Buon Ma Thuot to Pleiku (Vietnam)

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One of the things that excited me about coming to Vietnan were the pork rolls. My friend’s mum is Vietnamese and had a bakery near my high school. Her pork rolls are one of my favourite foods. And the real thing in Vietnam is just as delicous! I found a little cart where the pork was being cooked freshly on a grill. It tasted as good as it smelled.
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We’ve booked an 11am bus from Buon Ma Thuot to Pleiku, 150km north. The hotel said the bus company would pick us up so, after a short walk, we hang out in the lobby waiting. At 11am the manager’s husband arrives to take us to the bus. We drive a long way out of town before he drops us at a bus station where passengers are eating. Our bags are loaded under the bus, I eat friend chicken with rice, and then we join the other passengers in boarding. The bus is over booked by a couple of seats. The driver wants us to sit up the front on the step next to him but other local passengers aren’t having a bar of it. There’s a scramble and suddenly we have seats. The bus sways along and the rural landscape floats by. The bus stops regularly to drop passengers in tiny villages and at major road intersections. No one else gets on so slowly the bus gets emptier. Until we reach Pleiku aka Gia Lai.
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We check into our hotel. An older Vietnamese guest helps translate for us at reception. He speaks excellent English, so I don’t need to use Google Translate. Our room is spacious and has a small balcony. It’s not large enough to sit on but we can stand on it and take it the skyline of this town of 200,000 people going about their lives
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Paul has a funny tummy and has struggled with food the past 24 hours. There’s a Jollibee close by. We are served our fast food burger and fries on cute plates. The burger tastes Vietnamese because of the sauce. No one said we had to eat local every day.
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Pleiku is a small town. It’s much quieter than the other places we’ve been. But there’s still a coffee shop on every corner and plenty of places to eat. The small night market sells fruit, vegies, clothes and street foods. The market is small to reflect the small town.
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There’s a somewhat fancy restaurant (by Vietnam standards) on a corner. It’s busy. We take a seat. The youngest waitor is called over to help us because he speaks a dozen words of English. We use Google translate to ask him what he recommends. We end up with a delicious thick soup the consistency of Chinese chicken and corn soup, and bbq pork with hoisin sauce and leaves. It’s delicious.

The fun part, though, is our interaction with the local diners. They are pissed as farts (drunk) and keep saying “hello” then laughing like school boys. Some come over and offer us beer. They look confused when we smile and decline (we don’t drink alcohol). But then they chink glasses and try to ask us questions. We tell them we are from Australia. Then eventually they return to their table with the carton of beer cans. That’s how beer is served at restsi5rants here: by the carton. And the meal isn’t over until the carton is empty. The scary part is that everyone then mounts their scooters and rides home. We will certainly be more aware of this when walking around at night.

Lake Ea Kao (Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam)

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I start the day with yet another delicious random breakfast. I just see a man cooking meat on the street outside a small eatery. I’ve learned the best way to get fed in Asia is to walk in, smile and take a seat. That’s what I do. I’m served a bowl of salty-sweet soup with marinated pork meatballs, a plate of noodles and a basket of herbs. Another diner insists I add pickled vegetables from a jar. Everything goes into the soup. Yum!
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I take a short walk around the muddy streets. It rained last night so the dust is now a slippery mess, even to walk on. The area around the market is the worst. It’s the same rich red soil that makes this region so fertile. Everywhere plants are growing. Herbs grow in pots, vegetables in crevices and coffee grows outside the city.
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We still have the scooters for the day so set off for the day. We again navigate the heavy traffic through town until we find the exit for Lake Ea Kao (unsigned).
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Lake Ea Kao is an artificial lake created by a dam. It’s just 12km from Buon Ma Thuot so is an easy ride. We start by riding across the dam wall. Reflections rise from the lake’s surface. Men fish; many sitting under faded beach umbrellas for shade from the burning hot sun. It’s Sunday and many people are riding along the wall of the dam taking in the vista.
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Rice paddies line the lower side of the wall. The paddies vary in stages from muddy and bare to fully green and ready for harvest. Perhaps rice is a year round crop here. Cattle are herded along the roadside. Children work just as hard as the elderly looling men who work the cattle. I notice no one looks like a young or middle years adult. Everyone is either a child or looks elderly. Either life is so hard that youth vanishes or the younger adults have left the land to seek work in the city. Both are common stories in agricultural places today. A sad reality because we humans need agriculture for food and cannot eat money. Really, farmers should be the most well paid workers for they are most needed for our survival as a species.
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We stop for a little while under the shade of a clump of trees near the lake before returning across the dam wall. Passing through the village of Ea Kao we find the road to the tourist park. It’s a pretty garden with lots of tree shaded seats and tables, an ornamental garden, lots of animals sculpted from tyres and access to the lake. Kids swim. Men fish. Couples cuddle. Groups of friends eat picnics (no food is available at the recreation area). There is a small zoo and a young boy herding his cattle. Chickens forage for food. It’s all quite lovely and well worth the 3,000VND ($AU0.18) parking fee for each scooter. One of the parking guards takes photos with us. He says he hopes more foreigners will come to the lake.
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The scenic route calls us. We ride home through tiny rural villages, rice fields and coffee plantations. Skinny cattle graze under the watchful eyes of young boy herders.  And then we are spat out onto a busy noisy highway leading back to Buon Ma Thuot.  Twelve kilometres  (8 miles) of beeping, honking and weaving follow before we park inside the hotel foyer. Hungry  (for it’s after 3pm and we missed lunch) we walk to a local style fast food joint for pizza and French fries. Not very healthy but sometimes a man just needs some easy familiar calories.

