Thursday, April 13, 2017

A little while in Hanoi, and then to to Quang Yen to sail on the dinosaur

Written (or at least begun) from Quang Yen city (large town really), Quang Ninh province, North Eastern Viet Nam.  It's the 11th of April now, and we have a little catching up to do.

The time in Hanoi passed quickly.  A lot happened, but there's little that makes good story telling.  My laundry got done, the sharp part of an old missing filling's hole got polished down to a pleasant  nubbin that doesn't make my tongue sore any more, I bought a pair of nice sandals, we got the book contract finalized and signed. . .that sort of thing.  Not a lot of drama, but stuff that needed doing and a few nice photos.
There were two of these young ladies, perhaps twins, the same ao dai (dress) and the same bouquet, posing for a professional photographer. . .but not together.  Nope.  I don't have a story to go with that.

This, on the other hand, is a long-time friend.  She's made me two pairs of saddle bags and modified my daypack so much there's not much left of the original.  She always flinches when she sees me coming, then she grins, then she sews whatever I ask.  That's the whole shop.  There's a loft overhead filled with bits of canvas and leather and I don't know what else.  Back behind the place opens up, and she lives there with her kid sister who thinks I'm funny.

A fellow motorbike rider on his 150 cc Suzuki.  This sort of bike is heavily built, rugged and reliable, and gets a surprising amount of performance from a small engine. . .Now though bigger bikes, including Harleys, are available here, and he's put a deposit on one.  Oof.  We met in Laos last year, he was riding with a delightful group of friends. . .The Team.
The curtain was supposed to go up in 7 minutes, but nobody was worried, and it didn't. . .Why is it the girls always get to look glamorous and beautiful on stage and we men. . .well. . .

The young lady in pink was busily combing her hair when I walked by. . .I told her she was pretty already.  A good line no doubt, but the curtain was about to go up.  I got the smile though.

Hoan Kiem Lake at night.  I do love reflections in still water.

Yes. . .

They've added a red fabric skirt to obscure the pretty red bridge piles.  And they've re-done the lighting on the island.  Oh well.

You'd hardly notice this little place in the daytime, dull and brown.  

Alone again (Adrian by now is on his way to North Korea. . .yikes), on Saturday morning, the horse and I rode out of Hanoi from the hotel by going the wrong direction entirely.  The clutch (how many times have I mentioned the darned clutch this trip??) finally got the best of me and I took it to the shop.  Mr. Dung (say it "Zoong") was expecting me at his new off-premises garage in the far southern edge of the city, and had the clutch lying in pieces on the floor as quick as he could tell the young apprentice (17 years old and eager, if ignorant) how to get it apart.  Regrettably, parts were not immediately available, so I stood and sat and drank tea and ate lunch and petted the puppy while the parts found their way from wherever they were to where we needed them.  And then Dung put it all back together again, with a little help from the apprentice.  Dung is a masterful motorbike mechanic and it's a real pleasure to watch him persuade tricky bits to go back where they belong.  But it was also almost two in the afternoon before we really started to Quang Yen, and we were starting from a long ways in the wrong direction in afternoon city traffic.  It wasn't a particularly ugly departure from the city, but it certainly wasn't fast.
Clutch on the ground.  Parts coming.  Eventually.  Sigh.

Mr. Dung's (Zoong's) new huge garage, with one mechanic and one eager apprentice.  Enormous amount of space and serious equipment too. . .drill press, bench grinder, a big upgrade from the little hole in the wall in the old quarter.

And way back in the corner. . .not one but two from the 1960's, still in splendid condition.  Dear me.  They won't go in my carry on though.

The clutch plate(s).  I'm not sure if the wear is due to the malfunction or the cause of the malfunction, but replacing these made her run well again, so I'm happy.  That's her in the background.

Once onto the highway (QL-1, northbound) things were smooth and easy until we made the turn off toward Halong City onto QL-18.  Darn.  That used to be an easy, even a pleasant ride, but now there are factories all along the highway and the built up area just keeps getting more built up and the traffic. . .won't fit on the old two-lane highway anymore.  It's a bear.  Dusty, dirty, noisy, crowded, rough (worn out) roadway. . .and way too many loud trucks and buses, even if the motorbike population is still within reason.  Sigh.

