The next stretch of Ho Chi Min Highway, to Kon Tum, is a totally uninspiring road, across the Dak Lak plateau, with very little variation in equally uninspiring scenery. The most noteworthy observation is that coffee made way for pepper – an incredible amount of pepper trees, mostly in large plantation-style plots, but often, similar to the coffee, sometimes just a few trees in a backyard. That everybody is involved is clear, every other house had pepper corns drying, on concrete front yards or on large plastic sheeting.
(1) Pepper trees neatly arranged on a plantation, and (2) pepper corns.
With so little to see, one starts to pay attention to the road. Mistake. In Mr. Huang we have a driver who drives slowly, is very composed, very patient, and doesn’t take risks, but just being on the road is already a risk in itself. We have seen some bad driving before, in India, China, and not to forget in Albania, but traffic on the Ho Chi Min Highway beats it all. The highway is just a two-lane road, of course, used primarily by motorbikes and by bicycles – quite challenging sometimes, with long and fairly steep slopes, onto which most cyclists push up their bicycles walking -, but add trucks and busses and instant danger is introduced. The concept of moving to the side is alien to the motorbike rider, thus forcing anybody overtaking him onto the other road half. And the concept of taking into account what comes from the other direction is alien to the truck or bus driver who is overtaking. Several times we ended up next to the road, the only way to avoid a head-on collision. Very stressful, I have to say, and quite obviously undermining some of the entertainment value of the HCM Highway.
(3) Accident warning sign, clearly warning smaller cars about getting underneath the big ones – the right of the biggest institutionalized, if you like. Why on earth they also put this in English, in a country where you are only allowed to drive if you are Vietnamese and have a Vietnamese drivers license, beats me.
Around Kon Tum, and also further north, many of the minority villages have something called a rong, a communal village house. Quite extraordinary structures, with very tall roofs, originally built without nails, just wood connections. At first I thought they would be spiritual buildings, but once I got inside one, I was amazed to see rows of school furniture; these are re-education centres, or call it indoctrination, with pictures of Ho Chi Min, as well as of Marx and Lenin, on the wall. Where in the world do they still teach Marx and Lenin? In some of the smaller villages the rongs were more attractively decorated inside, but still seem to function for the communist party, if the flag in front is any guide. In many cases, the local church – still many Christians in this part of the country, or at least many churches – was built right next to the rong, just to make sure, but I don’t think there is much competition anymore, it looks like the animist beliefs have been well and truly conquered, by either the communist party or the church, or perhaps both - an unlikely alliance.
(4, 5) Rongs, one near Kon Tum, another a bit further north, (6) which is also the one promoting communist icons. (7) The inside of another rong is more attractive, and illustrates the construction effort.
That said the villages, not only the rongs but also the houses, and all that goes with village life – people, cattle, ox carts, all the utensils on the porch – did add to the atmosphere. Just wandering around, you do get the impression that tourism hasn’t reached this part of the country yet; many people stared at us, and really strained their necks to keep looking at us when we passed, as if they had never – or at least not very often – seen Caucasians.
(8, 9) Village near Kon Tum.
(10) Two oxen being put to work, (11) one of them is less than impressed.
(12) The ubiquitous hammock is awaiting its occupant.
With the weather, as well as the scenery, improving - and the traffic diminishing - on the last stretch of our HCM Highway experience from Kon Tum to Hoi An at the coast, we did enjoy this part of our travels again. In places rubber plantations appeared again – the rubbish has never left us, mind you -, and other areas were just jungle, steep slopes where no people lived, no cultivation was possible. Quite dramatic, especially as the clouds started to close in again, mid afternoon.
(13, 14) Rubber plantation, grooves being protected. Apparently, rubber trees only yield rubber in the wet season, not now - a little cup is mounted at the bottom of the groove, through which the rubber slowly flows into the cup.
(15) Small waterfall along the road, one of many, this one not having been turned into a fun park.
(16) And jungle, in the last sunlight, whilst the clouds are moving in.
Some 40 km out of Hoi An, back on the coast, our driver knew a shortcut; at least, he had been told by his friend. It soon became clear that not many other people knew this shortcut, there were not many other cars on this very narrow stretch of road. Not necessarily a good sign; in fact, we soon got bogged down in between the many bicycles and motorbikes, and the shortcut took a good two hours. On another occasion we would have appreciated the beautiful rural village landscape we were passing through, but not today, not after a long day’s drive.