On a mission: A local bus journey to Kon Tum, Vietnam

Published on BucketList Publications

12 March 2012

I was on a mission.  It started with finding an orphanage in the hills of Vietnam and quickly turned into a mission to make it to the top alive.  A mission that involved 26 people, a motorbike and 6 car axles in a 16 seater minibus tearing up a mountainside.

I had decided the night before to head away from the Central Coast and up to the highlands, after reading about the Vinh Son 1 orphanage in my well-worn Lonely Planet Guide.  I’d had enough of “tourists” and hanging out at markets and beaches.   I was keen to get back to the reality of Vietnam.

Finding the local bus station in Hoi An, I asked around for the bus to Danang.  Twenty minutes of haggling and I had a ticket at the locals price of 10,000 Dong.  There was one other passenger on the bus that spoke English.  We talked about what his study at college and how Facebook differed in the Western world to Vietnam with its restrictions and blockages.

At the Danang bus station I tried to buy a ticket to Kon Tum only to be told the bus was full.  After some wild, gesticulated haggling by my new friend, I had a seat on the next bus.  I probably should have taken the tickets seller’s initial refusal of a ticket as a sign of things to come.

Bus stations are great places for people watching.  As one of the very few westerners about, I was being watched.  As a solitary, female, western traveller sitting in a bus station reading a book with a picture of a Buddha statue on the front cover, I was the main attraction.  Every few minutes someone would shuffle closer to where I sat, sliding up along the wall beside me, looking over my shoulder.  A few more minutes and I’d be asked if I were a Buddhist, followed very closely by are you married or have a boyfriend.  My answer being no, I was then proposed to or give details about a brother/cousin/son/friend they had that I could marry.

While I was providing the days entertainment, my mini bus to Kon Tum had begun loading it’s non-human cargo.  Six car axles were slid under the middle row of seats.  A motorbike was crammed in behind the back seat.  Bags were stacked around the bike along with three crates of welding equipment.  Tickets collected and I was directed where to sit… in the middle of the back row.  There were two Vietnamese men on either side of me, a motorbike behind me, car axles directly under my feet and a box perched precariously behind my head.  For the next six hours up the winding road, this was my seat.

The journey into the highlands showcased Vietnamese driving at its finest.  Overtaking on blind corners, pot holes the size of moon craters that sent the motorbike learching into the back of our seat, and roads that were only half sealed.  It was the overturned trucks on two separate corners, dangling through the smashed up guardrail, above the drop into jungle ravine below, that finally scared me.  This didn’t slow down the driver though, nor did the rain.  In fact it seemed to encourage him to speed up.  I guessed that it was the drivers attempt to outrun anything bad happening to us.  My enthusiasm to get to the orphanage was quickly replaced with my hope to make it to the top alive.  I held on tightly, knuckles glaringly white on the seat in front of me.  In the event of a crash I was so tightly wedged in to my spot that it had to be safer than any seatbelt.  There was some logic behind the madness of an overloaded bus.  Somehow this thought made me feel safer.

At the end of six very confined hours we pulled into Kon Tum bus station.  Leaving my close knitted group, I went in search of a hostel and promptly passed out for the night.

For a small mountain village of 138,000 people, it was hard finding Vinh Son 1 orphanage.  The helpful locals with “it’s just down there a bit,” while pointing me in different directions, didn’t work in my favour.  Instead I walked circles around the main streets in the sweltering July sun.  After several hours and no orphanage, I arrived at the bus station and purchased my night ticket to Dalat.  It was here that I came across a xe om that knew where the orphanage was.  Ten minutes later I was standing at the front gate.

Vinh Son orphanage is home to 700 orphans and carers.  The children are orphans due to the usual developing world problems.  Poverty, flow on effects of war and to a lesser degree HIV/AIDS.  A lovely Canadian-Vietnamese volunteer teacher at the orphanage was so excited I’d come to visit, she gladly showed me around.  A group of Canadian and US Doctor’s, nurses, optometrists and dentists were visiting the orphanage for the day too.  They were providing health check ups to the children and locals from the surrounding villages.  I watched as children had their teeth cleaned, vitamins were dispensed, eyes tested for vision impairments, and vaccinations given.  The group spent three weeks every eight months travelling to villages and orphanages in Vietnam providing health care.  I was fortunate enough to see them in action.

It doesn’t take long though before orphanage children whisk you away.  A giggling group of girls grabbed my hands and we were off to explore the hen house, pigsty, the gardens, classrooms and nursery.  They taught me hand-clapping games and we bottle feed the infants.  I had made it back to the reality of Vietnam.

All to quickly my time was up and I had to head back to the bus station.  To another bus trip through the highlands, only this time it would be dark, so at least I couldn’t see what road horrors awaited me.

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