An easy rider is essentially a guided tour by motorbike/motorcycle that takes you off the beaten track to explore Vietnam’s culture, people, food, traditions, and sights. The first easy rider club started in Dalat in the early 90s by a group of unemployed men looking to make ends meet. At some pt along the line, lonely planet praised the easy rider trips, and now it’s difficult to walk down a street in Dalat without coming across someone on a motorcycle claiming to be an easy rider.
The initial thought was to hire an easy rider guide and go on a day tour seeing the sights outside of Dalat. Jess would ride with the guide and I would drive behind on my own bike. However, when having a chat with an easy rider at a bar our first night in town, he presented us with a 2nd option - taking a 4 day easy rider down to Saigon. We initially brushed off the suggestion as being out of our price range and time table, but said we would think it over. Later that night when Jess and I were discussing the pros and cons, we reached a pt of agreement that can be summed up as ‘fuck it, why not.’ We only live once and who knows if I’ll ever be in Vietnam again, let’s do this 4 day motorbike trip.
The next day we spent researching different easy rider clubs and potential guides. If we were going to be shelling out $70 a day we wanted to make sure we had legit easy riders. The place we settled on was located only 2 doors down from the hotel we were staying at and appeared to be one of the original operations. The easy riders all wore blue jackets with their logo, chain smoked, and sipped tea as they waited for customers.
Our guides are seasoned veterans. Hong (our lead guide and captured in pic #2) is in his 60s, has very few teeth and hair, squints his eyes in a warm and friendly way, and generally resembles Yoda. During our four days with him, we learned a lot about his life. He was a lieutenant for the South Vietnamese army during the war and after the South surrendered, spent nearly 3 yrs in a ‘re-education camp’ with other military officers from the South. Getting to discuss history with him over meals was one of the big pluses of the trip. Our other guide is named How. He was born and raised in Dalat, was in high school during the war, but his father was a military doctor for the South. During the four days Jessica rode with Hong and I rode with How. With our guides booked, we were instructed to meet them the next day at 8AM for an early start to our adventure
Easy Rider: Day 1
Aside from knowing that we were getting off the beaten path and that would we arrive in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on the evening of the 4th day, Jess and I were a bit unsure what our easy rider trip would consist of. We soon discovered that we would make many stops along the way to gain insights into the lives of Vietnamese people.
Stop 1: An old railroad station in Dalat built by the French. Hong explained how the French decided that Dalat would be a getaway destination (partly due to its cooler climate) and built the railway to transport goods and people.
Stop 2: Tofu. After a short drive through Dalat, we stopped in front of a modest looking home. We followed How into the home, and as we walked through their living room, we weren’t quite sure what we would find. Sure enough, the back room of this home was a mini factory used to make tofu. A)I had no idea how tofu is made. B) I had never seen a factory located right behind someone’s living room. How explained the whole process as the nice family continued with their respective tasks in producing tofu.
Stop 3: Flowers and roses. Moving out of the city and into the highlands, we stopped at a flower farm. Nothing too interesting, but we did learn that roses are considerably cheaper in Vietnam (damn you, Valentines day).
Stop 4: After following the windy mountain road a but further, enjoying the mountain views and feeling pretty free with the wind blowing in my face, we pulled over on the side of a road near some sort of farm. We soon learned that the bushes are coffee plants and that coffee is one of Vietnam’s main exports. At this point it also started to rain a bit. Hong and How were well prepared and pulled out rain pants and jackets for us to wear. With them on, it looked like we could take on any storm.
Stop 5: Silk Farm. After an exhilarating drive through the rain, we peeled off the rd and stopped in front of a large silk factory. Inside, young women thread lines of silk from the silk worms cocoon into a machine. Once the silk is collected, different machines are used to connect different threads together and to impose prints on the silk. The machines used were wooden and looked close to 100 yrs old - amazing that they still worked.