We’re both sunburnes and fatigued so laze away a couple of hours under the aircon and fan in our room. Later we eat dinner at a small restaurant near our hotel.  It has proper tables and chairs, not tiny red plastic stools. It even has a menu. We allow the staff to recommend a meal because the menu is in Vietnamese anyway. Noodles with vegetables and pork are placed before us. The smell is amazing and the meal tasty. But the best part is when the drunk uncle related to the restaurant owner stumbles over to talk with me. He keeps saying that I am “beautiful” … “lovely”. Our hosts translate to confirm the translation. For once Paul receives no attention. After we leave he jokes that poor old mate was letting out some hidden feelings in his drunken state. Whatever it was, I think the guy was just excited to see foreigners and wanted a chat.

Dray Nur Waterfall (Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam)

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There’s a market not far from our hotel. It’s alive and thumping. Neat piles of brightly coloured fruit is sold by weighing on old fashioned scaled.  Live fish swim in round plastic tubs of all sizes. Larger fish the size of small sharks are chopped in two: head and body. Pork seems to be the meat of choice, butchered with precision. For chicken meat the preferencd appears to be live birds. I just wish I had smellogram because the scent of crushed onions, garlic, chilli and spices is amazing.
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We eat breakfast at a small stall that sells noodles, herbs and meat with a sweet and salty sauce. The noodles are being made fresh on site. An older lady is sitting outside cooking rice paper sheets in a coal fired steamer then cutting them into noodles with scissors. It’s delicious and fresh.
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We’ve rented motorbikes so we can go to Dray Nur waterfall. Paul hasn’t riden since childhood but it seems to come naturally to him. We ride out of town through moderate traffic, which eases after the city limits. Turning left just before the big river we follow quiet country roads that slowly disintegrated into a red dirt road.

The heavens open as we park at Dray Nur waterfalls. The ticket lady sells us tickets for 30,000VND each but the motorbike parking guy is too shy to ask us for payment (I suspect he is scared to try communicating with foreigners). This almost causes issue when we leave because we don’t have parking tickets. Security is strict. No one leaves without a ticket or proof of registration except us (foreigners probably aren’t suspected of stealing bikes).
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We drink water and cola at the restaurant waiting out the rain. Half an hour later the rain stops and we walk to the waterfall.  The falls are powerful and we can see that later in the wet season the veil would be even more spectacular.  Locals picnic here depsite the rains. One man insists on a photo with Paul. All are friendly.  When we leave a group of visitors on scooters wait at an intersection to make sure we turn the right way.
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Returning to Buon Ma Thuot we follow some back roads parallel to the highway.  It’s quieter and more scenic. We can relax as we ride. Eventually we come to a massive empty highway that leads around the city. It’s a chance to open our throttles and have some fun.  The scooters hoik along. It saves us the hectic crush of traffic through town.
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We rest an hour or two in our room before going out for a walk through town. We’re staying about 3.5km north of the town centre but there’s no shortage of food and entertainment. We eat bbq beef with salad and a salty herby dipping sauce. I have no idea what’s in it but hazard a guess of salt, chilli, garlic and coriander (cilantro). The owner of the footpath stall shows us what to do with the food and how to eat it. It’s so good. At 55,000VND ($AU3.30) each it’s the most expensive meal we’ve eaten but also the one with the most protein. And it’s still ridiculously cheap. For the owner of the stall it’s obviously a nightly party. He’s a bigger guy sitting with some young men drinking beer and eating well. There are tables lined up the footpath and around the corner. He calls the shots, laughs a lot and has a wad of cash in his pocket from the night’s takings. It’s quite cool to watch.

