Monday, February 7, 2011

Vietnam - Land of Extremes

After exploring the vicinity of Banlung for a few day’s and enjoying the relaxing (albeit dusty) pace of this remote, provincial capital, we start to feel the call towards the unknown: Another Country Beckons- Vietnam.

First sight of Vietnam
In the spirit of making life simpler, we buy a ticket that combines the border crossing with transport onward to the nearest major city, Pleiku on the main thoroughfare. After all, we don’t know how easy it will be to get reliable and reasonable transport onwards and since border crossings are usually where New-bies get fleeced, we feel we are being preemptive! It costs $12 USD each for the journey,

The mini-bus picks us up promptly at 7am at our guesthouse. We are the first passengers. Then it goes around and picks up some locals which ends up not quite as efficient. One lady (the trader) requires several detours and even finally needs her breakfast of noodle soup which she slurps on her seat. We aren’t very full though so at least the time taken doesn’t endanger our comfort.

We finally venture towards the border at 8am with only 7 passengers. The road used to be in terrible condition but is now nicely paved and we reach the border in good speed. It’s less than 100 km. There are many police/border checks where our trader lady haggles with the officers and most assuredly gives them some kind of “candy” to smooth the path. Sometimes the police checks are literally 1 km apart. But since we saw on the news yesterday that there were once again border issue disputes between Cambodia and Thailand perhaps this enforcement thing is a good idea. This area that we are currently traveling through was also one of the worst hit during the Vietnam War. so it has a violent and painful history and still remains one of the poorest.

The "busy" border crossing
at O'Yadao,Cambodia
Once at the Cambodian border, ready to exit we were still a bit surprised that there aren’t any other vehicles doing this route,so this border outpost is basically a ghost town. NO touts. Only some government officials (actually many more than needed considering the lack of activity!). They carefully check our departure card information perhaps a bit too thoroughly trying to fill in the time before the next person arrives?

Checking out of Cambodia...

Our driver waits and brings us to the next border crossing. Our trader doesn’t bother to check-in here, she is clearly making a round trip back to Banlung. Since we dropped a few other passengers off along the way, we are only four people crossing into Vietnam. We can still see the remnants of the New Year’s celebrations in the huge empty shell of a building that welcomes us into Vietnam. There are firecracker debris still on the floor and huge banners greeting the year of the Cat. Yes, in Vietnam the rabbit becomes a cat! Since Julane is from the year of the rabbit, she will now need to learn to purr for this country!

and entering Vietnam.
After completing the simple immigration procedure which this time was so seamless and transparent (i.e. no request for extra money/baksheesh), our driver was still waiting afterward and brought us to an empty mini-bus. He motioned to us to take the two front seats so we climbed in and within 10 minutes we were rolling along. The van stopped frequently to add passengers but he kept a brisk speed. Soon all the seats were occupied and even more were added. We realized that we had the VIP seats!

The flavor of Vietnam is entirely different to Cambodia. Streets are well paved and there is a hustle and bustle energy everywhere. It is clearly more modern and developed too, even though we are still in the more remote parts right now. It is also more lush and green. We see that there are loads of red flags with yellow stars in the center flying everywhere. Every house, business, etc has one fluttering on a pole at its entrance. We discover later it is for the “Foundation of the Vietnamese Communist Party” holiday approaching. They are very patriotic here!

Another big change is the number of motorbikes. They are like ants crawling about at high speed…everywhere. Their paths move just like the ants too-sometimes straight but often in a convoluted, frantic way. The most important part of the car is clearly the horn. It is used to warn everyone and everything. We thought that Cambodia was extreme, nope, this country wins the most noisy award in SE Asia (India and Vietnam are tied. Excepting that India doesn’t have the number of motorbikes to contend with…yet!) In Cambodia, we carefully mastered the art of Road Warrior rules; but now, we clearly have to learn a new set of rules. Cambodia was just the “training camp” for learning road skills, now we are in the big league!

Flying the Vietnamese flag
The driver drops us at the shiny-new, huge bus terminal in Pleiku. It is now 11am and we’ve made excellent time. Wow, we will arrive at our destination in no time, much earlier than we ever expected. What a pleasant surprise!! We are headed to Buon Ma Thuot (called Dak Lak for short) which is only about 250 km away.

