Thursday, May 14, 2015

And it's goodbye again (well, after a mad dash to Uong Bi)

Writtten from Hanoi on the morning of the 15th of May (here), which is most noteworthy for this expedition in that it is the day I leave and the "we" of the past month, the Little Horse and I, will part company again, probably for a long time this time.

But we managed an unprecedented stunt the past two days and it worked out very well (so far at least).  In the past, I've herded her back to Hanoi something like a week before flight day and generally kept her within a few kms of the airport until the time came to actually go off in the taxi and leave.

This trip an earlier tentative offer from Ms. Cuc and Mr. Diep (the basket boat maker near Uong Bi) matured into a firm plan that called for me to turn up about 17 km east of Uong Bi at 0730 yesterday morning and be taken around to see a village where "everybody" (not really true, but mighty close) makes woven basket boats in the Halong Bay style.  Yesterday, not to make too much of it, was the day before today, and referring to the opening paragraph above you will see that that makes yesterday the day before departure.  Never, that is to say, absolutely never, have I been 130 km away from the airport on the day before I was to fly home.  Just not the done thing.  So on Wednesday afternoon I loaded half a bag of spares and clothes on the bike and we went.  I'll cut this to a reasonable level of detail.  The road from Hanoi to Halong City is a major route in excellent condition.  The weather was hot and dry.  Threatening maybe, but never came up with the rain. . .just a rather fierce quartering head wind.  The bike ate it up.  We re-located Mr. Diep's house (after just a month you'd think I could ride straight there, but there've been a number of roads and houses since that first visit). . .and having located it, began to prospect up and down the highway for a hotel to lay over until morning.  Then came a text from Ms. Cuc, to the effect that we had to start at 0630 since she'd had a schedule change at work and needed the hour in her day.  Fair enough, she was purely a volunteer in this operation, and a lot of people would have just cancelled eh?  But it kept me close by for hotel choices, which turned out to be most exceedingly fortunate.  Mind you, most of the hotels I stay in here are really perfectly nice and some are lovely.  That said, this one was really lovely. . .a more or less normally nice facility, standard bed, fan and an air conditioner (that worked) as well, so it wasn't just a pleasant clean room.  The family that turned out to be running the house were marvelous.  Grandma and Grandpa, the young married couple, a 15 year old cousin, a 7 year old (young lady) maniac bicycle rider and a six month old who even tolerated being handed to me long enough to have his/her photo taken.  Okay, I admit, I only just think maybe that was also a young lady. . .no direct evidence.  Grandpa (60 years old) had clearly suffered a stroke and lost most use of his right arm, so I offered him a reverse but formal handshake. . .ergo, left hand to left, with the right hand (for a change) gripping my left wrist. . .why that should be formal or particularly "nice" behavior, I have no idea, but it is.  I guess, in general, you don't offer things one handed here. . . anyway, I ended up eating dinner with them (Grandma can cook!) and sitting talking with the young couple while the maniac bicycle rider rode rings around the hotel. . .which is half a block off the highway, and so very safe for such shenanigans.  So it was a delightful visit.  But 0500 came early on Thursday morning.

At 0618 I pulled into Mr. Diep's yard and parked.  All quiet.  At 0628 Ms. Cuc and her patient husband arrived in full flight (timed to 2 minutes in a 30 km run from their house. . .not bad).  Cuc shortly flushed Mr. Diep out and in a flurry we got the big Ford SUV out of the car port and put the two motorbikes in and we were gone.  Mr. Diep is definitely a successful businessman, with a lovely house and the car. . .and he was definitely in a fine mood to show me his ancestral village and all the boat builders working there.  I'll skip over the boat building. . .there'll be an article sooner or later on the boat website. . .but here are the numbers I was given to think about.  There are about 100 families building the woven boats in this village.  Each "family" may consist of 2 or 3 households and at least three generations. . .and each family produces something between 5 larger boats a month or 10 smaller ones. . .with obvious allowances for mixes and, I suppose, variations in demand.  The place is lttered with boats in all stages of completion (it's obvious they inventory bare hulls of various sizes and then outfit them to suit the buyer when they sell).  As I've seen in Hue, the big flat mat takes longer to weave 1.5 to 3 days) than it takes to "round out" the boat, mashing it down into a "mold" and wiring on the rim. . . though once the basketry is finished there's a lot more work before anybody goes to sea. . .wood framing to support the hull, tar to waterproof it (scary, that stuff is hot and fluid!), often a motor to install, oars to make (or buy, that seems to be a separate craft). . . but not sails to rig any more.  I've never seen a photo of one of these oval baskets rigged for sail, but in a living room there I was shown a gorgeous model, very believable, rigged to sail.  I admired it but said (through Cuc) that I'd never seen any evidence of such a rig. . .I've looked at a lot of old post cards. . .but Cuc stated clearly that up until about 2000 you could still hunt around and find one for the tourists to photograph.  Sigh.

