Don Stefanovich's Blog

March 7, 2011

Girl with balloon A young girl plays with a balloon in an alley near Noi Bai Airport. Photo by Don Stefanovich

Death Bus 2000 now boarding, first stop: Airport Underground

A bus – larger this time and carrying most of the medical mission members – retraces the previous night’s route to the airport to pick up volunteers and team members arriving a day late due to a missed flight.

As the group mills about near the buses on the outer edges of the airport parking lot, I follow a little girl in a pink coat with black polka dots. She skips and kicks a pink balloon. The streets have etched their filth into her jeans. She couldn’t be more than eight years old, but the ashy, cracked skin of her bare feet belies her youth.

The snap of my shutter rips her from the carefree dance with the balloon, and she runs back to a small group of children near the entrance to an alley. She seems to forget my presence for a moment and resumes her waltz with the balloon. Another girl in a green and white jacket joins in.

My camera’s shutter once again interrupts. They giggle and huddle shyly near piles of garbage and an old bicycle. A little boy crouches behind it, smiling at me through its spokes.

Behind them, broken chunks of cement and bricks zig zag through the stagnant water between two abandoned buildings. The stepping stones lead to several empty rooms just past the gauntlet of rusted, corrugated steel and charred concrete. No doors any longer occupy the holes once meant for them. Wrought iron shapes fill the windows. Charred debris and human excrement litter the floor. A motor scooter leans forlornly in one room.

They later tell a translator in my group that they don’t live here. Their home, they say, is big and beautiful.

We depart Hanoi and as we wind north to the province of Bac Kan the crowded urban centers give way to sporadic villages and towns. Crumbling concrete structures and ramshackle huts begin to replace the stacked and piled urban homes. Tin roofs and walls of mismatched wood lean against timbers, 2x4s and small trees. Cloth and blankets hang in place of windows; sometimes in place of walls.

Girl with balloon A young boy crouches behind a bicycle in an alley near Noi Bai Airport. Photo by Don Stefanovich

The bus, burdened with volunteers, luggage and medical supplies rattles on. Our driver rallies up the winding two-lane road, passing other busses, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, horn blaring.

For a moment my brain wrestles with the physics of drifting a 40-foot, top-heavy vehicle.

Vast mountains with towering, abrupt peaks begin to grow in the distance. The lush, green buttes emerge from the mist over rivers and lakes. Rice paddies and agricultural terraces dot the countryside. Thin frames hunched beneath conical hats and water buffalo pepper the green canvas.

Homes built along the steep slope next to the river are supported by land just feet from the winding road in the front, but sit on stilts some thirty feet over the snaking riverbed in the rear. Motorbikes, pedestrians and the occasional chicken or pack animal strolls across the pavement.

The road eventually levels out and shacks slowly become city buildings once again as trees clear and veins of cracked macadam once again spill in every direction.

Welcome to Bac Kan.