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Published: January 30th 2007
Jeff and Hai cruising through the rice fields of the Central Highlands.
Monday morning Jeff and I crept out of Casa de Andrew and John not to wake the boys from their slumber. The place was a complete hole, and random neighbors were coming back to retrieve bowls and plates from the night festivities (take note of this comment for later). As bad as we felt leaving it a mess and as much fun as we were having in debaucherous Saigon, it was time to leave. The boys and the whole couchsurfing experience definitely made Saigon such a memorable place for us!
Exhausted, wounded, and still on our high from an excellent Christmas, Jeff and I got on our bus bound for Dalat. It was a nice long 8 hour ride where we were able to recoup and plan out our next adventure. I was able to sleep, keep my foot up, and take in the beautiful scenery around me. It was a bit of a chaotic bus ride with the horn constantly going- similar to any bus ride in Asia it seems. I first read about Dalat in an airplane magazine on my way to Hong Kong. I remember looking at the photos and thinking it so wasn’t the Vietnam
"Crazy House" of Dalat
The real name is Hang Nga Guest House and Art Gallery. Reminded me of Gaudi architecture
I had envisioned. It described this small little romantic city nestled in the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam. It described gushing waterfalls, hikes, and a Bohemian atmosphere. Dalat was described as the perfect getaway for lovers. Indeed, when the French occupied Vietnam, they tried to make Dalat a tourist destination, claiming it to be the “mini Paris.” Today it is one of the most visited spots in Vietnam by locals, as well as foreigners. We were also told it was quite chilly and that locals dressed as if they were expecting a huge blizzard. Since reading that article I was hooked on going.
Upon arriving, the blogs and magazine articles I read were correct- it was cold! I had to dig into my backpack to find my winter clothes that I thought I would not need again until heading back to Japan! The lake was beautiful, and in the distance there was the Vietnamese Eiffel Tower. I was without lover, but who needs one when you have Jeff around? After settling in, we went in search of the Easy Riders. Say the name “Easy Rider” in southern Vietnam and any tourist and local will no exactly who you are
talking about. They are a bit of a legend in southern Vietnam. This group of motorcycle guides started off as a group of Vietnamese war veterans taking people from city to city by motorcycle. Their popularity grew rapidly, which forced them to take on an official title for recognition, choosing Easy Riders. Now the number of Easy Riders is over 100. Not all are war veterans, yet still all have their own number. We read about them and heard from other travelers that these guys were the way to go. At the steep price of $40-50 a day, Jeff and I decided these guys were the richest men in Vietnam! We splurged and signed up that night with Hai (Easy Rider #40) and Lam (Easy Rider #10), our lucky drivers.
The next morning at breakfast I started to have some doubts. I mean, the one thing my parents said to me before the trip was “Don’t ride on motorcycles. They are dangerous and too many people die every year on them in Southeast Asia.” Here I was signed up to ride on the back of one for two days. Fear started to overcome me. I leaned over to Jeff
The Bear room...and you wonder why I took a photo of this...
and said “so…isn’t this kinda dangerous?” He replied “Well I guess, kinda.” That was the end of the conversation. Carpe Diem, right? Lam was my lucky driver. I loved his helmet because it was adorned with Vietnam flag decals. Like I was taught in HCMC, stand on the left and throw your right leg over. I pulled down my fake-Chanels (best purchase ever!), slipped my helmet on, and held onto Lam very tightly, my knuckles taking on a new shade of white. Lam put on his driving goggles, helmet, windbreaker and gloves. We made this look good. I was “Born to be Wild.”
Our first stop was at the “Crazy House.” It totally reminded me of one of Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces in Spain. To add to the similarities, like the Sagrada Familia, it wasn’t done! The actual name of the house is the Hang Nga Guesthouse and Art Gallery. You can actually stay in the “Alice in Wonderland-esque” rooms. A big fan of the bear room if you can guess why. I would like to point out that Jeff and I really had no idea what we were going to do or see, putting our lives and itinerary in
My artistic shot
the hands of Lam and Hai.
The rest of the day was spectacular. Although these roads were traversed by many people going on the same Easy Rider voyage, it felt like we were forging a new path never before traveled by others. It felt like we were the only ones on the roads in the Central Highlands. We made many stops along the way. The Central Highlands have been turned into a huge agricultural area for southern Vietnam. What I thought was going to be crazy jungles and huge trees, was a land very much changed to farm all kinds of crops- flowers, all vegetables, LOTS of coffee, mushrooms, fruits…you name it they had it. The production of silk is also a big industry. I think the Central Highlands supplies more than half the food for HCMC. We stopped along the way at all these places, learning how they were produced. My personal favorites were the flower farms, holding future silk scarves (ie the actual worms), the mushroom huts, and being coffee season, seeing coffee laid out to dry EVERYWHERE. Every driveway, open field, sidewalk, even out into the street, was coated with layers of drying coffee beans. This
Jeff hanging out
was absolute Heaven for me- Vietnamese coffee is incredible. Jeff doesn’t even drink coffee and liked V-coffee. Some of the best I have ever had! We also stopped at the Tiger waterfalls. We passed through numerous villages along the way. All the school children waved and yelled hello at us at the top of their lungs. I felt like a celebrity riding through those towns. Rules are also a bit more lenient up in the countryside. More than once we saw (what Jeff and I guessed) was a 10-year-old driving a motorcycle. I guess different cultures have different standards. The villages were not what I expected. They were definitely poor, yet they weren’t hill tribe villages that still practiced old traditions and methods. They had definitely been touched by globalization and were in the process of developing. They were at a mid-developing stage. Other stops included time for the “Happy House,” aka the bathroom. Sometimes Lam and Hai would just let Jeff and I off to walk around and get off the motorcycle. I hobbled rather than walked. Hai was dubbed the Dancing Man because every time we stopped he was dancing and singing. He enjoyed Vietnamese and American hip-hop.
