Vietnam's Central Highlands by motorcycle.
2/27/12 - 3/2/12 68 °F
Vietnam was quite an experience. As Sam mentioned before, we had been warned that it wouldn't be as friendly or easy as Thailand or Cambodia and those warnings were well founded. The culture is so incredibly different. Most people we encountered are what we would call rude by our Western standards. They shout at each other in restaurants, hotels, buses and trains. They don't cover their mouths when they cough! They spit anywhere they want and they refuse to stand in a line, preferring instead to scramble and shove one another in almost every instance. And the scamming and rip-offs there are in their own league compared to other countries we've visited. I hate to think that Vietnam is actually a country full of rude, inconsiderate con-artists, so I'll chalk it all up to cultural differences and leave it at that.
It's difficult to overlook all of the above but with those grievances aside you're left with a BEAUTIFUL country with incredibly diverse landscapes and lifestyles and a even a few good people. My favorite experience, by far, was the four days we spent with two Easy Riders that we met in Dalat. The Easy Riders are a motorcycle club based in Dalat that will take you anywhere in the country if you're willing to pay.
We hadn't been in Dalat more than five minutes when I met Nghiep (Pronounced: NEE-IP). At the end of every bus ride in SEA it's normal to have to fight through a crowd of taxi, motorbike, tuk-tuk drivers, and touts handing out flyers for hotels, tours and restaurants. There were a few of those in Dalat, but Nghiep stood out in his signature blue Easy Rider Club jacket. He wasn't fighting for attention but he was looking our way and waved when I spotted him. I'd read about his club before and thought I'd get some info on the tours they offer.
I walked over and said something dumb and idle like "Easy Rider!", not knowing that Nghiep speaks English very well and there was no need to avoid speaking in full sentences. "The original!" he assured me. I thought I could get a brochure or something from him and then mull over the options in our guesthouse but Nghiep had other plans. Not wanting to rush us into anything, he asked where we were going. I told him we didn't know, party because I didn't want to commit to a tour and partly because we really didn't know. We hopped in a cab to go find a place he followed us. He waited outside two hotels while we looked around and checked in at the second. I have to be honest I was really hoping he would just leave, but I felt obligated to at least hear his pitch after making him wait and I'm really glad I did.
We were looking for a day tour and Nghiep had just the thing. He showed me the route we'd take and then produced a few journals filled with testimonials from other people who had hired him, putting special emphasis on other Americans he'd recently guided. Having been hardened by Southeast Asia, I didn't say yes right then. I told him we'd have to look around before deciding. Despite my stressing that we would not commit to a tour with him, he promised to show up at 8:30 the next morning, just in case.
Two of the hotel's employees/ owners had seen me talking with Nghiep and when I came back in they were eager to show me their tour offerings. They assured me they would take us to the same places, even pointing out their "Easy Rider Tour", although it had nothing to do with Easy Riders aside from stealing their name. They also put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they had an office space in which they sold tours and the real Easy Riders "just hang out in a coffee shop." That part is true, but I didn't see why that was supposed to be a selling point. I went back to the room and laid out the options for Sam. About ten minutes and a bit of internet searching later we knew Nghiep's tour was the way to go. I sent him an email at the address on his card and he confirmed back to me within a couple hours.
===The Day Trip===
The next day, as usual, we slept in too much, moved too slowly and showed up late. Nghiep didn't seem to mind and he was waiting for us across the street from the hotel, where he introduced us to his friend Lan who would be driving the second bike for the day. I don't know what the rest of the Easy Riders are like but Lan and Nghiep were a great couple of guides. They both had a great grasp of English and spoke it well except for talking a little quickly sometimes, making a whole sentence sound like one word. Nghiep was in his late 40s and Lan in his mid 30s. Nghiep's family is originally from North Vietnam and Lan was a country kid in the south before moving to Dalat to study English and tourism. Between the two of them they had a very impressive breadth of knowledge and they seemed eager to share it.