We had had enough by the time we got to Uong Bi, still 40 km from Halong City. I wasn't sure how far from Quang Yen we really were and I was completely unfamiliar with the place. . .been there once in someone else's car and didn't learn a thing.  Anyway, I've ridden by Uong Bi a great many times on my way to and from Halong Bay.  However, I've never even nudged the horse off onto the main street of the city and had a look. . .just sort of glanced at the ends of the City street as we passed by on the highway (there's quite a nice park at one end).  So, with nobody expecting us in Quang Yen at any particular time, it was an easy choice to stop in Uong Bi for the night.  It's a pleasant stop really, the main street must have been the highway a few years back. . .okay, quite a few years back (it's been a separate loop since I've been riding by), but it's basically almost parallel with the highway and must take in three or four kilometers of sweet downtown.  There are a number of hotels and lots of places to eat and pretty much any service or supply you'll need, and it's remarkably clean and tidy.  It also has a gigantic coal fired generating station at the Eastern end of town.  It's really not fair to say that the power plant dominates the city, but at the Eastern end. . .it does, with its two huge stacks and constant low humming sound clearly heard for blocks around.  So we got a room at the East end and made the power plant the theme of the evening.  To be at least fair, it seems to be a pretty clean sort of power plant. . .there's a steady plume of steam from both of the huge stacks, but you can't see any sign of particulates. . .goodness knows "clean" coal is a doubtful association of words, but still. . .there's no mountain stream around to provide hydro-electric, the wind mills are all out on the coast farther south where the wind is dependable, I'm certainly not eager to see them using nuclear plants. . .should we turn off the lights??  Not in my hotel room anyway. . .or in my breakfast restaurant either please.   So I'll beg Uong Bi's pardon, I'm sure the plant is not the most important thing in town, but I took a lot of photos of it.
Views of the power plant. . .it stands behind its ramparts and towers over the neighborhoods. . .and that doesn't include the stacks.  It's a really big plant.

Water intake lines and at least one cooling water discharge.  A lot of water!

Looking back from the highway. . ..

Rotating ducks and some stationary roast pork!  There's a continuous chain drive on the side by the operator.  He picks up a skewer and sets it into bearings at each end and a bicycle sprocket on the skewer engages the moving chain, neatly spinning the bird..  There are three levels of flame here, and the hottest (at this end) includes a drip catcher that discharges into the pan on the left.  Duck drippings. . .oh my.

A truly hole in the wall sized chapel, but I couldn't figure out for whom.  It doesn't go far left and right, but takes two frames to get it all in vertically.

Pretty anyway.

New construction in town usually requires some interesting demolition.  The lots here seem to be mostly laid out 4 meters wide, by perhaps 25 meters deep.  Makes for tall skinny houses that go way back into the block.

And this is why I don't like to walk on the sidewalks at night.  This is very recent damage, and will no doubt soon be properly repaired. . .Uong Bi is a well run little town, neat and clean. . .they won't tolerate this long at all.

And then it was a super simple ride in the morning, ten km in a dead straight line on flat ground directly into the most important intersection (for us anyway) in the city. . .the cross roads of QL10 and the road across the bridge to the far side, where the sailing junk lives.  With a full tank of gas and a whole day in hand to find our way around, my first choice was to find the boatyard and the sail boat again, so we never even slowed down, but ran straight across the bridge to the far side, and turned downstream (left) to run along the river, just inshore of the new levees and flood walls.  The river is going to have to really get full to spill into the lowland communities around behind that wall but I suppose it probably will now and then, rivers are like that.  Anyway, with the river on our left and us in the right stretch, finding the boatyard was just a matter of keeping moving and staying awake, which is a good idea anyway, one doesn't want to sleep and ride a motorbike much.  The entrance to the boatyard is up a steep little driveway (to get over the flood wall) and then down into the household on the river side.  That involves riding past a huge stockpile of old salvaged timber and a few newer pieces. . .all destined to turn into boat parts in the yard's sawmill eventually.  And once past the pile of timbers, you're suddenly in the front yard of the house, which is actually partially closed in and roofed with a metal canopy. . .sort of like a mostly outdoors living room .  And  all over that living room there were all the preparations for a family funeral set up when we rode in.  I pulled the horse to a stop and started to back up to turn around and leave, but Mr. Chan, the boatbuilder we've come to see, saw us first and pulled us in.

