A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

Four Days with Easy Riders

Vietnam's Central Highlands by motorcycle.

sunny 68 °F

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Back to the beach in Nha Trang.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 04:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains landscape vietnam countryside tour sightseeing central sights motorbike motorcycle minority dalat highlands farming riders easy easy_riders must_see day_tour must_do cultural_experience minority_people local_lifestyle Comments (0)

Miss Saigon? Probably Not.

The post where Sam babbles about scams, buses and sights in Vietnam

overcast 65 °F

Ah, here I am again, being force fed terrible Asian pop music as the headphone jack on this computer does not work. Oh, now the guy at the desk is singing along. Do the Vietnamese think foreigners love their renditions of love songs sang by teens who are in desperate need of a bang trimming? I'll never know. I do know that this is going to be a terrible post because not only do they force every one to listen to their favorite songs, they force it at the highest level. Subwoofers in my ear. What? You want to hear an example of the teenage love songs that bring me to my knees (and not in a fit of passion either)? Okay, you asked for it.

OH MY GOD. HE IS REPEATING THE SONG. Please. Stop. Singing. Ah, the treble...the treble is so terrible. I apologize for how bad this post is going to be. I can't even hear myself think.

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as everyone but the city's officials call it. When we arrived in Saigon, we liked it. It's a nice city. The traffic is terrible with scooters and taxis and people buzzing about like worker drones in a bee hive. But it's still (relatively) clean and well laid-out. It's hot and slightly smelly, but still nice. Or so we thought.

Our first night there, we got in a cab. Our hotel receptionist had warned us before leaving, "Be very careful if you are taking a taxi. Just be VERY CAREFUL." It was a little nervewracking. She didn't care to explain what to be wary of, just to be wary. Err? So we got into the cab we thought the hotel had called. After about one kilometer, we noticed the meter was high, okay incredibly higher, and ticking higher and higher with every block. It was a rigged meter. Obviously, most people would say something like stop, we can get out here. But it was our first night in Saigon! We were lost, confused, maybe even a little hurt by this scammery. We didn't get out of the cab until the meter reached over 200,000 VND ($10). It should have been a $2 ride at the MOST. We kept asking, "That's a lot of dong. Is your meter broken?" And he kept pointing and yelling "METER! METER!" I just kept saying, "Wow, that is very expensive. Lots of dong." And then he started yelling in Vietnamese and shouting, "METER." If you've never been shouted at by someone speaking Vietnamese, let me tell you -- it is not pleasant. We should have paid the $2 and left, but hey, we are new to this scam business. So we paid the inflated fare and pouted. We had been had. Turns out, there are fake taxis that copy the logos of the reputable companies. If you're in Vietnam, watch out for the fake cabs. Only take Ma Linh and Vina Sun. And make sure the logos are not copies. Also check for the drivers' IDs and rates on the cab's dash. At that moment, it was like a giant banner was rolled out, "WELCOME TO VIETNAM SAM AND AVERY! HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAAAY." It was just a sampling of things to come.

So here's the deal: All throughout our travels, we were warned by other travellers about Vietnam. They told us about the scams, the rip-offs, the negative attitude toward travellers. Remember the French dude in Bangkok -- "They (the VN) treat you like dogs!" So we thought we were prepared for it. Nope, two months in SE Asia did not give us the knowledge to travel through Vietnam without being ripped off.

Anyway, we couldn't find the restaurant. So we negotiated with a motorbike driver, who asked me if I "had baby inside" of me, to take us to a second place. Uh? Motorbike drivers have no tact. I knew that dress made me look fat. He brought us to the wrong place, asked for 20,000 more dong to take us to the right place then wouldn't give us our change. I was lucky to have enough in small bills to pay him his stupid 30,000 VND.

