"There's No Place Like BMT"

By Valerie Schumacher

One of the high points of my recent trip to Vietnam was our time spent in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, a place I'd never been before.

We arrived in Ban Me Thuot on 2/11 after leaving Nhatrang and stayed at the Thang Loi Hotel, the best hotel in town - also the worst. The sink that drained onto the floor and the frequent power outages had their charm, though. I've always enjoyed candlelight and a good laugh.

Even the 4:30 a.m. church bells, that blasted me out of bed, were good for a guffaw once I stuffed my face back into a pillow that I swear was filled with sawdust. I never did figure out why there was a red light over my door, though. Perhaps it had something to do with why I'd wake in the middle of the night to find the door partly open......

Our guide Viet warned us that the Central Highlands are not quite prepared for world travellers yet. That's OK; it was an adventure. Dining out was an adventure.

The menu at the local restaurant was fascinating - they served Swimming-Bladder Soup, Half-Done Deer Meat, Disjointed Chicken, Roasted Frog in Gravy, Salty Terrified Sea Crab (I think terrified might just mean stir-fried), Stomach with Much Room, Wild Animal Meat, and Steamed Armadillo Cooked in Chinese Medicines. And me with my delicate palate!

Seems the local custom is to just dump whatever you're done with onto the floor. Cool. Can't do that at home. More rice please...

Bob warned me that there is not much to do in Ban Me Thuot. We found just the opposite and had a ball. Out in front of our hotel was an old American tank set upon a tilted stone monument with a red flag with a gold star snapping in the breeze. The kids used it for a slide. I joined them for a round. The old base is still visible up the road, and I wondered if Bob would recognize much of the place.

Viet introduced us to the pleasures of karaoke in BMT. Never before have I had a mike in my hand. Viet chose a song and said "Do you know 'I Love You More Than I Can Say'?" and I replied "Well, Viet, I like you a lot, too." I chose "Feelings" because - hey - everybody knows the words to "Feelings."

I wailed the words to "Feelings" into the mike - that is, when I could get any words out. We were all laughing so hard that we were crying. Viet is a great guide. He also has the makings of a rock star.

The picture on the TV monitor was a woman lovingly petting an elephant, tres apropos since I got to lovingly pet an elephant the very next day.

On the road up to Ban Me Thuot from Nha Trang we stopped at some hot springs. Viet told me the water was 68 degrees centigrade. I'm standing with one booted foot in it hearing "centigrade" but thinking "Fahrenheit" and wondering just how those montagnard ladies expected their eggs to boil in it. The rising temperature of my boot soon clued me in.

There were many montagnard women and children of the Chill tribe there at the Duc My hot springs. They looked at us in awe, and we did the same - they were our first glimpse of montagnards in the Central Highlands. They may have seen Westerners before but probably not many Americans, since Americans have only recently been allowed to travel in those parts. They wore brightly colored clothing, and the children were decked out in the gaudiest costume jewelry.

They gathered round us and stared while their eggs cooked. I decided this was an opportune moment to pass out some of the pens Polecat had sent me to give to children. These children clearly had little to nothing, and they did not run up with their hands out demanding souvenirs as so many Vietnamese children do. They remained shyly at a distance and distrustful of cameras. So I figured I'd squat down and give them a look through the viewfinder.

Shyness cured immediately! They clamored around, and I was covered with kids politely waiting their turn for a look through the camera. I gave the pens to the eldest woman to pass out among the kids so that peace would be maintained; and when every child had his or her pen, I had them group together for a photo. I gestured to them to hold their pens out like swords in front of them and say "Hello Polecat!" for the camera.

To my astonishment, they followed my cue and cried "Hello Polecat!" in unison as I clicked the shutter. Dopey me, I got tears in my eyes. The kids were now our fast friends and followed us back to our van, which had a flat from the rough road. (The road from Nhatrang to BMT had been severely washed out in parts from the monsoons in September.)

So, we got to spend a little more time with those charming people, which was fine by me. The "ethnic minorities" are called "backward" by the Viet- namese, but I wouldn't wish on them the complexities of modern Vietnamese life, much less American.

The drive up to Ban Me Thuot was delightful, far different than anything I'd previously seen in two trips to Vietnam. We had to climb Phoenix Pass, and the road got quite precipitous at times. On either side were rolling hills of tall pampas-type grass, which then gave way to jungle. Montagnard women walked along the roadside with their basket backpacks on their backs, stacked several feet over their heads with firewood.