So.  I've crashed a number of weddings in this part of the world, and have mostly given it up as a bad plan, what with the horrendous loud music (??) and the overabundant alcohol. . .notwithstanding the usually excellent lunch and the chance to meet the bride and groom and wish them well. . .it just is too much these days, so we always look the other way and keep riding now.  Funerals are altogether too similar. . .different music I admit, but usually just as loud. . .a great lunch after the ceremonies. . .and not too much alcohol. . .define too much.  Anyway, we haven't crashed a funeral either in many a year, so it just seemed natural to go away and leave the family and friends to their grief.  But not to happen.  You might appreciate that, while on the one hand I stand out here like a purple pig (big fat bald white guy with a bushy beard???) on the other hand, I wanted nothing so much under the circumstances than to quietly fade into the wall paper. . .if there'd been any wall paper.  Oh well.  As it turns out there are really two phases to these funeral days (and I promise you I'm an ill informed outsider, even if somewhat observant).  But here's what I saw:
The formal ceremony,

 There is a memorial "altar" set up at the top of the room, in the center.  It's an old, well-traveled, very ornate table, on which sits a formal portrait of the Chan's old mother and a variety of offerings, food, drink, flowers, money, candles and incense at least.  That's how I knew instantly that the household was in mourning. . .the set up of extra tables made it clear that the funeral service and associated feast was imminent.

  • All morning long, in the outdoor space behind the house (essentially in the boat yard) a team of neighbor ladies were cooking.  Lots.  They must have started early, they were well along by the time we got there and it wasn't late yet.
  • Friends,neighbors and relatives drop in and out and visit a bit with Mr. Chan or his lady Wife (whose name I never heard, darn it, she made a lot of effort over me while I was here).  Mr. Chan is 68 and looks and acts about 40 most of the time, but his demeanor is subdued and he looks serious this morning, already wearing the white head scarf that marks a mourner here.
  • I begged leave to go look around the boatyard and was taken in hand by a younger son (who, it turns out, has an iPhone 5 full of boat photos I wish I'd taken. . .though he cheerfully copied them onto my laptop later).
  • That lead to a round of drinking tea in the other house next to the boat yard with an older brother and a friend.  It's a grand house, and the people were exceedingly gracious.  The younger brother has a little more English than I have Vietnamese, and so it was not a hopeless conversation, but often ended in dead ends when I had to admit I couldn't understand.  Oh sigh.
The big model in the living room. . .a lovely home, gracious people, and a wonderful, perfectly accurate model of the new sailing junk.  Mr. Chan has built a number of them.
  • Back in the front room, Mr. Chan produced another lovely small model of a sailing junk, one of a great many he has made, and simply gave it to me.  He removed the oars from their racks and lowered the sails and his lady Wife carefully wiped it clean (dust. . .we're in Viet Nam) and found it a cardboard box to ride in. . .and everyone put in opinions on how to pack and lash it to the bike!
Mr. Chan, with his mourner's head scarf, lowering sails and stowing oars on the model he gave me.  This is an old model he built before the new (full sized) junk, and thus not identical, but very very similar and well-detailed.  A magnificent gift.

