Friday, February 26, 2016

Now we're in Hue, moving South, but not far enough yet

Written from Hue, about in the middle of the country, 26th of February 2016,  Weather cold and gray, steady drizzle falling at the moment, and much of the past few days, though there have been dry spells.  Wind has been steady out of the North, quite strong out in the open countryside at times. . .the good news is that's a tail wind when you're going south.  The bad news is that it's cold and wet.  But we have little catching up to do.
Hanoi-Halong-Hanoi-Sam Son-Cua Lo and finally Hue. . .about 1060 km showing here.  The first loop into the western Northwest was just over 900 km, so the total is adding up now.. .but far, very far to go.

You will recall that before I came running out of the Northwest down old QL 70 with my tail between my legs, I'd originally intended to continue along the northern fringe of the country and come home to Hanoi through Halong City, where I'd made an appointment to call on Ms Cuc (the greatest correspondent I've found in Viet Nam, she always has something new I should have known). Having skipped the last 2/3 of that route in order to stop freezing and getting soggy, it remained to make the absolutely routine ride from the City out to the Northeastern coast and call on her that way. And of course, as long as I was that far north, another 23 km would get me to Cam Pha where I first spotted a significant boatbuilding operation. . .er. . .a long time ago now.  I've carefully tracked the production from that site year by year, where first one old man with half a dozen boat builders working for him sometimes built three boats at once.  Later, three master builders with a total of over 20 men and at times five new boats building on the hard (with no immediately obvious way to get them in the water) carried on building until three years ago.  Then it stopped.  Two good sized boats were left partially finished and abandoned for a season.  A year later they were gone (sold or sunk, I'll never know) and the building site was converted to a small shanty town, with just a handful of the men still patching a pair of old wrecks.  So I had to check again this year and rode out to the end.  And it was the end in fact.  The boats were gone, the machinery, the little sawmill and the two sheds where the men had made tea and lunch and always invited me to share. . .the shanties, pitiful shacks really, but amazingly cheerful homes for a couple of small families. . .all gone.  Not rubble or scraps left, just two small papaya trees, bereft of fruit, marking where one couple with two cute kids had lived.  I'd photographed that family for years, the kids and their mom (though not their dad, he had a hideous birthmark, or it might have been a scar and always slid out of the frame when I got out the camera).  That was the only Mom in Viet Nam who ever handed me a baby to dandle and burp.  I looked up and down the beach a few kilometers for another site they might have set up on, but no, I doubt I'll find them again now. I have last year's portraits still to deliver.

The meeting with Ms. Cuc was fine, I always get answers to my questions (what she doesn't know about the history of boats and fishermen on this bay, her boss Mr. Dung does) and somehow she always comes up with something I wouldn't have thought to ask.  So it was a fine visit, though not too long, and the hotel and coffee shop next door were pleased to see me again. A white guy that comes back year by year apparently is an unusual thing, and I enjoy the benefits, large smiles, exceptional coffee and plates of fruit and sticky rice cakes filled with steamed pork, just for an example. . .

But the ride to Halong City and back to Hanoi hasn't been a challenge for many years.  I've made the trip, sometimes twice in a season, for the past eleven years.  At first it was riding on pins and needles, desperately looking for the next route sign.  Now it's a dead level, obvious as can be, routine run on a fine road through the rice paddies, and increasingly, past the small factories (and a few large ones) that have sprung up in the inexpensive real estate along the good highway to the City.  The highway itself has grown and gotten bigger, much of it 4-lane divided freeway, or almost now.  So mostly the riding time is spent on autopilot, watching the traffic (almost no horse or oxcarts now, and lots of big American style semi tractor-trailer rigs, though a number of them come from Korea too), and keeping the bike right way up and headed down the road.  Time to think about things and contemplate the future of traveling like this. . .but mercifully little in the way of adventures.  Sometimes I like that.

So that accounted for 300 km and a bit on the motorbike in two days, with only a little rain and some fine company.  But at the end I was still in Hanoi and it was still cold and damp, and somehow I'd ended up with more people to meet and things to do.  Don't get the wrong idea, but I met with a very encouraging publisher and two TV program directors.  The publisher will certainly print the book if or when I ever get it in shape. . .that's a straightforward matter.  On the other hand, he may translate it into Vietnamese and take an interest in actually publishing it in country.  That's something else again, and for a wannabe writer, quite exciting.  The TV people (lively youngsters, and great fun to visit with) think I'd make good copy for a short documentary that might just possibly help along my old Friend the Naval Architect's dream of a national maritime museum.  All of which is interesting and fun and a little flattering, but it's still not very adventuresome.  Well, actually, memorizing the route across the southern quarter of the city and then riding it to perfection without a single wrong turn to the publisher's office. . .that was a little adventurous and would have been impressive if you'd been in the chase car. . .but no chase car and no more wrecks, and really, the street signs in Hanoi are superb.

But at the end of all that I was still in Hanoi and the trip was one quarter finished and it was still cold and damp.  I loaded the bike and we left.  Not on time mind you.  I developed a short term but intense attachment to the toilet there in the upstairs of the hotel, and not even the call of the sunny south could pry me out until almost lunchtime.  But, being in all necessary respects ready for the road by 11:30, we finally set out Southbound.  In the cold and damp.