There are many ticket sellers, one lady spoke a little English and says 11:30 to Dak Lak, 100,000 dong. Luckily we picked up some dong in Phnom Penh as it’s still a holiday and banks are closed. The dollar used to be also utilized in Vietnam but not so much anymore. We decide to only buy the tickets when we the bus in clearly in sight… just in case. There is a quasi bus time table which reads 12:30 to Dak Lak ? Julane roams around the cavernous and empty open parking area looking for a bus. Finally, a Ford oversized passenger van arrives empty. The driver says he is leaving at 13h. Okay, our luck is worsening now. Finally a big bus pulls with loads of passengers: it reads Dak Lak. Fantastic. Nope. Most of the passengers alight and board the smaller mini bus. Julane dashes in to buy the tickets and Patrick loads the backpacks into the back end and grabs the last two backseats. Okay it’s 12:00 now, and we might be off to an early departure since the van is full so no need to wait until 13h, right?

The driver is quiet passive but his “helper” is not. This guy’s role was very perplexing. He had a voice that was not just loud but also shrill enough that he could probably shatter a fine wine glass. We are now sandwiched into the back which is designed as 4 seater, but we are five people. The other two benches have also five people plus a few random kids. The fifth person sits on a flip down seat-at least it’s not a plastic stool which we’ve seen many times used in this scenario. A heated argument starts between some passengers and the bus “helper”. It gets loud and aggressive. A few people get out. I figure a fight will soon ensue. This man’s voice is enough to drive a person nuts; it grates on the nerves in a way that can’t be described. We aren’t sure why the other passengers are so upset and why they are being made to move. Nonetheless, we are still sandwiched into the back seat and now one hour has passed and we haven’t even moved an inch (neither the van nor our bums) and our ear drums are shattered. This should be a 4 hour journey and we haven’t even started yet. Our good luck is changing to bad luck.

Finally after shuffling people about and off, we head off, it’s 13h. Our one hour of anticipation is over. Next on the agenda, we pick up two people (full service VIP style, at their homes). They are the reason that some of the other bus passengers were so upset. These seats were reserved for them. But the VIP front seat didn’t look so comfortable in the end as they were also 5 people. Mind you, Vietnamese are very, very, very small and thin. I intimately acknowledge this as I got to know my neighbor very well during the long drive. Our bony hips spent hours grinding into one another.

The human sardine can
from Pleiku to Dak Lak
Okay, at least we are on the way now. But believe it or not, even with a bus about to explode with people, our “helper” still feels the need to add more. It is probably to fatten his wallet as we all have tickets, so if he can cram in additional passengers, he and the driver split the proceeds. Even the local passengers are getting upset. But to no avail, he pushes in a few more. One lady adds a plastic beach basket with a few chicken trapped inside into the luggage area right next to our backpacks..

He even takes a few cell phone calls and stops to add more cargo to the back. In the end, when clearly we have broken the world Guinness book of records for number of humans in a van, he finds a last victim and then forfeits his seat and crawls in the back in the space between our back seat and the van doors. This is where ALL the passenger luggage is, but no problem, he aggressively tosses them around and crawls on top of everything like a bed. Of course the chickens aren’t too happy to have a guest joining them. They squawk in anger, but just like the passengers cries, helper doesn’t care. Julane gets disturbed now as he is crushing the backpacks, so not only are we crushed like sardines, but so is our luggage in the verge of turning into compressed pancakes. Helper takes a few more calls and the volume of his voice only knows one level: super high. He even screams at top volume into his cell phone. Maybe he’s deaf?

We are again moving along now. We have a growing concern for our backpacks. Not only are they crushed, but also vulnerable to him trying to take something out. We don’t trust this guy at all. We’ve heard of people losing their backpacks in transit or losing stuff from them. Usually we keep an eye on them. So with this in mind, Julane turns around and sits backwards in the seat. It’s actually more comfortable as there is more hip room now. She watches his every move. He had been fidgeting around with his pockets…so Julane becomes the  protectress of all the passenger luggage now. Soon they drop off a squashed passenger and helper returns to arm the door and holler out the window at bikes and people who might compete for tarmac space and slow us down…although I’m sure he is also eagle-eying the next victim that might want a ride. We were secretly hoping someone seated next to him might get car-sick once the van  hit the curvy roads and give him something real to scream about. ! Yes, this guy gets the most horrible person award on our trip.