Well. . .I said I'd hold down the details for now. . .it was a grand visit, a wonderful lunch at Mr. Diep's house with his delightful family (though I can no longer sit comfortably on the floor to eat.   Sometime in the past year or so I've stiffened up enough it's hard to do now. . .maybe a successful diet strategy??

After lunch I declined the use of the guest bed for my afternoon nap and got on the road back to the city. . .which the bike did quietly and smoothly.  By 5:00 yesterday afternoon we were home, showered and changed, ready for today.  The ride, 3,850 km in 21 days. . .is over.

Bamboo basket boats all start life as a flat mat and it goes from there.

Rounding up the bow of the boat.  It's still remarkably light at this stage!

Very very hot and very fluid, and he works fast.

Fitting the owing stanchions

Ms. Cuc and fish traps ready for market.

The sailing model I didn't buy. . .and the rowing model I did.
The Master. . .he has a title something like "National Living Treasure" in the Japanese style. . .an artist of a boat maker.

There are a lot of fish traps made here too, seemingly a lady's job.

I can do this. . .

Big brothers are so cool. . .

People around here are really good at splitting bamboo.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Home to the City--Hue to Hanoi in 3 days.

Written from Hanoi, in the comfort of my home hotel (with a fan that really suits, a mattress just like I like, a pillow that's close to perfect, an electric kettle and my own stash of coffee. . .yes indeed.  So, I'm pleased to report it was an uneventful ride taking parts of 3 days, but could have been done neatly in two. . .the highway construction is making a huge difference in travel times and it's only about 2/3 complete at this time.  I've always thought of the Hue-Hanoi route as a 4 day job of work and have made it in 3 days once before, hurrying.  This time felt reasonably comfortable, if you discount the severe discomfort of an inflamed knee all of the first day and half the second.  My assorted relatives have chimed in with advice on knee-replacement surgery, but this time I got by with $30,000 VND (30 tablets, or $1.50 USD) worth of ibuprofen.  Maybe that'll hold me for another few years.  

I started Saturday by picking up an interpreter-friend (she speaks better English than I speak Vietnamese. . .and her Vietnamese is flawless. . .it works and she's fun to work with).  I had in mind an errand out to the island to check on my not-a-granddaughter and her progress at school.  She wasn't around to see however, off to Hue with her Mom. . .but her grandparents showed off her new bicycle. . .she had the best scores on her English finals in fifth grade and won the new bike.  You would have to stretch to understand what a major coup that is (and how unlikely she was to end up with a bicycle of any sort otherwise).  The shiny new "Asama" (big brand here) bike parked in the shade beside the shack they live in, was stunning.  Anyway, it was a longish ride up the island and not much accomplished. . .not to mention that it was 25 km straight away from the day's goal to get to Dong Hoi before dark.

I dropped off my interpreter and gathered my luggage at the Hue Home hotel. ..and had lunch in solitary splendor (directed in detail by the hotel's owner who thinks I don't eat enough)  (based on what??).  With that out of the way, we rolled off the sidewalk and out of town northbound in good order at 12:00 noon sharp.  Having just ridden over this ground southbound two days before I knew I was in for a wrestling match with the paving crews all up and down the first 100 km or more, so we just tucked into it and rode.  I have not yet begun to understand how the engineers lay out this work, but they do it this way, so there must be some advantage. . .the appearance to the poor motorbike traveler (or anyone else trying to get somewhere) is that insanity ruled in the road department.  In effect, they alternate sides of the highway.  Let's pave on the east side for a km, then open that to traffic and let them have it for a bit.  Then let's pave on the west side for a while. . .and let them have that too. . .so they get to cross back and forth, jumping the ramps (steep buggers) up and down on and off the new pavement onto the scarified and degraded older pavement, or, more fun, up onto a crushed rock surface. . .sometimes a very coarse crushed rock surface.  I just re-read that and it doesn't begin to convey the situation.  I'll summarize:
1.  Instead of 2 lanes and 2 shoulders, we ride in every case on 1 lane and 1 shoulder. . .already a problem for opposing buses or for buses wishing to pass trucks and only slightly reluctant to smash motorbikes.
2.  The traveled way switches back and forth from east lane to west lane more or less at random.
3.  Each switch from lane to lane involves jumping up or down a foot or so either onto the new riding surface or down onto the old, which might be (likely is) really bad
4.  We had dust.  Could have been mud.  don't gripe!

But aside from that, the riding is almost all dead level.  There are long long stretches of straight road.  There are a couple of tunnels that are scary-dark in the middle. . .your (my?) eyes don't adapt quickly enough to do any good by the time we're mid-tunnel.  I just keep a wall nearby on the right and keep moving.  But until you hit Hanoi traffic (40 km from the city, Yikes!!) There's very little excitement.

