This is our third installment of our trip across Vietnam’s central highlands. We took a 5-day motorbike ride from Dalat to Hoi An after meeting Mr. Quang in a Dalat cafe.

Day 3

Our day started by sharing our morning coffee with Mr. Quang. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, there is nothing quite like Vietnamese coffee. With sweetened condensed milk, it is a chocolaty sip of decadence. After our morning coffee, we headed to the local outdoor market in search of some fruit. We love the Asian markets. Live chickens were being stretched out for potential buyers. We have no idea how to tell a good chicken from a bad one, but stretching them out apparently means something to the buyer. Mini butcher shops surrounded us with ladies chopping up various meat products. Like other markets, live fish, eels, frogs, and crabs littered the ground in bowls. To our surprise, a vendor at this market sold live squirrels as well. I took a look around to see if I could help them escape, but being foreigners all eyes were on us. We bought some bananas and some oranges after haggling just a bit. There is a big debate among travelers whether to haggle for cheap items like fruit and vegetables. We believe you should always haggle in Asia. Granted, the items are dirt cheap but quoted prices are never actually what the seller thinks is a fair price. Our word of advice, always haggle. It’s just part of what makes Asia fun!

By the time we returned, Mr. Quang was ready to go. We headed out onto the main highway and headed to Kon Tum. We weren’t more than a few kilometers out of town before we came across a horrendous motorbike accident. A young family collided head on with mack truck. Reality is far more worse than the imagination. The lifeless forms were more like ragdolls than bodies. It looked like the young toddler and mother could have survived if they were wearing helmets, but the father didn’t stand a chance. As we drove closely past the scene, it all seemed somewhat surreal. No one covered the bodies or rushed around; it was as though it was an every day event. I never wanted to see something like that again, but in our short time in Vietnam we’ve already witnessed our second fatal accident. I haven’t looked up the motorbike fatality rate in Vietnam yet, but I bet it is quite high and an everyday occurrence.

We rode further into the highlands past more pine forests and coffee plantations. We took a short stop to photograph the plantations, and noticed a family digging a well. There weren’t any drills present though. No, this family was digging the well by hand. Inviting us over to watch the process, they told us it would take them 2 months to dig a 50 meter well. Digging one bucket at a time, they accumulated a large sand pile in their front driveway. They used a little crank hand operated by two people to hoist the buckets out of the well. I imagine this is how our ancestors dug wells, but it was crazy to see in person. It was truly laborious work.

Hitting the road again, coffee plantations eventually gave way to rubber plantations. Acres of rubber trees lined the road. We stopped for a quick tour and learned that the trees are sliced which causes the sap to run out. The sap, or latex, is collected and later mixed with other chemicals to make stronger rubber. The trees have a lifespan of about 30 years with 15 of those years serving as rubber producers. In between the rows of rubber trees, workers laid fertilizer in anticipation of the next generation of trees.

Leaving rubber trees behind, we entered peppercorn land. As soon as we hit the peppercorn plantations, we could smell and taste the pepper in the air. Like the coffee beans, peppercorns dried on blue tarps in front of almost every home. To turn them over and over, little ladies constantly raked the black seeds. We stopped at one such plantation for our coffee break and took a nap amongst the wafting pepper.

We stopped for another break just outside of Pleiku to check out a crater lake. At the lake, a college student approached us and started chatting. We thought he just wanted to practice his English, but later he caught up to us on the road and followed us all the way into Kon Tum. He pulled up alongside us and stayed there. As we drive a bit on the slower side, it was really strange for him not to pass us. We couldn’t figure out what he was doing, and eventually he manuevered himself between our guide and us. Right on our guides back tire, Mr. Quang was visibly irritated with our new found friend. He kept swinging his head back to get a look at the guy, but couldn’t get one. To this day, we still have no idea what he was after. When we pulled over to our guesthouse, he just kept going. It was the most bizarre interaction, but at least it kept the last hour of our journey interesting.

Upon reaching Kon Tum, we headed out to the orphanage. Kon Tum is surrounded by poor minority villages and many families cannot afford to raise their children. Walking past the front gates of the orphanage, a nun greeted us and showed us around the grounds. The girls of the orphanage sang a Vietnamese song along with “if you’re happy and you know it” as we clapped on. We visited their garden, and eventually found ourselves in the toddler section. We were swarmed here with toddlers begging to be picked up. It was heartbreaking to see so many kids yearning to be held. In the toddler room, there were two 9-day old twins whose mother died in childbirth. There was also a 2-month-old child that villagers saved from an early death. The custom of his community is to burn the baby with the mother’s body, but someone brought him to the orphanage instead. Of the 216 children at the orphanage, 70 don’t have a mother, 51 don’t have a father, and 17 are from divorced parents. The rest are from poor families that cannot afford to care for any more children. Overall, the children seemed fairly happy. Adoptions are incredibly rare, so most children live at the orphanage until age 19. If they pass their exams, the nuns pay for their college.

That night we ate fried chicken and rice. We tend not to like fried chicken, or chicken on the bone of any kind, but this was the best fried chicken we have ever tasted. I have no idea how they cooked it, but the chicken was extremely crispy and tender. For dipping sauce, they served us black pepper with salt and lemon. It tasted different than lemon pepper, and we really hope we can recreate it when we return home. It was a perfect compliment to the chicken.

We went to bed tired and sore. Our outlook on the ride changed from excitement to one of dread. Five days on a motorbike is a long time.

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