HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, February 24, 2012

H2H Day 20: Under the Burning Sun

This day started much differently from the others. Hanneke has a Belgian friend who runs a foundation that supports an orphanage run by nuns outside of Pleiku, and we decided to visit before we left town. So, we woke up at the crack of dawn and followed a van driven very slowly by a nun who had just earned her driver's license. The orphanage is situated within the beautiful grounds of a coffee plantation where the nuns live, about 10km outside of the city.

The orphanage takes in children from the minority groups who live in the Central Highlands, the very poor and very rural part of Vietnam we've been in for several days. Over the decades these minority groups have been shouldered out of their traditional areas by the dominant Khinh ethnicity, while the government has tried to assimilate them, sometimes forcefully, into mainstream Vietnamese culture. As a result the people of these groups (there are 54 in Vietnam) are, by and large, poverty-stricken and very disadvantaged. The nuns care for roughly 100 children between the ages of 3 and 15. Some of them have parents, but they are either too poor or too busy working in the fields to care for them. Others are foundlings, and some have simply been abandoned. One of the minority groups follows a tradition of burying newborns alive with their mother if she dies during childbirth, and there was one set of adorable twin girls who were rescued from such a fate. The nuns provide the children with Vietnamese language lessons, since every minority group has its own language, in the hope that they will be able to someday attend school, where everything is in Vietnamese.

The facility was awfully impressive, spotlessly clean and very well-maintained. There were well-stocked classrooms, dormitories, a kitchen, a room where young pregnant women who have been rejected by their community are given safe haven, and a pharmacy. A bakery and a dentist's office are also being built. The children looked happy to be living there.

Jan, who heads the foundation that funnels donations to the orphanage, had flown up from Saigon the previous day, and delighted us with gourmet cheese, fresh bread, fruit, and jam for breakfast.

We also met the head nun, the shortest woman in the world.

I'm hoping to do a story about the orphanage for AsiaLIFE, because I found it to be a highly unique place. You don't hear very much about the minority groups of Vietnam, and there are some political sensitivities surrounding the topic. The cultures of many of these groups are being swept aside in the country's rush to modernity and apparent ethnic homogeneity, but at this haven the children are allowed to hold on to their traditional ways, while being eased into Vietnamese society. As Jan put it, the nuns are working to build a bridge from traditional minority culture to modern Vietnam.

After a great early morning at the orphanage it was time to hit the road, and it was a sweltering day. Tom S., Phong and I galloped out front at a blistering pace for the first 35km, when we stopped for a drink break to allow the rest of the group to catch up. As we were about to get going again I realized I had a flat, my first in a while, probably thanks to the rough road surface. We were also riding into a stiff headwind, which made downhills feel like flat sections and flats feel like uphills, the entire time. There was a lot of sweating going on, and three people also crashed off the road. Fortunately, injuries were minimal. After 115km, our longest day yet, of no shade and no relief from the wind, we rolled into Ea Drang, our last stop before our second, and final, rest day. Our arm and leg tan lines are reaching epic proportions

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