After a mid-morning breakfast on yet another hot and humid day in Saigon, it was time for me to head to Da Lat in the Vietnamese Highlands. Da Lat is the capital of the Lam Dong province and is a perfect place to start plotting a journey up through the Central Highlands, taking a trip up the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail that was created during the Vietnam War . This was a transport link between the Northern and Southern Viet Cong outposts against the US allies. Most people have heard about motorcycling through the country’s beautiful mountain ranges and jungle terrains, and being an avid motorcyclist, this was an opportunity not to miss out on.The 8-hour bus journey from Saigon was long and sluggish, heading up to around 1500 metres above sea level. The bus was barely capable of hitting 40kph on a flat straight and it really struggled to get up through the slithering mountain roadways up to Da Lat. The journey was fraught with danger as sun set in, with the driver throwing the bus around treacherous roads that were perched on the edge of vast cliff faces, centimetres away from plummeting to our death. Not only was he avoiding the massive gaping holes in the road in complete darkness, but he was also playing quite a good tactical game of chicken with any oncoming truck coming down towards us. I just had to relax, stick on the Animal Collective and not fall asleep in fear of not waking up ever again.
The next morning at breakfast in the hostel I’d checked into, a man called Mui Ne walked into the bar. He was geared up in motorcycle clothes and sunglasses and looked like a man on a mission. He also had an “Easy Rider” jacket on – I’d heard of these guys before I’d arrived in Da Lat, and it was like someone had sent in a premonition. I introduced myself to him, and within about 20 minutes he had me sold – I’d hop on the back of his bike the following day for a 5-day tour through the rest of the highlands. I was a bit apprehensive at first, wanting to actually ride myself, but taking his advice to let him do the driving was the best decision I could have ever made. Mui was overwhelmingly passionate about his country and this could only be a positive thing for my journey onwards.
The following day, Mui met me at the hotel at around 8am. The first port of call was to a nearby Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of Da Lat.
Mui gave me a more detailed explanation of the meanings of Buddhism to the Vietnamese, how Karma was central to it, the huge importance of the balance of Ying and Yang between all beings and also how the dragon, the phoenix and the turtle were also embodied in all temples representing power, knowledge, wealth, long life and happiness. The afterlife also has significance, with the belief that your soul passes onto paradise when you’re your body completes its life. However, Buddhists continue to communicate with their ancestors, and one of the most common ways to do so is by writing letters and then placing them within a huge bell within a temple. The bell would then be sounded in order to pass the message on.
We then hopped back on the bike and started the sweeping journey up towards Lak Lake, where we would eventually rest up for the night. The first day of the journey brought with it a plethora of sites, cultures, ethnic minorities and tribes, landscapes and some incredible food. Although the air was quite dry and warm, the landscapes were lush green owing to the rainy seasons preceding the current summer one, a perfect environment for the vast wealth of rice fields that we passed by.
Continuing onwards saw us pass through huge expanses of farm land; at one point, we took a break to chat to some potato and onion farmers at the side of the road – what was surprising was that there was no machinery in sight – it was pure manual labour as the farmers picked each and every potato and onion by hand underneath the powerful sunshine. But, they were all very sprightful, kind people. They didn’t need any machinery. They enjoyed their work and saw nothing more in it than harvesting for local needs – money and materiality was a distant thought. As a gesture, they even insisted we take a bag of potatoes with us. We said we were on the road and probably wouldn’t use them, so we promised to hand over to someone else on route.
As we rode on, it wasn’t long before we stopped off at some flower and rose orchards, before riding through acres upon acres of coffee farms, as well as the more secluded mushroom and silk worm farms.
At one of the silk farms, we had a chance to go in and take a look at the whole process. The silk worms would be harvested in huge cold damp warehouses, left to eat vegetation for days on end, before the eventual transformation into cocoons that would form the basis for the silk. These cocoons would then be cleaned off, with the silk manually extracted from each before being transferred to huge machines for stretching and drying out, then moved into a small clothing factory nearby.
Jumping back on the wheels, we headed off through the farmland once more and stopped off at the next temple. I was beginning to think, are we really going to stop off at every temple? Like sensing my thoughts, Mui told me not to worry about seeing too many – he would only stop off at those offering something different. And he was right about this one as I got to meet a huge 150 ft. giant smiley blue Buddha!
Only 4-hours of the journey had passed by and I was already completely at ease. As we approached the province of Dak Lak, we then started to move off from the farmlands into some small local villages.