And then there was the devastation in Sam Son.  You've been on these rides with me before, you know about the bamboo seagoing sailing rafts with their diesel engines and the big black woven bamboo basket boats that launch off the beach.  You've seen photos of the exquisite long and slender old fishing boats that sometimes nose right into the sand of the beach on one chore or another.  I've described some of the funky old hotels and the people in them, usually seen in winter or early spring when the town is empty, not  a tourist to be seen and nothing on the beach but fishermen, fishmongers and stray horses.   So you know I love the place.  But wait.  Just once I've seen the place doing what it does in summer's heat, entertaining ten thousand hot and dusty visitors from Hanoi, rinsing them off in the warm sea and putting them up in all those hotel's the closest beach to Hanoi and most of the city must know how to get here.  But I guess it wasn't enough.  They've dug up the whole sea-front street, a 4 lane promenade with wispy trees in the dividers and hotels scattered all along 4 km of beach in ever thinner spacing to the end of the road at the river's mouth.  They have new palm trees planted (they don't grow here naturally, just casaurina's) and laid pavers and built retaining walls and brought in more sand from somewhere.  They're building seaside pavillions all along.  They've torn out the funky little amusement park and just today they're ripping out the hideous old fake caverns at the southern end of the beach (we won't really miss that, but it's in a lot of photographs).  They haven't bothered the pagoda at the southern end of the beach, and four km to the north, right near the river's mouth, they've built a new one (though I don't know if they've caught a monk to run the place).  And I could forgive all of this and come back another day when the dust and the pavement breakers have all died down and the bulldozers are gone and the sewers are put back in and so forth.  But they've also built a golf course, 18 very new artificial holes, and constructed a mega resort to house the golfers. . .huge hotels (not one, that was a plural) and maybe even that wouldn't have been too much if they hadn't built 200 or more identical "residences". . .modern, all white, row after perfect row of them five and six deep along a long stretch of beachfront road.  None of them are finished yet, but unlike a lot of real estate "deals" here I'd guess they'll open in time, perhaps in June or July (not one bit of this was here a year ago), and perhaps they'll do well.  Maybe the horrible identical masses of the residences will be graced with plantings of different colors and Bougainvillea may climb up the white walls (it would be lovely).  I'm sure the fishing boats and rafts will still put to sea for a time and someone may build another lovely sharp ended sea boat on the beach, facing the surf.  Perhaps.  But I think maybe I'll never be back to see it.  I wish them well.

I'd planned to spend the night there, I used to have a favorite little hotel across the boulevard from the sea, but it's gone now.  I didn't really hesitate.  It was long past lunchtime, so I stopped at an odd little bakery (new since last year) and had a funny squished sandwich (barbecued meat sliced thin with radish and lettuce and cucumber on a baguette (so that's pretty normal) but then put in a waffle iron sort of machine and squished and toasted to a crisp.  With the lettuce and the cucumber.  H'mm.  The sign said "kebab".  The bike had a bite too. . .And then we left.

It was another 150 km to the next likely town for the night, Cua Lo, the mouth of the Lo River, near the big province town of Vinh, and we'd left Hanoi rather late in the day, so we pulled into Cua Lo, down the long road from the highway and straight to the stoplight just before the sea just before full dark, damp and cold.  It's a perfect and smooth, wide road, with broad shoulders now, making up for its early days as a broken donkey trail that ate motorbikes for supper and spat out their bent frames and broken wheels.  Time passes, things change, sometimes for the better.

Cua Lo is another summertime tourist magnet, bringing thousands upon thousands of people to meet the sea in its gentle surf and (for a small fee) letting them hike the high trails on its one rocky headland, a place of crashing waves and blue sea in summer.  In winter it too is cold and dead, with hotels shuttered, restaurants and coffee houses dark and only a few shops here and there open in spite of it all.  One of them is a big old hotel, the Xuan Lan, run by the sweetest people (Mr. Xuan and Mrs. Lan and their two sons and their two wives and their four cute kids, more or less).  A few years ago I turned up on a similar cold and windy night and tried to find something to eat in the dark nearby streets then came back to the hotel and invited myself to the family table.  I suppose they took a second to think about it, but if so it was a short second.  The moms moved a few of the kids to another table and made space for me at one end. . .and fed me til I popped.  Since then, if I'm there at supper time, that's where I eat, and it's always good food and lovely people.  This latest night I turned up just as the family was settling in for supper and the older son's wife came out to greet me as I rode up to the front of the hotel.  She waved me back to my parking place behind the kitchen, met me with my room key. . .and towed me off to supper.

The wind off the sea was blowing salt spray two blocks in from the shore, so we walked inland. There was an interesting walk through the little business district behind the fishing harbor, small shops, filled with consumer goods in the oddest combinations. . .varying from one to the next, but things like six rice cookers, a dozen electric kettles, a few sets of cooking pots and pans, a dozen or so ladies' purses, six, mostly different, piano keyboards, a miscellany of scarves and hats and other such things. . .and the whole other half of the shop filled with speakers and amplifiers.  What's this??
There was a new bakery (cakes apparently, not baguettes) and a private school, taking kids for advanced or extra help in the evenings, there was a big crowd getting out when I walked by, middle school kids and younger.

But morning dawned gray and cold and the wind still howling.  It was nothing like the night the typhoon came ashore here and nearly stranded me in the guest house. . .That night the rain pounded on the tin roof of the porch outside my window and made for restless dreams and the wind rattled the big heavy wooden doors. . .but that was a warmer storm, and truly daunting, with the water running in the street out front over the top of the motorbike's engine while I pushed it through town trying to leave.

It was bad enough though, this recent morning, dark and drear and spitting rain, so I rode once through the harbor, checked the boat yards (basically empty, just three boats up for paint and bottom work where sometimes half a dozen might be a-building) took a head count of the anchored up fleet (seems to be all present) and we left, southbound.

