Easy riding the Central Highlands

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
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Trip End Jan 11, 2011


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Flag of Vietnam  , (VM10),
Monday, December 13, 2010


What could be better than sitting back on a motorbike, cruising through incredible landscapes and being greeted with smiles and waves from the locals as you zoom past? That was us for six days as we traveled north through the Central Highlands, an alternative to the more popular coastal route. There were many moments over the course of those days where I thought "Really, life couldn't be better right now."

Our half day bike tour of Dalat had really been a test to see if we would enjoy it for longer and whether we felt safe traveling this way. Now, everyone who knows me knows that I'm not just nervous on the roads - I'm paranoid! So it might come as a bit of a surprise that this was our preferred mode of transport. However, I felt really safe with my driver-guide, and when traffic got a bit hairy I just looked away and trusted that he knew what he was doing. Also, because of the high traffic volumes, poor road conditions and low speed limits people drive a lot slower in Vietnam than at home. We enjoyed the half day experience so much we decided to hire our 'easy riders', as they are known, to take us to Hoi An.

Their names were Phuong and Ly. Phuong, my driver, was a 30 year old man with a great big smile. Despite being cheeky and a bit of a loudmouth he is a really sweet guy. He loves to party, though maybe not quite a excessively as he claims, and unashamedly flirted with every girl we came across. He is a divorced father and lives with his two children and his parents, Dalat chicken farmers who were ruined by bird flu. Like many Vietnamese of the younger generation he dreams of emigrating, preferably to Australia.

Ly couldn't have been more different. A tiny, 50 year old he is proud of his contribution to the Viet Cong war effort. He was a tank driver despite only being 15 years old when the American War ended. Now he is a stern, quiet man who scrutinised every bill and ate anything and everything. Yet in the evening, after his nightly bottle of rice wine his personality switched completely. Yelling "Yo!" (cheers) he would down shot after shot then cry out "I love it!" and "Thank you!" On our first night he cheersed Nathan with great shouts of "We are men!" and had him chanting "Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam!" before the end of the night. When drinking his conversations were limited to three topics: how much stuff costs, his hatred for 'copycat' easy riders and, his absolute favourite, sex. Almost everything he said was a sexual innuendo. He was difficult to understand even when sober so we just looked at his hand gestures to figure it out. Despite their differences Phuong seemed to really enjoy his company and you could see he had a lot of respect for him.

Over the five days we learnt a huge amount about Vietnam's history, culture, politics and industry. Every twenty minutes or so we stopped for a break and a look around. The landscapes were incredible, from flat rice paddies through to misty, jungle clad mountains. I can't possibly tell you about everything we saw, so I'll share some of the highlights.

Along the way we stopped in at lot of villages of different ethnic minority groups. These people used to live off the forest but the government has discouraged this, in fact made it illegal, in order to protect the national parks. Instead they have been encouraged to make a living from various forms of agriculture, for example, coffee or tapioca. While Ly and Phuong seemed to think these people are now better off I have read elsewhere that many of the minorities are resentful of this enforced change of lifestyle. Apparently the government employs a policy of assimilation, suppressing their languages and religions. This has been attributed to the ethnic minorities' opposition to north Vietnam during the war and their cooperation with America.

As their wealth increases their lifestyles are changing, but many still live in traditional houses. Certainly each village maintains its meeting house which plays a similar role in the community to the Maori marae. On the last day we stopped in at the smallest and possibly poorest village we went to. In a tiny hut we found the elders, an 85 year old couple. The woman was cooking, moving very slowly, while the man sat in the hammock and stared off into space (I think he might suffer from dementia). From the ceiling of their hut hung the skulls of the many animals they have hunted over the years. Out the back of the house their coffins lie waiting.

On our first day we stopped on a bridge. It spanned the mouth of a river that fed a lake created by a recently built hydroelectric dam. Below the bridge several raft houses floated on the water. Our guides told us that their inhabitants had moved here from the Mekong Delta soon after the dam was built. It was incredible to think that their houses, while simple, had been hand made from whatever resources they had available to them. It seemed like a very peaceful place to live, especially compared to the busy Mekong Delta. Several other people were also taking a break on the bridge. This included two locals who desperately wanted to talk to us, although it didn't help that our Vietnamese is non-existent, they didn't speak English and they were incredibly drunk (there's a lot of daytime drinking in Vietnam). So we just stood their grinning at each other instead.

During the second day we stopped on a hill to take in the views. Phuong told me that the village we could see was occupied with beggars from Dalat. The government had relocated them during a 'clean up' Dalat campaign to turn it into a tourist destination. They were provided with housing and education on how to sustain themselves through agriculture. This new village, however, displaced the ethnic minority that had previously lived there. So the government created another new village for the displaced minority, just a few kilometers away, which we could also see from where we stood. Phuong said that the ethnic minority had originally been pretty displeased with the situation, but were now mollified because the government had built a school to cater for the increased population and the agriculture industry was flourishing. It would be interesting, though, to really find out whether the changes have been positive or negative for both the ex-beggars and the minority group.

