We got Lucky and Crazy in Dalat

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
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Trip End Dec 2004


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Monday, March 1, 2004

Hands down, the best way to see Vietnam is on the back of a motorbike. Our six days on a motorbike tour through the Central Highlands will certainly be a highlight of our year-long travels.

Andy had heard about motorbike tour guides called Easy Riders from a fellow Travelpod couple. When we arrived in their homebase of Dalat, we hired a guide named Lucky (he goes by Lucky since his given name is usually mispronounced by foreigners) to take us from Dalat to Hoi An. Since neither of us can drive a motorbike, we needed two drivers, so Lucky brought along another Easy Rider named Nguyen. His friends call him "Crazy Wing" (hence the title of our entry.) For some reason, Lucky's wife tagged along too, so the five of us spent six days together on the road. Imagine which one of us didn't look like he belonged in the family caravan!

Lucky and Nguyen were our personal tour guides, drivers, translators, historians and comedians. Both grew up in Dalat and fought for the South Vietnamese Army. They loved to tell stories, share their perspectives about the war, and enlighten us on life in Vietnam. We had plenty of opportunities to ask them questions about the country.

After 10 years of lugging backpackers around on the back of their bikes, Lucky and Nguyen knew what we wanted from the trip -- to get off the beaten path, experience life in Vietnam, see gorgeous scenery, and eat good food. They didn't disappoint! By the end of our journey, we had met families from at least five different hill tribes, had a crash course in the origins of raw materials, eaten porcupine and wild boar, and driven along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Now we are equipped to answer questions from our yet unborn children such as "Where does rubber come from?" "How do worms make silk?" and "How do you dredge sand?" This was a very educational journey for us as we'd grown up thinking consumerism started at the loading dock of WalMart.

Our itinerary included stops in Lak Lake, Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku, Kon Tum, and Phuoc Son before reaching Hoi An. Nguyen and Lucky were safe drivers, and our backpacks tied to the back of the bikes made good backrests. On motorbike, you can see the scenery on both sides of the road, smell the coffee flowers in bloom, and wave to the kids running by yelling "Hello!" As we drove deeper into the highlands, the fauna took on an intense green and the rice paddies appeared almost fluorescent. The locals were less use to foreigners, and one group of kids was actually scared of big, tall, hairy Andy and ran away as he approached with candy in hand.

We ate almost all of our meals with Lucky, Nguyen and Lucky's wife. They never ordered from the menu and always made sure we didn't pay tourist prices. Lucky's wife would inspect kitchens of roadside eateries and went so far as to do the cooking herself at one place she didn't trust. And dinner always ended with Lucky filling our shot glasses with rice wine and Nguyen performing one of his toothpick magic tricks.

The ride along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was along a newly paved road, which was just completed last year. Making this journey with two war veterans gave us some insight into how much the war impacted the Vietnamese. At one point, Nguyen stopped along a stretch of trees recently crisped by a fire. He stopped because it reminded him of how the land looked after being carpet bombed with Agent Orange.

Lucky and Nguyen were eager for us to see as much as possible and would even go so far as to stop at strangers' houses and ask if we could peek inside. We couldn't imagine doing such a thing in the U.S., but Lucky and Nguyen seemed to befriend the locals with ease. Many of the people we encountered in the Central Highlands were from different ethnic groups and practiced Catholicism, a vestige from French missionaries. All of them were extremely friendly and were also curious about us.

Our road trip came to an end at Hoi An, a quaint town that once bustled with trading from Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and other overseas merchants. The town is now known for its tailors, who can copy just about anything including designer suits at dirt cheap prices. We splurged at a high-end tailor on two custom-made suits, which will hopefully come in handy when we hang up our backpacks and start the job hunt in 2005. The town was great to relax in and be decadent for a few days. Andy had to limit Jill to one chocolate croissant per day. (She recommends the Hoi An Patisserie.) We also attended a cooking class at Cafe 96 where we made steamed fish in banana leaf, vegetable spring rolls, and squid salad. We also got to eat Hoi An's specialty, Fried Won Ton, but apparently the recipe is a secret guarded religiously by the townfolk.

Now we're in Hue, the former Imperial City. During our three days here, we saw ornate temples in the old citadel, visited the tomb of a 19th century emperor and took a mediocre tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other points of interest from the war. We have found Hue to be a bit too touristy for our tastes but it has actually made us appreciate our experiences with Lucky and Nguyen even more.

Tonight, we take an overnight train to Hanoi, where you can expect to hear from us next!
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