I'd thought, miserable as the weather was, perhaps we'd stop in Dong Hoi or Dong Ha en route to Hue and dry off or thaw out, rather than trying to do the whole run (over 400 km) as a really long day.  But in the event, we were both feeling strong still at Dong Hoi, half way to Hue, and just gave the bike something to stave off starvation (she won't run without something now and then) and me a nice plate of rice and stir fried beef and onions with a fair bit of fiery red pepper and quite a lot of garlic, just what was needed.  That was a "typical", if there is such a thing, Vietnamese bus-stop restaurant. This is the sort of place where a youngster stands out on the edge of the pavement at lunch time trying to wave down a nice fat bus to fill his parking lot with.  In this case, one of the buses was full of brand new young soldiers, all brand new combat boots and uniforms (including warm looking field jackets), none with a spot of lint or a bit of dirt. . .that will come no doubt.  They were still looking a  little stunned, though here and there I noted a bit of good soldiery Tomfoolery.

In any event, we carried on into the afternoon, as far as Dong Ha (where I know of a nice hotel and a really great noodle shop) but it was still just late afternoon, two hours or so of daylight left and only just 70 km to go. . .we pushed on with a nod to warmth and short term comfort in favor of a few more km to the south.

And so, late in the day, soaked from the ankles up and down, we pulled into Hue. Explanation: I thought it was just a misty shower at first this morning and stalled about changing into rubber boots until my socks were wet.  By then it was too late, so we rode all day with my shoes gradually filling with water (they're waterproof, as advertised, and hold lots of water) and my pants cuffs wicked the wet stuff up my legs.  Oh well, I'll dry and so will the shoes eventually.  The hotel hadn't heard I was coming, so was sold out except for a bunk in the dorm room at the top of the place,70 odd stair steps above the street.  The creaky knees thought that was a little extreme, but we managed.

The big news here of course is that Mrs. Hong has had her baby.  Nobody has seen her or it since the birth a month ago, but they know the new one is a girl.  The obvious consequence of course is that she wasn't here to meet me on the steps. . .for only the second time in nine years of my coming and going here.  Ms. Hong (as she was then) has been a constant fixture here, holding down a 12 hour shift every day forever with hardly a break at all.  Early on,  one visit, I was sitting writing my diary at the breakfast table when three damnably obnoxious young men from somewhere gave her a rough time.  She ended by snatching the keys from their hands and chasing them vigorously out the door, shrieking as only an outraged Vietnamese lady can. . .enough to peel wall paper.  She took a few deep breaths, turned around, saw me sitting there (was my mouth gaping open I wonder?) and said ".. . .and now you think I am very bad yes??  I put on my best careful smile and said, no, I thought she was wonderful (I didn't say "wonderfully terrifying" you'll note) and that calmed her down.  Really, they had it coming and then some.  We went through a 10-day hell together a few years later when she undertook to get me out of trouble with the immigration authorities by handling my visa back to Hanoi under dubious circumstances.  It should have taken just a few days, four or five at the outside, but that was the year, the month and the week of the 2000th year birthday party for Hanoi...and nothing else got done.  I was in agonies of doubt if I'd ever see my passport again and poor Hong took it very personally.  Originally, years ago, she told me in no uncertain terms that she'd never want a boyfriend or a husband, she had enough family and didn't want a man.  That lasted quite a long time, but two years back, (when she was 30 at last) she admitted maybe she'd like to find a good boyfriend (if there is such a thing).  Last year when I turned up she was married to a bright young refrigeration mechanic/electrician.  Found him!  As I left last year she as much as promised to have a baby to show me by the time I came back again.  Et voila!
Coal fired power plant, one each, sort of gray in color.  This is the cooling water return.  I've never understood the V shaped weir. . .does anyone know? 

A good load, but she still has some freeboard.  Not sand or coal. . .don't know.

That's sand, being offloaded with an excavator directly into trucks, not the most common solution.  Usually it just goes into a stockpile for rehandling later.

Running light for another load, almost no wake at all!

I normally don't stop for churches, but I've known this one since it was half of an empty shell.  Then again later at Christmastime I stopped and was strong armed into donating for the decorations, with my name and the amount (a piddling bit compared to most) duly entered in the ledger the chairman was keeping.

She looks a lot like Quan Am. . .they're after all in the same business, compassion and concern.

When I saw it first it was all scaffold and sand and cement in bags.  Time goes by.

And she's making me another pair of saddle bags from two dispatch bags that sell all up and down the street.  $7.50 each for the bags and she did the conversion for $2.50 and it was a struggle.  The big bags are stiff and there isn't a lot of room.  Her first pair lasted several years with some patching, but when I tried to reinforce them with tin I spoiled them. . .they ate tires.

A wedding in the City doesn't leave much room for traffic on the sidewalk

Night time lighting around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Somebody's about to get a new bridge.  He was swinging carefully into line to pass between the bridge piers. I didn't feel a touch. . .must have been good!

What a mix of merchandise (in Cua Lo)--rice cookers, electric kettles, piano keyboards, lady's purses, pots and pans, baby dolls, and a whole half the store full of amplifiers and speakers.  Whoa!!

What you get when you combine a plastic bowl, a diesel engine and a fisherman. . .

Landings, however are made under paddle power.

I told him I like his boat (and really I do. . .sort of) and he agreed.  The smaller ones are fiberglass too, but intended just for use with a paddle.
A small part of the harbor at Cua Lo--traditional boats and baskets, with one plastic bowl.
Have you wondered how they do it???