Well, that first afternoon there was a humungous thunderstorm that lasted 30 km or so, with really heavy rain but no hail.  It stung like hail, but didn't bounce right off the road.  The wind in the storm was from straight ahead and strong enough it pulled us down from 65 kph normal cruise at half throttle to just barely 40 kph at full throttle.  Not that it was smart to be going that fast, but we were operating on the understanding that thunderstorms are finite and you can get through to the other side and find sunshine and dry roads.  It was just a bit larger than your ordinary storm. . .or maybe two traveling together.  In retrospect I'm a little surprised we got a decent room in Dong Hoi that night.  The bike was positively filthy for a start, but when I saw myself in the hotel lobby mirror, it was pretty scary.  My beard and lower face were black with caked dust and oddly enough, my rain pants and jacket were very nearly ghost white with the same dust.  Who knows??  A shower and a change of clothes did a lot of good though and it was a pleasant evening after the storm.  The bike needed another oil change to go with her bath and ended the afternoon quite pleased with herself.

The evening was so pleasant in fact the whole river full of boats got up and went out to sea for the night.  I took a stand right at the river mouth, leaning on the "no swimming" barrier and watched them go by.  I think if they thought they'd float all night with a little bailing they went out.  There were boats so small and low they scared me and those long skinny boats I've photographed in the river and assumed would NEVER go to sea. . .lined up and went.  I heard no weeping and wailing in the morning, so all the husbands must have gotten home fine.  It's fun to watch the river mouth.  It was flooding in hard (that is to say, the river at the mouth at least was running the wrong way. . .something a number of our rivers at home do as well.. . .) so the boats going out for the night just crawled by, motors thumping or howling or whatever, working hard for very little gain.  Meanwhile, a few boats, having done their business during the day, came sweeping into harbor with that flood tide boosting them along, romping and stomping like stallions headed for the barn.  Fun.  If you like that sort of thing.

Sunday was a different matter.

I was up before 0500, took care of some correspondence and filed a very few photographs.  As soon as I heard the hotel gates open I was out for a very quick coffee and egg sandwich at the market.  The Dong Hoi market sits astride the waterfront street and blocks it entirely to anything but a patient motorbike or a pushy pedestrian.   It has, however, a really nice bakery that understands how to get egg sandwiches out the door FAST.  To begin with, they fry up the eggs ahead of time and have them stacked up and waiting in the showcase, next to the pate, shredded dried pork, slivered cucumber and the grated carrots and daikons, with the bowls of mayo and chile pepper sauce and the mint and cilantro ALL kept full and exactly arranged.  Tongs and spoons fly, the bread comes out of the oven in baskets of 30 or so and is out on the street in tidy paper bags just made for a baguette in mere moments.  I took mine next door and had a nice iced coffee served by one of the tallest and most talkative Vietnamese ladies I've met lately.  She found me immensely funny. Who knows?  Anyway, what a start for the day,  absolutely peaceful in her coffee shop while the horde swirled by outside.  Good sandwich,, good coffee and a young lady who laughed at my lame jokes.  Goodness.

We were rolling, clean and shiny, new oil and clean clothes by a quarter after seven.  Most of the construction was behind us after yesterday's battle and a long road ahead.  We just clicked off the kilometers, stopped for fuel every 120 or 130 km, and a red bull or a bun now and then.   I need to stand up for a minute or two that often anyway, so feeding the horse and/or the rider every couple of hours is just fine.  And here's an interesting story, thinking about standing. . . I really babied the left leg all day long.  Some years back when dealing with pressure sores on my sit bones (don't laugh until you've tried them. . .) I learned to sit about half cattywumpus on the bike to redistribute the weight on the saddle, and, in so doing, found that one ends up with one leg quite a bit higher than the other. . .off the footpeg in fact, and thus freed from the cramped up-and-back position normally dictated by the bike's geometry.  That eased the pain a lot then and a great deal this time too (no doubt the hand full of ibuprofen helped with that).  So I stood up to ride a lot.  At 70 or 80 miles per hour it feels a little pushy when you stand up on a bike, all that air going by, but at our Vietnamese cruising speed of 60 or 65 KPH, or something around 40 mph, it's quite pleasant.  The little horse is a bit short and requires that I flex the ankles a little or let the knee bend just a bit in order to reach the handlebars, but the overall relief to rump and knees is substantial.  I no doubt cut quite the figure, big old white guy rolling down the road like a kid on an undersized dirt bike, belly and beard blowing in the wind. . .h'mm.  But the point of the day was to make a big dent in the list of kilometers from Dong Hoi to Thanh Hoa, and we did that just fine.  The upshot (I really was going somewhere with all this) is that when I finally climbed down off the bike in the evening and started to act like an old man with a bad knee I suddenly realized I didn't really need to.  I wasn't 100% (will I ever be again I wonder?) but by comparison, everything was fine.  I walked into the hotel standing up straight, no limp.  Not bad.

If I'd been content to just ride into Thanh Hoa and settle in for the night I could have saved an hour and a half and 26-odd added kilometers riding. . .instead we rode out to the coast at Sam Son.  Sam Son is one of my favorite winter-time beach and river mouth harbor towns.  It has a substantial distant-water fishing fleet working from wharves in the river and a large fleet of beach boats, bamboo baskets or their fiberglass replacements, and the only fleet of SAILING diesel powered rafts anywhere in the country.  Altogether, it's been a great site several times and given me wonderful photos of fishing and boat building activity of enormous interest (er, well, if you like that sort of thing anyway).  I'd never seen it in springtime.  Heck, I'd never seen it unless the weather was really foul.  So I've always wondered why the town is set up with enough hotels and restaurants to feed and house 10,000 people. . .or maybe more, when in my Winter season visits I've often been the only tourist in town, or maybe 25% of them at worst.   I think my 10,000 was probably light.  The beach is about 3.5 km long from the temple complex up on the rocky headland at the south end to the river mouth in the north.  It was not all completely covered with people.  There are some tamarisk trees and a hundred or so beached fishing boats taking up room. . .and the sailing rafts certainly take several square meters each and there are at least a hundred of them too, so that's some space definitely not covered with tourists.  That might be everything though. . .otherwise it was solid people, out to about chest-deep anyway and scattered everywhere in the sand.  You definitely couldn't build a boat on the beach at this time of year.  But I had to look to be sure.  That 26 km out to the beach and back made for a total of 380 km more or less on the day.  That's not a record, but it's a good day's work.  We were tired.

Tired or not, on the way home from supper ($1.50 and good), I stopped at what was obviously a major celebration at a local pagoda. There were perhaps 125 people, plus a number of monks and one gentleman in what looked like red and gold Anglican bishop's regalia, holding forth in a large white "wedding tent", but ornamented with banners flying Chinese inscriptions rather than the bows and ribbons required for a wedding.

There was chanting, mostly solo, but sometimes antiphonal duet/trio, with humungous amplification, including for the drum(s) gongs, cymbals and the two monks playing "shawms". . .ergo. . .bagpipe chanters with brass bells. Wow, it would have easily lifted paint if were held inside. The bishop and one or two other monks danced a really graceful dance the longest time, pirouetting, weaving in and out and up and down the tent while the music blared.  People here really appreciate amplification and they had a lot to appreciate in this case.  As he danced, the bishop did a bit of business with a series of small things off the altar, while the attendants danced, with either two or three paper lotuses with candles. . .that is to say, quite nice pink and white paper lotuses, each with a candle inside (so that now and then a flower would burn up). One monk danced with a flower in each hand, and the other did too, but also one balanced on his head. The dancing with flowers in your hands includes weaving them around, upside down and right side up, all very gracefully done, though it gets a little hasty when one of the flowers catches on fire. I could have left anytime for the first half hour or so while the chanting and bagpipe chanters competed with the drum and the gong and cymbals (played with drum sticks and also by clashing them). However, I stayed too long and a sermon started and I was stuck.  I'd sat myself down when invited, on the far side of the big tent, so the whole works was between me and the horse.  Everybody and everything was quiet. First one of the monks and then the bishop spoke, at great, even enormous length.  I think the whole thing was a fund raiser. Toward the end I heard the phrases " they don't have money, they don't have food. . ." a couple of times, and there were two long rows of tables in the tent, with fruit baskets and such on them and people did seem to be making quick passes down to the fruit baskets and slipping money in somewhere. I have absolutely no notion what sect they might have been or what it was really all about. The altar in the actual pagoda was pretty typical except that the Buddha statues were made of carved, unpainted wood, which is a little odd. The Quan Am (the feminine Buddha who is in charge of compassion) out in the yard was completely typical white marble. Anyway, the pipers were pretty good (but then, I love bagpipes) and the chanting, if turned down a bit, would have been mostly pretty in a definitely not-diatonic sort of way.  As church bazaars go. . .funny how ignorant I really am isn't it?

