Another work trip, this time to Kon Tum Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. We were first uncertain whether or not we would get permission to visit the area. The place was hit by Typhoon Ketsana two months previously, the same one that wreaked havoc in the nearby Philippines during September. We had heard that damage was extensive: the ferocious winds and torrential rain had destroyed homes, fields, bridges, water sources, electricity lines. The authorities and communities were still busy clearing up the destruction, so too busy to welcome us and talk about future project plans.
Finally though, the word came through that a visit was possible. We were to stay in Kon Tum town and drive out to Tu Mo Rong district where the project work was being run. As always, before a long day of work in the field, I tried to get out for an early morning run. I knew I’d be sitting in the car for three hours each direction, so I needed to get some sort of exercise in.
From my hotel, it was impossible to work out where we were staying in Kon Tom town or where the roads that ran outside my room eventually went. So I just decided to run out of the lobby and to stick to the first road I found. I wouldn’t turn left or right at any junction. Then all that I’d have to do is turn around half way through my run time and retrace my steps without any risk of getting lost. Just in case, I brought a brochure of the hotel in my back pocket. Very few people speak English around here, so at least if anything happened I could hand a taxi driver the leaflet and hopefully he’d escort me safely home.
Even at 5.30 am, Kon Tum was surprisingly alive. Trucks were bouncing down the road. Motorbikes were cluttering the intersections. People were already coming out of church. Children were filtering into school. The loudspeakers were full of with their morning propaganda announcements, waking people up with the latest news.
Much to my surprise, the town houses and shops faded away after less than ten minutes. I found myself running along paddy fields and rural homes, past traditional community meeting halls built along the river. Women were up early, already sorting the rice and feeding the cows and pushing their husbands and kids out the door. It turns out that this urbanised area of Kon Tum had not been badly affected by the storms. Instead it was the isolated mountain areas, just perceptible from the town that had been worst affected.
It took us three hours to drive to the worst affected areas. The authorities in Tong Mo Rong district took us to a hilltop to show us the multiple landslides that had happened. They showed us the school where the roof had been ceremoniously ripped off. But less than two months on, most of the damage had already been repaired, a testimony to the hard-working, self-sufficient mentality that infuses the Vietnamese people.
The work that the project had done was to help people prepare and cope when disasters like storms and accompanying landslides and flash floods . During typhoon Ketsana, forecasts were sent, people had evacuated, and no one had died. The project had worked. But discussions revealed that repairing infrastructure damage was still on-going. They asked for support to rebuild fields and homes, to make them disaster resilient. The communities cannot stop the disasters from happening. But they want to be ready so that, when the next storm hits, the devastation will be less than this time around.