On our fourth day we stayed put in Can Tho and had a look around the area. This included meeting my favourite person of the whole trip. The old man was a famous Vietnamese musician. He demonstrated his home-made instrument to us - a complex bamboo xylophone that he played beautifully. He kissed my hand, called me madame, smiled ceaselessly and talked at us in a torrent of French, which of course we couldn't understand.

That afternoon Ly and Phuong had a special treat planned - to show us how to drink rice wine, local style. The four of us sat on little plastic chairs in the front yard of the lady who sold us the wine. A large urn, full of fermented rice that was actually growing out the top, was placed in the middle. The wine was produced by adding water to the rice, unlike regular rice wine, which is distilled. A long straw was placed into the jar and each person had a turn. The catch was that another person topped up the water while you drank and you had to drink fast enough to keep the liquid at the same level. We started out talking politics, and I was shocked to learn that despite being a 'communist' country Vietnam has never had free healthcare or education, but things got messy pretty quickly. I don't remember finishing the urn or making it back to the hotel. I haven't been that drunk for years, and I have to say I'm a little ashamed at how pleased I was to find out that Phuong had an equally rough night. Nathan somehow got off reasonably lightly.

Every day we stopped in at small producers to learn about the local industries. We observed silk manufacturing, from worm growing right through to dying the woven fabric. We learnt about brick making, rice paper production, growing coffee, growing tea, growing and processing tapioca (used to make MSG), sugar processing, ornate furniture carving, growing pepper, rice wine distillation, growing flowers commercially, growing mushrooms, rubber harvesting. Most of the places we stopped at were family run operations, although some did seem to have a few employees. We were told that many of them, particularly the coffee and black pepper growers, have become hugely wealthy since the country 'opened' to the free market in 1990. Vietnam is the one of the world's biggest coffee exporters and I have to say it's absolutely delicious. Served in extremely strong shots and combined with condensed milk it has non of the bitterness of coffee at home. I think might struggle to go back to flat whites.

Many of the people we drove past smiled and waved or shouted whatever English they knew - most often "hello" or "bye", but once a woman even called out "I love you" to me! The kids were the most enthusiastic. One afternoon we drove passed a line of schoolboys on bicycles and they all held their hands out. This resulted in the best, sorest hi-fives ever. When we stopped people were usually also very friendly. At a picturesque lake a group of pretty girls ran over to us. They were dressed up and taking photos of each other and asked if we would pose with them. You should have seen how excited they were when we agreed, jumping around and giggling. The Vietnamese are full of compliments and often we were told "Nice couple" or "Ooh very handsome". But the star of the show, to my utmost surprise and slight embarrassment, was my nose. According to our guides all Vietnamese girls want a giant nose just like mine. Phuong's girlfriend, who spent a couple of evening with us, asked if we could swap (I would have been more than happy to oblige). And all the men wanted to know: how can she possibly kiss without that huge nose getting in the way?

One of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of the six days was the food. It was great to have Ly and Phuong taking us to the best places and ordering their specialties. Most of the restaurants were incredibly cheap and basic but the food was wonderful. The four of us usually shared various dishes of beautifully prepared fish, pork, beef, veg and soup. We ate everything from the delicious to the downright bizarre. One evening we went out for goat barbecue. What we hadn't been told was that the meal would start with shots of rice wine infused with goats penis (for male vitality, of course) and an entree of soggy goat's brain. The barbecued meat itself was delicious as, surprisingly, were the goat mammary glands - fatty and succulent. Ending the evening over some beer and whiskey we were treated to a taste of duck embryo. This was a bit too much for Nathan, but Ly relished every bite. Another evening we went out for a meal of barbecued game. We started out well with deliciously tender wild boar and venison, then moved on to a relatively tame goat curry. This was followed by barbecued porcupine, java deer (I didn't even know what this was at the time) and pigeon soup. The finale of the meal was whole barbecued sparrows. Eaten bones, head and all these were actually surprisingly tasty. Our only regret was that Nathan forgot the camera!

What a fun, interesting, different and sometimes a little scary experience! I would recommend an easy rider tour to anyone traveling in Vietnam. In Dalat and even Hoi An it's impossible to avoid an offer of such a tour. The guys we chose to go with claim to be the 'original' easy riders and that agencies and freelancers have copied their exact tour. They are really fierce about trying to protect their business. What I liked about their organisation is that they are a collective, so except for their membership fees and a compulsory contribution towards a charity fund, the money we payed went straight to Phuong and Lee. The six days we spent with them were the most expensive of our entire trip, but ultimately absolutely worth it! If you to find out more visit their website http://dalat-easyrider.com/Websites/English/default.aspx.
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Comments

Robyn on

Loved this blog - what an interesting journey you are having. Motorbikes are the only way to travel in Vietnam - good on you. Fab photos.

Dorli on

Amazing experience again! Great writing AND photos! Did I never tell
you about my nose? It was exactly like that 40 years ago - very
flattering, aye! In the Philippines I have eaten a chicken embrio,
delicious. Good on you trying out so much!

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