A bit of the harbor in the river at Ron.  These mostly-baskets, about 20' long, seem to have really caught on in the past few years.  Coated in fiberglass over the bamboo, they look like good little fishing boats.
And here's the prize. . .Mrs. Hong, her handsome young husband, and "Candy"!  She has a formal name, but "Candy" is what her mom whispers in her ear.  She sleeps from 9:00 to 1:00 in the morning, has a snack and sleeps again from 1:30 to almost 6:00.   Not bad at all.  It was a long hard labor but now a month later Hong is much stronger and very happy.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bonaparte's Retreat and Rescue Committees

Written from Hanoi, February 21, 2016.  Weather slightly warmer (we're at sea level after all), still heavy overcast, wind calm, but forecast from the SSE (that's a warm wind, as compared to the NW wind out of China).
Bonaparte's Retreat is a lively dance tune and would probably have made a good background score for the long long day's ride out of the Northwest back to Hanoi.  The route is as full of twists and turns as any lively dance, and the background notion of fleeing cold weather and thwarted schemes would have resonated well, though even at their worst, the mountains here are nothing like Russia in Winter.  As for the road QL70 is in almost perfect condition at the moment and I have valid comparisons to make.  I've ridden it when it was torn to shreds by heavy truck traffic between the Chinese border at Lao Cai and Hanoi, as well as the year they rebuilt the whole 300 km in one season. . .an almost impossible mission at the time.  So why would I complain?

Which brings us to the Rescue Committee.  Napoleon left much of his army dead in Russia's snows, and again, my present retreat from the cold and overcast mountains hardly compares.  I did, however, manage a minor casualty, a bent foot peg (my bikes all hate me for that), a cracked mirror housing, and raspberries on knee and hand.  It was the damp that got me (yet again), not rain at all, not even drizzle, but enough dampness in the air to make tiny beads on the face plate and somehow to keep the road surface visibly wet while the dusty shoulders were still perfectly dry. . .mizzle maybe, misty drizzle.  Immeasurably light precipitation.  Not enough rain to wash the dust off the road, just enough to make it turn to grease.

I was riding quite slowly, this is one of my very least favorite road surfaces, slippery even to walk on, so certainly nothing to race over.  And I think I mentioned, the road is in marvelous condition, very smooth and essentially unbroken pavement. . .h'mm.  Smooth pavement and a layer of moist fine mud.  Well, it works.  It was a gentle enough curve, we were going pretty slow anyway, but the bike simply slid out in the bend, as though (once again) all the laws of physics still held true. . .except for friction. . .there just wasn't much.  The sound of a motorbike going down is very distinctive and something people here know very well.  Although we were well out in the country, very little traffic running and very few people about, a formal request for a Rescue Committee must have gone out within seconds, and I was still on the pavement on all fours (okay, I was caught by the shoe laces by the hook on the bungee cord that was supposed to be holding down my pack. . .you can't imagine trying to stand up while a bungee cord plays your foot like a salmon).  I was still on all fours as I was saying, when the committee arrived and presented their credentials.  There were six of them, it was after all a short notice and a full quorum would have been hard to raise, but six were sufficient.  Two of them insisted on helping me up (I'd finally gotten rid of the bungee) and the rest picked up the horse and helped her off the road (I didn't hear her say thank you though).  So the bright young men (I think everybody here is young these days. . .viewpoint I suppose) went through the standard routine in these cases, examined me from head to foot (mud and asphalt ground into sleeve and pant leg, minor hole in rain coat elbow, noticeable blood from the raspberry on the hand and some nice scratches on the helmet. . .about right for that sort of event).  Then they checked over the horse (bent foot peg and dislocated mirror mostly, and of course the pack skewed around with only one bungee still holding).  One slender youngster addressed the foot peg.  Normally people take a heavy hammer or a pipe bender to straighten bent foot pegs here.  This young gentleman simply grasped the handle bars firmly and nodded at two friends who braced the horse (wouldn't want her to break loose).  He set one foot on the peg, leaned well back and gradually applied more and more pressure until the peg was about right.  I thought he quit a little too soon, but it was fine to ride.  You have to think he can probably plow a rice paddy without bothering with a water buffalo to pull the plow.

They tried to dust off my pants and coat, but that was pretty pointless (the pants are still showing signs of the skid after a trip through the commercial laundry here in Hanoi and the rain coat, with its new hole is toast).  Clearly they weren't sure I was really ready to ride on, but, with the pack re-lashed to their satisfaction (they did not approve of my standard method, which has only survived. . .er. . .50,000 km of travel I suppose) and the foot peg and mirror re-adjusted, they carefully examined the blood flow (minimal) from the raspberry on the hand, and finally gave in, signed off on all the paper work and let us go, with fond farewells and wishes for good health and safe travels.  No kidding (well, I made up the paperwork part).  If you have to be an old guy and crash a bike somewhere, this is probably a pretty good choice. . .they treat you really well.

That was early in the day really, only 50 km or so out of the 250-plus on tap for the day, and the road conditions were still the same, moist pavement with a fine skim of wet red dust on the surface.  I'd been riding slowly before, but was noticeably slower after the skid and soon fell in with a group of three bikes, all family I'd guess, a couple and two solos, loaded with baggage for a long trip and wearing nice clothes (freezing no doubt).  I tagged on behind and followed them perhaps 75 km.  They kept a steady pace, something around 45 kmh through the morning.  It was a fine speed, none of us skidded.

The road dried up in the afternoon and straightened out as well when we came down out of the hills into the Red River bottomlands.  The traffic thickened, the highway developed four lanes and a divider and the traffic thickened some more. . .the last 50 km into Hanoi was, as always, horrendously thick and busy city traffic, and thicker as you went.  Once again I rode into the city at rush hour, surrounded by uncountable thousands of neatly dressed people on sparkling clean motorbikes, spattered with mud and traces of asphalt paving. . .riding a grimy mudball of a bike.  It used to bother me, but now, I understand it's just part of riding into the Northwest.  You come back like that.

No, you don't get a photo of the wreck.  I was too busy dealing with the Committee to remember the camera.  Sorry.

