Saturday, May 19, 2007

A rag-tag biker gang

While traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, we'd talked to a couple of travellers who had done tours through Easy Rider and had nothing but praise for the experience. So, even though we'd planned on resting for a few days in Nha Trang, when we were given the chance to do a 5-day tour through the Vietnamese Central Highlands we jump on it. It was a spur of the moment decision, but it was also one of the best choices we've made so far onthis trip.

In short, Easy Rider is a motorcycle tour company. For $45 a day, a private driver takes you around on the back of his motorcycle. All expenses are paid for except food and beer (of which ample amount of each are consumed at the end of each long day of driving). They are well known for being a laid back operation, and one that allows you to get off the beaten track and see Vietnam at a less hectic pace than your usual bus tour.

Sadly, yet probably also safely, Sarah and I did not get our own bikes...

For our tour, Sarah and I each had a seperate driver. I was paired up with Dao who, when wearing his "foam-dome" hat, beared a striking resemblance to an Vietnamese Pharell. Dao was the prankster of the group, and his comical dialogue roamed between cliched comments stolen from American pop culture (after listening to a Vietnamese traditional minority band play, he actually announced "now that's the real hip-hop, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre need to come over hear and see what I'm talking about") and surprisingly insightful comments about Vietnamese traditions and history.

Dao and I on our motorcycle.

Sarah's driver, Binh, prefered to play it quiet. But, when it came time to eat, he was relentless about making sure we had enough food, and knew how to eat it properly.

Sarah and Binh pass a "Highlands Taxi" - A popular makeshift vehicle that looks like a cross between a tractorand flatbed truck.

In addition, we ended up being paired with a couple of friendly, 18-year old, Canadian guys and their two drivers. At first, we had been hoping to have the tour to ourselves, but as the trip went on, we found it better to be paired with a couple other people.

When Dao initially sold us on the trip, he promised that there wouldn't be rain, so it was only fitting that as we climbed onto our motorcylces the first day, and made our way out of Nha Trang, the skies opened up and downpoured on us. But, after that initial rainstorm, Dao proved to be good on his word, and the next couple days were sunny and hot. Hot enough that by the end of the second day, my kneecaps were getting burnt, despite liberal applications of sunblock.

And, the tour also definitely delivered on its promise of getting off the beaten track. Over the next five days, we were surprised if we saw more than one or two other tourists a day. From Nha Trang, we made our way to Dalat to the east on the first night, before heading north into the highlands. Our route primarily followed the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is now the well-paved Ho Chi Minh Road. At the end of the trip, we reached the coast again in Danang, before heading south to the tourist town of Hoi An.

Rather than bore youall with a blow-by-blow account of the last five days, I'm just going to mention a few things that struck e about the trip.

The butterflies
Literally the whole trip, there were these pale yellow butterflies everywhere. We'd be tearing down some tiny rural road, and clouds of them would be erupting from the bushes around us. Sadly, they proved tobe almost impossible to photograph. Bu, that doesn't mean we didn't try...

me running down the road trying to scare the butterflies.

Riding on the back of a motorcycle for 5-days
As I mentioned on my "I *Heart* Mopeds" entry, riding on the back of a motorcycle in Ho Chi Minh City was definitely a thrill. But, riding on a motorcycle is a whole different adventure. Again, at first, I'd be freaking out with each turn and bump... but, after several days of it, you get really used to it, and I'd find myself cleaning my fingernails or snapping off photos as our bikes barrelled down a hill at 80 kilometers and hour. That said, all of our drivers proved to be very capable and professional drivers. It might have been exciting, but at no pointed did we feel like we were taking our life into own hands when we climbed on the back of our bikes.

Weaving through traffic ina small town.

The one part of you that doesn't get used to riding on a motorcycle after 5-days: Your backside. Mine is still sore.

Speaking of sore, we also did an elephant ride.

When your on the back of an elephant, and it decides to disobey its handler, it's scary. That's all I'm sayin'.

The countryside

We've enjoyed the Souteast Asian portion of our tour so far, but until these last couple days we'e primarily been living inside the tourist buble that surrounds you in major cities. But, finally, we had the chance to see "the real Vietnam" as Dao put it. We drove past miles of rice fields, through amazing lush rainforest, and past sections of land that were so heavily hit by defoliation chemicals in the war that to this day they only grow sparse and sickly grass. Our motorcycles climbed large mountains (well, large for Vietnam) and wove their way down narrow valey roads. We roared through villages so small that the entire town seems to look up to watch our passing. Which brings us to...

The children
It's an amazing feeling to be racing down the road and have every child wave and shout "hello!" It's not hard to imagine you are a celebrity riding on a float in a parade. Everywhere we went, the children seemed endlessly fascinated in the tourist who had come roaring into their town. In some of the locations we stopped, even the adults hazarded a quick glance at the strangers, but it was the wide eyes of the smiling children which seemed to greet us everywhere we went.

