Sunday, April 3, 2016

Farewell Viet Nam. . .for now anyway

Written from Home. . .I mean, actually home, on the island across the bay from Seattle, on the Second of April, 2016.  I've been home a week and a day, and already the sights, sounds and smells of that other place that is also somehow "home" are receding into memory.  I have to  note that the last day I spent in Hanoi, picking up last minute purchases, turning my motorbike back over to Mr. Dung for the year, trying to pick my favorite restaurants for all three meals in the day, hiking far and wide, in and out of the Old Quarter, as much to see it again as to actually accomplish anything, I have to note, as I was saying, that the weather was stupendous (after weeks of miserable wet and cold in Hanoi).  There were glorious blue skies (in Hanoi??) with real warmth in the sunshine, but a breeze to keep it pleasant, the finest sort of day and the streets and sidewalks were full of smiling people who couldn't believe it either.  It was wet and cold in Seattle that day.

There was the usual transition (amazing though it still is), flying at midnight from Hanoi to Seoul, arriving in Seoul at six in the morning (having schlepped across two time zones during the night) and going, as directly as possible, to a lovely Korean hotel room for a long nap, a funny lunch and a short nap. . .the funny lunch. . .yes, it's an annual treat, Kim Chi on one hand, toast and strawberry jam on the other, both pork and fish cutlets and "chicken stew". . .well. . .that's how they're labeled. . .the direct consequence of a Korean hotel kitchen trying to come up with a meal to please me and everyone else that just flew in from Delhi or Bangkok or Manilla or Tokyo or. . .almost anywhere, anyway, the funny lunch and another nap afterwards and then the dash back to the airport (migosh the Koreans drive fast. . .well. . .it certainly seems that way after a month or two in Viet Nam and Laos) and then the long haul across the Pacific, just skimming past all the northern ports and landmarks, the Russian Far East, the tip of Siberia and then the Aleutians stretching out to the west to meet us, then south and east past all of coastal Alaska and British Columbia, all those miles and miles (nearly 6000 all told) of storm and sea and islands and the fabulous rockbound shoreline, all at 600 miles in the hour and six miles up in the sky at seventy degrees below zero, with the window shades down, reading paper back novels, watching movies in six languages and dining on your choice of Korean or Western style food.  Completely bizarre.  And finally, after all that, having left Hanoi on the first really nice day of the new year to return to wet and cold Seattle, I got off the plane, through immigration (goodness that was a crowd, must have been several flights all at once), retrieved my luggage and stepped out into the Seattle weather and. . .it was glorious.  Blue sky!  Bright sun!  A pleasant breeze, and the air smelled and tasted just the way it should on a wonderful day.  Brought it home with me this year I guess.

However, to address the question that's been in my mind this whole trip. . .whether or not this was the grand finale, the last farewell. . .the last hurrah or whatever.  This was the eleventh trip in eleven years (well, twelve trips if you count the eight days in 2010 before I broke my leg).  So, was it the last?  It's a valid question.  This is the year I turned 70 in Viet Nam and if I live through August, I'll be 70 here as well. . .in Viet Nam one turns a year older on Tet, no matter, so I spent this trip answering the inevitable ". . .how old are you??" with a perfectly correct "Seventy". . .repeating it as necessary until believed.  Seventy is just a number though. . .I'm still only about 25 in my head of course, motorbikes, sailboats, that sort of thing, no matter what the somewhat tattered body thinks.   So, given that the motorbike does most of the heavy work and I can usually manage to talk the hotels into nothing higher than the second flight of steps. . .just from the standpoint of my own physical ability to carry on, there doesn't seem to be a valid excuse for giving it all up.  I can still ride a motorbike all day long and still stagger off to for dinner and bed at appropriate times.

There's another matter. . .the change all through the country.  This is a really dynamic part of the world, with large forces moving the country and the people off into the future at a tremendous rate. . .and the future doesn't always look just how I'd hoped.  The Mekong in Cambodia and Laos is to be dammed (damned?) and, worse, to me, so are many many of the small tributaries in the Lao and Northern Vietnamese mountains.  What were free flowing white water streams in much of that region a few years ago when I first saw them are lakes with power houses now and many more planned.  The public comment and permit phases of construction here are very short and superficial. . .there is no public comment period really, just sometimes some discussion between heads of state, and permits seem to be readily available, or maybe they just aren't needed.  All three countries want and need hard currency foreign exchange. . .and I guess selling electricity to China makes a lot of it.  No doubt the local people will delight in abundant electricity as well of course, and I can't find it in my heart to want to deny the Lao people either the foreign exchange or the local electricity.  I simply mourn the dead streams.  The numerous new bridges and highways are a similar matter, though by and large they seem to be more clearly beneficial to the local people and very few of them damage the watersheds all that much.  Viet Nam in particular is building highways and bridges (some of them in Laos!!) at an absolutely breathtaking pace.  Roads that were not much more than partially paved stretches of suicide opportunities only a few years ago are now fine modern roads.  River crossings you used to ford (if shallow enough) or wait for a ferry to pass are spanned by magnificent new bridges everywhere.  The biggest changes are to the main north-south arterial in Viet Nam, QL-1, which was a 2000 kilometer long death trap when I first met it, two desperate overcrowded lanes, winding over all the mountain passes and plowing through the downtown section of every city it came to.  Now long stretches of it are gorgeous new four lane freeway with an almost impenetrable barrier down the middle, keeping the enemy trucks and buses from sweeping down your lane to kill you at will.  More, there are bypasses around every town or city in the country now except for Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh (still desperately difficult to approach or leave) and most of the mountain passes now have freeway tunnels under them, even Hai Van Pass, where I nearly died twice within an hour years ago.  So. . .if you're in a hurry you can believably run the length of the country at speed, slipping around all the towns and cities, un-threatened by charging buses or pig trucks.  It'll take you two or three days less to make the whole run now and you can cross it off your list.  But of course, it's very different.  What will you have seen??  Actually, the bypasses are up to you, you can go through or around as you like, and the tunnels mostly aren't an option for motorbikes anyway  Only a fool would bemoan the divided highway and the consequent reduction in opportunities to die messily, so even this can be seen in a positive light if you will.