Ho Chi Minh City to Buon Ma Thuot (Vietnam)

Like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick, Ho Chi Minh City is relentless in her desire to keep us captive. It takes almost two hours before the bus has finally left the city limits and enters more rural landscapes. But finally we break free and our velocity improves slightly.
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We’re on the Kuhmo Sanco Buslines daytime sleeper bus. It departed from Mien Dong (East) bus station at 9.05am this morning, just 5 minutes after the scheduled 9am slot. The bus is clean and fairly modern. Shoes are taken off at the door and placed in small plastic bags near your seat. We booked yesterday morning so got the last two tickets on the bus, relegating us to the back row where, instead of individual seats we share a row with three other passengers. They are keen to help us and translate the conductor’s questions about our destination. We are the only foreigners on the bus so Buon Ma Thuot must not be a common tourist destination.

A tip for anyone reading this: if you are staying in the main tourist part of HCMC, catch bus 45 from Tran Huang Dao street (you’ll see a bus stop with a shelter and reference to route 45). The cost is 5,000VND and the duration just 30-40 minutes. A taxi for the same journey costs 500,000VND and takes over an hour (we did it yesterday). The buses are not crowded and depart every 12 to 18 minutes.
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We stop three times along the 8 hour trip. The first stop cannot come quickly enough because I have needed to pee since we departed (I went before we left but my bladder was being cruel). At each stop there’s local foods available at local prices. This is one of the great bonuses of taking off-brand buses: no tourist prices at lunch. We buy pikelets at our first stop and soup at lunch.
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Outside the window the landscape changes from HCMC’s urban sprawl to rural to mountainous.  Vast views fill the windows as we crest mountains before we dive back into the jungle.  The roada are excellent and the bus ride feels safe (contrary to all we had read prior to coming to Vietnam).
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At Buon Ma Thuot we check into our hotel and organise scooters for the next day. After refreshing we hit the streets on foot. It’s 3.5km from our hotel to the city centre so that’s where we head. Dinner is bbq pork with rice, vegetables and vegetable soup on a street corner. Yum. Our walk takes us through brightly lit streets past three amusement parks full of families. Locals sit drinking coffee on red plastic chairs on every street. It all feels quite festive.

After our walk we take a taxi back to our hotel and call it a night. It’s been a big day.