That sensation was only surpassed when we made an impromptu stop at a remote school. We initially were just driving past it, but when half the school ran to the fence that surrounded it, all shouting "hello" in near unison, we quickly turned around and came roaring up to their front gate. Climbing from our bikes, we found ourselves surrounded by childrens who's faces seemed to be an equal mix of awe and apprehension. We then walked into the school grounds with cameras and candy in hand near chaos followed. The kids were actually hesitant to approach us because apparently kidnapping was common at one time in the region. But, they were also endless fascinated by us. Both myself and one of the Canadians (who is about 6ft 3in) were like giants to them (even Sarah would make a tall man in that area) and you could see them motioning to each other about how tall we were and laughing.

A group of boys at the school. When I went to show them their picture, most of them ran away.

Another powerful moment involved stopping at an orphanage on the the fourth day. It was heartbreaking to see so many children there, but also amazing to experience. At one point, we sat face to face with a row of young children (only a couple years old), and found ourselves just, well, looking at each other. Where the other children we were all smiles and "hellos" the children at the orphanage were surreally silent. And, we found ourselves just looking at each other with expressions that seemed to say "now what?"

One of the children at the orphanage. A very serious fellow.

Sarah, of course, rose to the occasion and proved why she'll make a wonderful mother one day!

The minority people
A number of our stops involved stopping to visit with hill tribes and the ethnic minority groups that live in the highlands near Vietnam's boarders with Cambodia and Loas. The first night, we sat in on a "gong show," or a musical show featuring traditional bamboo instruments and gongs (which lead Dao to make his previously mentioned "real hip hop" comment). It was amazing though, with the gongs and bamboo instruments being used to create sounds I'd only thought possible through electronic means. This culminated in the obligatory "make the tourist dance and sing along" portion of the show which was, admittedly, entertaining.

At another point, we stopped in and met with an old man who still spoke French from Vietnam's colonial times. In addition to being one of the happiest men we've met on our trip so far, also played his bamboo xylophone-style instrument that was also hooked to a networks of ropes and puls that effectively turned him into a one man band.

I try out the old man's instrument, much to his amusement.

Later, we stopped by another families house, where we met the matriarch of the group. Our guides told us she was 104 years old, which makes her probably the oldest person I've ever met. One can only imagine what all she's seen happen to Vietnam in her lifetime, and to think that her house only got battery powered electricity a couple years ago.

104 years old! Her and several generations of her family all live together in one house.

The food

While on the trip, we definitely got to eat like a local. Instead of going to restaurants with English menus, our driver's would just take us out to their favorite restaurants. And, while I'm sure that Sarah will dedicate an entry to it either here or on Eddybles, I think it bears quickly mentioning it here. We ate wraps made from fresh rice paper, BBQ meals that you cook yourself, hot pot stews. We learned how to one of the Vietnamese condiments of choice is salt and pepper mixed together in a bowl with freshly squeezed lime juice. We tried strange new meats, like goat and dove. And, on one night, they even convinced me to try some Goats Blood Whisky, which is actually rice wine mixed with (you guessed it) goat's blood.

The one downside of getting the opportunity to eat like a local is that by the time we reached Hoi An, both Sarah and mine's intestines were in a mild state of shock and are still recovering a bit today.

The cottage industries
Vietnam proves that sometimes a "cottage industry" still takes place in a cottage. While travelling, we stopped to see shrimp farms, brick factories, silk factories (where we saw endless piles of cacoons), rubber farmers, pepper farms, cashew farms (the cashew nut is actually just a tiny part of a larger cashew fruits... its true!), coffee farms, and pineapple farms. Amoungst others. And, for the most part, all these are just small single family operations using the most simple methods you can imagine.

Fresh black pepper. They grow the vines by wrapping them around 10 feet tall logs which they've planted into the ground.

Thousands of cacoons used to make silk.

As I'm sure I've made obvious by now, I thought the whole experience was pretty amazing. Where other tours have usually left us tired and sort of burnt out, I feel like this tour has left us even more excited about the places we've been and the trip still ahead of us. And, I could go on and on about all the great moments and experiences we had. Even now, looking through my photos, I realize how much I'm leaving out (the waterbuffalo crossing the street, the fresh spring we swam in, lounging in hammocks by the side of the road, the rope bridge we walked across, Dao's obsession with the song "Bongo Bong)... but I should probably keep this entry to a reasonable length.

I think that the main difference was that, instead of feeling like we were on tour, the last five days felt more like we were making a road trip with a group of close friends. A rag-tag gang of bikers winding our way through Vietnam.

Cheers! Or, as they say in Vietnam, Yo!