Dalat to Hoi An aboard the Easy Rider express
For us, Dalat was a town of unknown quantities. With very few expectations, we were caught of guard when we were greeted by a charming mountain town. We were quick to draw comparisons between Dalat and the Blue Mountains in Australia. A quaint township bursting with trendy cafes and guesthouses, we could have easily spent a few extra days here. Well known for the microclimate that particularly suits flowers, Dalat was bursting with colour. The markets were more packed than usual, with many farmers selling their flowers for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
Our main order of business and first priority was organising an Easy Rider tour. We had done some research but found it quite confusing and difficult to figure out who the true ‘Easy Riders’ were. When we arrived in Dalat it was obvious why; there are several different companies and they all use the term ‘Easy Rider’ in the company name. After speaking with a couple of different companies, it was obvious ‘The Original Dalat Easy Riders’ are the men to speak to. We both instantly warmed to this group. They were significantly more professional and we instantly felt a sense of confidence and trust, both vitally important when signing up to ride with them. The decision to join the tour with them was easy; the hardest part was deciding which tour to take. In the end, we decided on the six-day tour to Hoi An, which would through the Central Highlands and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
With that decision made and our tour due to start the following morning, we settled in to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in Dalat. With a multitude of upmarket coffee shops to choose from, we found ourselves enjoying a Vietnamese coffee in a quiet corner at ‘Yolo’, which suited both our wallet and tastebuds. After wandering through the colourful markets we returned to our room in the Hong Chau Hotel for an early night before we started our epic journey north.
Route: Dalat – Lak Lake
I was pretty excited when Mr Hong and Mr An arrived to pick us up bright and early on day one. We had a rough idea of the itinerary and knew it was going to take six days to get to Hoi An, but aside from that, we were happy to leave the intricate details to Hong and An. We started off on our journey, traipsing around the countryside visiting various factories, farms and other places of interest before retiring for the evening. Each day followed a similar routine that became second nature by the end of day two.
Lak Resort (Du Lich Ho Lak) on the edge of the lake. A wonderful spot to stay after a big day.
We enjoyed a pork barbecue with rice, cabbage, quiche and soup for lunch. Mid-afternoon we stopped for a sweet treat. They use sticky rice powder to make dough, forming balls with green bean paste in the middle before frying them. Absolutely delicious. For dinner we had slow cooked pork in a hot pot of soup with fresh vegetables, fried rice and bread. It was incredible! Afterwards we tried a juicy root vegetable with sweet, spicy salt and bananas.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Before leaving Dalat, we visited a small tofu factory set up in the back room of a family home. A family run business, they spend the morning making high quality tofu and spend the afternoons at the markets, selling the tofu fresh. The process was surprisingly simple. They make fresh soya milk first by soaking the soya beans in hot water before blending them. This mixture is passed through silk cloth, the liquid is put in a pot to boil and the solids remaining in the cloth are fed to the pigs (the husband tends to his pigs at a farm in the afternoons). Once the liquid has boiled it is considered fresh soya milk. This is then mixed with Epsom salt, which causes the milk to curdle. This mixture is pressed into silk lined moulds, forming tofu. While I don’t appreciate tofu, I tried a small piece of this freshly made tofu and found it surprisingly enjoyable.
The cooler climate http://dalattours.net/Tourist-Attractions/Dalat-Flower-Garden.html in Dalat is excellent for growing flowers; so naturally there are many greenhouses and farms set up to grow various types of flowers. With Lunar New Year approaching, many of the farms are preparing their best flowers to sell. I was amazed to hear top quality orchids sell at markets for at least 500,000D.
We had been warned about the infamous weasel coffee in Vietnam. Essentially, the farmers grow coffee beans and feed them to the weasels. Once excreted, the beans are cleaned and shelled before they are roasted and ground into coffee. This way of processing makes the flavour of the beans a lot stronger. We braved a cup each; quickly surprised by the lovely flavour and the energy boost we got shortly after finishing the cup. The farmer here also makes rice wine when coffee beans don’t grow. They cook the rice first, and then ferment it for 20 days, before boiling it again, catching the vapour that forms rice wine as it condenses.
This place was fascinating, I had never put too much thought into how silk is made. Amazingly, the silk comes from the cocoon that surrounds silkworm larvae. The cocoon is wound in one singular thread, so once attached to the machine it can be spun into silk.
A waterfall alongside a rural town, legends tell the story of animals visiting the falls on a full moon. The most common animal to visit were elephants, which is how the falls got their name. Now, there are too many people living in the village and the ritual no longer continues.
