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Hitchhiking Vietnam
DESTINATIONS
Central Highlands
and HIGHWAY 14
"Highway 14 is an unusual name for a road that quickly peters out into a one-lane, pot-holed dirt road. A few miles out of Saigon the cement houses gradually turn to bamboo, then to palm leaf shacks and finally disappear altogether in a sea of thin brown trees and graying, sharp-edged grass. You are now officially on Highway 14."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

map DIRECTIONS:
The Central Highlands are north of Saigon. Start off on route 1 - for the first few miles out of Saigon it's this lovely wide, smooth highway. When you get to your first intersection, take whichever road looks worse. Keep doing this every time you have a choice. You can't go wrong.

WEATHER:
They say the weather in Dalat is fantastic -average daily minimum of 15 C, average daily maximum of 24 C. They also say that the dry season in the Central highlands is December to March. Then they put in a little footnote that says that the rest of the Central Highlands gets almost 75% more rain than the average for Vietnam. Needless to say, it rained/drizzled/misted every single day I was there (nearly four weeks) - and this was in the dry season.. I thought for a while that the Gods were just playing with me but I spoke to several other travelers and they all had similar experiences. But hey, don't take our word for it - go see for yourself.

THINGS TO LOOK FOR:
  1. Those secret reeducation camps. If you find one, lots of pictures, go home, and write a bestseller.
  2. Animist gravesites. They are scatted along smaller trails off of the main roads.
  3. The Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  4. Unexploded mines and bombs. Villagers often use war scrap metal to line their gardens. If you hike up into the hills you may run across a downed chopper or rusting tank that was too inaccessible to haul away for scrap.
  5. Those perfectly round fishponds are bomb craters.
  6. Waterfalls. They're beautiful, and they're all over the place.
  7. Dalat has great strawberry jam.
  8. Dalat is built on a steep hillside. It's marketplace actually ascends several hundred steps from one street level to the next. Both by day and at night it's worth the visit. Try the boiled snails in pineapple sauce (halfway up the stairs). Mmmmmm.

SURVIVAL TIPS
A large white "C" means restricted area. This I know for sure. What happens if you get caught NEAR one is less clear. A fine, certainly. Incarceration, possibly. See section on bribing.

The mud holes along highway 14 are the size of water buffalo wallows. And that's if it hasn't rained recently.

"Highway" is something of a misnomer. The tarmac begins and ends within a few hundred meters of major towns. Expect the interface between tarmac and dirt to be at least a six inch drop.

Nineteen miles in eight hours is good progress.

photo If you visit minority villages south of the DMZ you may be disappointed to find villagers wearing tattered T shirts and sneakers rather than traditional native garb. You will also discover that if you are not in an officially designated "tourist village" you will be speedily delivered to the local Communist People's Headquarters, fined, and sent back to the city. Apparently the southern police are mostly displaced northerners (having been imposed upon the south as a result of the war). Despite "liberating" its southern brothers, the north has never quite managed to shake its lingering suspicions about anything below the old DMZ. It keeps a tight reign on private citizens and tourists alike. Try not to blame the villagers. They don't have much choice.

Buon Ma Thout and surroundings saw some major battles. If you end up camping or hiking think about unexploded mines.

Police station walls are always painted baby blue. If you try to do Highway 14 on a motorbike you are almost certain to find this out for yourself.

Avoid the border roads at all costs.

DESTINATIONS

CENTRAL HIGHLANDS
There are two rumored reasons why foreigners (and Americans in particular) are not particularly welcome in the Central Highlands. The first is Hanoi's fear of having its "secret government reeducation camps" discovered (if they really do exist). The second is its lingering resentment over American funding of FULRO, a guerrilla insurgency that has plagued the Vietnamese government for decades.

  
   

DALAT
Dalat is known as The City of Eternal Spring and has long been a resort retreat for wealthy Vietnamese. It deserves its reputation for both scenic beauty and obnoxious police...

This lovely mountain resort takes seriously its dual role as honeymoon capital and diplomatic playpen, floating flocks of dirty swan boats on the lake and erecting half a dozen 'Protect your Forest!' billboards along the road, all written in meter-high English for maximum international effect. The central marketplace has grown beyond its narrow alley entrances and spilled out onto the street. Thwarted there by both police and traffic, it drifts around the corner and crawls up a wide set of stairs in a city built upon a steep mountain slope. These steps have become the abode of the pigeon-egg sellers, perched like cormorants beside huge, steaming vats of tiny speckled eggs. Beside them squat equally prolific purveyors of white hens' eggs and boiled snails smothered in crushed pineapples and bloated, lethargic flies. With the fading light the stands are magically transformed into fried dough stalls with oil-filled woks that nestle amidst the ankle-deep debris of discarded shells of snails and eggs. Sundown is the witching hour for shopkeepers and small peddlers who have not appeased the infamous Custodians of Law and Order. They arrive in force, hurling aside stools and overturning tables with such ferocity that I decided, after all, to apply for my visa extension in bureaucracy-bound Saigon.