We arrive at Dak Lak just as the sun is setting. We don’t know where the bus will eventually end up so we just stop it when we see some busy-ness and buildings. Luckily we did as it continued in a direction away from the town center. And just at that corner, there was a hotel with a nice room. We decide tonight is not the night to look around. It’s got an elevator, a/c, shower with hot water, and even a mini fridge and TV and the highest speed of internet so far!

The person at the front-desk doesn’t speak any English but the price of 170,000 dong ($8.50) is clearly understood when written down. Then we attempt to ask about the bus to our next destination: Dalat. We fumble with our few pages of Vietnamese language from the guide book. We really wonder how far away we are from the bus depot. Since we need to leave early in the morning and hope to make a game plan in advance. Well the hotel girl makes a phone call and writes Dalat, then 7h, 8h, 9h and 12:30, 13h but she crosses off the first three times and circles 12:30. We ask how much and it is and she writes: 100,000 dong ($5). We shake our head, yes. Humm. This seems too easy. It seems that this country is about extremes so what’s around the corner now?

Our well earned first meal in
We leave our luggage and proceed into town. It’s about 2 kms away but the cool temperature is ideal for a stroll and there are huge sidewalks that are not being used for parking lots. This town seems so civilized. We manage to get money from an ATM and feel rich. People are all out and it feels quite festive due to the New Year activities going in full force.

... tasty street food
We end up dining au naturelle a la sidewalk. It’s a simple family run place with tiny tables with 10 inch high plastic stools. There are a few families dining and we point to some of the dishes and end up ordering two of them. We aren’t so sure what kind of meat they contain but they look interesting. Soon our table is filled with food and we tuck in. We devour everything. Even the soup with a tofu square cube that is dark red burgundy colored. Blood pudding, we surmise but it tastes fine. Ironically during the entire time in Cambodia, we rarely ate street-food and now on day 1 in Vietnam, we are eating unknown food on the street immediately. English is not as widely spoken here and Vietnamese is a 6 tone language…we are in trouble now.

Dak Lak Sunday morning market
Afterward, we stroll back and there is now a young man at the front desk who actually speaks a little English. He tells us that they can call a taxi in morning to bring us. So we have a reservation and he writes down the name and address of the bus company. WOW.
 In the morning, we ask again where the bus leaves from as we can’t really find it on google maps. Well it turns out that it’s about 3 mins walk away…this sounds too good to be true.

No that bus is better ...

But it is. We arrive, buy the ticket and wait for the bus which arrives on time. Then expecting a mad dash for seats, we devise our next game plan. But this time there is a bus conductor who calls out names and seats everyone respectfully starting in the back first. Luggage tags are even given to us. We were still packed in five people to each row. But the mini bus was wider this time. It was still tight but we didn’t stop to add more people along the way.

... but still packed full
The distance was about the same as our nightmare journey yesterday. But this time, the road was quite different. There were many hills and winding streets. It was like being in Switzerland again…the Swiss tropics. Now it’s time for a word of advice about Asian travelers: they don’t do well with motion sickness…on the ocean or in the mountains. When we boarded, there was a plastic bag and a bottle of water in each seat.
Great scenery on the way to Dalat
We thought it was a rubbish bag but now discovered its real use. People were vomiting quite a bit and tossing the bundles out the window. Even Julane felt a bit queasy but perhaps it was all the sounds from the back of the bus. We hoped that they didn’t run out of bags and vomit on the floor.

We arrive in Dalat at 5pm just before sunset: our favorite arrival time nowadays.
The trip was smooth this time and we have read that Dalat has thousands of hotel rooms and it’s Sunday night and the New Year holiday is over. Life returns to normal, right? Stay tuned to our next surprise twist in this crazy land of extremes…

As a little add-on at the end here a short video of the bumpy road from Dak Lak to Dalat