Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Closing the Loop, Home to Hanoi from the long road.

Written from Hanoi on the 14th of January, 2015--Hanoi, where the weather is presently lovely!  Cool overcast mornings have been clearing or at least thinning enough to let the sun shine through a bit and warm things up by early afternoon.  Where was this when I was out on the road north of here??  Actually, the good weather started on my last day southbound into the city, so here we go!

In the early evening (late for me to be settling in for the night) on January 10th we rolled right through the highway frontage of the little town of Nghia Lo and out the far side.  The last thing on the right hand side was a very nice looking hotel, which looked like it might be well beyond our means, but this far out in the sticks I'm not afraid to stop and ask.  It was a little expensive in fact ($14), but wonderful.  What price clean white sheets after a month without?  And a little heat in the room (they must have run a heater earlier in the day. . .some of these air conditioning units work both ways).  The room was on the ground floor, the mattress was perfect, the bath water hot, the comforter in its pure white cover was soft and smelled good, the furniture was really nice. . .what a lovely place.  Well, there was no writing desk, so I got my standard back ache from hunching over a little (lovely) end table while perched in a (very nice, upholstered) side chair while I wrote.   The staff was splendid (friendly, cheerful, efficient), everything worked, my gosh,  What can you  say.  You may conclude that not all hotels in the small towns were that nice, though really almost all of them are pretty good, certainly a lot better than sleeping on the shoulder of the road!!

Just as I was contemplating supper in the hotel resrtaurant, (I'd already been for a walk and knew there was nothing of my usual sort anywhere close) just exactly as I was contemplating supper. . .the lights went out.  I thought that might be a bad sign, but not so.  The restaurant (across the parking lot from my room) just got out the fluorescent camping lanterns and a handful of candles and went right ahead with dinner.  Perhaps the dinner was a little less than wonderful.  Rice, sauteed pork and steamed greens. . .not a bit of garlic or onion or spice or nuoc mam or. . .I think they took one look, figured they had to feed a finicky white guy and made it truly bland.  I talked them out of a bowl of nuoc mam with some red chile in it. . .which helped. . .but still.  Yes, but still, it was served perfectly in my own separate dining room (a rowdy bunch of Vietnamese businessmen got their own dining room too, next door).  In my private dining room I could have accommodated. . .er. . .say nineteen of my favorite traveling companions, but they missed dinner and I'm used to eating alone.  That was the last night on the road, pretty wonderful, but the next morning was even better.  For one thing, the rain had mostly stopped.  A stray drop fell now and then, maybe after hanging around in a tree overnight, but no real rain.  Wow.

More importantly though, the bike needed some attention and I couldn't help but notice that the countryside we'd been passing through was very well populated with her very close relatives.  Heck, most of her family must live around there!  First of course she got a real bath. It is not for nothing that every other business establishment along the first half of that street was a car and bike wash.  They were all already working at 0700 in the morning!  Everybody that came  in off the road last night. . .came in muddy.  How odd.  They scrubbed her with high pressure water, soap suds, brushes (down to tooth brush size for special places) and rags.  She made a big muddy spot on the sidewalk where they worked, but came out looking like a new dollar. Then we went looking for a mechanic's shop and found not one, but two, side by each just across from the market.  It turned out, by the way, that the town was much more extensive AWAY from the highway than it was along the highway, so we had a pleasant exploration down a street that claimed to have the market only 800 meters ahead.  I doubt the highway frontage, all strung together, came to 800 meters!

It was a funny visit to the mechanics.  It was as though I'd gone to the doctor for some help with a runny nose and then remembered I also needed an appendectomy and a little brain surgery. All that was on my mind to begin with was her floppy chain. . .needed oil and adjustment.  Before we were finished she had a link removed from the chain, and the chain adjusted and oiled, a new gasket for the gas cap, not just a new tail light bulb, but a new bracket and reflector, she'd had her carburetor tweaked and brakes adjusted and. . .now I'm forgetting what all.  Oh.  She got a new set of hand warmers.  No kidding!  I've seen similar but much heavier and fancier muffs on the handlebars of commuter bikes in Seattle.  These seem to be a local product, probably made by an off-duty dress maker. . .soft and fuzzy inside, hard and hopefully water tight and. . .er. . .pink and flowery. . . outside.  That's not the whole list, but you get the idea.  These fellows mostly work on precisely the sort of bike I ride.  They had all the necessary parts on the shelf and knew all the solutions to all the problems.  It was fast and very inexpensive.  I went for breakfast down behind the market while the mechanics worked and provided some inexpensive entertainment for the normal clientele. . .mainly ethnic minority people, mountain folks, who probably aren't minorities at all just here.  I came  in for a lot of cheerful comment until they realized I understood most of it. . .then it really became fun.  They were, as I've come to expect, really pleasant people, and totally astonished that I could speak or understand Vietnamese at all.

