Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku

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February 23rd 2011
Published: February 23rd 2011
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1: Van Ride To Quy Ngon 24 secs
Victory Monument Buon Ma ThuotVictory Monument Buon Ma ThuotVictory Monument Buon Ma Thuot

City Center. Large memorial highlighted by a concrete replica of an M-41 Tank
Do you remember the room that Martin Sheen had in ‘Apocalypse Now’? The one at the beginning of the movie that he had that bender in? The one with the ceiling fan that rotated with a sound like a Huey’s rotor? Remember when he started practicing his Kung Fu moves in front of the mirror until he finally broke it and cut up his hand? Well, Karen and I are living in that room. It’s in a central highland town called Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced Bon Me Tote). They never replaced the mirror but everything else is as it was.

After 4 nights in Da Lat we boarded a bus and rumbled over rough roads through miles of coffee bean plantations. The mountains reminded Karen and I strongly of the Blue Ridge in Virginia. The narrow potholed road passed through a series Montagard villages. Small dark children kicked balls along the sides of the road. Coffee beans were set out to dry on blue tarps along the way. The bus stopped every two-hours for potty breaks. The first one took place at a small thatched shack in the middle of nowhere. It was a mercifully short stop where the men
Karen, Tam and NguyenKaren, Tam and NguyenKaren, Tam and Nguyen

Vietnamese/ American refugees now living back in their hometown of Buon Ma Thuot.
urinated against roadside bushes while the women squatted in the shade of coffee trees. The road is so in need of repair that all women would be well advised to wear a sports bra on the journey.

The bus was large, comfortable, air-conditioned and equipped with a flat screen TV which entertained us with Vietnamese television comedies. Our second stop was for lunch and the meal was included in the $5 bus fare. Served on military style compartmentalized metal trays it consisted of rice and a collection of unidentifiable meats and tofu. We ate in a large open metal roofed mess hall with a collection of stall enclosed squatters at the back. We met a Vietnamese/ American couple from Skokie, Illinois. They had just moved back to Nam after 16 years in the States. He was an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) veteran. He had been wounded by a rocket propelled grenade at the battle of Kom Tum in 1972. This was a major fracas that resulted in the last major military defeat for the North Vietnamese before the Americans pulled out. After the North Vietnamese overran the central highlands in 1975 he was captured and spent
Waiting For The BusWaiting For The BusWaiting For The Bus

Did a lot of this while traveling through the central highlands.
4 years in a re-education camp. Think of a prison that offers continuing-ed. He and his wife are American citizens and are now permanently living in their home town of Buon Ma Thuot.

After a tiring 6 hour ride we arrived at our destination flushed, dusty and eager for a hot shower. The bus station is located 3 Km or a $3 US taxi ride northeast of town. We found a room at the Lonely Planet recommended Thanh Binh Hotel located at 24 D Ly Thuong Kiet St. (385 3812). Two women sat in the dark lobby watching a Chinese soap opera. They gave us a key for room 301 on the top floor. No elevator of course. Basic accommodation; 2 double beds, cable TV, hot water shower, fan. The price is 150,000 Dong. (About $7 US) per night. After the satisfying shower we went next door to the Trang Tran restaurant. They only serve one thing. Roll your own spring rolls. We were provided with a heaping plate of herbs and lettuce, a dish of grilled pork, vermicelli noodles, rice paper and dipping sauce. With drinks the meal costs less than $3 US for two people. The food
Thanh Binh Hotel, Buon Ma ThuotThanh Binh Hotel, Buon Ma ThuotThanh Binh Hotel, Buon Ma Thuot

Small hallways. Good sized rooms. Clean. Cheap.
is delicious. We met a young man eating there who spoke excellent English. After making small talk he bought us an instant lottery ticket from one of the omnipresent women vendors who sell these particular items all over Vietnam. They come in little plastic envelopes and are strung on what looks like a jailer’s key ring. They cost 2,000 Dong each (ten cents US). You tear open the envelope to reveal the numbered ticket inside. If your number matches any of those in the little book she carries with her you can win anywhere from ten cents to $600 US. Karen and I had a very minor run of luck which we quickly reinvested in more tickets. By the time we finished eating, our table was piled high with discarded plastic envelopes and losing numbers. For a total investment of fifty-cents we had a great time, met some fun people, got everybody around us laughing and learned a new facet of life in Nam.