PS--go back one blog post, I finally got a map traced out that shows the route for the past few days.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Up into the Northwest. . .a ways

Written on 18 February 2016 in Pho Rang, along Highway 70 (QL70) which is now the "old road" from Hanoi to the Chinese border at Lao Cai, another 70 km or so further north, but we didn't get here from Hanoi, this is our last stop on the way home to Hanoi. Quite a different matter. We'll get to that in a bit.  Here's a map to clarify things a little:

If your notions of happiness include narrow mountain roads and a motorbike to ride on them you might have done well to come along the past three days.  It's been a lot of that.  If, on the other hand you wanted to be able to see your narrow mountain road while you rode your motorbike on it, there were parts of the trip (yesterday afternoon actually) you might have wanted to skip.  We had fog.  This wasn't the sort of fog you mush through at 60 mph on the freeway and hope nobody stops too quickly in front of you, this was rather more like a fog where a set of headlights first shows (a little) at perhaps fifty feet.  The attached vehicle doesn't become clear until it's passing alongside, and you can't see any red from the other guy's tail lights when you glance at your mirror.  Red doesn't cut it.  There was very little traffic, but when every headlight causes a heart attack it doesn't take too many to be enough.  The biggest scare though was a large tree clear across the road straight ahead of us, black and thick and low.  There was nowhere at all to go (except way down) to the right, so I cut the bike to the left hard and didn't quite scrape on the. . .guardrail. . .well, it looked like a tree at first and it WAS squarely across the road as I first saw it.  In retrospect I'm quite happy it was there of course, but for a nanosecond or so to start with I was really unsatisfied with its placement.  I didn't look at my watch when we climbed into the cloud base or when we rode down the far side of the pass and out into clear air either one, so I'd be guessing if I tried to tell you how long it was.  Time is pretty slow when you're that worried about your future, so it may have been less than an hour.  Maybe more.   Looking at the map that had to have been Deo Khao Pha. . .Khao Pha Pass on Highway 32 (QL32) north of Nghia Lo a good ways.  I'd like to see it some day.

When we rode down through the cloud base into clear air (it always seems like a miracle just to be able to look around and see something again) there was an incomparable surprise. . .blue sky ahead.  We went rolling down the mountain, the little bike just muttering along quietly, the pavement dry and soon the sky all above us in all directions was crystal clear and there was warmth in that sun that felt so very good.  Mostly it's simply been cloudy and cold since we've been on the road, high 50's to 60 or so in the low valleys, lots colder in the actual mountains.  I've been riding wearing three shirts, a sweater and my rain coat, bluejeans and rain pants, and it's been perfectly dry.  Just been needing the windbreak effect and as many layers as I could get on (and still button the top shirt).

Yesterday at a motorbike parts shop in a small town along the way I broke down and bought another pair of handlebar mittens to replace my leather riding gloves for the time being.  I own a pair of the funny little mittens from last trip.  They're sitting on a book shelf by my desk.  At home.  I looked right at them while I was filling the last corners of the suitcase and said to myself. ..". . .aw, I won't need those this trip".  Sigh.  They're the cutest things and with a couple of caveats they really do work.  They're wind and rain proof, with a plush lining and cuff, and three large holes, one at the back you put your hand in just like any mitten, and two on the side, one for the handle bar and one for the clutch or brake lever.  There are similar things made for big motorcycles in the States, but they swallow the whole end of the handlebar, switches, mirror stem and all.  These little guys leave all that stuff on the outside, all you get in with your hand is the grip and the lever.  And so they also have a little soft appendix to stick your thumb in (or "out" you could say).  That's the caveat. . .finding that danged thumb hole while you're starting off down the road and getting the thumb IN the thing, not hung up on a knuckle.  Occasionally exciting, but usually fine.  Warm though.  Very nicely warm.  Gotta like that a lot!

So, where have we been?  We left Hanoi on Kim Ma street, which gradually morphs into QL 32 and carries on through miles and miles of "it's still city out here!!" before you finally start to feel like you're in the country, maybe 15 or 18 km from the core downtown.  Then you run on along the highway, a nice 2-lane country road roughly parallel to the Red River (Song Hung) which stays strictly out of sight off to the right behind its levees.  Eventually you come to a bridge back to the other side of the river at a complex and very badly (hardly at all) signposted intersection.  So you try the apparently correct one (ask your telephone) and notice shortly that the first kilometer marker you spot says you're on QL32B, which is not QL32 and does not go where you were going. . .so you double back (even though there was no apparent alternate turn) et voila! Mysteriously, off to the right where it wasn't before there is suddenly another choice, the right choice, and it leads right off into the hills.  The hippies used to have a bookstore like that in Berkeley I'm told. . .you had to have the right attitude to find it.  I never did, but I often do all right hunting for roads in Viet Nam, which is more helpful at this point.

We stumbled across two pairs of water-lifting water wheels and got gps coordinates on the second pair, only a couple of kilometers from the first.  They're hand built from hundreds of bamboos and a few big chunks of hardwood. . .quite the marvelous contraptions, with a bamboo "bucket" attached to each "paddle" around the spokes of the wheel, the stream running by turns the wheel, dunks the buckets one at a time and carries them from the river up to the top of he wheel's height where the "buckets" pour out onto a trough. . .and the water runs off in a long half-pipeline on little bamboo legs and gradually fills a rice paddy.  There have to be a lot of conditions just right before all this will happen.  First you have to have somebody who can put the wheel together and get it in place in the river.  I bet I'm not man enough yet.  Then you need the stream running by quickly enough to turn the wheel fast enough to lift enough water to fill the paddy before it all dries up in the sun (if the sun comes out).  Then you need to have a paddy of a size to be worth going to all that trouble for, AND you probably can't have an alternative way to get the water to the paddy (a simple diversion and canal upstream, if feasible, would be a lot simpler way to flood the field).  So I haven't seen a lot of these wheels, and the biggest (and most in one place) don't seem to be where I thought they were before.  Either they've found a better way or the old man who knew how to do it died or.. .maybe I really don't remember where they were??  But really, all it would take would be a convenient electric drop to materialize and all that beautiful bamboo work would be out of a job (until the pump fried).