After those experiences, we walked. We walked all over sweaty, humid Saigon, feeling more than a bit slighted by the transportation system there. We went to the War Remnants Museum, which was both sad and interesting. What I know of the Vietnam war I learned through American movies, a couple books and my father. So it was interesting to learn about the war through the stories of survivors, photos and artifacts. The Agent Orange exhibit was disturbing. Babies are still being born with birth defects. I had no idea the destruction of the chemicals were so recent. I nearly cried during that exhibit. They spare no gorey details in the photos, which they shouldn't. We also visited The Reunification Palace and an art museum. Both interesting.

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(He is still singing.)

A big thing in Saigon's backpacker district is drinking ridiculously cheap beer (50 cents for a bottle) on the street. Yes, on the street. Foreigners pay to drink beerand sit on child-sized plastic stools in the sidewalks and streets. It's funny to see so many large Westerners nearly breaking the tiny hot pink and bright red stools beneath them. For a 1.50, I had some decent local beer and some great people watching. Best part? When the police drove up to make sure no one was sitting in the road. Of course, everyone was sitting in the road. So the husky Vietnamese shop owners began throwing the pink and red stools onto the sidewalk as the confused and slightly frightened tourists stared. I've never seen women of that size move so quickly. When the police left, everyone moved back into the streets. Too funny. I didn't get a great photo, so http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-photo/haz14/1/1261578939/more-street-drinking-it-s-the-vietnam-way.jpg/tpod.html) (< ERROR: the link title is too long!) is someone else's! Ha.

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One morning in Saigon, I decided it was way too hot for sight-seeing. So I hauled Avery and I onto a local bus (ticket price: 25 cents) to the waterpark! For five bucks, we spent the afternoon going down slides, intimidating children, floating down the lazy river and whatnot. Good fun. We went down this slide with a Vietnamese guy, and I think my screams of horror/delight terrified him. Poor guy. That slide was the boooommbbb.

We went to the big market in Saigon as well. There, we were blown away by the prices. In Cambodia, vendors start at $3 for a t-shirt. We usually paid $1-2. In Vietnam, vendors start at $15 for a shirt that is only worth $2-3! It's ridiculous how much they go up. It takes about 10 minutes to negotiate them down, all the while they are trying to make you feel guilty. As one lady told Avery, "Just buy the shirt! We are tired and want to go hoooome!" :p I've just stopped buying things in Vietnam because the negotiation process is just so grueling. So everyone, you'll be getting your souvenirs from Laos!

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A nice demonstration of weasel coffee in a Saigon market. Did I try it you ask?! MAIS BIEN SUR! It was okay. Kind of sweet.

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After this photo was taken, we were forced to buy a coconut.

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After the heat, scams and pollution (enough that my throat started to ache), we went north to Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. There we met up with two great guys from the Easy Riders, a motorcycle club that shows tourists around that part of Vietnam. But this is for another post, as there is so much to say. Avery will be writing that one.

After Dalat, we ended up in Nha Trang, the big tourist resort in Vietnam. It was full of Russians. So many that the restaurants print their menus in Russian! Avery got a sunburn; I got owned by a massive wave.

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Then we got on a night bus to Hoi An.

Oooh the dreaded night bus. I had refused to take them in Vietnam, as I'm already terrified of the Vietnameses' driving practices during the day. I was sure I would never wake up from a night bus. NIGHT BUS STRAIGHT TO HEEELLL.

Okay, I exaggerate. We may not have departed in hell, but the bus ride was straight from the bowels of hell itself. I do not exaggerate here -- I will probably be needing chiropractic services in my old age from that ride. It was that bad. On these buses, you're forced to lie at a terribly awkward 45 degree angle on a foam pad. A human's back is not built for this. There are three rows of beds, stacked two high. There are no emergency exits; there are two doors, but one is blocked by luggage. Are you hyperventilating yet? No? I'll keep trying. So you and 29 other people have only one exit to all fight for if your bus driver: falls asleep during the 16 hour ride, goes off a cliff, runs into a tree, runs over a biker/pedestrian/chicken/cow/all of the above,etc. It's terrible. And the roads! I rode a country bus for nine years. Those roads were like gliding on ice compared to what my poor spine experienced during those 16 hours of lying in something akin to a coffin. I digress. It was terrible.

