13 – 18 May 2010, Vietnam
Dalat was included on our Vietnamese itinerary for a couple of reasons. First, we were anxious to escape the heat and humidity sucking the life out of us in Saigon. Second, we never made it there during our first trip to Vietnam. Situated in the Central Highlands, Dalat is famous for its cooler climate, French architecture and Vietnam’s most famous group of motorcycle guides, the Easy Riders.
We didn’t make any arrangements in advance, but the Easy Riders found us as soon as we stepped off the bus from Saigon. They offered a day tour of the surrounding area and although their sales pitch was convincing we weren’t sure if they were the same Easy Riders that people on the internet raved about. In Vietnam it is common for the name of a respected business to be copied by less than upstanding individuals looking to make an easy buck. As we reviewed their pictures and testimonials from former clients we began to feel more confident that they were the “real” Easy Riders. Their official looking vests didn’t hurt either. We decided to join them for a tour the following day.
Our day tour with the Easy Riders, Hong and Trung, completely surpassed our expectations. We visited Buddhist temples, a coffee plantation, a silk worm factory, flower farms, a waterfall and a couple of small family owned businesses producing rice wine and bamboo baskets. These sites alone might not have been exceptionally interesting but visiting them with our knowledgeable guides made a world of difference. At each stop Hong and Trung took turns explaining the things we saw, discussing Vietnamese culture, answering our questions and patiently waiting while we took pictures. Topping it all off was our lunch stop where we sampled an array of delicious Vietnamese dishes at local prices.
Our stomachs full, our trusty guides could tell we were impressed. Like all good businessmen, they seized the opportunity to discuss other Easy Rider tours. With the aid of a Vietnam map they quickly proposed a route that would fit our schedule. We hadn’t planned for an additional tour but their sales pitch started to take hold and we were soon contemplating a five day tour from Dalat to Hoi An. Portions of their proposed 890 kilometer route followed the Ho Chi Minh trail and offered enough war history to satisfy even the most discerning history buff. As far as we were concerned, one of their greatest selling points was Hong himself. He was a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army so we knew we would hear firsthand accounts of the war.
Despite our excitement we felt uneasy about the relatively high cost of the tour. During our first week in Vietnam we lived well on about $50 a day; taking the Easy Rider tour would nearly triple our daily expenses. Later that afternoon we spreadsheeted our expenses to the extreme and finally concluded that we could afford to splurge on the tour. Exceptional tour guides are difficult to come by and we wanted to take advantage of their expertise. The next morning we found out that Trung was unable to join us and another Easy Rider named Duc would take his place. We were initially disappointed but it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with Duc. His sense of humor perfectly complemented Hong’s reserved demeanor.
During our five day motorcycle tour we drove north, visiting brick making factories, rubber plantations, and small businesses where we saw how things like tofu, sugar and rice paper are made. We browsed markets so far off the beaten path that people were genuinely surprised to see a tall, blonde haired foreigner wandering around. Farms were another frequent stop and for the first time in my life, I saw how peppercorn, cashews and mushrooms are grown. We passed through areas only recently resettled, after being evacuated due to high concentrations of chemical defoliants during the war. The Vietnamese government has forcibly relocated people back to the areas in order to create new economic zones. Similar to our one day tour, Hong and Duc taught us an incredible amount. At each stop they provided in-depth explanations of how products are grown or made. Their knowledge seemed endless and, as promised, they were continually able to get us local prices for food and accommodation. This is no small feat in a country where foreigners are consistently overcharged.
As much as we enjoyed the factory and farm tours, we were even more blown away by Hong and Duc’s war stories, the never-ending stream of propaganda billboards and historical sites including Charlie Hill and Phoenix Airbase. One of our many stops was Dak To, a major battlefield in the American War. Other than a faded plaque, some bomb craters and barely visible trenches, there isn’t much to indicate it was once the scene of intense fighting. If we hadn’t been there with the Easy Riders we never would’ve been able to distinguish it from the surrounding area. Despite the lives lost from both sides at this battlefield and others, Vietnam has no memorials commemorating the South Vietnamese soldiers.
As we drove north on the back of Hong and Duc’s motorcycles, they repeatedly pointed out war remnants that we never would have recognized. We saw the remains of bridges bombed during the war and hillsides wiped clean of trees by Agent Orange. One of our more unusual stops was a recycling facility. In addition to the usual plastic bottles and aluminum cans, there were piles of unexploded mortar rounds, grenades, land mines, and shell casings. Although most metal was collected shortly after the war, some Vietnamese still head out each day in search of valuable objects.
Our five day tour with the Easy Riders has earned a place on our list of around the world trip highlights. In our opinion a motorcycle tour is the absolute best way to see the Vietnamese countryside. I now realize how much we missed while stuck inside a cramped bus during our last trip to Vietnam. Other than Hong and Duc’s phenomenal skills as tour guides, what I will remember most is the throngs of kids chasing after us as we drove through small towns and villages. With our backpacks strapped to the back of the motorcycles they could see us coming and, before we even had a chance to wave, they would jump up and down, waving their arms and shouting, their adorable faces covered in huge grins. If we had stuck to our original plan and traveled up the coast on a bus, we would have missed out on countless interactions like this that made the trip so special. Although we were initially apprehensive at the thought of paying for such an expensive tour, I now have no doubt that it was money well spent.