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…

Ca Mau’s Waterworld


Ca Mau is land’s end. As far west and south as you can travel in Vietnam. It was described by Phong as laid back; more relaxed and much wetter than the big city or even the Mekong Delta and its myriad waterways.  This we had to see! There are two flights a day at Ca Mau Airport; one in and, on the same plane, an hour later, one out. Which means that you have to stay overnight. We had plenty to see and several meetings to attend, so 24 hours in Ca Mau was not a hardship.


I had never seen anything like the apparent flooding, as we descended into Ca Mau.  The fields were saturated and what looked like roads were, in fact, canals and drainage ditches. I once flew over the south of England after serious flooding and was impressed by the water in the fields below but it was nothing like Ca Mau in its ‘normal’ state.

Once on the ground, and heading to our first meeting, we quickly understood how people adapted to the local conditions.  Roads were very narrow and ran along the tops of dikes. Homes were built on lower ground and were reached by bridges across the endless canals that ran either side of the dikes. So, for most people, the canal was literally their front yard.  Behind their homes lay cultivated, saturated fields.

The dikes acted as important barriers. On one side of the raised, packed-mud wall, the water was brackish and supported a considerable amount of shrimp and fish farming.  On the other, the fields were fed by freshwater, enabling a quite different form of agriculture. Rice, fruit and vegetables flourished in this hydroponic paradise.

Every region of Vietnam seems to have it’s own distinctive type of watercraft. Ca Mau’s shallow-drafted boats are ideally suited to the canals which, in fact, were far more important as a means of transportation than the impossibly narrow roads.The trees that line the banks of the canal are not only decorative, they provide shade, help stabilize the bank and, through their root system, absorb some of the moisture from the precious upland. We reached the sea at Song Do and found ourselves at the mouth of one of the region’s wide rivers.  This is one of Song Do’s main streets. Every home and business opens onto the river because everyone has a boat by which they earn their living, either fishing or by providing essential services to the fishing fleet.

A narrow service road serves the waterfront shops.  This clothes store, however, depends on the waterway for its business and so positions its shop front accordingly.

Traversing the ‘streets’ of Song Do was a fascinating experience. The concrete bulkhead in the background is the only protection from flooding for the homes built beside the canal system.


Not everyone visits the store by boat.  And this service road for the waterfront provides enough dry land to support a small daily market.

Hospitality is taken very seriously in Ca Mau. Even at 4pm.  It would be an insult to one’s guests to send them home with an empty stomach. This was our third meal of the day and was not our last. Everything on the table was grown or caught within a radius of a few kilometers. Forget the ‘100-mile diet’; this was a ‘less than 10-mile feast’!


Route One is Vietnam’s most important road and starts in the north at Hanoi. It runs the length of Vietnam, through all of its largest urban areas. Ca Mau is land’s end and the southernmost point of Route One.  This ferry is part of Route One and will soon to be replaced by a bridge. I felt a long way from Hanoi as I joined the evening’s ‘rush hour traffic’ boarding the ferry.

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

A Drive in the Country

The term ‘countryside’ conjures a variety of images.  The perfect English village; neat and tidy with its well-kept green, duck pond, ancient church and a pub or two. The French version; narrow streets, quiet to the point of being deserted, especially after sunset. In America, the ‘countryside’ can mean a combination of agri-businesses run by global companies and, much like Britain, weekend cottages for the wealthy urban elite. New ruralism, indeed!

 

A Champa tower near Quy Nhon: Guarding the surrounding countryside

 

While I imagined rural life in Viet Nam would differ considerably from these ‘western’ versions, I was surprised by what I found, as a group of us spent a day traveling through the countryside.

At first, everything seemed as one would expect.  Small, intensely cultivated fields, created beautiful vistas that faded into the verdant backdrop of gently sloping hills and mountains. Centuries-old Champa towers and Buddhist temples were eye-catching landmarks. The boundaries of the low-lying farms were defined by irrigation ditches, trees and hedges.  Homes were often several hundred meters from the road and utterly connected to their farmed land.  People were tending the fields and, yes, water buffalo pulled carts and ploughs and other machinery.

Then we entered our first of many villages that day.  The houses here opened directly onto the road or were protected from the traffic by a small front garden or yard.  Often the yard had an important commercial purpose, as storage for manufactured items or as an area to conduct business.  One of my abiding memories was the creative use of the edges of the warming concrete road surface; our vehicle had to slow frequently to avoid the rice drying in the midday sun.

 

A typical farmhouse, viewed from the main road.

 

The boundary between home and business became blurred. Western planners and urban designers like to talk about ‘mixed-use zoning’, creating descriptive terms like ‘live-work’ or borrowing foreign expressions like ‘atelier’ to broaden their vocabulary. In Viet Nam, the immediate impression was of an organized chaos of potentially conflicting activities, compounded by the sheer number of people that we passed along the road. Crowded homes doubled as stores or workshops and, with children, came creches while the oldest members of the household seemed to work as hard as the younger generations around them.

 

Protection from the hazards of the daily ride to work...

 

Every village we passed through had its share of micro-businesses (as we over-analytic Westerners would say). Potters, weavers, metal workers and mechanics occupied small  workshops along the narrow main streets. Meanwhile, produce of all sorts was farmed in the surrounding fields, although rice seemed to be the predominant crop. Finally, there were the schools and, in some larger villages, local government offices that provided vital employment possibilities and essential services in this communal society.  Manufacturing, agriculture and services coexisted and, crucially, generated a level of energy and activity that I had never seen before in a rural setting.

 

In the front yard of a village potter

 

As usual, young people were predominant, cycling and riding motos from school to home and, probably back again as we approached the lunch hour.  The road seemed impossibly narrow and certainly not sufficient for the drying crops, heavily laden pedestrians, kids on bikes, youths on motos, the occasional truck and our obligatory SUV (with six adult passengers, I’m pleased to report).  Amazingly and despite experiencing similar road conditions in every village we passed through, we avoided mishap.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see so much activity in the Vietnamese countryside. Agriculture, though declining in relative economic importance, still occupies 60% of the nation’s employed labor force.  Most tellingly, although 50% of Vietnam’s land mass is considered to support agriculture and forestry, only 9% has the alluvial soil essential for truly productive farming, a fact born out by our drive through the intensely cultivated fields with their backdrop of silent wooded hillsides.

 

The lunch time rush!

 

We returned to Quy Nhon during rush hour, having spent the day enjoying our ‘not-so-quiet drive in the country’.  What we had seen in the space of a few hours was a society that appears to be striking a balance between its urban and rural economies. While the cities in Vietnam are magnets attracting increasing numbers of people from the countryside, to Western eyes there appears a vibrant, viable rural economy that, in terms of its energy, is uplifting and culturally fascinating – and a lot more compelling than the European or North American versions.

 

One of the many stores along our route.