So we left the beautiful hotel and the wonderful mechanics behind and rode toward Hanoi on QL-32.  I'm pretty sure we should have managed to go the whole way into the city on 32, but somewhere (actually I'm pretty sure exactly where) we zigged when we should have zagged and took a detour on DT-316, a very much smaller and less maintained little road. . .for 24 kilometers.  It was perfectly fine really.  There was a lot of mud on the pavement from time to time, tracked onto the little highway (very little) by trucks running in from the country roads.  Well, I guess DT-316 IS a country road, but it was mostly paved.  The feeder roads. . .are mostly sticky mud when it rains. Anyway, it was a non event.  We rejoined 32 and crossed the Da River (a big tributary to the Red R.) on a new bridge  and followed the highway as far as lunch and then straight into the city without further ado.  For a long ways it was just a little busier every kilometer, but still pretty quiet and pleasant and out in the country, and it was in just such a quiet country stretch that we stopped for lunch in a very country-sort of little place that advertised "Rice and Noodle Soup", or "Com-Pho" as it's usually written here. Usually that really means just noodle soup. . .but she in fact had rice and quite a nice blue plate special.  The Vietnamese call it "Com Dia". . .rice and whatever the cook has a lot of. . .but it's the same idea as the daily special.  It was good (and not bland!)--sauteed veggies with garlic and chile and pork with garlic and onions and chile and. . .nuoc mam sauce with ginger and chile and there was chile sauce on the table instead of catsup and. . .you get the idea.  Add some crispy pickled cabbage and it was. . .Tasty.  The cooking arrangements were something new to me.  The lady had a standard sort of electric rice cooker near the door between the kitchen proper and the restaurant itself.  After that though, the arrangements were less power-dependent!  She cooked over an open fire laid in a raised hearth. . .a concrete slab just below her waist level, so she could store dry wood under the hearth and also tend her pots at a comfortable height.  The most unusual part (for me at least) was that the fire was in a proper chimney, all masonry (plastered smooth, so I can't know the material, but likely red bricks).  The chimney, like the few you do see in the colder parts of the country, is rectangular and tapered uniformly from the size of the hearth to an opening perhaps half or less the size, somewhere just above the roof line. It drew very well, there was no smoke at all in the room. . .very unlike most cooking fires in this part of the world, where there is no chimney and the smoke just seeps out through the thatch or the tiles. . .making a very startling sight at times!

The shop next door was a tiny beauty parlor and the beautician brought her client and some neighborhood kids over to watch me eat. . .great fun, white guys are amazing. . .they even eat with chopsticks like people.  Wow.

It really is fun being an elephant on a motorbike some days.

The scenery stayed beautiful for a long ways, and it was about 125 km out of Hanoi that we found water wheels working!  How cool.  These were not the giant elegant constructs I'd been hoping to find further north, and in fact two of them weren't even the same concept.  To digress, the big ones I was hoping to return to up somewhere near Dien Bien, operate on the principal of using the flow of the river running under the edge of the wheel to make it turn. . .duh. . .a simple "undershot" wheel.  They use the rotating wheel to lift water directly. . .individual "buckets" made of a single node of big bamboo fill with water when they get dunked, carry it up to the top of the wheel as the wheel turns, and pour it out, usually onto a sheet metal receiving platform, from which it is funneled into a split bamboo trough and runs out into a rice paddy and voila. . .you have water lifted up out of the river by the river.  Well, two of these much smaller ones worked that way, and two did not.  Okay, I admit it.  I didn't realize that at first.  I saw the two that were just small versions of what I'd already seen and cheerfully moved on and photographed the two that. . .aren't.  But didn't really figure out how they do work.  The split bamboo "pipeline" is still there, but no bamboo buckets lifting water or splashing it out on a receiving platform.  In a "gee I feel dumb" sort of way I have to assume that the wheels are operating a pump to lift water and I just can't see it in my photos.  I even took some movies to make sure I could spot the various operating features. . .but I can't.  Darn.