It was home time for the school kids for some kind of siesta in the heights of the afternoon sunshine. Tens of school children came running over toward us on the bike as we entered one village, all waving, smiling, saying hello, giggling and completely transfixed by us. It obviously wasn’t often that they get to see a westerner on the back of a motorbike – it was still completely alien to them. We stopped off to say hello, but after all the jubilation; they were actually quite hesitant of approaching me at first. Mui beckoned them over to say it was ok, and within seconds they rushed over and started touching me, feeling my hair and just generally checking me out! We then headed over into the home of a local family of the Chil Tribe. I wasn’t quite sure if Mui knew them or he was just being friendly, but they eventually invited us in for some really strong green tea and a chat. I say a chat, but of course it was mainly to Mui, describing how they were mainly coffee farmers but also had a livestock farm out the back. Their housing was extremely basic – a hut they built themselves with the bare necessities of a hot stove in the corner, a kitchen table, some pans and utensils hanging about the place and some bedding in another room. They didn’t even have running water into the house, this was all out the back and irrigated from a nearby well. They were extremely humble and knew nothing about the material side of life. They were together, happy as a family, working hard for each other and had no need for anything else. Yes, they looked economically impoverished, but they all looked healthy and happy for it. Their lives were much richer than some people I see back home. The man was also strong and fit, and their skin was so well kept you couldn’t really tell how old they were. Before we left, they handed me a blue and white necklace to keep which acted as a symbol of being welcomed into their tribe.
After bidding farewell, it was time for lunch at a stop off point perched high up on a mountain peak. This was the first of many buffets of amazing fish, meat, chicken, rice soup and noodles – all succulently fresh and moreish. There was enough to feed a family of 4 and it only cost around $2.
Back on the bike, we then stopped off at a few other villages which included a quick visit to a rice winery. This was my first opportunity to have some proper rice wine, straight from the source and it almost blew my balls off. The winery itself was like everything I’d seen so far, meek and humble. There was no huge machinery around. Instead, it was the family manually producing it.
It seemed quite a simple process on paper – the wine would be sifted and cooked slowly in a stewing pot for a few hours. Later, the rice would be crushed down and left for a few days to ferment before going through the distillation process to produce the wine. We of course took a bottle with us to enjoy at dinner time later…
As we continued onwards, we started moving through lavish forest lands before entering Dak Lak. It was here I had my first real moving moment in Vietnam. We took a right off the beaten track and headed towards a small village home to the Ma Tribe. This was a very small village with only a few homes and farmland around it, but once again, upon arrival, the locals were perplexed as to what they were seeing. Mui convinced them to invite us in – one that proved difficult at first because of my big camera. They still didn’t really understand what a camera was, but were intrigued by it. A blacksmith invited us into their home for a brief chat. His wife was also there with him. They were beautiful amazing people, soft and humble and just couldn’t wait to get in front of the camera! Having said that, the flash scared them, so I had some trouble getting the right shots of them, especially in bad lighting, but the results were impeccable. They were overjoyed by it themselves, but a little disappointed they couldn’t keep the photos! They both had such smooth skin that didn’t look too weathered other than the more obvious cracks you get upon ageing. Their hands were huge – workman like and clearly put to good use over the years for their craft. There was a strange moment where they touched my face and hair and I touched them back. Mui then told me that the man was 95 and the woman 84. Again, their surroundings were basic. But they had survived…
As the day wore on, we then headed onto flatter rice field land.
We also stopped off at the M’nong Cemeteries which at first may seem a little strange to visit. However, this was important to explain the local religion and ritual. The M’nong believed that once you passed away, your spirit lives on elsewhere and that your body can still enjoy food and drink and maintains status within the community. This meant that the deceased were encased in tombs nearby; however, these tombs also had outlets through which food and drink were poured so the body could absorb. At the foot of these tombs, huge expensive jars would sit as a symbol of wealth for the deceased. Bottles would also be strewn about the tombs after families would sit getting drunk around them. They really ensured the deceased didn’t miss out!
We then stopped off at the nearest M’nong village and again were invited into a family home. This time, although again their foundations weren’t rich, they appeared to have some wealth behind them. They had better infrastructure and their housing, albeit still huts on stilts. Underneath, their livestock and animals would be kept out of the blazing sunshine. Within the village, there were obvious differences in wealth. Some housing would bear thatched roofs on top of basic wooden walls. Inside, it would be decorated with basic furniture. Others would have sturdier foundations, even girdered or tiled roofs, more expensive looking furnishing and even stereo systems and instruments. So even villages in the remotest areas had social infrastructures and status.
To end the day, we headed over to the local river side. Mui got me to buy some shampoo en route and told me I would know why when we got there. The local kids were playing in the river and the shampoo would be a perfect gift for them to wash themselves. They were glad to see us and very appreciative for it.
After dropping off our things at the hotel in Lak Lake, it was time for dinner in town. Mui took me to a small little open kiosk restaurant which was basically a local’s front room. As with many of the eateries to come, it was very basic and completely unhygienic. However, the food was irresistible. It was my first proper Bahn Cahn – a simple rice noodles dish with catfish, but it blew my socks off. The appetizer, however, didn’t have the same impact – Trong Cot Lon or baby foetus eggs. I simply watch as Mui cracked open the eggs to a small bird inside and guzzled it down…
Mui was a brilliant rider and he was completely justified in convincing me to relax on the back of the bike. I had a chance to chill completely out and take in the sites, and I would never have stopped at the places see and experience what I did. And there was plenty more to come…
Further Reading on Vietnam
Off Road Vietnam
Easy Riders – Motorcycle Tours of Vietnam
Vietnam Travel Guide
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters