Want to see the mountains, forests and farms of the "real" Vietnam? Get away from the tourist hoards, get on a motorcycle and go. I just did that, and even got to ride an ostrich. Here's how you can too.
Vietnam's central highlands are defined by mountains, pine forests, and farms -- and the rich culture that runs throughout. The best way to travel through any place is the way locals do; in this case, that meant on a motorbike. However, I didn't want to just scratch the surface ,I wanted to go deep, so I jumped on a private Dalat Easy Rider tour; they showed me real Vietnam.
The Dalat Easy Riders are a group of motorcycle guides based in Dalat, a quaint city nestled 5,000 feet up the mountains of central Vietnam. The group is less defined by actual affiliation and more by the fact that each guide claims to be the "original easy rider." I didn't care really care who the "original" was, so long as I got to experience something adventurous, cultural and authentic.
Kevin & Uncle Muiey pause for a break during our ride.
Kevin, who runs Dalat Easy Riders, met me at a coffee shop across from my hostel and promised me exactly that. Boy, did he deliver!
Disclaimer: Because I was riding my own $US450 motorcycle across Vietnam and I agreed to write about the Dalat Easy Rider experience, Kevin hooked me up with a 30% discount on a four day, three night private easy rider tour. Depending on your requirements, the price of their tour runs between $US70-85 per day.
It's one thing to travel through a foreign country and appreciate its scenery, but it's a whole 'nother thing to actually dive into its culture. Employing a guide is the best way to break down those cultural and language barriers; if the guide is local to the area, often times they will have intimate connections with people along the way which will give you an even better perspective of the place.
Hiring a guide will also take the legwork out of trip planning. In this case, I knew little about the Central Highlands of Vietnam and I didn't have the time or energy to thoroughly research the area. What I did know, however, from riding up a winding mountain road at night, then waking up to crisp air and a mountain view, was that Dalat was enchanting. And I wanted to explore it more.
My guides, Kevin and "Uncle Muiey" were perceptive of my wants and needs for the tour and incredibly passionate about not only their work, but about their home region. They facilitated literally dozens of experiences that I would not have been able to have on my own. The experience was truly unforgettable; for me, one of a kind. Here's how it went down.
A husband-and-wife handmade, organic, wholesale tofu operation, 32 years strong.
Kevin and Uncle Muiey met me at my hostel at 8am. We went over my bike, strapped everything down, and hit the road.
Much to my surprise, we stopped in a tiny alley five minutes later. "Where the hell are we?" I thought as we got off the bikes. I followed Uncle Muiey into a house across the street. I noticed sacks of grain stacked in the hallway as we walked through. In the back of the house were a husband and wife, hard at work. It took me a second to catch on, but they were making organic tofu from scratch, by hand.
Turns out the couple produces tofu for wholesale in the local market; they have been making it out of the kitchen factory in their house for the last 32 years. They let me taste some before we headed out on our way.
Silk, from the farm.
To the factory.
After a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of noodle soup we hit the road. We made several stops along the way at various silk production facilities. First, where they grow the silkworms; then where they spin the silk. The process was intricate and beautiful, like the final product itself. Of course I knew that silk came from silkworms, but to actually see the process firsthand was pretty amazing.
Weasel + Berries + Coffee Beans = Special Blend for Success
As we rode through the countryside, I couldn't help but notice that the hills were covered in bright green trees. As it turns out, the Central Highlands are renowned for their coffee production; one man in particular has created a special blend. Or at least, his pet weasels have.
If you feed a weasel coffee beans and berries, turns out that the little guy will shit out a special blend! And that special blend sells for big bucks in the city. I didn't try any, but it sure smelled good.
I ate one plate, so they fed me a second.
Next, we stopped for a snack. Of fried crickets. At a cricket farm. They taste like chicken. Crunchy, to be sure. Tea helped wash them down; because I finished one plate, they brought me another. Uncle Muiey wasn't too keen on it, but Kevin and I went to town. Second plate down.
After a handful of more stops throughout the day, we rode off into the distance as the clouded sky was pierced by the sun's rays. Upon arriving at the next town, we stopped and checked into our hotel for the night.
