Great Motorbike Adventure

Trip Start Aug 21, 2003
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, November 23, 2003

Our motorbike tour of the Central Highlands began in Dalat, when we met an easy rider named Lucky. He convinced us, pretty easily, that the journey from Dalat to Hoi An via motorbike would be amazing. He turned out to be right. Not only were we able to travel through an area of Vietnam with gorgeous scenery, we learned more about Vietnamese culture and society than we thought possible in such a short time. It was definitely worth it. This particular area of the Central Highlands, which runs close to the Laos border, was only opened to foreigners in 1992. This was due to the existence of secret re-education camps; the government feared their discovery by Western visitors. Parts of the area were also closed to foreigners in 2001, when minority villages were attempting to revolt against the central government. It is an area seriously prone to landslides. We felt pretty confident considering that Lucky has been doing these trips for 10 years. But one part of the journey was to be a new adventure for all 3 of us. Lucky had never before taken the route that follows the original Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply line for the Communists during the war against Vietnam, which we attempted on the last 2 days of our journey.

Our bike was a 100cc Honda Wave, which probably 50% of the Vietnamese population drive. These bikes have no clutch and a strange shifting pattern. Not much power either, but it worked fine for our purposes. We had absolutely no problems with it. We drove through beautiful mountain scenery on the first day of our trip to the M'nong minority village on Lak Lake, where we spent the night in a thatched roof bamboo stilt house. There are around 54 minorities in Vietnam, and most speak their own languages, as well as Vietnamese, at least the ones that have assimilated into Vietnamese society to some degree. They are also called hilltribes, for most of the minorities tend to cluster in villages at higher elevations. Much to our surprise, we were not of any interest to the locals at Lak Lake. We found out why after being there for a while and witnessing a succession of tour buses arrive, park long enough for its passengers to snap some photos, and then drive off after about a half hour. That evening we ate a lot of Vietnamese food, and got drunk off homemade rice wine, which turned out to be a recurring theme during our trip. The rice wine loosened us up nicely - we were able to ask Lucky many questions about the quirks of Vietnamese culture that we just haven't been able to understand. That night we slept peacefully on the floor of a bamboo stilt house and hit the road again the next morning.

Our next destination was Buon Ma Thuot, the coffee capital of Vietnam. The scenery along the way was beautiful. Instead of a front yard, every family in this area uses all available space in the vicinity of their house to dry coffee beans in the sun. The Vietnamese love their coffee and make it extremely strong. Incidentally, this is the first country we have been to thus far where the coffee is actually drinkable, but by now we have already quit drinking it! It was great to be able to witness the daily life of the locals in the countryside, and to see how they make their lives work. We drove through a granite quarry, where workers were smoking cigarettes and packing dynamite into small cracks in the enormous rocks. They gave us some quartz as a souvenir. We stopped to watch the sand harvesting industry, which Lucky says is a whole lot of work but really good money. And of course, everyone seemed to be hard at work in the fields, laying out coffee beans, plowing with water buffaloes, net fishing in the rivers, or selling petrol. The shimmery dark green of the coffee trees and the distinguished height of the black pepper plants, coupled with the intense blue of the sky, made for unforgettable images that we will always associate with the country of Vietnam. Another great thing about this trip was how our interaction with the locals seemed totally refreshing due to two things. One, the existence of Lucky, our faithful guide and translator, which made it easy to communicate, and two, the fact that the area of the central highlands is highly untouristed, and for many children, we were the first white people they had ever seen in person. At one point on the way to Buon Ma Thuot, we stopped at a pharmacy for some stomach medicine (too much rice wine!), where there was a young girl working who is currently studying english at school. She was around 12 years old and was visibly excited at the chance to practice her English with some foreigners. She tried hard to practice, but was so obviously infatuated with Jack and his beard, she could barely do anything but stand there and giggle. Finally we were able to speak some English with her after she brought out her lesson book and some slimy eyeball fruits (Jack's favorites!) It was an unusual experience only because we are very used to child vendors who already know how to speak english very well and are only interested in one thing - your money. We all traded email addresses and promised to keep in touch. Once we arrived in Buon Ma Thuot, we drove out some crazy roads to see 2 different waterfalls, one of which was a great swimming hole, but Jack was too scared of the fish to go in! Lauren wouldn'tdo it either!!!

