The Red Road to Gia Nghia

It was an early start by any standards. So early, I can recall the time exactly; 4:20am.  Ho Chi Minh City was damp and very dark. But we had to be in Gia Nghia by 9:30am. Nevertheless, five hours to drive 245 kilometers seemed extraordinarily conservative, given that the entire journey would be along the four-lane Route 14.  Within an hour, I knew why the day had started in the middle of the night. It seemed as though the entire route was under construction; a muddy ribbon of red dirt, full of axle-breaking potholes, slow-moving trucks and buses. Sometimes the traffic thinned out enough to get a true sense of how road construction in Vietnam works…Lesson One: Don’t bother with detours, traffic cones or warning signs, just get on with it!

Gia Nghia is the capital of Dak Nong, a relatively new Province in the Central Highlands. The almost imperceptible climb from Ho Chi Minh City is marked by a welcome drop in temperature and humidity as well as a distinct change in the local architecture.

Wood construction replaces brick and stucco and roofs typically include deep overhangs of overlapping galvanized ‘sheds’. And that’s what they do; shed water quickly and away from the main structure of the house.

Sometimes, longer lasting tiled roofs are preferred by those who can afford them.  The mill work on doors and windows is also a distinctive regional feature and quite different from what we were used to seeing in Ho Chi Min City.

The red clay and rusting roofs are everywhere and leave a lasting impression when framed by the lush green backdrop of rubber trees and cashew nut plantations.

Hard against the highway, a daily market adds to the congestion but also provides a welcome respite from the discomfort of the trip. Unfortunately our schedule dictated that most of my photos had to be taken from a moving car. Sitting in the heart of my blurred image of busy shoppers is a stall-holder and her baskets of fruit. If only we could have stopped!

Highway 14 is an important national route through the Central Highlands, hugging the Cambodian border in places and eventually leaving the mountains and reaching the coast near Hue and Da Nang. Buses, therefore, are commonplace and mostly this size, carrying passengers efficiently (if not a little uncomfortably) between the main cities that punctuate the route.

But the cities on Highway 14 are quite a distance apart, so it would seem that there’s plenty of room for local enterprise – even if that means having to accept that your neighbors might not apply the same standards of window dressing as you!

And some places just seem to be waiting for the new road construction to be completed before carrying out their own face-lifts. We were getting used to seeing the incredible amount of road-side commerce that seems to characterize all of Vietnam’s main highways. Our partner, Phong’s Magical Mystery Tours were, I’m sure, deliberately designed to show us parts of the country most visitors never see. I think the Beatles would have approved…

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Hoi An: Another world.

After a rather depressing morning’s drive along Da Nang’s poorly planned water front, we left the beach and headed a little way inland along the northern bank of the Thu Bon River to Hoi An. What an antidote! In 1999, Hoi An was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This ancient trading city was once Southeast Asia’s most important port and has been visited over the centuries by seafairers from all over the world and settled by several diverse ethnic groups.

You have to buy a ticket to get into the heart of Hoi An.  It helps pay for the ongoing renovations and is the least you can do to contribute to the upkeep of this fascinating place. Our business partner, Phong from Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat insulted but kindly paid the $9 for his two guests to join him on a tour of the city.

The streets were quiet in September, no doubt much to the annoyance of the shop-keepers.  It was very warm and humid and there were thunderstorms most afternoons. But it was wonderful to experience Hoi An without the crowds and coach-parties.

Once upon a time, these were the homes of merchants.  Now they are shops that house merchandise. These buildings are fascinating, with their narrow fronts, deep wood-paneled rooms and internal courtyards that were essential in bringing natural light to the center of the homes. What were once bedrooms, now open onto a gallery that animates the upper floor.

Several layers into another of the former merchant houses, this bedroom is protected from the noise of the busy street. The windows have shutters but no glass. Deep overhangs protect the rooms from rain while enabling air to circulate through the internal courtyard.

Some of the most important homes faced the quayside which, in turn, overlooked a sheltered arm of the Thu Bon River.  The homes across the water are located on An Hoi Islet, once an island on the river delta. The ‘islet’ is now a peninsula. The waterfront market brings much-needed activity to a quayside that in former times would have been packed with boats.

This waterfront bar opens onto a tiny sidewalk. Across the street the wide quayside provides pedestrians with plenty of room. So, why not reduce the sidewalk to a minimum by introducing several planters and extending the seating onto the street? An example for us all in how to circumvent building codes !

This is a working boat and Hoi An is a working town. While tourism is an important – no, essential – part of the economy, there is a definite sense that the city, which has a population of 120,000, has a life beyond catering for visitors. Fishing, for one, is an important economic activity for Hoi An.

The covered, wooden Japanese Bridge, complete with its own temple (to the left) is Hoi An’s iconic structure.  It’s in every guidebook and every visitor must visit the bridge and photograph it.  How often do it’s two docents have the bridge to themselves? It was too good a moment to miss.