The only way to carry the boat with all my other stuff. . .put the duffel the wrong (cross) way.  This is how all my Vietnamese friends want me to carry it anyway.  1.  That way I could take a passenger at need, and in fact, I've turned it crosswise just for that purpose.  and  2. to keep the center of gravity (and thus rotation) as far forward as possible, since the bag is a significant percent of the total weight of the outfit.  However, it also effectively blocks on-the-road access to the side bags, which is where the rain gear and boots live. . .so this was a one-time only arrangement.  I carry a lot of bungee straps.
  • Around lunch time the people stopped just passing through and began seating themselves around tables set out in long rows.  It's segregated seating. . .with old men (yes, that includes me) at one end of the first table, a small gap, then the older ladies, and at the end, a few younger women, with children in laps.  Across the room another long table, for "general seating", younger men, children who can behave, and so forth.
  • The space in the center of the room in front of the altar is left clear.
  • After a long time of visiting and drinking tea or smoking the northern pipe, some people began putting on the full mourning outfit, cheap, temporary, unadorned white over-clothes, cut in a vaguely old fashioned style. . .loose pants with drawstrings, an over-tunic, long sleeved and belted with a piece of cheap twine. . .and of course the white head scarf.  Women also wore a white shawl, sewn to form a hat with a trailing end that reached below the waist.  
  • A contingent of four men arrived and put on more colorful formal clothes, an overcoat of bright colored (blue or red) silk and the formal Vietnamese hat, clearly different from the mourners' dress.  One is the "celebrant" (for want of a better word. . .more than a "master of ceremonies"), he lead the service but also read extensively from hand lettered documents,some of which he later burned in hand, dropping the ashes onto a tray an assistant held for him.
  • Recorded funeral music played continuously. . .this is very loud, very Asian music, the instruments are a 2-stringed fiddle that can be quite loud even unamplified, a shawm or oboe like instrument with a trumpet's bell (think in terms of the melody pipe of a bagpipe, high and loud!), and a variety of drums and wooden things (okay, what would you call them?? "ideophones"  something you hit with a stick like a drum that makes a "thonk" sort of sound) they all produce a rhythm, though at times it seems chaotic.  The amplification is horrendous!  To skip ahead, this is the first day.  Tomorrow will be the second day, with a much bigger crowd and live musicians rather than recorded. . .but back to today.
  • The service itself takes perhaps 20 minutes.  It is very formalized.  The women are in one line on the left side of the room, the men make two lines on the right, all spaced nicely, with the spacing intended to produce enough room for each to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground at various times.  
  • The celebrant concentrates on reading, and singing (chanting?) the correct words.  One of his assistants cues the mourners when to kneel, when to stand, another assistant mans a stand with a large drum and a large gong at the back of the room, striking one or the other at times.  The last assistant kept busy handing the reading materials to the celebrant, and, if they were burned, having the tray ready to catch the ashes.
  • The women knelt for prolonged periods, crying, keening, or muttering quietly, almost completely hidden beneath their shawls.  The men stood erect most of the time, and neither spoke nor cried, but held their right hands to their mouths, as though covering them with a handkerchief, or perhaps simply holding back their grief, prostrating themselves when prompted.
  • When the ceremony ended, one of the assistants moved through the mourners and used a large knife to cut the belts. . .the pieces of twine. . .from each man's tunic.
  • Given my near complete lack of the language, I've no notion of what was said, but the formalized pattern of the ceremony cannot help but be moving, with the ancient woman in the portrait on the altar witnessing it all and the incense and candles burning.
And then it was time for lunch, and what a wonderful lunch it was.  If the old mother ate her share on the altar then she had to have been pleased.  It was far more food than the crowd could eat and extremely good.  The weeping and wailing women went back to gossip and chatter and petting small children, men resumed their animated discussions, many people tried to talk to me (and with various amounts of help from the people with some English) managed to satisfy their curiosity.  The main points were widely known. . .I'd traveled a lot in Viet Nam over the past 12 years, I was 71 years old (VNese reckoning), I was interested in boats and particularly Mr. Chan's sailing junk. . .and I can answer questions about my wife in America (yes, I have one, and one is enough), how many children and grandchildren I have, my job, whether or not I really travel on that motorbike. . .the ordinary social questions.  The atmosphere stopped short of the joviality of a wedding feast, but not by much.  It did not have the feeling of a solemn funeral once the formal ceremony was over.  It wasn't quite up to the standard of an Irish wake perhaps, though there was alcohol and tobacco in abundance, and some men became noticeably more cheerful by afternoon.

Here's my gift for you from the funeral lunch--a recipe for a wonderful salad.  Think of it as a bean-sprout, cucumber and pineapple salad. . .blanch the bean sprouts and cool them (don't cook them, just scare them) they're probably the largest volume of the salad, slice a crisp cucumber into rounds and quarter the rounds (okay, quarter the cucumber and then slice it. . .and leave on the peel).  Guessing here, but I think then soak the cucumber in rice vinegar for a while, but drain it.  Cut the pineapple into smallish pieces, less than a bite each, and combine the ingredients cold and serve.  For further experimentation. . .a tiny bit of mint might be right, or maybe just a trace of ginger.  I don't think there was any sweetening other than the pineapple. . .though some pineapple juice might have gone over the top as a dressing.  It's lovely.  It wasn't included in this salad, but I can easily imagine little bits of chicken as well. That might make it into a main dish.  Up to you!

I had not even looked at the town as I rode through to the boat yard, so at a reasonable time after lunch I took my leave (many handshakes and smiles) and went looking for a hotel, and the museum.  
The hotel was easy, several are grouped around a big soccer field near the end of the bridge to the boat yard and the first one I tried had a sweet lady eager to show me upstairs, a large airy room with a view of the soccer field and nearby restaurants. . .a writing desk (no, really!!) and a rock hard bed.  Oh well, you can't win them all, and I long ago decided to sleep on rock hard beds if it seemed like a good idea. . .opens up all manner of otherwise superior rooms here!  So that was settled.  

The museum. . .this is one of two, soon to be three curated by Dr. Nguyen Viet, the scholarly older gentleman who owns the sailing junk I'd come to see.  The junk and what I learned of and from it will take another chapter, but just locating the museum so I could meet Dr. Nguyen Viet at ten in the morning as promised was the immediate challenge.  
The street sign just outside the museum made this silly easy.  I thought I had gps coordinates too, but the camera hadn't locked on by the time I pulled the trigger.  No matter, it was fine.

