some interesting mementos of the voyage, a full wall sized map of their route and another showing the layout and details of the raft as well as a number of vintage photos in a large frame.  We visited until we ran out of tea and common language, and started over again the next morning with a conducted tour of both the ocean and river front.  This was a little frustrating since I know the place quite well and knew exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. . .but good manners prevailed (in the absence of effective communication) and having prevailed, paid off very well thank you.  Mr. Loi ended up showing me yet another tiny fishing harbor SOUTH of the rocky point that I'd thought marked the southern limit of the town's interest in fishing.  A lovely little doghole with a nasty breaking bar stretching a long ways across its entrance (and a tiny dredge trying to keep it open), but it was full of two sorts of small, more or less traditional fishing boats and powered rafts.  With diesel engines and pilot  houses aft and no sailing rig, not to mention that they really float on styrofoam, not bamboos, the rafts really aren't at all traditional, though they come from a long line. . .if that counts.  Anyway, take that to heart.  Patience and good manners just might pay off after all.  By 10:00 it was time to move on though and so Mr. Loi saw me back to the hotel, we shook hands and the bike and I were off down Highway 1 toward Cua Lo.
Typical along the northern 60 km or so of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a well watered countryside, numerous streams and always the mountains in the West.

Quite the nice irrigation ditch, a critical bit of infrastructure in a country that needs to flood untold acres of rice paddy.  Thanh Hoa province somewhere. . .on the DHCM ("duong Ho Chi Minh. . .literally "Ho Chi Minh Road"
A nasty breaking bar stretching across the mouth of the little boat haven, and an 8" dredge pumping away in the drizzle.  Oh for the life of a dredgeman!  A fiberglass descendant of hundreds of years of bamboo beach boats running in.

In the harbor, no fancy docks, everyone noses in to the beach.  Every one of these black boats is fiberglass, colored black to mimic the tar that used to waterproof their bamboo ancestors.  The bamboo boats lasted a few years, these. . .we shall see!

The endless work of a fisherman's wife. . .cleaning and straightening out nets.

Long and lean, these boats were pure sailing vessels in the 1990s, but now, only diesel power.  They are flat bottomed and easily run up on the beach.
Cute kids and smiling moms. . .fun photography on the road

In the boatyard at the river. . .lots of repairs and paint, only one new boat under construction.  These are modern motor fishing vessels, basically in the European tradition, with a Vietnamese flavor

Just a couple of planks to replace, not serious yet. . .


  1. Ken, your photos are getting better and better...


    1. Thanks Rob, if you shoot enough you get some good ones eh?

  2. Your doing so well, a magic read, and with the photos .....

  3. Hi Harry, glad you like it. I'm catching up now, several rainy days in Hue gave me a chance to work a bit on the blog, but the office caught me too! The internet is great eh? H'mm.