Well, the ride into the city was, as it always is, suddenly horrendously busy.  It goes from "just a little busy" to "Omigosh".  Hanoi is a big city.  Bigger than I know I'm sure, but in this case we were still 45 km out of town when it became seriously city-clogged traffic in a "city" environment, on a main thoroughfare, with four lanes of traffic and shoulders, with stoplights too.  Goodness.  It just tightened up as we rode on in.  I, as always, the peak of fashion in my mud caked raingear and rubber boots, as always, blended seamlessly with the beautiful young people headed home from their offices in their thousands. . .wearing their exquisitely neat, clean and proper (or not so proper) office outfits on their spotless motorbikes.  I always do it this way, arrive in the afternoon rush hour, covered in mud (no blood this time) and riding a filthy bike.  Everyone else wears cute little city helmets with plaid racing stripes or pink "Hello Kitty" logos and I wear my beat-up whole-head helmet with the visor shoved up out of my face so I can see past the mud spluts.  Most of them don't stare.

I'd never entered the city on Hwy 32 before.  None of the landmarks meant anything to me.  The map and the cell phone agreed that I just had to bore straight south into the city and I'd pass within a few blocks of Hoan Kiem Lake and home. . .but trying to figure out just where I needed to veer off and make a little easting. . .that was the problem.  In the end the cell phone did the trick and lead me along until I started recognizing street names and suddenly I was there, riding along the lake shore, on very familiar ground.

So, we did a victory lap around the lake (it's a very busy one way boulevard, so there's not a lot of choice) then turned off at the north end of the lake to slip into the crush of the Old Quarter.  After forty seven days on the road and with 6,986 kilometers on the new odometer we rode up to the hotel, waited a moment for a break in the traffic (okay, I just made a break, it was rush hour), nosed the bike into the curb and jumped her up onto the sidewalk.  While I stripped off the rain gear and started to unstrap the big bag Khoi came down the hallway, threw back the door and welcomed me "home again!!"  The long ride was over for another year.
The morning road out of Nghia Lo toward Hanoi, still way out in the sticks and lovely scenery.

A very nice Home along QL-32 south of Nghia Lo--like many Khmer stilt houses, its stilts are concrete, with timber construction above, but a thatched roof, not tile or corrugated.

QL-32 running past a dramatic (if very small) limestone. . .lump?  Not a mountain.

Okay, those might be mountains, really big lumps anyway. . .beyond an idle rice paddy
This is a strikingly different farm house, not a sort you will see often.  I wonder very much what ethnic group the builders belong to, and where, if anywhere, it is a common type.  Very nice timber construction, but I think the "front" of the house must be on the other side, clearly a balcony and a porch overhang there anyway.  H'mm.

Here's a fun detail of a roof structure on a small lean-to off the end of a large wooden home. . .note that the timber rafters are almost completely  hidden in the other structure, . . then transverse bamboos, whole, at about a foot center to center,  THEN a solid mat of smaller bamboos (whole again) running the same way as the rafters. . .and then the tile.  What's funny is that this style of tile has a projecting lip or lug on the under side that serves to grip a square-cut wooden  lath that keeps the tile from sliding off the rafters. . .but I can't spot the lath here.  Darn.  It has to be there. . .I think.

Getting close to lunch time, southbound on QL-32, before the new bridge over the Da River (Song Da).  Intensive land use, with carefully managed hillsides above the fields in maize, cabbage and misc. veggies.  The paddy dikes probably mean that they get a rice crop every year too. . .that's a normal pattern, a crop of rice when the water is available, then dry land vegetables and maize for a second crop.  Not as rich farmland as the deltas, which are super abundant, but a prosperous countryside anyway.

The younger contingent of my lunchtime audience.  She wasn't going to stand for the camera but the beautician from next door told her not to be silly. . .He didn't express an opinion, but did stand still.

The beautician from next door.  She's fifty and has two sons. . .you just simply have to know these things when you meet a stranger, how else can you make conversation?  She just about talked my ear off while I ate. . .and oddly, I understood a great deal of it.  For one thing, we're back in the North again, where I can "hear" Vietnamese, and Vietnamese people mostly can understand what I say.  In parts of the country the dialect is different enough I can barely make myself understood.   Oh.  That's the excellent cook disappearing in the background.