A thought-provoking experience (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Our only plans for our day in HCMC are to book bus tickets out of town and to go to the War Remnants Museum. Naturally, a massage wouldn’t go astray either.
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Bus tickets to Buon Ma Thuot need to be bought from Dong Mien Ben Xe (East Bus Station). It’s about 8km (5 miles) from the main tourist area. You’d think that’d be an easy cab fare but the traffic in HCMC is horrendous (the worst we’ve encountered in our travels to date). It takes 1 hour and 500,000VND ($AU30). I kept Google Maps open during the drive and we didn’t even get taken on too many diversions. The only good things were that we learned the location of the bus station and our taxi driver wrote down our ticket request in Vietnamese. Thank goodness for that piece of paper because it helped us get directions to a bus company that could help us. Tickets for the 360km / 8 hour bus trip to Buon Ma Thuot cost 240,000VND  ($AU14.50) on Kuhmo Sanco Buslines. The Information Counter then helped us find the correct public bus back to the city centre. For those reading for tips: bus 45 travels between the main tourist area and the East Bus Station.  Fare is 5,000VND ($AU1.15) and it only takes 20-30 minutes (faster than a taxi). Buses run every 12-18 minutes.
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We jump off the bus a block away from Notre Dam of Saigon.  The onslaught of tourism is an assault to my senses. Tour buses park everywhere spewing forth stickered people cameras at the ready and eyes on the sign their tour guide is carrying. It’s bedlam and I can’t get out of there quickly enough. I don’t dislike tourists … I’m one myself. I just find large groups of them obnoxious because they seem to push and shove for the best photo or view as if they own the place. And they bring with them touts. “Sir only one dollar” … “Sir for you good price”. We get out of there fast.
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Like all museums dedicated  to wars, the War Remnants Museum is a though provoking place. Told from the Vietnamese perspective, the museum does not paint a good light of US (and by extension other foreign military) involvement in the conflict. We notice some of the American backpackers are struggling. One speaks defensively to his Vietnamese guide. A young lady is comforted by her boyfriend. It all happened here just like all other wars: torture, rape, murder. It’s another museum that convinces Paul and I that we are committed pacifists. That war is never the answer. And that it is odd that our society has this incredible discourse around not lowering ourselves to the standards of bullies yet participation in war is seen as normal and heroic.
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It takes a little while for the effects of the museum to settle.  A calm pond in a park. Overladen bicycles. On the go puncture repairs. Flowers for sale. The colours and smells of modern day Vietnam.
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At night we go to the Galaxy Cinema and watch the new Wonder Woman movie. The message is consistent – man cannot help but create wars. But there’s also a message of hope – despite our darkness we have inside us the ability to do good.

Hello Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

We touch down in Ho Chi Minh City at midday. There’s the usual clamour to get off the plane first but we don’t join it. We calmly get our visa on arrival letters, application forms, passport photos and US dollars together. We’ve learned it’s easier to be prepared than join the rush. Taking our time pays off. There are a few white folk who have upset customs officials so visa processing is going slowly. There’s the young man who walked around all cool at KLIA2 with his headphones on who is now demanding customs officials return his passport. There’s the two young Europeans men wearing linen shirts who insist on lounging against the counter instead of sitting in the waiting area. When they do finally move their body language is haughty. Needless to say, despite arriving last our visa applications are processed before their’s. No more than 15 minutes after submitting our paperwork we’re on our way.
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Outside the sanctity of the customs gate there’s the usual scramble of taxi drivers seeking our fares. We have a plan though – go to an ATM, buy a bottle of water at Burger King to get small change and take the 109 public bus into the city centre.  We walk with purpose and most of the drivers leave us alone – there are plenty of easier fares to win. The bus stop is to the right outside the main terminal doors. Buy tickets for 20,000VND ($AU1.20) from the vendor near the buses and jump on board. It helps to have the location of your guesthouse loaded on Google Maps so you can show the ticket vendor who will tell the on board ticket guy where you need to get off the bus. Then  sit back, relax and enjoy a comfortable air conditioned trip into HCMC.
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Our hotel is just 300m from the bus terminal. After checking in we set off on foot for the afternoon. We don’t make it far before the heavens open. Streets that were bone dry just 20 minutes earlier are now running like shin-deep rivers. No one can stay dry in this. We duck into a cafe for iced tea and a snack to watch the entertainment unfold.
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Soon the rain eases a little and we walk a little farther until we see Rocky Spa. Perfect. An hour later we exit to dry weather having received an excellent professional foot massage. If you are in District 1 of HCMC, check them out on  Le Lai street about 500m from the bus station and opposite the park.
We turn our attention to dinner. As soon as we turn down Bui Vien street our sense are accosted by pubs, nightclubs and tourists. Motorbikes beep, taxis try to force their way between the pedestrians, touts offer everything from sunglasses to massages. The food is mostly Japanese, Korean and British – not what we are looking for at all. “Sir cold beer” and “Sir cheap beer” come the catch cries. Prostitutes prance slowly on impossibly high heels with far too much makeup and paid ladies fawn over their clients giving them “the girlfriend experience”. Bui Vien is everything we’re not so we make our escape to quieter places.

We meander random streets and lanes between Bui Vien and the river. Away from pub street life is going on. Traffic oozes onto the footpaths. Corn and marinated meats smell amazing as they cook on small roadside grills. People sit on small chairs chatting and drinking iced coffee. And rain patters lightly. The footpaths are as slippery as ice so we walk on the road. It doesn’t take long before I give up on my flip flops and walk barefoot. The puddles wash away any mud that gathers between my toes.
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We find a random eatery under tarps on a street corner. Marinated grilled pork, rice, vegetables and cabbage soup. It tastes amazing. We eat watching people and traffic.

