Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The trip to Kontum was one of the more intense ones we've taken. First, as we drove out of the city with the morning sun creeping slowly up the sky we were sitting in just the right spot to catch all the early morning rays. For the fist 45 minutes we were burning up there in the backseat. As the sun rose higher and gave us reprieve we made our way into the mountains where the roads became incredibly winding, tossing us left and right with every turn. I was still pretty tired and wanted to get a bit more sleep, but with the van swinging violently back and forth every few seconds, it was really hard to do so. After some experimenting and repositioning I discovered that if I scooted down and propped my knees against the seat in front of me, and wedged my head between the two head rests behind, I could stabilize myself just enough to get some rest. But I only got about an hours worth of shut eye thanks to our next dilemma: traffic. A long line of cars with seemingly no end in sight. Our driver didn't feel like waiting for it to clear up so he slowly passed everyone using the oncoming traffic lane, nosing his way back into line when oncoming cars made an appearance. It wasn't long until we came to the cause of the traffic jam. A big lumber truck had mismanaged a sharp turn and tipped himself over, blocking the entire roadway. There were no police cars or firetrucks or toe-trucks in site, but that didn't stop anyone from taking control of the situation and trying to fix it. Various civilian vehicles were pulled over onto the grassy shoulder of the road, their owners all working together to try and redirect traffic while they waited for more serious help to arrive and upright the truck. They had cleared a path through the bushes on the shoulder of the road next to the overturned truck and were directing drivers through the narrow dirt path. Traffic wasn't moving fast, but it was definitely moving thanks to these guys. Everyone in our van piled out as we neared the wreckage. We walked past the roadblock, checking out the monstrous underbelly of the truck as we passed. Our van pushed his way past the rest of the cars and skipped in front, was directed through the bushy detour, and picked us up on the other side. We continued on from there, enjoying (be sure to read that with sarcasm) the bouncy roads and winding curves as we passed by some lovely mountain scenery (not sarcasm) dotted with houses and crops of all kinds: pepper, dragonfruit, corn, rice, bananas, beans. Cassava was an interesting crop that at first had us confused. It looks awfully similar to marijuana from a distance, so we were wide eyed at the amount of pot that appeared to be freely growing in fields. But after some research we figured out that it was just cassava, aka: tapioca. The world made sense once again. We were waylaid for the second time halfway through our trip when we were pulled over at a police roadblock. The cop was obviously just looking for something to charge us with, because he kept levying bogus charges against the driver such as claiming that the front seat passenger wasn't wearing a seat belt when she was, or that the brake light was out when it wasn't. After a few more failed attempts we were sent on our way without any ticket. We continued unmolested for the rest of the trip, only stopping for lunch and a couple of leg-stretching breaks. One such stop was at a rubber tree plantation, which was exciting for Mom and me because we'd been curious about the trees ever since we first saw them back in Ho Chi Minh. Up close we could see that each tree had a short piece of plastic spiraled halfway around its circumference, with a wooden bowl perched beneath it collecting white sap from a gash in the bark. There wasn't much sap in the bowls, but I suppose when you have so many trees it adds up. There was a woman going from tree to tree pouring the sap into a big white bucket - harvesting the rubber. I don't know how it's transformed into the final product, but it's hard to imagine how the creamy white sap becomes hard black tires. Our van took us as far as the town of Pleiku. We were dropped off at one of the local bus stations, but not the one we needed to be at in order to catch our next bus. Lucky for us, one of the fellows who had ridden with us from Nha Trang spoke a bit of English and very kindly helped to get us on a free taxi shuttle. The taxi dropped us off at the other bus station, which was less a station and more a small dirty lot. It looked like the area had been used as a market that morning because the ground was littered with bits of vegetable and trash from an earlier frenzy. The bus was similar in quality to the ones we saw in India and we were definitely the only Westerners on board which got us a few curious stares from the other passengers. I recall watching the man in front of me as he carefully unwrapped a white gauze bundle and peered at the two bloody teeth that were nestled in it. I imagined that he must live on a farm somewhere out of town, and when he has medical problems he probably just waits until they're so bad that he has to see a doctor. By that time it's so far gone that there's nothing to be done but, say, remove the tooth. What a different life from the one I come from. I wait until the last minute because I'm lazy, not because I'm broke. Although, what do I know? Maybe he's lazy too and lives on a sweet piece of farmland with big screen TVs and a talking toilet. You never do know. The bus left promptly at 2:00 PM, surprising us with