Warning! very long post to follow…
Is it too early to call it? We just might have had our best travel experience ever. If it isn’t the highlight of our 6 month trip, it’s for sure landing in the Top 3.
I’m not quite sure where to begin. Jesse’s obsessive reading and researching on what we should do in Vietnam paid off big time. He decided that instead of just taking a boring old bus to get from point A to point B, we should hop on the backs of two experienced motorcyclist guides and spend 6 days travelling from Dalat to Hoi An through Vietnam’s Central Highlands and partly along the Ho Chi Minh trail. What better way to experience Vietnam?
These tours have been around for a few years now, having been recommended in both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, and we quickly discovered that there were many different people and companies that offer these types of tours. So we waded through the different travelfish and tripadvisor reviews to find the right guides and landed on “Dalat Easy Rider Club.” When we got off the bus in Dalat, we were met by two friendly Vietnamese men named Lan and Kim. They both looked young, which at first made us a bit nervous (we’d read that some of the best guides are old war veterans who have endless stories) but still, we hadn’t committed to anything yet so we figured we’d take the free ride to our hotel and have a good chat with them before deciding if we could spend the next 6 days with these two men. So they secured our backpacks onto the backs of their motorcycles and drove us around town.
Over coffee at their office, Lan and Kim showed us a map of the route we would take, described some of the things that we’d likely see (it wasn’t always the same, and depended on whatever we ran into on the road) and let us read through their personal books of previous client testimonials (all absolutely fantastic). Lan was clearly a joker, and was always laughing. He was very upbeat and said he’d been an Easy Rider for over 10 years. Kim seemed a bit more quiet and reserved, but it was still clear that he took a lot of pride in his job. His father was also an Easy Rider, and he had been one now for about 5 years now. We felt safe on their bikes and they were clearly experienced riders. So we decided to sign up! We would leave the next morning.
It’s probably not going to be possible to properly describe just how the next 6 days went. Each day was unexpectedly different and increasingly more memorable. First off, sitting on the back of a motorcycle riding through Vietnam is even more exhilarating than we’d imagined. We’ve enjoyed renting scooters and motorbikes before in Asia, but this was a whole new level of freedom. Without having to worry about paying attention to traffic or where we’re going, it allowed us to just breathe in everything around us and appreciate the surroundings so much more. We basically had a 360 degree view of everything at all times, and were free to take pictures and videos of anything we saw and wave to local kids as we passed them by. And because their motorcycles had fairly large engines, there were some stretches of road where we got to drive really, really fast (!!!). It definitely took some time to get used to sitting on the bikes for long stretches of time, and Lan and Kim would ensure we always made frequent stops throughout the day as our butts would get sore really quickly. Sometimes we would stop to visit local attractions (temples, monuments, waterfalls) and sometimes we would stop because they just wanted to show us something (fruits or vegetables being grown on the side of the road, random bomb shells/casings left over from the war in someone’s yard, rice paper being dried in the sun). We also stopped in to visit several hill tribe and minority villages, where we would often get invited into people homes and offered a meal (ate some freshly barbecued dog meat!) or homemade rice wine. We learned about the history of these (previously) nomadic tribes, how women often played more authoritative roles in the family and community, how the Vietnamese government has parcelled them out land now, subsidized their children’s schooling and how they had all mostly been converted to Christianity. Because we were traveling very close to Tet, we also were able to see some of these families in holiday mode (e.g. men taking a break from hunting and sitting around drinking and eating, women preparing traditional steamed sticky rice packages while gossiping, and kids just fooling around together like they probably do every day).
Our travels also brought us to many significant historical sights, mostly from the Vietnam War (here they call it the American War). We learned about the ingenuity and determination of the Northern Vietnamese army and people who created the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail. Originally a series of little trails and paths through the jungle, these were eventually strung together to act as the supply line used by North Vietnam to link the north and south of the country during the war. Soldiers, supplies, food and even tanks passed along this trail which spans hundreds of kilometres through the mountainous jungle along (and I think across) the border with Laos. We saw massive bomb craters it the sides of the mountains, learned about key strategic locations that the North Vietnamese army would hide along the trail to take out their enemies, and learned about the devastating effects that Agent Orange had on the people and land. Both Lan and Kim shared some personal stories or experiences about how the war impacted them or their families, which made visiting these sites that much more meaningful.