After you climb up into the hills you can find an excuse to lose the trail a couple more times en route to Nghia Lo.  It's all hills, mostly not very high, but most of them steep enough, and now and then the road takes you up and over a ridge that might almost amount to a pass.  We didn't get away on time, first day out from the City and all, and I really did want to revisit Nghia Lo first night out so we pushed on from 10:00 in the morning straight through to 5:30, seven and a half hours running through the cold (er, well, also I didn't have on the whole mess of clothes) and the bike got the only snack.  When we came rumbling down out of the hills into the wide valley where Nghia Lo lives I was all but frozen, though I didn't quite understand that yet.  It wasn't until I'd parked the bike behind the (lovely) hotel on the edge of town and tried to walk in to the reception desk that figured out my legs weren't working quite right and I was starting to shiver.  By the time I got in to the desk the shivers had gotten pretty spectacular and I was obviously worrying the young man behind the desk, but maybe they're used to frozen old white guys stumbling in. He got my room figured out and me and the bag up to it in no time, and disappeared for a while. . .long enough to go find an electric heater from somewhere, plug it in by the TV stand and steer me in front of it.  By then I had water boiling for tea.  Things got a lot better pretty quickly, and half an hour later I was strolling up the street toward the market, looking for supper.

Day broke ever so slowly next morning.  It wasn't really foggy yet, just low cloud and hazy gray light, or almost light.  You could tell it was morning, there were motorbikes passing, people off to work or market, and an occasional flock of school kids on push bikes.  It just wasn't very bright.  We putzed around, the motorbike got a different front sprocket, she'd seemed pretty short legged on the first serious riding so I moved her up one tooth in front (from 13 to 14 teeth, a substantial gearing change).  The mechanics in Nghia Lo, just incidentally, are by far the finest for working on this particular sort of bike that I've met so far. . .the biggest part of why we had to get to Nghia Lo last night.  We both ate and finally got everything ready to go (including the 3rd shirt) and were on the road just a few minutes after 9:00.  It was really wonderful being out on the road and freezing again after a long season at work at home and no real traveling at all.  The little bike seemed to like he new gearing just fine and is as strong and sweet sounding as her predecessors, these really are good little bikes for touring in this setting, light, inexpensive, economical to run. . .and this one is pretty and blue.

So, we got on the road, climbed back up into the hills, stopped to photograph a lot of overcast gray (but artistic) rice paddy next to mountainsides.  We lived through the foggy mountain pass, came out into sunshine, stopped for more photos of artistic rice paddy, got hungry just about the time a young man with a tray full of lunches whooped at us as we were riding through the sunshine down the only street of a town called Mu Cang Chai.  It's a long skinny town, up to three streets wide in places, but mostly just a wide spot along the highway, mountains on one side and rice paddy on the other, and it has at least one really good cook (and waiter and delivery boy) who has just started his first restaurant and is going to be rich and famous (or at least deserves it).  I voted to get a hotel and explore the countryside around (it was really lovely in the sunshine, and there was this restaurant. . .) but the bike had itchy feet so we went on down the road until late in the afternoon.

We split off from QL 32 onto QL 279, a road I'd never ridden before that runs off to the West to cut both the new expressway from Hanoi to the Chinese border at Lao Cai...and also the old road, QL70.  It does not, however, do so with grace and smooth moves.   It may be passable year around, but in places at least it's probably really marginal.  The road is dry right now so we got through just fine, but it's a very rough old thing, ranging from passable asphalt to wrecked asphalt to plain old rock road.  And that's the good part.  I'd planned to run all the way to Pho Rang in the afternoon, but it took us three hours just to make the first real town along the way, a place that shows as Khanh Yen on the road atlas but is really called Van Ban.  The map admits the possibility and puts "Van Ban" in light print in parentheses, but you won't find anybody on the ground who knows where Khanh Yen is.  Or I didn't at least. The place is pretty small for all that it's the biggest thing for miles around, but it has three perfectly nice little hotels, a few rice and noodle shops. . .and a good bakery.  There's a minor problem with the public loudspeakers playing march music and directing calisthenics at FIVE IN THE MORNING, but they do slow down before Six and you can go back to sleep if you have a second pillow available.  Amazing.

Which brings us to today, the run to Pho Rang and north and further west to Bac Ha way up in the high country and still colder and grayer than we'd seen so far, and a little drippy. . .h'mm.  So I looked up the weather in Hue and Danang and said to heck with this. . .and turned around ran back down the mountain from Bac Ha to the highway (23 km, you could easily coast 20 of it at speed) and down QL 70 to Pho Rang.

So, today is only day three of a six or seven day planned loop through the North and I'll be back in Hanoi tomorrow afternoon (barring major malfunctions) with less than 1000 km on the tripmeter. . .there you have it. . .I'm wimping out of the northern mountains for now.  I've been cold (and even cold and wet) up here in the past and this is enough for now, particularly since the lighting for photography has been mostly hazy soft with little color.  South a day or two will be warm.  Hue is warmer still (call it 4 days south). . .and after Danang (another day past Hue) it starts to get hot.  If we get to the Delta we can broil lunch on the pavement.  Er. . .well, that might be a bit much, it just sounds better than cold and foggy at the moment.

