Thursday, March 16, 2017

Three days southbound and an interesting evening in Sam Son

Written from Hue (Central Viet Nam) on the 16th of March 2017

It is in the nature of writing about adventures that one must either go out and have an adventure, or have a better than average imagination.  For the most part, I lack that sort of imagination and so must rely on having actually HAD an adventure, and for that reason, I only have a little to report.  Riding south this trip began with a rational but impractical decision to not take QL 1 (the big bad national highway running southward) and instead to make a much more circuitous route out of the city and far to the east before turning south on QL 21, a much quieter and more scenic route winding much of the way through fantastical karst landscape.  This had two anticipated consequences. . .I was too late reaching QL 1 in the latitude of Thanh Hoa to continue southward to my hoped-for overnight stop in Cua Lo and second, that it took me seven hours riding instead of four and a half that would have been reasonable had I taken a direct route.  I'll probably do it the same way another time (if there is one), but as adventures go, it wasn't much to talk about.  The phone got confused as I got closer to Thanh Hoa City (I suppose I'd set it up for failure somehow, but it insisted I should do a U-turn and begin backtracking on a 2 hour route when, according to the highway signs I was within 30 km and less than an hour of the City.  I have no idea really.  I turned the silly thing off.  It's amazing in the cities, but it's not a country sort of phone.  

The more amazing thing about that first day is that I continued on through Thanh Hoa City to Sam Son town, the beach resort of first resort for people sweltering in summertime Hanoi.  Of course, people in Hanoi are drizzling and shivering at the moment, so very few are resorting to the seaside for a swim.  I may have been the only tourist in the whole town, a distinction I've enjoyed often over the years, dropping by in the winter season to admire the empty beaches and photograph the fishing boats.  The problem with Sam Son (if it is a problem) is that it has been occupied by a massive mega resort. . .and no, that's not redundant or repetitive.  It (the resort) is almost a kilometer long (though you can't go look at it if you look like a schmuck with muddy boots on a motorbike).  Last year when I came through town, the whole seaside, all four kilometers of it, was torn up for re-building and upgrading.  It was insane and I didn't stay.  I toured the new golf course from the road, tried to count the "residences" and hotels (I got the hotels right, I think, four of them. . .maybe. . .but there are hundreds of identical vacation "residences" in neat groups lined up like soldiers. Yikes.  And then I turned and ran another 100 km to Cua Lo.  But, as noted above, between leaving Hanoi a little late in the day and taking the scenic route, this year my realistic choices were Sam Son, or a big city night in Thanh Hoa.  So I slipped into the other end of Sam Son, resolutely ignoring the mega thing at the other end of the beach, and found a really quite nice funky old hotel right under the rocky temple site at the far south end of town.  I had to share it with the hotel family and their cat, but they were quiet.  The north wind was pushing a good little surf up the long beach all night and that was all I heard, the steady sound of breakers on sand.

But, unlikely as it was I would ever be in Sam Son on this particular evening, I am very glad I was. This will be a time when I will describe what I saw and heard without knowing what it was nor the context or history of the event.  I don't know if this was something that occurs routinely all over the world or if it was unique to this night in Sam Son.  But let me tell the story and perhaps one of you can tell us what it was we saw.

There is a steep rocky promontory at the south end of Sam Son beach, with a temple of some sort at the top as well as a number of open air restaurants, most of which are closed.  The temple requires you to climb a long flight of steps.  Part way up is a small chapel with a fantastical diorama of dragons, lit at night and filled with swirling smoke from the coils of burning incense, swirled by the wind, a wonderful altar, though other than the spirit of the dragons, I do not know to whom it is raised.
The altar halfway up the stairs.  There will be no more photos tonight. . .I couldn't take them.

Just below the crest of the hill there are two more, much larger temple chapels, one to the left, which was closed that night, and the other to the right.  From this one, loud music came boiling down the hill to fetch me up the last few steps.  I'd been aware of the music, but it seemed unlikely to have anything to do with a "Buddhist temple", the sort of place I usually think of as quiet and contemplative.  This was dancing music, loud I said, strongly rhythmical, driven by drums and the two stringed guitar-banjo instrument played hard.  In the event, I found a band of four men, dressed in casual western clothing, sitting on the floor along the left hand wall of the chapel as I looked in.  The drums (a bass and three "toms" of different sizes). . .all the same, painted red with gold gilt trim, made like small brandy barrels but with white leather heads, arranged in front of the drummer in a tight arc.  The first vocalist, who had also some wooden blocks to play with sticks like hard drums, and of course his microphone.  The woodwinds, a single man with half a dozen different bamboo flutes and reed instruments, including some I'd always thought were tourist stuff, but from which he coaxed wonderful music. The second vocalist, or perhaps I should say, the 2-string guitar, who was also a fine singer.