it punctuality. We left the town behind and drove for a good 45 minutes through lovely farmland scenery with a backdrop of mountains. The houses were all rather simple and boxy, although some homes looked like they had a bit of money. As we crossed the Dak Bla River the city of Kontum sort us sprang up before us rather than slowly melting out of the farmland. We crossed the bridge, and poof, there was the city. Lucky for us, the hotel we were to stay at was right next to the bus drop off. It was a big hotel too, but strangely empty as we entered the lobby. We checked in and headed upstairs to our rooms. They were nice rooms, but everything had this empty, dead feeling that was unnerving. It felt like a haunted hotel in a scary movie. We retired to our rooms and rested for a bit, took a bath and got cleaned up. I hopped online to see what I could find out about the town, such as where any travel agencies were located or other hotel recommendations. At around sunset we set out to find some food, a travel agency, and to check out another hotel. We made it to the hotel first, and seeing as it was pretty cute and cozy we made reservations for the next night. Then we searched in vain for a travel agency. We never found one. And food was harder to find than we thought. We ended up at a simple pho place whose owners seemed kind of excited to have us there. They had an adorable two year old daughter that they kept trying to get to wave at us. We tried to help by giving her a wave, but all she could manage to do was grin at us and stumble around on her little legs. She never quite got the waving part down. After eating we headed back to the hotel for the night. I was really tired and fell asleep at my computer a few times before finally giving up and going to bed.

The hotel offered a buffet breakfast with the price of the room, so we made sure to wake up in time to partake of it on the 27th. Once again, the empty, soulless feel of the place was unnerving. There were a few hotel staff hovering around the buffet, but other than that the huge banquet sized dining room was empty. And, as usual for buffet breakfasts in Vietnam, the food was not very good. We had some time before we needed to check out, so we headed outside to take in the river and surrounding scenery. We found a lot of those cassava plants, as well as a kapok tree with banana shaped seed pods filled with fluffy down. Chuck wandered down to explore the rivers edge while Mom and I took a stroll along the more distant sidewalk. We were struck by the fact that it looked like a lot of care and consideration had been put into making the sidewalk area look nice - with little areas for decorative plants and an attractive railing running alongside - but beyond that it didn't look like anyone was taking care of it. We had to watch out for the dried piles of cow poo that no one was interested in cleaning up. There was litter and trash from the previous night of socializing. Weeds were growing through the cracks in the sidewalk and the railing was rusty. That's not to say that I expect everything to be in tip-top shape everywhere I go – at home or abroad. It was just the contrast between the quality of structure and the quality of upkeep that I found odd. After the short walk we headed back to the hotel to shower and pack. We checked out and grabbed a taxi to our new hotel. It was close enough to walk, but we would have needed showers again once we arrived – Vietnam is a hot, hot place in the summer. Besides, the taxi was only $1 or so. We checked in to our new hotel, which was much, much better than the big, empty one. It was smaller for sure, but so much more cozy and welcoming. It had warmth and life. We relaxed a bit as we plotted a course for some sightseeing later that afternoon. At close to 2:00 PM we headed across the street to a tin-table restaurant that had some darn good food. They also had various pets running around the place, such as the self-assured cat that hopped up into Mom's lap while we were waiting on our order. Mom tolerated her for a bit, only shooing her away once the food arrived. After eating we walked down the road to a seminary that was home to a hill tribe museum. "Hill tribe" is an all inclusive term to describe the various groups that are indigenous to the central highlands of Vietnam, which is where Kontum was located. There are about 54 different groups in total, all having called the land that is now Vietnam their home since before the Viet-to-be came down from China a few thousand years ago. These tribes are one of the main draws for the few tourists who make it to the area. The seminary was obviously there thanks to the "white man" and his Catholicism, which the Vietnamese people have taken to quite well in the central highlands. The building was quite pretty, looking like something you might find in the countryside of Switzerland or Germany. We peeked into the dark church briefly, then tried to find the museum. We walked upstairs and down the hallways in each direction. Back downstairs we searched off to the east and out into the courtyard. We passed a number of empty classrooms, a small playground, and a fenced in garden. But we didn't find the museum. There was not a soul in sight, so asking for directions wasn't an option. In the end, we gave up and satisfied ourselves with poking around the seminary. I spotted a very cool red bug on a plant that I was compelled to photograph. I did a lot of research later and discovered it was a Lychee Stink Bug - a pest to lychee and longon trees. By the time we had explored