The tourist trail from north to south Vietnam is an easy one to navigate. So easy in fact it’s almost embarrassing. Hanoi, Halong bay, Sapa. Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Mui Ne and finally, Saigon. Each town marked brightly on the ‘open tour’ bus network, on the tourist office maps, and in the Lonely Planet listings. Travelling via each of these towns is so ridiculously easy that you’d almost run in to more trouble navigating the Central line on the tube. You arrive at either Hanoi or Saigon, you stay at hotel X, when you leave, you tell the hotel desk you want to go to the next town, they book your bus, it picks you up from the hotel, you arrive in the next town, you stay at hotel X…you get the idea – the travel infrastructure in Vietnam is so clearly developed and so pre-set that thinking, really, is optional.
And whilst it’s nice to have the hard work taking out of travelling through a country, it does leave you feeling a little bit limited in options, as well as making you think the whole journey is a little too predetermined.
That’s where the Easy Riders come in. Imitated and ripped-off all over the country, the real deal can only be found in Da Lat. If you want to escape the tour-buses, the crowds, and the usual backpacker infestations, head up there and take a ride with one of these guys. Which is what I did.
After five alcohol-sodden, sunburned, culturally void, but fun days in Nha Trang, the most cosmopolitan town in all Vietnam, I felt it was time to return to the country and see more of Vietnamese life. As I’d written in the previous entry, I’d already been on a one-day ride around Da Lat with Loi, my chosen Easy Rider, and was looking forward to our three day ride to Di Linh, taking in much of the central highlands on the way, the ‘real’ Vietnam.
We set out at 8:30am on the first day, with me exchanging the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel for the back of Loi’s sturdy Honda motorbike, built for the tough roads of the central highlands and pretty much the safest way to travel them. ‘No bullshit fake Easy Rider’ Loi tells me, remarking on the flimsy town bikes used by guides from other towns that we see on the route – a precarious option when riding along the tough mountain highways.
It’s just minutes after leaving Da Lat that we’re driving through some pretty jaw-dropping scenery. The central highlands may not be as green as Ireland, and not quite as vast as the landscapes of Canada, but they certainly combine elements of both to make a real treat for the eyes.
The first stop is a local pagoda set in the forest next to a huge lake. As I walk around taking in Hollywood-standard views over the river, I’m constantly approached by locals, not used to seeing a westerner in their area at all. One guy comes over with a grin like a Cheshire cat. “You from England? Aah! Love England! Manchester…Chelsea, Liverpool!” (football being the primary point of rapport for every Vietnamese man talking to a Brit!) I happily pose for a photo next to him, and then one with his wife, and move on amidst smiles and handshakes of gratitude.
With a lot of miles to go before our destination that night, we hit the road hard after a coffee break, stopping for nothing other than the odd photo-taking opportunity, and with no interaction other than Loi’s stories along the way. He tells me about the unsavoury runnings in government, his own hopes and dreams for his children, and lets loose a lot about the running of the country – things that probably wouldn’t be fit for a public blog. The whole time he keeps a light-hearted element in his tales however – he’s not out for pity or stern reactions, just telling it how it is. Between tales he flips his visor down and settles down into his seat, giving me a friendly slap on the leg and a thumbs-up in the mirror before giving the engine some gusto around the smooth mountain roads.
Later on the weather takes a turn for the worst, and the skies rip open with the sort of torrential downpour that for me has become synonymous with the central highlands. We’re on the outskirts of a small village when it happens, and after a few minutes Loi pulls over in front of a small wooden house, secluded from the road outside by a tall stretch of flowering climber plants.
“We’ll wait here until the rain stops,” Loi tells me, and as we enter the hopelessly humble dwelling, there’s a lady at the entrance who smiles and waves us in. We kick our shoes off and move inwards, Loi taking a seat next to the husband who waves me to an empty spot where I should sit too.
The teapot appears and is poured out for everybody, and as Loi and his friend start chinwagging I get to look around the room. This wooden hut, typical in build of your average UK garden shed and no larger than your average UK garage, appears to be home to a family of at least 5. As well as the husband and wife whom I’ve already met, there are two children in their teens, and a younger boy of maybe 7 or 8. He sits in the corner of the sparsely furnished house, blasting aircraft out of the sky on a ridiculously old video game, itself running on a ridiculously old PC which seems incapable of rendering the arcane graphics at more than a few frames per second. An old TV and karaoke machine complete the ‘entertainment system’ and aside from a few sticks of furniture, and a dog-eared calendar hanging from a nail on the wall, the room is virtually empty.
It’s around an hour later that the rain finally lets up enough for us to continue our journey, and it’s only at this point that I realise we’re strangers in this house. Loi had never met any of these people before, and it was just a simple request for shelter, answered with a simple offering of hospitality, that put us in this kind and friendly household, just a typical house in Vietnam, Loi tells me. As we get back on the bike and head further up the hissing tarmac and away from the house behind us, I chuckle to myself at the reaction your average English household would offer at strangers knocking on their door asking for shelter from the rain.
We press on with our journey, again just stopping for the odd photo. On the odd occasion Loi pulls over and asks if I want to walk along the road for 10 minutes to take in the view. “Get some exercise!” he laughs, and so each time as he speeds away I’m left with just me, my camera, and tourist-free Vietnam all around me.