We stopped alongside remnants of an old bridge that was bombed during the Vietnam War. We were told this was the site of a bloody battle and many people from both sides died here. The government has since built a dam across the river, which now supplies water to the town for irrigation.
The last stop before our final stretch to Lak Lake was along another bridge, this time to see the floating village below. Initially from the Mekong Delta, this community is gradually growing, moving north with promises of a better life. These people live a very difficult life, with very little access to resources including education and healthcare.
Route: Lak Lake to Boun Ma Thuot
We kicked off day two with a visit to a minority village on the edge of Lak Lake. It was great to have the opportunity to explore the village by foot before taking off on the bike. We made a lot of stops along the way to Boun Ma Thuot, which was great and gave us some insight into the lifestyle people lead in rural Vietnam. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be invited inside people’s houses and shown how they live and work. It was fascinating to see how innovative Vietnamese people are, with incredible set-ups that allow them to make amazing produce. Majority of the family businesses we visited also ensure they had no waste, utilising each and every part of of the material they were working with.
We stayed at a nice guesthouse in Boun Ma Thuot. A nice location in the bustling country town.
Breakfast at the Lak Resort was a basic omelette. For lunch we stopped for An’s favourite, and had an incredible special fried chicken and fried rice. We had a beautiful dinner when we arrived in Boun Ma Thuot, wrapping various ingredients (lettuce, herbs, cucumber, green mango, green banana, spring onions, rice noodles, pork and fried rice paper) into fresh rice paper making delicious rice paper rolls, dipped in peanut sauce.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Before we left Lak Lake we visited a small M’nong village. They have been living by the lake for many years, utilising the lake as a source of water and produce. It was pretty fascinating to see the basic accommodation they continue to live in, families of 6 or more live in tiny wooden houses without running water.
This was a bit different; I had never put any thought into how bricks are made. The workers forced clay through a shaping machine that forms a continuous shape. The clay is then cut into individual blocks. They do quality checks on each individual brick, as the clay is so soft the bricks are often dented. These poor quality blocks are rejected and the clay is put through the machine again. The bricks are then placed to dry in the sun for 3 days before put into fire for 24hours to fully harden and the colour changes from grey to orange.
Old Catholic Church
As we crossed a bridge, I spied an old church off to the side. We stopped and wandered through the remains of the old church, which had been destroyed in the war. It was interesting wandering through the old grounds, imagining what the church would have looked like previously.
Mien Noodle Factory
This was another little factory out the back of a family home. The family were busy making noodles, preparing all their extra orders for Lunar New Year. These special noodles are made from potato flour, and designed to eat with chicken. To make the noodles, they make a runny liquid with potato flour then add boiling water to make thick, glue like paste. The paste is then forced through shaper as someone drags a drying board underneath, forming long noodles. The noodles are then dried in the sun before being bundled and sold.
Yet another family business run out of a family home, this time they make incense sticks. Firstly, they dip one end of the bamboo sticks in dye, giving it a red end. They then have a machine that coats the other end with a mixture of sawdust and whichever scent they had chosen, in this case it was cinnamon. The sticks are then put in the sun to dry before they are packaged.
Dray Sap and Dray Nu Waterfalls
We stopped at two waterfalls, Dray Sap and Dray Nu and had the opportunity to explore both. After the day on the bike it was nice to spend some time relaxing by the water and appreciating the falls.
We stopped alongside a fish farm to watch a bit of organised chaos. The locals had just drained a fishpond and were rounding up the last of the fish. They then let the pond dry out before they refill and farm more fish.
Chinese Cabbage Farm
Stumbling across a group of ladies harvesting a crop of Chinese cabbage, we paused for a bit of a look. What was most interesting is they plant pumpkin at the same time. The pumpkin takes six months to grow, whereas the cabbage takes only one and is harvested well before the pumpkin grows too extensively.
After driving down some narrow country lanes we pulled up to a mushroom farm. This was unlike any farm I have seen before. They arrange bags full of sawdust, limestone (to drop the pH of the mixture) and manure. These bags are then put in different environments with different additives to promote the growth of different mushrooms. It was crazy to see hundreds of bags in different greenhouses growing exotic mushrooms, not at all what I expected.
Fresh Rice Noodle Factory
Again, this factory that was attached to a family home surprised me. This family make several different speciality rice noodles for the town. They are eaten fresh and only last a few hours, consequently when we visited in the early afternoon they were busy getting everything prepared to be ready for dinner. They had several different machines to make different kinds of noodles. One had mushroom mixed in at the end, another was to eat with fried pork.