the place to our satisfaction it had turned overcast and windy. Although we still had some other sights we wanted to see, we decided to head back to the hotel for the time being. The weather turned out to be all talk an no action though. The clouds rumbled on at us for a while but within a few hours they had lightened and we headed back out. We made our way to the wooden church, which was right next to the local orphanage. A bunch of kids were playing out front when we arrived and became shy and distantly curious in our presence. They watched us for a bit, some even bravely saying "Hello," before getting bored and returning to their play. The church wasn't special to my eyes. It was very plain and simple, with basic stained glass windows and no fancy decorations. We didn't even spend five minutes looking around the place. We took a peek at the orphanage playground - which was full kids - before moving on towards the village at the edge of town. We got a lot of stares and some "hello"s from the local people as we walked. Parents would frequently encourage their kid(s) to wave at and say "hello" to us. Everyone smiled back when we smiled at them. There was generally a very friendly feel about everyone. Distant, but friendly. The buildings became scruffier as we neared the village, and litter a bit more common. We turned right at the road that led to the village roonghouse (a special community building) and spotted its tall, steep roof not too far ahead. The village was not what my subconscious had been imagining. I guess I was expecting to see straw huts and wide open spaces. Instead, it looked the same as the town, with concrete houses and power lines. I did notice a bit of a difference in the people though. They didn't have as friendly a vibe as the folks in town. More direct staring and fewer smiles. I felt like we were invading their homes, which indeed, we kind of were. We quickly snapped some pictures of the roonghouse and instead of exploring the area more, we turned back to town. On the way back to the hotel we passed by a church that had just finished an evening service. People were streaming out of the front gates to make the walk home, many dressed in nice church clothes and a few little girls in frilly little dresses. We recognized it as the cave church that we had seen mentioned online, so we waited and watched until the crowd had almost dissipated, then went into the courtyard to have a look. Off to the right was the cave that had originally been used as the church site, a bunch of pews spread out before it and a virgin Mary tucked among the rocks along with some other religious decorations. There were a number of people sitting in silent worship, so we very quietly made our way to the back pews. A couple of old women stared at us as we took a seat, but unlike our experiences in the rest of town, their stares seemed to have a bit of venom. I tried giving one of the women a soft smile of acknowledgment, but she was unmoved and continued to stare with a hard expression. I suddenly felt rather uncomfortable, so after a few minutes I made my way back to the front gate along with Mom and Chuck. Perhaps they had some painful experiences from the war that our presence reminded them of. Or maybe I was just reading them wrong. Who knows. We headed back to the hotel for the evening, only stepping out for a late dinner at the same place we had eaten lunch.

Having done some research on Kontum tourist agencies, we decided to pay a visit to the only one in town on the 28th. We took a taxi there, even though (once again) it was within walking distance. The place was open, despite looking rather dusty and unused. We were interested in seeing the site of Dak Seang, which, although it was a fairly insignificant site, was where my Dad spent some of his more enjoyable moments of the Vietnam war. We wanted to see the area for the same reasons stated back in my Nha Trang post with the big Buddha. At first, the tour guy didn't know where we were talking about. I showed him some little maps that I had drawn of its location, thanks to some hard research online, which helped him. Once he figured out where we were wanting to go, we got down to the business of planning out a tour. The final plan was to leave early in the morning via a personal taxi complete with tour guide, stop at various points of interest along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including Dak Seang, and be dropped off at our hotel in Hoi An that evening. He also sold us on a ceremonial dance in a nearby village for that evening. All together it was pricey, but it was important enough to Mom that she even offered to pay a good portion of the cost. We paid in advance, making sure to get a receipt as if it made us invulnerable to being ripped off. Then we walked back towards the hotel, keeping our eyes open for food along the way. We stopped at a big, open restaurant with a lot of local people that ended up being delicious and cheap. Only $1 per plate. Back at the hotel we sat around in the backyard garden area and enjoyed the overcast sky and windy weather while reading and blogging. The hotel owner cooked up a delicious smelling meal on the outdoor stove which she fed to her two dogs, much to my dismay. She even did this funny little dance as she set down the bowls. I would not have expected such a thing from her, as she seemed so stoic and reserved whenever we had spoken with her before. At 6:00 PM our taxi showed up to take us to the dance ceremony. We did a tiny bit of sightseeing on the short trip to the village and