 

HO CHI MINH TRAIL
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the Viet Cong's major supply route into the south. Although in parts paved, it was mostly a network of footpaths under the protective canopy of the jungle. It began in Hanoi, crossed into Laos at the DMZ and continued south, crossing back into Vietnam at strategic locations. The Americans bombed the living daylights out of the trail but were unable to shut it down, in part because the VC needed very few supplies to maintain their fighting forces in the south and in part because the trail itself was so elusive.

Viet Cong soldiers took an oath before embarking on the Trail, swearing not to return home until the war was over - and won.

  
   

BUON MA THOUT
Buon Ma Thout is a rarity in the annals of war - the site of a battle that was truly decisive. Once the city fell the war over in two months. Despite it's noteworthy place in history, think twice about visiting it in person...

Buon Ma Thout is Saigon's poor country cousin, the dark side of communism that foreigners aren't supposed to see: squat gray buildings that haven't seen a new coat of paint in decades and bits of war paraphernalia strewn about to remind its inhabitants of their glorious past. The weather doesn't improve the city's appeal; too often blustery rain that turn the roads to mush and ubiquitous mud that even manages to creep into the cauldrons of broth and flavor the soup with the taste of river residue.

 
HO CHI MIHN TRAIL FACTS TO IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS:
500 miles long, 30 miles wide.

Altogether it had 12,000 miles of roadway, supplied by 3,000 miles of oil pipeline.

The Trail threaded westward out of three passes in North Vietnam and then south along the Truong Son Mountains.

The total tonnage of bombs dropped on the trail was greater than all the bombs dropped during WW2.

The Vietnamese call it the "Troung Son trail" after the mountain chain it runs through.

75,000 men worked on the trail during the war

At first the trail took 6 months to traverse, then two months. Towards the end of the war it took one week.

Supplies were carried by foot, on bicycles (with 500 LB loads) and by truck (6 ton loads).

The Americans tried several strategies to destroy the trail:

  1. They seeded the clouds to create enough rain to wash out the trail.
  2. They dropped chelating chemicals to make the trial too slippery to use.
  3. They bounced searchlights off the clouds to illuminate the trail - unfortunately the cloud cover kept the planes from seeing their targets so they couldn't follow up with bombs.
  4. They used infrared sensors designed to detect hotspots on the ground. Unfortunately the bombs they subsequently dropped created hotspots which caused more bombs to be dropped which created more hotspots...
  5. They defoliated trees. VC trucks started driving at night and moved the trail to new canopy.
  6. They dropped sensors (disguised as plants) to detect movement. These sensors were destroyed by bombs and quickly ran out of battery power. The acoustic sensors were defeated by tape recordings of lorries.
    The sniffer sensors were tricked by hanging bags of buffalo urine.
    The seismic sensors just plain didn't work.

There is a thriving industry in recycled scrap (war) metal in Vietnam, particularly along the trail. The metal is principally sold to Japan, where it is turned into cars which are shipped to America. Somehow appropriate...

 

FULRO (United Front for the Struggle of the Oppressed Races)
FULRO was for years a band of guerrillas made up mostly of Montagnards who were dedicated to fighting the Vietnamese government. They were funded at various times by the French, the Americans, the Thai and the Chinese. When the communists took over the FULRO guerrillas were largely exterminated. To this day Hanoi is still paranoid about the Central Highlands insurgency issue and has instituted several policies designed to pacify and integrate the Montagnards. These include 1) resettling ethnic Vietnamese in traditional Montagnard areas to dilute the local population 2) discouraging traditional slash-and-burn agriculture and 3) forcibly promoting Vietnamese culture and language among ethnic minorities.

The communist apparatus doesn't look kindly on anyone trying to sneak into a Montagnard village, as a fellow traveler and I discovered the hard way...

 

Central Highlands

Halong Bay

Hanoi

Highway 1

Mai Chau

Mekong

Saigon

Sapa

Sapa Valley

Son La

Tafin

The Loop

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