Driving in Vietnam

Just driving around in Vietnam is fun. You never know what you’ll see.

Our mission these next few days is to cruise the Mekong delta canals on a boat we’ve arranged to meet us about three hours drive south of Saigon. The driver down there is a precious older gentleman without a word of English and we have no Vietnamese besides some pleasantries and the names of some food.

He’s a pro driver, no doubt about that, in a nice golf shirt and slacks, and he works the car the eight blocks from the hotel down to the Saigon River and then follows it south out of town, beyond Cho Lon, Saigon’s sprawling Chinatown, and holds a steady course until the center falls away.

He gets the left lane and proceeds slowly, a campaign strategy he follows every bloody deliberate inch down there and later, back. He has a deep and resonant voice I don’t understand.

We first came to Saigon nearly twenty years ago. Cycles are still the main way Saigon Man and Woman get around, but since then they’ve largely dispensed with the demure way women rode the back of scooters, both legs to one side. Back then many more women wore the traditional Ao Dai, the thin, body length robe. Maybe that made it hard to sit any other way. Some women still sit that way but today most ride behind their man like they do in America. (There are a lot less pajamas nowadays, too). It makes good sense, the way things work. Eight million people just don’t take up as much room on scooters.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Steady ahead. If he hurtles all the way up to 60 kph, even on long, empty stretches, he seems to embarrass himself when he discovers as much and slows down. Maybe he’s working by the hour and if they say this trip should take three and a half hours then no way will he make it in three hours and a quarter.

The river becomes more of a canal. After a half hour the industrial outskirts present themselves, less kempt than in town, still dense, low-rise residential peppered throughout. Smart electric road signs overhead show the way. It’s a divided six lane highway for cars with about a two car-sized lane outside in each direction for cycles, and this goes on for miles and miles.

A web of canals starts. It’s really hazy today and I think it’s really hazy almost all the time. High forecast at only 89 today. It’s December. Winter.

A guy with a cart jammed with coconuts goes chugging by, pulling it with his cycle. A young man with sheaves of office paperwork on his lap angles off to the right. A most unlikely place for the Mercedes Benz Haxaco dealership, and then a stretch of corrugated roof and iron bar buildings, followed by a tended-green-space flyby, with the “584 Group” high-rises set back off the road. I am not sure why, but here is an empty lot full of dozens of mannequins dressed in ladies clothes.

Just about every hundred meters stand banh mi carts by the road. Restaurants that serve a variety of foods are for tourists. Vietnamese people eat at a pho restaurant for pho, a banh mi cart for banh mi and so on.

A dense section of replacement radiator vendors rises up beside a bunch of chest-high fan stores. Brick store. Fruit and vegetable carts. All of a sudden an exodus of huge, tall tour buses swoops and squeezes in with us humble cars and scooters and muscles us all to the verge.

Canals run every which way now and there are signs down here for copper, aluminum and plastics manufacturers, and wild fields sometimes along the canals, sometimes wetlands sometimes traffic and bustle and dump trucks way taller than your car, and fast, and in close and menacing.

A plant known to botanists as eichhornia crassipes, and to everyone else as water hyacinth, thrives in dirty water, and the random industrialization of the Mekong delta means it has come to the right place. Where we cross canals it is not clear that boats could navigate among the invasive, free-floating plants and indeed, later, aboard a Mercruiser with seats for 16, the pilot will be forced to stop and fight repeatedly to disentangle the motor from the plants.

Trash collectors pedal along, riding the wrong way with collapsed cardboard boxes tied to the back of their bikes. Photocopy! Baguettes. Dried fowl hang behind glass in rolling carts parked at the roadside.

Everywhere the length of this country women, men and boys hold down low plastic stools out by the road in front of shops and I will never reconcile their sanguinity with their proximity to the highway.

It’s never exactly rural but after 45 more minutes I imagine I spy clouds discernable through the permahaze settled back over Saigon and I even talk myself into believing the sky may be a little bit blue. Unlike in town, trees, bananas and ferns move up to the verge.