The Alpinestars Scion 2L provided armoured, water and wind proof protection in a jacket that looked great and was lightweight and breathable as well.
We kicked off our day at 8am, grabbing breakfast at the noodle stand next door before hitting the road. Before even getting out of town, we checked out a mushroom farm (the mushrooms grow out of cylindrical sawdust clumps arranged on a tower in a big dark tent, it looked exactly like it sounds) and then an artisanal planter/pot maker's open-air workspace.
On the way out of town, we stopped by a strawberry farm before heading up Highway 26, a winding mountain road that played a key role during the Vietnamese/American War. The road was the only one through the local mountain pass; whoever controlled it during the war controlled the supply chains between the north and south.
Uncle Muiey pointed out the areas which had been affected by Agent Orange (notably where vegetation was unable to grow past chest-height) and then he showed me the areas which had been positively affected through a redevelopment program; the forest was coming back.
We stopped at the top of the pass and Kevin and I went for a hike through the forest along a path used by the Vietcong to move undetected during the war. The history and nature were rich there.
He graciously welcomed us into his home.
Back on the road, we passed through more beautiful high country. The highway hugged the side of the mountain; rice fields blanketed the valley below. Down in the valley, we stopped at a local man's home. He and his family belonged to the Monong Ga ethnic group. As soon as I walked in, he looked at me; then pointed past. There was a Last Supper calendar hanging on the wall. With my long hair and beard, apparently he thought I was Jesus. Uncle Muiey explained, "No, he's just a regular man."
We stopped at a local restaurant and feasted for lunch. The food was delicious and consisted of so many courses I could hardly keep track. We devoured it all before moving on. Total damage: 60,000 VN Dong, or $US3 for each.
A floating village, as viewed from the top.
We continued riding through towns and villages; through mountains and past lakes, stopping every so often to chat with the people or take in the views. Eventually we came to a huge reservoir that was home to a floating village. Another Easy Rider tour had stopped on the bridge to take pictures over the lake, but we wouldn't settle for that. Turns out that Uncle Muiey knew a local fisherman who lived below.
A friendly feast of fresh filleted fish.
The fisherman picked us up from the shore in his longboat and we went to his floating home. I felt like I was in Kevin Costner's Waterworld. His daughter-in-law grilled up some fish for us; we had tea and snacks while telling jokes (translated for me.) The sun was starting to set by that time so, after a bit, we continued on our way.
As a photographer, I've only dreamed of documenting a scene unfold like this.
We rode past a handful of rice fields as the sun was dropping past the horizon. I saw a moment, honked to get my companions' attention; then jumped off my bike to capture it. The woman was removing clumps of dead rice from the field as golden rays of light silhouetted her figure. This was a moment that as a photographer, I had only dreamed of capturing.
Night had fallen by the time we reached the hotel; another fulfilling day.
Elephants on parade around Lak Lake.
After breakfast, we headed to Lak Lake, which looked beautiful, but was definitely not one you'd want to swim in. Hundreds of ducks were waddling about. Water buffalo were bathing. And elephants on tour paraded around. I sat down at the edge of the lake while thousands of yellow butterflies danced around me, their trajectories haphazard and sporadic. An elephant tour passed by, right in front of me. The mahout smiled; the elderly couple waved.
Afterward, we visited a nearby village; this one was matriarchal (meaning women were head of the house). One family kindly welcomed us into their home; we sat around talking; exchanging questions about each other with the help of Uncle Muiey's translations. Uncle Muiey also knew a ton about the different ethnic minority groups; he educated me on their customs and traditions wherever we went.
Tropical nap time.
We had to cross a river on a ferry to continue our journey. We stopped in a few more villages; talked to a few more families before getting back on the highway. Late in the afternoon we stopped at a rest area to escape the heat. After drinking up some sugar cane juice, we napped on our hammocks as fans sprayed mist from above.
We woke as the rest stop was shutting down; continued into Yok Don National Park -- Vietnam's largest nature preserve -- where we'd stay for the night.
Our lodging at Yok Don was amazing. We stayed at a wooden longhouse; rows of beds lined each side; the vaulted ceilings lent to the open-air feel. The roar of a nearby waterfall was drown out by crickets which chirped through the night. Kevin, Uncle Muiey, and I shared a whole chicken for dinner; went to bed shortly after that. We'd be exploring waterfalls in the morning.
