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Overnight in Pleiku Dec 16, 2014

Overnight in Pleiku

GPS waypoint: 13°58'17.5"N 108°00'52.8"E
Location: Pleiku City, Gia Lai Province, Central Highland, Vietnam

Central Highland, Vietnam
To reach Laos without crossing Cambodia, it was necessary to go north and take the 12-hour bus ride to Pleiku, which happens to be Tuyen's hometown. This would be my first trip to the fabled 'Central Highland' of Vietnam. Pleiku is not exactly a tourist destination. It's a working agricultural city, producing mainly coffee. Tuyen's family owns a few hectares of coffee farm and most of her high school classmates' families are also in that trade.

Coffee Farm
First order of the day was to visit Tuyen's folks who were busy at the farm - it's harvest season and they had Bahnar people (an ethnic minority) who were contract workers manning the field. As landowners, I initially thought they were supervising the workers. I was surprised to see them working side-by-side with them. I found them to be simple people who believed in an honest day's work. I respect that. I was inquisitive about the process since coffee is one of the last few agricultural products that is still painstakingly harvested by hand. I have a history with coffee myself. Back in Canada, I worked 10 years on my Office Coffee Service company (OCS). I would host coffee parties where I play barrista and serve my guests coffee brewed from different methods (french press, drip, espresso) using beans from different parts of the world (Jamaican Blue Mountain, Hawaiian Kona, Kenya AA, etc.). Being at the farm perked-up the coffee guy in me, specially after being introduced to the single-bean coffee. Coffee beans usually come in pairs inside the cherry fruit. It is rare for a cherry to contain only one bean - usually oval shaped. It is said this bean has a more intense flavor as all the coffee goodness was concentrated on one bean instead of 2.

Tuyen's High School Classmates
Our trip to Pleiku was also some kind of homecoming for Tuyen. She has a tightly-knit high school batch who still hang-out together. We were invited to Da Lat-style pizza and then to special tea (the tea served to the Nguyen kings of Vietnam) while they reminisced about good times. These guys all come from the gifted class - so they're all smart. It's too bad I could not go with the conversation - my Vietnamese is limited to "Pho". They were all welcoming and generous - a staple of Vietnamese tradition. To those who speak English (Ben and Ti), I continue to keep in touch. Tuyen doesn't have too many friends, but the ones she keeps, have already been filtered through a fine mesh. She's also lucky to have them. I appreciate the warmth they gave me despite their protective concern to their beloved Tuyen.

Ending Thoughts
It was just an overnight stay but it felt like an immersion. I met Tuyen's family - her folks, her brother, in-laws, who extended me their hospitality. I met with Tuyen's school classmates who welcomed me and treated us to sumptuous eats. I got an education about coffee and its layered processes. With its cool climate, coffee tradition and warm people, Pleiku proved to have more dimension to it than simply a transition point.