With all the cycles around here, Honda is a common name. A cycle shop puts a hundred stylin’ helmets in its show window. Next door an open-air, under cover restaurant has just as many chairs.

Furniture: Headboards, many of the same bureaus in different stores. They MUST price fix, or they’d cut each others’ throats.

Eventually traffic lights begin to just flash yellow and the road runs rail-straight to the south.

There is a story to tell (another time) about the route to Latinization of the Vietnamese language. After enough Ca Fes and Ca Phes and Cà Phês, I begin to wonder if Shop Ti Ni is a tongue in cheek ‘little shop,’ which, it turns out, is exactly what it is.

So I wonder if ‘Mai Man’ is trying to act cool.

Out here they seem to have settled into a repetitive rural diet. Restaurant (road stand) advertising is centered around the ubiquitous pho and banh mi, but there is more:

  • banh canh: a thick noodle from tapioca flour or a mixture of rice and tapioca flour.
  • heo quay: a crispy roast pork
  • hu tiu: clear noodle soup with pork and/or shrimp
  • bun rieu: meat, rice vermicelli soup, and
  • com phan, which I can’t seem to find out about. “family food,” maybe.

All of these roadhouses beckon you in to plastic tables and chairs to enjoy your lunch with, likely as not, welders’ arcs next door. Or a floor tile showroom.

Oh no! Just along the side of the road there, the most earnest man has lost his load of joss sticks, doubtless meant to make him a Chinese New Year fortune next month. His whole sorry load bumped off his cycle and burst its packages along the road and you’ll never see a more industrious gathering effort.

You can install lots of pumps in your gas station in a place like this because your customers’ cycles can kind of angle in in a way cars can’t.

After more than an hour and a half, now 50 kilometers south of downtown, we drive past the Tan Huong Industrial Zone, down in the Binh Chanh district. It’s newish and it’s huge, 200 hectares and already only 40 hectares unfilled. Every trip to Asia leaves me smiling at its capricious city planning. Here now comes a cluster of bridal shops.

A man riding pillion holds an eight rung bamboo ladder. It sticks out past the front of the scooter over the driver. That can’t be comfortable for either of them.

Sometimes the storefronts come to ten feet from traffic, with scooter parking, the terrace with plastic stools for the proprietors and the area for commerce in front of that, between the building and all the scooters, intercity buses and us, cruising right on by.

Now, completely nowhere special, we take a right onto a four lane divided highway with a maybe additional four feet per direction for scooters. The eye can see farther out here. Banana trees, right up to the road sometimes. We swing back left, back in the original mostly southerly direction. Then another right, and after two full hours, banana trees and their tropical fruited kin grow right up hard by the road and now, gradually, women have begun to use the don ganh, the shoulder yoke carrying pole.

The don ganh is a metaphor for motherly love. With her baskets of fruit or flowers or ceramics or who knows what for sale, mama shoulders the burden of providing for the family.

Don Ganh pole, non-metaphorically

•••••

Live-aboard boats line the canals tied up to the sides. Roadhouses are open-air under cover, offering shade with your banh canh and hammocks alongside for a relaxing roadside siesta after lunch. They hang side by side in rows, sometimes alternating with chairs.

Traffic police pull people over with their little blue and white police sticks. In a brief rural stretch, brilliant, deep green verdant paddies grow young rice. I don’t imagine you can grow harvest after harvest (at peril of soil depletion), but you could with this weather.

By now the road is a single undifferentiated slab, informally apportioned as a section on each side for scooters, and a loose, slightly larger third for both directions of cars, trucks and buses. We slam to a sweet, complete stop for a mother hen and her four chicks, wee babies all. She has fluttered out of the way of a car approaching on our left, the chicks are stranded on our right and all of Vietnam, at least the whole of this road, comes to a stop until the family is reunited.

And suddenly we are in a different, proper city with traffic jams and dead stops. Packaged goods are mostly red and yellow. Store after store. Red and yellow. A church displays Chinese temple architecture but with two crosses on top.