The whole front of the chapel opens in three large doorways so it beckons everyone in.  There is no barrier to step over, only the line of mats on the floor that mark the seating space, onto which one does not wear one's shoes.  That floor space was tightly packed, to the point there was no room for even one more person.  All the spare shoulder room had already been adjusted out.  The crowd, should I say the congregation, was a full house.  And they were seated around a stage, hardwood planks raised a foot or so above the stone and concrete floor.  At the far wall, at the back of the stage was clearly an  ornate altar, though with no Buddha or other deity I know.  But I did not see the altar at first, maybe not for several minutes.  All I could see over the heads of the congregation was the dancer, her back to us, completely draped in robes and scarves, her head covered with a shawl.  And her dancing held me.  It was not sexual I think, though very sensual.  She was a young woman in her prime, perhaps 30 years old, perhaps less, and she moved around only a small area of the small stage, her bare feet pivoting and her hips and shoulders swaying, her arms in the air, weaving in front of her and overhead.  She had two dressers (you will see in a bit) and one of them handed her six candles bound together like a chandelier, but no ordinary candles.. .these had been made to burn hot and fast, with long bright flames.  She wove the flames around her in one hand for a while, dancing all the time, her back still toward us, then split them in two and with three in each hand described patterns in the air like a celtic knot, then handed them back to her dresser (who quenched them quickly in a pot) and took a long stick of incense from the altar and held it between her hands in front of her, never missing the beat for a moment, hips and arms swaying, feet weaving, holding us still.  I managed to look around and there was nothing else going on.  People were breathing and watching her dance.  That was all. . .and the musicians drove her.

Suddenly she finished, stopped right in front of the altar and sat in a single movement to the floor.  One of her dressers handed her a feathered fan and she began fanning herself, but not as you or I would.  She wove the fan through the air in wide arcs, only serving to touch her face on part of the stroke.  And though she sat, she did not stop dancing, but rather kept moving to the music, her hips still moving and her shoulders swaying as they did while she stood.  In just seconds the two dressers, a stocky woman to her left and a young man to her right, stripped her bright red coat from her back and her black head dress from her head.  Then you could clearly see she was dressed all over in white satin, pants and shirt, all comfortably loose, and completely discreet. Her hair was bound in a bun at the back of her neck, and her face was made up with white and pink blushes and red lips.  She did not smile while they changed her coat to one of yellow silk falling to her calves and a different head dress, the round visor-crown like "hat" Vietnamese wear for formal portraits, but bound around with a long yellow ribbon, covered with embroidered inscriptions and trailing nearly to the ground.  She sipped from a cup on the altar, put her hands together to pray, still swaying and moving, and suddenly she was up again.  The congregation made no move at all.  This was a different dance.  More of a strutting sort of movement, kicking her feet behind her almost as though she were kicking something backwards, and now she turned and faced the people and danced across the stage back and forth.  A third helper, rather a chubby and tall young man, dressed all in white as well, with a gold chain and a silver circlet around his neck, clearly joyful or ecstatic to be there, fetched in a basket filled with apples (no doubt from Wenatchee!!) and offered them to her.  For a moment or two she ignored him, then took them and, never leaving the music, dancing the whole time, she threw them, one at a time, into the crowd.  Not at random though.  She threw very quickly with little flicks of her wrist and with precise aim. People had no difficulty catching them.  Very few people fumbled, every eye was on her every move.  When the apples were gone the happy young man brought in a larger basket full of very small bright green oranges.  These she tossed by the handful and ended by tossing the last dozen or so straight from the basket out among the people.  This went on a long time.  There was money, hundreds of $5000 dong notes (about $.25 each) that she spread around the room in flung hand fulls. Then she collapsed again, precisely in front of the altar and they changed her again.  This time, while they stripped off her coat and head dress they put a cigarette in a long holder and lit it for her and she mimed smoking it (puffing little bits of smoke now and then), waving the thing around as she had the candles, still swaying and moving to the music and her dressers passed out packages of cigarettes and lighters and several people in the crowd lit up and waved their cigarettes to the music too.   I suppose I stayed and watched from various vantage points on the edge of the crowd for an hour or more.  I had to leave then, I'd only intended to walk briefly up to the temple and see what might be seen, and my evening insulin was well beyond its timing and the lights of the town were going out down below at an alarming rate.

I did find a closed restaurant a few blocks away with the family having their own supper and they set me a place too, quite good for left-overs and sorely needed by then.  I wandered indirectly through the almost dark streets afterward, down to the beach again and finally home to the hotel and from the temple up on the rock, the drums rumbled on.  I don't know when she'd started dancing, and of course I do not know if she danced the whole time I ate supper and walked home, but it was 8:30 when the drums stopped, and I'd first walked up the hill shortly after six.  The music never stopped, though I saw the drummer answer a text message while keeping the beat going with his other hand and the guitar player got up and fumbled out of the temple with his phone in one hand, and truly, now and then someone would get up and leave for a bit from the perimeter of the crowd. . .but it was no doubt an amazingly continuous effort.

So tell me please. . .what was this I saw?  Was she a goddess spreading good things among the crowd?  I'm at a loss.  I don't know, I don't even know where to start to ask. . .but she was truly lovely to watch.  It was very hard to leave but I really had no choice.

Other than that, I have gotten up every day, found some sort of breakfast, fed the bike, and ridden.  We're 700 km more or less from Hanoi now, we've ridden over 1000 km in the week all told and there have been no adventures.  The bike has run, the rain has only drizzled, the wind has been a tail wind until this morning, when it turned around and blew in our faces all day.  We've never really been lost, though I'm not proud of how we found our way through Thanh Hoa city.

On the other hand, we may have come up against a "soft" constraint. .  .not a brick  wall mind you, in the classical sense.  Rather, these have been easy days' riding so far, 7 hours each day for the first two days, pushing right along, and four and a half hours today. . .and I'm badly worn. . .stiff and sore and tired out. It's not enough to stop us, but you might better expect we'll slow down, maybe a lot.  In any event, we'll be around Hue and the Island south of Thuan An for the next three days. . .my new eye glasses won't be ready until Monday afternoon.