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Four Days with Easy Riders

Vietnam's Central Highlands by motorcycle.

sunny 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.

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)

Reflections On Cambodia

sunny 85 °F

Hello from the beautiful town of Dalat in Vietnam's central highlands! Avery and I were having so much fun in Cambodia, we forgot to write. Oops. Hope you weren't worried that we were eaten by a cobra or lost in the jungle or some other terrible fate. Just having too good of a time. ;)

DISCLAIMER: I put all of my photos on CDs. This computer does not read CDs. So these are Avery's photos. Thus, I am prominently featured on this blog. More photos of Avery when I find a functioning CD-ROM drive!

So now I am going to do a huge disservice to the country of Cambodia and condense our travels into one post. It's a shame because we had such an amazing time there and had a wonderful experience. But...yeah, here it goes. (AND DON'T YOU DARE JUST LOOK AT THE PHOTOS AND NOT READ THE TEXT. I spent a whole bus ride writing this one damn it!!)

After Siem Reap, we traveled to Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, where we hired two locals to drive us around the city and surrounding countryside on their motorbikes. Saw some beautiful country, fruit farms, a bamboo train, kids walking to school, farmers tending their fields, the only winery in Cambodia. My driver Odom (or Mr. Excellent as he introduced himself) was an excellent guide, telling me all about himself, the Khmer culture, the local crops, the history of the area. He definitely lived up to his self-appointed name.

NOTE: Picture of our drivers and us is on my CD. Boo.


In front of a temple that was once a Khmer Rouge prison, he told us his story of living through the Khmer Regime -- how the Khmer Rouge murdered his father and two sisters, how he worked in the rice fields from age 8-10, how he survived the regime's brutality and a refugee camp on the Thai border. At the refugee camp, he learned how to be a medic, working in clinics and hospitals in the area. When he returned to Cambodia in the 90s, he could not find work, despite his desire to aid his country with his medical skills. Corruption and greed had blocked his path. He did not have the $1,000 to pay his way into a job in Cambodia. Now he works a motorbike driver in Battambang, barely bringing home enough money to feed his family. He is fluent in Khmer, Thai, English and French. Despite all of this, he was an incredibly warm, friendly, hilarious man. He had me laughing the whole time, especially when he told us how his wife locks him out of the house after he has been drinking beer and eating dog meat with his friends. Too funny. One of the best experiences of my trip so far.

After a couple days in Battambang, we took the bus to Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia. Beautiful city. Many bored (read: annoying) tuk tuk drivers. Good food and shopping. Fascinating and heartbreaking cultural spots.


Poverty and luxury often residing in the same city block. If you're not familiar with the Khmer Rouge, read this before going on.

Our second day we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is located on the premises of the former S-21 prison. "Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes." (From Wikipedia)


It was heartbreaking. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took incredibly detailed accounts of everyone who entered the prison. The prisoners' head shots from those records now line rooms of the museum. The victims' faces are blank; devoid of fear, anger, any emotion. They simply stare back from the past. It's haunting. I can still see the walls, picture after picture of man, woman, child -- no one was spared from the cruelty. Only seven people survived the prison. The rest were sent to the killing fields.


In the beginning, the prisoners were buried near the S-21 prison, but the grounds soon filled with corpses. They began bringing prisoners to Choeung Ek extermination center, also known as the killing fields.

There, prisoners were murdered, usually by bashing them in the head as ammunition was expensive and scarce. Bodies were piled in top of each other in mass graves. Nearly 9,000 bodies were exhumed from the graves. There are more that lie in the field behind the tourist area. The government has decided that those graves will not be disturbed.

Now there are huge depressions in the ground, like small bomb craters, where the bodies once lay. Bone and clothing fragments can still be seen everywhere. I saw a lot of clothing, only a couple of bones. Hard to hold back my tears and disgust at what brutality humans are capable of. Felt sick for the rest of the day.


That night I dreamed of being locked in the prison alone, at night. When I awoke, the streetlights filtered through our hotel room's curtains, casting a sickly, yellow glow that was too much like the peeling yellow paint of the prison's walls. I had nightmares throughout the night.

Maybe you're wondering why anyone would want to see that. Why would a country with such a brutal past turn around and put it on display? Because you can't understand Cambodia without seeing it. You can't fathom the cruelty that humans are capable of until you stare upwards at 9,000 human skulls. You won't understand the pain in your motorbike driver's eyes until you see the cave where his family may have been thrown to their deaths. And you can't understand why so many Cambodians suffer from PTSD and depression until you come face to face with the injustice the Cambodian people have been dealt.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was never put on trial for the murder of over 2 million Cambodians. He died naturally in 1998. Only recently did the UN begin to try other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Duch, the leader of the S-21, was just sentenced to life in prison -- more than 30 years after his crimes had been committed.

It makes you angry doesn't it? You would think that for all they have suffered, the Cambodian people would be bitter, depressed, angry people. But...they're not. At all. They are some of the happiest people I have met. To understand the strength of the Cambodian people, the sheer tenacity within their souls, you need to know their past.

Not saying everything in Cambodia is honky dory. There is still a lot of poverty, a lot of crime and corruption. There are things that need to be changed. But, I was still blown away by the spirit of the Cambodian people. Seeing things like this changes a person.

