All of our time in Vietnam had been along the coast, so we decided to check out the central highlands for a change of scenery. We visited two smaller towns, Kon Tum and Lak Lake, while working our way down to Dalat – maybe the biggest city in the highlands and a main tourist attraction. The first two towns lie along Highway 14, widely considered to be part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of paths used by the Viet Cong to move supplies and troops from north to south.
The scenery along H14 was stunning. Incredibly lush with raging rivers cutting through the thick jungle. It was like Jurassic Park: the kind of jungle you look at and wonder what kinds of creepy-crawlees live in there. I couldn’t imagine what it was like when the VC was hiking up and down those trails. Must have been the worst thing ever – never dry and attacked by all sorts of critters. The higher stretches were even shrouded in fog.
There wasn’t much, if any, tourism infrastructure until we got to Dalat. This had its good and bad parts. The good part was taking the same buses as locals and getting to eat lunch at local places that didn’t charge tourist prices. The bad part was not having a reliable source of information near by. This was primarily due to the poor location of bus stations – usually a couple miles out of town, making it time consuming and costly to find out bus schedules.
But there was an even worse part: crazy, windy roads + Vietnamese (particularly women) = a highway littered with little baggies of puke. On every bus we took during our week in the highlands, the women started out chatty but got quite the moment we started driving. Within 30 minutes, they would all be bending over with their face buried in a little baggie. And once that bag was full, they would just toss it out the window.
Fortunately one of us always had a window seat and could get fresh air, but even that had it’s downside. One elderly woman in front of me tossed her bag out the window. And when I saw her go to spit out the window I knew what that meant for me, so I quickly leaned to the side. But not enough, for when she spat, a chunk blew back and hit me in the side of the face.
I wiped off my sideburns and wiped my hand on her jacket and shut her window. She turned back at me and I made a spit jester and pointed to my face. She turned around and tried to open her window but I held it shut. She gave me a desperate look, and I knew it was better for her to have it open, so I removed my hand. From then on we had an understanding so she would lean out the window and spit.
As I began a more thorough cleaning of my face, I began to wonder why I was having so many problems with elderly ladies in this trip. I mean, I wasn’t the best kid, but I wasn’t the worst either. My brother was. Just kidding.
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Kon Tum was a pretty small town. Meaning it had a few main streets, but once you turned off it became dirt roads. Just off the main road our hotel was on, were minority villages where most the farmers lived. There were also orphanages that we tried to fine the next day – but thanks to bad maps and even worse directions, we never found. It wasn’t quite the “off the beaten track” I was expecting, but I think that term just means tourists don’t go there, not that there isn’t anything going on.
After getting settled in the hotel, we went next door and had the worst lunch ever. The place was weird and the food was bland. We then went to the tourist place to see about taking hikes in some of the surrounding countryside. The pitched what sounded like a fantastic hike through minority villages, waterfalls and farm fields. We were all for it until they said it was $40. Each.
Now, I know 80 bucks ain’t much, but for reference, it was almost that per person for our Halong bay trip. And that was for three days including meals and transportation. This was just for a few hours walking in the woods. So we said “no thank you” and went to see about renting a motorbike from the hotel. This actually became our model for the next few towns: show up, rent a motorbike, see the countryside, then get the heck on out.
We took off into the countryside as dusk was setting in. The light was fantastic. The road started off as a wide raised paved road, like an esplanade, then abruptly ended with the arrival of glorious dirt and gravel narrowing to a trail between fields. Not sure which way to go, I decided to head towards the mountains in the distance, trying to keep the sinking sun just over my right shoulder.
As we buried deeper and deeper in the farmlands, we were passed by tried old farmers passing in the opposite direction who mustered strength enough to smile and wave. Some were on motorbikes, some walking with various farm tools.
Eventually we came to the river that wandered south of town. We parked the bike and walked to the edge of the overlooking cliff. Across the water were people washing themselves so we drove around more looking for whatever interesting scenes we could find.
As the sun started kissing the horizon, we headed back to the esplanade, mostly deserted by now, to let Tina try driving the motorbike. I explained how to start it, give it gas and how the breaks worked, always encouraging her by saying it was just like riding a bike. When I started explaining how to change gears she cut me off by saying that first would be good enough for now.
As she headed down the road – a bit wobbly at first – I followed her but kept my eye on the sunset. When I stopped to take a photo, a boy riding by on a bike looked at the sunset, and said isn’t it beautiful? I said yes. He stood high on his pedals, raised a fist to the sky and screamed, “This is my country! The best country in the world!” then let out a huge wahoo! Preach it, kid.