After three hours the Can Tho bridge, a monster, looms up across the Bassac River, the Mekong’s biggest contributory channel. Reasonably new (2010) and expensive (some US$342.6 million), it’s 2.75 kilometres long, Japanese built. A 90-meter section of an approach ramp collapsed during construction killing a disputed number of workers, but at least fifty.

It replaced a network of ferries.

Eventually a sign welcomes us to Sa Dec City. Now that the sign says we’re here our silent driver takes the opportunity to free himself from his seat belt. For what, some relaxed, safe city driving?

He sets himself apart from American male drivers by asking directions at a bus stop, directions that yield a right turn on Duong Hung Vuond, and then some local juking, back and forth to a street along the water where we stop beside the vegetable market.

The produce truck just ahead has its back door rolled up. It works with FedEx efficiency. Eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages and potatoes are stacked in bags filled to bursting. The red onion man cycles up and throws on two bags, cycles off. The ginger man rides up on a scooter and places three see-through bags on the ground at the back of the truck. He toots his little horn as he drives away, summoning the truck’s packing boy from a plastic chair down by the river, who packs them in.

Meanwhile across the street, two mere boys bring a cart up to the curb and heave a stack of five bags of rice, each as big as they are, one on top of the other and drive off. A very young woman, maybe the daughter of the shop owner because these little businesses are a family affair, tugs and tussles and drags the top two right back off and sideways onto the ground, opens and rolls back the tops and begins to weigh out smaller bags on a little green scale.

Meanwhile our driver has been on the phone. Soon as he stopped behind the produce truck he flipped on his blinkers and made two phone calls. In between them an incoming call. Another placed, another incoming. We don’t know where we are going.

He makes another call. The engine and the air conditioning are on. Now it’s been fifteen minutes. Across the way a team of three baggers and two women in non las get a production line going. In minutes we have a dozen and a half smaller bags. (Non las are those round, pointy top peasant hats. Coolie hats, some call them.)

Non La hats

We drive off, nothing seems to prompt it. The driver takes another call and we turn around and park in the same place on the other side of the street.

Bikes, shops, scooters, commerce. Busy busy busy. Plastic trash bins and stacks of buckets drive by on scooters. Another incoming call. We can hear that some of these are men and some are female. There is a team working on finding our boat for us. Twenty minutes.

We drive back the other way, and then back up again.

Now when he hangs up, instantly another call is incoming. Too many calls back and forth for us to believe there’s anything organized going on here. But there is, of course, and in the end we find our ship, the Gecko Eyes II, was anchored a scant block away the whole while, just blocked from view by all the activity of the market.

The corner shop approaches three dozen ten-kilo bags filled and still working as our host on the boat, Phuc, finds the car and climbs in, name tag around his neck.

•••••

Rice at that market in Sa Dec

Click here to take a five-minute ride through Saigon on the back of a scooter.

A few more photos. Click ’em to enlarge them:

Feast!

•••••

There are tons more photos of the world’s most photogenic country in the Vietnam Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?

Weekend Reading

Hunting for something interesting to read this weekend? Here’s the list you were looking for. And since we’ve had a couple of posts that touch on British imperialism this week, we start it off with:

The Great British Empire Debate by Kenan Malik at NYR Daily

But wait, there’s more! Enjoy these, too, and have a lovely weekend.

A Bakery in a War Zone by Lily Hyde in Roads and Kingdoms
How warp-speed evolution is transforming ecology by Rachael Lallensack at Nature.com
What science is like in North Korea by Andrada Fiscutean in The Outline
The Person in the Ape by Ferris Jabr at laphamsquarterly.org
America Is Not a Democracy by Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic
How America Collapsed by umair haque at eand.co

Cold Winter Weekend Reading

Next week I think I’ll post a vignette from a trip to West Africa, some form of which should work its way into my eventual book about African travel. As for now, along with everyone else on the U.S. east coast, I’ll be spending this weekend mostly indoors. Here’s some engaging reading to enjoy by the fire, or wherever you are:

Spies, Dossiers, and the Insane Lengths Restaurants Go to Track and Influence Food Critics in the Washingtonian by Jessica Sidman
One of Us at laphamsquarterly.org by John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Bridge to Nowhere and the Bays Road at East of Elveden by my friend Laurence Mitchell
Will globalisation go into reverse? in Prospect Magazine by Barry Eichengreen
The monster beneath at 1843magazine.com by Helen Gordon
They Began a New Era in The New York Review of Books by James Salter (recommended as a Salter fan. I can also recommend the 2013 compilation of Salter’s travel writing, There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter)

Cheers for now.

