Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Scenic view looking south from highland town of Kon Tum, with Dakbla River at right
I’m relaxing in a sidewalk café called Thu Ha Coffee, along the Dakbla River in the Highlands. It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon in the town of Kon Tum, and traffic on the nearby bridge south to Pleiku is light. On the road in front of me, two cows slowly pull a cart, while a farmer taps them along with a stick. The floodplain across the river is covered with a patchwork of farming fields.

The city has built a lovely river walk, and I’m surprised to see this kind of development so deep in the highlands. The walkway has designer fencing, steps leading down to the river, and plenty of landscaping. Saigon’s river walk isn’t this picturesque. Even new street lamps are of French design. The Vietnamese may have fought the French for decades, but they still like their decor.

In Vietnam, cafés such as this are another legacy of the French, and are extremely popular from one end of the country to the other. There are even a couple of nationwide chains, and they’re more popular than bars or discos for meeting friends, especially among groups of women. In Vietnam's conservative culture, good girls don’t go to bars, but they do go to cafes. You can see them crowded into cafés in any city, gathering after work or university classes. They chat the afternoon away, while sipping their iced coffees. 

I gaze at the lovely view of the distant mountains that cover most of the horizon. It’s a mostly sunny day, except for the smoky haze in the air. It’s that time of year when farmers outside town are clearing more farmland, leaving the familiar odor of burning brush.

An ox pulls its load along the river road in Kon Tum

There are more remaining forests left here than there are around Pleiku, but even this deep in the highlands the numbers are dropping. This was once a heavily forested area, but year by year the ancient forests have been shrinking.  In the war years air dropped defoliants were killing trees, but that was decades ago. The massive deforestation seen in the highlands these days is also man made. The population growth and migration of ethnic Vietnamese from other provinces has caused a major increase in land cleared for farming. There are also complaints of corruption connected to illegal logging.

As I finish my cold green tea, I notice an older American speaking with a local Vietnamese having coffee at another table. Wondering what the westerner is doing in town, I approach to find out.

“We’re with a charity, we support an orphanage here,” he informs me. “In our group there are some veterans, their families, and we have four doctors. They’re out at the orphanage now."

Charity groups such as this have helped to bring a lot of support for humanitarian work back into Vietnam. He excuses himself, returning to his serious discussion with his local staffer. He has a lot of orphanage business to take care of before they leave tomorrow. I wish them well, and depart the café. 

After walking a few blocks, I find myself in another café, an internet café. Even in this remote highland town, close to the Cambodian border, they still have internet. In this country where free speech is limited and press is still tightly controlled, access to the world wide web is mostly, but not entirely, unrestricted. The Vietnamese government does block a small percentage of websites. These include a select number of sites oriented to news, gambling, pornography, and those run by human rights organizations. But the vast majority of the internet is accessible in Vietnam.
Yes, that's really a child riding a steer, on the Kon Tum river front

I sit down to do email, and as expected, the connection is slow. But I’m not complaining, a half hour only costs the equivalent of 60 cents. I look around the internet café, and every single customer is under 18. There are boys playing computer games, while teenage girls do online chat. I’m pleased to see that there are not only ethnic Vietnamese here, but also teens from the highland minorities. These youngsters may be only playing games today, but they are all computer literate, and who knows where that will lead. Some of these kids are studying English, and at internet cafés here, and across Vietnam, thousands of them are chatting live with foreigners in faraway lands, including other American teenagers.

In a country where the government still goes to great lengths to control information, access to the world wide web may one day change. But the effects of this technology are already being felt. Compared to previous generations, these children are becoming far more aware of the outside world. It makes me wonder, what effect will this have on the future of Vietnam?

Who knows?

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