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.

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