On that first day we cruised the countryside, stopping over a dozen times for our guides to tell us what we were seeing or to give us a little tour of an area on foot. We saw a huge monastery home to hundreds of monks and nuns. There were countless farms patching the mountainsides, terraced fields and greenhouses growing mushrooms, roses and of course rice among other things. In the more flat lands we rode for miles between fields of coffee, cacao and rubber trees. Lan and Nghiep traded off giving the tours when we would stop. Lan, with his country upbringing, tended to talk more about the fields and crops, their seasons and the lifestyles of the people who lived on the land. Nghiep knew more than a fair share about the crops an land as well but I'll remember his history lessons above everything else. I don't think Nghiep went to college but he loved to read and it was apparent. He's been an Easy Rider for over 20 years and knows the land as well as anyone. "Only two other Easy Riders know everything I know," he told us at one point, and I believe it. Everywhere we went he looked right at home. He could always tell us something about the history of the land and the people, the politics that influenced the area, the folk tales and an incredible amount of info on what role the different areas played during the Vietnam War, or the American War as it is more often referred to here.
That first day with the Easy Riders was one of the best things we'd done up to that point, and we knew we wanted to spend more time with our guides. At the end of the day, when Nghiep asked us if we'd like to do an extended trip with the two of them, we'd already made up our minds that we would. It was nearly double our daily budget but we knew we had good guides and there couldn't be a better way to see the country than a few days on the back of a motorcycle.
===Long Distance, Dalat to Nha Trang in Three Days===
The next morning we managed to get ourselves together on time. We met Nghiep and Lan outside the hotel again, this time carrying our backpacks. We'd agreed to a three-day, two-night trip ending in the coastal town of Nah Trang on the South China Sea and would not be returning to Dalat. The two of them expertly wrapped our bags in tarps and bungee cords and strapped them to the backs of the bikes, creating a comfy backrest that made the next couple of days even more enjoyable.
The next three days were "Same same, but different" from the day trip. We'd ride for a half-hour or so at a time, taking in the impressive views that awaited us around every curve the mountain road. I'd inevitable be lulled into a kind of trance by the sound of the wind and the awesome landscapes and then snap out of it when we stopped at a seemingly nondescript spot on the road where Nghiep or Lan would always have something interesting to say about what we were seeing. We also stopped at people's homes, farms and factories along the way where we saw people going about their work and Nghiep or Lan would tell us what they were up to. We saw a silk farm, a wood-carving artist and a blacksmith, as well as traditional brooms, rice paper and instruments being made. Between the educational stops we visited a couple of waterfalls where there wasn't much to say or learn, but we'd sit with our feet in the water and enjoy some fruit purchased from a roadside stand.
On the second and third days as we closed in on Nha Trang, Nghiep pointed out more and more battlefields or hills that were key spots to control along the main roads during the war. He continued to impress us with his knowledge of the war, the events that played out in those same hills and the military tactics used. Sam and I didn't really know how we would be received as Americans in Vietnam, but Nghiep assured us that we were welcome there. He said that most people now, "don't forget the past one hundred percent," but they have tried to move on.
He told us in more eloquent speech than I can remember that there were no hard feelings and openly discussed the politics and circumstances during the war, again impressing us with his objectivity and knowledge of the different perspectives held by Americans, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese during that time.
One of the most interesting stops we made was on the last day. It was a memorial for North Vietnamese soldiers that had died at a battle on that spot. Nghiep, pointing out the different roads and hills involved, described to us how the North had tried to come down one of the main roads but had been defeated in that particular battle by the South (supported by Americans). "This is the part of the country the government doesn't want tourists to see," he told us. I'm not sure exactly what about it we weren't supposed to see, maybe it was the sheer number of Vietnamese that died there or the fact that the North had lost that battle. The interesting thing about it was that it brought to my attention the fact that Central Vietnam's tourism really is focused on the coast. There are plenty of tours and transportation if you want to go up the coast, but it's more difficult to get around in the Central Highlands where there are countless battlefields and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I don't know if that's just because more people would rather see the coast or if visitors are intentionally encouraged to stick to the Beach Towns (Nah Trang), the preserved french-colonial towns (Hoi An), and the kitschy hill tribe "villages" (Sapa). Either way, that monument made me wonder.
We said goodbye to Nghiep and Lan in Nah Trang. The dropped us at a hotel they were friendly with and even helped us get some info for our onward travel before taking off. After our motorbike tour in Cambodia and those four days with the Easy Riders I'm convinced that hiring a biker as a tour guide is the best way to see Southeast Asia. It was more expensive than taking a bus but absolutely worth it. We got to know two great people and learned a lot about their part of the country. It's sad to think of all the tourists just shuttling from one tourist town to the next and missing out on everything in between. I'm grateful for our time with the Easy Riders, it was the best thing we did in all of Vietnam.
Back to the beach in Nha Trang.