He was quite a character. The whole day I did not let go of Lam. I either had one or both hands securely holding onto his shoulders. Excited to be on the motorcycle, yet always an element of caution (that was for you mom and dad!).
My favorite part of the day was during early sunset. We had reached a valley full of rice fields, and found ourselves riding in the middle of them. We had left civilization far behind. It felt as if we owned the place and the sun was setting for us. It was absolutely amazing and a serene experience I will never forget. We didn’t see any cars, just herds of cows on their way home with their owners. This was the side of Vietnam I was in search of and found. Ladies wore the straw hats as they carried their crops home for the day. Huge cows and yaks wandered the streets and the green rice fields. There I was smiling ear to ear thinking that life doesn’t get much better.
As we approached Lak Lake the road turned into a dirt path. We arrived in Jun Village, where we would stay the
night in a stilted house. Due to the flooding of the lake, all the houses are stilted. In addition, the space below the house is used as a cover from the heat and a shelter for their animals. We walked towards the lake as a man on an elephant passed us. We watched as the sun continued to set over Lak Lake. During dinner we met an incredibly nice Aussie named Ken who shared with us his crazy travel stories, and gave me antibiotics for my disgusting toe. We ate a huge feast with Lam and Hai. We paid for most of the meals, yet at 50 cents for lunch and 2 dollar dinners, it was chump change. The best part of the Easy Riders was spending time with them. They weren’t just our chauffeurs. They became our friends. We shared cultural differences, we learned how to eat Vietnamese food like the locals, how to order coffee, we taught them English, shared some good laughs over some beers, and every once in a while I would bust a move with Hai. With not much to do and an early rise, we went to bed fairly early. Like Dalat it was
cold so we snuggled up in our blankets, falling asleep to bad karaoke in the distance.
If falling asleep to bad Karaoke wasn’t enough, we were woken up by the roosters at 4:30, followed by the pigs and cows, and then at 6 a stereo started blasting Vietnamese music. That morning we were supposed to ride an elephant across the lake. Then we found out it cost $20. Rip Off?! Since Jeff and I had already ridden an elephant, it only took us across the lake and back, and was that expensive, we opted out. That did not go over so well with the elephant guy. He got mad at us and started yelling mean things in Vietnamese to our Easy Riders. Lam and Hai were on our side, telling us we didn’t have to do anything we didn’t want to do. Finally our side one, and Hai and Lam said it was time to go….now.
The rest of the day we made the journey back to Dalat. We were unaware that it is common for Easy Riders to take their passengers to other destinations (Mui Ne, Nha Trang or HCMC), and just planned on heading back to
Dalat. The ride was still fun yet something to think about if you decide to ride with them someday. We backtracked a lot, but at some points were on new streets. It was all still very enjoyable. By mid morning, I was finally beginning to feel comfortable and loosened my grip on Lam’s shoulders. There were times when I would have no hands (gasp!) on his back, and he would always turn around to ask if I was okay. I think he got used to it and gaged my state of comfort/happiness based on the grip of my hands. We visited more villages, saw the “Buddha Dog,” the random rooster statue, a Buddhist Monastery, the Lake of Sighs, and cruised around Dalat. Lam and Hai helped us take care of some shopping and money issues, then shared one last coffee before we parted ways. They were our friends, and I was a bit sad to say good bye.
Dalat was just as cold as when we first arrived, and now without power. The entire city exhausted its electrical supply for the Christmas Flower Festival. If the store/hotel/restaurant did not have a generator, you were SOL and living by candlelight.
This did pose sort of a problem for me and Jeff. We had intended to shower at our hotel before catching the night bus. They said they would have power by 6, and that did happen. Turns out the hot water company was still without power. There was no way I was jumping into a cold shower, although it was slightly tempting because we were gross. It was nearing time to board our night bus and still no hot water. We were heading out on the Mekong Delta tour the next morning and it would be real bad to not shower at all. Up Shit Creek? No No…we rang up Andrew and John, our fellow couchsurfers, who said come over whenever. Fabulous!
We arrived in HCMC earlier than expected and rolled up to their house at 4 am, just as Andrew and John were rolling in from the bars. They seemed overly excited to see their pet monkey again. Turns out the morning we left one of the neighbors we saw that morning came back later and stole the monkey (see beginning of blog)! They had just been reunited with Batista earlier that day. A quick drink, a skype
Lam and I
call home to mom, little sleep, and we were off to catch our tour on the Mekong Delta.
To conclude- Dalat fulfilled all of my expectations. Highly recommended!
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