Route: Boun Ma Thuot to Pleiku
Day three was a long day; the extra 20km we drove was really noticeable. The landscape through the Central Highlands is amazing; we enjoyed both the drive and a few stops along the way. Most enjoyable was a mid-morning stop at a fruit stall in a tiny minority village. Not only was the watermelon delicious, the company was amazing. The lady was so excited to see us, chatting away and singing in Vietnamese. She was amazed by how tall I was and had a photo that emphasised my height. All the while, two toddlers were running around, not quite sure what to make of us. It was really lovely to have the opportunity to engage with the family.
Phuong Dong Guesthouse. Another great bed on the road.
Another day of excellent Vietnamese food. For breakfast, Pho Bo (beef noodle soup), lunch was marinated pork with steamed rice and vegetables and dinner was poached duck with beautiful rice porridge.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
We made a quick stop at another brick factory. These bricks were larger, made with cement, stone and sand, forming a better quality brick than the other factory. It was funny, the longer we were at the factory, the more the locals gathered around to check out what we were doing. I guess it isn’t every day a couple of foreigners stop to see the brick factory.
Rice Paper Factory
The bamboo trays lined with rice paper drying in the sun are a dead giveaway someone is making rice paper inside. We found a lady sitting in the corner of a shed making rice paper with sesame seeds. While we were there, an older man came out, very proud and excited to show us how he makes his rice wine. The process is pretty consistent across the board; they ferment cooked rice before reboiling it. The condensed vapour then becomes the wine. He offered us both a taste, which we reluctantly accepted. The wine was probably closer to vodka, strong enough to blow your socks off and put hairs on your chest all at the same time!
Cashew Nut Tree
This was fascinating! We live in such a processed world I’m so used to buying nuts from the supermarket without any thought of where they come from. Cashew nuts are quite different; the nut grows outside the fruit. The farmers wait for fruit to fall off the tree before they collect them. They then discard the fruit and dry the nuts in the sun for 7 days before roasting and removing shell. The cashew nut then has a final shell that has to be peeled by hand. Quite an involved process that makes the cashew nuts quite expensive.
After driving through multiple rubber plantations throughout Asia we finally had the opportunity to wander through one. The farmers collect the rubber every two days and it is then sold by the kilo. The workers make about $15 USD per day, which is considered relatively good money. Organisations have been developed to help young families into farming the plantations. This gives both the husband and wife a job and the family a place to live, a good opportunity for people in a country that is particularly difficult to get a job. Unfortunately, there is a problem with people stealing the rubber during the night; consequently farmers have to have someone on guard each night to protect their produce.
Travelling long distance at home, people might stop at McDonalds or somewhere similar for a break and a stretch. The same philosophy exists here, yet it is executed in a completely different manner. Throughout Vietnam there are coffee shops in the middle of nowhere with sets of hammocks as opposed to tables. As most of the country stops for a rest in the middle of the day, these coffee shops allow motorists their midday siesta and they can continue on their journey rested and refreshed. Like true locals, we stopped for a rest after lunch, reclining in a hammock each and enjoying a nice drop of Vietnamese coffee. Definitely an idea that should be adopted at home!
Black Peppercorn Production
After travelling through the country for a while, I noticed multiple plantations quite different to the others; these plants required substantial stakes to grow on. Before long we stopped and Hong explained to us they are black peppercorn trees. These plantations make an excellent return for the owners, with a profits ten times higher than coffee. They grow and harvest the peppercorns, drying them in the sun before selling.
In the middle of central Vietnam, an extremely wealthy Vietnamese man has developed a soccer academy for young boys. With a weak national soccer team, this man decided he wanted to develop future players, so he initiated a program that accepts around 50 boys (aged 13-18) per year. There are scouts that scour the country for the most talented youngsters, awarding some full scholarships. The facilities are absolutely incredible, the grounds almost resemble a resort with swimming pools, gyms, and beautiful living quarters. Being accepted into this academy would be a life changing opportunity for most of these boys. Not only is there a heavy focus on the development of soccer skills, the boys also learn at least two languages and sit international exams. As the only academy of any sort in Vietnam, it would be a real privilege for those who are lucky enough to be chosen to attend.
Route: Pleiku – Kon Tum
I think day four was my favourite of our tour. We started the day off right with a beautiful breakfast followed by a leisurely coffee in the park alongside the museum, enjoying the company of Hong and An. After the long day riding the previous day, it was nice to take it slow. After covering the 70km easily before lunch, we spent the afternoon tripping around Kon Tum, visiting several minority communities. While I really enjoyed visiting these communities, I found it difficult to see the extreme poverty the minority groups live in. These people work extremely hard to make ends meet and deal with hardships that shouldn’t exist in these modern times. We ended the day at an orphanage, which was particularly heartbreaking.