Most people would quite likely freak at having their only connection with the outback-country riding off into the sunset, but Loi’s already proven himself trustworthy enough for me to be able to take advantage of the scenery like this, and besides which, I still have his employment ID card in my wallet, handed to me by him on our first day in a gesture of trust. “No worry, mate” he would say.
The journey finishes on that first day at Lak Lake village, our destination for the night.
A genuine traditional rural village in every sense of the word. The wooden houses on stilts, the proliferation of farming animals, the fields of rice, the local children who wave and shout “Hello” with endless enthusiasm at all the new white faces in their villages, and the electricity supply allowing us to watch the World Cup game that night. No, really. It’s only the power cables outside and the satellite dishes that give any indication as to what year it is, and as difficult as it may be to imagine these villagers spending all day ploughing the fields by buffalo before going home to their thatched-huts to watch Holland take on Denmark, it’s still a genuine, fully authentic insight in to how these people live.
We set out at around 10am the next day, later than was planned owing to Loi sleeping through the Benny Hill ringtone alarm on his phone for around 2 hours. It’s a wonder how he managed to really, considering the constant dog barking, pig squealing, child shouting, gecko croaking and other assortment of noise that kept me up most of the night – “Too fucking noisy man!” comes Loi’s muffled voice from underneath his mosquito net as I’m busying myself with packing everything up for the road.
The second day continues much in the same manner as the first. Taking in the sights, stopping at local eatery’s and coffee shops, interacting with the locals – via my personal translator of course, and just enjoying riding through the heart of Vietnam, without a tourist attraction in sight.
Loi randomly pulls over later on next to a big house. “You want to try Dragonfruit? You want to try Durian? You want to see big snake?” He takes me inside and we do all three. He cuts a Dragonfruit off a tree, just growing next to the house, and shares the fruit out between us. It’s sweet and flavoursome, utterly unrecognisable from the bland, boring, tasteless fruit that sells in UK supermarket for anything up to £3.50 each, and Loi is completely stunned when I tell him this. Suddenly the 10,000 VND, or 30p, that he pays for this ‘expensive’ fruit, doesn’t seem so much.
We move over to a huge, padlocked pen, sitting next to the house. Loi points inside and, sure enough, an enormous snake sits curled up beneath the wire. The local children are hopping excitedly around me by now – “Python! Big snake!” they cry, as the owner comes out with the keys for the padlocks on the cage. A few minutes later I find myself with this heavy, muscular, but thankfully completely hunger-less animal being placed on my shoulders…
Fortunately it’s taken back off me faster than my nerve has a chance to escape, along with the contents of my underwear
Before we return to the bike to continue our journey Loi takes me to a stall out front selling Durian, and buys one for us to share.
The fruit has a smell somewhere in between rotten eggs and sour milk, and a texture similar to a subtle blend of chewing gum and freshly pasted wallpaper. I’m pleased to have tried it but don’t think I’ll give it another go in a hurry!
Further stops that day include an enormous waterfall, filled with local tourists seemingly more interested in me than the marvel of nature in front of them, and further down stream where the currents are easier, a great swimming-break.
We arrived at our home-stay that evening next to “Virgin waterfall” where I got taken for a walk by the owners dog along the riverside, before she brought me back again upstream to the start point – stopping every now and then so I could catch up!
The world cup is staggeringly popular in Vietnam, with most people betting on the games amongst themselves, so it was inevitable that the match would be on TV again that night. After 20 minutes of drab, dull-beyond-dull football I decided to call it a night, and I was under my mozzie net and out like a light by 8pm.
It’s just as well I slept early that night, as we’re away by 7am with 200km to cover that day. The ride is pretty relentless, going through some totally unforgiving road surface, and once again I pat myself on the back for going with a Real Easyrider rather than hopping on the back of a moped and blindly assuming such a vehicle would cut it here.
We stop off at a rubber-plantation, where Loi explains how the French brought the trees over from Africa during their days of colonisation.
Later down the road we pull over next to what to all intents looks like your average farmland, before Loi points out several craters in the distance. A very real reminder of the bombings during the American war, still evident in many parts of the country.
Equally so are the American bunker further down the road (later bombed by the Americans themselves on their way out of the war), and the signs everywhere in this area of the highlands, warning locals to keep away due to the risk of unexploded landmines.
Our final big stop for the day before Loi drops me off in Di Linh to catch my bus to Saigon, is in a final rural village, situated along a ridiculously bad bumpy road. I get off the bike and walk through the village for 10 minutes or so, and I received an utterly absurd level of attention from the villagers. Children wave with more vigour than I’ve seen yet, everybody smiles as they pass me, and at times whole families literally come running out of their wooden houses to wave and shout hello down the road at me. I’ve never felt such the rock-star in all my life
We finally pull into Di Linh at around 3:30pm. We’re both visibly shattered, Loi more deservedly so than I after 600km of riding the rocky roads of the highlands. And as I say a fond farewell to my biker friend from Da Lat, the comfort of my air-conditioned bus finally gives me a chance to reflect on my past three days of riding. It’s been a real joy to see Vietnam like this. A side to the country rarely seen other than by those who actively seek it. Three days of real towns, real people, real life. No need for museums, tourist attractions, or information points. Loi has easily, and enjoyably, provided ample replacement for all of the above. With his engaging stories, his easy-going attitude, his genuine compassion for others and his eagerness to help as many people along the road as he can, he has undoubtedly been fantastic company.
So to anybody thinking about using the services of an Easy Rider: don’t think about it. Just do it!