After a week in Nha Trang, we decided we needed something very different, so after some research, we chose to go with Easy Rider to Dalat. I opted for a motorcycle because of the mountains we needed more power than a scooter. Yvonne decided to ride on the back because she was just learning to ride scooters, and our guide Mr. Chau put both our huge backpacks on the back of his motorcycle, how he was able to balance that I have no idea. I did a spin around the block, stalling out a few times, because it had been a few months since I had ridden a bike. I called my bike Rosey Red, and she was temperamental. With an automatic start, all I should do is push a button and she should purr, well that never happened. She would crank over, make an ugly sound, lurch forward, then crank some more, but I was convinced this was my fault.
Might as well get this out ahead of time, I am not a good rider. I own my own bike, a yellow and black 1974 CB550 that I had bought off my buddy Pat, who originally bought it from a girl I worked with at a temp job ten years before. So the bike and I have a bit of a history, and I love her, but I don’t think she loves me back too much. She’s a beast, super heavy, and she never really works that great. I’ve dropped her a few times, breaking lights and mirrors, mainly due to the fact she is so big and heavy. In addition to that I am a bit of a wussy motorcyclist. I am afraid of a ton of speed, so not a fan of highways. Both times I took her out on the highway she stalled out, and I had to push her with cars zipping past me on both sides. So, with that bit of knowledge, you can see why I was a bit nervous to be taking my lovely girlfriend on a road trip with me. In fact, seeing how I’m still on the trip, it seems to be bad karma to even discuss this now. But we will move forward from that.
So the weather was very gray and overcast when we started out, not the best beginning for a three-day road trip. But I hit the throttle and made my way through the heavy, never logical traffic of Nha Trang. We crossed the bridge we had went over on New Year’s Eve to see the Cham temples and headed up the rolling hills of the coast. First stop was a gas station, which I was informed was my job to pay. This annoyed me to no end seeing how we were paying 110 dollars a day, that should have covered gas in the very least. Mr Chau apologized and said the office generally does not tell the customers this, and just get as much money up front from you as they can. But then he’s the one that has to deal with it, which causes him problems, but he’s paid a set amount, and doesn’t get the office money. Great! Inner politics and subcontractors, you have to love that for the beginning. Well, moving on from that, literally, our first stop was a cafe on a ridge over looking some shrimp farms. The view was nice, and it was at the end of a bay, seemed to be pretty shallow, and there were floating net constructions anywhere from ten meters square to the size of a football field. Mr. Chau was not sure how everything worked, but I over heard one guide explaining that they raise the shrimp in the really small cages and progressively move them to larger ones, makes sense. I wish I could have got a bit more of a detailed explanation, but that was going to be part of the course over next few days.
We drove up the coast for a bit then turned inland, heading for the mountains. The weather was iffy, spitting on us occasionally, then the sun would poke out, then more misting rain. Along the way we would stop at various plantations, and he would show us the various products. We saw rubber trees, coffee bushes, sugar cane plantations,and chocolate trees all on the first day. It’s really nice to learn about the various agriculture products along the way because on buses you drive past these fields but have no idea what they are growing. I chewed some raw sugar cane with the ladies that cut it, and by looking at their teeth, I would say they had been sampling their own wares. We stopped at a local place and got lunch which he had ordered for us, good and cheap, how I like it. Three dollars for both Yvonne and I. One of the great things on the trip is we would almost always stop at local places to eat, not touristy at all, so we would save tons of money on food. And ninety percent of the time it was really good. We arrived at our destination for the night, Buon Ma Thuot. This city is really not famous for anything except as stopping point to Vietnam’s biggest national park, which unfortunately was not on our tour. In hind site we probably could have arranged a detour or added a day, but there is only so much you can fit in.