We had also told Lan and Kim at the beginning that we wanted to try as much local food as possible, so they ensured we had a new and different meal every day. Each one was excellent – some, absolutely mind-blowing. We had amazing noodle soups for breakfast (some with fish cakes, others with beef or pork, but always with mounds of fresh herbs) and typically rice with some sort of meats for lunch (delicious wild boar with ginger & lemongrass, incredibly tasty fried chicken legs and barbecued marinated pork chops to die for). Each day we’d also stop for a mid-day, road-side cafe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) where instead of chairs they had hammocks set up to lounge around in, perfect for a quick nap. For dinner Lan and Kim would typically want to do something special. One night it was goat’s brain and marrow hot pot (appropriately accompanied by rice wine soaked in goat’s testicles and penis), another was incredible make-your-own spring rolls filled with spicy beef, fresh herbs and rice flour pancakes stuffed with bean sprouts, pork and shrimps! Probably one of the best things we ate was a breakfast made by one of Lan’s old friends who just happened to be in town for Tet (visiting his family) and insisted he cook us breakfast. His mother owned a little food stall/restaurant serving something called Bo Ne which is like a skillet made up of a marinated and grilled beef steak, a fried egg, some fresh herbs, slices of tomato and cucumber, all topped off with an incredibly juicy pork meatball. This dish is then served with fresh, crusty baguettes to soak up all the meaty juices. From the first bite to the last (we ordered seconds), it was all complete food heaven.
Lan and Kim also seemed intent on teaching us about local agriculture and food businesses. We learned about so many rice-based food industries (most importantly rice wine which they seemed to drink every night), tapioca farming, every possible type of fruit being grown in the area (Lan actually climbed a massive tree to pick a star apple for us to try) and even how cashew nuts are grown (did you know each cashew is just a small nut that grows at the end of a big, beautifully sweet red-yellow fruit??). Kim seemed to be in-the-know of random little places to stop where we thought we were walking into someone’s home but actually it was a family business making fresh, warm tofu (tasted unbelievable), or another family preparing rice flour rolls filled with sautéed mushrooms to sell at the market that afternoon. We learned about how Vietnamese coffee if often roasted with butter, sugar and sometimes chocolate (also went to a place where they feed weasels the coffee beans to poo out befere roasting) and how a certain type of local mushroom is farmed (grown inside plastic bags filled with old dried rice husks and a tapioca branch?!?). It never ceased to amaze us how much Lan and Kim knew, and no matter how many questions we had for them, they always had the answer.
Of course the scenery we saw during those 6 days was also spectacular and diverse. We passed by endless rice paddy fields, drove through gorgeous tree-covered mountains, climbed down to some very pretty waterfalls, stopped by floating fishing villages, and climbed up a gigantic volcanic rock. We saw a multitude of cows, water buffalos, pigs, goats and chickens along the way – most often darting across the road unexpectedly. At first I thought that the cows and water buffalos had escaped because we’d see them walking along the road dragging the ropes tied to their necks behind them, but Lan explained that they are actually allowed to roam freely during the day wherever they wanted. But they always came back home at night. We even saw an elephant or two one day – but these were just for tourists to ride, though we opted out. Some of the most breathtaking scenery was definitely when we rode along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in our last 2 days. Here the roads hug the curves of the mountains and the trees and vegetation seem endless.
But I think some of our most memorable times during the tour were interactions we had with people. Kids everywhere could recognize that we were tourists probably due to our huge backpacks strapped to the motorcycles and happily waved and yelled “hello!” to us wherever we went. In addition, going on this type of tour means traveling and staying in places that are not on the well-trodden tourist path. Even when we were staying in relatively large cities, Jesse and I drew a lot of attention from the local people. We pretty much never saw any other tourists, and so there was a lot of stares and pointing wherever we went – though, not in a rude way! Once when Jes and I were alone walking down a path to see check out a pretty view of a nearby lake, two teenagers on their motorbike actually followed us down and asked if they could take a picture with Jesse. They were thrilled when Jesse agreed, and we suspect the photo has made its way to someone’s facebook page now. Amazingly, I also managed to garner a lot of attention. Pretty much every single person that I met over that tour (I’m actually not exaggerating) assumed I was Vietnamese. Most would just talk to me directly in Vietnamese, though some would ask our guides first (probably sensing something was weird because I was clearly a tourist). We became so accustomed to hearing our guides say “Canada”, “Taiwan” and “Hong Kong” in response to their inevitable questions followed by shocked looks on the local people’s faces and pointing back at me. I decided I’d better learn a few key sentences in Vietnamese myself. First Lan taught me to say “I’m not a Vietnamese person,” which has been extremely useful wherever we go. Next I learned the natural follow-up sentences which are “My mother is from Taiwan”, “My father is from Hong Kong” and “I live in Canada.” Once when Jes and I were alone exploring a night market without our guides, a Vietnamese grandmother came running out to us holding her grandson in her arms clearly with the intent of showing him what a white person looked like. Of course she then spoke directly to me in Vietnamese, probably to ask where we were from. Unfortunately my sentences didn’t quite work for her. She just continued to speak to me in Vietnamese for several minutes even though I kept shaking my head and trying to tell her I didn’t understand. The next sentence I asked Lan to teach me was “I cannot spoke Vietnamese.”
