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.

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