Further along the road, we came upon some montagnard villages of the Ede people. They had the long grass, from which to make brooms, drying by the roadside. Viet had my "Gipsy Kings" tape blasting on the stereo, and I cringed a little at the peace we were disturbing. I'm not sure the montagnards knew quite what to make of Spanish music assailing their ears.

We got out and visited for a while. Little dogs with curly tails yipped at our heels; and huge, black, pot-bellied pigs with straight tails trotted out of our way.

I loved the montagnard longhouses on stilts. I would have preferred one to my room in BMT. They are immense things and very cool and dry inside. You climb up into them on a ladder made from a log with notches cut into it. I did it a couple of times to get the hang of it but never quite matched the agility of the children who'd laugh at my efforts.

Viet told me there are tigers still in those jungles. I'd like to think so.

We passed brick kilns and coffee and rubber plantations, peppercorn vines growing up poles, tea bushes trimmed as hedges. We visited Dray Sap Falls which required a brief hike through a hardwood forest of banyans and curlique vines. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese are chopping it down to make way for the visitors they expect, which breaks my heart. Too much of the forest is already gone.

They, also, do not have the concept of picking up their litter (same as us not too long ago), and it was distressing to see the waters beneath the rainbowed falls choked with plastic bags and Coke cans. In fact, in some places there are veritable snowdrifts of plastic along the roadside.

Stopped to see sugar cane syrup-making in action and noted that an old GI's helmet tied to a stick was their ladle.

We spent the following day in the village of a Mnong tribe called the Jun (pronounced Zoon) and had to obtain a permit to visit. They live on the banks of Lak Lake and primarily fish and cultivate rice. I forgot my canteen on a tree stump, and a villager ran down to the lake to return it to me.

Before our ride in their dugout canoes, I decided it might be smart to relieve myself in some bushes, only to discover (while in a compromising position) that I'd chosen a pig wallow. I was surrounded by big, black pot-bellies who snorted in alarm at my invasion. Nice pig, nice pig, just don't mind me...

The canoe ride was idyllic. Not a sound out there but the cries of kingfishers diving in the water and herons and egrets flying by the dozen overhead. I trailed my toes in the water, putting the thought of leeches out of my mind and ignoring Viet's comments of "There used to be crocodiles in this lake...I *think* they are all gone now...I don't think they're the kind that bite." What kind *doesn't* bite?? Ah, so what, I'd see 'em coming...wouldn't I?

We lunched in the village chief's longhouse, and he passed through briefly, wishing us "Bon Appetit." It was a simple but beautiful long room, lined with gongs, long ironwood benches, and giant urns for rice liquor (ruou can). Tom surprised us with Peanut M&M's to go with our baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese. Before long the elephants arrived. The ride that I'd been so looking forward to.

I jumped down off the front porch and photographed them coming in, reached out to pet the cheek of one, and got whacked with his trunk. Perhaps an old VC elephant.

His driver, a teenage boy, gestured that we should step on the elephant's head to climb up and into the wooden box on his back. I apologized to the elephant first for having to do it. Off we rolled. The boy jiggled his butt and tapped the elephant with his heels to get him to move (he had to do that a lot).

The elephants waded into Lak Lake, and we pitched crazily as ours seemed almost to lose his balance in the sticky mud. I considered the possibility of a dunk in Lak Lake, if he went over, which seemed considerably more dis- tasteful as the lead elephant let loose an endless supply of elephant dung. I laughed till my sides hurt, and the montagnard boy thought me crazy, never once cracking a smile, not even as he took the proffered M&M's. The elephant was up to his eyeballs in water and sprayed us periodically with his snout, for play or for pay back - I'm not sure which.

Three hours in a rocking wooden box does amazing things to one's behind, but it was magnificent out there in the blazing sun and the peace, waving hello to curious montagnard villagers and scanning the sky for egrets like ballerinas in their grace. One more trip through the lake and the elephant trumpetted his objections. Back at the Jun village, he dropped to all four knees, and we jumped to the ground from his rump. This time he let me pet him.

Don't ever let anyone tell you Ban Me Thuot is boring.

It was our peaceful prologue to Pleiku.

Copyright 1995 By Valerie Schumacher, All Rights Reserved