Mr. Hai's car five weeks ago. . .it was raining then. . .that's a gray ca, not a two-tone brown.  Oh.  He's parked at the museum gates.  You might have a hard time identifying it if you didn't know. . .and if the dogs are out don't even think about going in.

I'd been squired around here before by Mr. Hai, in his car, which means I had a photograph of the street sign in front of the museum and I knew what it looked like (not a museum, at least not from the outside).  But, as is always the case when I've been driven somewhere by somebody else, I had no idea where that street sign was compared to where I was.  Well.  It was incredibly close and convenient, four blocks and two turns away. . .easy to find with a little help from my phone and, at closer range, my memory for the shape of the place.  So that too was settled.  

The rest of the afternoon (not much) was spent in exploring the town.  Mr. Hai gave me a grand tour a month ago when he first brought me to meet Dr. Nguyen Viet, so I had some good visual references, and tied them together with several looping trips through the town, main street and side streets.  I'd been getting noticeably shaggy after a five weeks on the road, so turned in at a barber shop. . .a Vietnamese sort. . .the sign reads Cat Toc, Nam, Nu. . .which is literally, Cut Hair, Man, Woman.  So, usually (but not always) a lady hairdresser who will cut men's hair too. . .and the first such I'd ever been in.  I parked the bike on the sidewalk in front and found the lady in charge busily scrubbing somebody's hair. . .she said to come back in 20 minutes.  Good enough, I left the bike and went hiking.  No matter how many times you drive up and down a street you won't see it all until you poke along on foot, so it was not time wasted at all.  Besides, I found a new little shop selling Che, and had a very nice cold sweet dessert. . .yes, before dinner.  

The haircut didn't take too long, there's not too much hair left to cut.  When she'd been around the sides and the back of the neck and down into the beard as far as I wanted, she held up all ten hairs on top of my head. . .poor wispy things. . .and asked me?  I nodded, and they were gone in an instant.  Perfectly bald on top!  Meanwhile, the young lady with the freshly laundered hair was sitting in another chair, busily drying her hair with one of the shop's hair dryers. . .actually, by this time there were two youngsters engaged that way. . .first toweling it off, then combing and drying for quite a while.. .Vietnamese people tend to have a lot of thick black hair.  Drat.  

I was no more than out of the chair and paid my dollar, when a stool was plopped in the middle of the room and a little boy, perhaps two or a bit more, sat upon it while his mom held his hand and he got. . .a Mohawk, with the barber lady stooping a bit to get at him.  Good grief.  What fun!  I was tempted to just sit on the bike and watch for a while, moms, kids, guys and gals. . .a very cheerful little shop.  Glad I stopped (and I can stop worrying about mussing my hair for a few weeks).

Gee Mom, are you sure I want a Mohawk?  Do the girls like a guy with a Mohawk?  Is this going to hurt?  Why does that man have hair on his face but not on his head??

A sweet little house (with a gross sofa on the front porch) set well back from the street.  It's for sale, but I didn't find out the price, probably wouldn't fit my whole household anyway.  Many of the streets here are laid out with 4 meter by 25 meter lots. . .skinny and deep.  That's 13 feet and a hair wide. . .subtract your walls. . .you're down around 12' of interior space.  Come to think of it, I've lived in trailer houses that wide. . .H'mm.

It's a flat countryside, and wet.  We're quite close to the ocean, at the end of a large delta.

A pretty standard $2.00 dinner.  Rice, pork,  fish, peanuts, cooked vegetable (this might be sweet potato vines, or possibly water morning glory, I have a hard time telling them apart) and a cucumber salad.  They do those really well around Quang Yen.

Push ahead nets on little boats. . .the one closest to us is actually a woven basket.

I can't help myself.  She's really nothing special, but she looked nice sitting there with the family laundry drying in the rigging.  She has structure and a mast for a push-ahead net, but nothing rigged at the moment.
But this is really why we're here, to ride the dinosaur.  That'll be tomorrow's story!


  1. Ken, Jim Mader here. Catherine sent me the link to these recent postings..... I had a pleasant interlude the last half hour or so following your adventure! What a lovely and unique boat. I admire your curious and courageous mind navigating the rapids and shoals of foreign roadways on your motorbike. I have recently re-entered the fraternity of motorcycling.... a friend gave me an old '88 Kawasaki that I'm enjoying a great deal. I took a camping trip up to Tofino with an old high school buddy on his new BMW touring machine and kept up quite nicely.....wonderful stretch of road crossing the island.
    I'll be returning here to check out your next trip for sure! Jim