That just left us a hundred and sixty km, almost exactly 100 miles, to run in to Hanoi on Monday morning.  The last 100 km into the city is always a bear and I think it must start earlier and farther out on a Monday.  Worse, after years of blessed relief when you get past Phu Ly and the 4-lane divided highway begins and blows you straight into downtown. . .after what, 8 or nine years of that relief, they've closed the freeway to motorbikes.  I am not kidding.  It's plumb awful.  when the old highway QL1 was all there was we used it and made it work, but that was years ago.  There are a lot more of us now and this rule shoves all the motorbikes and all the other heavier local traffic into a two lane corridor with the railroad on one shoulder and 40 odd kilometers of city on the other.  That is to say, no shoulder on the railroad side, and, on the other hand, no shoulder on the city side.  It is a woefully inadequate road that I've avoided whenever I could.  I guess it had been long enough I'd forgotten how bad it could be and I just drove us into the mess as though I thought we could get away with it. And we did, as far as that goes, but after 3500 km of sweet wandering through the mountains this was a brutal end to the ride.  Suicides kept trying to end it all under our front wheel and vengeful madmen driving delivery trucks kept attempting mayhem on all sides while thousands and thousands of us just tried to get through the mess un-mashed.  And we did.  But goodness wasn't it a job of work!!

So that gets us to lunch time on Monday.  There was laundry to get done (you can only rinse out a shirt so many times in this climate and we won't discuss underwear).  There was a Thai bedspread to convert to a. . .er. . .Midwestern winter comforter??  That has turned out to be quite the exercise, but I don't know who will win yet, so we'll avoid further discussion until the outcome becomes clearer.  This is one of those instances when I may have outsmarted myself rather worse than usual.  We shall see.

Looking ahead, there's a line in the sand on Friday evening when I'd better be at the airport.  Between now and then there's one more bit of adventure on the high road.  Well, actually, it's a low road, from here to Uong Bi, it's all a few feet above sea level in the Red River delta, so definitely "low" but in the poetic sense, "out on the high road" if you're chasing off somewhere you've never been before. Meeting in Uong Bi, the incomparable Ms. Cuc, her faithful driver (er, patient husband??) and Mr. Diep (he of the woven bamboo and fiberglass Halong Bay boats) will meet me at 0730 on Thursday for a trip to Mr. Diep's home village, where, or so they say, everybody weaves basket boats.  This could be good.  Maybe really good.  Even epochal.  Hope it doesn't rain.

Here are the maps, from North to South just for visual ease. . .

Oops.  Bad label. . .that's overnight on May 10th. . .woke up there on the 11th.  

And here are the photos. . .what?? no photos??  You're kidding.  Where's the manager, I want my money back!!
Sorry. . .we just traveled hard and, er, didn't take any.  Sigh.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Mai Chau then Down to the coast and south a ways,

Written from Cua Lo, about 400 feet from the beach and half a mile from one of my favorite little boat yards here on the northern coast.  It's late evening on the 6th of May here.  I fly home in nine days and that's now figuring a great deal in my day to day planning.  On the one hand, I don't want to spend a week in Hanoi just practicing getting ready to leave.  On the other hand, I want to be there when the plane leaves.  Distances can get to be very time consuming here, so I'm a little hesitant about getting too far south.  However, after all the time I've spent in the far north and in the mountains, I decided I had to go check at least part of my normal trapline of boat yards and harbors down on the coast, so instead of looping back up into the mountains on yet another obscure highway (it was close, I almost went), I headed down out of the mountains by way of Moc Chau and Mai Chau.  Moc Chau has been an elusive goal for some years.  I most recently got within striking range by struggling up a horrifically bad road on the Lao side of the border to a remote and closely guarded border gate that would have lead directly down hill into Moc Chau.  It would have if they would have let me cross there.  It is a border crossing, with guards, and local people with the right local paperwork go back and forth and marry across the line and visit in laws and so forth, as they have since before there was a line.  White guys do not.  They sent me back down that horrific road to the two-canoe catamaran ferry that took the very last of my Lao money. . .and I hustled back to town quite a distance before dark to change $20 more for the night.  It all worked out, but I've been wanting to see Moc Chau ever since.  I've seen it now.  A great bakery!  We'll go with that. There was a banana cream bun (sort of a sponge cake with white "cream" sticky frosting and chunks of cooked banana. . .and a coconut bun. . .thick tasty strips of coconut in a pastry that closely approached perfection.  A very nice lunch!!  Actually, it's a mountain town, all the people around are mountain minorities of one sort or another (Thai, and others I think) and the mountains are right there, though the town itself is level enough and there are some rice paddies around as well. It was too early to stop though, so, full of buns and fresh petrol we went on down and South to Mai Chau.  Now, Moc Chau seemed to be tourist-free, except for one Englishman who had been out in the sun too long with the mad dogs and taken to hitch hiking around Viet Nam while carrying two back packs.  Mai Chau on the other hand has been discovered and thinks it's a very good thing.  What a difference!!  It was too late to go on by the time we got to Mai Chau, but I'm glad. . tourists and "lodges" and a "traditional village" that is 50% shopping area (shopping for all sorts of mountain-people handicrafts that is, absolutely none of it made in China). . .all that sort of thing and the place is still just fine.  Rock climbing, kayaking, trekking. . .my goodness, makes me feel lazy just riding a motorbike, but still, I liked it.  I'm not sure what triggered the popularity in the first place, but it could be just the green of the rice paddies that fill the level country between the hills.  It's a green that will no doubt show up "unnaturally" green in the photos, but trust me, it's really green.  Velvet.  Lovely.

