It was a 200-mile journey from Saigon to Dak Lak, a highlands province that saw much fighting during the Vietnam War. Just north of Saigon, I passed quite a few grand villas, with two dog statues on gate columns, though some owners outdid their neighbors by having lions instead.
The further north I went, the smaller the houses became, and the more churches I saw, some brand new. The government states that only 8% of Vietnamese are Christians, but the true percentage must be twice that, at least. I saw many graves with crosses.
As I climbed higher, the rubber trees gave way to coffee and pepper plants. Here and there, an avocado orchard or corn field. Noticing people on motorbikes with a windbreaker or hoodie, I suddenly became alarmed at not having brought a coat, but the temperature never dipped below pleasantly cool.
Serpentining upward, dragonlike, I skirted the Cambodian border. The Ho Chi Minh trail was once just on the other side. At a dusty intersection, an old bicyclist had on gray pajamas and a black combat helmet. Though with a face like a squashed prune and toothless, he can still aim straight, I'd bet. A propaganda billboard advised, "FIRM WITH THE RIFLE, STEADY WITH THE STEERING WHEEL."
In Dak Lak Province, most of the place names aren't Vietnamese, but even in strange-sounding Ea Kly, Ea Kar or M'Drak, all I saw on the streets were Vietnamese, for they have taken over. A century ago, there were 151 Rade villages in the area, so where were the Rades?
Smiling, Quan added, "And their women are rather disgusting, when you look at them. There's something not quite right about them!" Like a tolerance for heat or cold, it's mostly what you're used to, I suppose, though novelty, for some, can be intriguing.
Born in harsh Binh Dinh, Quan moved to Saigon as a teen. In college, he often couldn't afford more than a plate of rice with pig liver and bean sprouts for lunch, for it only cost 9 cents. He rode a cheap Chinese bike that often broke down. Now, Quan owns several businesses and was in Dak Lak to buy land for a recycling plant. Looking into exporting organic Vietnamese vegetables to India, he visited that country recently. His wife went to Dubai for fun.
With Quan, I visited a business associate of his, also a Vietnamese. Everything inside Truong's house was tired looking. The front room was decorated with a large picture of fruits and vegetables, something you'd find in a barrio grocery store. The backroom had two wooden beds and a beat-up glass cabinet, containing faded, threadbare and long-outdated clothing. His parents came out to greet us. The old man wore a white and baby blue golf shirt that featured this stitched on tag, "THTP Buôn Ma Thuột" ["Buon Ma Thuot High School"]. After four decades, maybe he's still enrolled.
Truong, "Yes, this area is changing very fast. More and more people are coming in, and the trees are being cut down. You hardly see elephants anymore. The elephant is very important to the Rades. It's their spiritual core. Plus, elephants hauled timber. Now, elephants are only used to give rides to tourists."
"So they're being bred just for that?"
"If you let them go, how can you find them later?"
"They'll come back by themselves!"