Posts Tagged With: cliff

So Long Hanoi, Hello Ha Long

I mentioned a day or two ago that we had visited the town of Bat Trang (not be confused with “batarang” which is that thing that Batman throws that always comes back to him). Like Tho Ha, it is a single-industry town, an economic monoculture built in this case on ceramics instead of rice paper. There is apparently a lot more money in the former than the latter: Bat Trang looks a lot more prosperous than Tho Ha, with wide streets and mostly non-decrepit buildings. No surprise there; rice paper is strictly a high-volume, low-profit commodity serving a local market, while ceramics attract tourists. Store advertise that they will ship, although you can always take the more adventurous “giant vases on motorcycle” approach like this guy.

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We visited one studio and were given a lesson on the process, no different than you might find in a ceramics art class anywhere. The big finish was sitting us down at hand-turned potters’ wheels to try our hands at making a bowl. One of our group was a ringer with some actual experience, who made quite a nice one, unlike my own, which resembled a large asymmetric ashtray. (And, uncharacteristically, even my off-kilter effort yielded a better result than Alice’s, which underwent gravitational collapse and ended up as some kind of unrecognizable alien artifact.

Our final visit in Hanoi was to a couple who, once upon a time, had owned 10 houses, all confiscated by the Communists under the aegis of so-called land reform. We were there mostly to admire their house – they had gotten one back – and to hear their tale of woe (which was quite genuine). We heard the family history and liked them a lot; they were charming people who had gone through some hard times when their country changed around them, and their lined and expressive faces told their story.


So we left Hanoi yesterday morning, making two stops en route to famously scenic Ha Long Bay: a small (nonmilitary) graveyard in the middle of an large otherwise empty field, and a large roadside craft store — the Humanity Center — that employees young handicapped people who otherwise have difficulty making a living.

The cemetery was an oddity to our eyes, located as it was in an empty expanse immediately adjacent to a highway and a rice field. Turns out there’s a good reason for this, namely that land is scarce. So you end up with a sleazy entrepreneurial cohort of what you might call “grave squatters”, analogous to Internet domain squatters: they buy grave-sized plots of land in areas where cemeteries are or will be sited and then gouge you for the price of plot if you want to be buried next to Uncle Trang. I guess you might also call it “plot scalping”. Thing is, feng shui is a very big deal here, so it might be very important indeed for you to be buried next to old Trang, or at least be facing in the right direction. So you’re gonna pay. I confess that I have a hard time personally relating to this particular problem, but hey, this is why we travel.
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So after three or four hours of travel we finally arrived in Ha Long, which over the past several years has started developing into a major tourist destination. And for good reason: the bay is stunning, dotted with nearly 2000 craggy, forested limestone islands. It’s an ensemble of postcard views, and I guarantee you that you have seen it a number of times in movies, including the 1994 classic Indochine and one or two James Bond films. It’s pretty much the archetypal view of Vietnam.

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We overnighted on what is billed as a traditional junk, which is a pretty big stretch. The Halong Secret is a metal vessel, not wood, though it sports the traditional scalloped sail of a real junk. It’s got about a dozen comfortable, compact staterooms, each with a full bath and an air conditioning unit. So, not exactly an ancient traditional vessel. It has a lot of company; the bay is filled with dozens of its cousins, particularly around sunset, all filled with tourists like us, ogling the spectacular view. The Secret was far from the largest such boat.

We motored among the limestone karst islands, soaking up the view, en route to the Sung Sot (“Surprising”) grotto, a limestone cave reachable by some 200 stairs, about halfway up the side of one of the islands. The ship’s tender brought us to shore and we made the sweaty trek up the stairs to the cave. It was enjoyable enough, not being greatly different from any other big cave (e.g., Luray Caverns in Virginia, the largest on the East Coast of the US), with spookily lit stalactites and such. It differed from those primarily in being high up on a cliffside rather than deep underground, which in turn meant that the interior was no less hot and humid than the surrounding bay. We’ve been in a fair number of caves; this is the only one that left us soaked in sweat.

Oh yeah… one other respect in which Sung Sot differs from most other caves is that, e.g., Luray was not used by the Viet Cong to store ammunition.

The tender ride from the beach back to the Secret was at about 5:30 PM, getting on towards sunset. The Secret raised its vestigial pseudo-junk sails to create a wonderful photo op as we approached, so here she is in her glory (and yes, this is a real photo).

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Back on board, we congregated for a sunset happy hour.

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By this time, no less than 30 other tour boats had congregated to admire the view; piloting those boats must be a nightmare with all this traffic. Everyone seemed to lay anchor here for the night.

I slept particularly well, Alice less so, no doubt because of the cinderblock softness of the bed, or possibly a pea under her side of the mattress. But we got up early enough to watch the sunrise, as well as an early-morning top deck Tai Chi session conducted by one of the crew members and attended by four women from our group.

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This morning we (and 30 other tour boats) motored back to Hal Long city itself to begin the next leg of our trip. I am typing this from Hanoi airport, waiting for our flight to Hue, the historical capital. So I expect that I will be reporting from there in a day or two.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:

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This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:

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Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:

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(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:

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The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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