We had decided to go to Pleiku for the next stage of our trip. I caught a ride on a motor bike taxi sitting in front of the hotel. This means that you’re riding on
Coffee PlantationsCoffee PlantationsCoffee Plantations

Mountainous countryside is chock full of these trees.
the back of a scooter. Stace knows what I'm talking about. Everybody in Nam with a scooter (and that’s just about everyone) is a potential business person. Negotiate the fare before you get on, wear the provided helmet (mine bore a decal of Tweety-Bird) and hold on tight. I got to the bus station, bought my tickets and got back on for the ride home. About half way there my driver was pulled over, along with a dozen other unlucky locals, by two very serious looking police officers who were charging the offenders with improper lane change. This in a country where lanes are nonexistent. At the side of the road, behind a card table decorated with the flag of Vietnam, sat three officials busily scribbling into a huge book that sat on the improvised bench. My driver became very nervous. He pulled some documents from his worn wallet and presented them to the officials. Not quite sure what was happening, I whiled away a few minutes examining Tweety (God, how that bird makes me laugh!) and looking around. Suddenly one of the officials hissed at me (That’s how Vietnamese get one’s attention. Restaurants are a veritable brood of vipers
Buon Ma Thuot Art WorkBuon Ma Thuot Art WorkBuon Ma Thuot Art Work

Lobby decoration in our hotel.
as patrons call their waiters) and called me over to the card table. When I got there, with a stupid smile on my face, they told me that my fine was 50,000 Dong to be paid immediately. I asked them what I was being fined for. Suddenly all of the other offenders put a meter of space between me and themselves and quickly turned their heads away. It got my attention. I wiped the smile off my face and paid the fifty and the best I can figure is that any passenger in a vehicle that breaks the law in Vietnam is subject to punishment. Food for thought.

Buon Ma Thuot is a busy town. Its economy is dependent on the growing and processing of coffee. Cafés abound in this very walkable city. Our hotel is right next to the Victory Monument which commemorates the March 3rd, 1975 ‘liberation’ of the city by the Army of North Vietnam. There is a large enclosed central market place just around the corner from the hotel where you can buy everything from fresh fish to clothing. Westerners are rarer here than they are in Da Lat. Everywhere Karen and I walked we
Central HighlandsCentral HighlandsCentral Highlands

Beautiful countryside.
were met with kind curiosity and friendly smiles. Children would follow us up the street saying ‘Hello’ whenever they caught sight of us. It’s strange being the most notable people in town. One odd thing we noticed was that mothers of small children would occasionally push their kids towards us, forcing them to make verbal or physical contact. We tried to be as gracious as possible but we did think it strange and uncomfortable for the kids. Near the market at 123 D Le Hong Phong is the Hanoi Bakery. You can choose from a selection of small cakes and bags of cookies perfect for hotel room snacks. They also sell a wide variety of drinks and candies. I bought a bottle of Passion Fruit juice. Karen and I later learned that the bottle contained Passion Fruit concentrate. We discovered this when we drank it straight and our mouths exploded. Delightfully. One bottle of this stuff, diluted with a gallon of water will provide you with a pretty spectacular beverage.

South of the main market, interspersed among clothing and kitchenware dealers is a collection of salvage operations. Men are busy disassembling auto transmissions and transaxles for spare parts to
Buon Ma Thuot SalvageBuon Ma Thuot SalvageBuon Ma Thuot Salvage

Intermingled with food and clothing vendors. Busy place.
be resold. Gears are carefully sorted and stacked like poker chips. Just down the lane is a body building gymnasium where health conscious Vietnamese men can be found lifting weights and preening before mirrors. We found a few of these places in town. The only place in Vietnam we have ever seen them. We also saw two large buildings decorated with the Olympic rings. One looked to be a swimming venue.

On our last night here we dined on spicy Pho Bo, eschewing the pigs feet that the vendor eagerly offered us for some mundane beef. The Pho was among the best we have eaten in Nam. The cart sits on the southwest corner of D Le Duan and D Nguyen Cong Tru across the street from the Baby Land amusement park. The Pho is only 15,000 Dong for a huge bowl. From there we walked along D Nguyen Cong Tru to Café Hoa Da Quy. We sipped fruit shakes on the roof terrace surrounded by flowering Bougainville that swayed in the cool evening breeze. Across the street at the high-priced Damsan Hotel, neighborhood kids played hide and seek in the empty hotel parking lot. Buon Ma Thuot has
Spring RollsSpring RollsSpring Rolls

Buon Ma Thuot eatery. Build your own.
been very good to us.

The next morning we took a 16-passenger van to Pleiku. Larger public vehicles do not run this route as there isn’t enough business to fill a forty-passenger bus. Pleiku is near the Cambodian border. It is also close to the site of the battle made famous by the Mel Gibson movie; ‘When We Were Soldiers’. Our driver was maniacal. Driving at speeds up to ninety-miles per hour over a two lane road dodging pedestrians, scooters, buses and Chinese tractors hauling produce at 15 mph. We had a 15 minute break mid-way at a roadside restaurant serving nothing but soup. We arrived in Pleiku at 10:30 AM and immediately bought our tickets for the next leg as I didn’t want to repeat the scooter incident again.