One of my favourite memories during our trip was when we stopped on the side of the road to have a snack (some sort of weird dried & preserved fruit cocktail drink). Basically as soon as we’d gotten off the motorbikes and sat down at what used to be a completely empty stall, we were surrounded by 4 or 5 Vietnamese ladies who all came to ask our guides about who we were. Unable to believe that I was not Vietnamese, one lady kept insisting that I looked just like a Vietnamese person and then proceeded to tell Kim to tell me that I should be covering up my skin more (I was wearing t-shirt, long shorts and flip flops) because my skin was getting too dark and it was better if I had lighter skin (she grabbed my arm and put hers next to mine to show me how light she was). The ladies also wanted to know how old Jesse and I were, how long we’d been married (one of them pointed out my wedding ring), and why we didn’t have children yet. They all told me to have kids soon. They also asked how many siblings we had, so I showed them pictures of our wedding and of our families on my iphone (which they seemed to love). One of them wanted to know why my father wasn’t in my family wedding photo, so we had Kim explain. They told me that Jesse was very good looking, and that I was lucky to be married to a Westerner. They also asked what we did in Canada and seemed impressed that we were both engineers. We had a really nice time with these ladies (all through translations via Kim and Lan), and the ladies told us that they enjoyed learning about our lives in Canada too.
Of course the people we will keep the fondest memories of are our Easy Rider guides Lan and Kim. After spending 6 full days with these two men, we really felt like friends by the end. Lan’s always upbeat demeanour and infectious laugh never dwindled. He would sing songs to us about the cities we were visiting, run and jump off of random objects whenever he could, show us pictures on his phone of his beautiful wife and two adorable children and tell us stories about when he was younger and more immature. He was always trying to improve his already impressive English (asking us what daikon and turmeric were in English, promptly writing them into his cellphone) and discussing ways that they were trying to improve the Easy Rider experience. Likewise, Kim who was recently married shared stories with us about how he hadn’t been allowed to hold hands with his wife before marrying her (very strict in-laws!) and about his family’s very difficult struggles during the war. He also seriously impressed us with the number of bowls of rice he could eat in one sitting.
Probably our most memorable night with our guides was in Pleiku when we met up with another Easy Rider guide, Gon, and his client Julian who happened to be in the same city as us that day. It was the same night that Lan’s friend (who cooked us breakfast the next morning) was in town and after enjoying a really fantastic dinner together, Lan got up and asked whether we’d like to all go sing karaoke together. We were having so much fun already that of course we agreed. So we found ourselves a Karaoke bar where we got a private room, a case full of warm beer (of course they provided us with a pitcher of ice), a surprisingly nice platter of fresh fruit and 4 massive books of Vietnamese and English songs. I’ll admit we were a bit nervous since neither of us can carry any sort of tune and I am basically tone deaf, but we figured that it wouldn’t matter too much. So they started to sing. And that’s when we learned that (1) our Vietnamese guides and friends were all incredible singers, (2) our Vietnamese guides and friends loved to belt out sappy, heart-wrenching Vietnamese love songs and (3) Vietnamese karaoke is hilarious and AMAZING fun. And once we got over our nerves and just got up and sang, we discovered that (1) we are just as horrible singers as we thought we’d be, (2) we really don’t know the tunes to even our favourite songs, and (3) it was still soooooooo much fun. I have no idea what the Vietnamese songs they sang were, but in English we went with the flow and tried to go with sappy love songs too. There was some amazing group numbers for Bryan Adam’s “Everything I do”, Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, The Eagles “Hotel California” and then a little dance party for MJ’s “Billie Jean.” When we ended the night, Lan’s friend from Singapore announced that he’d had such a good time with all of us, that he was picking up the tab as a thank you. Amazing!
When our 6 days were up and we arrived in Hoi An, we both felt so grateful for the truly incredible experience and of course a little sad that it was over. If we could have continued with Lan and Kim for another 3 weeks, we gladly would have (and we’d heard of many other tourists who decide to extend their trips because they love them so much). But alas, Tet was only a few days away so we knew we had no choice. Still, we have so many fond memories of our time with our Easy Rider friends and hope to be able to come back one day and see more of Vietnam with them again!