* * *
When the bus dropped us off at Lak Lake, it was well past dark. We thought we’d get there earlier, but in Buon Me Thout we had to change to a local bus for a 1.5 hour ride down to the lake. And the bus didn’t really drop us of at a station, either. It just kinda stopped, and the guy pointed to the darkness and said “there”.
We got off the bus and I looked “there” and didn’t see much. I did see off to the right what looked like a lodge with lots of lights that appeared to be reflected on some water so we took a chance and started taking a road that lead that way. We stopped and asked at a hole in the wall local hang out, and they all came out and walked us to the road and made sure we were going in the right direction.
Our bungalow was pretty spacious and right on the water (altho, we really couldn’t tell until the next morning). It had the nicest shower we’d seen in a couple months and had a few live-in geckoes – which made me happy because they eat bugs. And even though I’m from Florida, I’d rather have a gecko eat bugs then have bugs eat me.
The lake was a good size, surrounded by forested hills. It wasn’t really for swimming and occasionally you’d see fishermen making the rounds checking their nets. The resort was on a gentle hill overlooking the lake with thick soft grass and palm trees – giving it an almost tropical feel. The pool didn’t hurt either.
After breakfast we enquired about renting a motorbike and getting a bus on down to Dalat. The resort even had a map of the surrounding countryside and some suggested trails. We decide on the shorter trail because Tina wanted some relaxation time at the pool. Fortunately we could cruse at a good clip so we had enough time to do a longer ride which allowed us to not follow the suggested routes.
We road though huge fields of coca plants – the central highlands produces most of the country’s coffee, graveyards, and a few streams where people were doing laundry. We stopped to talk with kids, saw lots of villages with houses of dirt floors and thatched roofs with pigs running around being harassed by dirty naked children. This was truly off the beaten path.
While riding the main road, we would turn off on to smaller paths that went up into the farmland. At one point, we turned up into a coca field on a little path that cut through a thick fence of bushes. The path didn’t go far so we turned around, and then a motorbike with a few locals on it drove by the opening. Then we returned to the road right behind them.
Because I was on a motorbike with a girl on the back, and the scenery was right out of the movies, it felt like a Bond show – we were racing down dirt roads being chased. And my little maneuver had us go from being followed by the bad guys, to following them. But then I remembered that with my shirt off, I look more like a young Daniel Radcliffe then Daniel Craig. I was also reminded of that as we spent the rest of the day reading by the pool.
* * *
Dalat is the kind of town you would expect in an area called the “highlands”. It was built on a series of hills, and had a slight mountain town feel about it: lowrise buildings, great views of the surrounds, clear air, a lake and cooler weather. This unique physical makeup gives it a deserved rep and somewhere unlike anywhere in Vietnam.
The other thing Dalat is known for are the Easy Riders. They are a group of motorcycle tour guides who take tourists all around the highlands, and even the country. They’ve been doing this for decades and have a great reputation and were recommended by several people we met.
Our first night in Dalat we talked with a couple of them to see what they had to offer. The guys turned out to be some of the original riders and showed us a scrapbook with magazine clippings about them. We asked them what we would be seeing if we road with them, and then talked about price.
Most everything they had mentioned we had seen ourselves – especially since we’ve been renting the motorbikes. We figured that other then knowing all the back roads to get places – we never saw them on the roads we were on – having them as guides and interpreters would be really handy. But it was really the price that turned me off.
For a day with them, they wanted around $80 each (a motorbike is usually around $5 a day). That just seemed like a lot of money to take us to places we can get to by ourselves – plus there is something to be said for going it on your own, getting lost, and having to figure it all out.
So, the next day we rented the motorbike, and saw a few things around town, then headed west towards some waterfalls. The road out of Dalat slowly climbed around the nearby hills before flattening out on the way to the next towns. The hills outside of town were covered with greenhouses and there were motorbike deliverers heading back to town with their bikes piled high with flowers.
Because of the low amount of traffic – and as long as there were no trucks or buses – the tight turns were fun to race around, using the entire road to really lean into the turn. Oh, also as long as there were now cows, since they didn’t feel the need to hurry across. We also discovered that if you honk the horn and rev the engine while bearing down on a chicken, you’ll understand why it crossed the road.
Our first destination was a waterfall that was a bit tricky to find. We drove to all the way to the town after the one it was supposed to be in without seeing any clues as to its location. When we went back to the town is should have been near, Tina saw a sign for the silk factory, a operating factory you could tour and learn how silk is produced. Since the Easy Riders mentioned that as a place they stopped, we thought one might be there and could help us find the waterfall.
We rode over to the factory and sure enough there were a couple Riders there who said they were quite impressed that we found the factory ourselves. He also told us where the waterfall was and said they were going there next. Then he gathered his riders and they all piled into a car and drove off. Not a motorcycle, a car? We decided he must be an Really Easy Rider.