What a difference an hour of sunshine makes!!

Okay, start watching for a guy with a tray full of good looking lunches.

It may be a short commute to the fields, but it could be a wet one.  

The lunch.  Yes indeed. Two dollars.  'Nuff said.

Someday I'll have to ride across one of these bridges.  If I don't have enough nerve to ride back again I'd just have to buy a farm and stay.  H'mm.

There's only one road in this picture, and I'm standing on it.

Cropped way in to show the details of the wheels. . .one "bucket" bamboo joint for each paddle.  The paddles look like a picket fence (not white) and the "pipelines" run way off to the left.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Get some sleep tonight--we ride in the morning

Okay.  Blogger is absolutely being uncooperative tonight.  This photo was supposed to be down at the bottom of the page, along with the other "nice city street" views.  It won't move.  Heck.

And this danged angry bird was supposed to be the last thing in this post.  If I get my hands on this Blogger guy tonight, he's toast.  
Still in Hanoi, February 15, 2016.
The weather has changed and we're leaving in the morning.  The weather, unfortunately, has gotten pretty close to cold, mid fifties for a high today, overcast, with a Northwest wind.  That's after 3 days of plain and simply hot in the afternoon with lovely cool nights.  Oh well, it's spring here as much as it is in Seattle, so we'll take the weather as it comes, and according to the weather man it won't rain or snow for our first days on the road.  And that will do.

It's a little late tonight, and all I really have to report is a series of chores completed so it's not really very adventuresome yet. . .but there's a new horse.  Let's start with the horse. . .that's the puzzling bit of news.  I got tired some years ago of buying a motorbike in a hurry, paying top price, waiting days for the paperwork to catch up, then  six weeks later at the end of the ride, still in a hurry, selling for cheap.  Buy high and sell low--that was my motto the first few years here and it went against the grain.  I finally bullied the guy who had become my favorite mechanic into taking a good bike home and storing it for me for a year between trips. . .what with one thing and another I could pay him a tidy sum to keep the bike and still come out hundreds of dollars ahead. It worked well.  He'd ride the bike to work now and then, just to keep the oil circulating and I think now and then it would go out on rental if he was short a bike, but it was always there in front of the shop the day I came for it, new tires, new chain, new spark plug, a fresh oil change. . .and no paperwork to do.  Wonderful solution.  Last year I made two trips fairly close together, trying to change over to an early spring riding season, and the old horse had been ruined trying to act like a swamp buggy in southern Laos.  So, having replaced the old horse with some regret (she'd been a particularly good ride before the swamp), at the end of the second ride last year I still had what amounted to a new bike, around 10,000 kilometers on the meter, only a year old by the calendar and going strong.  I expected to ride her this year and next year too most likely.  Shucks, given my age these days I'd thought she might have been my last Vietnamese bike.

So you can imagine my surprise when I walked up to the shop this week and saw MY saddle bags and helmet bungee'd onto the back of a brand new BLUE motorbike I'd never seen before.  Be honest. . .my first thought was "omigosh that's a pretty blue motorbike!"  Then I got around to ". . .but where's MINE??"   So. . .she developed a noise in her transmission,  Mr. Dung decided she had to go and sold her.  ("Mr. Dung". . .he's a great mechanic, so if that's what he says, that'll have to do. . .oh, and you say it "Zoong", it's a fairly common name here. . .don't ask)

Well, it was all very odd, but what the heck, I ended up with a brand new bike, it's ready to go and the road is out there.  There are a couple of minor things. . .Mr. Dung has never really believed my saddle was anything special. . .but he only commutes on a bike.  If he had to ride all day every day for a month or two he'd learn to really like the upgraded saddle I've carefully moved from bike to bike the past few years.  The factory saddle makes saddle sores.  The upgraded one doesn't  It's as simple as that.  Alas, the good saddle went with the old horse.  However, I know where the saddler's shop is and he was perfectly happy to sell me another piece of the better grade of foam for $22.40, so that's taken care of.

There's still the matter of the "new bike syndrome" to get through.  It might be the fried spark plug and the melted voltage regulator (those seem to go together) or it might be the fly-away chain or perhaps the front wheel bearings going out.  Or I suppose it might be something I haven't seen before (Oh Great!).  The first month on the road with one of these little Chinese bikes is sometimes a bit of a trial.  Once the initial break in problems are all broken in they seem to be pretty good machines. . .but the first month usually seems like an endless search for another mechanic on down the road.  We shall see.   Dung put a spare spark plug in the saddle bag and actually bypassed the factory voltage regulator (left it in place as a spare) and wired in a Honda brand one.  Who knows, that may cover it.

Other than that it's been chores and hikes to get them done.  There was the telephone to get fired up again, everything about it had expired.  And I needed a new road atlas, the old one sort of melted in the rain last year, and anyway, there are supposed to be two new highways out there now.  Chores. . .money to change, things to go find and get bought (tooth paste?  I forgot tooth paste??), or just landmarks to touch, breakfasts to eat and coffees to drink in various special coffee shops.  Really, it's mostly about walking to the point of exhaustion so I can sleep the night away on the local schedule.  My body clings to Seattle's time zone and I force the issue.

The City has continued to come back to life after the Tet holiday. Now it's eight days into the new lunar year, so a lot of people are back to work, the crowds in the parks around the lake are thinning a little, the night time street parties are down to a dull roar though those are mostly tourists really. There are lots of foreigners yes, but Vietnamese tourists too. After all, you can only visit with family at Tet for so long and then it's time to get out and party.  Street corners that are world famous for really cheap beer served on the curbstone after the shops close at night (try the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Cuong) have been so packed the past few evenings the locals gave up and barricaded the streets off. . .not even a motorbike could get through the crowds. . .they left just enough of a trail down the middle of the street through the rows of red plastic kids' chairs filled with people full of cheap beer. . .to let a single file of replacements thread their way through into ground zero on foot.  I have no idea how anybody got served, the roar of a thousand conversations must surely have drowned out any calls to a waiter. It would have been funny, unless you wanted to pass through there on your way home.