I've mentioned my LEFT knee have I not?  Misbehaving, causing hate and discontent in the joint and so forth?  It forced me into a $15 hotel in order to get an elevator. . .but that let me enjoy a treetop canopy view that would have been out of reach ordinarily.  I just don't do that many stairs all at once any more (Okay, I did a climb of 54 steps to a room in Dalat in January just to get a desk to work at. . .so it can be done, but I didn't do it for pleasure!! and yes, I did count the steps, every single time I went up them.)  The knee was fine then though, this is a new complaint.

We almost spent a second day in Mai Chau just to look around, but I find it really hard to stay in one place when the bike is running well and there's an endless road just ahead, so we bought a new bedspread and left.  Er. . .and a crossbow.  I did mention the handicraft shopping zone didn't I?   What with squeezing the bedspread into the waterproof bag and the waterproof bag into the carry all and lashing it all on the horse. . .we were a little late getting out of town, and then the trouble began.

It wasn't serious trouble, not a swamp in Laos or a Caterpillar trail in Ha Giang . .nothing that serious, but it was a 20 or 30 km long major construction zone that was pretty tough in places.  There were a couple of moments when it seemed I would dump the bike in wet clay.. .the contractor and the locals were all trying to keep down the dust in the neighborhoods and there was a river handy, so no limits on the dust control water.  Wet rutted clay, however, is no friend of mine.  In any event, we were free of it in an hour or so, I wasn't watching the clock.  Thereafter the day was a lovely road down out of the last of the foothills and onto the coastal plain. . .flat and thus, after one missed turn that worked out fine anyway, we came all at once to salt water.  I'd been needing that.  The intersection where my road (QL 217) met the big QL-1 at a town called Dien Chau  gave me 3 choices, Hanoi to the left,  Ho Chi Minh to the right, and a bathing beach straight ahead.  That was easy!  And very profitable.  I've no idea how many times you'd have to leave Hanoi, ride clear around the north of the country from East to West and South, then ride to the coast in time to see a hundred fishing boats closing the coast right in front of you, but the odds are against it.  In my case, being somewhat of a Vietnamese boat nut, for all of those hundred (give or take a few) boats to be of a local design I'd never seen before anywhere after ten years of looking. . .the odds are really poor.  Or maybe I exaggerate my understanding of the subject. Anyway, they are really distinctive boats with outrageous (nothing else to call it) high bows and low freeboard amidships.  I watched them enter the river mouth right in front of me, grand stand seats if you will, and then the river turned south and inland and they disappeared into the distance.  I chased them for an hour before I finally found the right road into the interior, a couple of km inland actually, where a cacophonous fish market was in full swing and the boats were still arriving.

I finally decided I had enough photos. . .even found two little boat yards with examples hauled out for repairs, so I was able to get passable under-body photos. . .and finally rode the last 40 km southward to Cua Lo, which has been one of my favorite boatyard towns for years. . .fishing village at the north end, long usually (in winter) abandoned hotel strip for 3 or 4 km south along the beach.

Things change when it gets hot in Hanoi.  The city sends down hordes of sweaty beach seekers, who arrive, take up hotel rooms, buy or rent fluorescent orange and green life jackets, tie them around their kids, and troop out to the beach.  The big vacant lot is a permanent carnival.  Every hotel is busy, every bit of sidewalk anywhere near the beach is a cafe.  All the restaurants are full (but still close before 7:00 pm. . .go figure!  Anyway, I have a recent favorite family hotel there,  3 generations including a few kids, their handsome dads (one of whom runs the place) and pretty moms. . .a grandma and (though I missed him this time) a grandpa who is just my age and served in the NVA at the same time I was in the US Army and in roughly the same neighborhood.  Nobody there speaks a lot of English, so I'm no doubt missing some interesting stories, but. . .okay.  They swept me up and in an put me in a room fast enough to make my head spin (and my knee ache. . .the elevator was down for some odd reason).

So. . .I struggled all evening and half the night between reasonable caution and commonsense on one hand and a strong urge to visit friends and the island coast just east of Hue.  Hue is another 386 km the wrong direction. . .that is, 386 additional km away from the airport.  In the morning I packed the bike and rode back to the highway, ready to ride to turn right, north to Hanoi, but the horse turned left and loped off with me hanging helplessly to the handlebars.  Whatever was she thinking??  She ran all day, skidded into four different petrol stations and told me to give them money, then before I could gather the reins she stretched out to her whole 65 kph (er. . .40 mph) and just purred.  My behind became sore and my left knee ached something fierce and still she ran along through the glare and the heat (it was close to 100 officially, and that wasn't near an asphalt paving machine), and so we came to Hue on the edge of a large thunderstorm and. as much, the edge of night.  It was a long hard day, with 140 km of miserable paving and grading going on, and she wasn't even panting.  Just trotted up to the hotel, jumped the curb as though she owned the place and told me to get off her back.  We have an occasionally fraught relationship.

