HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, May 3, 2015

H2H 2015 Days 20 to 22: Through the Blazing Heat

After arriving in Pleiku we arranged to be brought to the Thien An orphanage, which is just outside of the city. H2H has supported Live and Give, an organization which provides funding for the orphanage, since 2013. The facility is run by a group of Catholic nuns who care for about 90 children ranging in age from infants to early teens.

This was my third time visiting Thien An, and it has always blown me away. The kids who stay here are from the ethnic minority groups which live in the region, and the circumstances they are born into are often ugly. Vietnam's government has a contentious history when it comes to the country's non-majority population, and areas such as the Central Highlands and the northwest, home to large concentrations of minority groups, are often very politically sensitive. These groups are seen by the Kinh majority as backwards, and the government has worked to force them to integrate into Vietnamese society. Kinh migration into these parts of the country has also been encouraged, and these newcomers have reaped the rewards of economic growth while many members of the minority groups remain stuck in grinding poverty with little hope for a better future. Land disputes and violence, and even large protests, are common, although they receive no coverage in the press as this issue is completely censored. It's entirely possible to spend years in Vietnam without hearing a thing about the way minority groups are treated.

This is the reality the kids at Thien An face, and the nuns do an incredible job of providing them with skills and a bed to sleep on to strive towards something better. They receive English and Vietnamese lessons and are taught how to play musical instruments. There is a sports hall where they can play games and gather as a group. The grounds contain a bakery and a fish pond, allowing bread and fish to be sold for extra income. Some of the stories regarding how certain children ended up at Thien An are horrific: for example, one minority group follows a tradition in which if a mother dies during childbirth but the baby survives, it is buried alive with the mother's body. Several children here have been saved from that fate. Others were rescued from potentially deadly disputes revolving around childbirth out of wedlock, while some were simply abandoned by their parents. Not every child at Thien An is an orphan, but they would all face an unpleasant future if not for the efforts of the amazing nuns here.

Once the kids finished class in the afternoon we were able to start interacting with them, and several of us started up a rousing game of indoor soccer that left us drenched in sweat. Oftentimes on H2H you'll come across children in the countryside who are completely terrified of foreigners - they aren't used to seeing us, and they may run away just at the sight of you. These kids, on the other hand, were confident and outgoing, even though they spoke little to no English. They had no problem playing games with us and even roughhousing a bit, and all of the riders were inspired to see how positive and happy they were, especially given their upbringing.
The nuns also prepared an absolute feast for us - roast chicken and potatoes with bread baked fresh just next door. The food was incredible and we ate like cavemen, although part of me felt somewhat guilty to be eating so well when the children were dining on basic staples across the hall. This goes to show how generous and hospitable people here are.
After dinner Tat, one of the riders, broke out a blue body suit, which none of us knew he had, and led a few games, much to the excitement of the kids. A hilarious evening ensued, and by the time we left to return to our hotel the children were so riled up I wouldn't be surprised if they still haven't gone to bed.
The following morning we returned to Thien An on our way out of town for a sumptuous breakfast of cheese, bread and jam, which left all of us feeling sluggish on the bike afterwards. These visits were among the highlights of the ride for the entire team, and were a useful reminder of exactly what H2H is all about.

The following two days riding took us further into the Central Highlands: 100km from Pleiku to Ea Drang, and 76km from Ea Drang to Buon Me Thuot. The former was likely my least favorite day of the entire ride. The first stretch wasn't too bad since the road was newly paved, although a vicious crosswind kept us from reaching top speed. As the day progressed, though, we hit appalling stretches of construction: the road alternated between completely torn up, a dirt path, a gravel path, or sprayed with gooey asphalt that was a nightmare to ride over. More than once I had to get off the bike and walk, as my slick tires had zero grip on loose gravel. In terms of scenery we were beyond the lush forests of central Vietnam and in the midst of sun-baked, windswept plains of the Central Highlands plateau. The surroundings could've stood in for West Texas.

By the time we arrived in Ea Drang, a small town which straddles the Ho Chi Minh Highway, we were all absolutely filthy from the dirt and construction dust of the day. I was glad to have that one over with.
The next ride was another windy scorcher along ruined roads on the way to Buon Me Thuot (BMT), the largest city in the region as well as the coffee capital of the country, and the location of our third and final rest day. The first 50 of 75km were mostly hateful, full of shattered roads and braindead drivers, but the final stretch into town was a fantastic, well-paved slightly downhill blast that deposited at the front door of the KFC at the start of the city.

It was time for one last rest, and the team had a great time in BMT. We indulged in karaoke, phenomenal Vietnamese BBQ and pizza, and I also had one of the best massages ever. I also went for a little spin around town to keep my legs warm, as the following day was the one I got injured on when I did H2H in 2012 and 2013. I had no intention of repeating that, but only the next ride would tell if my efforts had paid off.

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