We caught the overnight bus to Nha Trang then picked up the day bus to Dalat. Soon after we were out of the city the landscape was transformed to beautful mountainous countryside on which the bus snaked in and out. We were passing through very small settlements and around lunchtime we reached dalat, a city set around a lake.
We checked in and set of to explore what the lonely planet recommended, the crazy house. The crazy house is a hotel/strange feat of Gaudi-esque architecture. It looks like a tree house and has lots of spiralling staircases, ladders and hidden rooms which spiral around the building. It was fun getting lost in amongst it.
We walked back to the centre and got some pork and rice at a local restaurant near to the hostel, a smell that taunted us down the street. We then turned to the task at hand, what to do tomorrow. A lot of the charm of this part of the country, the central highlands, lies in the fact it is mountainous and rural, said to have a lot of beautiful waterfalls. We were tempted to do it all on the back of a motorbike so we walked into town. Dalat has the legend of the 'Easy riders,' a motorbike club turned tour provider that have been operating for 20+ years, the problem being that no one knows who the originals are, and everyone claims to be one!
We were waved over by a group of bikers and went in for some tea and a chat. The guy was hilarious, he pulled every English stereotype out of the bag and made us laugh a lot so we agreed to a three day tour taking us on to Saigon, starting the very next day!
We spent the evening in the hostel with new friends, a Belgian, a fellow Brit and a Dutch guy, who taught us how to play a game involving two pigs as dice. A strange concept of an interesting game.
An early start to meet the easy riders. Nervous and excited we met the gang, had a coffee, signed away our lives and hopped on the back of the bikes, one rider each.
As soon as you leave the city the place transforms! The red soil and sheer drops at the edge of the road make for amazing scenery. We passed through a section where workers were living at the side of the road for one month and widening the road using little more than chisels!
Our first stop was at a flower plantation. Roses are a good bet for the farmers as they can be grown year round, however the farm also had seasonal plantations of salad and other things.
I don’t really know how to write about this next event as it was pretty surreal. Ricky was involved in an accident. I was about 5 minutes ahead with my guide when a guy walked out into the main road with his motorbike and caused Ricky’s guide to hit him. Both the guide and the boy ended up in the ditch with the bikes on top of them and Ricky was thrown from his bike causing quite nasty grazing to his arm and shoulder. I arrived at the scene a few minutes later and Ricky was taken to the doctor leaving me to watch the commotion. Anyone who was anybody was at the scene, helping, observing or offering their opinion to the policeman.
It transpired that the guy who caused the accident was from a minority group who lived nearby, very poor, no licence or insurance. The police and the local people begged that he be shown sympathy. Many other ‘easy riders’ were shortly on the scene to help Trien, the guide who had badly hurt his arm, and explain to me what was happening.
Ricky was soon back from the doctors, plastered up but probably still in shock. After a drink and some fruit it was his decision to continue the tour. It’s hard to avoid the fact that this was a huge part of the tour, but nevertheless the tour was incredible, shocking and amazing and although it wasn’t the one thrown from a bike, I would say 100% worth it. For Ricky maybe 90%?
The attitude to the situation was very strange as it is a majority Buddhist country, so the belief is in Karma. Our guide said to Ricky, “maybe you owed that guy something, do you have any American relatives?” This seemed insensitive however the more I thought about it, we came to see another culture so we can hardly expect them to think the same as us. Our guide later told us he spent his first 12 years living in a Buddhist monastery as he was born at midnight in the year of the dragon which is considered very unfortunate. With Buddhism and Kung fu closely linked, he grew up learning Kung fu and now is a teacher and examiner in the skill.
Back on the bikes they took us to a place to explain about coffee production, in particular weasel coffee. This was a farm where they feed the weasels coffee, however they can’t digest the beans so it passes through and is particularly sought after for the taste. This was a farm, however in the wild the weasels would eat the beans and any excrement found naturally from weasels would fetch up to $40 a cup as the weasels would pick only the best, plumpest beans. We tried a bean, it tasted like any coffee bean should….
We then went to a silk manufacturers. Our guide talked us through the whole process of grub forming a cocoon, then them using hot water and a machine to unravel and thin the silk. Once the cucoon is unravelled you can see the silkworm inside and they allowed us to eat one. Tasted like a crunchy potato! Silk is found a lot here and quite cheap. They showed us the machines they used to weave the silk and imprint patterns onto it. The equipment here is so basic and requires hard labour.
Next we went to the elephant waterfall. This beautiful waterfall looks so powerful and majestic from above, then our guide led us down into the caves below and we stood in the spray swirling through the rocks.
The further we got from Dalat, the more stunning the views. We rode the mountain paths where coffee plantations would drop vertically down the mountainside. We pulled over and looked at the trees and the beans actually grow inside little red berries. When we opened it up a pale looking bean was on the inside. They pick the berries and leave them to drive on their front lawn/roadside, before harvesting the beans. Vietnam has now overtaken Brazil and Columbia to become the number one exporter of coffee.