Stop 6: Elephant Falls. This is the largest waterfall in the area and very impressive. Better still, you have to walk through a pretty dense jungle path to reach the fall (I was feeling a bit like Indiana Jones) and the fall spills into a rushing river that has trees and boulders that it engulfs. Near the waterfall is a Buddhist monastery that had more than one large statues of Buddha.
Stop 7: Minority Village. There are many different ethnic minority tribes living in Vietnam. A number of them live in the central highlands and many others live in the north near sapa (a region we had visited earlier in our travels). While the Vietnamese gov has taken steps more recently to help these groups, most remain poor, somewhat disenfranchised, and without access to family planning. Most of the families also live off the land. After driving on a pot-holed dirt road past farms and villages (we had officially gotten off the beaten path), we pulled over near a group of small homes. Our guides were prepared - as the village children ran toward us they handed us a bag of candy to pass out to the kids. The village was fascinating - we were lead to a small wooden shack that is used as a kitchen, sometimes for multiple families. A simple wood stove raised off the ground with bricks is used for cooking, and pots hang on the wall. One of the mothers sat in the kitchen but weaving a basket made out of bamboo. We were told that she would bring the baskets to market to trade for rice and other goods. After walking around a bit more and enjoying the assortment of farm animals that roamed freely (cattle, pigs, chicken), we were invited into another home. There we met a lovely 19 yr old girl who spoke pretty good English. We conversed with her a little while, learning more about her life, and her mother offered us ice tea. Before we left, her father returned home with an Stop 7: Minority Village. There are many different ethnic minority tribes living in Vietnam. A number of them live in the central highlands and many others live in the north near sapa (a region we had visited earlier in our travels). While the Vietnamese gov has taken steps more recently to help these groups, most remain poor, somewhat disenfranchised, and without access to family planning. Most of the families also live off the land. After driving on a pot-holed dirt road past farms and villages (we had officially gotten off the beaten path), we pulled over near a group of small homes. Our guides were prepared - as the village children ran toward us they handed us a bag of candy to pass out to the kids. The village was fascinating - we were lead to a small wooden shack that is used as a kitchen, sometimes for multiple families. A simple wood stove raised off the ground with bricks is used for cooking, and pots hang on the wall. One of the mothers sat in the kitchen but weaving a basket made out of bamboo. We were told that she would bring the baskets to market to trade for rice and other goods. After walking around a bit more and enjoying the assortment of farm animals that roamed freely (cattle, pigs, chicken), we were invited into another home. There we met a lovely 19 yr old girl who spoke pretty good English. We conversed with her a little while, learning more about her life, and her mother offered us ice tea. Before we left, her father returned home with an interesting catch. The tails of two birds stuck out of his jacket pocket. He pulled them out like it was no thing - obviously they were still alive and had just been chilling in his pocket with their wings tied together. One of the birds was a magnificent black and blue and is known for hunting snakes.
Stop 8: After driving on a very scenic windy rd up in the hills overlooking farms and mountains, we stopped for lunch. Hong and How ordered us a feast, And we shared several dishes family style, all for only a little more than $2.
Stop 9: Silk worms. While we had stopped earlier at the silk farm, we stopped quickly to see how silk worms are harvested. A whole lotta cocoons being made on wood racks, that are then collected and sold to a silk factory.
Stop 10: Floating village. Later in the day after driving a while longer, we stopped on a bridge overlooking a lake. There were several floating huts on the lake that were inhabited by a semi-nomadic people that we learned had come from the Mekong Delta in the South to find better conditions for fishing.
Stop 11: Our final destination and resting place for the day was a village called Lak. It is inhabited by a minority people and sits on a lake. All of the houses sit on stilts, constructed so that they don’t flood during the rainy season. That night over dinner we got to learn a lot more about the war and Hong’s experience as a soldier. All in all, we traveled a solid 160k on our first day.
