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Vietnam, Part 2 of 7




Part 2: The Road to Hue  

Mai’s family lived in Hue, the former Imperial City of Vietnam 600 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. Mai had made it clear that she wouldn't step foot on Vietnam Airlines, the country's flagship airline that consisted mostly of Russian-built Tupolev Tu-134s and French-built Airbuses. I don't know if the airline's safety reputation was as bad as the rumors said it was, but considering that the Russian airline, Aeroflot, once had the worst safety record in the world, perhaps her fears were justified. So, the family hired a van and a driver to be our transportation for the 13 days we were in the country. It was an odd arrangement: the van’s owner didn’t have a driver’s license, so he had to hire someone to drive his own van whenever he used it. 

Highway One stretches the length of the country from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north. Built by the French during the Colonial Era, the road fell into disrepair soon after the Americans left in 1975. The road is scarred not with potholes, but with what might be described as 'bathtub-holes' that could have easily broken an axle if our driver hadn’t remained alert by chain-smoking industrial-strength Vietnamese cigarettes. 

We shared the highway with teams of oxen, bicycles, and yoke-laden farmers carrying their produce to the market. The locals used the pavement to dry out banana leaves and grain, and planted gardens in the ditch that separated the lanes. On the busier stretches of the highway there were people at the side of the road posed like runners, waiting for a break in traffic to sprint across the road to tend their gardens.

It seemed that many people didn’t bother with tow trucks when their vehicles broke down; they merely gathered up their belongings and walked away. We passed buses and trucks that had probably sat on the road for decades: windowless, rusting hulks stripped of everything valuable and left to rot right where they’d stopped running. 

So, we swerved. Every few seconds, the van swerved around derelict vehicles, giant potholes, piles of grain, water buffalo, and washouts where the road had been swept away by flood waters. With all these mini-detours, the 600-mile drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue took 28 hours.

The Russian-built van we were traveling in was a story in itself: the metal seats were upholstered with a towel-thin fabric that did little to cushion the bouncing from the numerous bumps on the road. We Americans exchanged alarmed glances now and then as the van started to go airborne, while our Vietnamese van-mates remained stoic and uncomplaining the entire time. 

There was an exhaust leak where the gear shift lever met the floor. The air flowing under the van pushed the fumes into the cabin and out the windows, which remained open in the 90-degree heat. It wasn’t too bad, until we slowed down while passing through the small villages along our route and the noxious fumes settled inside the van. However, in a cruel twist of fate, Mai bought two jugs of Fish Sauce to give to her parents. One of the jugs fell over on the floor and leaked, mixing the pungent fumes of fermented anchovies with the ever-present exhaust fumes. 

Away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, the countryside and the people take on a different look. Life here is lived as it was hundreds of years ago. Rice paddies, looking like a patchwork quilt of green footpaths and shimmering water, stretch to the Annamese Mountains on the eastern horizon. ‘Pajama‘-clad peasant farmers, wearing coolie hats made of straw or bamboo walk alongside water buffalo pulling wooden carts. Barefoot children watch over younger children or chop firewood for the women tending to pots of soup simmering over cooking fires placed a safe distance away from their thatch-roofed huts. 

These are hard-working, diligent people, lean and weathered, immune to the quibbles and complaints of ordinary folks. As the road began climbing up into the mountains, the temperature began to drop. Dressed in our sweatshirts and blue jeans, we Americans shivered in the cool air as Vietnamese women toiled knee-deep in water in the rice paddies, bent over, planting and harvesting their life-sustaining crops. It was a humbling experience for me. 

One experience from that long journey to Hue stands out in my memory. At 2:00 o’clock in the morning, high up in the mountains under a starlit sky, we stopped at a tiny roadside restaurant. I’m pretty sure the husband-wife team who ran the restaurant were awakened by the sound of our van doors being slammed shut, but they hustled out of their sleeping quarters to serve us. 

I was wearing a fanny pack that held my wallet and passport and a Sony Walkman. Remember, this was 1993, long before smartphones and Bluetooth. I was curious to see the reaction of our waitress to the Walkman, something that must have seemed very strange and modern in their isolated mountain home. I handed her the Walkman, showed her how to don the headphones, and hit the play button. Her eyes lit up and she smiled as Michael Bolton began singing his love ballads in that dimly-lit cafe in the mountains of Vietnam. It was a heartwarming cross-cultural moment.



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