Trails or Trials? Roads in Vietnam
Since we left Da Nang and drove up into the Highlands we have seen rather more of the relativities of rural Vietnam.
When we got to Buon Ma Thuot one of our side trips was to see a waterfall. I guess the idea was to enable us to see some of the scenery but what we got was rather different. The road out to the site was little more than a side road but it was clear that there is a lot of investment being put into drainage. However, after a few miles, we joined a narrow country road and this was littered with potholes that had to be avoided. Thus, we zigzagged along. Then came the bridge! It was clear that they are building a new bridge that will cut off a narrow, twisty section of the road. Unfortunately, they have failed to maintain the old bridge. The road surface was incomplete, consisting of metal sheets that, where they existed, were buckled. The sides were made of rotten wood. Underneath the bridge was a drop of about 30 feet into a deep river that was flowing quite fast! Meryl was ready to leave the bus at that point, except the driver did not hear her and he kept going….slowly!
At the waterfall we had to negotiate a set of steps down to the rivers edge. The steps were wet, covered in wet moss and other debris so it was quite difficult and slippery. Unfortunately, one of the group slipped and grazed his legs so he retreated back to the bus, bruised and battered. The waterfall was not that impressive but the bridges we had to cross to reach some good vantage points were, like the roads, in a poor state. The walkways were broken, nails were protruding and the whole thing swung gently as we moved over it! Oh joy!
Next day, the 31st we were to drive from Buon Ma Thuot to Dalat, the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. Not far, about 220 kilometres, and we used a main road but it lasted for about 8 hours. I should explain that on most roads in Vietnam there is little clarity about the road edge. The surface simply stops although rarely in a clear straight line and you then find earth. They are also quite narrow and not really suited to buses or lorries. People walk on the road and this can cause big problems. Also traffic can be quite slow at times. Some vehicles are cannibalised from a wide range of spare parts and lumber very slowly carrying a wide range of items. Bikes, too, are slow but have a habit of weaving in the traffic. What is worse is that they have an almost total disregard for other traffic and simple drive onto the road without looking. The all pervasive sound of the vehicle horn has dominated the 3 weeks. It is sounded as a warning usually that we are about to pass. Sometimes it is an aggressive noise telling people (bikes, cars, walkers etc) to get out of the way.
One other aspect of the roads is the way road works are announced; well they aren't! One interesting idea they have is to place piles of materials on the carriageways with gaps in between. And yes as you guessed usually on sharp corners! One can also see in the mountains lots of people walking. They are not after lifts its just that they walk …for miles carrying the goods that they need. Although some of the younger people are now using bikes the older people prefer walking.
The drive did demand that we drive up to heights over 3000 feet and then down again. But that was nothing when compared to the road surface. At one stage we were having to drive at about 10 kph for ages as the moonscape that we faced made it too risky to rush through the potholes. Furthermore, the road was narrow so that if any vehicle like a car or lorry arrived from the other direction we had to slow down and pass….well with what they thought was care!
Thus after 4 hours we had completed about 110 kms. Lunch was at a rural, wayside café; a wooden hut that served coffee, beer, and had a few tables so we could make a sandwich from rolls we had bought earlier. Under a large tree, with rain beginning to fall we munched on tomatoes and plastic cheese but everyone agreed it was good!
Then the toil began again!
What is odd is that this was a main road connecting the main centres in the Highlands so its condition must have an impact on the development of their economy. Moving goods about is clearly slow and expensive. Another thing one notices in the villages here is the disparity in housing. Some villages look very run down with wooden house and tin roofs. Others have new houses made of brick and several floors tall.They are clearly Vietnamese in style but, we are told, are very expensive to construct. However, the walls frequently seem dirty stained with mud. When you see the children they look filthy and their clothes are old. We are also in the heart of Christian Vietnam and the number and visibility of churches has risen markedly.
However, it is not quite that simple. Some houses, usually those of wood belong to some of the ethnic minorities and many choose to live in a traditional manner, and this means wooden houses. The new houses may have dirty walls, but again this is caused by the 'reddish' earth and the heavy rain that is supposedly ending about now. And the children in dirty clothes; well there is not a lot of tarmac off road so it does not make sense to wear new, clean clothes. Mind you if what we learnt in Cambodia also applies here many people only have one set of clothes.
Finally we got to about 30 kms from Da Lat and a dual carriage way, straight and flat appears. Wonderful but it reflects the journey from the airport to the city! Must not up set the dignitaries who come here, for the climate, or maybe 'to take the waters'!
PS As a foot note Hilary Clinton's visit to Siem Reap involve the widespread removal off of the streets of the children who normally live there. Must not offend her eye sight!