Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Central Highlands of Vietnam: Out and About

While staying at Lak Lake, we pushed against sounder judgement (R&R is overrated) and hopped back on the bike for a cruise around the surrounding area.

After a quick bowl of steaming morning pho amongst a thick cloud of flies, we headed to Emperor Bao Dai's former lakeside villa.  The last puppet had a penchant for hunting and as the highlands around the lake were once populated by tigers, elephants, and wild gaur, he built a large house on a modest hill near the shore.  The droning of cicadas at the top of this hill was aurally overwhelming and we quickly took refuge in the cafe of the villa (which has since been turned into a drab hotel).

While talking to the friendly woman working there and reading an even friendlier article plastered on the wall, we discovered there was quite a lot to see in the area.

Before we got back on the road, we dropped by the local Lien Son Market to stock up on fruit for the days' sojourn.  Per norm, we were instantly heralded by the masses and quickly morphed into local celebrities.

We even had a ragtag band of small children following us Pied Piper-style for a bit.

We drifted past gargantuan squashes, ruby-red tomatoes, and local fish and squid pulled from the murky depths; but ended up only picking up a few mangoes, a robust dragonfruit, and a knife for roadside slicing.

After getting our grubby paws on a local map, we bid adieu to the sun-baked market and set out for a small lake set in the hills southwest of Ho Lak.

Besides meager government subsidies and a slowly burgeoning tourist scene, there isn't much dong pouring into this part of the country.  Coffee and rubber plantations provide income for some families, but most of the folks in the region cultivate rice.  The cloth sheets lining the roadways are used by farmers for drying their bounty in the muscular mid-day sun.

Dodging sun-crisped farmers sifting through raw rice on the roadway, the otherwise laconic 15km journey down the winding back-country road came to an abrupt end at the base of a mid-sized hill with a crumbling stone staircase.  Here a gaunt cow herder motioned for us to park on the side of the road, leave our bike in his avuncular care, and ascend the slope.

We marched upwards in the blistering heat and upon reaching the top discovered a lost world.  Set into a haze-encrusted crater and surrounded by alternating swathes of thick forests and burnt, desolate hillside was a seemingly prehistoric tear-drop of tepid water.  Unforgiving shale shores (we couldn't even find a lakeside seat) and a few fisherman lazily drifting across the surface in ancient long boats added to the otherworldly character.  A continuous blasting like the sound of heavy artillery and ringlets of smoke rising from the undergrowth on a distant shore added to the unsettling character of this hidden reservoir.  Slash and burn...

Pictures from our aging camera do not bring proper justice to the scene.  Gazing at the lake and the surrounding hillsides we both couldn't help but drop a post-apocalyptic reference or two. 

With our reflections in the dingy water and faraway, faceless fishermen as our only company, the ominous stillness was overpowering.  It was as though the end of the world had come in one bright flash and this was all that remained.  We crouched down on the sharp, rocky shore near a lonely burnt stump, proceeded to take out our knife, and sliced into the moist, comforting flesh of our dragonfruit.

We returned to the bike, slightly surprised to see it was still there, and gave the weathered and nearly emaciated Drover some money and a few mangoes seeing as though he had watched over it in our absence.  He became so overjoyed at the gift he insisted I take a few pictures of him while he posed with several of his prized cows.  In this wild, wild country...

By this time the sky was starting to darken with the impending threat of rain and we noticed that the large cloths laden with drying rice were quickly disappearing and the workers tending them had banded together in an articulately coordinated team effort: sifting the rice using large woven baskets, then scooping and packing it into large plastic sacks, which were then either loaded into trucks or storage sheds strategically situated along the roadway.

As an afternoon downpour began, we took refuge at a local watering hole and were served a couple of warm beers by a darling 11 year-old girl before returning into town.

We passed through town proper and veered northwest to the edge of Lak Lake to visit Buôn Jun, an area of traditional long-houses and tourist trinkets where members of the M'Nong ethnicity dwell.  We were greeted at the entrance by some of their tamed wild elephants.  Although they offer rides on them for visitors, we decided to pass.

Slowly making our way down the single street of the village, passing endless rows of longhouses and their dour inhabitants, we came to the waters' edge.  Here, we decided to end our spirited day with a few cold beers on the concrete veranda of the villages' sole restaurant/beer hall/home of illicit karaoke to chat with some of the local teenage girls and survey the lake.

We watched a family of pigs dutifully make their way along the shallows, pausing only to root around in the muck and to copiously relieve themselves.

Also, we witnessed a group of men hauling long planks of seemingly brand new wood from the depths of the lake.  Was it a collapsed attempt at a dock or a way of treating the wood before using it to build with?  Nevertheless, the village was pulsing with construction so who knows who long the M'Nong can preserve their atavistic integrity.

Finally, we called it a day and returned to the "resort" for a final feast before the long, painful trip back to Da Lat the next morning.  But we couldn't say goodbye with out one a final glimpse of the forlorn pachyderms and the tribesmen and women working together on yet another farming endeavor.

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