After Phnom Pehn, we headed to the sleepy village of Chi Phat in the Cardamon Mountains. Avery went mountain biking (his report on that later). I biked for two hours and decided I'd rather not suffer some terrible heart trauma hours away from a hospital. It was just way too hot for that kind of activity. New motto: "Quitters may never win, but winners spend their lives doing things they hate." Makes me feel better about quitting.


Spent my time in Chi Phat talking to the kids at my homestay (their picture is also on that CD...grr), sweating and dreaming of ice storms.


Our homestay:

Favorite quote from homestay conversations?

(Homestay girl, me and her two friends are talking. One leaves.)
Homestay girl: We don't like her.
Me: Why not?
HG: She is always late for school. She likes to sleep in.
Friend: Yes, she is lazy. Sometimes she sleeps until nine!
Me: Oh...that's...pretty...late....

Then south to Sihanoukville. Met a couple from Minneapolis who just started a bar there. Listened to The Current. Felt homesick for The Wedge and cheese. Snookville is dirty; feels like all the bad of Thailand wrapped into one.

One night there then onto Koh Rong. White sand, blue water. So Beautiful. Got drunk with a couple Swedish sisters and a South African (Afrikaner). Played card games. Drank too many buckets. Played "Fuck the Bus," Sweden's version of the popular game. Went swimming at 1 a.m. in the warm warm waters. Played with the glowing phosphorescence like we were in that scene from The Beach.

Going for a swim!
Then it pooped.


Went to Koh Thmei. Nothing there but eight bungalows and a restaurant. Nice but got bored. Too much beach time.


Planned to go to Kampot after Koh Thmei. It's an old, rotting French colonial town on the coast. We waited for our bus in the fishing village. No English. Van pulls up. Tiny Khmer woman in floral pajamas (the hit style here) and a orange plaid sun hat gets out. She has a gold tooth and gummy smile. Points to the van. "No, no. We are taking the bus," we say.

She rattles off something in Khmer and says, "no bus!" She points at the van again, smiling that gummy grin. I keep hearing "don't get in cars with strangers...especially ones who don't speak English." I am unsure. She is relentless. I am hot. I am defeated. "Kampot?" we ask. "Kampot!!" she says.

A friendly police officer (or just some random guy in a uniform -- you never know in Cambodia) claims the van is indeed going to Kampot. We get in. I laugh. That's all I can do at this point. I note that the windows open wide enough that I can crawl out if need be. I relax.

Every few miles, we pull over and let someone in. They always stare at us, say something in Khmer, then laugh.

At 17 people, the van is still stopping for passengers. A lady in a yellow blouse and white sun hat waves us down. We pick her up and head down a dusty dirt road, away from the main highway. Lovely, I think.

The van gets stuck. It gets stuck in some loose sandy, ashy substance. The driver spins the tires. We are really stuck now. Okay, everyone out. 1,2,3..push! Still stuck. We keep pushing and digging the van in deeper and deeper. I want to display my awesome snow bank rocking skills to everyone here, but the van is a manual. Don't think I could shift fast enough. I am sad.


Finally, a man brings over a couple dried palm leaves and places them behind the back tires. All 17 passengers are pushing now. Pushing, pushing and ... the van heaves out and onto the packed road. Everyone celebrates!

There is an argument between the lady in yellow and the driver. We leave her standing in the yard. Everyone inside the van laughs. Avery and I imagine they are laughing at the lady in yellow and whatever ridiculous request she had.

In Kampot, we 125 CC Honda Waves and take them up Bokor Mountain. Beautiful views. Crazy road. No one crashes. Good thing because they have my passport as collateral. Ride out to the pepper plantations and through the countryside. It is so beautiful. Mountains, green crops, palm trees, giant white oxen. Potholes, loose gravel, homicidal traffic. We make it back a little sun burnt but unscathed.


My "I am so getting a heat rash from this" face:


I surprise Avery with a really nice room at a boutique hotel. Air conditioning! Hot water! DVDs! CLEAN SHEETS. We are in heaven. We order room service all night and watch Dances with Wolves and Taxi Driver.


Then we head out to the Cambodia and Vietnam border...

So what did I think of Cambodia? I loved it. Oh, I loved it so much. I was scared to travel in Cambodia. I had read terrible stories of scams, corruption, violence, etc. I knew that Cambodia was still unstable; a country still recovering from the toll of poverty, war, genocide. I had only wanted to stay there for a few days. We stayed for three weeks.

While Bangkok is an assault on the senses, Cambodia is an assault on one's emotions. So many days I was challenged to maintain my composure when I saw mothers and children begging on the streets, men and women with missing limbs because of landmines, the skulls of murdered Cambodians. It was very difficult at times. I was ashamed of my expensive sweat-wicking clothes that cost what some people made in a month. I was embarrassed to have ever complained about anything, ever. Because I have it so so good. Traveling in Cambodia taught me that. It taught me to be grateful for what opportunities, resources and basic human needs I have so readily available.

Cambodia also taught me how to be happy. Like I said, the Khmer people are so friendly, so kind. Like Avery's driver told him, "Cambodians just want peace. We want to be friends with anyone who wants to." It's so simple, right? I guess this goes together with remembering to be grateful for what you have in life. Be grateful, be happy. Smile. Talk to strangers. Forgive. These are the things I learned while traveling in Cambodia.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 03:12 Archived in Cambodia Tagged landscapes road_trip bus kampot motorbike scooters biking homestay van ecotourism phnom bokor mountain_biking battambang pehn killing_fields khmer_rouge community_based_eco_tourism cardamom_mountains Comments (3)

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