stopped at long, one-lane bridge to take a quick look around. The scenery was beautiful, as is usual for Vietnam. It's really a very beautiful country. Back in the car on the other side of the bridge we continued along bumpy dirt roads with green vegetation on either side. The guide told us that we were going to a Banar village to see a ceremonial dance that is traditionally done in the Fall. During the real ceremony they sacrifice a bull as well, but they would be leaving that part out for tonight's ceremony. I was both disappointed and relieved by this. We arrived at the village as the sun was setting. It was much more in line with what my mind had imagined a "village" would look like. Most of the houses were small, square, wooden buildings, all of the roads were dirt, and unlike in town, plant-life was living harmoniously at the edges of the village. Our guide showed us to the roonghouse which had a teepee of wood set up out front, right next to the volleyball net, in preparation for the bonfire. Then he showed us down to the river just behind the village. Then he suggested we should just walk down the dirt road through the village and have a look. It was verging on full-on night when he sent us on our way, alone, with no flashlight. There were definitely no street lights, and most houses looked like they had only one light which they preferred to keep off until it was absolutely needed. So we didn't make it too far before feeling like we were going to get lost in the dark if we didn't turn back. Our guide had run out of places to show us so he finally admitted that we were waiting on another group of tourists who were supposed to be joining us. He said that the ceremony was supposed to start right at 7:30 PM so that the dancers could watch the World Cup at 8:00 PM (I loved it - a semi-remote village with barely any electricity and they are concerned about missing a World Cup match), but that the other group had run into mechanical problems. It looked they they were going to be missing the beginning of the game. We told him we were fine with waiting and felt much more comfortable sitting on the platform entrance to the roonghouse than walking blindly through the village. We ended up waiting for an hour, at least. We tried to talk with the village leader (I don't know what he would be called in the Banar culture/language), who was a sprightly old man with a very warm personality. He actually spoke English, but his accent was thick enough that he may as well have been speaking another language. At some point, he rang a gong in the roonghouse that was so loud that my ears hurt even with my fingers plugged in them. People slowly began gathering around the pile of wood, using their cellphones as flashlights to find their way in the dark. They played some drums and laughed and sang casually with each other as we continued to wait for the other tour group. Finally, they arrived. It was a big group, all Vietnamese people who (from what I could gather) were studying tourism at their university. Everyone gathered near the roonghouse and the fire was finally lit. Well, it was lit for the first time. It kept going out over the first 10 minutes and they would run in and try to relight it, even with the dancers slowly circling around, doing their thing. They resorted to pouring a bunch of lighter fluid on it and just letting it blaze. That seemed to do the trick. Meanwhile, there were maybe 20 people dancing leisurely and gracefully around the fire. It wasn't any sort of wild, jumping dance - much more subdued and gentle with a lot of wrist turning and swaying to the methodical beat of the drums. Some of the dancers took it seriously and moved with confidence and enjoyment, while others looked like they must be rolling their eyes at having to perform the ceremony. Between each of the four dances, some would whip out their cellphones and check their text messages and attend to their social lives quickly. Then back to the next dance. After the third dance they brought out a small vat of the local alcohol called Banar wine. There were no cups, so if we wanted a taste we would have to suck it up using the same plastic straw as everyone else. Mom and I took the risk and tried some. It was pretty good with a rich, sweet flavor. We learned later that it was made from cassava, which was surprising as cassava (aka: tapioca) is not very tasty stuff. And on the last dance, Mom and I were convinced to join the circle and dance with the ladies. The dance moves were the same as in the Macarena song that was so popular back in the 90's, but slowed down to match the steady drum beat. Even then, I just couldn't do it. It was too slow for my mind to recall the motions correctly. And my embarrassment at looking like such a fool next to the graceful women didn't help either. So I circled round the fire with them once and then ducked out back to Chuck's side. Once that dance finished, the girls gathered round and sang a couple of really beautiful folk songs (I assume they were folk songs at least - for all I know they could have been the top Vietnamese pop songs of the day though) and then it was over. Half of the villagers disappeared into the darkness while the other half stuck around to laugh and goof with each other. We headed to our taxi and back into town. Passing over the same bridge we had stopped at on the way there, we saw about 8 different couples sitting in the pitch dark sharing romantic time with one another. It must be the “make-out point” of Kontum. Bed time followed not long after arriving back at the hotel.