Green Hotel. This place was really nice, clean, quiet and most importantly had a really comfortable bed.
We had the best breakfast, noodles and soup but served separately. The noodles were served with pork and crackling with a peanut tamarind sauce. The soup was beef with the usual vegetables. For lunch we enjoyed a mixed seafood stir-fry with steamed rice and crab soup. Dinner was yet another delicious meal, a seafood hotpot (fish, clams, prawns, and beef) served with fried rice, rice noodles, and fresh vegetables.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Gia Lai Museum in Pleiku
After an enjoyable coffee in the park, we had a look through the Gia Lai Museum. Hong used the displays to explain the way of life and culture of the minority villages in the area. It was a great introduction to the traditions and culture of the locals before we took off to visit some of the various traditional lodgings still used today.
Minority Communal House
These communal houses are amazing. Made completely from natural resources, they are held together without nails, screws or glue. The roof was impossibly high and steep; I can’t fathom how they manage to build the structure.
While a bit of a strange stop, we visited an old graveyard. Quite unusual, the minority groups here bury multiple family members at the same site. The graves are covered with a traditional structure and wooden carvings of each family are placed around the gravesite. Sadly, many of these have been stolen to be sold in recent years.
Coffee Tree Nursery
While I envisioned quite a simple process where they place a seed in the ground and the coffee trees simply grow and start producing coffee, the process is instead a bit more involved. Coffee beans are planted in fertile soil, and once tiny coffee trees have sprouted they are transplanted into small plastic holders. They are kept in a greenhouse to grow further before they are sold as small trees to the farmers.
We came across a new Buddhist temple in the middle of farmland. It seemed an odd location to me and the temple was eerily deserted. Hong explained many people donate money to build temples like this, often as they have a guilty conscious and they are trying to buy some good karma.
We spent the afternoon visiting several minority communities. The first stop was at an old man’s house. It was such a lovely opportunity, he was so excited to see us and show us his homemade bamboo xylophone. He played us a couple of tunes with his granddaughter playing a drum before showing both of us how to play. He was so genuine and happy I didn’t want to leave.
Next, we visited another community where people were weaving bamboo baskets. They have quite a fascinating process to make the baskets. I am continually amazed by the many ways bamboo is used throughout Asia. There were quite a few children running around and once they warmed up to us they were excited to pose for some photos. One of the younger ones was entranced when I showed him the photo I had taken, he was pointing out all his siblings in the picture and seemed a bit confused by the way the camera had captured their images.
Funnily enough, when we wandered behind the local church there was a group of children playing a game and gambling. They were unfazed by our observation, instead extremely concerned about the bets they were placing. As we continued around the church, we came across the local well. Each community in the area has a well and locals are encouraged to get clean drinking water from here as opposed to other sources. There was a constant stream of young girls collecting water for their family. I find it hard to comprehend having to travel to a well for water, rather than simply turning on a tap. The minority groups have such an unbelievably different life.
At the last community we visited we wandered around giving the children lollies. They were so polite and shy, quietly taking one each before quickly returning to their hiding spots. We also met a lady hand weaving curtains that would become part of her daughter’s dowry. Even though we have seen a couple of ladies weaving, this was most fascinating. Set up from her windowsill and tensioned around her back, the traditional pattern she was weaving was beautiful. It was amazing to watch her skills as she chatted away, the ultimate display of multi-tasking.
Behind a catholic church in the Kon Tum Township is a Catholic orphanage. The Nuns raise the children of the people in the surrounding area who are too poor to look after the children themselves. Some of the children are adopted, but others continue to live at the orphanage until they are 18. While we were there we met a young man from Berlin who had been adopted by a German couple when he was three. He was telling us the orphanage had contacted him to let him know his ‘native family’ had tried to contact him. He had returned to Vietnam to meet them. He also told us he wanted to try to help them as he had heard they are very poor. After being in Vietnam for only a week he was trying to learn the language, struggling because people assume he can speak the language, as he looks Vietnamese. An amazing story, it must be such a difficult thing to do and would create so many internal conflicts.
Route: Kon Tum – Kham Duc
As we started out of Kon Tum, it was explained to us a lot of the war was fought through the mountains surrounding the city. Consequently, the hills are quite barren as this was one of the areas that was heavily sprayed with herbicide. To this day, chemical levels in the soil are too high for plants to grow and the government tests the soil each year to monitor the progress.
Another long day on the bike, we both really enjoyed the picturesque mountain scenery. The further north we travelled, the denser the jungle became. This was where we travelled along the Ho Chi Minh Road, which mimics the line of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the North Vietnamese troops utilised as a route from the North to the South during the Vietnam War. The Ho Chi Minh Trail weaves and winds its way along, often crossing the road. We stopped on a couple of occasions to wander stretches of the trail. It was great to be able to wander along such a significant pathway.