The views were just outstanding. We stopped for lunch at a little roadside cafe and had steamed rice, fish, pork, omelette and lots of steamed veg for very cheap! The food here is so healthy. It really makes you realise how addicted to sugar we must be as the only sweet food in their diet is fruit and their coffee!
In the afternoon we stopped for a coffee at the roadside and our guide challenged a local farmer to a game of Chinese chequers. They serve the coffee with condensed milk at the bottom and double filter the coffee, which is very strong. You can then stir in as much or as little milk as you like.
As we headed out the views were so beautiful. We passed by these floating fishing villages living on a lake. The homes are suspended on crates and they have some battery power. They use the day boats to catch fish and sell it alive at the side of the highway where people stop by to buy it fresh.
Our accommodation for the night was in Dak Lak at the Lak lake. Our bedroom door faced the outside over the lake. We had a simple meal with the guides and a change of bandages for Ricky before calling it a night. Just as we were dropping off we heard a rustling outside the room and an oink. We opened the door to find two huge pigs outside having a rummage in the bushes and the bins.
We set off quite early and drove a little way around the lake. Our first stop was at the elephants and Ricky and I had an hours ride around the village. The children at the local school didn’t bat an eyelid when an elephant walked past with two tourists on its back! The village was very small and lots of the women were out walking their cows. Our elephant did a little circuit, stopping to much on anything which took its fancy and ending up in the lake up to its ears in water just plodding through the mud!
The bikes then went down a very muddy track leading to this river where we crossed with the bikes on a little wooden boat to find a minority village the other side. The minority people were called the E’da people. The children rushed out to stare at us. The guys gave us sweets to give to the children and we went into one of the houses. It was a wooden house on short stilts with chickens roaming around underneath. This family of parents and six children lived in once room, a corrugated metal sheet for a roof. They had one bed, a rail for all the clothes, and their cooking pots hanging up on one wall. They were part of a matriarchal society which they explained meant that the women is the boss. She picks the man and gives his parents a gift, then he lives with her, takes her name and she pays for the wedding party which lasts 7 days.
We sat around and enjoyed rice wine with them while our guide translated. They work on he land producing coffee, rice and corn. Everyone in the family has a role. Whilst we were there the two boys came back from school for lunch (around 11am) and all their friends were poking their heads through the door looking at us. It was nothing like the “minority villages” on the tourist trail where the kids want money. These children were fascinated with us and some quite scared, except the little ones of the family who kept his distance but was head over heels with excitement and wouldn’t stop waving!
We left along red soil dirt tracks which as it began to rain turned to mush. Our clothes and shoes turned “the colour of Vietnam” aka brown! As we were passing down the track a few km from the last family our guide was looking for another house we could stop at. This weren’t prearranged trips! We pulled up at one house belonging to people from the M’nong Tribe. Still a matriarchal society, they clamped eyes on Ricky and when the guide told them we were brother and sister they said they would offer 8 buffalo as a price for him as he looked very tall and strong! Do you have a use for 8 buffalo Maria?
They invited us inside to sit on a mat on the floor. The home was a similar set up. One room, one bed, a TV, 8 children. Shortly after other people from the village were appearing at the door, including two young girls of 16. They were very giggly and the guide was teasing them about Ricky.
We stopped again where we could see a family harvesting cocoa beans at the side of the road. They told us about the beans which need to be collected, broken open to reveal very slimy beans which are dried in the sun. We tried the beans, the slimy coating was sweet however the bean inside would have been very bitter to bite into so we left that. A little way down the road he showed us the trees growing the beans which start out green and ripen to an orangey red.
Our next stop was at the Draynur waterfall. Again seen from above it was a huge mass of crashing water, however we walked down and it fell into a pool of still water where people were fishing. It was really striking. On a warmer day (or with more arm skin) you can swim right into the cave behind the waterfall and watch it all crashing down.
We passed through one town just as the schools were finishing for the day at about 4pm. The children were spilling out waving to us, and either walking home along the busy highway, or jumping on a motorbike- four or five to a bike! They didn’t look much older than 7?
We passed through Dakmil town and our guide told us a bit about its war history. This town was a southern stronghold, and quite an important one. The guides four older brothers, along with uncles and cousins and nieces were all fighting in the south army however he had a few uncles and relatives in the north army. In 1975 with the north army pushing through strong defences of this town were sent to this area. They believed that it would take the north army two months to reach the town, however the north army worked in teams of three with two soldiers carrying a hammock on a bamboo rod to hold the third sleeping soldier and all the guns. In this way they reached the town in only 15 days! They met the south army unprepared and the town fell to the north army on 13th April 1975. Saigon was to fall on the 30th April 1975. The south army fled and tried to destroy this bridge to prevent the path through, somewhat unsuccessfully!
