Pit stop along the harrowing road to Dalat

If you are seeking that adrenaline rush which traditionally is only available at a theme park there is now another alternative. No need to hand over thousands of dollars to Mr Disney for an amusement park getaway… now you can just take an 18 hour flight over to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and then take a bus ride up into the mountains. It would probably be cheaper in the long run given that one could easily subsist on $50 a day in Vietnam and that modest sum would be almost impossible to spend in one day there whereas in the theme park one would hardly be able to even purchase lunch.

Our particular bus ride was an eight hour journey from Ho Chi Minh City up into the Central Highlands to a town called Da Lat, a charming alpine town catering mostly to Vietnamese tourists looking to escape the heat of the city. The driver seemed at first glance a nice enough fellow although he did run over someone’s motorbike whilst pulling into the boarding area… red flag missed!

Funnily my mother being a bit nervous about my travels to Vietnam continually warned me about the undetonated land mines still scattered about the countryside here. What she didn’t warn me about however was the much bigger threat for tourists: the bus rides in Vietnam. That would have been much more useful information to me. Just to share a statistic with you it seems that approximately thirty people die from vehicular accidents in Vietnam everyday. After boarding the bus I did a rough count of the passengers as I walked down the aisle looking for my seat. I came up with about thirty or so of us. Just wonderful I thought. So after our bus careens off the side of a cliff we will fill the quota on accident fatalities for today.

Now getting back to my Mother’s travel warning… my guess is that she zeroed in on this particular land mine issue probably because of all the press attention that it has been getting over the years. Not to make light of this serious issue and the devastation these mines have inflicted on the beautiful people of Vietnam. It is certainly horrendous and I give all of those high profile individuals kudos for bringing so much attention to it and hopefully one day soon the threat will be eliminated.

Anyway… so after a lecture from the old gentleman whose motorbike was run over the driver, looking a bit sheepish, was ready to hit the road along with several other things along the way. So off we went through the traffic of Saigon and more than once almost over it. I was getting the uneasy feeling just in the first few minutes that this was a man on a mission… a very time sensitive one at that. It was almost as if he had won the lottery but had to be in Da Lat by a certain time in order to collect his winnings. After leaving a wake of almost destruction in the city we were now on the mountain road on our way to this little gem of a town nestled up around 1500 meters or so with only 6 hours to go in this white knuckled experience.

The good news is that it was only when he was trying to pass someone on a blind switchback turn with a steep “no railing” embankment where the trip was just a bit nerve wracking however the bad news was that there were several hundred of these curves. I was starting to get the feeling that our driver truly thought this was just a one way road and I’m sure he was curious why those thousands of other vehicles we almost hit were going the wrong damn way.

One of the techniques I noticed from these drivers is some sort of signaling system that they give each other. There is no road rage here despite the over crowded byways; it is a gaggle of very good-natured drivers just trying to help each other out in order to make the best of there limited infrastructure. It appeared that oncoming traffic would blink their headlights once for what appeared to be ” go ahead and pass… I have you covered”. I think two blinks meant “no… I wouldn’t pass because I have nowhere to go in order to avoid you.” However we continually were getting three blinks from oncoming traffic which to my best guest would be interpreted as ” WTF!”

But we soldiered on making our way up the mountain threading a needle and stitching a trail of shocked oncoming future hood ornaments. During this long journey I had planned on reading my Lonely Planet guide book to study our itinerary whilst in Da Lat.  However I felt there were more pressing projects to accomplish. I was feverishly trying to get my last will and testament inscribed into my iPad in the hope that someone would retrieve this smoking device from the rubble and be kind enough to email the newest entry to my attorney. The amusing part of this trip was in eight hours we passed hundreds — yes hundreds — of vehicles and only one passed us. That vehicle was an ambulance responding to an emergency and even he had a difficult time getting past this Grand Prix driver wanna be. Maybe he was just trying to get ahead of us in anticipation of our fate but nevertheless our driver wasn’t making it easy for him.

Oh, and then there was the horn. I don’t know how he was managing this feat of ” driving”, talking on his cell phone and honking the horn several times a minute at the same time but he did. I would imagine every time we pulled into the service station instead of saying fill ‘er up it would be: hey buddy, service that horn, would ya? By the time we pulled into the bus station at Da Lat the horn was sounding like it was a bit under the weather and wasn’t getting much attention anymore. I would describe the sound as more of an anemic squeak rather than a honk and for anyone to hear it they would have to be close enough to the bus where it wouldn’t really matter anyway.

So eight hours later after what should have been ten we rolled into the station and into this wondrous town that certainly lived up to all of it’s expectations. What this journey did give me was an idea for a realistic ride that the Epcot Center at Disney could incorporate into their Vietnam World. After lunching on their overpriced spring rolls that probably costs as much as a week’s worth of meals in the real country one could ride the “High Velocity Vietnamese Bumper Bus “.  It would be a virtual ride with oncoming trucks, motor bikes and pedestrians just narrowly escaping a head on collision by mere centimeters. You would get just close enough to see the looks of utter shock on their faces and then somehow they would just pass by — unscathed. What fun!

After this ride I now have added a new item to the “must have” items in my packing list. That would be my Saint Christopher medal, the guardian of all travelers.

4 Responses to Dispatch from Paul: Mr Toad’s Wild Ride… Vietnamese style.

  1. Your big brother says:

    I could see you and Peter bobbing along on this ride. I laughed my ass off and I trust you added more of stuff on the revised will to me…thank you very much. Keep on writing. I love it

    • Peter says:

      Hey Mark, yes it was a wild ride although I did my best to focus on my iPod and my Kindle so I didn’t see half the crazy driver stuff, perhaps better that way!

  2. Amy Richards says:

    Were people losing their cookies?? OMG! Well written Paul. A cliff hanger:)
    We can FedEx the medal……
    XXOO
    Sister Ame

    • Peter says:

      Yes, I believe we do deserve a combat medal given the adverse conditions and challenges on that ride. Speaking of cookies, on our ride OUT of the mountains a couple days later we were definitely on the Puke Bus… seemed like everyone around us was losing their stir-fried rice! Wow, that ride was One For The Books too, no shortage of those rides here in Vietnam… and we haven’t even touched on the “sleeper” buses, yikes!!!!

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