Book Excerpt: Train Thing

My two best Irish friends have gone all in on their first trip to Russia. Not just Dublin to Moscow for a long weekend, not these two. They’re right this minute bound for Irkutsk on a Moscow to Beijing Trans-Siberian train ride. They sent this picture, a frozen river, somewhere in Siberia:

It’s a good opportunity to share a chapter from my first book Common Sense and Whiskey, about our own trip across Russia. Please enjoy it.

THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY

If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.

The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome.  The boys in front  argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf  and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.

In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.  We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.

As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station.  Six litres of water is heavy.

Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.

•••••

Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.

The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.

Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation. And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.

•••••

Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.

Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.

During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.

In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons. 

In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”

E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.

Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals

If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.

The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.

Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.

The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.

Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.

The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.

A small writing/eating table. Bunks with bedding, the rough blankets in a Scottish tartan pattern.

A samovar sat at the provodnitsa’s end of each car (ours with bits of drying, fresh-picked wild mushrooms arrayed across the top) to provide water for chai or coffee. I’d remembered every possible gadget, but I’d forgotten plates and towels. I stole a towel and paid good money for plates from the hotel, but there was a plate with sweets and sugar and packets of chai, and a towel for each of us.

All the hubbub and noise of the station mixed with a sustained period of fiddling and adjusting as we fell over and bumped into one another, settling into home for the next several days.

Ours was the last unoccupied cabin in the carriage, so it made sense it was down at the end by the toilet, and Mirja rather liked the idea because it was convenient. And the toilet flushed with water, there was ready cold water in the wash basin, and there was even a roll of toilet paper, at least to start. They scrubbed it down sometimes. It didn’t even smell.

The baby next door kept waddling down to peer into our compartment. His parents, bless them, kept the kid quiet.

Everything eventually settled out and darkness came up to close around the Rossiya as we moved east of E-kat, in the rain.

•••••

Movement and noise, action and business at every stop. Traders crowded under the lights with food, furs and shawls. The Europeans and Americans popped onto the platform to stretch and take videos of the locals, and the wheels were checked and the kiosks thrived (and they were well-provisioned) and then the Rossiya groaned back to life and pulled away, and everything aboard settled back into the torpor induced by the rhythm of the rails. Continue reading

Book Excerpt: Forgotten History

Finland, a land to which I am related by marriage, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence yesterday, and that distracted me from noting another centenary on the same day, that of the largest man-made explosion in history prior to nuclear weapons. This article in Macleans quotes a local arborist who cut down a tree near the site of the explosion as finding that “the entire core of (the) trunk was a column of metal shards.”

Along those lines, from my book Out in the Cold,

“You can’t grow up in Halifax without knowing everything about the explosion. It simply can’t be done, A downtown furniture maker tells us. Not long ago he petitioned for and was granted rights to cut down a maple tree under the McKay bridge built across the narrows, just about where the blast occurred.

A 22-inch maple, with the growth rate at one inch equals five years, it would have been ten years old in 1917, the year of the disaster and, sure enough, it has a seared ring near its center. He will market it to the cognizant community.”

Here is another excerpt from Out in the Cold, about Halifax and the explosion:

FORGOTTEN HISTORY

Beautiful maidens and wildflowers fragrant o’er the moor grace few pages of Nova Scotia’s history. A town brought up on hard work, Halifax has a history of hard luck. Some of it is other peoples’ hard luck, it is true, but that only helps so much.

In September 1998 Swissair Flight 111 fell into Margaret’s Bay just outside town, about five miles out in the ocean. Private fishing boats, the Coast Guard and then the Halifax military bases responded, but the plane had broken up on impact and all 229 passengers were lost. There are two memorials out along the bay.