The Japanese merchants and their families were important residents in Hoi An. But so were the Chinese who built temples that were too big and certainly too ornate to install on a mere bridge.  This may be the city’s only other visitor the day that Philip, Phong and I were there.

When the sidewalks are narrow and, in any case, are full of bicycles and motos, it’s probably safest to walk in the road. Decked out in dark pants and starched white shirts, we blended seamlessly with the locals as they went about their business (Phong is on the left, conducting the tour).

Hoi An is a city full of restored buildings but this new street, just steps from the Japanese Covered Bridge, is built to a simple set of design guidelines.  It works, apart from the light poles. But I feel strongly that we can forgive Hoi An this error (and, anyway, they will no doubt be replaced in due course…)

A typical row of shopfronts. The beautiful, weathered aquamarine wash on the plastered dividing wall was a common color choice.  I was also intrigued by the stone bases on which the wooden columns rested.  I wonder what they were for?

Not all of Hoi An’s temples were designed for maximum impact. This one reflects the intriguing ‘layered’ architecture of the city.  It seems that there is always something just beyond one’s vision, out of reach…

Across the Delta

It was still dark when we left Ho Chi Minh City, heading Southwest to Can Tho and the heart of the Mekong Delta. We were entering a region a little smaller in area than Switzerland, with a population a little larger than Chile’s. The Mekong river system – the world’s 12th longest – rises high in the Himalayas, travels 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles) through six countries and drains 307,000 square miles of land. The Mekong Delta is one of Southeast Asia’s great food baskets, producing considerable quantities of fish, shrimp and more rice than Japan and Korea combined.

Once out of the city, the land pattern of the delta began to emerge.  Our route to Can Tho was punctuated by one bridge crossing after another as the road carved its perpendicular course across the myriad waterways that comprise the Mekong river system. At each major crossing, a bustling town would cling not only to either side of the road but also along each riverbank, accentuating a crossroad of land and water.

Crossing a typical bridge.

Our first stop was for breakfast. I had experienced many a dreary halt at highway rest-stops in North America or ‘motorway service stations’ in Europe. So imagine my surprise to encounter the Vietnamese equivalent and find it so utterly superior to its ‘Western’ counterparts that it did not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. A series of large thatched, open-sided pavilions sat away from the road among lush landscaping, carefully designed to reflect the natural vegetation of the region.  Breakfast was Bun Bo Hue, a traditional light but flavorful broth of beef and pork with rice vermacelli and the fragrant leaves of numerous local herbs and water plants.  Coffee was dark, strong and iced  and served by the glass. Not a Starbucks in sight, I’m pleased to add.

The nicest rest-stop I've ever visited!

Driving in Vietnam is tough, even for the Vietnamese. We were lucky enough to be passengers able to take in and discuss the sights of the Mekong Delta as our driver negotiated buses, trucks, motos, bicycles and numerous road works along a four-lane undivided highway that allowed an average speed of no more than 45 miles per hour. The highway was closely lined with home-businesses, mostly aimed squarely at the many thousands of travelers who filled the endless fleet of small buses.

A brick-kiln deep in the Delta

Eventually, we arrived in Can Tho where we were scheduled to attend an important day-long conference on investment in the Mekong Delta.  While the conference was interesting enough, it was the side meetings with provincial leaders that provided the real purpose for the long drive. It also gave us an excuse to take a quick look at the Victoria Hotel, next door to the conference venue.  One of a French-owned group of six hotels in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Victoria in Can Tho exuded simple charm and laid back elegance. Each hotel includes some interesting form of transport that allows its guests to better experience the place in which they find themselves. At the Victoria in Can Tho, a remodeled rice barge called The Lady Hau cruises the river at breakfast and sunset for the benefit of the hotel’s guests.

The Victoria Hotel, Can Tho. Quiet, understated elegance.

Unfortunately for us, we had to head back to Ho Chi Minh City that evening, ‘racing’ back across the Mekong Delta in order to make a detour to Ben Tre before sunset.  Ben Tre is one of the thirteen provinces that comprise the Mekong Delta and is famous for its coconut plantations and rice paddies. Fifty-one years ago, it was the site of the first large-scale military action of the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong forces led by Nguyen Thi Dinh engaged the 23rd Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Today, the city of Ben Tre (from which the province takes its name) is a proud and bustling riverside community with tree-lined roads, carefully-laid sidewalks and several pleasing parks. Most roads lead to the waterfront where, during the day, a floating market gathers and in the warm evenings families stroll.  Sunset on the Mekong Delta was the perfect way to end an exhausting day full of impressions and moments that will live with us for ever. As we left Ben Tre and headed north towards Ho Chi Minh City, Philip and I knew that one day we would return to this region of one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Sunset on the Mekong, across the river from Ben Tre