Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Highway One

By Volunteer Ralph Bartholomew
Project IV-V Participant

The harsh winters in my home state cause the road conditions to rank among the worst in the country. However, after spending over 12 hours on Vietnam's Highway One, I'm convinced that Maine's roads bear more resemblance to a ride on France's TGV than to the glorified horse-paths that they are. Highways take a lot of resources to construct and maintain, and it seems that Vietnam, one of the world's poorest countries, is having a hard time gathering those resources. Although this fact meant a mighty uncomfortable ride for everyone on the bus, it did give us all a chance to witness first hand one of Vietnam's great works in progress.

Our travel day (happening to fall on Christmas) began with a 5 a.m. wake-up call. It was a sign of the group's dedication that our focus was on our goal of getting ourselves and our gear up to Nha Trang, giving little thought to the holiday celebration that we were missing back home. After beginning to load some of our baggage and donations onto the bus, we quickly realized that there would soon be no room for any bodies to fit on the bus. Joe made a decision to call in a second vehicle and driver to help us make the day-long journey. We also had to leave some of the donations in Saigon for delivery at a later date.

This space jam was one of the many instances when we were called upon to invoke the mantra of the project, "Be flexible." As many of the participants this year could only bring part of the donations they collected, our decision to leave some in Saigon meant that Khanh Hoa Province would only see a fraction of what we had to give. I had only brought a quarter of the school supplies my school had donated. We had to trust that they would get there somehow.

If this wasn't paradise, it was a pretty good imitation.

At a little after 6 a.m. we headed out of Saigon. Already, the swarms of motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles had begun to storm down the city's wide, tree-lined boulevards. It seems that people here like to jump start the day early, maybe because the midday equatorial heat makes life slow to a crawl. From every nook, the city streets come to life and begin to buzz. Umbrellas are pitched along sidewalks as street vendors roll out their wares. Mothers wash dishes, cafes position tables and chairs in anticipation of the day's patrons, and dogs, cats, chickens and children jockey for the piece of roadside they can call their own. It's exhilarating to be in a place where people's primary concern is satisfying the most basic of needs: food, shelter, love, affection. Only a few, like the medical school students we met a few days earlier, have the luxury of pursuing goals of self-actualization. Here, the streets and alleys are not just a corridor for transportation, but are a venue for trade, socialization and recreation.

Likewise, Highway One had many functions within each of the communities it passed through. As we passed out of the city and into the surrounding dry, tropical lowlands, the road became too bumpy to do anything constructive on the bus. Reading, writing and, most of the time, sleeping were futile. The only alternative was to watch life go by along the roadside. Whenever the bus slowed down enough, we threw open the windows to talk to whomever happened to be standing there. Most people were quick with a smile. I don't know who was more curious, them or us.

Around mid-morning, we made a pit stop to stretch our legs at a group of small homes which seemed, aside from the highway, to have no link to the outside world. After gesturing to ask the way to the nearest restroom, a few of us were led on a short hike behind the largest of the shacks. A few minutes into our trek, we started to wonder if they misunderstood our question as a request to be shown the footpath to Hanoi. To our surprise, the restroom turned out to be in someone's home. After returning to the bus, we bought some refreshments and discovered the Vietnamese penchant for putting soda in a plastic bag.

Back on the road, it became apparent that there was a great national effort, however disjointed, to improve the condition of Highway One. They had a long way to go, but the effort was underway. Makeshift road crews cropped up from time to time, and I wondered whether they were on the official payroll to do this work or if they were simply a grass-roots effort to make better the stretch of Highway One that passed through their neck of the jungle.

Even outside the cities, the variety of activity on and around the road was amazing. The road was not just for vehicles, but was for anyone who could find a use for a stretch of asphalt. We saw grain drying, clothes being washed, food cooking, and cattle being herded, alongside the regular stream of odd-ball vehicles parading up and down the highway. At first sight it seemed to be chaos on the roads, but after a while, an intricate system of cooperation emerged. Rather than being an impediment to forward progress on the road, all this extracurricular activity was just a fact of life.

For lunch, we detoured a half hour off the highway toward a place which Gia Hoa promised was the most beautiful stretch of coastline in Vietnam. What we saw certainly was stunning, but what was most amazing to me was the complete lack of tourists. We went by a lonely string of bungalows, and a single restaurant before stopping at a secluded beach. Aside from that, there were no sign that this was a touristed area. On the beach where we chose to take our respite, there were a few beach chairs for rent and a small stand to buy coconut milk. For 2,500 Dong (about 21 cents), one of the local women would chop the top off a coconut with a machete and hand it to you with a straw sticking out. If this wasn't paradise, it was a pretty good imitation. After lounging on the beach for a spell, we partook of a leisurely lunch of local seafood and wished we could have stayed longer.

Six more hours on the road lay ahead of us. Our driver skillfully dodged all the obstacles. Although some parts of the highway had a line painted down the middle, it was always optional and only a rough guideline. The standard operating procedure was to straddle the center line, and swerve right only when necessary. Oncoming traffic did the same and although it looked like one long game of chicken, it was perhaps the only way drivers could devise to deal with the state of the road. In many places there was no road to speak of, perhaps because the floods of the past year had washed it away.

Even if complaining about the ride was on our minds, at day's end none of has the energy or inclination to do so. Nha Trang was under cover of night when we arrived, so we just gave thanks to the powers responsible for getting us there safely and turned in for the night. That the group was able to weather a sunup to sundown bus ride amicably is yet another testament to the level of dedication and focus on the purpose for us to be here in Vietnam.

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