--- TheLoneRider

Next stop: Pakse, Laos

it was cold in Pleiku...a hot satisfying noodle soup makes all the difference in Pleiku, the soup is served separate from the noodle, but like any Vietnamese soup tradition, the meal is always accompanied by a pile of vegetables Tuyen does all the ordering in Vietnam. To me, noodle soup is noodle soup. But to her, there are 30 different kinds of noodle soup that can be enjoyed in Vietnam it's odd that eateries in Pleiku clean up the table after every use but don't clean the floor until the end of the day
at the market, eggs vendors sell all types of eggs...including a goose egg which is very expensive (~$10/piece) and only expectant mothers buy it the fruit market sells many kinds of fruits from the local farms and even imports from China. It's funny that when the fruit is sweet and juicy, they say it's a local harvest. If the fruit is dry and inferior, they say it's imported from China the banh mi is a Vietnamese staple, and this has gained popularity in Southeast's cheap, chewy and great value for the money. I like the fact that it's mostly crust many places offer good eats...that's a Vietnamese tradition
without Tuyen to educate me on Vietnamese and Pleiku culture, I would just see things from the apparent level trying to get a closer look at a coffee tree it's harvest season for coffee. Coffee is one of those few agricultural products that  are  still harvested by hand notice the difference? Perhaps not. Normally, coffee beans come in pairs inside a cherry. These are single-bean coffee. It's rare. Only a few single beans come out from every kilo. They are said to be more intense in flavor as all the flavor is concentrated in one bean alone.
Tuyens' parents are both hands-on with their coffee plantation. They work in tandem with the farm workers and eat with them. I get the privilege to join them on a meal coffee harvest is measured by the ton. This batch is sold to a buyer who will then shell, dry, roast and package the beans. It will then be sold to coffee shops or instant coffee manufacturers or perhaps even exported slice of life in Pleiku a street vendor selling grilled meat sandwiched in a rice patty
I love street food - they cheap, great tasting and they are everywhere. Despite what others say about  hygiene, I've never had any tummy issues on street food in the 4 months I'd been traveling across Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam Tuyen climbing up the viewdeck to the lake chilling out on the view deck. This place has great potential, but it's not being developed for tourism. I hear it's because this is the water source for the city a huge art installation by the public park
this park (Ho Chi Minh Park?) is huge and spread out with lots of free space Tuyen whispering something to Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is fondly referred to by the communist government this gives a perspective on just how huge this statue is - it is the biggest Ho Chi Minh statue in Vietnam. When it was unveiled, it was national news with an all star extravaganza Tuyen's friends treated us to a special tea. I was told this is the tea served to the Nguyen kings during their 150-year reign in Vietnam (1802-1945)
Tuyen's school classmates welcomed me warmly. They are a tight group who still hang-out together after all these years. They're a smart bunch too - coming from the gifted class. Too bad my I couldn't understand Vietnamese this is the tea house we were treated would think it's a palacial home of a wealthy tycoon    

How to Get to Pleiku from Saigon

  1. take a sleeping bus from Saigon to Pleiku City, Gia Lai (Province), 12 hours (departs 7pm, so you sleep during the trip), $14/person

How to Get to Pakse from Pleiku

  1. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS ROUTE: From Pleiku, there is a small bus departing for Pakse between 7 and 8 am, depending on which bus line you choose, 11-12 hours, $14/person including lunch. The small bus has no air-conditioning, crowded, very few stops, closed windows because of the cold, and a lot of the people smoke inside the bus - you had been warned! If you are making the direct connection from Pleiku to Pakse, make sure that the Saigon-Pleiku bus departs Saigon early enough to make to to Pleiku before the Pleiku-Pakse bus departs at 7am.

Vietnam FYI / Tips / Dos and Don'ts

  • Vietnamese smokers used to smoke in air-conditioned establishments, air-conditioned buses packed with people including women, children and babies. But this habit seems to be changing now.
  • Vietnam ranks almost the same as Thailand and Cambodia for cheap price. Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia cost more
  • internet speed is generally fast and reliable but during important events like Tet holiday, election, etc., it slows down
  • Vietnamese generally do not speak or understand much English. It will be a challenge.
  • only Vietnamese Dong is accepted as legal tender (change your dollars into Dong)
  • best to dress appropriately, not revealing too much skin (Saigon is an exception - the ladies there set the trend in very short shorts)
  • remove your shoes when entering a home or place of worship
  • ask first before taking someone's picture. If they say no, don't persist or offer money
  • best to carry your hotel's business card with you when going out. You can just show it to the cab driver or XeOm driver if they don't understand English
  • leave your valuables, passport, travel tickets, etc. with the hotel's safety deposit box
  • when lying down, don't point your feet or the soles of your shoes to anyone or to a family altar
  • carry only enough cash for your needs that day
  • don't lose your temper in public - Vietnamese people are warm, generous and polite. They look down on people who lose their composure
  • don't take pictures of military installations
  • refrain from taking videos of minority people until permitted to do so
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Reader Comments:

Thao NhungThao Nhung
(Feb 13 , 2015) yah I am from Pleiku, same hometown with Bich Tuyen

Tuyen NguyenTuyen Vietnam
(Feb 13, 2015) ok Thao Nhung, when you arrive home, let me know. Gigit, we'll talk bad things about you, bad guy! :P

Dec 16, 2014

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