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Published: January 26th 2014
Son, our potential Easy Rider tour guide was due to collect us at 0730 so we were up early on the off chance he showed up. We packed, checked out and I went out to make sure our motorbike hadn’t disappeared overnight. It was still sitting where we left it and furthermore still had the 3/4 of a tank of gas that we’d left the night before. The deal with motorbike rentals in Vietnam seems to be that your bike is collected and drained of petrol overnight necessitating a refill each morning.
At 0730 on the dot Son showed up with a good helmet for me. It came complete with a clear, full face visor… something of a luxury. Jo jumped on board Son’s bike and I followed behind.
Around 5kms out of Da Lat City we stopped on a small mountain pass to take some photos of the farms below. Some poor joker was trying to load three 30 kilo sacks of straw onto his bike so we lent a hand. He loaded two across the back of the seat and one behind the handlebars. He deftly slotted himself in between and took off with a push start from Son and waved to thank us.
The first small village we encountered had mesh greenhouses lining the single lane street. Inside were all varieties and colours of flowers being grown for the markets in Saigon, some 300 kilometres away. We were taken into the front courtyard of one of the houses where two young girls and some women were hand wrapping each gerbera flower in plastic. I snapped a few photos while Jo got some money out of our day bag to pay. Son assured us it wasn’t necessary – in fact, they’d be offended. It seemed country life in Da Lat was somewhat different to most places we’d been on the trip. Next door we dropped in on a lady arranging roses into boxes to be sent to wedding ceremonies.
We rode on for another five kilometres before pulling over in a nondescript part of the countryside. Son led us to a tiny shack of a house where a young boy watched his father do the daily chores. We were on a coffee plantation. Son explained how to pick the good beans from the bad and the process of harvesting and drying. I was curious about how the beans got to market and we were told that often the farmers are uneducated and don’t have transport to the buyers, sometimes over 100 kilometres away. Most of the small plantations, like the one we were on, sell their beans to traders for far less than they would be sold to the roasters so the traders make most of the profits.
On the way through the neighbouring villages we saw that most of the houses and shacks had no front lawn – they were completely overtaken with coffee beans left out in the sun to dry.
Our next stop was a run down coffee shop that also had beans out in the bike park, drying in the already hot sun. We ordered a coffee and coke but I notices a couple of jars of maybe 5 litres or so in which rice wine was stored, along with some interesting flavourings. The first had two large lizards – geckos they called them, but they were certainly not the tiny things we call geckos in New Zealand. The second had two or three snakes and what looked to be a few blackbirds pickled in the jar. The third one was by far the most interesting as it contained nine snakes, a bird and two geckos.
The coffee we were served was excellent so we started discussing bean types with the owner – translations provided by Son. Apparently the beans they use are roasted in a mix of butter, rice wine and fish sauce. We bought 800 grams of beans for D150,000 (NZ$10) and Son wrote us a receipt of sorts that I hoped NZ Customs would accept as proof that they had been properly treated and roasted. I usually wouldn’t have worried except that through the clear plastic packaging, the beans looked like they were still slightly moist. We also picked up three metal individual cup coffee filters that are used in the cafes. At D10,000 (NS$0.67) they seemed to be a good buy.
The real secret of the coffee shop was hidden around the back… a rice wine distillery.
We knew from Son’s list of tour highlights that we’d be visiting a rice wine making facility and I initially had pictured something similar to the NZ wineries or small breweries. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In a half opened brick extension to the shop and house sat two large stainless cylinders of around 500 litres capacity. The first had a conical lid and this was where the rice and water was boiled to extract the starches and sugars that would be turned to alcohol. The second had a raggedy old stainless piping rising from it that went through the wall to the outside area. Both cylinders were heated by an open fire fuelled by the the husk of coffee beans – nothing goes to waste in these parts. The beans dropped into the fire via gravity. Baskets of husks were thrown on a table above the fire that had a small hole in the back. As husks burned, more were fed into the flames. It was rather an ingenious setup. The pipe from the second cylinder collected the steam and ran through a water tank, cooling it and turning it into liquid – rice wine. A 10 litre plastic container collected the finished product via a funnel. We sampled a small shot each – it came in at approximately 70% alcohol but wasn’t nearly as harsh as I was expecting. I took enough photos to ensure I can pass the plans on to someone at home for The Man Room Rice Wine Distillery.
Around the back of the shop, we saw cages with weasels in them. These were the workers in the army that created one of Vietnam’s favourite exports – Weasel Coffee. They eat the coffee beans, process them with their stomach acid and shit them back out. No one seemed to know the exact scientific reason but, once cleaned I assume – the coffee comes out tasting better than it would have had it not passed through.
