Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On the ground in Hanoi...one more time

The first time I announced that I'd safely arrived in Hanoi was nearly ten years ago now, in 2005.  At the time it seemed like the most adventurous and amazing sort of thing to do, coming to the capital city of Viet Nam for goodness sake, a place that effectively ran me off at gunpoint when I was a kid. . .but in 2005 I wasn't here to fight a war. . .I was here to buy a rehashed Russian motorbike and go for a long ride and (I blush to say it now) "take a picture of every boat in the country."  There was a fundamental problem with the photographic mission. . .there are enough Vietnamese boat builders and designers working that they stayed permanently ahead of me.  I gave them a good race and now there's a wonderful collection of documentary photos. . .but "every boat"??. . .heck I'd settle for "every major sort of boat".  And I gave up on Russian motorbikes after two fair tries.  There were some interesting problems with that first motorbike, mostly having to do with a loose wire in the ignition system if I'd only known, but it ran with some coaxing and we went a long ways.  There was a small matter of a smashed foot, victim of a very stationary concrete post alongside the road (that would be the bit of road with the unexpected bit of loose sand scattered in the middle of a too fast curve in the mountains near A Luoi). But I didn't blame the bike for that, I was high on a mountain road, swooping around wonderful curves, wrapped in jungle and mist and the hum of the little motor.  No, my  issue with the Minsks has more to do with fuel consumption, oil consumption, and. . .well. . .the fact that if you don't wrench them every day they rattle apart.  So I've switched to Chinese made copies of an old style Honda 100.  They suffer from electrical problems too, at least until you replace all the major electronic bits and pieces, but once that's over (it takes about a  month while you wear out your optimism) the little things run forever and hardly use gasoline at all.  But I digress.  That was ten years ago and this is now my tenth return to ride a different motorbike through the countryside once again, this time not even looking for a boat. . .well. . .of course, if one just happened to pass I'd no doubt stop and name it and take its portrait, but seriously, it's time I admitted, it's been the journey all along.  The boats have just been a fascinating excuse for getting up every morning, putting the bags on the back of the bike and taking to the road.  This year will be different, we'll be hunting for old fashioned farm houses (Ed. Note:  Boats to farm houses?? How does he make that work??)  Please come along!

I didn't quite finish all the work that had to be done before I could go riding off into the sunrise (I don't like to travel after dark, so almost never ride off into the sunset. . .) so these past couple of jet lagged days have been spent at a tiny computer in the kitchen of my Hanoi home base.  But the work is finished and the road lies ahead and tomorrow or perhaps the next day I'll be off chasing after Bilbo Baggins again (Bilbo Baggins??? How'd he get in this. . .oh, it was watching "The Hobbit" in Korean with Chinese subtitles for a couple of hours at 40,000 feet. . .right), though I may not see him this far from the Shire, you never know. . .he was, after all, looking for a dragon and they used to be common hereabouts, and he was expecting to find his dragon at a mountain as I recall. . .and that's to be the shape of this trip, mountains. . . and dragons if there are any.  For the first time in these years of journeys here I'm honestly not planning on seeing every beach or river mouth and boat yard along the way.  Rather, I've the notion to go North almost to China, then run a long winding route west and north back and forth as the mountains dictate, generally parallel to the border with China.  Starting from Hanoi, we'll take the road out to the sea at Halong City and its limestone crags, but then head toward Lang Son, upward and inland, and on, through Cao Bang and Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Son La and Lai Chau and Dien Bien. . .places I've rushed through before as though there were some better place somewhere ahead.  Those are places, it has to be admitted that were generally wet and cold and miserable in muddy winter whenever I've passed through before, so maybe there was reason for my haste.  Now it's the spring of the year and already very warm at mid day.  It will no doubt rain, but it ought to be warm rain at least and the world should be green and lovely instead of gray and dark.  Which brings us back to the Road. . .which might very well be pretty rough in places.  Some of the hardest roads (cat tracks??) I've ridden are along this route and my notion this time is to get off the highway at least now and then and find some small places in those mountains.  We'll be looking, as I said, for farm houses.  Not the sort they have in Kansas or Ohio or even Oklahoma. . .rather, the sort with big shaggy roofs and smoke from kitchen fires drifting out through the thatch or out the gable ends.  There are any number of grand traditions for building farmhouses and villages in these mountains (and their valleys)  and it's time somebody rode through and did a proper job of photographing them.  It should keep me busy a while.  Last trip, as I rode through seemingly endless rain and mud and shivered I sang "I've been too long in the Wind. . .too long in th rain. . ."   This trip we'll try something a bit different:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

He's welcome to those eager feet of course, I'll be happy with my motorbike!  As for the "whither then???"  that's always the question.  I've never yet ridden the road I set out to all the way to the end, there's always somewhere else to wander astray.  It'll be interesting to see how close I can come this time.