A long loop back to our guesthouse conpletes the day. I think we will like Vietnam.

Kuala Lumpur fun (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Paul is sleeping peacefully so I head out for a short run. Bukit Bintang is quiet and peaceful as I jog through the streets towards the Petronis Towers. Day has only just cracked her head out of night’s darkness and already it’s hot and sticky. I find my way to the KLCC Park. There’s other joggers here making rounds of the dedicated running track. I do a lap before heading back home. No phone. No camera. No music. No distractions. Just an easy jog.
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Paul is awake now so we chat a while before hitting the streets. I saw a busy local restaurant on my run and it doesn’t disappoint.  We order Chinese chicken noodle and wonton soup, fried noodles with pork, and Malaysia style tea and coffee. It’s the breakfast of champions. The bill comes in at 13RM ($AU4). That’s less than a single dish at the food street and this meal was fantastic. Paul asks whether the restaurant is open tonight. The lady looks at him blankly. “Buka malam?”  (“Open night”) I ask. Ten o’clock she signals with her hands. We’ll try something else on the memu tonight.

Bukit Bintang is Kuala Lumpur’s most modern commercial hub. Think neon signs, glittering shopping malls and suited up businesspeople. The shopping malls are connected by air conditoned subways and overpasses that save pedestrians from mingling with street traffic or the city’s humidity. It’s the easiest and most scenic way to walk from Bukit Bintang to the Petronis Towers. You can also shop in the most vast array of specialty stores along the way from dedicated Marvel Comic stores to Michael Korrs’ high end sunglass shop. You can stop at a shop that only sells brownies or a shop at which you can indulge in popcorn.  It’s all still so Asian in style despite the American influences.
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We promenade in KLCC Park. It’s an oasis. A rest from the busy streets, construction work and retail marketing noise. A place where children can swim in a man-made lagoon or play on a huge playground (security didn’t like me doing same). A place where banyon tree roots plait into knots. And couples sit close together deep in conversation. At night the fountains will dance with lights and music as tourists flock to photograph the famous twin towers.
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The heat starts to become more oppressive as we end our promenade. Continuing our international cinema habits seems quite sensible. The Mummy is about to commence at the TGV Cinema Suria. We settle in. It’s 21RM ($AU7) per ticket. The screen is massive – far larger than at home – and the surround sound really does surround us. The movie is great and I leave satisfied with the whole experience.

We meander back to our guesthouse to refresh. It’s sweaty work exploring Kuala Lumpur on foot. Not that I’m complaining.

Before long the massage street calls us. We decide to go back to the same place as last night with the uniformed staff who show no inclination to offer unwanted extras. That’s the thing about being a man in Asia – it’s not a question of whether you will be offered “ladies” but when. I hate it. It makes me feel cheap and dirty. I don’t care that prostitution exists nor that people use these services. However, I do hate that old men sidle up and offer ladies while bent over old women blatantly offer sex. Particularly in a country where one third of the women are covered. It plays into the fundamentalist stereotype.

It is a little late when we return to Restoran Beremi Meng Kee where we ate breakfast. We eat fried rice, noodles and stir fried vegetables. It’s the simple honest food I love most. It’s the flavours of my childhood: garlic, ginger amd sweet soy sauce. The flavours Mum cooked with at home from the flavours my Javenese grandmother must have cooked for her.
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It’s only 9.30pm. We walk some more and find ourselves at Berjaya Times Square.  It’s peak hour now as thousands of shop workers head home for the night. It’s like 5pm rush hour at home but just later. Streets are clogged as shutters descend on the day’s toil. Despicable M3 is playing at the Gold Screen Cinema. We buy tickets and create some minor chaos by sitting in the wrong seats. Allocated seating in KL means allocated seating. Even when there are other vacant seats one row in front or behind people actually want their seats. They don’t ask. They glare until you move. We just moved to one of the sixty odd other free seats. Note it depends on culture too: we noticed Chinese Malaysians had no difficulty asking people to move. A faux pas perhaps but what’s travel without a little cultural learning.
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And so, it’s after 1am by the time we’ve navigated our way home, declining countless offers of “ladies” on the way.