I woke first to the sound of barking dogs. Loud and constant for at least 5 minutes. It was around 5 AM. Over the next 1.5 hrs, I was woken again and again by mooing cows, tractors starting up (which when close sounds a bit like an airplane) on the way to the fields, and Moms yelling at their children. Our night sleeping in a home stay in Lak Village was rustic, to say the least. We slept under mosquito nets on mattresses laid on the wooden planked floor of the house. As mentioned in the previous post, the homes are all raised on stilts. So during my midnight walk outside to the bathroom, I was a bit startled to see all of the cows, pigs, etc. literally sleeping unused the house underneath where we were sleeping. Most of the villagers rise early to start working in the fields before the sun is too hot, so it was to be expected that we would wake early too. As I stepped outside to greet the day, I was met by young people hearing cattle down the main dirt road. After our guides securely attached our bags to the motorcycles, we stopped for a hearty breakfast of Pho.
Stop 1: Graveyard. After driving down a dirt road and dodging smiling children and plenty of cows, we stopped at a local graveyard. Hong explained some of the customs of the local people and we looked at various graves. The people build a wind pipe that leads from the coffin up to the top of the grave so that the spirit of the dead ancestor can have air.
Stop 2: River Crossing. While Vietnam has several elaborate bridges, sometimes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere you need an old wooden boat to transport you and your motorbikes to the opposite side of the river. If the boat isn’t there waiting for you, just honk politely and it’ll come pick you up.
Stop 3: Brick Factory. The gov does not allow any brick factories in cities, due to the fumes, so they are usually found in more rural areas and shipped in. Brick is very commonly used for homes and buildings. Interestingly, at this factory and most others we visited, the whole family would be on site and even the children and teenagers were expected to contribute.
Stop 4: Coco Plants. Next we stopped at a small coco factory and afterwards a farm that grows coco. Vietnam exports coco to 1st world countries that then process it into chocolate.
: After a good amount of time driving on windy dirt roads, we reached another waterfall. It’s a big wedding destination, and we saw two different couples posing for wedding pictures in the heat…looked pretty miserable. When we walked down to the waterfall, a group of youngsters were hanging out and bbqing some whole chickens on skewers over a fire. They took a liking to us and 2 other westerners we were with at the time and we all posed for several photos. Jess and I went for a swim in the river underneath the waterfall before moving on.
Stop 6: Noodles! After lunch, we stopped in front of a fairly nice looking home. Jess and I weren’t exactly sure what we would find, but we followed Hong behind the house to the basement. Inside a dark, very hot room, the family was toiling away making delicious looking rice noodles that would be sold to restaurants and used to make pho and other local favorites. On our way out we stopped next store to see how the family living there made brooms.
As we hit the road again, a torrential rain started and we decided to stop at a cafe and rest for a while instead of drive through. When the rain died down a little, we mounted our bikes and drove about 1/2 hr straight to our hotel for the night. Unfortunately, the rain picked back up soon after arriving so we opted out of going to the local night market. Instead, How and Hong took us to a local favorite restaurant, where we feasted on a whole duck that was served bathing in delicious broth. Our guides know not to waste any food and devoured parts of the feet, head, and heart before our meal was done.
EASY RIDER: DAY 3
Stop 1: Mushrooms. Luckily the clouds had cleared for the start of our 3rd day and we hit the road early excited for more adventure. This was planned to be our longest day on the rd. We were expected to travel around 210 K, whereas we only rode around 140K the day before. Our first stop of the day was at a mushroom farm. The farmers fill plastic containers with soil and mushroom seed and then hang them in vertical stacks in sheds. After a certain time has passed, the farmers cut slits in the containers and the mushrooms grow out horizontally. Quite in interesting process that doesn’t demand any machinery or expensive equipment.