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We arrived in Hoi An, slightly shaken and quite bruised but gloriously alive. Hoi An is a cute city in the middle of the Vietnam coast. It's so cute that UNESCO named it a world heritage sight! Other than get a suit made and see "the countryside," there isn't much to do. Well, after three days on a motorcycle, we were all countrysided out. So, we went shopping! I had a dress and a coat made. Avery had a suit made. He looked damn fine. Even the seamstress thought so, as she kept stroking his butt and saying, "These pants make your bum look so nice." Then the seamstress and I would high-five, and I'd be like yeaah, that's mine. Okay, not really. But she did say that, and I did smile and nod at her when she asked if I thought his "bum" looked good in those pants. She was like 8 1/2 months pregnant, so she could grab his butt all day for all I cared. Haha. Some quality work! We went to Kimmy's by the way, if you're reading this and wondering how long it will take for me to get to the point.

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MEOW.
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After Hoi An, I said NO MORE NIGHT BUSES AVERY. And we took the train to Hanoi. It was pretty expensive, but my claustrophobia has been so exacerbated by this trip. I don't even care if I have to pay $20 more to avoid having a panic attack.

The train is much more comfortable, unless you have noisy cabin mates...

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My discussion of the train and the finer points of Vietnam are for another post. There is no heat our current location, the misty mountain of Sapa, and I can't feel my fingers anymore. Oy. This tropical weather has really made me into a cold-weather-fearing pansy.

Tomorrow, we take the night train to Hanoi then fly to Vientienne, the capital of Laos! How excited am I to go to Laos? Well, I am so excited that I called Laos Airlines today and said, "Get me out of here! Can I switch my flight date?!" And now we leave on the 15th. Caaan't wait. Why am I so excited to get to Laos? Well, you'll have to read the next post.

Ciao!

P.S. Can you believe we'll be back in less than a month?! Crazy.

P.P.S. Are you still reading? Your reward is a photo. I found the photos of stuck van in Cambodia. So good. Also, check out the views behind Avery. Ah, so pretty.

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Posted by Sam.and.Avery 04:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged taxi beach waves bus vietnam sun saigon hoi_an dress tailor scams ho_chi_minh nha_trang suits sleeper_bus night_bus war_remnants Comments (1)

Rolling on the Mekong River

Alright, this has to be a quick entry. In about 30 minutes, I have to get ready for....a SIXTEEN HOUR TRAIN RIDE. Ugggggh. I feel like we just got off the 12 hour bus ride from Nha Trang to Hoi An! But here we are, planning another long trip. I seriously doubted the length of Vietnam's coast. You win, coastline.

When we crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia, we cobbled together a transit strategy that went something like: tuk tuk to the border, motorbike through the border crossing and to the Ha Tien bus station, mini van to Rach Gia, mini van to Can Tho. I was pretty impressed by our fly-by-the-seat-of-our-sweat-wicking-pants-ness there. We also managed to avoid the scammer bus (if anyone w/great English and a smile approaches you at a bus/taxi/train station, AVOID.)

Can Tho, the name comes from "cầm thi giang" - river of poems (love that), is a city in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. The area produces 50% of Vietnam's rice and is famous for their floating markets, where people buy and sell things on the Mekong River.

We hired a boat and guide from our hotel. They sailed us down the Mekong, through the markets, to a rice noodle factory, past countryside and fruit trees, etc etc. The area around the Mekong is so lush and green. There wasn't too much trash on the water/banks, which was a nice and different sight after Cambodia.

Ah! I'm running late! Here are some photos! More on Vietnam and our motorcycle trip with the Dalat Easy Riders in the next entry...stay tuned! And the Internet sucks...so you'll only get two. Sorry! More when I get some reliable internet. We're off to Hanoi!

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Posted by Sam.and.Avery 18:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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