Back around the front I’d finally built up the guts to try the 9 snake, 2 gecko and 1 bird rice wine and I must admit it was pretty damn good. Jo also tried some but didn’t think much of it. I detected some earthy notes that I hadn’t tasted in previous rice wines. The shot cost D10,000, which represented pretty good value. Son told me to expect stallion like qualities to appear later that night.
The next stop was less than a few kilometres down he road at a pair of neighbouring houses that took bamboo poles, stripped them and made baskets. I must admit that after 9 snake, 2 gecko and one bird rice wine this was not a suitable follow up.
As is customary on all day tours we had to stop at a touristy place that would help us part with our money. In this instance it was a silk factory. Son showed us through the entire process from silkworm to embroidered scarf. Whilst the setup was done with the aid of machinery, the process was still heavily labour intensive. The worm cocoons are heated and the silk around them loosens up so a machine can spindle it. From there the spindles are dried and the worms, still in their cocoon, are put aside. A few were left on the hot water pipe to cook so we had a taste. Jo wasn’t too fussed but I thought they were great – quite nutty in taste and texture. They’d be great with water spinach I reckon. The machine that weaves the silk was quite a sight to behold. It was electrified although it was a very basic system with pulleys and chains doing the work. What held my interest was the patterns. The designs were put on a punch card not dissimilar to the old music boxes. Most of he machine was made of timber and it was fascinating to watch it at work. Unsurprisingly, the exit was through the gift shop where Jo ensured we left with less money than we arrived with.
The Elephant Falls were less than a kilometre away and Son took us to the edge of the falls then left us to our own devices. It became clear why not long after as a Bachelor of Rock Climbing seemed to be the minimum degree required to descend to the bottom. Stairs (of sorts) were probably there at some point but the treads of many thousands of tourists had worn them down at best or removed them completely at worst. The spray from the falls made everything ice like in grip levels. We made it to the bottom 10 minutes later and the walk was worth it. In a small gap between two rocks the spray and wind came flying through in an awesome display of the powers of nature.
We headed back towards Da Lat with a quick stop at the coffee shop to negotiate a bottle of the 9 snake, 2 gecko and 1 bird rice wine. D250,000 (NZ$17) seemed about right and Jo added a bottle of more legitimate sticky rice wine for D50,000.
I semi attached the video camera to my handlebars for the 35 kiometre ride back to Dalat although I had to ride one handed most of the way. Son picked up the pace just a little so we could enjoy the windy mountain roads a bit more.
We arrived at Da Lat Hotel du Parc just after 1330, more than happy with our day and particularly happy with our guide Son who spoke excellent english and was really knowledgable also. The tour was US$35 very well spent.
We figured we had time to get back to Trong Dong Restaurant before our taxi to the airport so we had a final motorbike ride to the other side of town.
The appetisers were the same as dinner the night before – prawn paste on sugar cane along with pork and shrimp toast. I ordered chicken curry for the main and Jo went with prawns. As expected both were sensational I needed some bread to sop up the delicious sauce and when I asked the waitress, she jumped on her motorbike and bought some from somewhere down the road. The food was first class and the service unbeatable.
We parked our ride for the last time at the hotel and loaded the taxi van to the airport, arriving and checking in around 1500 for what was surely the shortest plane trip we’ve ever had. The plane took off at 1606, the pilot advised the attendants to prepare for landing at 1618 and we landed in HCMC at 1632.
Jo had booked us at Thuan Thien Hotel not far from the main markets so we were able to tell the cab driver where to go. On arrival the meter read D108,000 so I handed over D110,000 but it seemed to infuriate our driver. Jo, realising there my be trouble, jumped out of the cab as our voices raised and an argument in two different languages ensued. Jo had the presence of mind to unlock the boot the moment our driver left the car and grabbed our bags from the boot – I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud. The driver followed us to the hotel reception where it was explained to me that all the guy wanted was D10,000 (NZ$0.67) for the airport tax. I paid up immediately.
We weren’t sure how to get to Cambodia but the US$72 each two day boat/bus combo seemed good enough for us. We booked and went out to get some dinner from the market. I had snails in a sauce of unknown origin and Jo went with the prawns. We had a few cokes & beers as well as coconut juice straight from the coconut and the bill came to D270,000 – less than NZ$20.
We almost bought a few t-shirts but couldn’t talk the stall owner down the D20,000 I needed but we picked up three caps for US$8.
We went back to the hotel where I did some blogging and we finally got to sleep at 2145. Our tour bus was due at 0730 the following morning and we were headed out of Vietnam.
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