The Vasque Lotic performance water shoes are great for transitioning between water, dirt, and mud. They drain quickly while providing good traction on all slippery surfaces.
I awoke bright and early, ate breakfast, and headed down to the waterfall with Kevin, which was just a short walk away from our lodge. Even in the middle of the dry season, the falls were still enormously powerful. We explored around the pool for a bit before hiking up to catch a view from the top.
Next we jumped on our bikes and headed further into the park. We pulled into a small dirt clearing, dropped our motorcycle gear, and hiked down to the river. The cool water was turquoise in colour; Kevin and I jumped right in. We swam across to a waterfall on the other side, checked depth; then jumped off.
Once I had my fix of aqueous relaxation, we left the park, stopped for lunch, and headed to our next destination, another waterfall.
Finally, alone with nature for a moment in Vietnam.
Dray Nur Waterfall had been turned into a privately-run park; while that didn't stop me from admiring its beauty, I had to get a little sneaky trying to find any adventure, because a man with a bullhorn was chasing me around. Unlike in America, when someone dies at a natural attraction in Vietnam, they tend to tighten down on things to prevent any more shenanigans. God bless America, because if I wanted to try and cliff jump off Upper Yosemite Falls, no one would stop me.
Eventually Uncle Muiey convinced the guard to give me some space; I found solitude in a cave behind the falls. With no one else around, I finally found some natural peace in Vietnam.
The perfect conclusion to an amazing journey. This was also one of the very last photos I took before losing my 5D.
We departed later that afternoon and made our way to Buon Ma Thuot, our last stop on the four day journey. Golden rays of light pierced through the clouds once more, blanketing the rice fields in a warm hue. Sunsets in Vietnam, they were something else.
After checking into our hotel, the three of us headed out for dinner at a popular Vietnamese joint across the street. We laughed and joked as friends do, savouring our last moments together because the next day we'd part ways.
That night, my heart longed for the pine forests, alpine lakes, and granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada. I desired to explore the wilderness which had been so absent from my last several months of adventure in Asia. So I booked a flight home.
And then the next morning I took off, heading north on my own. Within an hour, I had lost my pack, containing my camera, computer, and hard drives with the last seven months' RAW photos and videos. But that's another story.
What You'll Need to Bring
For a detailed gear list, check out our guide for riding a motorcycle across Vietnam. At the very least, wear some sturdy boots -- the guides can provide the rest of the necessary riding gear.
Riding a motorcycle is the obvious answer.
How Do You Get There?
If travelling on your own motorbike, you can ride to Dalat from Ho Chi Minh City in a couple of days. The ride is incredibly scenic, and there's some cool stuff to do along the way. If passing through, make sure to stop outside of Mui Ne to explore the "white lake" - which is a white sand dune desert right off the coast.
If you're not riding your own bike, it's possible to travel to Dalat by train, plane, or bus. Check out this handy guide for more information.
Or if you prefer, Kevin and his crew can pick you up from Ho Chi Minh (or wherever you're travelling to) to kick off your tour.
After rappelling halfway down a 25-meter waterfall, canyoneers had to let go of the rope and plunge into the water below.
What Else Should You Do While You're There?
Dalat is full of adventure activities. Do a canyoning trip while you're there. I jumped on a tour with Viet Challenge. We floated a river, rappelled down some waterfalls, and jumped off a couple of cliffs in the mountains just outside the city. It was a group trip, but still a ton of fun.
The best day of my life.
If you're coming in from Ho Chi Minh City, there's a lot to explore down south too. Check out the Mekong Delta floating market in Can Tho. It's one of Southeast Asia's largest. In Mui Ne, you can ride quads on dunes - and ride ostriches too.
If coming in from northern Vietnam, stop by Phong Nha to explore Hang En, the third largest cave in the world. It's an experience unlike any other.
About the Author:Chris Brinlee Jr.is an adventurer and storyteller who just finished a seven and a half month journey around the world. Follow his adventures on Instagram:@chrisbrinleejr. Check out his travel book on Blurb.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.