So now it's the 8th of May in Hue, I've been to the coast, seen some of my friends (and missed some), scheduled an interpreter for a visit in the morning, and am now dithering between common sense and discretion (okay, call it a night bus ride back to Hanoi tomorrow night) or continuing my ten-year long habit of somehow getting back to town in time on my own bike under her own power.  It will be interesting to see how this works out.  I have NOT asked the horse if she'd like to ride in the belly of a bus with her mirrors in her pockets and an empty gas tank. . .I know how that would go, but she'd live through it and we'd be back in the city two days earlier and not a whole lot poorer.  By the time you run 800 km of petrol through her motor and pay for a couple of nights in highway hotels, the $700,000 VND ($35 USD) bus fare for the two of us doesn't sound that bad.  There is, you see, an opportunity to revisit Halong Bay (near Uong Bi) with Ms. Cuc, to visit a village where EVERYONE is stated to be a boat weaver!  And there are supposed to be some ancient temples built in the truly traditional style I could photograph.  But not if I'm flogging a tired horse up the stinking hot highway in heavy traffic.  H'mm.
Maps are starting to be a big deal. . .it takes a lot of them to track all this.  Running at 65 kph all day tends to use up a lot of real estate and besides, Blogger cut me off before I got you caught up last time anyway.  Hang on.  Here we go:

This is most of a day's run from Lai Chau to Tuan Giao, which we've discussed before.  You'll notice that the border we're following now is the Lao border, we've finally left the Chinese border zone.

This little fragment doesn't turn up on any other of my maps, so you get a whole lot of countryside we didn't see this trip.  Note the proximity to Hanoi.  At one point there we were within 180 km of  the city, but kept going south and stretched it out.

Tuan Giao over night, then on south and east, getting farther from Hanoi all the time, still pretty much in mountainous country, though not at a particularly high altitude.  We could have gone through Dien Bien Phu, or we could have run into Hanoi on QL32 which I dearly love, but I'd never seen this route before and it was well worth the effort.

After ticking off a series of "first visits" along Hwy 6 and 15 I made a wrong turn out in the country somewhere (I mean, you can see exactly where, but it isn't that obvious on the ground).  I'd begun asking which fork in the road lead to DHCM, not thinking about QL217, which does in fact cross DHCM a ways north of where I'd intended.  No matter, this was a new stretch of 217 for the two of us and it was a perfectly nice little road.  DHCM is a road of national importance for some reason, if only because it has George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both in its name.  Whatever, it's a lovely wide 2-lane highway in good condition with vey little traffic.  It does wander a good bit and it's new enough there aren't a lot of towns or services right on the road, but except for one notorious stretch of 200 km with no services whatever, it's really a mighty nice way to go north-south if you're not in a big hurry.

And this gets us to the coast at Cua Lo after our harbor hunting exploits at Dien Chau.  From here to Hue is just a run down Interstate 5 from, oh, say the Canadian border to about Portland, Oregon.  Except about a third of the distance is a construction zone at the moment.  I could really learn to dislike road construction. . .but I guess, without it, my motor bike touring would be pretty limited and a lot blander.  H'mm.  The next fourteen photos are from Thuan Giao to Mai Chao:

From here to the end of the mountain country we see a lot of infill of the "under house", whether it's masonry or timber.  There are some real artists among the carpenters in these hills.

This photo earned me a tour of the interior and several cups of tea and a glass of ice water.  You can't tell from out here, but the masonry simply swallowed the wooden columns.

This one is particularly interesting in that the brickwork infill between he columns is being brought up so early in construction.

This is the house next door and no doubt indicates what the new construction will look like in a month or three.

And then there's this sort of thing. . .ethnic Vietnamese I think, recently built on a prominent hill top. . .somebody is doing pretty well!  

Moc Chau really is a lot more than one good bakery, but if you're passing through be sure to try their coconut buns and their banana cream pastry.  So nice. . .

A much smaller/different porch overhang than some. . .though it's still well covered by the spreading eaves.

The outskirts of Mai Chau, green grows the valley oh!

Near the shopping zone outside Mai Chau, this nice house is most interesting in that it is being re-erected.  I couldn't figure out why it had been taken down or from where. . .but except for the porch, all of this structure has been up for some years somewhere else.