The guide told us that due to his family being in the south army, the years after 1975 were very difficult as it was impossible to find work and they were heavily punished by the government.
Our stop for the night was in a small town which doesn’t see many tourists! At 7pm we went for dinner at a little restaurant. You sit around metal tables on the little plastic kids chairs and we would have felt very out of place without the guides. They ordered us a little BBQ for the middle of the table and some plates of prawns. The prawns came on sticks still alive and wriggling, and they are not pink! I had not realised their pink colour came from them cooking but you can watch their colour change as they sizzle on the BBQ. The others ate theirs heads and all but I resisted! What followed was some seafood and rice soup and plenty of “happy water” which the hotel owner had been brewing. I tried to order a coke at this point but was told coke doesn’t go with seafood…
The first stretch of driving was along the highway but we stopped as soon as it changed into a smaller road, a part of one of the main Ho Chi Minh trails which intersect the country from north to south as the north army tried to support the southern army. We were very close to the Cambodia border as the trail sometimes borrowed land from neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. The site was marked with a plaque. A little further up the road was the plaque commemorating a date in 1960 when this trail was completed. The trail led all the way to Saigon, however the south army had been working up to meet the north army who had been pushing down, to meet at this point.
Our guide explained to us at this point the various armies with various sympathies. The north army were communist and wanted to unify the country under Ho Chi Minh. In the south there was the Army of Revolutionary Viet Nam, or ARVN, and also the Viet Cong who were plain clothed working with the north army. Much of the war tactics he described were so simple yet ingenious, so Vietnamese in character. One example he gave was the Hoang Cam kitchen. This was a system of cooking which allowed the armies in the forest to cook whilst managing the direct the smoke underground to be released elsewhere, so as not to reveal there location. Another simple yet effective solution was the cycling forest. Literally any movement in the forest would be done carrying some shrubbery so that from the higher viewing points all you would see is dense woodland.
On the roads, apart from a lot of bikes you see these tractor engines carrying trailers. Sometimes they are transporting a taxi load of people, other times sacks of tea. Ricky asked the guides about them so he pulled over to show us one working in a very different capacity as they are apparently multifunctional. They were using the machine to shell the coffee beans. They also use them as a generator sometimes for power. If you own one of these your everyone’s favourite neighbour!
From the main road we turned onto a beautiful, winding road with bright red soil banks. It was exhilarating to be the only ones on this gorgeous path. After about 30 minutes we spotted workers in the fields and pulled up. Lots of women were collecting and sorting sweet potatoes from the field. They were all part of a community who would in turn harvest each other’s crops or work the land reciprocally.
Shortly after we pulled up in and area of a H’mong minority people who had migrated down from the north of Vietnam, Sapa about 10 years ago due to very difficult farming land. We again stopped off at a house which looked occupied and the guide went to speak to the people. Their houses were so basic, just a bamboo sheet for walls and corrugated metal for a roof. The children were so dirty and their clothes filthy as they were very poor but so friendly. They gathered round as we gave out sweets. Their clothes were much more colourful due to their northern origin.
A little way down the road we stopped at another house. The children were standing in the road waving us down as we went past. They were scared and intrigued by us. The women working in the rice fields came home carrying their equipment to see us. It was so special to have an experience this genuine as in some areas the people are so used to tourists. This was definitely seeing the real Vietnam. The guide said to us “they will be talking about you for the rest of the day, the big yellow tiger!”
One of our most random stops was at an open air chopstick factory. It sounds tedious but the work was fascinating. They were using US army trucks from the war, botched up repairs and bald tires but still in use, to transport huge bamboo canes from the forest. One guy would feed the cane to a guy controlling the round saw. His accuracy was incredible in cutting out the ridges and making perfect length chunks. Next too ladies would use a small knife to chop the bamboo in half length ways, then someone would feed this through the machine to make chopsticks. Outside the chopsticks would be steam cleaned and chemicals applied, then dried in the sun! It is incredible that a chopstick is such a cheap, disposable item when so many people are involved in its making!
Our guide refers to things as American standard, however this means both good quality and poor quality, for example “this is very good, American standard.” Then the zipper on his coat breaks, “oh, American standard!” He kept us entertained!
We went through a settlement on the tea plantation where families were sorting through a huge pile of hand picked tea leaves to dry them, then bag them up for sale. It was incredible work and a real family effort!
One of our last stops before catching the bus to Saigon was in a nearby town for some food. A lady had a ring of saucepans set up at the side of the road and was making shrimp pancakes. Our guide showed us how to roll this inside rice paper and they were incredibly yummy!
We drove on to Bac Lam to catch the bus and said our goodbyes. If we could have justified the money I would have gone on as I believe that we saw what I wasn’t even sure was still untouched in Vietnam, places and experiences so off the tourist trail I will remember them forever. And Ricky, well he will have the scars to prove it!
Next up Saigon!