Then there are are some big pluses in this change. . .the Ho Chi Minh road springs to mind.  It's complete now, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.  A lot of it is pieced together from local or regional roads through the Western mountains, but a lot is new, running through long stretches of mountainous jungle that's hard to find nowadays.  It's a gorgeous route to run by motorbike, and some of it is so new that there's no development along it anywhere. . .bring your own gasoline in fact!  Forget about "The Coast Highway" (QL-1), take the mountain road.  QL-1 doesn't really run along the coast anyway, you have to work extra for that. . .but recent road-building makes even that easier.  Little roads back into the countryside or down to the beach are more and more likely to be good riding, not the broken obstacle courses of just a few years ago.  Of course, if you delight in testing yourself and your motorbike to destruction, this might seem a bad thing.  I'm a peaceful fellow though, and don't mind a sweet smooth road through the countryside at all.

Big hotels and high rises in the cities?  Hardly any way to stop that I guess, though sometimes you wonder who would ever approve a monster hotel blocking half the town's view of the mountains. There's lots more of course, all those cute kids I was photographing ten years ago are grown up and thinking about having kids of their own. . .this is an amazingly young part of the world.  And everyone has a cell phone and most of them are smart phones.  Internet service. . .goodness, ten years ago I was thrilled to find an internet shop full of kids playing video games ("Game!  Online! DSL!") so I  could check email.  Now I'm perturbed when my 3G mobile data connection isn't quite up to speed. . .on my own smart phone.  Fortunately, those kids can usually straighten out my problem for me now.  You remember the big Hyundai freight trucks with their dual steering axles and monster wheels. . .they're not the big dogs any more. . .that's passed to semi's, lots of them exiles from California's emission laws, but lots of new Chinese and Korean rigs too.  Thank the new container ports.  

Some things haven't changed that I really wish would.  The garbage. . .oh sigh.  Most smaller towns throughout the area still don't have a solution to their own garbage, and it's more and more plastic these days.  If there's a ditch or a gully on the edge of town it's probably full of bags of trash that may or may not be smoldering and spreading toxic fumes across the road.  Yes, there's a lively market in recyclables (bottles, cans, cardboard and paper) so that sort of stuff gets picked up and hauled away, but what about plastic bags and Styrofoam  lunch boxes and old sneakers??  

But no it's not just advancing age, or the changes to the three countries that make me puzzle over returning .  There's also the question of the job to be done.  I came here to begin with for the sole purpose of documenting the remaining wooden fishing and work boats while they're still here.  I had the idea in general that there would be, as there had been in America, less than a single lifetime between the full flowering of the boats and their disappearance, along with the people who built them, fished them and kept them seaworthy.  I only expected to spend a year or two of field trips to do the photography and make the notes (how many boats could there be anyway??), and that would have given us the nice moment-in-time snapshot I wanted. . .what things were like on the coast in the first few years of the 21st century.  It's eleven years down stream now, and I think I'm really pretty close.  No, I haven't seen every anchorage or river mouth in the country, but the gaps are pretty small now.  Nevertheless, just last year I found yet another distinct and numerous species of fishing boat and the fleet's home port just a kilometer off the highway up a small river with its mouth at one end of a public beach. . .but all invisible as I'd passed by dozens of times in the past.  So certainly there're more that might be found still.  But the truth is, I've spent half or better of my time on the road these past few years slipping away into the mountains and taking photos of farm houses and waterfalls. . .the motorbike that used to be just a ride to the beaches and harbors has turned into the real reason for the journey!   But now the pressure is on, there's a live publisher in Hanoi who wants to hold a real manuscript in his hands and talk about printing costs, royalties, copyrights and so forth.   It's time to draw a line under the column and do the hard work, correlating all the information and getting it into a usable format.  So if the work is finished (all but the sorting and correlating, the caption writing and the text to compile. . .) if the FIELD work is finished, how can I keep going back?

I don't know if it's really an adequate reason, but you have to understand, she's really pretty sweet, my little Chinese gal in Hanoi.  When I'm there I spend most of every day with her, up hill and down and through whatever weather comes up.  She gets a little scruffy at times, but cleans up well enough when she gets the chance, and though she may buck and kick and occasionally lie down on the job altogether, she's still been a pretty faithful companion. . .and patient!  She's never complained when I go back to the States for a year and leave her behind.  I don't know of much that is as wonderful as waking up knowing she's ready to ride and there's a whole day ahead of us to go find. So, I think, as long as there are new mornings in my world and a road to wander down I'll probably keep going back to her, get her out of storage, change her oil, give her a new tire (or two) and a chain and take her out again.

She caught the flower all by herself. . .it fell four stories from the roof of the hotel and she caught it!

Waiting for her donut in Moc Chau. 

She lets me do the paperwork at border crossings, how sweet of her.

No, I don't think she liked this idea from the start.  I should have listened.

She does clean up well though. . .special shampoo in Louang Prabang.

Not really unhappy about waiting on bridges while I work. . .canoes below!

Oops.  Flat tire to fix in Vang Vieng.  The kid was a big help.

They let her in with no paper work at all this time.  

Keeping watch while I go trespassing inside.  Nobody came she said.

Actually, she gets shampooed pretty often when we're on the road.  Hasn't had a hair cut in a long time though.