Be Chau Giang Hotel. After a long day on the bike, it was nice to pull up to this hotel for our last night.
Our onslaught on traditional Vietnamese meals continued, starting with fresh rice noodle soup for breakfast; quite possibly the best beef soup with a separate bowl of noodles with pork and crackling for lunch; and a smorgasbord of rice, tuna, beef, deer, soup, omelette, and morning glory to finish up with for dinner.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
We stopped to chat to some ladies skinning the bark off glue trees. As the name eludes, the bark is used for glue, while the wood is used to build houses or for firewood. One of the ladies informed us she was a schoolteacher and had saved to buy the five acres of land that she has now planted with glue trees. She uses the income from her plantation to supplement her teacher’s wages, which aren’t enough to support her family.
We came across a small town with a new war memorial. A big statue had been erected in the middle of a park, flanked by two tanks used by the North in the war.
For days we had been driving past these trees with a brown, spiky fruit that looks similar to rambutan. When we stopped, An told us these are curry trees and the pods contain seeds that are ground to make curry powder. I was amazed; I had always assumed mixing several different spices made curry powder. Instead, they take the seed pods from the tree, dry them for 7 days before removing the seeds to make curry powder. Just goes to show, you do learn something new every day!
It is becoming more evident as we travel through Vietnam that tapioca and rice are the two staple foods here. I’m pretty sure majority of the meals in Vietnam contain at least one of the two. A root vegetable, tapioca can grow anywhere and is grown everywhere throughout the countryside. We stopped at one particular factory that makes tapioca powder. First, they grind the tapioca, and then water is added to form a paste. The paste is placed in bags to drain some of the water before it is placed in the sun until it dries and forms a powder.
Route: Kham Duc – Hoi An
As our last day on the road, we were both a bit sad our time touring with Hong and An had come to an end. Ironically, the weather reflected our mood, slightly drizzly and misty. This gave the drive through the mountains a slightly mystical feel. Before long, the sun broke through the clouds and we travelled the remaining distance to Hoi An basking in the sunlight. As with the previous days, we stopped a couple of times along the way to check out the local produce.
Our last day, we started with a traditional pho bo for breakfast. For our last meal with Hong and An they turned it on, stopping at a tiny restaurant serving banh xeo, which we quickly learnt is a beautiful Vietnamese pancake. These are served with rice paper and vegetables and then wrapped into a rice paper roll. Delicious!
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
Not far out of Kham Duc we stopped atop a massive dam. The water catchment area was huge; the water level must have risen significantly. Hong informed us this wasn’t a hydro plant, however, further along the river there is a dam they use to produce power.
We stopped at minority village separated from the main road by a river. I was interested to see posters in the community house to educate the locals about hygienic toilet behaviours. Previously, the locals would toilet ‘in nature’, but now they are developing long drop toilets for the community. Again, I was fascinated that the minority groups live in such disadvantaged environments.
Seeing a man making pottery along the way, we stopped to have a look at his work. I was awestruck to see he had a below knee amputation when he stood up. While this isn’t uncommon, his poorly fitted prosthetic limb really upset me. I struggle when I see people limited by their prosthesis, especially when there are facilities available in other countries that would enable amputees to have a normal lifestyle. Strapped to his leg, this almost home made prosthesis looked uncomfortable; slipping with every step he took. He told us he stepped on a landmine in the war and lost his leg. Now he makes pottery, as it is something he can do sitting down.
Fish Paper Factory
We stopped at a factory not far from Hoi An and were amazed to find the ladies inside making what I can only describe as fish paper. It was incredible; they use thin slices of fish and push them into oval moulds to then dry in the sun. These ovals are then exported or sold to locals. I’m not entirely sure what they are used for, but I have since noticed a lady in the markets baking them over hot coals. I will have to try one somewhere along the way!
After six amazing days, Hong and An left us in Hoi An and we had to adjust to life without them. Not only did we have an amazing time travelling with them, they also introduced us to a whole variety of food and various aspects of the Vietnamese culture we never otherwise would have had the opportunity to experience. It seems we left no stone unturned, exploring the Central Highlands extensively and loving every minute of it. Both incredible men, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend nearly a week with Hong and An. They really looked after us, ensuring we were fed, watered and comfortable every step of the way. This was easily a highlight of our trip and I would happily recommend their tours to anyone considering a motorbike trip through Vietnam. With so many people posing as Easy Riders, it’s difficult to know whom to trust. Check out the following websites that link directly to Hong and An for more information on their tours.