Here are some photos from around Hanoi this week. . .I really have been out hiking around a fair bit.

Dragons. . .lots of them hereabouts!  This one brightly lit in the evening, on the wall around a temple in Hoan Kiem Lake.

You have to have a few :"traffic" photos if you're reporting from Hanoi, , ,this is the ring road around the Lake on a Sunday evening.  The blurs. . .motorbikes at speed.  The young couple made it fine.  It's easy really, just don't panic and keep moving.  You'll get across!

The street of tinsmiths near my home base.  They make essentially all this stuff right in the shops, but there's been an interesting change over the years.  When first I came the stainless steel was much less common, most shops worked mainly in galvanized "tinware" and soldered a lot of their seams.  Now it's almost all stainless "Inox" and there are many more wire feed welders at work.  H'mm.  Prosperity I think!

The ring road around the lake ends here at the south end, a busy street that always seems to have a festive air.  This was a rare moment, with hardly a motorbike in sight and lots of cars.  Yes, prosperity is moving in I think.  But don't get the wrong idea, the motorbike is still the only real family car here. . .

Blogger and I can't seem to agree about the positioning of photographs.  So we'll step out of the street for a minute and check out my Hanoi Home. . .The past couple of years,with changes in the family that owns my hotel, I've been promoted into a 3-room suite for much the same cost as a cramped hotel room. . .a wonderful arrangement.  There's a kitchen and bath nearly the size of hotel rooms I've stayed in and a living room with a big screen TV (I don't know if it works, but it's nice and new so it probably does).  I actually used the living room to host a meeting with two Naval Architects in January. . .and felt like quite the gracious host!
And this is the kitchen (office??).  All the necessities, the fridge (a big one) is off to the left, the electric tea kettle and a 2-burner stove on a granite cook top. . .and of course, my full road warrior's laptop setup. . .er. . .well, would you believe, a tablet and a bluetooth mouse??
Now back on the street. . .Vietnamese mixed-use architecture.. .the auto shop (read the sign, it's easy if you know that "Xe" means any sort of vehicle. . .Gara. . .Gara(ge) and Oto. . .Auto. . .But look at the balconies, not more than 2' wide, they add a lot of value to the homes inside!  On shelf brackets??? My.
Things are busy at the shop that takes care of my bike. . .lots of new and larger bikes these days, many fewer of the old Russian bikes. . .more Kawasakis, Hondas, Yamahas. . .and they're bigger since the import rules have changed.   
There's a major effort on-going to better support all the street wiring of the old quarter.  They're stringing galvanized cable and tightening it up between end points, then bundling the wires together in galvanized steel rings.  Much tidier. It'll never go underground in my life I think!
So much of life (a very good life by and large) goes on out on the sidewalks.  Wonderful things to eat and drink and good company. . .if you knew the language.  

  This is a much quieter street scene, a block or two from Hanoi Cathedral. . .coffee, tea, snacks, motorbikes.  H'mm.

For all its frantic traffic and big buildings, there are any number of lovely parks throughout the city, not always quiet I admit, but nice. . .very nice.

Hanoi cathedral. . .doing quite well these days, though quiet on a Monday afternoon.

Fun little neighborhood streets in all directions in the old quarter. . .almost all given to tourist services in one degree or another, but all also home to a lot of Vietnamese.  The two go along very nicely together, the Vietnamese keeping house, running errands, taking kids to pre-school and running off to work. . .and the tourists passing through enjoying it all

I rest my case.

The little white balls of sticky rice, each with a dab of something else inside. . .a lot of work to roll, then boil then hand over in a small bowl with a dollop of sweet sauce.  Pretty close to tasteless, and a very odd sticky texture. . .H'mm.  Well, there were lots of smiles involved and it only took a dollar to find out. . .on the sidewalk a block from the Hotel.


  1. Hi Ken, thanks for the email, "heads up", much appreciated. Your Hanoi Base, is just a tad smaller than the wee house I live in down here in Phu Quoc. Still looking around PQ at boats, which may be suitable to convert to sail, just nobody now builds the traditional Phu Quoc boat. Pity really, so if I can afford to have one built here, it will be a one off special.
    Still leaning towards going back to Hoi An to find a suitable boat, at least they still make the traditional style of hull there, and so pretty.
    Your choice of subject for this trip is a great one, and although I haven't been to the mountains up there, have beed to Dalat, and some of the traditional long houses, and small homes are magnificent structures. What they do with wood, is just magic.
    How long you here this time, if you don't mind me asking.
    Safe journey my friend

  2. Hi Harry, Glad you could come. I'll be here less than a month this trip, much to do on the homestead this time of year! It'll be a quick loop around the Northwest and back to Hanoi in a hurry. . .but it should be good fun anyway.

  3. As one of my first bosses was fond of telling us raw cadets, "Make haste, slowly."
    Relax and enjoy the ride.