After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy’s Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw’s Landing to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.

Peggy’s Cove

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Deck Chair from the Titanic

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either.

Halifax is a mid-rise city, but if it aspires to more, it might not take kindly to my saying so. Pardon. An attractive, purposeful, working town with a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of Christmas trees and lobster, although Mirja makes a run at eating all the lobster in Halifax before it can be sold abroad.

It doesn’t look like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth across the water enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.

Because it has one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax prospered in wartime, providing men and materiel from the War of 1812 through to the onset of World War 1.

Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic rose to seventeen million tons a year from just two.

By 1917 businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas. Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.

The first regular, systematic convoy of war materiel from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on 24 June, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.

The Maritime Museum maps out a typical convoy: Two corvettes out front and one on each flank, trailed by five ships abreast, typically freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives, sailing alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.

Convoy traffic moved from Sydney to Halifax during winter, owing to Halifax’s back bay. The basin, with a surface area of six and a half square miles, jammed up with ships in winter.

•••••

By autumn 1917, a jittery uncertainty hung over the twin cities Halifax and Dartmouth; it had for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night against U-boats.

Thursday, 6 December: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship in transit from Rotterdam bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies, was keen to sail at first light.

Coal for its boilers arrived too late the day before, trapping the ship in the Bedford Basin behind the submarine nets overnight. The Imo had to bide its time one more night. The Norwegian captain, Hakaan From, stormed about the ship, livid.

The submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, from sailing into the harbor to join up with an assembling convoy. Laden with war supplies, it stood at anchor outside the nets overnight.

There was a time just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty and they, considerably more detatched, allowed munitions ships in.

The Mont Blanc carried a fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of guncotton and 35 tons of benzol, a high-octane gasoline, stacked in drums across her decks.

Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.

So worried had been the New York port authority when loading the incendiary Mont Blanc that before putting the cargo aboard they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails, and stevedores wore cloth over their boots.

Now both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.

Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain From, having sailed twice through Halifax before, felt familiar enough with the harbor to drive the Imo to its limits.

The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. Scarcely two thousand feet wide, it is precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.

Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but every sailor realized it didn’t matter. All too aware of what was to come, they bailed frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch the flames engulf the ships.

Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront in their horse-drawn wagons and the fire chief arrived aboard the town’s only combustion-engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.

When the big blast came it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown into their inhabitants’ faces.

The Mont Blanc heaved into the air and rained fire back down on the town. Its big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town as deadly shrapnel.

So terrific was the blast that it created a tsunami. Water drained from the Narrows, then flooded back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a Mi’kmaq Indian settlement washed entirely away, just disappeared.

The town burned. Home heating in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were stoked and burning on a December day. The heaters overturned, setting further fires.

At nightfall a blizzard closed over the bay, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 or 15 degrees fahrenheit. People with no shelter who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.

Halifax reeled. Worry spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn’t). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off, stumbled through the storm like zombies.

Rumors. Halifax was being bombed by the Luftstreitkräfte, the World War 1 German air force. How did they get their Fokkers all the way over here!? No, it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.

Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, many horrendously, and 2,000 were dead.

•••••

Get yourself a copy of Out in the Cold, or give it as a Christmas gift. As Amazon has it,

An inspired tale of high adventure, Out in the Cold is Bill Murray’s vivid portrait of adventure across the vast Northern Atlantic from the Arctic north of Norway to Nova Scotia. Murray begins in pursuit of a total solar eclipse in Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. He tests the culinary appeal of wind-dried sheep in the tiny Faroe Islands, befriends Inuit bone carvers in Greenland and camps with an itinerant Italian musician who dreams of building Greenland’s first luxury resort. He stands naked and freezing on an Icelandic glacier and later (with his clothes on), on the wind-battered Canadian bog where the first European stood 500 years before Columbus.

With a light touch, wry analysis and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns evocative, astonishing and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today.

Get Out in the Cold at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk. Or get the audio version from Audible.