Good night at Mai Chau.  The tremendous thunderstorm starts in an hour.
So now some morning photos in Mai Chau. . .and then the road to Thai Hoa:

They called it "banh my chau". . .the banh my is the baguette (lightly toasted) and the "chau" is the egg (in the pan it was fried in), the "suc sich" (sausage), which really is a hot dog, the little pile of liver pate and the cucumber, all sitting in a meaty broth that may or may not be related to the pate.  A first for me! A dollar and a quarter.  H'mm.

Really big, really well made cross bows.  Deer hunting anyone?  

Thai weaving,  Note the delightful rack for shuttles with various colors of threads. . .quickly change stripes as you go!

Thai weaving for the tourist market.  The scarves are $5 each and take a lady a long day of constant weaving to make.  

The weaver and a son (grandson perhaps) from upstairs.

Much more common sort of stairwell.. . pretty steep, with the treads a bit too widely spaced for my taste.

Headed down and out of the mountains

Placing concrete in a new barrier wall.  Note the roadway we're using.  H'mm.

This part was dusty.   Compared to wet clay I like dust.  And I don't like dust. Pretty nice wall though!

This is the pop quiz house.  

A truly lovely living space upstairs, very nice detail work,  beautiful pattern in the thatch.

My eleven year old guide after having shown off the house.  NOT a common stairwell detail.  Wow.

Technically lousy photo, shows the kitchen (a separate masonry building with a common open wall to the house) and the eating platform.  Note the fans, momentarily out of service, they did a good job of cooling us all off (though I got way more than my share)

And a 56 year old ethnic Vietnamese home with a small beer and soda business out front.  The gentleman had obviously had problems with white guys before and was marginally impolite to start.  When he realized I understood his prices and spoke a little VNese that changed and he was very gracious.  A drop dead gorgeous home, with rich furnishings visible in the interior.  I didn't feel comfortable pushing him though, after the near-hostile start, so you don't get to see them.  Tons of mother of pearl inlay in rosewood though!
And now for the road from Mai Chau well and truly down out of the mountains at Thai Hoa

Rooftop vista.  Note lightning rods.  They are not ornamental.

And just like that we're out of the mountains and the people around are all ethnic Vietnamese, Nguoi Kinh.  

And a low-land river, complete with some quite nice little dredges.  This one is set up to accept round rock of about 3" diameter and wash the sand and small rock over the side. . .sorting out the bones as it were.

Absolutely the prettiest welder that ever gave me an ice cream bar.  That's a whole box of them at the lower right.  Really nice coconut flavor and smooth as can be (not necessarily common amongst Vietnamese ice creams that are very far from the city.  

They are less than a month into the build of this dredge.  22 m long and 5 m in the beam, about 2 m overall depth.  That seemed to be the whole crew.  They can eat a lot of ice cream in a short break.

Right next to the new dredge, a concrete block making outfit.  A fairly powerful electric motor drives a hydraulic pump to compress and vibrate a very dry mix. . .which they then liberate from the machine and stack to cure.

Not a soul around anywhere and all locked up.  Seemed to be a seminary off to the right, but again, nobody moving in the mid day heat.

Small and old, but still being kept up nicely.

Anybody have a name for these?? Gorgeous flowers in quite large trees, very common for a 100 km or so.  These were at the edge of an old, partially abandoned village that reminded me a lot of parts of Ireland 20 years ago.  Still clinging to life, but not the vibrant happy life I've gotten used to in the mountains.

Ireland?  Viet Nam.

I'll close for tonight with some coast photos. . .my new species of boat at the foot of highway 217 and a few from an afternoon at Cua Lo:

I wasn't kidding, they're really distinctive boats. . .you wouldn't mistake them for anything else I've known.

He needed parallel parking instructions, bumped pretty hard.  They seem to be really tough little boats though

Yes, they have a very lively sheer.  I guess!

In Cua Lo boatyard, the danged thing would not roll.  The boss was doing something with a hydraulic jack and kept asking for more push.  They invited me.  I shoved.  It went (I know. . .it would have gone anyway, but still. . .)

There she goes.  That's the boss with the big hat.  Wet all over more than anywhere else.  Really hot out.

A new breed of fishermen, put their boats together on the beach every evening before they go.  I've no idea why, but they strip absolutely everything out of all the boats every trip and put them back together to go out again.  With one bamboo exception, the new boats are all fiberglass with thin little bamboo ribs.  From the looks, probably all from the same shop.

A used Honda motorbike engine!  Air cooled, no water intake. . .if it will last in the boat.  H'mm.

That's a big load, fiberglass with bamboo ribs and deck.  They were staggering, but helped each other.

No, I'm serious.  He's putting in the prop shaft and the cooling water intake J.  No rudders, they all steer and scull with a paddle.

He's hooking up the cooling water (nice little diesel)