Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Road to Tra Vinh

Wow! I was pretty sure that today would bring great adventure. Let’s just say that I have not been disappointed. At 12:50 PM I am met at the hotel in Saigon by representatives of Tra Vinh University. They are to drive me from Saigon to Tra Vinh, which is about 200 km. Lam, the driver, and Huong the interpreter pick me up and off we go in a little Nissan Bluebird Saloon. I swear to you that I haven’t made up that car make and model. I take the back seat on the passenger side and discover that there are no seat belts. After about ten minutes in the car I come to realize that the air conditioning is just a façade. Oh, there are all the normal buttons and levers and they are all in their proper positions. However, the air that comes out is definitely not conditioned unless you like your blowing air in the heated condition.

Huong's name is pronounced like Huh? only without the attitude and the question mark at the end. Or as she explains it, like honey but without the "knee" at the end. She is very nice but we don't talk a whole lot during the long drive. It takes us quite a while to get out of Saigon. That's what happens when a city has somewhere between 7 and 10 million people in it, depending on who you ask. It becomes pretty clear that after about 30 minutes we are no longer in the city itself. This is now my first excursion into rural Vietnam. And what an excursion it was.

At 1:50 we are almost completely crushed between the cement barrier road divider on the left and a very large truck on the right whose driver decided that he liked our lane better than his. Apparently Lam's constant horn honking was an invitation to this guy to come on over. Lam is not one to back down even though his little Bluebird Saloon is about 1/20th the size of this truck. Lam plays chicken with him to try to make some kind of a point, and after passing him pulls right in front of the truck and slows down as a sort of exclamation point (apparently). Now don't get me wrong. Lam is a very nice guy, and I'll tell you right now that the story (and the trip) ends without a fender being bent, but this was an experience I won't soon forget. I have witnesses who heard Jim Berg scream like a girl when we were driving with Wenzhi in China. HAH! That was nothing.

Whenever he had the chance, Lam was going about 80 km per hour. That's not particularly fast but it sure feels like it in these crowded, chaotic conditions. Besides driving with the horn, he also makes heavy use of the left blinker, even when in the leftmost lane with a concrete barrier directly on his left. Apparently the combination of the horn and the left blinker is a signal to cars in front of him that he is staying in the left lane and they best move to the right if they know what's good for them.

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My view from the back seat.

At about 2:15 Lam flips on the radio so we can listen to some cool Vietnamese music while we clench our teeth. At 2:25 he breaks out the Doublemint gum for which I am eternally greatful. As we drive along I just see so many things that I would have loved to capture for posterity, but you seriously can't get any good shots while screaming down the highway at top speed. Oops, my bad. This is most definitely NOT a highway. It is a road, but not a highway. If there was a highway it would take about 2 hours to drive from Saigon to Tra Vinh. On these roads it takes about 4 hours.

At 3:25 we narrowly miss killing a scooter driver who was swerving out of control while bending over trying to fix his shoe. Lam showed great restraint in not painting the center stripe with this guy. At 3:40 we make a turn and pass a sign that says it 62 more KM to Tra Vinh. At 4:15 a dog meanders into the road. I close my eyes and listen for the thump that never came. Again, kudos to Lam. At 4:30 it appears that primary school in Tra Vinh Province is just getting out and there is a complete halt in traffic while several hundred schoolkids try to get on scooters, bicycles, or start walking home on the side of the road. Then we start to move again and we see kids heading home for the rest of our drive. Seriously, these little kids are everywhere while the traffic screams by them within a foot or two.

At 4:40 we enter Tra Vinh town and just a few minutes later we are at the hotel. The Palace Hotel. I've got to get ready for dinner, so I'll post more later.

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That's me and Huong after arriving at the Palace Hotel in Tra Vinh.

NOTE: I didn't get this posted right away due to problems with the Internet connection. Before I could get this very slow connection working my new friends in Tra Vinh had whisked me away to dinner, which I'll try to write up now before those brain cells are totally gone.

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