The next day we departed for the town of Kontum, the town that marks the beginning of our stint on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is a very small mountain town. We spent the next day there as well, exploring the area. We had a unique meal in Kontum - a goat hotpot. The goat was pretty interesting tasting and we liked it, although the banana rice wine helped with that. We spent a few hours at the restaurant, laughing and talking over wine, and learned much more both about Lucky and Vietnamese culture. Lucky fought in the Vietnam War for the South Vietnamese (i.e. the Americans), and at the conclusion of the war, was forced by the Communist government to spend 8 years of his life in a re-education camp. Despite all of this, he remains an extremely easygoing, warm-natured guy. He has 17 brothers and sisters, 6 of which are successfully living in America. He plans to move there as well; but for now he is stuck in Vietnam in order to follow his duty. This duty is to take care of his father's tomb and burn incense regularly in his memory?!! The next day in Kontum we visited an old Catholic Church, a minority orphanage, and prepared for our journey on the road less traveled, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The fifth day of our trip was the most outstanding in terms of scenery. The road wrapped around mountain peaks, and dove down to follow rivers and valleys. We had the road pretty much to ourselves and it was in great shape. The Trail took us to the town of Phuc Son, the last stop before the end of our journey. Phuc Son is a very small town, shrouded in mist and nestled in between tall green mountains. It was here that we had the weirdest experience ever in terms of interacting with other people. As we walked to dinner with another couple and their guide from Dalat, a group of local guys decided to join us. They took us to a local restaurant and immediately beers, rice wine, and tons of food was brought to the table. The local guys were all around our age, and we could tell that Son, the most flamboyant of the group, was the coolest guy in town. He immediately took a liking to Jack, while I had 3 guys to my left who sat there and stared at me while I ate. We felt like the most famous celebrities in the world. The guys to my left took turns feeding me with chopsticks and refilling my glass. They all told Lucky to tell Jack that he is the luckiest man in the world because he has the most beautiful girl in the world. They wanted our autographs, first on their hands, and then on their clothes, which they said they would never wash! Son gave Jack a silver bracelet and asked him to shoot some pool with him, as Son is regarded as the best in the area. So, after dinner, we all headed to the pool hall, whereupon Jack kicked Son's butt twice in a row. And then in arm wrestling, although he lost at 'leg wrestling.' By this time the group of guys had grown to around 20, and the ones that had taken us to dinner asked if we would like to come to their house for drinks, which was right next to our hotel. So we ended up sitting out on the sidewalk on little plastic chairs drinking rice wine and eating little tart fruits dipped in salt and chili peppers (to prevent hangovers, we were told, and it worked!) There were around 8 guys at the house and we hung out for a few hours, learning about them and answering their questions through Lucky's translations. It was very weird but a lot of fun. The guys sitting on both sides of me kept touching my hair, saying they'd never seen anything like it. They brought out bottle after bottle of rice wine, which is usually served in recycled water bottles or soda bottles, until finally they brought out a huge jug and we said goodnight. Hanging out in a very small town in the States can be a little weird and different; imagine doing this in Vietnam! The next morning they were waiting outside our hotel to say goodbye. We gave them all Mardi Gras deblumes, and to Son we gave a hacky sack and some silver earrings from Bangkok. They told us that they hope we remember them if we come back, and that they know we are different cultures, but they truly believe we are all one people on one world.

This was the last day of our journey, and the first unlucky one in terms of the weather, as we drove all day through the rain to Hoi An. Once we arrived we said goodbye to Lucky and thanked him for his services. We truly were lucky to have him as our guide.

We are having issues with the Travelpod site and cannot upload pictures at this time. We are about to embark on another motorcycle trip, this time of Northwest Vietnam, the journey we have been dreaming of ever since we started planning our SE Asia adventure.
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