We checked out on the 29th, picked up from our hotel in the morning by our private taxi. Our sightseeing began just 20 km out of town at a site known as Skull Hill. One of the most ruthless battles of the Vietnam war took place there when the North and South Vietnamese armies fought for control of the area. The Southerners were killed to the last man. A weathered, lonely monument stands there today. We spent 15 minutes learning about the battle and in which directions Laos and Cambodia were (we were quite close to the borders there), then moved on to the next point of interest: Charlie Hill. This was the site of another bloody battle in which the South Vietnam army fought to the last man. The hill was a few kilometers from the road, so we just stopped along the shoulder and took a look from a distance. I think it's still covered in land mines too, which would make it un-explorable for the average tourist. Looking at it from a distance though, it looks just like any other hill. It's amazing how easily time and nature can hide even the deepest pain of the past. From there we headed into the town of Dak To where there was another monument. It was joined by two tanks in a courtyard surrounded by a fence. It was obviously not well maintained as the fountain was dry and dirty, and grass and plants were growing out of cracks in the sidewalk. This lack of upkeep was something we were learning to expect from Vietnam. Oh, there was also this little boy, maybe five years old, who followed us around from the time we entered the monument courtyard to the time we left. He never spoke to us, never asked for anything, hardly even looked at us. He just followed us around with disinterest. Rather strange. Back in the taxi we headed north a ways to a the site of an old, large American base, now home to a rubber tree plantation. You could see evidence of its history if you kept your eyes open for scraps of cloth and destroyed concrete foundations, but otherwise, it looked like just a rubber farm. We kept having to leap over these trenches that the farmers had dug to separate the different fields. We even got somewhat lost once. Our guide spoke to some of the field workers and got us back on track, though. We headed back to the taxi and up the road to a big intersection that took you to Laos or Cambodia, depending on which direction you chose. It was a brief stop, just long enough for Chuck and I to get a photo with the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" road sign. Another long stretch of driving later, we arrived at what was supposedly Dak Seang, the place my Dad and been stationed. I don't know if it really was the same exact place, or if the guide just took us to some small, old base and claimed it was Dak Seang. I suppose that ultimately didn't matter. It's enough that we are happy to believe that it was the real deal. From my Dad's brief descriptions of the place, it was small, surrounded by jungle, and filled with lion-cloth-clad members of the Sedang tribe. Today it's home to a small village (the specific ethnicity of the inhabitants is unknown to me), their wooden houses lining a strip of dirt road that runs 500 meters from the highway and ends at a rubber tree plantation (there are a lot of these in Vietnam). There were bits of what looked like an old airstrip, its crumbling remains only visible in a few scattered spots. There were a couple of small concrete structures that didn't seem to be in keeping with the construction of the rest of the village that I thought might have been leftovers from an old base. Other than that, it was just a village. Thanks to our guide, we were invited to watch an old woman weaving some cloth on a loom that wrapped around her waist as she sat on the floor of the doorway to her home. There were two kids with her that were pretty interested in staring at us instead of the TV that was on in the back of the room. We, in turn, watched the woman for a few minutes before thanking her and moving on to take in the rest of the area. We wandered up and down the dirt road for a bit before deciding that we had seen all that we were going to see and piled back in the car. We traveled on and found ourselves entranced by the beautiful tropical mountain scenery of the the central highlands. Lush jungles mingled with patches of deforestation and crop lands. Small towns and villages with tall roonghouses passed us by. The wind blowing through the open windows was crisp and fresh and the sun was managing to hold its own against the encroaching clouds. It felt almost magical to me. I had a very hard time picturing a bloody war being waged in such a lovely place. The two visions just don't at all match. We stopped at one of the roonghouses along the highway and were allowed to go inside. The whole thing was made of wood, bamboo, and ratan, from the floors to the ceiling. We made one last stop at the home of a young lady who was in the market for a husband. How did we know this? Well, we didn't know, but our guide did. In front of her house was a large pile of perfectly chopped wood, all stacked in a nice and neat, ten foot tall rectangular pile. This was like an advertisement saying "I'm looking for a man - look how good I can chop the wood. I'll chop your wood all day, baby." Or something along those lines, at least. I couldn't quite figure out if firewood is still used a lot these days or if the wood chopping is more of a tradition now than a practicality. But supposedly, it still means that a young lady is looking for a husband. After that last stop, our sightseeing was over. Good timing too because only an hour later it began pouring down rain. It was straight on to Hoi An from there.

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