Pleiku was home to a number of large American bases during the war. The town was overrun by the North Vietnamese in 1975. The South Vietnamese troops put the town to the torch before leaving it to the enemy. Over 100,000 men, women, children and ARVN soldiers left Pleiku and fled for the coast 168 km away. After endless ambushes by the NVA and VC it is conservatively estimated that over 60,000 of these refugees were killed before they could reach safety. It is known as the ‘Convoy of Tears’. Pleiku was later rebuilt with Soviet assistance and looks like it. We got a room at the Dang Xua Hotel at 84 Hung Vuong Street for 200,000 with A/C, hot water, WI-FI and cable TV. We never used the A/C as the weather never got above 75 degrees F.

We walked the town. As it was Sunday there was little going on. Most of the businesses were closed and the Lonely Planet restaurant recommendations no longer existed. Our Lonely Planet copy was last updated in 2008. We found a restaurant called MY TAM II. Located at the north intersection of D Nguyen Van Troi and D Phan Boi Chau. Ridiculously good, roasted crispy chicken served with tomato/ garlic rice and a salad. Food and drinks for two came to $6 US. The place was packed with friendly Vietnamese families. It was so good that we went back for dinner too. Truth be told we couldn’t find anything else appealing. There are very, very few westerners who travel out this far in the central highlands. As such be
Pleiku Bus StationPleiku Bus StationPleiku Bus Station

Large comfortable facility. The parking lot perimeter is crowded with cafes.
prepared to use your phrase book, draw pictures or mime. Be patient and everything will be fine. The folks here are very friendly and will do anything they can to help you but there is a language barrier here and also, to a lesser degree, in Buon Ma Thuot, . The best thing you can do to help yourself is to learn to count in Vietnamese. It is not a particularly difficult task and it will make traveling in the hinterlands much easier. Vietnamese are greatly impressed when a foreigner is capable of saying even the simplest things in their language. Your respect for their culture will spur them on to even greater assistance.

For Vets like myself who are thinking about visiting battlefields or old stomping grounds, be advised that anything that could be salvaged, was salvaged by the Vietnamese a long time ago. Battlefields are now overgrown with vegetation and abandoned vehicles were melted down for scrap years ago. It’s the same place, but for those of you who served here, it will look different to you and perhaps that’s a good thing.

We abandoned plans for Kon Tum and headed, once again, in a 16-passenger
Looks Roomy Doesn't It?Looks Roomy Doesn't It?Looks Roomy Doesn't It?

Not for long as we ended up well packed amongst Vietnamese travelers.
van to the city of Quy Ngon on the coast. Same story. After riding around in circles for 90-minutes waiting for the driver to drum up a load of passengers we sped down the mountains. Same high speeds with the added attraction of double passing flatbed trucks which are stacked 20-feet high with sugar cane. Cows are free grazing along the road side. The driver, who looks to be 20-years old, doesn’t know how to use the manual transmission he’s been cursed with. As a result, he starts from a dead stop in second gear and shudders along rattling your fillings. When he gets to fourth gear he lets gravity take over and rides the brakes incessantly. It took a while to clear the smell of burning brake pads from my sinuses. The average Vietnamese male stands 5’ 2” and weighs 105 lbs. A sixteen-passenger van might hold 9 normal sized westerners at best. We were crammed in shoulder to shoulder. Our knees pressed into the seat in front of us. Tom Denson would not have been a happy camper! Everybody swayed together as the driver drifted back and forth through traffic. Just outside An Khe we encountered 6 horrible
Our Room in PleikuOur Room in PleikuOur Room in Pleiku

Quiet and comfortable. Great WI-FI.
truck wrecks in a single one kilometer stretch of road. Some of the trucks had keeled over from being overloaded. This scene doesn’t slow our boy down a bit. By the time we get to Quy Ngon, Karen and I have officially removed vans from our list of acceptable ways to get around Vietnam.

Dang Xua Hotel dangxuapleiku@gmail.com 84 Hung Vuong Str (84-59) 3824515 200,000 D

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Convoy of TearsConvoy of Tears
Convoy of Tears

Photo taken of exodus to the coast from Pleiku.
My Tam II Chicken, PleikuMy Tam II Chicken, Pleiku
My Tam II Chicken, Pleiku

The best food we found in Pleiku.
The Infamous VansThe Infamous Vans
The Infamous Vans

Never again.

26th February 2011

Convoy of tears/Battle Report
Thanks for the updates! The pictures in this particular travel digest really hit home with me. The guys I knew who served in Nam were pretty quiet; but I think I got a glimpse of why you almost must go back. That whole time was such a big part of our lives. It truly is a beautiful (albeit third world) country with the foresight to save a couple of worthy items for foreign review! Amazing! Keep updating us and please stay away from those masseurs! Have a great time, safe travels our friends, Jane

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