Daytime chores that lead past or around the lake provided entertainment of a gentle sort, photographing cute kids and pretty young people and a wrong turn lead me into the middle of a book fair.  Right, books in Vietnamese, by twelve or fifteen different publishers.  No, I don't read Vietnamese books, but I've been looking for a publisher for the past eight years.  It took a minute to soak in (I'm still in deep jet lag, and I'm a little slow on the uptake anyway), but it was really a simple process.  You go into a publisher's tent and pick over books. . .if there's nothing but text and bad black and white illustrations, or if all he publishes are coloring books and kids' picture books. . you keep going.  But if you find classy color photos, good bindings, nice presentation and attractive fonts. . .get that man's name and address!!  I ended up with names and addresses for 3 publishers who do the right sort of work, which was 3 more than I had before.  This boat book thing is looking a little brighter today.

Actually, the book fair was yesterday.  So today after I ran a computer repair shop to ground to clear this little machine's idea of a joke (it just told me ". . .we couldn't complete updates, removing changes, don't turn off your computer. . ." and was frozen solid. . .After that got fixed, I set off to track down my three publishers.  One I didn't get to, the one with the least attractive products. . .one I got to pretty easily but found the director and the English speaking person out to lunch (at ten in the morning??) but the third (a long long walk away) was great.  There was nobody in the office EXCEPT the young boss. . .and that was after I found the offices concealed in the compound of the "Vietnamese Union of Women", which looked like a government office (and probably was).  Anyway, the publishing company was all shut down for Tet except the boss in the office trying to catch up and write to-do lists for everybody I suppose.  No English.  At all.  Have you ever tried to impress a publisher while speaking dog-Vietnamese?  It was going really slowly until I remembered Google Translate.  Voila!!  We took turns typing input and craning our necks over the other guy's shoulder to read output.  Very workable, though it was interesting that Google hasn't caught on to the use of "bac" ("uncle") to mean "you older gentleman" (instead of plain old "You").  Worse, the machine translated "bac" as "physician", which is close. . ."physician" is "bac si".  Oh well, I got used to being "Physician" and the rest was really good.  When that was over and hands had been shaken and so forth I traipsed halfway across the city yet again to try the first place.  Not the same at all.  The English speaking person really could, and was a charming and very pretty young lady, but her boss (an ugly old guy, you'd have thought we'd have gotten along really well) simply wasn't interested in talking to a foreigner.

The walk was worthwhile in any event, a good many miles I suspect, taking me through "real" Hanoi. . .the capital of the country, broad boulevards, shaded by lovely old trees, modern shops and restaurants and embassies (??).  Yes, the Norwegians and the people from Quatar are almost neighbors there and the Philippines are only a few blocks away.  It's an entirely different  city than my home neighborhood in the tourist zone of the Old Quarter.

But that's over and it's time for a good night's sleep, tomorrow we'll head West and then North for a big counterclockwise loop through the northern mountains.  Of necessity, it will be along a lot of roads I've already ridden in other years, but there are some intriguing new stretches as well.  Off we go!

Here are some Hanoi photos from the last day or two. . .
Tet in a small "dinh" or local sort of pagoda. . .or community house or something of that sort, with lots of goodies left on the altar.  These places often amount to shrines dedicated to a local hero, maybe the man who introduced the local trade years ago. . .first silversmith on the street of silversmiths for example.  

This old fellow with the bony knees really is red, and nearly up in the rafters. . .beautiful lacquer work, but not a lot of light for the little camera.  I've no idea who he is or why he's here. . .

An interesting "Buddha". . .with a large selection of arms, each equipped with its own eye. . .it takes a lot of hands to take care of all the trouble people get into, and a lot of eyes just to spot it.  A sort of guardian and dispenser of compassion.  

Just pretty. . .
In a candied fruit shop's window. . .every plate of goodies had a critter of some sort also made of sweets.  Shooting through the window though didn't work too well.
Now isn't she sweet!  This would be a 1960's CD-90, one of Honda's bigger successes of that era. . .and this one hasn't been all dolled up, she's just been taken care of pretty well for a long time.  If a lady like this tapped me on the shoulder and asked if she could come home with me. . .h'mm.  Need some more room in the barn!

So this is a lousy portrait of the new blue horse trying to hog the photo away from a brand new BMW rocket ship that shares the parking garage with us.  I've no idea what the taxes would be on such a machine, astronomical, I'm sure.  Not only that, but the young gentleman drives her here in the Old Quarter traffic. . .totally insane.  

These are really a full 6" across and probably half that thick. . .a whole tub of them by a fountain at the pagoda.

A sand hauler tied up next to a row of temporary gardens.  The water gets up to the road here and even into the houses on a bad year.  The young lady is whacking away steady as a pile hammer, turning over the garden bed with a mattock, or is that one a hoe?  A grub hoe?  H'mm.  Effective anyway, and she's strong.

A lug rigged pagoda.  I have a lug rigged puddle duck racer.  We could beat this guy easily, but I like the colors of the sail.  Maybe for the puddle duck???
Just the "real Hanoi". . .not downtown, not the old quarter, just a nice street in the city.  I walked a lot chasing publishers and computer repairmen!
. . .more nice city streets--Now page back up to the top and have a look at the coffee shop and the Teed-off chicken and you're through for the day.  Good grief.