Stop 2: Noodles & Rice Paper: Our next stop was another household noodle factory. While this one used a different technique to make their noodles than the factory we visited the day prior, it was just as hot inside and also located in the back of the family home. As you can see from the pictures, the husband sits on a little stool on top of the machine feeding the rice paste into the machine, whereas the wife collects the noodles and cuts them into the appropriate size. They also had an adorable little girl who was playing in the room.
The neighbors of the noodle family make rice paper and something that I can only describe as rice crackers, we stopped in to the back of their home to see how it’s all made.
Stop 3: The Bridge. After driving a bit further, we peeled off the main highway and down a dirt path. We stopped in front of an old bridge. This bridge, along with many others in South Vietnam, was partly destroyed during the war. Hong explained that it was the South Vietnamese army that blew it up when retreating further south to slow the pace of the advancing North.
Stop 4: Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the most scenic, beautiful, and thought provoking parts of our journey was the 2 hrs we spent driving down an isolated road near the Cambodian border and original Ho Chi Minh trail. This part of the country experienced a lot of action during the war, especially as the Viet Cong were able to slip easily over the nebulous border into Cambodia and back into Vietnam. The landscape was at times dense jungle and at other times farmland stretched across rolling hills. Considering the remote, rural location, most of the farmers were poor and lived in basic wooden huts, some raised off the ground on stilts.
After driving for some time, we stopped near a relatively narrow dirt path. Hong explained that this was the actual Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the war this trail cut through the heart of the jungle, making it difficult for US planes to spot from above, and was used as a transport route for Northern soldiers and supplies. We started to walk down the trail with Hong when a young soldier appeared out of nowhere. After a brief exchange between him and Hong, we hurriedly got on our bikes and moved on. Apparently, he did not like that we were wandering around so close to the border.
Stop 5: The rain cometh. After driving a while longer and enjoying the landscape and remote villages going by, the sky darkened and rain started to fall in heavy bursts. We pulled off at a roadside bar/cafe. Instead of proper seats and tables, there were rows of hammocks with accompanying stools/coffee tables. There are a ton of these throughout the country along highways, even in more rural areas, and are used commonly as rest stops. Hammocks are way underutilized in the US - this is one type of cafe I would love to see back home.
The rain lightened and we were back on the road. We stopped briefly at a minority village and smiled at the playful children. For minority people and poor farmers in Vietnam, family planning is not readably available. At this village we met a man in his 30s who is a grandfather and his teenage son who was already a father.
As we hit the road again the rain started up, falling even harder than earlier in the day. We quickly put on our rain gear and continued forward. After driving for around 1/2 hr in the rain, we pulled off at a cashew factory. We had seen cashew trees earlier in the day, so it was interesting to see how the finished product is made. It was also a relief to get a break from driving through the rain. Of all the factories and farms we had visited, the cashew factory was the closest I had seen to sweatshop conditions. The workers sat on stools bent over their work tables, their hands moving quickly and without stop at the tedious task of removing cashews from their shells. One worker monitored me over and invited me to give it a try. I was no good, maybe working at 1/10th the speed of everyone else.
While the rain had not lightened, Hong and How instructed that we had to get back on the road. We still had a long way to travel before reaching our destination for the night and it would start to get dark soon.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t frightened. The rain was pissing down, monsoon rains far heavier than what we’re used to back home, and we were driving in the direction of the ominous and frequent lightning strikes.
EASY RIDER: DAY 4
We started out our 4th and final day with a scrumptious breakfast of bun thit nuong, a cold noodle dish served with veggies, pork, and a tasty tangy sauce.
Stop 1: Rubber Trees & Rubber Factory. So rubber grows from trees, who woulda thunk! While coffee is the major cash crop in the central highlands where we started our journey out of Dalat, rubber is the most lucrative crop in the section of land moving south (further south in the Mekong Delta, rice farming is most typical). So for most of the day and part of the prior day we were driving past rows and rows of rubber trees. When we stopped for a closer examination, we saw the method of how the workers make spiral cuts into the tree so that the sap runs down into an attached bowl. The rubber sap is then sold to a factory, one of which we visited later in the day. They start by filling large tubs with the liquid rubber and divide it into sheets using thin tiles. After sitting over net, the individual sheets are then processed, hung out to dry, and then heated in a large furnace all before being exported as rubber to companies around the world, who then remold the rubber however they see fit.