Along the ride we were seriously worried about what the accommodation might be like, but we were worried for nothing. It turned out to be nicer then we imagined, better in fact then what we had been paying for. The funny thing is, the hotel was set up for bikes, and I drove mine right into the lobby. That night we went to another local place, which clearly was a favorite for easy riders, because every table there was filled with guides and their tourist customers. Mr. Chau would go and wipe the chopsticks for us, grab beers, and order what we liked. He had a funny way about him, where if he did not know the answer to a question, he would just laugh really loud. Well, there was a lot of laughing going on. Clearly he had a running list of vocabulary, enough for the ride and to get by, but deviating from the main questions always resulted in a burst of laughter. Well dinner that night was delicious, and we drank a few rounds of Biere LaRue. One of the guides was a Canadian expat, a twin of Mr Clean, who moved here when he retired. He told us Mr Chau had taught him the business years ago, and was the best. Their table were pounding the beers back. Their next destination was the karaoke bar, unfortunately next to our hotel. From our bed we could here every bad note of it. Thankfully for us we had cable, a rarity elsewhere on our trip, but standard in Vietnam, so Tom Cruise and Ghost Protocol were able to see us off to sleep.
Up early the next day we drove through rush hour traffic, crisscrossing with other motorists similar to the way you entwine your fingers. madness! Once out-of-town I sigh with relief having survived another insane place. Sure the road out here is dangerous enough, dealing with potholes, other drivers, minibuses that barrel down on you, a completely oblivious population of people who step out on the road without looking, and chickens and dogs. But at least there is less of it. The first day all the lovely tarmac was smooth and good shape, the second day things got a bit more dodgy, with large sections of road gone, just loose gravel in its place, to large pot holes. We were working our way up a windy road, passing gravel factories overshadowed by large Buddhas, rice paddies, and small homesteads. We switched completely to a red clay road that winded through trees, passing chickens and pigs everywhere, till we came to a nice handy parking lot under some large deciduous trees. Well this was our destination for the day, we walked through a huge out-door restaurant, past some poorly done concrete animal sculptures, over a small ridge, and there was a huge water fall.
When I say huge, well, it was probably in the top ten for size that I have seen. It stretches across a granite ledge probably half a football field in length, to a small lake under it, which then empties into a river with a suspension bridge crossing it. I went swimming near the edge of the waterfall, where there was no danger of being sucked under. Water was frigid, and powerful, could barely keep my head up, and this was just a dribble compared to the main part. I could only imagine the power of so much water crashing down on you, it would crush every bone on your body.
In the lake below there was a fisherman using an electrical current on the end of a long pole to shock the fish. Then he would scoop the stunned fish up in a net. So he’s walking around up to his thighs in water with a car battery strapped to his back zapping the water he is standing in. Not the smartest thing to do, not very sporting, but I suppose the electric eel does the same to shock his prey.
We drove a few hours and I was really hoping we were near our destination, Lak Lake. We turned right on a large embankment and drove on the straightest ride we had seen so far in this country. On one side there was rice paddies, the other side a large lake. I was thrilled, we were here. I parked my bike on the curb and Yvonne and I climbed off. All of a sudden I hear a scream and Yvonne is jumping as far from the bike as possible. Looking at her leg there is a large chunk of skin that is still attached to the muffler. The angle of the curb made her dismount in a weird way. She did not realize that she had hit the muffler till too late. Mr. Chau was horrified, and whipped out his Tiger Balm and instantly applied it. In Vietnam Tiger Balm is a miracle drug, but it’s the worst thing to put on an open wound, but he meant well. Yvonne got a horrible burn, better known as a Thailand Tattoo. There are so many tourist that come out who are not used to scooters or motorcycles, and climb off in a way causing horrible burns. It’s not uncommon to see one out of ten tourist in these countries with bandages, scars, or open wounds on their calves from burns. There are names in numerous countries for this, from Thailand Tattoo, Saigon Stamp, Bali Burn, among others. For more on this check out my comic strip Thailand Tattoo.Thailand Tattoo
Back on our bikes we drove for a few more hours past many gorgeous rice paddies. Peasants were working the fields like they had for thousands of years, with little machetes and weaved basket backpacks. Eventually we came upon a large lake surrounded by fields. In the middle of a valley. This was Lak Lake. Our first stop was a long house with two elephants tied up front. I looked them over very carefully and they seemed to be in pretty good shape. You have to really inspect elephants conditions to make sure that they are being treated right, because you don’t want to contribute to their suffering. These guys had a healthy layer of fat and the basket had a few layers of pads so not bad. We did not ride them but I fed them some sugar cane which they grabbed out of my hands with their trunks. Such beautiful animals. The stilted long house was really nice with dorm style mattresses and a fire pit in the middle. The beam going into it had carved steps with a male and female figure in them. I was pretty sold on it but we decided to check out the other option just incase. Mr. Chau’s bike over turned as we were shopping in an ethnic village breaking off the throttle, so I gave him my bike to go get a replacement part. Yvonne was in a heated negotiation for a scarf that a woman’s mother had made by hand, but she got a bit of buyers paralization. After twenty back and forth minutes she finally bought it, for five bucks. For us everything is negotiable, it’s all a big game. We know we will never get the real price, but it’s fun to try to get it as near their low point as you can. I have walked away from tons of things over fifty cents. The M’nong village, an ethnic minority in Vietnam, had a lot of stilt houses with carved headers. There were dogs, pigs, chickens and children running everywhere. They clearly were used to tourists but were not corrupted by them yet. Not one kid begged for money, which was great.
By time we got back Mr. Chau had fixed the bike and we headed to the lake resort. Like I said earlier, I was pretty sold on the Long House, but when we got to the resort there were huge bungalows right on the lake with big porches and nice bathrooms. It was too damn nice to give up for a long house dorm situation, no matter how cool it was. We watched sunset go down on the lake and slept like babies that night. I even took a bath. Most hotels in South East Asia use electric heaters for hot water, and to this day I have not found one that could even fill half the tub with warm water, let alone enough for a good soak. But I still enjoyed laying in a few inches of warm water after a long day of riding.
Next morning feeling very refreshed we began our long journey to Dalat, the mountainous town that is considered the alps of Vietnam. As we were pulling out into traffic, an elephant stomped across the road with his rider, off to morning grazing, not a sight you see every day for sure. We were riding along switch backs ascending the highlands of Vietnam. Some of the turns were just deadly, and took all my concentration. Rain was puttering on and off, chilling us to the bone. My hands were very pruny and clutched so tightly that you could see my veins through my bluish skin. Mr. Chau broke out some ponchos, which helped but did nothing for my hands.
We stopped at an overlook at the highest point of the trip. There were gray clouds massing everywhere you could see. The restaurant was your typical Vietnamese stop, with bare basics, plastic tables and chairs, toilet paper as napkins and toothpicks in the holder. Mr. Chau ordered for us, a simple dish of roasted chicken, rice, and a much wanted hot soup. The broth is served with most meals, with very little in it besides some cut scallions. I love it and it came at the perfect time to warm up my insides.
Back on the road the sun broke through, drying my hands and warming my heart. There’s just something magical about being on a bike. You can hear, feel, smell, everything. Your not locked in but immersed in the environment. You can smell the cook fires, feel the dust from the miles, and see 360 degrees around you. Children run out and wave you, herders look up from their goats to stare, and teenagers always pass us with a beep and a big smile. Numerous times we would have to slow to a crawl as we made our way through a herd of cows. They would take over the whole road. In general they would move a bit out-of-the-way, but you could never tell when they might reverse into you. It really was just a great feeling. We finally made our way out of the mountains, to nice level valley.
Not really sure what Dalat looked like, so I was not sure if this dusty little town was it. There were four to five-story buildings rising up out of nowhere. Land must be expensive, because even in the middle of nowhere the buildings would have a small foot print, but rise up ridiculously high. A large cloud opened up on us so we put on our rain suites back on. I pulled my sweaters sleeves over my hands to warm them as Mr. Chau looked for some additional bags to cover our day packs. It turned out we were still an hour away, and the rain was coming on and off. Good thing we had nice visors on our helmets, though I had to use my sleeve as a windshield wiper.
Here I was, in the middle of Vietnam, in a rain storm, on a motorcycle, and I could not be happier. The last hour was back in the mountains, and it had gotten really chilly. The trees were not tropical any more but had switched to large pine forest. It was a steady rain when we began to pass our first flower fields, thousands of carnations, daisies, and others. Just a rainbow of colors. There were large green houses scattered along the hills. Then we rode through some traffic circles and pulled up to a tall cement hotel on the side of a hill. We had reached Dalat, and our new home for a few days. Mr. Chau went to work getting the bikes unloaded. He was going to load them up on a bus and send them back to Nha Trang. Plus he was going to ride his back an additional six hours to get home tonight. I did not envy him. We made plans to reconnect later in the trip. It was a little sad to see our always smiling guide head back on the highway, even sadder to see Rosy Red shoved under the storage compartment of a bus. The freedom of the road was no longer ours, but we were excited to relax and give our butts a long overdue rest.