Stop 2: Cambodian Minority Village. After turning off the highway down a dirt road, we stopped at another minority village. The people living here are of Cambodian descent but have been living in Vietnam for several decades. How brought a bag of candies and the village children rushed over to us. As all of the children started playing games with us, one little boy stared at me in awe. He had never seen someone with red hair before and probably thought I was from another planet. We were shown around to some of the homes (very basic huts) and walked around their gardens and yards. One of the fathers heard that there were visitors and invited us to his home. He was better off than some of his neighbors and lived in a nicer house made of stone that had an attractive tile porch. While it was only about 10:30 in the morning, the father was very joyous and brought out some rice wine and grapefruit for us to eat and drink. I felt it was only polite to have a few shots with him. Since he did not speak much English, How served as an interpreter for us.
Of all the villages we had visited during our easy rider adventure, this was definitely the most fun and rewarding. The children were very warm and wanted to play with us. My camp counselor instincts kicked in, as I taught them how to play thumb war, dressed them up in my bandanna a sunglasses, and hoisted them up into the air. The father was also extremely friendly and insisted that we take a picture together with him and his daughter.
Stop 3: River crossing. Just like on day 2, we reached another river crossing without a bridge and had to be transported to the other side by a small boat. There was a hammock strung up for me to rest on while waiting for the boat, and another local who was waiting with us picked some edible fruit from a nearby tree and snacked on them with us.
Stop 4: Cu Chi Tunnels. This was our big stop of the day and a must see for travelers in Southern Vietnam. Cu Chi was a war torn village during the war that was home to guerrilla fighters that built a complex series of underground tunnels to fight the Americans. Our visit started by watching an introductory film, which was a remake of a propaganda film from the war. It was a bit awkward and uncomfortable to watch, as the movie continually praised person X as a hero for killing Y number of American soldiers. After the film we were led by a guide to view the tunnels. Despite the fact that they were used to fight against Americans, the ingenuity of the tunnels was very impressive. We were able to crawl through one of the tunnels (not for the claustrophobic), and could imagine the local Vietnamese scurrying through these tight little tunnels in the dark from one place to the next. It was no surprise to learn that the much better armed American army was unsuccessful in rooting out the Cu Chi guerrillas. We were also shown the types of homemade booby traps the guerrillas made and set up throughout the jungle. I let my mind wander as we walked along the path, envisioning what it must have been like to be a young soldier shipped off 1/2 across the world and to sledge through the dense jungle in monsoon rains just waiting for the next surprise attack or ambush. Makes me feel privileged to have been born at a different time.
Stop 5: Saigon. After our long journey we were headed for our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Saigon has notoriously bad traffic and hectic intersections. Yet after 3.5 days on the motorcycle with How, it hardly phased me as we zipped through the rush hr congestion.
Final thoughts: I can already tell that my easy rider trip will be one of the most memorable experiences from my SE Asia travels. When in Vietnam (and other countries in the region), you find yourself following a well-greased tourist trail from major destination to major destination. This trip got us completely off that trail and enabled us to see what Vietnam is really like when the locals aren’t making a living off of tourists. It also gave us great insights into how people make an honest living in this part of the world (I can’t say I’ve ever see families working in a mini factory based out of the back room of their house back in America). We also had some really genuine interactions with locals and our guides and learned a lot about the history of the country. All that being said, at around $75 per day, we were going over our daily backpacker budget. While the weather is uncontrollable, it was not always the most fun driving straight into the heart of a thunder storm. 4 days is also a long time (your butt and legs start to get a bit sore) and would likely advise friends interested in an easy rider trip to max out at 3 days.